Legal disputes involving veterans cost federal government almost $40 million over two years
Spend money on veterans benefits - not lawyers, say critics
The federal government has spent more than $38 million on legal proceedings involving Canada's veterans over the past two years.
Nearly $1 million of that amount has been spent on legal fees for two lawsuits launched in 2016 by former members of the military who allege they were sexually assaulted or sexually harassed while they were serving.
Another $1.3 million was spent on legal fees for 73 other cases involving veterans.
Most of the spending was to resolve disputes over veterans' benefits or pensions through the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. Operating that tribunal cost the government $18.4 million. Another $17.9 million went to advocates who represent veterans appealing decisions made by the Veterans Affairs department, according to documents tabled in the House of Commons.
'I was shocked'
Conservative MP Phil McColeman said he was surprised to discover how much the government has been spending on legal proceedings involving veterans.
"I was shocked. I had no idea it would be that kind of number."
NDP MP Finn Donnelly said the government should be spending money on helping veterans – not fighting benefit and pension claims.
"Putting that almost $40 million towards veterans benefits would go a long way to helping either lifetime benefits or any kind of mental health issues or concerns that, obviously, our veterans deal with day in and day out," he said.
During the last election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that a Liberal government would do a better job of caring for veterans and pledged to "ensure that no veteran has to fight the government for the support and compensation they have earned."
Some veterans feel that the Trudeau government's actions haven't matched its campaign rhetoric.
Trudeau further raised tensions with the veterans community in February when he told a town hall meeting in Edmonton that his government couldn't afford to settle with some of them.
"Why are we fighting certain veterans groups in court? Because they're asking for more than we are able to give right now," he said.
The federal government's highest legal tab over the past couple of years has been for the Heyder and Beattie class action lawsuits launched in 2016.
The Heyder case was filed on behalf of all current and former female members of the armed forces who have been sexually assaulted or sexually harassed. The Beattie case covers current and former male members of the forces who experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment.
Together, the lawsuits are asking for a billion dollars in compensation.
As of February, the federal Department of Justice has spent an estimated $546,401 fighting the Heyder case and $417,171 on the Beattie case.
The government's initial strategy was to aggressively challenge the lawsuits. But in late February, the government shifted its approach and began talks to negotiate a settlement.
"We look forward to commencing these discussions to bring closure, healing and acknowledgement to the victims and survivors of sexual assault, racism, harassment and discrimination," Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a statement.
Negotiating is cheaper, says lawyer
Jonathan Ptak, a lawyer working on the legal team representing veterans in both cases, said the government could have saved a lot of money if it had agreed from the outset to negotiate a settlement.
"It's unfortunate that the government elected to spend that amount of money and time in defending the action and in bringing the motion to strike the action, which they have now agreed to drop, before agreeing to explore a negotiated resolution with us," he said.
"We're now going down that road and we're looking forward to working cooperatively with the federal government to determine if a resolution can be reached in this case, so we can avoid further litigation."
If the two sides can't reach a settlement, the Heyder and Beattie cases could together cost the federal government millions of dollars in legal fees, said Ptak.
In Scott vs. the Attorney General of Canada, also known as the Equitas case, a group of disabled veterans launched a landmark class action challenge of the former Conservative government's decision to overhaul the compensation program for soldiers injured in the line of duty.
The veterans won a victory in 2014 when the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the case had enough merit to proceed to trial, but then they lost at the B.C. Court of Appeal in December 2017. They are now seeking leave to appeal that ruling to the Supreme Court.
The government says Equitas has cost it $235,496 in legal fees since 2016. Don Sorochan, lawyer for the veterans, wonders how Department of Justice lawyers managed to spend that much, given that both sides were waiting for the B.C Court of Appeal to rule for much of that time.
Sorochan said he is more concerned by the $17.9 million the government spent on advocates to represent veterans appealing decisions about their benefits because the Department of Veterans Affairs has too much of a tendency to deny claims.
"They are supposed to go to bat for the people who want a pension and they haven't been."
While the government announced changes in December to once again give veterans the option of a pension, it has not tried to reach an out-of-court settlement in the Equitas case.
Toth vs. Her Majesty the Queen, a class action which centres on clawbacks to veterans benefits, has cost the government $433,649 in legal fees to date. The case affects more than 13,000 former members of the armed forces.
The case currently is at the discovery stage and lawyers for the plaintiffs are talking with the Department of Justice in a bid to resolve the lawsuit.
Most of the other cases involving veterans have cost the government far less to fight.
For example, Arial vs. the Attorney General of Canada — in which the daughter of a Quebec veteran is fighting for retroactive benefits her father was owed — has cost the government $40,203 in legal fees.
The least expensive case — Marshall Dmytryshyn vs. the Attorney General of Canada and the Minister of Veterans Affairs — has cost the federal government just $82 since Jan. 1, 2016.
Marc Lescoutre, spokesman for Veterans Affairs, said the department does not itself take veterans to court but recognizes that veterans have a right to file suit.
"The Department of Justice Canada assesses and defends all cases based on the merits of the claim and conducts all litigation in a respectful manner as required by the rules of court," he said.
Veterans unhappy with decisions about their benefits already have two levels of redress available to them through the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, he added.
CBC News has asked Veterans Affairs for the numbers for spending on legal proceedings during the previous two years under the Conservative government, but has not yet received them.
Conservatives 'probably made mistakes'
McColeman said he had no idea how much the government spent on legal fees when the Conservative Party was in power and said his party "probably made some mistakes." However, he said former Veterans Affairs minister Erin O'Toole was trying to settle the Equitas suit when the election began and he ran out of time.
Going forward, the Conservatives will treat veterans with the respect they deserve, he said.
"We need to treat them with the utmost respect and when we run into disagreements with them, we need to resolve them outside the courtroom," he said.
"If we can settle with a convicted terrorist for $10.5 million outside a courtroom, we should be able to settle with veterans on their issues outside the courtroom."
Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at email@example.com