I'll just remind everyone that we are now in public. We are continuing, pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), our study of the procedures and practices of the Employment Insurance Board of Referees.
I've had some people asking me about this particular study and discussing its scope. I want to remind everyone that this motion is that the committee “...study the procedures and practices for appealing a decision by the Employment Insurance Board of Referees, and that it report its findings and recommendations to the House”.
We are pleased to have officials with us today from the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development, Paul Thompson and Éric Giguère.
Mr. Thompson, if you'd like to present, that would be good, and then we'll have questions following your presentation. Go ahead, sir.
As I was saying, I was asked to address the committee on the procedures for appealing decisions of the Employment Insurance Board of Referees to the umpire.
I am joined today by my colleague Éric Giguère, Director of the EI Appeals Division, who also will be able to speak to various elements of the appeal process.
I would like to begin by providing a brief description of the overall EI appeals system.
The Employment Insurance Act provides two levels of appeal for EI claimants and their employers who disagree with a decision that is made by the EI Commission on matters that relate to the payment of benefits. The first level of appeal is the board of referees.
These part-time boards are independent, impartial three-member panels of laypersons from the community who hear appeals at 83 centres across Canada. The chairpersons are Governor in Council appointments, whereas the employer and the insured person representatives are appointed by their respective commissioners. There are currently more than 900 active members on the board of referees.
When EI clients receive notification of a commission decision they are informed of their right of appeal to the Board of Referees. Their appeal must be submitted to Service Canada in writing within 30 days, although this deadline may be extended by the commission for special reasons.
When Service Canada receives an appeal to the board, the letter and the appeal decision are reviewed to determine if the decision can be reversed. If the original decision is incorrect, it is reversed and benefits are paid, or the overpayment is removed, as applicable. If not the appeal proceeds to the board.
When appeals are going to the board, Service Canada aims to have these appeals ready and scheduled to be heard within 30 days from receipt of the client's letter.
The second level of appeal for claimants and employers—which is also the first level of appeal for the EI Commission—is the umpire. The umpire is an independent administrative tribunal that operates at arm's length from HRSDC. It is headed by the chief umpire, who is a Governor in Council appointee. Umpires are current or retired judges of either a superior, county, district, or provincial court, or of the Federal Court of Canada. Single-panel umpires hear the appeals across Canada.
When clients receive the decision of the board of referees, they are informed that they have a right to appeal that decision to the umpire. Their appeal must be submitted to Service Canada in writing within 60 days, although this deadline, as with the board of referees, may be extended by the umpire for special reasons.
It is important to note that the Office of the Umpire operates at arm's length from Service Canada and reports directly to the Chief Umpire in matters of case management and scheduling. I have been advised that the Office of the Umpire aims to hear appeals within six months in large centres and at latest, within 12 months in remote areas.
I mentioned that the commission also has a right of appeal to the umpire. The commission has a responsibility to ensure that clients are paid the benefits to which they are entitled. At the same time, the commission also has a responsibility to all Canadians to ensure that the EI fund is protected and is sustainable.
The commission respects the role and the authority of the board of referees. When reviewing a board decision that has allowed a client's appeal, the commission must clearly establish that at least one of the legislated grounds for appeal to the umpire exists. To reach this decision, a thorough review of the file is conducted, and there are strict guidelines to ensure that frivolous appeals do not proceed.
In the end, the commission appeals a relatively low number of board decisions to the umpire. In the past five years, the commission has, on average, appealed only 9% of Board of Referees rulings overturning the commission's decisions.
In conclusion, the EI appeals system has a long and enduring history of providing our clients with a quick, effective and efficient redress mechanism. But we are always looking for opportunities to improve. I am pleased to inform you that we have undertaken a number of initiatives to improve the quality and speed of our service.
These include a national appeals processing unit that's dedicated to addressing the increased workload from the economic downturn. We've created centres of expertise across the country. We are in the process of reviewing and simplifying appeals processes and looking at moving work more easily from place to place. We have plans in place to make use of imaging technology to facilitate the distribution as well, and to improve our tracking and filing system for clients.
