Nova Scotia

Capital Health faces class-action lawsuit over strip searches

A judge has certified a class action suit against Capital Health after a hospital-wide strip search of patients at Dartmouth's East Coast Forensic Hospital in 2012.

'I felt a great justice had been served,' says lead plaintiff Mark Murray

Ralph Atkinson is part of the class-action lawsuit against Capital District Health Authority. (CBC)

A judge has certified a class-action suit against Capital Health after a hospital-wide strip search of patients at Dartmouth's East Coast Forensic Hospital in 2012.

The decision says 33 forensic psychiatry patients at the Nova Scotia facility were strip searched on Oct. 16, 2012.

Evidence presented by the facility says search took place after a number of events from June to October 2012, causing the person in charge of the "rehabilitation side" of the hospital to have increased concerns about illegal substances being brought into the hospital.

The events culminated after those in charge began looking for any contraband — including illegal substances — after a number of patients were "acting oddly" on Oct.15, 2012.

In the written decision Justice Denise Boudreau said there is no doubt administrators in facilities such as the forensic hospital need to be able to control their operations, but that strip searches are highly intrusive. "A court ruling in this particular case would likely be helpful in finding the appropriate line between those two realities."

I feel absolutely wonderful.- Lead plaintiff Mark Murray

In his affidavit to the court, lead plaintiff Mark Murray said they strip searched him with the door open. He says other patients could have seen the search and his claim says he may have also been in view of a video camera.

Murray said he was happy when his lawyer told him the class action was certified on Thursday.

"I felt absolutely wonderful. I felt a great justice had been served and that the members of the class of individuals was definitively acknowledged," Murray told CBC News.

Another man, Ralph Atkinson, told CBC last year that the search made him feel he had been raped. 

"I've been sexually abused when I was younger so it just draws flashbacks back from bad experiences and it just gives you that wrong feeling, like that gut wrong feeling that you know you've been violated," he said in September. 

Boudreau didn't comment on whether the strip searches in this case were warranted.

"I make no comment as to the merits of the plaintiffs' case,” Boudreau's written decision goes on to say.

“These strip searches may ultimately be found to have been reasonable, or not. Regardless, important questions are raised, and a class action will allow those questions to be litigated."

The case is important not just for those who were searched that day, but also for future patients, said Michael Dull, the lawyer for the plaintiffs.

"The hospital has immense control over these patients and really at their whim they can subject them to humiliating strip searches," said Dull. "It's important that the hospital knows that if they do, then there are consequences."

Strip searches continue

Capital Health wouldn't comment on the certification because it is before the courts.

Spokesman Everton McLean says strip searches still take place in the facility as per Department of Health and Wellness policies that allow such searches.

Formal complaints have also been filed to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission by 21 of the people searched.