VANCOUVER - Faced with a potential class-action lawsuit, the British Columbia government has ended its practice of deducting money from the welfare cheques of recovering addicts receiving treatment from private methadone-dispensing clinics.

Legal documents received by the plaintiff's lawyer from the provincial government indicate the Ministry of Social Development has changed its policy and, beginning next week, will pay any additional clinic fees for affected clients on income or disability assistance.

It's the latest development in a legal challenge launched last November aimed at stopping the government from allowing private clinics to take $18.34 from clients' social-assistance cheques in exchange for methadone treatment, as well as compensating those already affected by the policy.

"The government's change of heart is (its) way of acceding to the inevitable," said Jason Gratl, lawyer for the proposed representative plaintiff.

"In the future, the $18.34 will remain in the pockets of the most desperate, the most disadvantaged in our province" Gratl said. The question of whether they'll be reimbursed for the funds already taken has yet to be decided, he added.

The Ministry of Social Development could not be reached for comment.

Gratl said the program affects between 5,000 and 10,000 people and has been in place since at least 2008, meaning the overall amount of money deducted could be as much as $13 million.

The original lawsuit said private methadone clinics require clients to sign a $60 government-drafted fee agreement, which is in turn reduced by $41.66 by a government-provided supplement. The remainder is either paid out of pocket or, in the case of those on income assistance, is drawn from the client's monthly allowance.

An application was filed in B.C. Supreme Court last week requesting an injunction against the practice continuing while the original lawsuit worked its way through the legal system.

Raymond Fieltsch, an executive director with the Ministry of Social Development, wrote in an affidavit dated Wednesday and received by Gratl that recipients of income or disability assistance have been or will be informed that the subtractions from their cheques would cease.

"Any current or future recipient of income assistance or disability assistance who applies to access the alcohol and drug treatment supplement will not have amounts deducted from his or her cheques pursuant to a fee agreement," reads the document.

Gratl said the proposed class-action lawsuit would continue in order to secure compensation for methadone fees taken from past social assistance payments.