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Commission wins landmark decision finding Ontario Coroners Act discriminates against families of psychiatric patients

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May 26, 2006

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For immediate publication

Toronto - A far reaching decision concerning the discriminatory treatment of psychiatric patients was issued by the Human Rights Tribunal on Tuesday, May 25, 2006. The complaints centred on the provisions of the Coroners Act, which make inquests mandatory when prisoners die in custody, but make inquests discretionary when involuntary psychiatric patients die when in a hospital or institution.

Thomas Illingworth was an involuntary patient in a psychiatric facility at the time of his death in 1995. He died when he was restrained both chemically and physically. Robert Illingworth sought to have a Coroner’s Inquest held into his brother's death. The request was refused by the presiding Coroner and subsequently by the Chief Coroner.

Melba Braithwaite was also an involuntary patient in a psychiatric facility. She had a history of heart ailments. Her daughter, Renata Braithwaite had requested that her mother not be given certain drugs because of their effect on her. In April 2001, Melba Braithwaite died in the shower. She was not supervised by anyone at the time. According to the autopsy, the drugs did not figure in her death. Her daughter Renata had requested a Coroner’s Inquest. Her request was refused by the Coroner's Office as well.

The Commission argued successfully that the distinction in the Coroners Act is discriminatory. The Honourable Peter Cory, sitting as a member of the Tribunal, concluded that an inquest provides a benefit to the family of the deceased, and thus comes within the definition of "services" in the Human Rights Code. The Tribunal agreed with the Commission that the distinction in the Coroners Act constitutes discrimination in the provision of services, based on mental disability. Citing a recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, the Tribunal emphasized the primacy of the Code when other legislation is found to be inconsistent with the Code.

Commenting on the cases, Chief Commissioner Barbara Hall remarked, "The Commission argued the case on behalf of those who suffer from mental illness and who are clearly recognized in this decision as members of a historically disadvantaged group. We must ensure that our laws do not continue this disadvantage. Persons with mental illness and their families are entitled to the same consideration and respect as other members of our society."

This matter was first raised with the Commission in 2002 by the Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office. One of the functions of the Commission is to promote compliance with the Code including examining and making recommendations on any government legislation that in its opinion may contravene Ontario’s Human Rights Code. The Code requires that every person, including persons with psychiatric disorders, receive equal treatment without discrimination in services, goods and facilities, among other areas. The Commission wrote to and met with representatives of the Office of the Chief Coroner regarding the differential treatment of psychiatric patients under the Coroners Act. However, the government made no change in the law at the time.

Subject to the government’s right to appeal, the Tribunal's decision this week directs the Coroner's office to hold inquests into the two deaths.

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Afroze Edwards
Sr. Communications Officer
Communications and Issues Management
(416) 314-4528

Jeff Poirier
Senior Policy Analyst
Policy Education, Monitoring and Outreach Branch (PEMO)
Ontario Human Rights Commission