Veterans Board responds to Bruyea

by John Larlee (VRAB CHAIR)-THE HILL TIMES-January 30, 2012.

Re: “Just one more reason for a commission of inquiry into veterans’ issues,” (The Hill Times, Jan. 23, p. 10, by Sean Bruyea.  In his column, Mr. Bruyea presents his opinions about the Veterans Review and Appeal Board (VRAB) and the administrative law process. I would like to clarify some information for the benefit of your readers.

Since 2004, the board has used a merit-based selection process to ensure that all members have the necessary skills to make fair and well-reasoned decisions for veterans, members of the Canadian Forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and their families. This rigorous screening includes a review of qualifications against pre-defined criteria, a written examination and an interview. Any Canadian can apply and only those who are successful are eligible to be considered for an appointment.

The process recognizes the value of military, medical, policing, and legal backgrounds: in fact, our two most recently-appointed members have a military and an RCMP background, respectively. All new members undergo comprehensive training before hearing cases and then receive on-going professional development.

The board is not made up of “predominantly lawyers”: only seven of the board’s 24 members are lawyers. The remaining 17 are drawn from all sectors of society, as is the case with many quasi-judicial tribunals.

Administrative tribunals like VRAB exist to give dissatisfied people a remedy that is less formal, less costly and less time-consuming than the courts. Tribunals are specialized and their members know their own legislation and jurisdiction intimately. Their role is to assess the evidence and make decisions on the matters that come before them.

The board’s appeal process is unique in that a veteran needs only to be dissatisfied with a disability decision made by the Department of Veterans Affairs to request an independent review. At board hearings, applicants have the opportunity to be heard and to bring forward new information. The hearings are non-adversarial: no one argues against the veteran. All applicants have access to free representation by lawyers from the Bureau of Pensions Advocates or by service officers from veterans organizations to obtain the best outcome.

I would like to put the board’s workload statistics into context. A large majority of first applications made to the Department of Veterans Affairs are successful. Only a small percentage come forward to the board and, of those, half are varied favourably at our review level and a further one-third at our appeal level.

These favourability rates are due, in part, to the board’s ability to give applications a fresh new look, hear testimony and receive new evidence. As independent adjudicators, board members are not bound by the department’s decisions and will change them to benefit veterans if there is credible evidence.

We recognize that despite the generous aspects of the legislation, not all applications will be successful and some people will remain dissatisfied. However, we are committed to doing our very best to ensure those coming before us are treated fairly and have the benefit of all their rights to compensation for service-related disabilities.

John Larlee, Chairman

Veterans Review and Appeal Board

Charlottetown, P.E.I.