Former residential school students in the North are being taken advantage of by some form filling companies and law firms, according to some Northern lawyers.

Aboriginal people are eligible for payments under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement for serious abuses experienced at the schools.

But lawyers say former students are losing thousands of dollars in exorbitant fees paid to companies that fill out the forms to help them apply for the money.

"We have vulnerable people who are already victimized and for the most part lawyers are doing a really good job, and then you have these few lawyers that everyone is going to remember, and it is just so sad and so disappointing and so wrong, " said Donna Oliver, a lawyer who represents former students in the Northwest Territories. 

Dan Shapiro, chief adjudicator of the Residential Schools Settlement, has asked a judge to stop lawyers and other agencies collecting the excess fees.

A hearing was held April 25 in Winnipeg.

"It's a very serious concern for me because former students that were abused physically, sexually and emotionally in residential school... don't have a good understanding of the legal process that they are involved in," Shapiro told the CBC.

"There are language barriers, and unfortunately some lawyers and form fillers sought to take advantage of these claimants for their own benefit."

Some claimants were charged an additional 25 per cent of their claim, on top of any legal fees they may have had to pay. The average award in the process is $100,000, so the figures are significant. 

Shapiro said some of the stories from affidavits presented at the hearing were disturbing.

"In one case the claimant was in very ill health, was getting chemotherapy treatment," he said.

"When they got to their lawyer's office, after paying their lawyer bill, there was then someone there waiting from the form filling agency to demand payment of their bill and in fact to follow them to their bank and ensure they provided a bank draft while they were there. So, very disturbing and coercive practices were taking place where people felt that they didn't have any choice but to pay these additional fees."

Federal rules state that if there are administrative fees for form filling, the lawyer is responsible for paying those fees — not the claimant.

Oliver said she hopes these lawyers and form fillers will be prevented from dealing with former residential school students in the future.

"If there are claimants out there who know that the lawyer who is representing them has hired form fillers or who has asked form fillers to meet with them, they need to get in contact with a reputable lawyer to get the right representation," she said. 

There is no word yet on when the judge will make his decision.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story referred to a law firm that filled forms for residential school survivors in the North. In fact, we have no evidence to support this claim.
    May 07, 2014 9:25 AM CT