House internal economy committee passes new legal fee policy for harassment cases
The chamber of the House of Commons is seen during Question Period Wednesday, March 27, 2013 in Ottawa. (The Canadian Press/Patrick Doyle)
OTTAWA – The Board of Internal Economy Committee has approved a major new policy when it comes to paying MPs legal fees in defending cases of alleged harassment.
Effective immediately, if a member of Parliament is found to have committed the alleged harassment—whether by a court or through another form of resolution—their legal fees will not be reimbursed.
On Thursday, the historically secretive all-party panel of MPs agreed to update the House policy aound reimbursing MPs' legal fees in an effort for more transparency and to provide additional supports to accusers.
The Board of Internal Economy, or BOIE as it is often referred to on the Hill, is the governing body of the House, overseeing MPs’ spending, approving House budgets, and managing employment and other House administration matters.
It recently began holding its meetings in public by default, but still goes in-camera when dealing with sensitive matters like covering MPs’ legal fees.
The board of MPs handles internal House of Commons matters and has for years, paid MPs' legal fees if they are dealing with cases in relation to the execution of their parliamentary duties.
That policy remains, but comes with a few clauses when considering harassment and sexual harassment cases.
Now, in order to qualify to have their legal fees paid for, the allegations against them must be found to be unsubstantiated. As well, the MP can’t have initiated the legal proceeding; and the application to cover the fees must come at the end of the legal proceedings. Though, the Board can still exercise case-by-case discretion.
"A member who is found to have harassed an employee, sexually or otherwise, will not see their legal fees reimbursed," said Philippe Dufresne, House of Commons law clerk and parliamentary counsel said in presenting the new policy to the committee.
He said the update was designed to build in more protections and offer clarity around what the Board will pay for.
"The purpose of this policy is to: Update and expand on the criteria for the reimbursement of legal fees by the Board; and provide additional measures to ensure a harassment-free workplace for employees and Members," the new policy reads.
Liberal cabinet minister and BOIE member Dominic LeBlanc said at committee that the policy update was a "very positive" step and reinforced that this new policy applies to legal fees, and not legal settlements.
In the last five years the Board has agreed to pay settlements in three cases, but none involved allegations of sexual harassment, Dufresne said.
New supports for complainants
In addition to this, the Board is pursuing new supports for harassment complainants that are MPs or House of Commons employees.
The Board is also now able to provide the complainant up to $5,000 when the allegation is made to obtain independent legal advice, if requested. The defendant member of Parliament can also apply for this $5,000 upfront for legal assistance.
If the allegation is upheld and substantiated, the complainant can also now apply to the Board to have their legal fees reimbursed.
In regards to this policy an employee is defined as a person employed by an MP, a person employed by another office of the House of Commons, or an intern or volunteer that does work for an MP.
Dufresne said this additional support will help complainants feel more comfortable coming forward.
The Board, which is chaired by House of Commons Speaker Geoff Regan, also agreed to pursue greater public disclosure in cases where legal fees are paid for.
The past practice was that the cost of paying for MPs’ legal fees get reported in the annual Public Accounts. This reporting offered no specifics in terms of the numbers of instances of fees being paid, or for which MPs. Only for payments over $100,000 are the payee and amount disclosed.
Now, in addition the Board will provide quarterly reports of the amounts spent reimbursing legal fees, including the number of requests for reimbursement. The names of those involved will not be made public.
The new policy came into effect immediately for current MPs and current employees with some uncertainty remaining about how potential cases involving past members and employees will be handled.
"There’s all kinds of different scenarios that I think… it’s worth us looking at them and then coming back with some recommendations," said Conservative MP and BOIE member Candice Bergen at committee.
Dufresne said the new policy is about making sure that Parliament is a harassment-free workplace. He also said the update puts both members and staff on equal footing.
During the meeting, the Board also discussed harassment prevention in the workplace and other modernization efforts.
Improvements for Hill interns, constituency staff
On Thursday, the Board also discussed improvements to the information and training provided to MPs and Hill staff on workplace harassment.
The Board agreed to provide employees, other House of Commons staff, interns and volunteers with information about the Code of Conduct for Members of the House of Commons: Sexual Harassment and the House of Commons Policy on Preventing and Addressing Harassment as soon as they enter the job.
This information will be given to them at the same time as their employment letter of offer.
As well, the classroom training that Chief Human Resources Officer Pierre Parent is developing will become mandatory for members of Parliament and the online training sessions will be mandatory for Hill employees both in Ottawa and in constituency offices, as well as any House of Commons interns and volunteers.