The federal government has spent more than $1.3-million in legal fees to prevent new mothers who fell seriously ill while on maternity leave from collecting disability benefits in addition to the employment insurance that is paid to new parents.
A class action lawsuit was launched in Federal Court in 2012 by two Calgary women on behalf of an estimated tens of thousands of new mothers who were denied the EI disability benefits or dissuaded from applying for them. It is seeking more than $450-million in compensation.
To date, there have been just four days of hearings on preliminary matters – one to deal with a legal issue raised by the government, and three spent in arguments about whether the case can be certified as a class action.
But, by Jan. 26, the government had spent $1,333,413.95 on the work of its own lawyers to prevent the women from being able to claim both benefits, the Employment and Social Development department said in response to written questions from Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner.
"When you are spending that kind of money battling a group of sick mothers for a benefit that they rightfully deserve, obviously most Canadians would question the wisdom in that," Mr. Cuzner said.
The federal employment insurance plan pays new parents as much as 50 weeks worth of benefits after the birth of a baby. It also pays as much as 15 weeks worth of benefits to someone with a sufficiently serious illness or injury.
Under a Liberal government, the Employment Insurance Act was amended in 2002 with the intention of allowing women who are disabled by illness or injury while receiving parental benefits to halt the parental benefits, collect the sickness benefits to which they are entitled, and then to be paid the remainder of the parental benefits once they have recovered.
But bureaucrats continued to refuse both benefits to women who were in that situation because of a clause that says disability benefits are available only to people who would otherwise be available for work. Mothers on maternity leave are not considered to be available to work because they are taking care of their babies.
After one new mother obtained a ruling from an EI tribunal that she should be paid both the disability and the parental benefits, the Conservative government rewrote the law in 2013 to remove the clause about being available for work. Government officials estimated at that time that the change would affect as many as 6,000 Canadian families every year.
Ottawa also quietly paid benefits to an estimated 350 women who had been denied the disability benefits while on maternity leave and who were still in the process of appealing those denials when the law was changed.
But thousands of other women who had exhausted their appeals or simply dropped their cases have never been compensated.
A spokesman for the Employment and Social Development department said in an e-mail on Friday that the government sympathizes with parents who find themselves in these types of situations.
"As this issue is currently before the courts," he said, "it would be inappropriate to comment on the specifics of the case."
It is unclear how long the employment insurance case will go on, or how much more it will cost Canadian taxpayers.