Former inmates turn to CRTC seeking justice for long distance bills

The Supreme Court of Canada has dismissed an application for leave to appeal brought by Ontario and Bell Canada in a case over fares charged in 2013-21.

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The Supreme Court of Canada has dismissed an application for leave to appeal brought by Bell Canada and the Ontario government in a case pitting them against Ontario inmates who claim they were charged “unconscionable” long-distance telephone rates while behind bars. .

The Supreme Court’s recent decision now places the issue, raised for the first time in a class action lawsuit, squarely in the hands of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

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It will be up to the CRTC to decide whether the rates were fair and reasonable.

What is at stake, argues lawyer Mohsen Seddigh, is the right of prisoners and their families to be protected from exploitation.

“In general, people who are in contact with the criminal justice system tend to be disproportionately racialized, indigenous, poor, from marginalized groups,” said Seddigh, one of the attorneys representing inmates and former inmates. “And these people, for almost a decade, were scammed for calling their families.”

The Seddigh Law Firm has submitted an application that is now before the CRTC. Among other issues, the CRTC will have to decide whether it has the legal authority to assess “historical” long-distance rates charged in Ontario prisons between 2013 and 2021 and whether it can offer compensation to the class of applicants involved.

A hearing date has not yet been set.

The case began as a class action lawsuit in January 2021, when two representative plaintiffs, one of them a Gatineau woman, filed a statement of claim.

The lawsuit alleged that Bell Canada charged exorbitant rates for calls made by Ontario inmates during the eight-year period during which Bell was contracted by Ontario to provide jail telephone services.

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“The Crown provided telephone services to a captive population, while Bell charged excessive fees and funneled commissions to the Crown,” the lawsuit alleges.

It’s not known exactly how much money Ontario collected from its share of jail phone revenue, but during the bidding process the government asked applicants to put up a 25 per cent commission.

Inmates were only allowed to make collect calls; No calling cards were allowed. Bell charged $1 for local calls and between 16 cents and $1.33 per minute for long distance calls.

The court heard inmates made about 15,000 calls a day from pay phones in Ontario prisons. Seddigh said the average 20-minute call costs an inmate’s family between $25 and $30.

In its factum, Bell Canada said the long distance rates were the same as those charged to all residential and pay phone customers for collect calls. The company said its jail phone system followed rules set by the Ontario government.

The class action lawsuit contends that the rates were patently unfair because, unlike residential customers, inmates had no alternative method of making phone calls. Court documents suggest the rates they paid were four times higher than those paid by inmates in other provinces.

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A class action certification hearing was held in March 2022, but Superior Court Judge Paul Perell denied the request and ruled that the issue should be decided by the CRTC.

The plaintiffs appealed, and last year, the Ontario Court of Appeal lifted the permanent stay in favor of a temporary one, leaving the door open to a class-action lawsuit if the CRTC does not rule on the issue of whether jail phone rates They were reasonable.

The appeals court said the temporary stay was the only way to ensure inmates finally received their day in court.

One of the two representative plaintiffs in the case is Vanessa Fareau, a Gatineau mother of three who spent two months in the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Center after being denied bail in 2015. Fareau said she used the jail phone system to arrange care for their children. .

In a sworn statement, Fareau said she spent about $20 a day on phone calls while she was detained. “I struggled to make arrangements to pay my own phone bills so I could stay connected to my children,” she said.

The other representative plaintiff is Ransome Capay, a status member of the Lac Seul First Nation, whose son, Adam, was held in solitary confinement in Thunder Bay and Kenora prisons between 2012 and 2016.

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During those years, Capay said, his monthly phone bill ranged from $200 to $1,000 because of his son’s collect calls. “The fees collected became a source of stress, anxiety and financial hardship for me and my family,” he said.

Andrew Duffy is a National Newspaper Award-winning reporter and long-form writer living in Ottawa. To support his work, including exclusive subscriber-only content, sign up here: ottawacitizen.com/subscribe

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