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Nova Scotia High Court states systemic discrimination exists against people with disabilities

gavel Shadowy, moody shot of a legal concept

Nova Scotia’s highest court has ruled systemic discrimination exists against people with disabilities who require services and housing in the province.

As reported by the National Observer, in a landmark decision issued Wednesday, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal agreed with advocacy group Disability Rights Coalition that the province’s failure to offer people with disabilities “meaningful” access to housing and care violated their basic rights.

However, the Nova Scotia government could still bring their case before another human rights board of inquiry, where it could try to prove the discrimination is “a reasonable limit prescribed by law” that can be justified in a free and democratic society.

Wednesday’s court ruling follows the appeal of a human rights decision in which three people with intellectual disabilities had been discriminated against by being held in a Halifax psychiatric hospital despite professional opinions stating they could live in the community.

But the decision by board chairman Walter Thompson concluded that only the three plaintiffs had experienced discrimination and the ruling could not be applied to other Nova Scotians with disabilities who didn’t have access to community housing and services.

In a unanimous ruling, the three-judge court panel disputed Thompson’s argument that a finding of systemic discrimination required there be evidence of each individual person being mistreated. The court said such a legal test would “result in the vast majority of legitimate claims of systemic discrimination being dismissed.”

At the appeal hearing last November, Claire McNeil, lawyer for the coalition, presented that the discrimination of people with disabilities included unnecessary institutionalization, long wait times, and forced transport to remote areas of the province far away from family and friends.

The judges stated in their decision, that at the time of the hearing, there were 400 people receiving no support and assistance, and recognized proof that approximately 1,500 people on the waiting list for services.

“There is ample evidence in the record and the findings of the (human rights) board to support the conclusion that the manner in which the province provides social assistance to persons with disabilities … creates a disadvantage that is unique to them and not applicable to assistance given to non-disabled persons,” said the decision signed by Chief Justice Michael Wood and Justices David Farrar and Cindy Bourgeois.

The Appeal Court upheld the board’s ruling that Beth MacLean, Joseph Delaney and Sheila Livingstone had been discriminated against by being held at the Emerald Hall psychiatric unit in Halifax regardless of professional opinions that they could live in the community. Sadly, MacLean died recently, while Livingstone died before the hearing ended.

The judges directed that the government’s payment to Delaney should be increased from $100,000 to $200,000 and the payment to MacLean should be increased from $100,000 to $300,000, though the court did state that it reserved the right to determine what effect MacLean’s recent death will have on that amount.

The coalition said in a news release that the new Progressive Conservative provincial government should not appeal the decision and must “stop the fight against people with disabilities in court and set a new direction that recognizes the inherent dignity and equality of people with disabilities.”

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