Clients of Manitoba's Public Interest Law Centre are questioning a proposal to stop the advocacy centre from operating within Legal Aid Manitoba.
For 38 years, lawyers at the Public Interest Law Centre have been part of the province's legal aid program, focusing on representing Manitobans at the centre of human-rights disputes, including Indigenous people and people with disabilities who have faced discrimination. Their work has created legal changes in Canada, and they've argued cases at the country's highest court.
Earlier this week, a government-commissioned review of legal aid was released recommending the Public Interest Law Centre no longer be part of legal aid services offered by the province. It has been running at arms-length from government since 1982, tackling systemic issues that community groups and individuals can't afford to fight on their own. But in the future, the centre could become entirely independent to encourage private donations, according to the report by lawyer Allan Fineblit.
Very little of the Public Interest Law Centre's funding comes from the provincial government, according to Fineblit's report, which was released publicly Monday. The annual cost to the government amounts to between $250,000 to $350,000. With that in mind, community organizations that have relied on the Public Interest Law Centre to fight for them are left scratching their heads at the recommendation.
"I really wonder, why the push to separate it?" said David Kron, executive director of the Cerebral Palsy Association of Manitoba. Two of its members are currently involved in a PILC case arguing Manitoba should continue to provide supports to adults with disabilities, instead of cutting them off when they turn 18.
"Being a non-profit charity myself, there's certain things that the government really needs to do, and systemic, human-rights-based law is something that the government needs to support. I'm really tired of the government off-loading their responsibilities onto the private and public sector, the charity sector. It really is mind-boggling," Kron said.
The suggestion that PILC become fully independent is one of 15 recommendations included in the report, which Fineblit first submitted to the justice department in December 2018, a year before he was appointed as chairman of Legal Aid Manitoba's management council. The same council is now tasked with reviewing the report and deciding whether to implement the recommendations.
Fineblit said the Public Interest Law Centre is one of Legal Aid Manitoba's "shining star programs." His intention was to "preserve and enhance" the centre, not see it cut off from government funding, he said in an interview. The centre often argues against government positions in the course of its work, but Fineblit said he doesn't believe the province is trying to get rid of it.
"They asked me to look into every aspect of Legal Aid, and again the mandate includes the Public Interest Law Centre as one of the shining star programs. I have no doubt that they're interested in the Public Interest Law Centre because it is a high profile, sometimes annoying program, but I can say without any hesitation that nobody gave me marching orders to do something to shut down the Public Interest Law Centre, or anything like that. The mandate was pretty clear to look at every aspect of legal aid service delivery," Fineblit said.
His report notes that similar legal advocacy centres in other provinces operate independently, and he suggests the PILC has lost out potential donations from people who aren't comfortable giving to a government agency.
Kate Kehler, executive director of Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, said she would be concerned if PILC had to rely on private donations.
"Because it's called the Public Interest Law Centre, it needs to be funded by the government to serve the public interests. There is already an abundance of people and community organizations who are fighting over the same private dollars, so I would be concerned that somehow it would be a given that there would be private donations in order to maintain this really important public service."
The Social Planning Council is currently involved in a case with PILC that argues Manitoba's practice of requiring people on social assistance to start collecting their old-age security payments at age 60 entrenches them in poverty. The case hasn't yet been decided.
Justice Minister Cliff Cullen declined an interview request about the legal aid review. In a statement, his office made no commitments to implement the recommendations, saying they've been forwarded to Legal Aid Manitoba's management council for consideration with stakeholders.
Separating PILC from Legal Aid Manitoba would require changes to provincial legislation.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.