The EI appeals system plays a tremendous role in providing feedback on the overall health of the EI program and it certainly influences program and policy direction. But what is most important is that it is an extremely important service to Canadians.
I look forward to your questions.
Thank you, gentlemen.
Mr. Thompson, it's good to see you at the committee once again.
We heard from some people who have had some issues with the appeal process for EI claims. We heard from a number of people about what percentage of claims are appealed, and what are successful and what aren't. You tell us that in the past five years the commission has appealed only 9% of the rulings of the board of referees.
Do you have full statistics on how many EI claims are appealed, and at what level, and what the success rate of all of those is?
I'd like to follow up on the question from Mr. Lessard. In my constituency office, we do a lot of EI work. We have a good office in Sault Ste. Marie that tries its best to respond and provide information to assist people. Since all of this work is being centralized, there's no opportunity for a person to get into the Service Canada office and see somebody who understands the local conditions and the local issues that often need to be addressed, so people come back to us and we have to intervene on their behalf.
First of all, we explain to them as simply as we can what the process is and what the regulations say, so that they can determine whether they should appeal or not. If that information were more clearly set out and if we had people at the local level in the local office who understood the conditions of the labour force and the employment circumstances in our area, then we would have way fewer of these appeals, but ultimately they appeal, although they don't always get their request in on time.
When they finally get to a place where they appeal, to whom are they appealing? Mr. Lessard asked about the requirements. What are the qualifications necessary for referees, these vice-chairs or local chairs? The only obvious one so far, in my seven years in this job....
After the present government came to power, they said they were going to set up an appointments commissioner to review all of these appointments to make sure they were done properly—
I do. There are a couple of things.
First of all, the motion by Monsieur Lessard deals with studying the procedures and practices for appealing a decision of the employment insurance boards of referees to the umpire, and that's what you presented. We haven't focused on that aspect at all in this study. We focused on the appeal provisions from the commission to the boards of referees, and if that's where we wanted to focus, perhaps that motion could have been better worded.
The motion restricts us to looking at the procedure process from the board of referees to the umpire, as you correctly pointed out in your opening remarks. It's on the practice and procedure and the process. It's not about appointments. When we talk about the process from the board of referees to the umpire, the umpire judges—
All right. According to your point of order, you think it's out of scope to talk about how the board of referees is appointed, as opposed to how the board of umpires is appointed.
Mr. Martin, you heard that, and hopefully you're leading up to that point. I trust you are. You still have--
Did you have a point of order, Mr. Lessard, or can we carry on with Mr. Martin's question? He still has over three minutes left, which I'd like to give to him.
You would like to speak? All right.
It might be like referees in hockey and umpires in baseball.
I'll come to my point, but thank you for your intervention and your direction and help, Mr. Komarnicki; I always appreciate it.
You have to understand that we have some real concern here, because this is one of the biggest files in my office. As we move people through the system, we have to be confident that they're actually going to get a fair shake. What I said was that so far in my experience--and I'll see if I can get this right--the only consistent qualification of the referees, both under the Liberals first and now under the Conservatives, is their political affiliation, so what's--
I'll go to the issue of the training, then, because it was also brought up, and we've touched on it here a little today too. There was an accusation made, in connection particularly with union reps and so on, that in a way all the training came with a bias from the commission. I think that's what I seemed to pick up there.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the “neutral” training by an outside legal firm or entity? Is all of the training provided by an outside legal firm or entity, or is some provided by the commission? Is there an opportunity for a union, say, to get more of those things that would come from their point of view as they make representations or appeals on behalf of people?
That's reinforced. Okay.
The other thing that was mentioned may be different in different parts of the country. In previous testimony here, it was mentioned that because the hearings are generally done at the commission's offices in Saskatoon or wherever it has to be, sometimes people feel a little intimidated, let's say, or a little threatened by that. I think that was the inference of the people who brought this up.
