Byron Williams, executive director of Winnipeg’s Public Interest Law Centre, discussed a case about compassionate care benefits. Employment Insurance introduced a new program in 2004 designed to support the “sandwich” generation, which has both elderly parents and kids, by providing compassionate care benefits to a relative of a terminally ill family member. The program was expected to cost approximately $1.5 billion dollars. One issue with this program was that the term “family” was defined by the government in a way that did not include siblings.

Howard Cohen was dying of cancer and leaving behind young children. There was no one to take care of him except his brother Neil. The government rejected Neil’s application for benefits as he was not “family” under the definition. Neil wanted to change the definition of family to be more inclusive. The program was underspending, yet it was still rejecting people. The media picked up the story and found other families affected by this exclusive definition of family. Many people put pressure on the government, families spoke out and one day when Neil happened to be visiting the House of Commons in Ottawa, the government announced it would broaden the definition of family to include siblings and even close friends.

Williams used this case as an example of how lawyers can work with affected individuals and lobby groups to promote change – a strategy that could be applied to advocacy for First Nation drinking water and sanitation.



What do you consider before you take a public interest case?

(1) Does the case have legal merit? What evidence do we have?

(2) Does the case have public interest value? Who are our allies/enemies? How will we reach people, including through the media?

(3) Will this case create new law or change a pre-existing law? Does this have educational value?

(4) Does our firm have enough resources to take the case? What are the barriers and challenges working against us with this case? What are the downsides of taking this case?

What/who are tools that can help you “win” in public interest cases?  

  • Advocate in court
  • Media/social media
  • Government officials
  • Community advocacy
  • Ombudsman

Audio podcasts are also available for seminars in this series.