Appeal court overturns Alberni welfare ruling

A BC Court of Appeal panel has overturned a ruling that disallowed a Port Alberni woman from receiving government social assistance for life

A BC Court of Appeal panel has voted unanimously to overturn a ruling that disallowed a Port Alberni woman from receiving government social assistance for life.

On March 27, Madame Justice MacKenzie replaced the conditional sentence order on Tiffany Marie Dennis, 35, with a conditional discharge, and with three years’ probation.

Madame Justice Hinkson and Justice Ryan agreed with MacKenzie’s judgment.

In June 2009, Dennis, 35, reported to Port Alberni welfare officials that she didn’t receive a $431 welfare cheque when in fact she already cashed it.

In August 2009, Dennis swore an affidavit before a Justice of the Peace that she didn’t receive a $549 child tax benefit cheque when she’d in fact already cashed it.

In March 2010, Dennis told welfare officials that she lost a $340 welfare cheque when she’d already cashed it.

In these instances, according to the judgment, she was reimbursed for the money she said she did not receive.

In at least one instance she was warned she could face criminal prosecution if it was discovered she lied.

In April 2010, Dennis falsified a medical report in order to qualify as a person with multiple barriers, and she bounced cheques to local businesses for cameras and a computer.

Dennis had no prior criminal record and said that poverty and an abusive relationship with a drug-addicted partner influenced her to commit the crimes.

The sentencing judge imposed a one-year conditional sentence and three years’ probation based on a joint submission by Crown and defence.

After the sentencing, Dennis was notified by the social service ministry that she was subject to a lifetime ineligibility from receiving income assistance.

Dennis filed an appeal.

She argued that she was unaware she’d be banned from receiving social assistance, and she presented evidence that she is a “low-functioning” individual who suffers from disabilities, including a brain injury and a fetal alcohol disorder, the judgment noted.

The Crown sought to dismiss the appeal, saying there was no error in principle, and the sentence was fit in all the circumstances.

But a panel ruled in Dennis’ favour, replacing the conditional sentence with a three-year conditional discharge, which carries no benefits ban.

“…the judge failed to consider the collateral consequences of criminal convictions for fraud and falsification of a document with intent to defraud,” MacKenzie wrote.

“Also, because of the joint submission, the judge did not consider in more depth Ms. Dennis’s background, aboriginal status, and serious cognitive deficits…”

A conditional discharge is not contrary to the public interest in this case, MacKenzie wrote. Dennis has no criminal record, pleaded guilty early, and has serious disabilities. As well, her steps towards rehabilitation included leaving her abusive, drug-addicted common law partner who influenced her to commit the offences, MacKenzie noted.

“It would not be contrary to the public interest to give her the opportunity to stabilize her life in order to address her very serious deficits,” MacKenzie wrote.

Dennis’ aboriginal background is also a factor in the appeal, according to the ruling. Her parents died young from alcohol related causes; she was placed into the care of the social service ministry at a young age; she likely suffers from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder; has cognitive deficits, and only a Grade 6 education.

A conditional discharge is proportionate to the gravity of the offence and the responsibility of the offender, MacKenzie wrote.  “The fraud offences are specific, discrete incidents that involve small amounts of money relative to other welfare fraud offences for which discharges have been granted, and they do not indicate a pattern of deceit, planning and deliberation, or greed.”

Deterrence and denunciation can still be achieved through the terms set out in a probation order, she added.

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