Passion for justice: Public Interest Law Centre looks back on 35 years of fighting for the voiceless
'The groups [the centre] was speaking up for were ones that you don't always hear in public debates': director
Whether it was getting internationally-trained doctors into Manitoba hospitals during a shortage or making sure people with disabilities get support, the Public Interest Law Centre has had a major impact on the province over the last three and a half decades, says one of the lawyers who's worked with the centre since its early days.
The centre turned 35 on Saturday.
"The groups [the centre] was speaking up for were ones that you don't always hear in public debates," said Byron Williams, the director of the centre, in an interview with CBC Radio's Weekend Morning Show.
"Whether it's consumers fighting against large monopolies, whether it was persons with intellectual disabilities, whether it was groups that certainly are not popular — prisoners — [the centre] was always there. They were also speaking not only with passion but based on evidence."
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The law centre, an independent office of Legal Aid Manitoba, works with clients including people with low incomes, those with mental and physical disabilities, immigrants, prisoners and seniors. The centre takes on individual cases around residential tenancies and government benefits, and group cases that will affect a cross-section of Manitobans, such as those involving environmental or human rights issues.
Williams has been with the Public Interest Law Centre for 25 years. In the late 1980s he was working for the provincial government and, at the time, a lot of people at the legislature did not particularly like the Public Interest Law Centre, Williams said.
"I found myself sympathizing not with the government but with the voices, the individuals and the community groups that were trying to speak up for less-empowered communities," he said.
Victory for Manitobans with intellectual disabilities
Williams' career turned in a new direction. He went to law school and ended up articling with the Public Interest Law Centre. He's stayed with the centre ever since.
Williams said a lot of cases the Public Law Centre has taken on over the years have had a large impact, but one that stands out involved a human rights complaint for Community Living Manitoba about 10 years ago. The case challenged the segregation and institutionalization of people with intellectual disabilities at the Manitoba Developmental Centre.
"We launched what I think was a pretty novel high-risk human rights complaint and we helped bring 49 people out of a very large institution and into well-financed, well-supported, good community homes," Williams said.
A different case in 1992 had a more disappointing outcome, Williams said. It related to whether low-income people could make charter arguments during the social services appeal board. At the time, the court said no.
However, the centre recently worked with a private lawyer and this month, the court ruled the Charter of Rights and Freedoms can be argued in front of the social services appeal board, Williams said.
"It was a sad story. It bugged me for 25 years but now it's opened the door for a lot of individuals," he said.
With files from CBC Radio's Weekend Morning Show and Nadia Kidwai