Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 25, 2006
Lawyers call for changes in Court Challenges Program
By DEBORAH GYAPONG
Canadian Catholic News
Lawyers who have battled to preserve traditional marriage and religious freedom before the courts want the controversial federal Court Challenges Program (CCP) abolished or revamped to provide a level playing field.
"The program has perpetuated unfairness not solved it," Iain Benson, the Centre for Cultural Renewal's executive director and lawyer, said in an email interview. "It should have been abolished years ago."
Special interest groups
The CCP was set up to fund special interest groups so they could challenge existing laws on charter grounds if they believed their rights were violated or they were disadvantaged from an equality standpoint.
With its $2.85 million yearly budget from the federal heritage department, the CCP has helped pay the legal fees of groups challenging laws surrounding traditional marriage as discriminatory against same-sex couples, among other controversial cases.
Justice Minister Vic Toews told the Canadian Bar Association's annual meeting in August that the CCP is not accountable enough to Parliament.
According to a Sept. 7 CanWest news story, Toews described the secrecy of the CCP, based on client-solicitor privilege, as "rather shocking."
Toews' remarks have led to media speculation that the CCP might be on the chopping block as the heritage department reviews its program funding.
Benson said funding only one side has been unfair.
"It is a blatant favouritism program that uses the rhetoric of equality to further favourite causes, causes that should be, in fact, well funded by their own supporters rather than government money," said Benson.
"There is no suggestion that 'same-sex' citizens have less money, for example, than other citizens, in fact the reverse is true. Yet it is the politically correct groups that get the funding."
"'Tradition be damned' seems to be the underlying philosophy of the program and it has long ceased to have even the appearance of fairness," he said.
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada's director of law and public policy Janet Epp Buckingham said in an interview the program has outlived its usefulness.
"Next April it's going to be 25 years that we've had the charter and one would anticipate that most of the cases where existing laws needed to be challenged should have been done," said Buckingham.
Use their own funds
Buckingham said she did not know of any cases where Christian groups received funding from the program. Instead, religious groups have had to intervene using their own funds to protect existing laws from being undermined.
In order to qualify for funding, a group has to be challenging an existing law or policy. "Christians generally have been supporting the law as it stands. We didn't fit the criteria."
Constitutional lawyer Peter Lauwers, also a Catholic, said in an interview that he would like to know more about what the program has done before he would recommend abolishing it.
He understands the program has done a lot of good in protecting minority-language education rights for French-speaking Canadians across the country.
"But I have more trouble with free-standing assaults on institutions such as marriage funded by the Court Challenges Program," he said.
Lauwers pointed out that usually the government has defended existing laws, but in the case of marriage, the Chrétien government refused to appeal the Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that struck down the definition of marriage as discriminatory under the Charter.
That refusal forced religious organizations such as the EFC and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops, and other like-minded organizations to pick up the tab to fight for preservation of traditional marriage.
Abolishing the CCP may be a political hot potato, though it was cut briefly during the Mulroney years. The legal establishment supports the continuation of the program.
In August, the Canadian Bar Association described the CCP as providing a "vital role in increasing access to justice for marginalized and vulnerable groups and makes a unique contribution to democratic values and citizenship."