Today, West Coast LEAF is at the BC Court of Appeal to argue that the law must not add to the barriers in accessing justice already experienced by people navigating the complexities of the legal system.
West Coast LEAF and the Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS) were jointly granted leave to intervene in Denton v British Columbia, a case that addresses whether a claimant who was denied workers compensation benefits is barred from challenging that denial on equality grounds under the Charter because she did not raise the argument at an earlier stage of her case.
We are in Court to argue that the legal process itself should not become a barrier to people seeking meaningful review of laws or decisions that are alleged to be violating their constitutionally protected rights.
Ms. Denton was denied workers compensation for a mental disorder that arose due to conditions in her workplace. She believes that the law under which her application for benefits was denied violates equality rights because it treats people differently based on whether their work-related disability is physical or mental. Ms. Denton attempted to raise this argument when she asked the court to review the decision to deny her benefits. But, the BC Supreme Court dismissed her case, in part because she had not raised her Charter argument at an earlier stage of the administrative process.
Many administrative law regimes – including the workers compensation and income assistance schemes – are complicated by multiple decision-making bodies that each have differing legal authority. It is not always clear where and how a claimant should raise a Charter argument or even which decision-maker is able to provide a remedy under the Charter.
Many claimants for benefits and services are self-represented and already face multiple challenges in accessing justice. People seeking income assistance benefits – many of them women, often single mothers, and those who are already experiencing multiple layers of inequality – are struggling to meet basic human needs. Is it fair to expect claimants to fully appreciate the Charter implications of a decision, and the consequences of not asserting Charter rights at the earliest stages of the process? We say, absolutely not.
Holding claimants to an impossibly high standard of understanding and demanding that they assert their rights at the earliest stage of the administrative process fails to recognize the unique access needs and abilities of the very populations that the law is intended to support.
Together with CLAS, we argue that our Charter rights ring hollow if barriers are put in place to make accessing them nearly, if not entirely, impossible. Claimants should not be unreasonably prohibited from having an opportunity to argue that the law violates their Charter rights as a result of these complex and confusing regimes. Without a reasonable opportunity to assert rights, laws are shielded from the scrutiny that would ensure their compliance with the Charter.
West Coast LEAF believes that all British Columbians should be empowered to fight for their rights and be able to meaningfully access justice under the Charter.