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Administrative proceedings are often scheduled months in advance of the hearing date. The parties and decision-makers ready themselves in anticipation for that date by reading and drafting materials, planning what they might say at the hearing, and becoming familiar with the important issues. Sometimes, these well-made plans go awry when a late-stage adjournment request is made. Adjournments may be necessary to ensure fairness in the administrative proceeding, but may also cause significant delays and result in the duplication of efforts when parties must prepare for a second (or third) time for the same hearing to proceed. Can an administrative body justifiably deny a party’s request for an adjournment? When might such a denial be appropriate?
The Venneri Decision
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice recently addressed these questions in the case of Venneri v College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of Ontario, 2023 ONSC 864 (“Venneri”).
In Venneri, the Appellant, Mr. Venneri, appealed a decision of the Registration Committee of the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of Ontario (the “College”), which found that Mr. Venneri did not meet the requirements for registration as a Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner and Acupuncturist. As part of the appeal process, Mr. Venneri and the College set a deadline for the exchange of materials in May 2019, pursuant to which Mr. Venneri was required to provide 15 days’ notice of any witnesses he intended to call and provide any expert reports on which he intended to rely 45 days in advance of the hearing (the “Procedural Agreement”).
In December 2019, the College provided the appeal tribunal, the Health Professions Appeal and Review Board (the “Board”), with two documents. The College forwarded both of the documents to Mr. Venneri on January 3, 2020, though both had been previously disclosed to him in 2016 during a previous application. On January 7, 2020, Mr. Venneri requested an adjournment of the appeal hearing which was scheduled for January 14, 2020. He indicated that he required additional time to review the documents and prepare his case.
On January 14, 2020, Mr. Venneri renewed his request for an adjournment, sought further disclosure from the College and indicated that he intended to adduce an expert report. The Board denied Mr. Venneri’s request, as it was not satisfied that he had taken concrete steps to line up an expert and had not provided the report in accordance with the Procedural Agreement. Counsel for the College admitted that it would not suffer any prejudice if the adjournment was granted. The College simply indicated that it was anxious to “bring the matter to a close”.
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice found that the decision of the Board to deny Mr. Venneri’s adjournment request was reasonable and dismissed Mr. Venneri’s appeal.
The Court highlighted that decisions of a hearing panel of the nature raised in this appeal are an inherent aspect of a tribunal’s power to control its own processes. These decisions are typically accorded deference from a reviewing court unless they amount to a breach of natural justice or procedural fairness. The Court further indicated that the decision of whether to grant an adjournment is a discretionary decision, which requires the administrative body to balance the “interests of the party seeking the adjournment with the administration of justice including the timely resolution of proceedings”.
The Court upheld the decision of the Board, emphasizing that Mr. Venneri had been provided with the impugned documents during a previous application and that the Board exercised its discretion in a reasonable fashion in light of the competing interests it had to balance, including the interests of justice.
Administrative bodies enjoy a significant degree of latitude in deciding whether to grant or refuse an adjournment. In exercising this discretion, the panel should balance the interests of both parties, and the interests of the administration of justice in the orderly processing of administrative hearings on their merits. A number of factors may be considered in this analysis, including the granting of previous adjournments, compliance with prior orders, the principles of natural justice and procedural fairness, the reason given for requesting the adjournment, prejudice to the parties, and the desirability of having the matter decided. Venneri demonstrates that prejudice to the party opposing the adjournment is not required and that a request for an adjournment may be validly denied even in the absence of evidence of prejudice.