05/02/2013 01:40 EDT | Updated 07/02/2013 05:12 EDT

Nova Scotia premier defends government fight against orphanage lawsuit

HALIFAX - The Nova Scotia government is well within its rights to ask the courts to dismiss affidavits from people who allege they were abused at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, Premier Darrell Dexter said Thursday.

Dexter came under criticism that his government's decision to have the affidavits thrown out was heavy-handed, particularly as it plans to launch an independent panel to review the abuse accusations from former residents of the Halifax orphanage.

But Dexter said he sees nothing contradictory about the move, adding that the government is on solid legal footing to fight the class-action lawsuit filed by the former residents.

"The lawsuit is about the question of compensation and that's a wholly different issue," the NDP premier said.

Dexter, himself a lawyer, said he was taken aback by assertions from legal experts that the government was taking a rare step by asking the provincial Supreme Court to toss the affidavits.

"I was surprised to see that because nothing can be further from the truth," he said. "These kinds of applications are made practically every day."

But Ray Wagner, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said Dexter was mistaken. Wagner said it is unusual for defendants to try to strike affidavits from the court record while a class-action lawsuit is at the certification stage.

"We searched across the country for any precedence that we can find that replicated what the province has done here," Wagner said. "We could find none."

Liberal Opposition Leader Stephen McNeil said it was embarrassing that the government instructed its lawyers to try to have some of the affidavits thrown out.

"This is about the government trying to use its heavy hand and deny responsibility," said McNeil.

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said it wasn't right for a government that says it wants healing to send a legal team to try to suppress the allegations.

"It tells me this is all a game," said Baillie.

The class-action lawsuit involves 140 former residents who say they were physically, sexually and mentally abused by staff at the home over several decades until the 1980s.

Halifax police and the RCMP announced in December that they wouldn't be laying criminal charges in the case after determining there wasn't enough evidence to support the allegations.

Dexter said Thursday that the people who would come up with the terms of reference for the independent panel will be appointed within about two weeks.