Parents of twins take fight for double parental-leave EI benefits to Supreme Court

An Ottawa couple's legal fight for expanded parental leave benefits to care for their twin girls is headed for the Supreme Court of Canada.

If they win it could give parents who experience multiple births, or adopt more than one child at once, additional benefits under the Employment Insurance program at a potential cost to taxpayers.

The Federal Court of Appeal on Thursday rejected Christian Martin and wife Paula Critchley's appeal of a lower-court ruling to each take a full 35 weeks of parental leave in order to care for twin daughters Lucie and Athena, born in April 2009.

In his reasons for judgment, Federal Court Justice Marc Nadon said an arbitrator's interpretation of the Employment Insurance Act regarding parental leave was correct and the family's claim that their rejection violated equality provisions under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was not valid.

"We lost all our arguments," Martin said in a statement sent to CBC News. "It isn’t a good day for parents of multiples. It is unfair and I plan to keep fighting."

Under the law, parents can take a total of 35 weeks of parental leave covered by EI following a birth or adoption but the rules say nothing about the number of children, CBC News noted.

[Related: Double-trouble: Multiple births are on the rise]

Martin and Critchley argued that since parents of kids born a year apart could get two separate 35-week benefit stints, parents of twins should be entitled to the same amount of time.

They initially won their argument in September 2009 before an EI Commission board of referees. But an arbitrator overturned the decision in 2011, ruling the law is clear that the benefit period applies to "the care of one or more new-born or adopted children as a result of a single pregnancy or placement," CBC News reported.

“I’m disappointed. We’ve worked hard at this,” Martin, whose daughters now are 3 1/2, told the Globe and Mail.

“We’re trying to do what’s right and fix what I believe to be a glaring problem in how the system handles multiple birth situations and I’m having a hard time getting through to authorities and it is very frustrating. But the only thing I can do is keep fighting.”

Multiple births make up only about three per cent of all births in Canada but the Globe noted that thanks to fertility treatments, the number of multiple births — twins, triplets or more — is soaring to about 4,000 a year.

According to Statistics Canada data, the number of children born via multiple births rose to 12,497 in 2010, the last year of available stats, from 11,034 in 2006.

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Last fall the NDP introduced a private-member's bill to double parental leave for parents of multiples. Quebec MP Sana Hassainia's Bill C-464 calls for parents to have a total of 70 weeks, and to receive the time simultaneously to allow both parents to stay home for up to 35 weeks, CBC News reported.

The bill is scheduled to be debated on Jan. 31, according to a blog post the Multiple Births Canada web site.

"It’s an important time for Canada’s multiple-birth community, and while we may never personally benefit from changes to parental benefits it is certainly satisfying to know that someday others may thank us for drawing attention to a situation that is not fair and equal," the post by Lori Oldfield says.

A brief report last month by the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated the added cost of doubling parental leave for multiple births or adoptions — covering roughly 6,700 families per year — would be about $80 million in 2013.

Since the payments would come out of the Employment Insurance Fund, "in order for the program to remain self-financing, any increase in expenditures would require an equivalent increase in EI premium revenues," the budget officer's report says.