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Judge scraps B.C.'s bid to toss lawsuit against welfare deductions for methadone

Judge rejects B.C.'s bid to toss methadone lawsuit

VANCOUVER — A B.C. Supreme Court judge has rejected an attempt by the provincial government to stop a proposed class-action lawsuit aimed at compensating recovering drug addicts who had to pay out of their welfare cheques for treatment at private methadone clinics.

The B.C. government argued last August the lawsuit should be tossed out because private clinics were responsible for charging the fee and the province was simply facilitating the process by drafting the legal document that authorized the deduction.

In a written decision released Tuesday, Justice Susan Griffin rejected the argument, in part because it denies the lawsuit's allegation that the government gave either express or tacit approval for the clinics to charge the fees.

Laura Shaver, the proposed representative plaintiff, is suing the provincial government for allowing private clinics to levy a surcharge against people on income assistance by skimming $18.34 each month off their social-assistance payments.

The original statement of claim said Shaver, who is a recovering heroin addict, signed a government-drafted fee agreement "unwillingly and under duress" in order to access methadone for her heroin addiction.

The court document said private methadone clinics require clients to sign a $60 agreement, which is reduced by $41.66 by a government-provided supplement. The remainder is either paid out of pocket or, in the case of those on income assistance, is drawn from the recipient's monthly allowance.

The B.C. government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The government ended the practice of siphoning funds off welfare payments last July, but Shaver's lawyer, Jason Gratl, said the lawsuit would continue in order to reimburse people for past income-assistance reductions.

"Deductions of $20 per month from already meagre income assistance rates were a protracted financial burden on those least able to bear it," Gratl said in an email.

"This ruling opens the door to our application to certify the class-action (lawsuit) and seek compensation for those affected."

Shaver accused the province of discriminating against her based on her addiction and of providing insufficient social assistance, among other things.

Of the various arguments the government was asking to have thrown out, Griffin rejected all but one. She agreed to dismiss only the plaintiff's accusation that the fee agreement was contrary to public policy.

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Geordon Omand, The Canadian Press