Toronto Star

Nov. 18, 2002. 01:00 AM

Groups fight inquest ruling in Sudbury

Woman died while under house arrest for welfare fraud Coalition says case shows flaws in the justice system

Toronto Star

SUDBURY—A coalition of public interest groups is taking a coroner to court over a ruling at an inquest into the death of a pregnant woman who died while under house arrest for welfare fraud.

Dr. David Eden has ruled that systemic discrimination against women is not an issue that can be explored in the August, 2001 death of 40-year-old Kimberly Rogers.

"The evidence excluded by the coroner goes to the heart of the expertise and perspective upon which the coalition was granted standing," says a document filed in support of a challenge to be heard in Divisional Court in Toronto tomorrow.

The challenge is being mounted by a coalition headed by the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, and comprising some of the key organizations involved in social issues in Ontario: including the Women's Legal Education and Assistance Fund, and the National Association of Women and the Law.

They argue that Rogers' case is a classic example of how the criminal justice system targets one sector of society.

"She was a woman, she was pregnant, she had a disability, those are precisely the issues she was criminalized for," said Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

"Without getting at the systemic issues, it will be very difficult to have evidence put before the jury that enables them to make useful recommendations."

The inquest, which resumes today after a week-long break, started Oct. 15. It has heard that for three years, Rogers concealed from welfare authorities that she was pursuing a post-secondary qualification. By doing so, she obtained a total of $13,500, on top of a student loan of about $9,000 a year.

She completed a social services diploma at Cambrian College. But a serious knee injury in May, 1997 curtailed her employment options.

The inquest has heard that she struggled with chronic pain from the knee injury as well as migraines, anxiety and depression.

When she pleaded guilty to welfare fraud in April, 2001, she was sentenced to six months house arrest, triggering an automatic three-month (which would now be a lifetime) welfare suspension. A court reinstated her benefits a month later after a Charter challenge was launched on her behalf.

A central issue at this hearing, which has heard from 29 witnesses in 19 days of testimony, is whether it is acceptable to incarcerate a person who has no means to pay for food and shelter.

"As a result of the coroner's ruling, the coalition has been prevented from calling evidence regarding the impact of the failure to consider the human rights of people charged, prosecuted and sentenced for welfare fraud and, in particular, the rights of women and how this failure caused or contributed to Kimberly Rogers' death," says a document filed by the coalition.

"The coalition has also been prevented from adducing evidence regarding the comparative treatment of welfare fraud (committed by poor people) and income tax fraud (committed by more affluent people) to demonstrate the systemic disadvantage facing women and poor people in the prosecution of welfare fraud."

"We want the jury to know that the government looks for a level of $100,000 before it prosecutes income tax fraud," Pate said, adding that the coalition also wanted to introduce evidence regarding OHIP fraud by physicians, but found there are too few prosecutions to draw any conclusions.

Rogers' body was found Aug. 9, in the midst of a heat wave, with a lethal dose of anti-depressants in her blood. One of the issues to be decided by the jury is whether her death was accidental or a suicide.

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