The Ministry of Finance is seeking public feedback on the proposed new Societies Act (to replace the existing Society Act which governs all non-profit societies in BC). The draft legislation is outlined in a White Paper and includes a provision that is of particular concern to many non-profits.
BC’s Society Act has not been updated since 1976, and while the draft contains many much-needed updates and anticipated new provisions, members of the community are concerned about potential abuses of Section 99, which states that any “person whom the court considers to be an appropriate person” can bring a society to court for “carrying on activities that are detrimental to the public interest.”
Martha Rans, a lawyer with the Artists’ Legal Outreach Society, explains the concern: “It is unclear what is meant by 'public interest.' This proposal creates many challenges for existing societies, particularly those where there is a strong constituency opposed to their activities, or in the event of a membership dispute.”
The White Paper addresses these concerns directly in its commentary. “There is a general expectation that societies will act in the public interest, especially since so many of them are supported by public funding or monies solicited from the public. The risk that the provision could be used improperly (e.g. for minor matters or to pursue personal grievances) is limited because the court effectively controls the process.”
Jim Wright, president of the Garden City Conservation Society, disagrees. “It is a concern because a powerful party that wants to suppress what a particular society is advocating can easily do so," he said. “These parties know how to use the courts to get their way. If you start having to raise money to deal with that aggression, you have practically no choice but to stop doing whatever the powerful party wants you to stop doing."
For many non-profits, the time and expense of appearing in front of a court could be highly detrimental, even if the court rules in their favour.
Add Your Voice - Deadline October 15
The Ministry of Finance is seeking feedback on the White Paper through a public consultation process. Organizations and individuals have until October 15, 2014, to respond. Comments can be sent by email to email@example.com, or by mail to Financial and Corporate Sector Policy Branch, Ministry of Finance, PO Box 9418 Stn Prov Govt, Victoria BC, V8W 9V1.
The West Coast Environmental Law Society has posted an article with additional information on this issue, and they have created an email template through which individuals can submit feedback, either using or editing the suggested wording.
Societies wishing to add their organizations' names as signatories on a letter objecting to Section 99 should contact firstname.lastname@example.org.