06/04/2014 02:40 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 00:58 EDT

Compensation for alleged orphanage abuse victims to be handled with care: lawyer

HALIFAX - As the Nova Scotia government moves ahead with a $29-million plan to compensate people who have alleged childhood abuse at a notorious Halifax orphanage, the process is expected to face tough scrutiny given the province's tarnished record of providing settlements in a similar case.

Court documents filed Tuesday say the tentative agreement will cover people who lived at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children between Jan. 1, 1921, and Dec. 31, 1989. The agreement could end a class-action lawsuit that includes 155 claimants so far.

Ray Wagner, the Halifax lawyer who has led a 13-year legal battle on behalf of former residents, says up to 300 people are expected to seek compensation before a Feb. 27 deadline extinguishes all claims against the province.

In an interview Wednesday, Wagner said the compensation process will be nothing like the scandal-plagued system used for former residents of the Shelburne School for Boys in the 1990s.

In that case, more than $31 million was paid to former residents of the Shelburne facility and two other youth jails, much of it for what turned out to be bogus claims of physical and sexual abuse.

In the end, about 1,200 people made abuse allegations, the majority of them false. Wrongly accused employees at the three jails launched a flurry of lawsuits that eventually pushed the total cost to taxpayers to $68 million.

A subsequent review by Justice Fred Kaufman blamed the then-Liberal government for rushing to compensate people without properly checking their claims.

Chad Lucas, a spokesman for the province's Justice Department, declined a request for an interview Wednesday. He issued a statement, saying questions about the latest compensation scheme should be put to Wagner and his legal team.

Wagner said problems with the Shelburne plan first arose when outside lawyers were brought in to adjudicate claims without speaking to claimants.

"Any program, no matter how robust it is, will always have somebody who will leak through the system and be a fraudulent claimant," Wagner said. "The key is to minimize that."

For former residents of the orphanage, which was mainly for black children, they will be dealing with local facilitators and evaluators who have close ties to the province's black community.

"That's what makes this program unique," Wagner said. "People in the community are not going to want to see a bunch of frauds sullying the reputation of residents who are legitimately entitled to compensation."

Unlike the Shelburne process, which had no cap on compensation, payments in the latest case are limited to $29 million.

As well, the years of legal wrangling that led to Tuesday's settlement did not include accusations against named individuals working at the orphanage.

"Shelburne became very prosecutorial," Wagner said.

The new compensation package includes a so-called "common experience payment" for anyone who can prove through public records they were a resident of the orphanage.

Residents who spent less than 40 days at the home are entitled to $1,000. If they were there for more than 40 days but less than a year, the payment is $10,000 — and $3,000 for each year after that.

"Frauds will be very hard to do because it all has to be verified by third-party records," Wagner said.

However, records are hard to come by for anyone who lived at the home prior to 1951. They have the option of submitting an affidavit, backed up by an affidavit filed by someone who can confirm the claim.

Finally, there is an additional process for those who say they suffered significant abuse at the home, an assessment program that involves a discussion with an evaluator who has the option of dismissing claims deemed dishonest.

"We did not want to have an adversarial process because they have already been harmed enough," Wagner said.

If the claim is accepted, additional payments ranging from $25,000 to $200,000 can be awarded.

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