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June 11, 2007
Class Action - Standing Up For Disabled Ontarians
Lawyer Sarah Shartal has launched a class action lawsuit on
behalf of 230,000 disabled Ontarians caught in bureaucratic quagmire.
Thanks to a feisty lawyer, a sympathetic judge and two
brave plaintiffs, the government of Ontario may finally be held to account for
the way it treats the province's poorest, sickest citizens.
The lawyer is Sarah Shartal of Roach, Schwartz and
For years, she has used every device at her disposal
reason, persuasion, harassment, outrage to get the province to
fix its badly broken disability support system. Now, as a last resort, she is
trying litigation. She has launched a class action lawsuit on behalf of the
230,000 disabled Ontarians caught in the bureaucratic quagmire.
The judge is Maurice Cullity of the Ontario Superior
Last month, to the surprise of legal observers, he
blocked an attempt by the government to have Shartal's suit thrown out of
court. He recognized the importance of the case and gave Shartal three weeks to
amend her statement of claim to meet the court's stringent standards for class
The plaintiffs are Joy Adams and Janice
The two severely disabled women have agreed to put
their lives on display to show how hard it is to qualify for disability support
and how it takes to get the money. "I needed clients with the emotional courage
and strength not to be harmed by the process," Shartal explained.
No case like this has ever gone to trial in
If it is certified to proceed, Shartal will be making
legal history. But that's not what is motivating her. "I just ran out of other
Roughly 25,000 Ontarians apply for disability support
every year. Half are turned down. Many more don't even apply because the
process is so onerous.
First, an applicant has to convince a welfare
caseworker that he or she is in dire financial need. That requires employment
records, bank documents and identification papers.
Once that hurdle is cleared, the applicant has 90 days
to get a doctor to fill out a lengthy medical form describing and assessing his
or her disabilities.
Anyone who is homeless, illiterate, doesn't have a
health card or doesn't have a doctor has no hope of meeting this
Individuals who do manage to complete all the
paperwork still face a 5-month wait while the province's Disability
Adjudication Unit determines whether they are eligible for benefits. If the
answer is no as it frequently is an applicant can request an
internal review, then appeal to the Social Benefits Tribunal. But that often
The reward for reaching the end of this maze is the
princely sum of $979 per month which falls 44 per cent below the
National Welfare Council's poverty line.
A report written for Legal Aid Ontario in 2003
concluded that the program "imposes arduous and unrealistic barriers on the
very people it purports to help."
Since the late '90s, Shartal has used her legal skills
plus her willingness to go into the city's shelters and ravines
to obtain benefits for thousands of severely disabled clients. At any given
time, she has 120 claims on the go.
But she is no longer content to fight for justice case
by case. "The government knows the system doesn't work," she says. "But all it
does is tinker around the edges. What we're saying is this is wrong in a basic,
democratic legal sense."
Shartal is seeking damages of $2,000 for each
plaintiff, plus $100 for each month the Ministry of Community and Social
Services kept a client waiting for a decision.
Wareham, a single mother and abuse survivor, waited 11
months. Adams, who was mistakenly told she didn't have to provide
hospitalization records, waited 18 months.
If Shartal and her clients win, all 230,000 disability
support recipients will be eligible for similar payments.
It is little wonder the government wanted to quash the
It is a small miracle that the judge said no.
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