N.S. Teachers’ Union pays legal bills for criminal cases

Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union, confirms that members receive financial support when they are under criminal investigation for “incidents that arise out of and in the course of employment.”

That comes as news to a Toronto labour lawyer.  Simone Ostrowski said she is surprised Nova Scotia teachers are getting their “$100,000 plus” legal fees paid in serious cases, including sexual assault and child luring.

Ostrowski said her expenses would typically only be paid by a union if the member was criminally charged while “doing union activity” such as picketing or protesting.

“I don’t think it’s as common to see a union pay for all members’ legal bills across the board,” she said.

“As a union member, you’re paying dues into this system and if your union is spending potentially $100,000 plus which a lot of trials can cost, you know I might not feel that’s the best use of my union funds.”

Teachers in trouble

Five Nova Scotia teachers are currently involved in serious court cases.

Lawrence Robert Summerell, 51, faces 12 sex charges, including four counts of sexual assault, four of luring a child under the age of 18 and three of sexual exploitation. He has also been charged with possession of child pornography.

The alleged incidents happened between January and June of 2017 when Summerell was a teacher at Memorial High School in Sydney Mines. 

In addition, Jason David Pentecost, a 42-year-old teacher at Sydney Academy High School is charged with three counts of child luring. David Harrison, 39, has also been charged with sexual assault, sexual exploitation and luring a child during his time at Northeast Kings Education Centre in Canning.

Two other teachers are accused of assaulting students — Cole Harbour High School teacher Derek Stephenson and Paul O’Toole of Musquodoboit Rural High School.

Collective agreement

According to Wozney, the union provides support to teachers to ensure that a fair process is followed.

“Teachers having access to legal support doesn’t mean that they don’t lose their jobs,” he said.

“There are cases where teachers have had top-notch legal defence and the fair thing in the end has been for those teachers to surrender their teaching licence, and frankly to not be teachers anymore.”

Legal protection is specifically outlined in the NSTU collective agreement as follows:

“Where a teacher, as a result of acting lawfully in the performance of his/her duties as a teacher, is prosecuted or sued by any party other than Her Majesty or a party to this Agreement, a Board shall undertake to defend him/her, provided that the teacher shall co-operate fully with the defence provided,” states the contract. 

Wozney says the NSTU does not provide criminal legal representation for incidents unrelated to employment.

Different in Ontario

Ostrowski says in her experience, unions in Ontario make case-by-case decisions.

Toronto-based labour lawyer Simone Ostrowski. (Farrah Merali)

“I think that the biggest struggle for unions dealing with whether or not to pay the legal bills is they’re supposed to be making decisions to spend members’ dues in ways that are in the collective interest.

“On one hand, I can see why unions might want to show solidarity and support for their members, especially when they’re being charged with criminal activity that might be unfairly levied against them.”

But she can also see the other side.

“I can see a lot of union members who are not faced with criminal charges saying, ‘Hey, your union is potentially spending hundreds of thousands of dollars just to help one member when those funds could be better spent toward the pension fund or some other area.'”

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