Veterans ombudsman finds review board decisions unfair

Canada's veterans ombudsman says that in 60 per cent of the cases from the Veterans Review and Appeal Board that ended up in Federal Court, the board erred in law or fact, or failed to observe principles of procedural fairness.

Veterans Review and Appeal Board criticized for 'errors in law or fact' and lack of disclosure

Canada's veterans ombudsman, Guy Parent, is seen here before a Senate committee appearance last October. Parent says his review of cases from the Veterans Review and Appeal Board suggests the board often fails to conduct procedurally fair assessments. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Canada's veterans ombudsman has torn a strip off the agency where ex-soldiers are supposed to turn for a fair, sympathetic hearing.

Guy Parent looked at the number of cases belonging to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board that ended up before the Federal Court, and determined 60 per cent of them failed to conduct procedurally fair assessments.

Parent accused the agency of failing to give veterans the benefit of the doubt, of leaving applicants in the dark about reasons for its decisions and not disclosing medical information used in its rulings.

"This is about the fair treatment of the men and women who have served their country honourably," he said in a statement.

"The board has been granted very liberal powers by Parliament and entrusted to make decisions by drawing every reasonable inference in favour of applicants, accepting credible uncontradicted evidence and giving veterans the benefit of the doubt."

The 53-page investigation is the latest blow to the review agency, which earlier this year was at the centre of a privacy scandal where one of its members claimed he'd been targeted for a smear campaign because he'd sided too often with veterans.

The ombudsman did note that the board is swamped, conducting as many as 5,000 reviews of Veterans Affairs Canada cases each year.

"I recognize that board members and staff have the difficult task of determining the merits of cases by deciding on questions of law and fact in an environment characterized by heavy workloads, increasingly complex cases, and pressure to issue timely decisions," he said.

Parent added it's up to the department to consider why so many of its decisions are the subject of challenge.

Veterans question credibility

Whenever a veteran is unhappy with a decision of Veterans Affairs on ether benefits or services, they have the right to have their cases reviewed by the board, which is a quasi-judicial agency. If the board rejects the veteran's claim, the last resort is to take the case to Federal Court.

The report made seven recommendations, including a requirement for the agency to publish its decisions rather than keep them secret.

A spokeswoman for Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney says the board has been told to act on all of the recommendations.

"Our government will always ensure that our veterans and their families have access to a fair and independent appeal process," said Codi Taylor.

The Royal Canadian Legion was swift in its reaction Monday, saying the report undermines the credibility of a board that is already viewed with suspicion by former service members.

President Pat Varga urged the government to clean up the agency.

"The government has an obligation to our veterans and their families to ensure that they have access to a fair and transparent adjudication process," she said.

"They have been injured in service to our country and they deserve to be treated fairly and with respect."