Today Bill 24, a new Societies Act, was introduced in the BC Legislature (government release here). We are very happy to be able to confirm that the controversial “Section 99”, which had been proposed in a government discussion paper, has been dropped. We’re inviting British Columbians to thank Finance Minister de Jong for listening to British Columbians.
Last September wrote an Environmental Law Alert sounding the alarm about section 99, a provision that would have allowed the critics of a non-profit society to drag the organization into court:
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. … The section invites harassment of societies by any deep-pocketed and litigious opponents (mini-SLAPP suits, in effect).
We are proud to have played a role in mobilizing people to speak out against section 99 through a joint sign-on letter (which we co-drafted with Mary Child of Ethos Law, and which was signed by over 50 societies), and through an action alert on our website. But ultimately, this was a group effort, and we’re also proud of the hundreds of community groups and tens of thousands of citizens that made their voices heard and persuaded the government to drop section 99.
We also appreciate the willingness of the BC Government to listen to concerns from BC’s societies. Finance Minister de Jong took seriously the public concerns related to the proposed Act, and the end result reflects this important democratic step. We will have a stronger Societies Act going forward as a result of the government listening to British Columbians.
This is not to say that all of the concerns with the Act have been resolved. While the broad section 99 has been removed, other sections of the Bill still allow a Society’s members to apply to court in certain circumstances and could be abused, encouraging societies to limit who can become members. The government is still looking at whether and how it will allow youth to hold positions of responsibility in a Society (although at least they are looking at it – planning to create rules through regulations).
However, the Act also has many strong points, and we believe that today’s Bill generally represents a balanced new Societies Act that will serve BC non-profits and British Columbians well.
If you, like us, appreciate that Finance Minister Michael de Jong listened to British Columbians, and dropped section 99, please take a moment to thank him
using our quick and easy email form below.
By Andrew Gage, Staff Counsel, West Coast Environmental Law Association
[Updated 17 August 2016]