Ensuring that Canadians have greater access to the courts is a major concern for Ecojustice, especially in matters that impact the environment or human health. Many of our cases are brought on behalf of organizations or individuals to serve the public interest by protecting the environment and ensuring governments and industry follow the law.

What’s the public interest?

Although there are many definitions, in the legal world public interest cases are those brought to protect the environment, human rights, civil liberties, or vulnerable members of society.

Example: It’s in the public interest for government to enforce environmental laws so that Canadians can enjoy healthy lives.

Ecojustice will appear before the Supreme Court of Canada on Jan. 19, 2012, in an important case dealing with Canada’s “public interest standing” test — For a definition of the public interest see “What’s the public interest?” text on your right — the law that defines which individuals and organizations can bring a case to court and which ones cannot.

Canada’s “public interest standing” test was developed in the 1980s. Its application by the courts has been inconsistent over the years and, at times, groups or individuals have been prevented from going to court because they failed to meet the test’s standards.

Many countries around the world have developed more modern and progressive “public interest standing” tests that allow their citizens to stand up for the public interest by bringing cases to stop unlawful activities. We’re asking the Supreme Court do the same. We want the Court to focus on ensuring that the rule of law is enforced effectively rather than on whether there is a private alternative to the public interest litigation.

The case we are involved in concerns two applicants – a former sex worker named Sheryl Kiselbach and the Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society (SWUAV), a group that works to improve conditions for women in the sex trade. They are seeking to challenge some of Canada’s criminal laws regarding the sex trade (Read more about the case).

Their case has not made it to trial because the federal government argues that the applicants do not satisfy the test for “public interest standing.” B.C.’s Supreme Court agreed with the government, but in October 2010, the case went to the B.C. Court of Appeal, where the original decision was overturned and the applicants were granted standing. The government appealed that decision and now the Supreme Court will consider the issue.

Our role in this case is as an intervener. We won’t advocate for one party or the other, but will instead try to help the court understand the full legal and environmental implications of its decision. Ecojustice and its clients regularly rely on the “public interest standing” test to go to court to protect the environment. For example, our victory in a resident killer whale lawsuit was possible only because our clients were granted “public interest standing.” In that case, a coalition of nine groups successfully sued Fisheries and Oceans Canada for failing to protect all aspects of the whale’s critical habitat.

With a more progressive “public interest standing” test, Canadians will be better equipped to stand up for the public interest and Ecojustice can continue working to defend Canadians’ right to a healthy environment.