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.