The federal government is appealing a Federal Court decision that threatened to strike down its new policy on refugee health care as "cruel and unusual" treatment.
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander also filed a motion to stay the judgment of Judge Anne Mactavish, whose ruling meant refugee applicants would once again have access to Canadian health care while they wait for a decision on their cases in Canada.
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The government claims 13 grounds for its appeal, including the argument that the judge made several errors of fact. It also says the judge "applied different standards of reliability to the evidence of the applicants and the respondents."
In an interview with CBC News, the lead lawyer who won the case said the government's months-long delay in filing the appeal, and the motion for a stay of judgment, means his team will have to scramble to prevent serious health problems among refugees from going untreated.
'Justice Mactavish in her decision made it clear denial of health coverage is putting people's lives at risk.' — Lorne Waldmann, Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care
"If the matter is stayed there will be a delay and so there will be thousands of persons who should be getting coverage as a result of that order who will be denied that coverage for a longer period of time," said Lorne Waldman, who represents the group Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care.
"Justice Mactavish in her decision made it clear denial of health coverage is putting people's lives at risk."
Waldman also vowed to try to speed up the appeal process.
"We're going to vigorously oppose the stay, and we're going to seek to have the appeal expedited so that we can have a final determination on all these issues," he said. "In our hope, if the judgment is upheld, refugees will be entitled to health-care coverage and get the coverage they need so they will not be exposed to a risk to their lives."
In a statement, three parties to the original case, Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, and Justice for Children and Youth, denounced the government’s decision to appeal.
Lives at risk, judge ruled
In an email, Alexander's spokeswoman Codie Taylor said the minister is following up on his promise to appeal.
"As Minister Alexander said in July, the government will be appealing this flawed decision," she wrote. "The notice of appeal was recently filed and we will be aggressively defending the needs of genuine refugees and Canadian taxpayers."
Ottawa trimmed medical benefits for newcomers in 2012, leaving most immigrants with basic, essential health care but without supplementals such as vision and dental care.
However, rejected refugee claimants and refugee claimants from countries the government considers safe are eligible under the new law for care only when they pose a threat to public health.
In her ruling, Mactavish said the federal cabinet has the power to make the changes it did, and that the procedure was fair, but that the people affected by the changes are being subjected to "cruel and unusual" treatment.
"This is particularly, but not exclusively, so, as it affects children who have been brought to this country by their parents," Mactavish wrote in the 268-page decision.
"The 2012 modifications to the [Interim Federal Health Program] potentially jeopardize the health, the safety and indeed the very lives, of these innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages Canadian standards of decency.
"I have found as a fact that lives are being put at risk."
Waldman noted the government quietly filed the appeal on Sept. 22 without any fanfare or notice to the opposing parties. And he added his office was only served notice yesterday, a week after the initial notice of appeal was filed.
He said it's an obvious stall tactic.
"The longer it takes for the judgment to be implemented the more people will be placed at risk, and that's simply unacceptable," he said.
Mactavish's ruling would have restored health care to refugee applicants this November, but if the stay is granted, that won't happen.