The head of the secretariat that awards compensation for physical and sexual abuses suffered at Indian residential schools is asking a judge to stop lawyers and other agencies from prying exorbitant fees from vulnerable native claimants.
Lawyers for Dan Shapiro, the chief adjudicator of the Independent Assessment Process (IAP), will be in a Winnipeg court on Friday to ask for a halt to a tactic that he says has deprived as many as 1,000 abused former students of the full amount they were awarded under Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
Some lawyers are working with agencies that help First Nations people to complete the lengthy forms required by the IAP – work that Mr. Shapiro says should be covered by the legal fees. The agencies then charge extra for the service and, in some cases, have obtained the additional payments through coercion.
Elderly people who have been handed their compensation cheques by a lawyer have then been followed to their banks by the form-fillers and forced to hand over thousands of dollars of their compensation money.
Courts have said the maximum amount that lawyers can charge for handling the most complex cases of residential-school abuse is 30 per cent of the compensation awarded – the government will pay legal fees of up to 15 per cent of the award and the claimant must pay the rest. By charging extra through a form-filling agency, the lawyers can take more than the maximum and avoid the scrutiny of adjudicators who are required to assess, in each case, whether the legal fees being charged are fair and reasonable.
“The whole Independent Assessment Process was designed to provide redress for historic wrongs for abuses that occurred at residential schools,” Mr. Shapiro said in an interview on Tuesday, “and it would be very unfortunate if part of the legacy of the IAP was that claimants were being revictimized by people that they were vulnerable to and trusted.”
Mr. Shapiro is asking the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench to stop lawyers and form-filling agencies from charging fees other than legal fees. He also wants the court to decide what should be done about the improper fees that have already been paid, and to determine whether those who have engaged in this practice should be prevented from participating in future IAP hearings.
Many lawyers are alleged to have used the scheme to exact additional fees from their native clients. But the IAP is asking for the court to look at the “pilot case” of the Winnipeg lawyer Ken Carroll and First Nations Residential School Solutions Inc. (FNRSSI), a now-defunct form-filling agency that operated out of his building and of which he was a part owner.
Mr. Carroll said in a statement Thursday there are no rules governing form-fillers and the fees they may charge. He also said that when he learned that FNRSSI was receiving improper fees, he terminated his relationship with the company and used his own money to reimburse funds improperly paid by two clients.
Among Mr. Carroll’s clients was an elderly woman from Northern Ontario who said in an affidavit that she did not realize one of the forms she was told to sign by David Spence, a FNRSSI employee, required her to pay 15 per cent of her claim to the form-filling company. The unnamed woman , who attended Pelican Lake School in Sioux Lookout, Ont., said she had barely met with Mr. Carroll before he acted as her lawyer at an IAP hearing. She was awarded $54,000 and the government paid Mr. Carroll $8,100 – an amount that was cut in half a year later by Leslie Belloc-Pinder, an adjudicator who said he deserved just $4,050 for such a straightforward matter.
Although the woman was ill, she says Mr. Carroll insisted that she travel by bus from Thunder Bay to Winnipeg to pick up her compensation money. And, after she left Mr. Carroll’s office with her cheque, Mr. Spence and another man followed her to her bank and forced her to pay them another $8,100.
In her ruling on Mr. Carroll, Ms. Belloc-Pinder said: “I believe Mr. Carroll and Mr. Spence worked together to ensure Mr. Carroll received his 15 per cent of [the woman’s] compensation award, and Mr. Spence or FNRSSI received another 15 per cent.”
Another client of Mr. Carroll said in an affidavit that he had to borrow $800 from his remote Ontario reserve to meet Mr. Carroll’s insistence that he fly to Winnipeg to get his money.
He said refused to pay $6,667.35 demanded by FNRSSI employee Syed Bokhari after he left Mr. Carroll’s office with his cheque. But Mr. Bokhari, he said, followed him all the way to a bank at the Winnipeg airport and persuaded the bank manager to give him the money out of the man’s compensation award.
Editor’s note: Details about the victims were removed from this story out of concern they might violate a court ban on a revealing the victims' identities.