29th May 2024

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Government defends spending on law firm handling Policy 713 case

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The Higgs government has started its final legislative sprint before this year’s election defending its spending on outside law firms that are handling a range of legal disputes on behalf of the province.

Opposition Liberal Leader Susan Holt pressed the government to reveal how much it is spending on hiring outside law firms to represent the province before the courts. 

Education Minister Bill Hogan has criticized the Anglophone East district education council for spending $279,917, as of April 16, to pay an Ontario law firm to challenge the province over Policy 713.

Holt says the province’s spending on outside lawyers will probably be greater than that.

“This is Hypocrisy 101. With 40 to 45 lawyers on the government payroll, why hire outside counsel?” she said, demanding to know the amount.

A man in a suit and glasses stands in a hallway talking to reporterss.
Education Minister Bill Hogan said last week he will seek to dissolve the Anglophone East district education council. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Hogan did not provide one but instead defended his position that the education council should repeal its own implementation policy on Policy 713. 

“We are going to continue to defend parent rights,” he said. “I’ll defend it today, I’ll defend it tomorrow, I’ll defend it from this day forward until the election, through the next election and after that.” 

The provincial policy requires school staff to get parental consent before students under the age of 16 can choose new names and pronouns to use at school to reflect their gender identity.

The district is arguing that Policy 713 violates the rights of 2SLGBTQ+ students, and it’s asking for an injunction to block Hogan from repealing its own implementation policy, which gives students more leeway and says the Charter of Rights and Freedoms trumps the policy.

Hogan later told reporters that the dollar figure Holt was looking for wasn’t under the purview of his department.

A grey-haired man in glasses and a suit stands in a room in front of the Canadian and the New Brunswick flags.
Attorney General Ted Flemming says it’s been common for all governments to have hired outside firms in exceptional cases that require a ‘concentrated amount of effort.’ (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Attorney General Ted Flemming didn’t speak to reporters Tuesday and didn’t provide an amount for the legal expenses during Question Period.

He suggested the spending is necessary because the province refuses to settle lawsuits brought against it in court.

“The province is the defendant. The province is being sued. We are not suing anybody,” he said.

“We don’t fold like a cheap tent the way the Liberals used to on a lot of legal stuff.”

The government, however, is planning to launch its own legal action soon.

Hogan said last week he will seek to dissolve the Anglophone East district education council over its spending on its lawsuit.

That requires a cabinet order and the filing of an application to the Court of King’s Bench.

It wasn’t clear whether an outside firm will handle that, but lawyer Clarence Bennett from the law firm Stewart McKelvey is defending the province in the education council’s action and used the word “we” in court last week when talking about the minister’s dissolution application.

PC Party advertises petition

The Progressive Conservative party is using the education council’s spending on its court case to collect names and email addresses from New Brunswickers.

A party advertisement on social media mentions the case and invites people to sign a petition agreeing with “the common sense approach that education dollars should be spent on education.”

Hogan said he did not “represent” the party, but as a PC member, he said the party “comes up with its own strategy and I support the strategies that they choose to use.”

He repeated his position that Anglophone East isn’t authorized to spend money from its budget on anything other than education, and that he has the power to dissolve them if they don’t comply.

“What we’re doing is we’re following the steps as are outlined in the Education Act, which is a law,” he said in Question Period.

Flemming said while staff government lawyers handle routine legal services, it’s been common for all governments to have hired outside firms in exceptional cases that require a “concentrated amount of effort.”

Holt also raised the government’s spending on law firms defending a lawsuit by the Canadian Union of Public Employees over government pension reforms.

She also noted the province is using two outside law firms on Indigenous issues — not just on a major land claim dispute but also on a range of consultations and discussions with First Nations.

Tuesday’s sitting was the start of four remaining sitting weeks — broken up by one break week — before MLAs adjourn for the summer, and likely for good, on June 7. 

They are unlikely to sit again before the legislature is dissolved on Sept. 19 for the Oct. 21 election, where Premier Blaine Higgs will attempt to extend his six-year stretch in power.

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