The Ontario Superior Court has classified a class-action lawsuit against Bell Mobility that alleges that the company's practice of putting expiry dates on its pre-paid wireless plans is illegal.

The lawsuit alleges that that the pre-paid wireless services Bell customers purchase fall under the same category as gift cards and are subject to Ontario's Consumer Protection Act, which stipulates that gift cards cannot have an expiry date.

Bell's practice of not reimbursing remaining credit balances once the date on the pre-paid period expires is a breach of its contracts with customers, the plaintiffs allege.

The lawsuit includes more than one million people from Ontario, who are represented by the plaintiff Celia Sankar, a resident of Elliot Lake, Ont., who says she has had the expired credit balance on her pre-paid wireless plan "seized" by Bell twice in the past three years.

Bell said in an emailed statement that its business practices comply with all applicable laws and the contracts they enter into with customers.

"This is, of course, the case with our pre-paid cards, and we look forward to addressing the issue in court," said Bell spokesperson Jacqueline Michelis in an email. "Keep in mind that the threshold for class-action certification is quite low and doesn't address whether the claim has any merit."

Pre-paid plans popular with low-income consumers

Sankar, who heads the non-profit group DiversityCanada Foundation, said in a news release Friday that the certification of the lawsuit is a "victory for vulnerable consumers."

"These services are popular with many persons of limited means," she said. "It's tremendously important that they have access to the court through a class-action proceeding to have their claims fairly tried."

The plaintiffs are seeking $100 million in damages from Bell.

"No one would ever bring their own lawsuit for the $20 or $30 that wireless companies take from their customers when their balances expire," said the plaintiffs' lead attorney, Louis Sokolov of Sotos LLP. "That it is why it is so important that consumer cases like this be certified and corporations like Bell be required to answer the allegations."

The class action applies to anyone in Ontario who purchased or otherwise acquired pre-paid wireless services under the brands Bell Mobility, Virgin Mobile Canada and Solo Mobile since May 4, 2010. 

Similar claims against other wireless companies are being investigated, Sokolov said, but the current suit is the first to test the gift card argument.