Lawsuits against the NWT with uncertain outcomes have increased exponentially in combined amount over the past 10 years, according to a recent Legislative Assembly report.
At the Dec. 2 sitting of the Legislative Assembly, members of the the Standing Committee on Government Operations presented a review of the territory’s 2018-19 and 2019-20 public accounts. Included in the report was a table showing the total amounts claimed against the territory in lawsuits for which the outcome was uncertain for every fiscal year since 2010.
Between 2010 and 2016, the amounts per fiscal year ranged from $1 million in 2013-14 to $8 million in 2015-16. Then, in 2016-17, that number soared to $67 million, rising to $107 million in 2020-21.
“The committee is concerned about the significant, rapid growth in claims with indeterminable outcomes (and) the potential for liabilities to arise from these claims,” the report reads.
The committee thus recommended that the comptroller general begin releasing breakdowns of claims by category and amount, and identify all claims above a certain amount.
“It’s a bit of a black box about why this is here,” says Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson, who sits on the committee. “Even when the GNWT settles its litigation, it’s often a black box: Quite often we settle and we put in some sort of non-disclosure agreement that neither party should talk about it. And unless some MLA is really on the ball, we don’t catch that there was an extra, you know, a few million dollars in a budget for settlement of something.”
Johnson says certain major lawsuits, including one related to a breach of medical records and another related to construction contracts, could have contributed to this increase.
Regardless of the reason for the increase, he says this lack of understanding speaks to a lack of transparency in the way the GNWT manages its accounts.
If a case against the territory is settled in court, the decision is made public. However, “the vast majority of time someone sues the GNWT, we settle, as the vast majority of all cases are settled,” says Johnson. “And then we don’t really know what that money was for. We don’t know whether we fixed the problem with it. And here, we know that potentially we have $107 million in our budget being paid out in litigation, but we have no idea to whom or why.”
The report concluded with a recommendation that the GNWT respond to its contents within 120 days.