21, 2006 16:32
Supreme Court rules addiction considered disability
BY KEITH LACEY
alcoholism and drug addiction are clearly defined as disabilities
under Ontario’s Human Rights Code, thousands of Ontarians
have been denied disability benefits for substance abuse addictions.
That’s about to change following a Supreme Court of Canada
legal battle ended in victory for two Sudbury men and the Sudbury
Legal Clinic that represented them following a majority 4-3 decision
by the country’s top court.
ruled legislation under provincial human rights codes must now be
considered by all government tribunals when handling appeal cases
by Canadian citizens applying for benefits, specifically, disability
ruled government agencies such as Ontario’s Social Benefits
Tribunal (SBT), which hears appeals from citizens originally denied
access to the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), must consider
provisions under provincial human rights regulations before rendering
decisions. This includes provisions detailing alcoholism and drug
addiction as defined disabilities.
In far too
many cases, the SBT simply rejects appeals and refers people to
the Ontario Human Rights Commission, where less than six percent
of cases are ever heard, said Grace Kurke, legal counsel for the
Sudbury Legal Clinic.
It this specific
case, two Sudbury men, Norman Werbeski and Robert Tranchemontagne,
applied for ODSP benefits in 1998 and 1999, respectively.
than two years of waiting, both claims were denied eight months
apart in 2001 and both decisions were appealed to the SBT.
were again rejected, with the tribunal ruling they considered both
men to be alcoholics who didn’t suffer from any other significant
Both men argued
they each had serious physical disabilities other than alcoholism
and one claimed psychological issues as well.
provision noted by the SBT in rejecting the appeals states an appellant
is not eligible for ODSP benefits if “the person is dependent
on or addicted to alcohol, a drug or some other chemically active
Ontario Human Rights Code clearly states alcoholism and drug addiction
is a disability and benefits can’t be denied if other satisfactory
disabilities are proven, said Kurke.
In the case
against Werbeski and Tranchemontange, the SBT quickly rejected the
appeals focusing on the alcoholism provision, which contravenes
human rights legislation, which the Supreme Court made clear takes
precedence, said Kurke.
decision against the two Sudbury men was accepted by a divisional
court. However, another appeal to the Ontario Court of Appeal last
year was successful and the case was referred to the country’s
lawyers for several community agencies presented arguments before
the Supreme Court in December. They were opposed by lawyers for
the Ministry of Community and Social Services and the SBT.
ruling makes it clear government tribunals like the SBT are “quasi
constitutional bodies...that do have the power” to hear all
evidence presented by appellants relating to provincial human rights
codes and issues before making final decisions, said Kurke.
simply “pass the buck” and dismiss cases based on provisions
the court has made clear do not supercede human rights legislation,
decision means vulnerable people can claim human rights considerations
and be protected by provisions under the human rights code before
every tribunal in the country,” said Kurke. “These tribunals
can’t tell people any longer to go away insisting they don’t
have the authority to deal with human rights issues.”
Court ruling does not mean Werbeski and Tranchemontagne will receive
ODSP and retroactive benefits, but the court made clear the SBT
will have to hear their appeals again and must reconsider its decision
stating alcoholism as sufficient cause for denying benefits, said
rights legislation clearly states alcoholism and drug addiction
are disabilities, Kurke is confident she will win the case when
it returns before the SBT.
is a huge victory for disadvantaged people across this country as
it brings human rights considerations to the forefront in ways that
have not previously been the case in this country,” said Kurke.
In a 45-page
decision, the court ruled “since the SBT has not been granted
the authority to decline jurisdiction, it can’t avoid considering
the issues relating to the (human rights) code in these cases. “Moreoever...the
SBT is the most appropriate forum to decide those issues.”
The SBT is
meant to be an efficient, effective and quick process and regularly
rejecting appeals by imposing human rights code compliance “will
inevitably have an impact on its ability to assist the disabled
community in a timely way,” read the decision.
argued a section in the Ontario disability act constituted discrimination
and was, therefore, inapplicable because the human rights code has
primacy over other legislation.
of analyzing this argument, the SBT held it did not have the jurisdiction
to consider the applicability of the section of the code...the appellants’
appeals were therefore dismissed without the benefit of a ruling
that their treatment was discriminatory,” said the Supreme
ruled the SBT and other tribunals most now consider provisions of
human rights legislation in rendering all decisions.
becomes clear that the SBT had the jurisdiction to consider the
code in determining whether the appellants were eligible for support
pursuant to the disability act...at that point, the SBT had the
responsibility of applying the code in order the render a decision
that reflected the whole law of the