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Cuts to court program hurt minorities: report

Program helped groups win same-sex marriage fight

OUT OF REACH. Since the Tories cut the court challenges program last fall, minority groups have fewer resources to pursue Charter challenges. Credit: (Xtra.ca files)

The Conservative’s decision to kill the court challenges program — a legal-aid fund that helped advance gay and lesbian causes — has dealt a “serious blow” to Canadians’ ability to defend their Charter rights, says a report released today by the official languages commissioner.

The court challenges program helped individuals and groups launch Charter challenges by covering some of the legal costs. The money saved by killing the program? $5.6 million — small change in comparison to the multi-billion dollar surpluses that the federal government rakes in annually.

When the Tories cancelled the program in the fall, it put 40 minority language rights cases in limbo by cutting off their legal-aid funding, said commissioner Graham Fraser.

Although Fraser’s report focused only on language rights, critics say the cuts will hurt many minority groups — including gays, aboriginals, disabled people, and immigrants.

When the program was cut last fall, Gilles Marchildon, then-executive director of Egale, told Capital Xtra that it would “have a devastating effect on our ability to pursue legal cases.”

Program helped groups to advance gay and lesbian rights

Egale was one of the main users of the program, which helped offset legal costs in court battles to win same-sex marriage rights. Marchildon said that the highest amount the organization ever received was $35,000, money used to cover lawyer’s fees and other costs.

The federal government created the court challenges program in 1978 to fund legal action against laws that affected language rights. Over the next decade, the program was expanded to include other minority groups seeking equality rights.

In the 1990s, the program funded a number of cases crucial to advancing gay and lesbian rights. In a 1995 Supreme Court case, the court ruled for the first time that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited under section 15 of the Charter Of Rights. A 1998 Ontario Court Of Appeal decision extended pension benefits to same-sex couples. Both cases received aid from the court challenges program.

Bring program back, critics say

Last month, Liberal leader Stéphane Dion called on the Tory government to re-instate the court challenges program.

“Prime Minister Stephen Harper attacked an important tool Canadians depend upon to exercise and defend their Charter rights,” said Dion.

“We are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Charter, which is the centerpiece of Canada’s democracy — now is the time for the Prime Minister to admit his mistake and reverse his destructive course.”

In his report, Fraser recommends that the Tories review their decision to cancel the program, but his advice is not binding.

The program has been cancelled and revived in the past. After Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government cut the program in 1992, the Liberals brought it back two years later.