Earlier this month, the Ontario Court of Appeal ordered governments to stop automatically charging individuals, who have sponsored relatives to come to Canada as permanent residents, for social assistance debt sustained by those relatives.

Under the Family Class Sponsorship program, a Canadian citizen or permanent resident can sponsor close family members to become Canadian permanent residents, as long as both the sponsor and the sponsored persons fulfill certain requirements.

As part of the application process, the sponsor signs an agreement that he or she will provide for the basic requirements of the sponsored persons for a specified length of time, depending on the relationship between the sponsor and the family members. Should the sponsored persons require social assistance during this period, the sponsor must repay the federal and provincial governments for any benefits their family members received.

In the case before the Court, eight individuals, who had each sponsored a relative for Canadian permanent residency, claimed that extenuating circumstances beyond their control prevented them from honouring their sponsorship obligations, and applied to be discharged from those obligations.

The Court held that Canada and Ontario owe sponsors a duty of procedural fairness when enforcing sponsorship debt, and ordered the creation of a process that will allow sponsors to explain their personal and financial circumstances, which in some cases may allow them to avoid paying sponsorship debt.

This decision has caused considerable debate in Canada and it is uncertain, at this time, if the case will be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.