10/06/2014 09:28 EDT | Updated 12/06/2014 05:59 EST

Abuse claimants in Halifax orphanage case worry legal fees might delay claims

HALIFAX - Three people who allege they were abused at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children are worried a judge's questions over legal fees might delay payouts in a $34-million settlement.

Judge Arthur LeBlanc of the province's Supreme Court has asked the law firm that represents the plaintiffs to provide a legal precedent to support their proposal to have people who joined the lawsuit in later years absorb some of the legal costs of early claimants.

"If you find me a case that will help me out, I'll be grateful," said LeBlanc during Monday's hearing.

He adjourned without ruling whether the lawyers should be paid the $6.6 million in legal fees they're requesting from the settlement, saying he would await a written response from Ray Wagner's law firm. No date has been set for the next hearing.

The process to begin payouts from the settlement was scheduled to start Friday.

Former residents said outside court they're concerned about the latest legal wrinkle.

"It is significantly important for us to move forward ... because this can create a lot of chaos and a lot more harm to us," said Tony Smith, a co-chairman of a group that represents former residents.

Smith was among the 63 early individual plaintiffs in the case who filed lawsuits over the alleged abuse between 2001 and 2003. He and those other claimants were later absorbed into a class-action lawsuit launched in 2007 that has grown to between 300 and 350 claimants.

Michael Dull, one of the lawyers in the case, says early applicants like Smith incurred about $500,000 in legal expenses as the Ray Wagner firm did studies, conducted appeals and hired outside experts prior to 2007.

Smith said it would be unfair to make him pay tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills incurred during the early years — as he pioneered the lawsuit — while later claimants pay no share of those early expenses.

Tracey Dorrington-Skinner, another former resident, said the law firm's plan to claim about 19.4 per cent of the $34 million is fair.

"The lawyers could have asked for more," she said.

Harriet Johnson, a Montreal resident who became a representative plaintiff for the case in 2011, also said have all of the claimants share the burden of the legal fees is reasonable, considering there might never have been a class action without the efforts of Smith, Dorrington-Skinner and others.

"I feel what the lawyers are seeking in legal fees are more than fair. For it to be tied up any longer is not fair," said Johnson, who travelled to Halifax to attend the hearing.

"It's a time for our brothers and sisters to be moving forward and starting the healing process."

The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children came to a $5 million settlement with the plaintiffs in July 2013. One year later, the provincial Supreme Court approved a $29-million award from the province.

The compensation agreement finalized in July is broken into two payout categories.

The first is a common experience settlement, which applies to all residents who lived in the Halifax orphanage between Jan. 1, 1921, and Dec. 31, 1989.

The second and lengthier settlement category is an individual assessment program, which would address additional harms beyond those suffered by residents at large, including sexual abuse. Only residents of the Home for Colored Children after Nov. 1, 1951, would be eligible.

The Liberal government has also promised to hold a public inquiry into the alleged abuse at the home.