Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF)

Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF)

What Happened

LEAF relied in part on the Court Challenges Program (CCP) to help fund legal challenges to discriminatory laws and practices. In 2006, when the CCP was cancelled, LEAF lost one of the main sources of funding that had helped it undertake many of these cases. The equality rights that LEAF defends are not eligible under the CCP’s replacement program, the Program to Support Linguistic Rights, because it deals strictly with language rights cases. 

The Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) was established in 1985 when the Constitution Act was modified to include the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. LEAF aims to litigate, educate and advance equal rights of women and girls.

The Court Challenges Program (CCP) was established in 1994 to help fund important cases on language and equality rights guaranteed under the Charter. LEAF intervened in cases before the Supreme Court of Canada if they determined that the issues at stake were significant for women’s equality rights. LEAF has used the funding provided by CCP for over a decade and has carried forward dozens of cases.

Key cases won by LEAF

LEAF has intervened on a variety of cases and in legal cases involving issues like violence against women, employment rights, pay equity, immigration issues, social and economic rights, child support, reproductive freedom and access to justice.

One recent case is R v. Ryan, a domestic violence case dealing with the defence of duress. Other examples include The Queen v. Schachter (1992) which gave natural parents the same parental leave rights as adoptive parents, and Daigle v. Tremblay (1989) on a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion. In J.G. v. New Brunswick (1999), LEAF intervened in a case which established that New Brunswick’s failure to provide legal aid in child wardship cases violated the Charter rights of a low-income woman.

Without the CCP

The majority of  LEAF cases involved low-income families, single mothers, and minorities who do not have the resources to bring costly cases to court. The CCP provided around $35,000 out of the $100,000 cost of taking a case to the Supreme Court. Thus when the CCP was cancelled in 2006, LEAF lost a third of the funding it needed to litigate these cases of inequality and discrimination, on behalf of all Canadians. Despite this difficult context, LEAF continues to work hard to collaborate, fundraise and provide legal counsel pro bono.

The cases that LEAF intervened in were funded partly by the CCP, but were also supported by donated help, fundraising and the organization’s own resources. Without the CCP, LEAF was forced to put more effort and focus into fundraising, donations and use its own funds in order to continue to help women and girls move forward with equal rights cases. The savings that LEAF has been relying on since the cancellation of the CCP will not last and the organization is seeking out private funders to sustain itself in the long term.

Jennifer Tomaszewski, Chair of the LEAF Board, pointed out in an interview with Voices-Voix that LEAF is still an active organization, but that like many other nonprofits, it has become more dependent on volunteers and has had to cut back on paid staff members.

Today, the CCP replacement program, the Program to Support Linguistic Rights, only deals with linguistic rights issues, and therefore excludes groups like LEAF from  applying for funding for equality rights cases.  

Kim Brooks, then Chair of the LEAF Board of Directors expressed disappointment with the decision in 2006 to cancel the CCP program, “...It is truly disappointing that the government cannot see the necessity of such a program for upholding the principles of our democratic system.”

The changes to LEAF are part of the current context of defunding women’s organizations and advocacy groups which work for equal rights, with the defunding and change of mandate for Status of Women Canada. Other women’s groups which were cut include Sisters in Spirit’s documentation project and the New Brunswick Coalition for Pay Equity.

Relevant Dates:

  • 1985: LEAF is established to help women and girls advance legal cases, educate and reform laws pertaining to women.
  • 1994: The CCP is established to fund legal cases that challenge the rights guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
  • 2006: CCP is cancelled by the federal government and there are no plans to replace it.
  • 2008: The Program to Support Linguistic Rights is created and designated as the CCP’s “replacement program,” even though this program only covers linguistic cases, not equality and human rights cases.

Role or Position

The Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) was founded in 1985 as a grassroots movement by women who advocated for women’s rights and equality rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Implications and Consequences

  • Democracy: The Court Challenges Program (CCP) provided much-needed legal funds for people to challenge discrimination and inequality. The cancellation of CCP directly affects organizations like LEAF by eliminating a third of the funding for these legal cases and ultimately limiting the equal rights cases that Canadian courts deal with. All Canadian suffer as a result.
  • Equality: Women and low-income families are the most affected by the cancellation of CCP. In our slower economy, women-focused groups are not given the funding and support that allows them to help women who need it the most.
  • Democracy / Free Speech: These changes have forced groups such as LEAF to put more effort into finding alternative and sustainable sources of funding, rather than focusing on their important litigation work. It has, as a result, affected the ability of women’s organizations like LEAF to speak out  and undertake advocacy work. 

Date published: 15 November 2012

Photo from West Coast LEAF.