Liberals revive funding for groups that take government to court

TheGlobeandMail.com – News/Politics
Feb. 07, 2017.   DANIEL LEBLANC, Ottawa

Ottawa has reinstated a program that allows minority groups to get federal funding to challenge laws they feel go against their Charter rights, after it had been abolished by the previous Conservative government.

The Liberal government added it will expand the scope of the Court Challenges Program beyond its original mandate, which only included cases based on language and equality rights. Starting in the fall, the program will fund challenges to legislation based on the right to life, liberty and security, which was at the heart of the fight over Canada’s prostitution laws, for example.

Restored court challenges program to ‘safeguard rights': Wilson-Raybould (The Canadian Press)
The program was initially created in 1978 under the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau, helping organizations to launch court challenges on issues such as same-sex marriage and minority-language rights.

It was cancelled in 2006 by the Conservative government, with then-treasury board president John Baird stating: “I just don’t think it made sense for the government to subsidize lawyers to challenge the government’s own laws in court.”

The Liberal Party promised in the 2015 election campaign to bring back the program. On Tuesday, Justin Trudeau’s government announced it will be back in operation with up to $5-million in annual funding.

“Our laws are not perfect, and that is why it is important to allow Canadians to fight for their rights. That is the program’s biggest strength,” Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly said.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould added it is healthy for governments to face legal challenges on issues of rights. She acknowledged that even the government’s legislation on assisted dying, which was adopted last year, could be challenged under the program.

The new program will offer a minimum of $1.5-million a year for the defence of minority-language rights. The remaining funding will go the defence of equality rights, democratic rights, freedom of religion, expression and association, and the right to life, liberty and security of the person.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association applauded the Liberal government for expanding the program.

“This is critically important because many of the recent court decisions invalidating unconstitutional federal laws have found that this broader range of rights were violated,” the association’s executive director, Josh Paterson, said.

Still, Conservative MP Michael Cooper said his party disagrees with the reinstatement of the program. He said it had served its purpose by the time of its cancellation in 2006, and had become a source of funding for special-interest groups.

“I’m not satisfied the new program will be less biased,” Mr. Cooper said.

The government said the new program will be administered by an independent body, with two panels of experts determining the funding that will go toward official-language rights and toward human rights. The program will provide funding to groups and lawyers that want to develop and litigate test cases, and to intervene in continuing cases.

Noëlla Arsenault, who went to court to win the right to send her children to French-language school in Prince Edward Island in 2000, said the program is key to preserving francophone communities outside of Quebec.

“Asserting these rights is not easy, and the program supports those who take action for the good of us all. For our community, this means a school and learning centre where we can learn, share, eat, play, laugh, sing and, yes, even dance together in French,” she said.

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