Printed with permission from Pro Bono Law Ontario.
On a recent walk to pick up her eldest daughter from
kindergarten, Cindy Desbiens heard the words she'd been
dreaming about for years.
"Mom, keep up!"
The tiny voice from far ahead was that of Desbiens'
three-year-old daughter Charolette. An outspoken preschooler with
boundless energy, the youngest in the family wasn't always the
one doing the yelling or the running.
Charolette was born with a rare form of congenital heart disease
called Hypoplastic Right Heart Syndrome that essentially left her
with half a working heart. She spent the first four-and-a-half
months of her life in Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children
where she endured two heart surgeries and a long list of other,
complicated medical procedures.
Every step of the way, her parents were by her side.
But when Cindy and Jeff Desbiens tried to claim a tax credit for
the more than $12,000 in expenses the family incurred travelling
back-and-forth from their Waterloo, Ontario home to support and
learn to care for their critically-ill daughter, the Canada Revenue
Agency said their presence at the hospital was unnecessary. They
were just visiting.
Their claim was denied.
"I was shocked," remembers Cindy Desbiens. "At
the time of her first surgery, Charolette was just five days old.
Who would ever say she didn't need us?"
Frustrated by their failed attempts at appeal, the couple turned
to SickKids for help. They received some hopeful news: the
access-to-justice charity, Pro Bono Law Ontario (PBLO), had just
launched a unique new project at SickKids that brought health care
and legal care together to help low-income paediatric patients and
THE FAMILY LEGAL Health Project is a first in Canada and
it's already attracting serious attention. The project landed a
two-year funding grant in September from the Law Foundation of
Ontario. By May 1, PBLO triage lawyer, Lee Ann Chapman, was on site
at the hospital fielding inquiries from social workers and health
care providers, and referring cases to Legal Aid Ontario and
PBLO's roster of volunteer lawyers at law firm partners
McMillan and Torkin Manes Cohen Arbus.
In the first month alone, Chapman received 30 referrals on cases
involving everything from health care access and immigration, to
education, consent and capacity.
"There are a multitude of issues that can affect a
child's health and not all of them are medical," explains
SickKids social work director Ted McNeill. "Without being
sensitive to the social context, we may be ineffective in
delivering health services."
The Desbiens were matched last summer with McMillan partners and
tax lawyers Michael Friedman, Ryan Morris and Michael Templeton,
who agreed to tackle the case for free. They promptly prepared and
filed a Notice of Appeal to the Tax Court of Canada to secure the
Desbiens' right to a tax credit for their expenses. By January,
the Desbiens had their second round of good news – the
Canada Revenue Agency decided not to contest the Desbiens'
appeal. A favourable judgment was rendered by the Tax Court of
Canada, and the Desbiens were permitted to fully claim a tax credit
for their expenses.
With the continued pro bono support of the lawyers at McMillan,
the Desbiens are now lobbying the government for a change in the
definition of medical expenses. Another win would mark a first for
PBLO's Family Legal Health Project toward its mission of
systemic advocacy. "Equally important," says
SickKids' McNeil, "is the role of the process in raising
awareness about the need to understand health in the broadest
For his part, Friedman is happy to help ensure other families
don't have to endure the tax challenges that confronted the
"When taxpayers face tax disputes with the government,
it's hard to get effective representation without having to
incur significant costs. Families in this kind of situation have
enough to worry about without adding the cost of legal
representation. They should be focusing their attention on other,
more important things."
Thanks to McMillan, PBLO and SickKids, the Desbiens family is
doing just that.
Join Pro Bono Law Ontario in September for the official launch
of the Family Legal Health Project at SickKids. Visit www.childadvocacy.ca/flhp for details of the
The foregoing provides only an overview. Readers are
cautioned against making any decisions based on this material
alone. Rather, a qualified lawyer should be consulted.
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