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Cell phones are seen in this file photo.


A $19-billion class-action lawsuit against Canadian cell phone companies over "system access fees" is allowed to proceed, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Thursday.

The suit, first launched in 2004 in Saskatchewan's Court of Queen's Bench, claims that Canadian wireless providers – including BCE Inc., Rogers Communications Inc., Telus Corp. and Bell Aliant Inc. – misrepresented "system access fees," usually $6.95 per month.

System access fees had long irritated consumers, who felt the charges were unclear and unnecessary.

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Class-action lawyer Tony Merchant alleges that wireless carriers created the appearance that the fees were collected on behalf of a regulatory body when they instead went back to the carriers. The allegations have not been proven in court.

Mr. Merchant calls it the largest class-action the country has seen. If the case as won, every Canadian mobile user may have a stake.

But the ruling coincides with another development – the Law Society of Saskatchewan is suspending Mr. Merchant from practising law for three months, starting Saturday.

Mr. Merchant was handed the suspension earlier this month for conduct "unbecoming" of a lawyer in 2003 relating to a family law case, according to law society documents. While many details are redacted because of solicitor-client privilege, the discipline resulted from disobeying a court order and counselling a client to do the same.

Mr. Merchant called the Supreme Court's decision "exciting" in a phone conversation, but hung up when asked about the suspension.

It's unclear whether this will slow down the litigation process, but he has the option of appointing another lawyer from his firm to act in his place as a custodian of the case.

The carriers filed appeals against the class-action categorization of the case to the Supreme Court of Canada in January. The system-access-fee case had already gone through numerous appeals in lower courts.

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Shawn Hall, a spokesman for Telus, said they appealed to the Supreme Court because the case was "not properly presented to the courts."

"We are confident the case is without merit and baseless, at least as it relates to Telus," he said.

Mr. Merchant said "it's important that Canadians get back all this money."

He has has filed a notice of appeal for his suspension; the earliest he will have a chance to apply for a stay is July 11, according to the Law Society of Saskatchewan.

Mr. Merchant's work as a class-action lawyer is widely known. He settled the groundbreaking $5-billion residential schools case in 2006.

Shawn Hall, a spokesman for Telus, said the company appealed to the Supreme Court because the case was "not properly presented to the courts."

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"We are confident the case is without merit and baseless, at least as it relates to Telus," he said.

Rogers called the class-action's claims "unfounded." Leigh-Ann Popek, the company's senior manager of public affairs, said the company filed an appeal because "we think there are compelling issues that are worthy of consideration by the Supreme Court of Canada."

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