OTTAWA - The country's veterans ombudsman is disappointed the federal government has not extended legal assistance to ex-soldiers who find themselves battling for benefits in front of the Federal Court.
Guy Parent, as part of his review of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board, recommended that Ottawa allow lawyers in the pension advocates branch to continue to represent former members whose cases end up in the courts.
The suggestion was made as part of a review of the appeal board that was conducted in the spring of 2012.
Almost three years on, Parent says the Conservative government has made good progress implementing some of his other recommendations, but the important question of legal representation remains outstanding.
In a letter to the ombudsman before he was replaced, former veterans affairs minister Julian Fantino said resources are better spent at the earlier stages of appeal in order to "get the right decisions at the earliest possible time."
But Parent says the federally appointed lawyers at the pension advocate branch know the particulars of individual cases and it doesn't make sense to see them drop out of the process just as the veteran reaches the most complicated legal ground.
He says it is frustrating for ex-soldiers, especially those with post-traumatic stress, to have to hire an outside attorney, explain the details of their plight and prepare a court action within a few weeks, as mandated by law.
Ex-soldiers who are denied benefits and services by Veterans Affairs have the right to challenge the decision before the independent appeals board, which has various stages.
If they are turned down at the board level, the vet has the option of going to Federal Court.
Parent is happy to see that the board is now more accountable to Parliament and more open about the decisions it makes, as recommended in 2012.
Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O'Toole's office issued a statement Thursday evening thanking the ombudsman and saying he was pleased to see Parent acknowledge the progress made in improving the board.
While he did not address the criticism directly, O'Toole said: "We are committed to further improvement."
Fantino's letter committed the department to reviewing the matter in early 2015.