Unfair demands: ministry revises policy

Authority Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation
Details

Sometimes ministries ask people to provide certain documents in order to qualify for benefits or services when in fact there are alternate methods of establishing the necessary facts and no legal requirement to obtain or produce the requested documents. Gretchen’s local income assistance office wouldn’t release her family’s income assistance cheque because she hadn’t provided a birth certificate for her young child. Gretchen had confirmed with the Vital Statistics Agency that the birth of her son Jack was registered, which was required by law. Gretchen, however, for personal reasons didn’t want to get a birth certificate for him, which was optional under the law. Gretchen had provided the local income assistance office with other evidence of her son’s identity, such as statements from witnesses and a doctor who attended the birth. While it didn’t doubt that Jack was Gretchen’s son, the local income assistance office wanted Gretchen to provide a birth certificate and wouldn’t release her cheque until she did.

At reconsideration, the ministry upheld the local income assistance office’s decision. Gretchen appealed the decision to the Employment and Assistance Appeal Tribunal. In its decision, the Tribunal acknowledged that Gretchen had submitted records as alternate proof of her child’s identity, but denied her appeal because she failed to supply the “required document” a birth certificate for her child.

After she received the Tribunal’s decision, Gretchen applied for income assistance again. This time Gretchen provided the ministry with more information about her son’s identity, including an unsigned application for a BC birth certificate with an attachment stating that she was submitting the application under duress. The local income assistance office then sent Gretchen’s application to the Vital Statistics Agency and gave Gretchen her income assistance cheques.

We investigated whether the ministry was following a fair procedure in directing Gretchen to provide a birth certificate after she had already submitted proof of her child’s identification.

When we spoke with the local income assistance office about Gretchen’s complaint, it informed us that Gretchen was required to provide a birth certificate for her son in order to receive income assistance. As we were unable to identify any legal requirement for Gretchen to supply the ministry with a birth certificate, however, we contacted the ministry’s regional office. The regional office cited the Employment and Assistance Regulation, which stated that a recipient must provide proof of identity of all members of a family unit. Although the ministry’s policy listed specific types of identification, the Regulation did not place any limitations on the proof of identification the ministry would accept.

The regional office also cited Section 10 of the Employment and Assistance Act, as its authority to direct Gretchen to provide a birth certificate. Section 10 of the Act authorized the ministry to direct a recipient of income assistance to supply information in the manner specified by the ministry, and to direct a recipient to supply verification of any information submitted. As neither the Act nor the Employment and Assistance Regulation required a recipient to provide a birth certificate, however, we continued to have questions about the process the ministry was following in withholding Gretchen’s cheque.

As the regional office didn’t provide a helpful response to our investigation, we contacted senior ministry staff. During our discussions with them, we pointed out that Gretchen’s complaint raised questions for us about how ministry staff was using Section 10 of the Act.

We had questions about the fairness of the ministry withholding income assistance or finding a recipient ineligible for assistance, after providing the ministry with an explanation of the inaccessibility or non‑existence of the requested documents. In Gretchen’s case, the ministry didn’t have questions about the identity of her child and about Gretchen’s financial eligibility for assistance. As there was good reason to question whether the birth certificate was required and necessary, we proposed the ministry undertake a review of its policy and procedures related to its identification requirements and how ministry staff applies Section 10 of the Act. In consultation with our office, the ministry agreed to revise its policy and procedures and to create a section on its public Online Resource website addressing the fairness concerns that arose in Gretchen’s case. The ministry also agreed to write a letter to Gretchen apologizing for how it applied Section 10 of the Act in her case and for how she was treated by ministry staff in the local income assistance office.

Category Income and Benefits
Type Case Summary
Fiscal Year 2013
Location The Interior