Proposed Amendments to the Ontario Ombudsman Act: Potential Impact on Universities
On July 8, 2014, the Ontario government reintroduced Bill 8, Public Sector and MPP Accountability and Transparency Act, 2014. Bill 8 proposes amendments to various statutes including the Ombudsman Act (Act).
The proposed amendments to the Act in Bill 8 would significantly extend the jurisdiction of the provincial Ombudsman over the affairs of Ontario universities.Purpose of the Bill The stated purpose of Bill 8 is to “build a more transparent and responsible government that is accountable to all Ontarians” and to strengthen accountability and oversight by expanding the role of the Ontario Ombudsman. According to John Milloy, the minister of government services when the bill was first introduced, the jurisdiction of the Ontario Ombudsman is being broadened to serve as “a fresh pair of eyes” when someone feels the system is working against them, and to “[take] a look across the line” to promote consistency in the application of the Ombudsman’s role across sectors such as universities, municipalities and health. Will the proposed amendments to the Act add any actual value for universities or potential complainants? Some Potential Implications of the Amendments The proposed amendments to the Act under Bill 8, as they affect universities, raise at least three key areas for concern.
The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) has commented that the “new powers [of the Ontario Ombudsman] might allow the Ombudsman to interfere in core areas of academic freedom, such as grading and course design.”
Bill 8’s proposed amendments would give the Ontario Ombudsman authority to:
- investigate any issue for which there has been no internal appeal function; and
- review decisions that were made by a university’s designated ombudsman or appeal body.
This means the Ontario Ombudsman may have authority over decisions made by the university on issues such as:
- course design by a faculty member;
- grading of assignments and examinations;
- whether a student should be granted an extension to write an exam or assignment;
- whether a student should have permission to return early from an academic suspension;
- whether a student should be exempted from program requirements if completed in another institution; and
- whether a course, grade or notation should be removed from a student’s academic record.
Finally, the proposed changes to the Act would make it possible for the Ombudsman to investigate student complaints on grounds otherwise not considered “reviewable” by the university (such as curriculum design). Universities defined as public sector bodies
A university would be defined as a “public sector body” since it would be an entity to which the Act applies under section 13. Universities are considered independent of government. Making the term “university” synonymous with “public sector body” may lend credence to the argument that a university is not independent of government but an arm’s-length branch of government, to which public funding is given and there is government oversight over all university decisions. This has potentially serious implications for future constitutional challenges involving universities. Next Steps The second reading of Bill 8 has not yet been scheduled. In the meantime, all stakeholders who may be affected by the potential impact of Bill 8 should be mindful of the proposed reach of the Ontario Ombudsman, with one key question in mind: Will the benefit really outweigh the cost of yet another oversight body for universities?
 R.S.O. 1990, c. O.6.
 Ontario, Legislative Assembly, Official Report of Debates (Hansard), 41st Parl, 1st Sess, No. 4 (8 July 2014), at 89.
 Ontario, Legislative Assembly, Official Records for 9 April 2014.