TORONTO - Any delay in implementing a judge's ruling that struck down the Harper government's severe restrictions on health-care coverage for refugee claimants and their families would put lives at risk, a court heard Thursday.
The ruling, lawyer Lorne Waldman told the Federal Court of Appeal, amounted to a "stunning indictment" of a mean-sprinted government policy that provided no benefit to the country.
As a result, Waldman called on Judge Wyman Webb to reject a government request to stay the lower court decision pending disposition of its appeal.
In July, Federal Court Judge Anne McTavish lambasted changes the government made in June 2012 to a program first established in 1957 that extended health-care coverage to asylum seekers.
McTavish struck down the changes as cruel and unusual treatment, and gave Ottawa four months — until Nov. 4 — to remedy the situation.
In his submissions, Crown lawyer David Tyndale said implementing the McTavish ruling would create confusion because the system, changed in 2012, could be changed again next week, and again if Webb orders a stay in the future, and then possibly again if Ottawa prevails on appeal.
In addition, Tyndale said, the four-month window McTavish gave the government simply wasn't long enough to allow the government to make the necessary changes.
Waldman, who represents refugees in the case, urged the court to reject that argument, saying the government has shown itself capable of making policy changes within days when it wants to.
He accused Ottawa of dragging its heels, and said it should not now be allowed to argue it was short of time.
"There is absolutely no need for any of this to have happened," Waldman said. "The court has to take this into account."
Sources have told The Canadian Press contingency plans were being put in place if Webb refuses a stay, and Waldman said the government would have no difficulty implementing McTavish's order if it has to.
The lawyer called McTavish's findings extraordinary.
The government, he said, had provided no evidence that any of its stated objectives were achieved with a policy that sparked outrage among health-care groups across the country.
The new policy, he said, was deliberately designed to make life harder for would-be refugees to deter them from coming to Canada or to persuade them to leave.
"Canada is the only country that is using health care as a deterrent," Waldman said.
Denying health coverage to some of the poorest and most disadvantaged people in the country has caused significant suffering, with children put especially at risk, court heard.
"Lives continue to be put in jeopardy," Waldman said.
Tyndale admitted the issue can provoke "pretty strong" reactions but said the government often has tough choices to make.
Webb frequently interrupted Tyndale to remind him he was only interested in arguments on the stay, saying his courtroom was not the place to re-argue the merits of the government policy or McTavish's ruling.
Both sides urged the judge to make a decision on the stay application by Nov. 4, but they agreed he should issue an interim stay if he's unable to meet the deadline.
Webb promised to rule as quickly as he could.