KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal has ruled that Community Services cannot refuse to pay a welfare recipient for suitable housing just because the rent exceeds the shelter allowance.
The person central to the case, identified only as G. in the decision, suffers from severe chemical sensitivities. G could not find an apartment that accommodated these sensitivities within her approved shelter allowance of $535 per month, the maximum amount allocated to single individuals who live with disabilities.
After finding a suitable apartment, G. requested that her shelter allowance increase to $800 per month, which her caseworker denied.
That decision worked its way through the Assistance Appeal Board, a judicial review, and now the unanimous decision in favour of G. by the three judges on the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal.
“The decision covers everything to do with basic needs. The judges said that the department can override these regulatory limits to what it can provide when a person’s health or safety is in jeopardy. So it is much broader than the facts of this particular case,” says Claire McNeil, the Dalhousie Legal Aid lawyer who argued the case on behalf of G.
“It’s a big step in the right direction,” McNeil says.
This is the second time the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal ruled against Community Services in its interpretation of the regulations within the last year. In November 2017 the court decided that it is unjust to deprive an entire family of social assistance benefits just because the so called head of that family did something wrong. McNeil was one of the lawyers there as well.
However, in that case the policy manual has not yet been changed to reflect the Court’s decision, says McNeil, and that is reason for concern.
“You depend on the department to implement such a change. All their workers province-wide go to the policy manual to decide what to do. In that manual it still says that if one person does something wrong the entire family is punished,” McNeil says.
“Community Services flouts the law, all the time,” says Fiona Traynor, a community legal worker with Dalhousie Legal Aid. “What the decision shows is that Community Services contravenes the actual laws that govern the administration of the Income Assistance program.”
“Not only are they denying people what has been found to be fair at the Appeal Board level, they pay lawyers to battle people who live in deep poverty and with serious disabilities at all levels. How much of our tax money do you think that costs,” Traynor wonders.
All this continues to be a source of great frustration, says Traynor, who is one of the spokespersons for the Community Agenda for Social Assistance Reform (CASAR), a group that has been asking for meaningful input in the secretive welfare transformation project that is reshaping how Community Services delivers income assistance. The group represents over 30 anti-poverty groups province-wide.
“CASAR has called on the government of Nova Scotia and Community Services to hold a substantive consultation on the changes that need to be made. CASAR believes that the current transformation is not responsive to the needs of people on Income Assistance, not inclusive and not transparent,” Traynor says.
“The current Court of Appeal decision illustrates once again that they aren’t listening. That has to change.”
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