OTTAWA - The government's critically backlogged social security tribunal has been working to reduce the number of in-person hearings for jobless, ailing or injured Canadians denied employment insurance or Canada Pension Plan disability benefits.
But government statistics show those vulnerable Canadians are much more likely to successfully appeal those decisions when they meet face-to-face with tribunal members rather than having their hearings held over the telephone or via videoconference.
In-person hearings for those appealing income security decisions, mostly CPP disability cases, had a 61 per cent success rate compared to 42 per cent for teleconferences in the tribunal's first 18 months of operation, the government revealed in recent responses to order paper questions from the NDP.
For those appealing employment insurance decisions, the success rate was double that of in-person hearings — 48 per cent succeeded, compared with 24 per cent who have their appeals heard via teleconference or videoconference.
Richard Beaulne, spokesman for the tribunal, said the type of hearing held has no bearing on the final decision.
"Members make their decisions following a complete analysis of the evidence, submissions and applicable legislative provisions presented by the parties," he said in an email on Thursday.
The tribunal also decides on a case-by-case basis what type of hearing will be held, Beaulne added.
"Members take into consideration different factors such as the complexity of the case, the number of anticipated parties and/or participants, whether credibility is a prevailing issue and whether a party or witness have particular accommodation needs."
In a memo to Employment Minister Jason Kenney earlier this year, Service Canada said it was trying to reduce the number of in-person hearings.
"Increased availability of videoconference facilities will significantly reduce the number of in-person appeals," states the memo, obtained by The Canadian Press via the Access to Information Act.
There were only a few dozen videoconference hearings during the tribunal's first 18 months.
In the income-security division, those hearings had a higher success rate than hearings held over the phone, but were still well below the success rate for in-person proceedings.
The memo also pledged to begin "improving and rigorously monitoring department processes, including reconsideration, to minimize the number of cases proceeding to appeal" as Employment and Social Development prepared to tackle the backlog, which has now swelled to more than 11,000 outstanding appeals.
NDP MP Jinny Sims said the government has to come up with other ways to cut the backlog that won't mean lower success rates for vulnerable Canadians.
"We can't be that insensitive," she said.
"There are other ways to reduce the backlog. Bring more people in, hire them, put them to work holding in-person hearings. We have a government that is moving away from the in-person appeal ... they're making choices that leave people behind, whether you're a veteran, or a person with a disability, or a senior, or a student."
In-person hearings can be vital for appellants, says Ron Ellis, an administrative law lawyer and the former head of a workplace compensation tribunal.
"In these cases, credibility is inevitably an important part of the decision, especially if you have a culture that views claimants with suspicion, which is always a possibility," he said in an interview.
"From the adjudicator's perspective, there's the need to actually see the person in order to help judge their credibility. From the appellant's point of view, there is the deep need to look people in the eye and know that they are listening.
"The temptation to go to the much cheaper written hearing or telephone or video hearings ignores all those factors."
Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter @leeanne25