New welfare warrant rule may be illegal

Alert: VANDU will march to welfare offices to stop this on Tuesday May 25th at 2 pm. Meet at the Carnegie Centre to join the march.

The provincial government has just passed a new welfare regulation that is probably illegal, will probably increase homelessness, and will definitely cause lots of turmoil for people on welfare who have outstanding arrest warrants.

People on welfare or disability got a little message with their cheque in March. It said: “If you have an outstanding warrant you may not be eligible for income assistance, hardship assistance, or supplements until the warrant is resolved. This applies to arrest warrants for indictable offences from any jurisdiction in Canada as well as arrest warrants under immigration and refugee protection act (Canada). If you have any questions or require more information, please contact your local employment assistance worker or call the ministry toll free at 1-866-866-0800. An information sheet is also available for your information.”

Doug King, a lawyer at Pivot Legal Society, says it is not clear how the Ministry of Housing and Social Development plans to get the names of people who have outstanding warrants. They may rely on what people put on their cheque stub. On the next cheque stub or the one after that, there will probably be an additional question asking people to declare if they have outstanding warrants for their arrest. Or, the Ministry may have a deal with the RCMP to provide a list. King thinks if they do, this might be illegal.

King says if people don’t know if they have a warrant out for them, they should write, “I don’t know” on the stub. If they know that an arrest warrant for them is out, they can go to see King at Pivot, 678 E. Hastings.

With Pivot’s help, people with outstanding warrants could decide to “waive in the charges” from another province. The problem with this is that BC courts will only accept these charges if the person pleads guilty. This creates an unacceptable situation where people have to plead guilty in order to get the welfare or disability payment they need to pay their rent and eat. To fight the charges legally you have to go to the province where they originate.

The new welfare law, unlike a previous version that the BC Supreme Court struck down in 2000, does provide funding for persons with outstanding warrants to travel back to their province of origin and deal with the warrants. However, advocates are concerned that forcing people to leave BC or face destitution will create extreme hardship for many. Arguably, the new law amounts to “exporting” those charged with even minor offences, leaving them with no means to return.

The province says that the rule applies only to “indictable” offenses but King says almost all criminal offenses are considered “indictable” unless the accused can show the Crown has specifically decided to proceed summarily. So the rule doesn’t just apply to “serious” offenses like murder, trafficking and assault as the Ministry says in its news release.

With everyone trying so hard to get homeless people off the street and into shelters, this could be another Ministry rule that simply puts more people out on the street by denying them the income to pay their rent. Back in 2002 the Ministry brought in a bunch of new rules like having to wait three weeks after applying for welfare to get your cheque, having to prove that you had earned thousands of dollars in previous years, etc. As a result homelessness doubled in the Vancouver region between 2002 and 2005.