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Egale joins fight for court funding

Board fiddles while Court Challenges program burned

Queer lobby group Egale Canada has joined a loose coalition of legal and minority-rights advocates opposing the Conservative government’s surprise axing of the Court Challenges Program.

On Sep 25, federal Conservative Treasury Board President John Baird and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced the $5.6-million program would be eliminated effective immediately as part of $1 billion in federal cutbacks. The savings will go toward reducing the national debt.

“This really compromises our ability to move forward with legal cases,” says Egale’s executive director, Gilles Marchildon. “It means we’ll just have to be more aggressive with our fundraising. It means we’ll have to plead a bit more for legal counsel to work for free. It may be possible to continue with some cases, but not with others. In some cases we may have to take a pass.”

Community groups representing women, disabled people, Chinese people, African Canadians, legal clinics and several other minorities announced a campaign to lobby MPs to reinstate the program.

Egale was noticeably absent from the media release, Marchildon says, because the board was slow to respond to the request to join.

“We didn’t respond quickly enough, but eventually decided the best course was to become a part of this group.”

The Court Challenges Program was a nonprofit organization established in 1978 to give marginalized Canadians funding for legal challenges to laws affecting language and equality rights. (Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as head of the National Citizens’ Coalition, lost a court case in 2000 over election expenses, after the group Democracy Watch was able to fight him using funding from the program.)

Egale regularly uses the program’s funding to intervene or participate in cases concerning rights of gay men and lesbians. The organization is currently involved in Jane Doe Versus Attorney General Of Canada, a case concerning a lesbian couple who want to use sperm from a gay man for artificial insemination. Canadian law prohibits a man who’s had sex with another man since 1977 from donating sperm.

Marchildon says Egale is involved in five to seven legal cases at a given time. The highest amount the organization has received from the program for a single case is $35,000, money used to cover lawyer’s fees or disbursements for photocopying and other costs.

For important cases like the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage rights for same-sex couples, Marchildon says there’s no way Egale would skip out in spite of the costs.

“We would’ve found some way to be there — we couldn’t afford not to be there, it was just so important,” he says.

Marchildon is hopeful the Court Challenges Program will be reinstated and points out this isn’t the first time Canadians’ ability to question their own laws has been threatened. Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government killed the program in 1992 in the name of cost-efficiency. Jean Chrétien’s Liberals revived it two years later.

“It’s a short-sighted move,” says Bryce Rudyk, former national co-coordinator for Pro-Bono Students Of Canada program, which represents 2,000 law students across Canada. “So much of our own Charter requires interpretation. It requires catch cases to go forward to illuminate what is meant by the Charter. If we don’t have funding for challenges, it means we understand it less.”

Rudyk believes the loss of the Court Challenges Program will spur more lawyers to take on pro-bono work.

“I would hope that there’s a ripple effect. Lawyers realize how important test cases are,” he says.