By Randall Palmer
OTTAWA (Reuters) - A top Canadian court on Friday invalidated the Conservative government's decision to limit health coverage for many people in the country making refugee claims, declaring the federal action to have been shocking and outrageous.
The policy change in 2012 amounted to "cruel and unusual" punishment, particularly as it affected children brought in to Canada by their parents, and therefore were unconstitutional, Federal Court Justice Anne Mactavish ruled.
"The cuts to health insurance coverage effected through the 2012 modifications ... potentially jeopardize the health, and indeed the very lives, of these innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages our standards of decency," she decided.
It was the latest major court ruling against Conservative government policies.
Canada's Supreme Court last year struck down most restrictions on prostitution, forcing Ottawa to introduce a new law. This year it killed off Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Senate reform plan and rejected his pick to replace a vacancy on the court.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander quickly announced an appeal.
Canadian citizens do not have to pay for basic health coverage, with doctors billing the government.
When it changed the policy for refugee claimants in 2012, the government cited a need to cap burgeoning healthcare costs, deter unfounded refugee claims and discourage failed refugee claimants from remaining in Canada.
Most coverage was cut for claimants from countries Canada has designated as safe, including Mexico and Hungary. The Conservatives have said such countries are a major source of "bogus" refugees, as a majority of claims are rejected.
Rejected refugee claimants also lost broad coverage, whether from designated countries or not.
And it declined what it called "gold-plated" coverage - for drugs, vision and dental care - for most refugee claimants, on the ground that such supplemental benefits are available only to the poor but not Canadians in general.
"Failed claimants and those from safe countries like the U.S. or Europe should not be entitled to better health care than Canadians receive," Minister Alexander said on Friday.
Dr. Philip Berger, from one of the groups that brought the case, Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, said the cuts had been devastating.
"For more than two years now, doctors across Canada have seen these cuts place the pregnancies of refugee women at serious risk, cause denial of treatment for sick children, and deprive refugees with cancer of coverage for chemotherapy," he said in a statement.
In her ruling, Mactavish decried what she said was the government's "targeting of those seeking the protection of Canada - an admittedly poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged group."
"The Canadian government has intentionally set out to make the lives of these disadvantaged individuals even more difficult than they already are. It has done this in an effort to force those who have sought the protection of this country to leave Canada more quickly," she said
She also ruled that to deny some refugee claimants on the basis of whether they came from designated "safe" countries violated constitutional guarantees of equal protection and equal benefit of the law.
The name of the case is Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, Daniel Garcia Rodriques, Hanif Ayubi and Justice for Children and Youth v. Attorney General of Canada and Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, file T-356-13.
(Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson and Sandra Maler)