Disabled Canadians forced to hire lawyers by federal benefits tribunal

Some disabled Canadians fighting for government benefits are being forced by a federal tribunal to hire lawyers, a move that has baffled advocates and appears to fly in the face of Liberal plans for the appeals body.

Members of the social security tribunal, who are also members of provincial law societies, aren’t allowing non-lawyers to represent people navigating the tribunal system.

Federal legislation guiding the tribunal — the last bastion of appeals for Canadians disputing benefits decisions — is silent about who appellants need to hire if they don’t want to represent themselves.

But a spokeswoman said adjudicators rely on provincial law society rules that only lawyers can provide legal services, including representing parties before tribunals.

“Moreover, the rule of provincial and territorial law societies require their members to assist in preventing the unauthorized practice of law,” tribunal spokeswoman Anabelle Jiang-Mercier said in an email.

One advocate says the rules hinders people fighting for Canada Pension Plan disability benefits because they rarely have the necessary funds to pay up front legal fees.

“How are they supposed to afford a lawyer? It’s just ridiculous,” said James Hicks, national co-ordinator of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities.

“If you don’t have to bring lawyers to the first two levels of appeal, why would you have to bring one to the last? It’s not a legal issue, it’s a qualification issue.”

The issue is the latest for the oft-criticized tribunal since it was created by the previous Conservative government four years ago.

But its future will be unveiled by Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos within weeks based on a recently completed outside review.

The report is expected to suggest the government find a way to simplify the appeals process, potentially eliminating any requirement for legal representation.

“It needs to be simplified and my understanding is that’s where the government is trying to go,” Hicks said.

Others want the government to go further than tinker. The Commons finance committee recommended in a report released in early December that the government consider killing the tribunal and restore the previous appeals system.

Duclos spokesman Mathieu Filion said the government was looking at different ways to improve a system “that does not meet the needs of Canadians,” citing long waits for hearings.

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