Pro­gram to aid rights bat­tles back

Re­worked court chal­lenges pro­gram ex­pands to cover lan­guage, equal­ity fights

The Hamilton Spectator - - CANADA & WORLD - JOANNA SMITH

The Lib­eral gov­ern­ment is restor­ing and mod­ern­iz­ing a pro­gram that gives fi­nan­cial sup­port to those mount­ing ex­pen­sive le­gal bat­tles to clar­ify and pro­tect their lan­guage and equal­ity rights in court.

The re­worked court chal­lenges pro­gram is also ex­pand­ing to in­clude other sec­tions of the Cana­dian Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms, in­clud­ing re­li­gion and free­dom of ex­pres­sion, demo­cratic par­tic­i­pa­tion and the right to life, lib­erty and se­cu­rity of the per­son.

It is also ex­pand­ing its scope to in­clude parts of the Of­fi­cial Lan­guages Act, in­clud­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions and ser­vices to the pub­lic, pro­ceed­ings of Par­lia­ment, lan­guage of work within fed­eral ju­ris­dic­tion and the pro­mo­tion of both English and French.

“No mat­ter how con­sci­en­tious a gov­ern­ment is when it pro­poses leg­is­la­tion, or how thor­oughly a gov­ern­ment stud­ies a piece of leg­is­la­tion be­fore it be­comes law, there may still be un­fore­seen im­pacts on guar­an­teed rights,” fed­eral Jus­tice Min­is­ter Jody Wil­son-Ray­bould said Tues­day in Ot­tawa.

The pro­gram was es­tab­lished in 1978 and has played an in­stru­men­tal role in many ma­jor con­sti­tu­tional chal­lenges, in­clud­ing the fight for same-sex mar­riage, be­fore it was abol­ished by the pre­vi­ous Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment shortly af­ter com­ing to power.

“Pro­tect­ing against these un­in­tended con­se­quences and en­sur­ing that more vul­ner­a­ble groups within so­ci­ety have the means to chal­lenge the leg­is­la­tion un­der the con­sti­tu­tion and un­der the Of­fi­cial Lan­guages Act is the right thing for gov­ern­ment to do,” Wil­son-Ray­bould said.

The court chal­lenges pro­gram will re­ceive $5 mil­lion in an­nual fund­ing to sup­port in­di­vid­u­als and groups for de­vel­op­ing and lit­i­gat­ing test cases, as well as fund­ing for le­gal in­ter­ven­tions.

At least $1.5 mil­lion of that will be al­lo­cated for clar­i­fy­ing lan­guage rights.

As much as 20 per cent of the an­nual to­tal could be spent on ad­min­is­tra­tive costs, but an of­fi­cial said the gov­ern­ment aims to re­duce that amount in sub­se­quent years as the pro­gram gets un­der­way.

An in­de­pen­dent body will now over­see the new ver­sion of the pro­gram, which the gov­ern­ment says will help en­sure that de­ci­sions over who gets fund­ing — and who doesn’t — re­main im­par­tial.

Those in­ter­ested in the job have un­til Mar. 6 to ap­ply.

That in­de­pen­dent body will also man­age two sep­a­rate pan­els of ex­perts — one for of­fi­cial lan­guage rights and the other for hu­man rights — also cho­sen through an “open, trans­par­ent and mer­it­based process.”

The new pro­gram is slated to be up and run­ning by the fall.

Last fall, the House of Com­mons jus­tice com­mit­tee urged the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment to go fur­ther, rec­om­mend­ing the pro­gram be­come in­de­pen­dent and en­shrined in leg­is­la­tion to pro­tect it from the whims of fu­ture gov­ern­ments.

Her­itage Min­is­ter Me­lanie Joly did not rule that out as a pos­si­bil­ity later down the road.

The Lib­er­als promised to fully re­in­state the pro­gram dur­ing the 2015 elec­tion, and then com­mit­ted about $5 mil­lion in an­nual fund­ing in last year’s fed­eral bud­get.

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