It is not unheard of for the Québec Ombudsman to ask Ministère de l’Emploi et de la Solidarité sociale to reduce the penalties imposed on people who receive social assistance funds they are not entitled to. The Minister has special discretionary powers and can make exceptions in extreme cases. Here are the facts of a case that, in the Ombudsman’s opinion, constitutes just such an exception.
A woman unable to hold a job because of chronic physical and mental health problems was receiving social assistance. However, a quarter of her monthly payment was being withheld because, some years earlier, she had received income that she had failed to report to the Ministry. Normally, she should have declared this income, and her social assistance would have been reduced or suspended while she was working. Since she hadn’t done so, the Ministry began deducting a certain sum from her benefits each month to recover the overpayment. Interest was also added.
This is the normal penalty under the law. In reality however, such treatment is particularly harsh for a person with so few resources. When the Québec Ombudsman intervened, its investigation found that:
- Over the years, the woman had almost completely reimbursed the overpayment. Practically all that was left was accrued interest.
- The severity of her disability undermined her judgment and made her unable to follow the rule.
- Forcing her to pay interest for so long kept her in a state of extreme poverty. In the opinion of social workers who knew her, such poverty virtually eliminated whatever slim chance she had of reintegrating into society.
In short, this was a case where the penalty deserved reconsideration on humanitarian grounds. For the Ministry, however, nothing here justified such a concession. It gave notice that deductions from the woman’s cheques would at best be reduced for a few months. But then they would then resume.
For the Québec Ombudsman, such conduct clearly constituted excessive bureaucratic rigidity.
The matter remains unresolved.
The Québec Ombudsman investigates complaints and reports from individuals, groups, organizations or enterprises about a Québec government department or agency, or an institution in the health and social services network.