Can you talk about that a little bit? I take it, having talked to somebody who has served in that board of referee role, that they have computers and copy machines if they're suddenly quickly required. Can you also touch on what the costs would involve if we were to begin to do these hearings across the country in a backroom or the facility in the back of Sam Wong's restaurant or some other facility? What would be the problems with doing it off-site if that would make for greater ease and for people feeling comfortable coming into these settings?
Part of the issue here is that the motion requests us to study the practice and procedures for appealing a decision from the board of referees to the umpire, and we've strayed in many various different directions. Most of the evidence related to presentations to the board of referees in some of the issues they had with that aspect of it; I'm not sure that's actually within the purview of our study, but quite a bit of evidence was heard on that, so I'd like to pose a few questions on that to you.
One of the issues they were concerned about is that in the assignment of the cases, you might have a person coming before the board of referees who would have an obvious conflict with either the employer representative or the employee representative, which meant that they would have to disqualify themselves and the thing would then have to be reset. They'd have to find a new person because of this issue of conflict.
Now, it would seem to me it would be a relatively simple matter to resolve that issue by making the cases and the people who are sitting on the cases known much earlier. Whose purview would that be under? Is that under the department's purview, or would that be something that the commission would need to deal with to improve that area? Do you know?
Mr. Komarnicki drew a distinction regarding the procedure that I would like to get back to. There are two things to be differentiated: there is the moment when one is advised of the hearing, and the moment when one receives the documentation for the hearing.
The person who defends the claimant will often receive the documents necessary to prepare the defence on the eve of the hearing or two days before it. If you don't have an answer to this right now, I would like to receive one before we draft our report.
And I would like to get back to another aspect of the proceedings that was raised earlier, that is the location. We know that often, a person is associated with a political party. The chairperson of one board of referees even ran for the Conservatives in the last election. I would like you to provide us with an answer on that.
As to the location of the hearings, they take place in the commission's premises, as a Conservative colleague pointed out earlier. Would it not be possible to come to an agreement with the municipalities concerned to hold the hearings in the municipal council offices? The members of city councils are often happy to put those offices at our disposal.
That is a suggestion you could examine. The point is to make everyone comfortable.
The last time, witnesses told us that files often came late. Normally, there is a 10-day timeframe so that people can prepare to go before the board. But the time period is actually less: people only have six or seven days to prepare the file with the worker, rather than 10 days. It is not the fault of the clerk, since she waits for the information to come from the Employment Insurance Commission. This reduces the time. And that is the problem. Have you any solutions to propose that could correct this situation?
Also, a lot of workers do not go before the board alone. They have neither the knowledge nor the competence to represent themselves. So they must call on legal aid to obtain the services of a lawyer. There are also delays involved in that.
Is all that taken into account when people try to facilitate a worker's defence, to have someone represent him?
Does the clerk send the appeal file to the worker's representatives, or is the worker the only one to be called? Does the clerk also call the worker's lawyer or advocate so as to inform that person as well?
Seeing no more questions from members, I will say thank you to the witnesses for being here. Thank you for answering our questions.
I want to speak with the committee briefly about our next two meetings.
Right now we are scheduled to be planning our disability study. For the first hour, we are scheduled to be discussing and planning the disability study. The adoption draft report is ready, so I would suggest, if the committee is in agreement, that we could take a look at that in the second hour of Tuesday's meeting. Then, on Thursday, I would like us to begin the disability study, even though we won't have all of the parameters.
An hon. member: Is this next week?
The Chair: Yes, we're talking about next week.
On Tuesday, then, for the first hour we'd be looking at and discussing the parameters of the disability study.
Would the committee be in agreement to use the second hour for looking at the draft report on adoption? I think we probably need only an hour to get it completed. Then, on the following Thursday, we'd begin our disability study, if that's all right with the committee. That is what we had planned.