Moved by the stories of Canada’s wounded soldiers who’ve come home only to be forced to fight the federal government for benefits, Ontario’s trial lawyers say they’ll represent injured veterans for free.
And in Ottawa, sources tell the Star that the Liberals will present legislation Tuesday that, if passed, would elevate the Office of the Veterans’ Ombudsman so that it reports to Parliament, and not the minister of national defence, as is currently the case.
A recent Star series entitled Our Wounded Warriors exposed the fight Canada’s 1,500 injured soldiers — many disabled and traumatized after serving in Afghanistan — face when they return home.
The 1,100-member Ontario Trial Lawyers Association told the Star it is astounded by the “hurdles, the runarounds and the hardships” Canada’s veterans face when they try to collect federal military service and disability benefits.
“These veterans fight for our country and they really should not have to fight for these benefits,” said lawyer Patrick Brown, chair of the new initiative called Trial Lawyers for Veterans.
“If we can help out, we will,” said Brown. “The commitment from our volunteers is to offer free services. It is all pro bono.”
After suffering devastating injuries from roadside or suicide bombers, missile attacks, vehicle rollovers or gunshot wounds, the veterans are often stunned when they find themselves battling Ottawa for money, for a job and for respect.
The Star series, plus a suggestion from lawyer and mediator Paul Torrie, prompted the executive of the association to ask its members if they would consider helping the injured soldiers. Trial lawyers specialize in disability claims, injuries and fatalities.
Association president Dale Orlando said the response from the province’s lawyers was “remarkable.”
“We had all read the stories in the Star, so we had a little bit of background, and we did a little bit of investigating and we did find that Canadian veterans — to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude — were having to navigate a maze of government red tape in order to receive compensation,” Orlando said.
“We heard some horror stories about the roadblocks they were facing.
“We thought, that is what we do in our day-to-day jobs — fight for victims so they do receive fair compensation. There was a natural fit for our organization.”
The legal program will be officially launched Wednesday at a Toronto news conference.
The association has lawyers across Ontario. After the initial call went out for volunteers, 35 lawyers immediately responded and it is gaining steam, said Brown.
Once the Ontario effort is launched, the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association will approach provincial lawyers’ associations across Canada to prompt others to join the effort.
As well, the lawyers are challenging those in the financial services sector to help the veterans “manage whatever compensation they receive, likewise on a pro bono basis,” said Orlando, who practices with Brown at the firm McLeish Orlando.
So far, the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association has received a positive response from the HSBC financial planning group, he added.
If the Liberals’ private members bill passes, it would put the veterans’ ombudsman office on par with the auditor general or the privacy commissioner.
That means the office’s criticisms could not be silenced by the veteran’s affairs minister and it would give the ombudsman greater power to investigate problems, offer mediation and voice frustration on “systemic issues,” said Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, the bill’s sponsor.
“These new powers and new reporting relationship will significantly strengthen the ombudsman’s effectiveness at no additional cost to the taxpayer.”
The Liberals believe the changes would lift the taint of political interference and retribution that was seen in the government’s refusal to extend the appointment of retired Col. Pat Stogran, the former ombudsman.
Stogran, who commanded Canada’s first battle group in Afghanistan in 2002, went to war with the Conservative government over what he said was its refusal to address the long-standing complaints of wounded Canadian soldiers.
He said that when he began asking sensitive questions of bureaucrats and criticizing the Conservatives for inaction, his freedom to demand and obtain information was greatly curtailed, turning him into a watchdog with a loud bark, but no bite.
Stogran accused the government of shortchanging soldiers through the removal of a monthly pension for injured vets in favour of a lump-sum payment that tops out at $276,000 for the most seriously disabled.