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2. The Code prevails over other laws

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a) Other laws may apply along with the Code

In employment, several laws may apply at the same time as the Code, with overlapping or parallel responsibilities. Knowing which laws apply and why they apply will help you know how best to handle situations that may arise in your workplace. Appendix B summarizes the most common areas of overlap between human rights legislation and other laws.

b) Supremacy of the Code

The Supreme Court of Canada has said that human rights legislation such as the Code is not like other laws.[4] It should not be treated the same as other pieces of provincial legislation because it is almost as important as the constitution, or “quasi-constitutional.” This means that you must comply with the Code before other laws, unless there is a specific exception. The requirements in other legislation may be considered to be minimum standards that can be exceeded to comply
with the Code.

Example: The Employment Standards Act allows employees to take eight weeks of “family medical leave” to provide care to a dependent who is near death. A couple who work for the same employer request this time off to care for their child who is gravely ill. This request is granted based on medical documentation. They are both allowed to be off work for four weeks.

At the end of the four weeks, one spouse returns to the job and the other requests more time off to continue to care for the child who has recovered somewhat but is still very ill. The employer takes the position that it has met its obligations under the Employment Standards Act and therefore this request for additional time is denied. The employer may be vulnerable to a human rights claim, based on family status and marital status.

When there is a conflict between the Code and another Ontario law, the Code prevails unless that law specifically states it applies despite the Code. This is set out very clearly in subsection 47(2) of the Code.

Example: The Workplace Safety Insurance Act (WSIA) imposes a duty on employers with more than 20 employees to re-employ a worker, if he or she had worked for the employer for a year before their injury. Under the Code, all employers have a duty to accommodate to the point of undue hardship, no matter how many employees they have or how long the employees have worked there. To comply with the Code, an employer might have to return an employee to his or her pre-injury job with accommodation, even if the employer has fewer than 20 employees and the person is a new employee. An employer who complies only with the lesser requirements of the WSIA would be vulnerable to human rights complaints.

The Supreme Court of Canada recently said that the Code applies when administrative bodies interpret legislation and make decisions.[5] Where there is an inconsistency between the Code and that administrative body’s own statute, the Code has primacy and will prevail.

Example: A man applies for social assistance benefits, but a tribunal decides that he is not eligible. The reason the tribunal gives is that alcoholism is specifically excluded from the list of disabilities under the applicable Act. But this interpretation does not comply with the Code. All the rights and obligations under the Code apply to persons with disabilities, including alcoholism. The Supreme Court tells the tribunal that if the language in its own Act is inconsistent with the Code, then its own Act should be ignored.

Because of the special nature of the Code, the protections it provides will need to be broadly interpreted. The aim is to give effect to the key principles of dignity, mutual respect and equal opportunity to contribute.

Example: An employer argues that the protections in the Code do not apply because an employee is really an independent contractor. Technically, this person may not be considered to be an “employee” under tax or employment standards laws. But, the person would be an employee under the Code – the definition of “employee” would expand to include him or her.

On the other hand, any exceptions or defences in the Code are interpreted narrowly.

Example: An employer argues that it is a religious organization and that it can discriminate based on religion when hiring staff. It seeks an exemption in the Code. The employer will be expected to have strong evidence to prove that they meet all the criteria in the Code for this defence to apply.

[4] Insurance Corporation of British Columbia v. Heerspink, [1982] 2 S.C.R. 145. (Heerspink)
[5] Tranchemontagne v. Ontario (Director, Disability Support Program), [2006] 1 S.C.R. 513 (Tranchemontagne).

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