British Columbia's poor might soon have a tougher time getting free legal aid for their day-to-day struggles.
Public Eye has exclusively learned the province's legal services society may have to shutdown its poverty law programs next year.
The reason: according to an internal memo by society executive director Mark Benton, a higher-than-projected provincial deficit could threaten the agency's government funding for fiscal 2010/11, which was forecasted to be $68.5 million.
Thanks to ultra-low interest rates, additional funding from the Notary Foundation is expected to decline to "negligible" levels. And those rates could impact monies from the Law Foundation of British Columbia.
As a result, last month, the society's board "determined that civil services will require additional funding to continue next year."
Society communications manager Brad Daisley confirmed the term civil services refers to poverty law programs that provide information and advice on everything from housing and income security issues to health and employment law.
But he declined to say which specific programs would be affected, noting, "budget and funding decisions have yet to be made."
News of the potential cutbacks prompted the association representing trial lawyers to call for the restoration of the society's government funding, which stood at $88.3 million in 2001/02 before Campbell administration cutbacks.
"The true measure of a whether we live in a just society is not how much we talk about protecting the poor and the weak, but rather what actions we take to ensure it," said association president Robert Holmes.
"It is clear that we are doing less and less to protect the weakest members of society and that we are eroding justice as a fundamental value."
Scouts work on merit badge for tax preparation
British Columbia's boy scouts may "be prepared" for many things. But the provincial government's harmonized sales tax wasn't one of them.
Last week, we told you the new regime would increase camp fees for sites run by charitable and religious groups by seven per cent, putting an end to their provincial sales tax exemption.
And that increase could have a "devastating effect" on Scouts Canada in British Columbia, according to the group's honourary solicitor Bruce Hallsor.
Speaking with Public Eye, Hallsor estimated scouting camps are going to have to collect an additional $250,000 in taxes when the HST comes into effect next year.
"This will be a very small revenue for the province," he said, "but it will have devastating effects on the very stretched finances of Scouts, which will have no choice but to pass on this cost directly to the young people who use our camps, some of whom will simply not be able to afford the extra cost."
Hallsor stated the resulting decrease in scouts attending camp would be "tremendously counter productive," citing the personal growth and skills development benefits associated with the experience.
Scouts Canada hasn't yet contacted government about the issue.
But, like many other charitable and religious groups, Hallsor said the scouts are hoping their camp fees will be made HST-exempt.
In their effort to get a harmonized sales tax exemption for camp fees, Scouts Canada may have thought provincial Liberal backbencher Harry Bloy would be an ally.
But the Burnaby-Lougheed MLA seems to be remaining publicly silent on the issue.
Bloy, a member of a regional scouts' council, has honoured the group by wearing his own scout uniform in the legislature.
"Generations of children have benefited from scouting and its leaders," he said in February 2008 while commemorating the "life and importance of Lord and Lady Baden-Powell" - the scouts' founders.
"These children are taught positive values that help them become better individuals who can play a constructive role in society."
But, when asked Monday if he supports an exemption for camp fees, Bloy told Public Eye, "I don't have a comment directly. I'm supportive of all the non-profit groups. But I'm still reviewing the HST. And I can't speak on behalf of government - you can appreciate [that]."
"I believe there will be some reviews of what goes on and how the HST will be harmonized. But I have no comment beyond that."
As for whether he'll help the scouts lobby the government, Bloy said, "I encourage all groups and individuals - if they have a comment - to write a letter outlining their concern. And a personal letter is always better than a form letter outlining their concern."
Sean Holman is editor of the online provincial political news journal Public Eye (publiceyeonline.com). He can be reached at email@example.com.