Charter challenges program gets new life at University of Ottawa

The University of Ottawa has been picked to host the revived Court Challenges Program, which will fund the pursuit of constitutional cases of national significance.

Court Challenges Program eliminated by federal Conservatives, revived by Liberals

The University of Ottawa has been chosen to host the revived Court Challenges Program, which had been scrapped by the federal Conservatives in 2006. (CBC)

The University of Ottawa has been picked to host a revived program that helps Canadians pursue their constitutional rights in court.

The Court Challenges Program was scrapped by the federal Conservatives in 2006, but in February, the Liberals announced a plan to bring it back. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said the program gave vulnerable groups and official-language-minority communities "a voice in defining what their constitutional rights mean."

The program is also being expanded to include human rights cases such as those based on freedom of religion and expression, freedom of democratic rights, and the right to liberty and security.

University to assist experts who select cases

"The University of Ottawa is proud to have been chosen to administer the new Court Challenges Program," said Jacques Frémont, the university's president and vice-chancellor in a news release.

"This Program will allow Canadians to advance issues of national interest before the courts in matters of rights and freedoms and of official language. These values are at the heart of Canadian democracy, and define us as a society."

The university will create a new Canadian Centre for the Court Challenges Program, which will be independent of the school aside from administrative support.

Its role will be to assist the two expert panels who decide which cases to fund: one devoted to official-language cases and the other to human rights.

Jacques Frémont, the University of Ottawa's president and vice-chancellor, said the program defends values at the heart of Canadian democracy. (Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission)
Richard Clément, a University of Ottawa professor and the chair of the centre's new administration committee, said the university is well-equipped to house the program.

"The issue of language rights and the issue of equality rights are well-represented, particularly since this is a program that would be handled jointly by the Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute and the Faculty of Law."

Desire for openness

Clément said the centre will soon hire a small staff, including two lawyers to receive and analyze requests. The lawyers will present each case to the relevant expert panel, who will decide independently whether to provide funding.

In the case of successful applications, the centre's lawyers will interact with the party's lawyers and monitor their work.

He added the centre's contract with the federal government has yet to be negotiated, but he's hoping it will allow for openness about the cases the program funds.

"It's public money and there should be transparency," he said, noting the previous program had been criticized for being opaque about spending.

Government to spend $5M per year on program

The federal government said Friday that having a third-party institution host the program will ensure that it will "operate independently to advance the rights and freedoms of all Canadians."

The government has committed to spend $5 million per year on the Court Challenges Program, with a minimum of $1.5 million on cases related to official-language rights.

The expert panels who will allocate the funds have yet to be named.

A five-person selection committee, which includes the chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, will assess candidates.