Withler v. Canada (Attorney General), 2011 SCC 12

Withler v. Canada was based on a pair of class actions claiming that the Public Service Superannuation Act and Canadian Forces Superannuation Act discriminated on the basis of age in the allocation of death benefits to the spouses of deceased federal employees and military personnel.

The Plaintiffs objected to the fact that death benefits for retired members were reduced as the age of members increased. The Supreme Court of Canada described this system as follows:

Under both Acts, the amount of the supplementary death benefit is equal to twice the plan member’s salary at the time of death or termination of employment. Each Act, however, contains “Reduction Provisions” which take effect when the plan member reaches a certain age. For civil servants, the value of the supplementary death benefit is reduced by 10 percent for every year by which the plan member exceeds the age of 65 (Public Service Superannuation Act, s. 47(1)). For members of the armed forces, the value of the benefit is reduced by 10 percent for every year by which the plan member exceeds age 60 (Canadian Forces Superannuation Act, s. 60(1)). It is these Reduction Provisions that are at issue in this appeal.

Ultimately, the court concluded that this system was not discriminatory within the meaning of Section 15(1), because the Charter guarantee of equality is supposed to follow a contextual approach which “treats like alike,” and such an approach should not interfere with the allocation of meaningfully targeted pension benefits:

Since the Reduction Provisions at issue in this case are age-related, they constitute an obvious distinction on an enumerated ground, but, because the age-based rules are, overall, effective in meeting the actual needs of the claimants and in achieving important goals such as ensuring that retiree benefits are meaningful, they do not violate s. 15(1). Pension benefit schemes are designed to benefit a number of groups in different circumstances and with different interests, and each element of the scheme must be considered in relation to the suite of benefits provided. As a broad-based scheme meant to cover the competing interests of various age groups, distinctions on general criteria, including age, had to be made to address the members’ different needs over the course of their working lives. When the supplementary death benefit is considered in the context of the other pensions and benefits to which the surviving spouses are entitled, it is clear that its purpose corresponds to their needs. For younger employees, it acts as group life insurance by insuring against unexpected death at a time when the surviving spouse would not be protected by a pension. For older employees, whose spouses’ long-term income security is guaranteed by the survivor’s pension coupled with the public service’s health and dental plans, it is intended to assist with the costs of last illness and death.

Decided by the Supreme Court of Canada on March 4, 2011
Click here for the full text of the decision.

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Filed under Section 15: Equality Rights

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