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32 organizations oppose opening non-profits to 'public interest' court challenges

Nearly three dozen organizations are asking the British Columbia government to abandon a plan to allow any member of the public to challenge in court a non-profit they believe is acting against the public interest.

Until Oct. 15 the provincial government is accepting comments on a white paper finance minister Michael de Jong released outlining a new Societies Act. The Tyee reported in September that section 99 of the proposed act was drawing criticism from some of the 27,000 non-profits that would be affected.

"We believe that court actions filed under s. 99 have the potential to intimidate many societies, and to divert resources away from the valuable work being carried out by societies," says a draft submission signed by 32 organizations.

"Small societies, even if not required to defend such an action, may well experience a chilling effect due to threats of actions brought under s.99," it says. "Few societies have the resources to take on litigation of any sort. Volunteer directors may be deterred from serving, or a society may be deterred from carrying out legitimate activities, due to threats of litigation by disgruntled individuals."

The letter argues that the public interest is already protected through the laws governing charities and through contract terms when organizations receive public money. "To give a member of the public the option to seek a court order is therefore to invite litigation which is unnecessary (as the public interest is already protected) and likely counterproductive (diverting the funds given by public funders and donors from programs to legal defence)," it says. "We ask that you remove s.99 from the draft Bill."

The province benefits from having diverse societies that represent different points of view and that offer a range of programs, it says. "Controversy will arise in decisions made by societies, as they do for other corporations, and in the vast majority of cases this is a normal part of the democratic process. In our view, s.99 represents a threat to the ability of societies to act in furtherance of their purposes."

The organizers are still seeking groups to add their names to the letter, but as of Oct. 10 they include:

1. Association of Fundraising Professionals, Vancouver Chapter

2. Atira Women’s Resource Society

3. BC Centre for Elder Advocacy and Support

4. BC Civil Liberties Association

5. BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association

6. BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre

7. Board Voice

8. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, BC Office

9. Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society - BC Chapter

10. Community Legal Assistance Society

11. Creekside Commons Community Services Society

12. Canadian Federation of Students-British Columbia

13. Dogwood Initiative

14. DreamRider Theatre Society

15. Ecojustice

16. ForestEthics Advocacy

17. ForestEthics Solutions

18. Georgia Strait Alliance

19. Greenpeace Canada

20. IntegrityBC

21. Lawyers Rights Watch Canada

22. Mid Vancouver island Habitat Enhancement Society (MVIHES)

23. People’s Law School

24. Pivot Legal Society

25. Qmunity

26. REACH Centre Association

27. Sierra Club BC

28. West Coast Environmental Law Association

29. West Coast LEAF

30. Wilderness Committee

31. Wildsight

32. World Community Development Education Society

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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