April 4, 2020

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Winnipeg Free Press

ABOVE THE FOLD

Keep public funding for law centre

Editorial

Why would a provincial government that faces so many huge challenges take time out of its busy schedule to fix something that isn’t broken? It’s not clear, but that seems to be what’s happening to the Public Interest Law Centre.

For nearly four decades, PILC has operated as a government-funded arm of Legal Aid Manitoba, fighting the good fight for vulnerable Manitobans and serving as the principal watchdog of Crown monopolies.

With some measure of surprise, a recent review of Legal Aid services recommended that PILC be converted into a private, not-for-profit entity. Even more surprising, neither the Legal Aid review nor Justice Minister Cliff Cullen could make a salient argument for taking something that was clearly not broken and trying to fix it in such a dramatic fashion.

The report, written by veteran lawyer Allan Fineblit, notes that PILC already receives outside funding from the Manitoba Law Foundation and the Manitoba Bar Association, and from advocacy organizations. On average, PILC only receives between $250,000 and $350,000 a year from general government revenues.

Rather than acknowledging the great value that government gets from PILC, Mr. Fineblit pivots and argues that because most public interest law centres in Canada are not part of Legal Aid, PILC "could" be converted to a non-profit. What he fails to explain is why it "should" be converted.

The reliable support PILC receives from Legal Aid is, in large measure, what has allowed it to perform such a broad and impressive array of work.

PILC has been the primary force behind more than $600 million in rebates from Manitoba Public Insurance, and hard limits on rate hikes by Manitoba Hydro. The orders for these measures came from the Public Utilities Board, but their decisions were informed and influenced by PILC.

PILC has also fought cases that involved French-language services, discrimination against international medical graduates, compassionate care benefits, immigrant and refugee claims, women’s health rights, accessibility rights for the disabled, Indigenous rights and cases involving gender and sexual orientation.

Rather than acknowledging the great value that government gets from PILC, Mr. Fineblit pivots and argues that because most public interest law centres in Canada are not part of Legal Aid, PILC "could" be converted to a non–profit.

If that weren’t enough, in the 1980s PILC played a key role in a successful campaign to save Winnipeg’s iconic Omand’s Creek.

It’s hard to see why anyone would want to do anything to interrupt the good work that PILC does. Unless, of course, you resent the work that it does.

It is no doubt ironic to some in the provincial government, including Crown monopolies, that they must frequently do battle with a legal advocacy office funded by the very same government. When you consider that PILC is by virtue of its relationship to Legal Aid somewhat unique in Canada, it’s not hard to see why some in this fiscally frugal government would want it gone.

It’s hard to see why anyone would want to do anything to interrupt the good work that PILC does. Unless, of course, you resent the work that it does.

Perhaps PILC would be better off if it were removed from political meddling. But as a non-profit, more of its efforts will have to be spent raising money and — inevitably — less time spent on legal advocacy. That may be good for government but it’s bad for Manitobans.

If PILC is to be severed, the PC government must make a stronger case for a change that could potentially reduce legal services for Manitobans who can least afford them. If government can’t make that argument, it should leave PILC alone to do its good work.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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