by Pat MacDonald and Leigha Worth
British Columbia Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) is a small non-profit law office located in downtown Vancouver. It is a provincial organization with cases, clients, and contacts throughout the province. We are funded primarily through cost awards and grants from the Law Foundation – yes, the interest from pooled lawyers trust funds hard at work! Our apolitical financial backing allows us the freedom to advocate on behalf of our clients without limitations imposed by the current government’s policies and therefore our clients or client groups’ interests are always our main concern, whether we are tackling a regulatory or poverty law case.
Our clients are predominantly seniors, disabled and the poor. One of the best parts about working with BCPIAC is that we always know that we are on the side of the angels. It is our clients who make BCPIAC what it is. They help us to focus on the issues that are important and keep us grounded in reality.
Although regulatory law is only one-half of BCPIAC’s mandate, it can be its most technical and logistically challenging. A regulatory law practitioner must be a legal Jill or Jack-Of-All-Trades: a sharp solicitor and cutthroat courtroom player with a liberal smattering of negotiator, analyst, and even futurist thrown into the mix. To be honest, there are times while wading through tens of thousands of pages of filings by the regulated utilities when we wonder if insanity isn’t another regulatory practitioner prerequisite.
At BCPIAC, we examine all applications to the Utilities Commission (including BC Hydro, Terasen Gas, ICBC, etc.) with the interests of our client groups in mind and when we choose to intervene, we present their interests to the Commission during negotiated settlements, written, and oral hearing processes. Although our client lists are somewhat limited, we like to think everyone in B.C. benefits from our efforts to keep the utilities actions in line with our societal values and our bills relatively low.
The other major focus of our work is test case litigation relating to the concerns of people who are reliant on income support programs, such as social assistance, to meet their basic needs for food, clothing, and housing. The overriding factor in the decision to adopt a case is whether a systemic problem exists as BCPIAC only has the resources to take on a few cases at any one time. Three of the exciting cases we’ve worked on in the last year include a Community Groups complaint to the Ombudsman about administrative unfairness at the Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance, systemic problems in the farm labour contracting industry, and the interpretation of dependency relationships and “overpayments” in income assistance and disability benefits legislation.
We feel that we are doing what we went to law school for: working with people we respect on cases we are proud to litigate.
Leigha Worth joined BCPIAC in March of 2006, and now represents the interests of low-income consumer groups in insurance, gas and hydro hearings. Pat MacDonald has been with BCPIAC since 1997. She does equality and poverty law as well as telecommunications and gas utility hearings.
Pat MacDonald and Leigha Worth, Staff Lawyers, B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC)
This article was published in the December 2006 issue of BarTalk. © 2006 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.