SCC reinstates military veterans class-action lawsuit
Published Thursday, December 23, 2010 3:06PM EST
OTTAWA - The Supreme Court of Canada knocked down a legal roadblock on Thursday and paved the way for a class-action lawsuit over military veterans' pensions.
Military mechanic Dennis Manuge filed the suit on behalf of about 6,500 injured veterans and it was certified by the Federal Court. But that certification was later rejected by the Federal Court of Appeal.
The Supreme Court reinstated the original decision in one of six related rulings on a technical legal issue that has real-life implications for how lawsuits are allowed to move through the courts.
In Manuge's case and five others, seven justices of the court unanimously agreed that parties in the various court actions should not be forced to jump through procedural hoops in their quest for justice.
Manuge, of Porters Lake, N.S., was injured in 2002 at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa. The government later decided to take back $10,000 of his disability pension after he left the military. Manuge filed suit and got Federal Court approval for a class action.
But the government appealed and won a stay of proceedings. The Federal Court of Appeal rejected Manuge's class action, ruling he should have applied for "judicial review" of the pension clawback at the Federal Court, instead of opening a full-fledged lawsuit.
Wrong, said the Supreme Court.
"In my view, with respect, the discretion to grant a stay should not be exercised in this case," Justice Rosalie Abella wrote on behalf of the Supreme Court.
Previously, an investigation by the military ombudsman found the clawback "profoundly unfair."
New Democrat MP Peter Stoffer said the case never should have wound its way all the way up to the Supreme Court. He urged the government to sit down with the veterans and settle the matter.
"The choice is very clear," said Stoffer, his party's veterans affairs critic. "You can spend millions and millions of dollars fighting this in the courts, or you can spend those millions dealing with the disabled veterans in a fair and reasonable manner."
The Defence Department said it would take some time to analyse the decision.
"As such, it is premature to provide further comment at the moment," said spokeswoman Jennifer Eckersley.
The principle at play in Manuge's case was decided in one of the companion rulings that involved a $250 million lawsuit filed by TeleZone Inc., against Industry Canada.
The consortium of telephone companies accused the government of unfairly denying it a licence for wireless communication services.
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice allowed the legal action, saying it wasn't necessary for TeleZone to seek "judicial review" at the Federal Court. In this case, the Ontario Court of Appeal agreed, and so did the Supreme Court, which rejected the federal government's last appeal.
"This appeal is fundamentally about access to justice," Justice Ian Binnie wrote on behalf of the court in the TeleZone ruling.
"People who claim to be injured by government action should have whatever redress the legal system permits through procedures that minimize unnecessary costs and complexity. The court's approach should be practical and pragmatic with that objective in mind."