Getting Started

Understanding Administrative Law

Many government regulations and policies affect our everyday lives. When there is a disagreement about the rules or how a policy is enforced, the matter isn’t usually settled in court. Instead, government agencies, boards and commissions – as well as some professional associations - are governed by administrative law.

In BC, more people have issues that relate to administrative law, than people who have disputes that end up in court. Administrative law describes how an agency should investigate complaints, hold public hearings and settle disputes. To help you get started with your administrative law issue, review the information below. To learn more and watch a video about administrative law, click here.

What is a Regulatory Agency?

A regulatory agency is a public authority – often a government agency, board or commission – that has the responsibility of making decisions in a specific area of activity. The complexity of areas like employment, health and trade, requires agencies to have specialized rules and policies. Agencies make rules and regulations, provide supervision or oversight, and enforce policies. There are different types of regulatory agencies:

  • Self-Governing Agencies
  • Independent Government
  • Government Agencies

Self-Governing Agencies

Self-governing agencies, such as professional organizations, regulate the conduct of their members. Do you have a complaint about a professional, such as a doctor, lawyer, teacher or accountant? Then your first step is to approach the agency that regulates that profession. Self-governing agencies determine their own requirements for admission and they discipline members who don’t maintain set standards of professional conduct.

Generally, these agencies follow their own guidelines for dealing with complaints and dispute. Often, once a complaint is received, it will be investigated internally, without a formal hearing that is open to the public. Locate the agency in the BC Directory of Administrative Tribunals & Agencies to learn more about the process you will need to follow in your case.

Independent Government Agencies

These agencies regulate activities according to government legislation, but they operate separately from government. Independent government agencies may be called commissions, boards or tribunals. Want to have your say about a company’s plan to build a new power line in your community? Then, you may want to attend a public hearing to express your views. The National Energy Board is an example of an independent regulatory agency established by Parliament.

Some independent government agencies provide an opportunity for public participation or input, before making decisions. Others have a more formal process for filing complaints, disputes or appeals.  Locate the agency in the BC Directory of Administrative Tribunals & Agencies to learn more about the process you will need to follow in your case.

Government Agencies

Certain branches of government create rules and regulations in specific areas and are responsible for enforcing government policies. For example, employment standards and income tax are regulated by government agencies and these agencies having procedures in place to ensure policies are followed. If someone has a dispute, there is a formal process for making a complaint. Locate the agency in the BC Directory of Administrative Tribunals & Agencies to learn more about the process you will need to follow in your case.

Complaints & Disputes

If you have an issue that is regulated by an administrative agency, you will need to learn about the process involved in filing a complaint or dispute. There are dozens of administrative agencies in British Columbia and they handle a diverse range of issues – from nuclear waste to care facilities. It is important to identify which agency is responsible for handling your issue.

To start your search, select the most suitable category in the BC Directory of Administrative Tribunals & Agencies. The landing page for each category provides a brief description of each agency. Select the agency to learn more. When you have found the agency most likely to hear your complaint or dispute, you can visit their website to learn more about their process.

Some agencies will ask you to simply write a letter of complaint that includes details about the incident. Many agencies have a formal process for hearing complaints and disputes – they hold tribunal hearings.

Tribunal hearings

Tribunal hearings are a little bit like court. They are formal, they are chaired by an independent person and/or expert and decisions are often binding – which means that the loser must comply with the decision. Tribunal members are usually appointed because they have expertise in the subject area (e.g., environmental regulation, truck transport safety, or farming practices) or because they have specific experience in administrative law. If you need to attend a tribunal hearing, see the section on Preparing for a Hearing.

Think you’ve been discriminated against? The Human Rights Tribunal is an example of an agency that’s responsible for receiving and settling complaints. Other tribunals hear appeals of decisions made by another government agency. For example, decision made by the Property Assessment Review Panel can be appealed to the Property Assessment Appeal Board. Generally, if you are not satisfied with a decision made by an administrative agency, you would need to apply for a Judicial Review in the BC Supreme Court. To learn more about appealing decisions made by administrative agencies, read the Judicial Review Guidebook.

Resolving Disputes

Some tribunals have their own dispute resolution processes, such as mediation, which attempt to resolve an issue without a hearing. Sometimes people pay for mediation outside the tribunal process altogether. Other times, a person can solve the problem through effective negotiation. For example, if you have a workplace disagreement, the Employment Standards Branch will encourage you to talk with your employer first before taking your matter to the complaint stage.

 It is important to read the guidelines of the agency that concerns your matter to find out whether it is worthwhile to pursue your matter through the tribunal process. To learn more about resolving disputes before they become bigger and more complex, see Early Resolution.

Getting Help

Filing a complaint or bringing a dispute to an administrative agency can be very complicated. There are specific rules and procedures to follow. Generally there is a set process. Lawyers are trained to represent people with legal issues and it may be necessary and worthwhile for you to get legal advice.

There are many ways to find out more about your legal problem, who can help you, and how a particular tribunal works. Some organizations provide advocacy services where a lawyer or a knowledgeable staff member can give you information about how to handle your problem. To learn more, see the section of this website called Getting Help.