Welfare Law Update
by Allan A Parker
The provincial government enacted major changes to B.C. welfare laws in 2002. The Employment and Assistance Act (EAA) and the Employment and Assistance for Persons with Disabilities Act (EAPDA) replaced previous legislation. There were also major changes to the corresponding regulations under the new Acts. The changes are profound and affect the daily lives of tens of thousands of B.C. residents. However, few lawyers practise regularly in this area and the profession likely knows little of the changes. The purpose of this column is to outline some of the many substantive and procedural changes in the legislation, and to introduce some of the related social policy and access to justice issues.
Under the EAA regulations, monthly welfare payments for support and shelter have been reduced for most recipients classified as employable. For those deemed employable, supplemental benefits such as crisis grants and childcare subsidies were scaled back, and other benefits such as homemaker services were eliminated. In what is arguably a contradiction to a legislative emphasis on recipients returning to the workforce, transition-to-work allowances have been eliminated.
Previous regulations exempted the first $100 per month of maintenance received or income earned from being deducted from subsequent benefits. These exemptions have been eliminated, effectively reducing the actual incomes of many recipients, most often women.
The consequences of breaching the legislation or the Criminal Code have increased dramatically. For example, even a trivial amount of unreported income may contravene the law. A single fraud conviction under the Code relating to obtaining welfare benefits now automatically results in a lifetime ban from welfare. The harshness of similar penalties in Ontario was well documented in the inquest findings into the death of Kimberly Rogers (http://dawn.thot.net/Kimberly_Rogers/kria.html).
The legislation changed the qualifying criteria for disabled individuals and eliminated the former designations of Disability Levels 1 and 2. There is now one disability status under the EAPDA and a status entitling a recipient to certain health supplements under the EAA if they are deemed to have “persistent multiple barriers to employment.” The most significant change is that many thousands of recipients under both former designations have been required to re-qualify for a new status. There are concerns in the disability community over this re-qualifying process, including the possibility that a significant number of DB2 recipients will miss submitting the onerous re-qualifying documentation before the deadline. It also appears that if there are more than a minimal number of denials for all the required re-applications, the decision appeal processes will be overwhelmed.
All recipients face a more restricted decision appeal process. There is now essentially one opportunity for an internal Ministry reconsideration, and one opportunity for an appeal to the new Employment and Assistance Appeal Tribunal. Judicial review is the only subsequent alternative, and is viewed as inaccessible. Many lay advocates who assist recipients have expressed concerns about the new appeal process. There are tight time limits for filing appeals, strict limits on the introduction of new supporting materials at the tribunal level, and recipients have a higher standard of proof to meet.
Realistic access to justice for EAA and EAPDA recipients in obtaining benefits and appealing benefits decisions has been significantly eroded by the elimination of poverty law advocacy staff at the Legal Services Society and the reduction or elimination of provincial funding for many community advocacy agencies. While pro bono legal help is not a substitute for a properly funded legal aid system, members of the bar are urged to consider volunteering their services to pro bono clinics or to community agencies that provide assistance to welfare recipients (www.probononet.bc.ca).
Allan A Parker has been involved in poverty law issues for 25 years. He is Co-Chair of the CBABC Poverty Law Section, and is a Director of the Pro Bono Law of B.C. Society. He recently contracted with the Legal Services Society as part-time counsel for their Welfare Law Consultation Services project.
The Reality in Dollars
An employable single person under 65 now receives a total payment of $510.00 per month, and an employable single parent with one child receives $1056.33 per month (inclusive of federal Family Bonus and Canada Child Tax Benefit). SPARC B.C. estimates that these rates represent 44 per cent and 60 per cent respectively of what the minimum monthly living costs for such individuals really are (www.sparc.bc.ca).
This article was published in the April 2003 issue of BarTalk. © 2003 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.