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Website Not Required to Deal with Every Person’s Particular Situation

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Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal released an interesting decision on the obligations of individuals using on-line resources to determine their eligibility for government programs.  The upshot – a reasonably diligent individual must ask questions about his or her own particular situation and cannot simply stop with broad statements on a website.

The claimant quit his job to move to a new city where his wife had accepted employment.  The claimant looked at a government website and concluded that he was not eligible for employment insurance  (EI) benefits.  The claimant was wrong in coming this conclusion but did not find out about his error until it was too late for him to apply for benefits.  He sought administrative relief on the basis that he had good cause for the delay in applying for benefits. The basis for his position was that the “the principal message initially conveyed to the reader of the website was that only those who lose employment through no fault of their own are eligible, and he did not regard voluntarily leaving his job as “losing” his employment.”

Initially his application was refused.  However, he was successful before the Board of Referees. The Board held that it was reasonable for the claimant to rely on the website (not least because of the claimant’s information technology background and previous experience as a claimant of EI benefits).  This decision was reversed on appeal to an Umpire.  The Umpire found that if the website was too complex or confusing, then a reasonable claimant would make further inquiries. The claimant appealed to the Federal Court of Appeal.

The court agreed that the Umpire overturned the Board’s decision on the wrong basis.  The Board never found (and the claimant did not argue) that the website was too complex or confusing.  On the contrary, the Board found (and the claimant argued) that the main message of the website was clear.  The allegation was that the main message of the website was that the claimant was not eligible.

However, the court also concluded that the Board was incorrect about whether the claimant could rely on that message.  The court held as follows with respect to the duties of an individual looking at websites for information:

[13] [...] A reasonable person who relies on the website for information must do more thorough research than [the claimant] apparently undertook. A reasonable person would not have been so misled by its initial general statements about eligibility as to be deterred from looking for more specific information relevant to his or her situation. The statements early in the website that EI is for those who lose employment through no fault of their own are general enough to include those who are longer employed because they voluntarily quit their job with just cause.

[14] In my view, the website contained enough information to have alerted a reasonable person in [the claimant's] position to wonder whether he or she might be eligible for benefits and to contact the Commission to find out or to make an application for benefits. The question is not whether a particular claimant found the information clear and unambiguous, and decided that further search of the website was pointless, but whether a reasonable person would have so regarded it. It is not alleged that the website contained erroneous material.

[15] Since the website does not purport to deal with the specifics of every person’s particular situation, claimants cannot reasonably treat information on it as if it were personally provided to them by an agent in response to an inquiry about their eligibility on given facts. That it can now take several days to speak with a Commission agent by telephone does not justify [the claimant's] delay.