The environmental organization Wildsight and the West Coast Environmental Law Society are raising the alarm about proposed wide-ranging changes to the Societies Act they say threaten BC’s 27,000 non-profit organizations.
“Under the proposed Societies Act, non-profit organizations would be vulnerable to legal action from individuals charging that they are not acting in the ‘public interest,’” Wildsight said in an e-mail to supporters. “The catch? ‘Public interest’ is not defined in the legislation and can mean different and often conflicting things to different groups. The result? The many thousands of non-profit organizations running on volunteer power and with small budgets could be easily intimidated with threatened legal action that would tie up their time and resources. Read a detailed analysis of the proposed changes written by West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL) here.
“In general, the proposed Societies Act seems to believe that the courts are a preferred tool to oversee societies,” the WCEL said on its website. “That’s disturbing, given that a great many – probably the majority – of BC’s societies are run by volunteers, on very limited budgets, without experience with the law or the resources to hire lawyers.
“The most alarming of the proposed changes is the provision entitled ‘Complaints by Public’ (s. 99), which allows any person ‘whom the court considers to be an appropriate person’ to seek an order from the BC Supreme Court that a society is acting unlawfully or is ‘carrying on activities that are detrimental to the public interest.’ The court is empowered to make a wide range of orders against the Society under this provision.
“While we believe that it is likely that the courts will seek to interpret this section narrowly – recognizing that there are many competing views of what is in the public interest, and the courts should not be choosing between them – the mere fact that a society could find itself in court having to explain why a critic is not an ‘appropriate person’ under this section, and possibly having to justify its actions to the court, will be extremely intimidating to many societies. And this type of action would waste valuable time and resources that could be better put towards the work of the society.”
Non-profits, such as environmental and humanitarian groups, community and arts organizations and church groups, collectively contribute to a stronger province and an engaged civil society. They represent a wide diversity of voices and opinions and play a critical role in holding the government to account.
While it is fair to say that everyone believes non-profit organizations should be transparent and accountable, Wildsight and the WCEL fear these proposed changes could undermine a healthy and democratic society. Read the proposed changes here. If you believe it is in the public interest to maintain a lively and healthy civil society with a diversity of non-profit organizations and divergent voices, please send the government an email today. The deadline for submissions is October 15.