HALIFAX — The dispute over whether Ottawa can claw back thousands of dollars in monthly benefits paid to disabled veterans will hinge largely on the definition of income, lawyers argued Thursday.
More than a dozen former military members were in federal court to hear final arguments in the proceeding that is part of their ongoing lawsuit, a class-action they hope will put millions of dollars back into their pockets.
Peter Driscoll, one of their lawyers, said the judge will have to determine whether the disability pension they receive from Veterans Affairs can be considered income and clawed back under their military insurance plan.
The veterans argued that none of the benefits they receive under the Pension Act for a service-related injury is income and is, instead, a disability award for pain and suffering.
Driscoll said a victory for the plaintiffs would give veterans the same rights as many other workers who could receive income replacement and special damages for disabilities.
“It puts veterans at a disadvantage,” he said outside court. “So this is actually levelling the playing field for veterans with the rest of Canadian society.”
Under the military insurance plan, injured veterans are entitled to a percentage of their former salaries. But the plan treats monthly pension payments as income and deducts the pension amount from what is paid to them.
Some veterans claim they are losing upwards of $3,000 a month in claw backs.
Their lawyers have said up to 6,000 veterans are being subjected to the same practice, putting the cost of stopping it and reimbursing veterans at around $320 million.
Anthony Dwyer, 48, said he loses about $1,300 a month in his pension payments and makes only about 30 per cent of the salary he was earning before being released from the navy.
He served for 24 years but was released because of a severe back injury and a psychological condition.
He’s lost that amount every month for the last 60 months, adding that he wasn’t told upon release that his disability award would be cut back.
He said he was assured that he would make 75 per cent of his former salary.
“I think it’s highly unfair,” he said outside court. “I think that members of the Canadian Forces who were released with disabilities were mislead as to what their benefits would be.”
Steven White, 40, said the military insurance plan deducted $35,000 that he would have received over a 24-month period after he was medically released from the Forces in 2006.
Walking with a cane due to a knee injury he sustained in the Persian Gulf, White said he developed a major depressive disability and watched his pay get docked $1,450 a month for two years.
But Lori Rasmussen, the government’s lawyer, said various definitions support the claim that any monies coming in can be considered income and should be cut back.
“We say that the word is broad enough to include really any payment that you receive from many sources, including a Pension Act disability pension,” she said outside court.
“Of course, the plaintiffs disagree.”
The judge reserved his decision.