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Doubts about LICM fee referendum transparency raised at PGSS Council

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At the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) Council meeting on Jan. 18, the Legal Information Clinic at McGill (LICM) submitted a referendum fee question for Council approval. The referendum proposed an increase in the PGSS LICM student fee from $2.00 to $4.50 per student per semester.

The LICM is a student-run service that provides free legal information to McGill students, staff, and members of the Montreal community on all areas of Quebec law except criminal, tax, and construction law. According to Executive Director of the LICM Marie-Pier Gauthier, the proposed fee increase would be used to fund a larger location for volunteers. The organization has not had a fee increase since the fee was first created in 1990.

Although the referendum question was approved by the PGSS Council, it was later found that LICM representatives had not reported accurate statistics regarding who used their services, according to PGSS Chief Returning Officer Manmeet Rai.

“The question was introduced to Council and, while responding, the LICM misrepresented facts concerning the number of students who use the service,” Rai said. “The LICM misrepresented facts, saying that 75 per cent of clients were students, which is not true.”

Gauthier later confirmed that students make up approximately 25 per cent of the LICM’s clients. Instead of returning to PGSS Council for re-assessment of the referendum question, the LICM sent the PGSS the accurate statistics by email and then decided to run the referendum independently. PGSS Secretary-General Victor Frankel found the mishap concerning.

“The LICM was not acting in bad faith to provide faulty statistics, […] but this raises questions on how prepared they are to run a campaign if they are giving faulty information, which is very important,” Frankel said.

Not speaking in his capacity as CRO, Rai questioned the fairness of raising student fees for a service that is mostly used by external community members after the LICM initiated their independent referendum process. Gauthier argued that the LICM is an important resource for students that is not otherwise provided at McGill.

“The LICM is the only clinic in Montreal open over 40 hours a week that can give help to students concerning aspects such as plagiarism, grievances, intellectual property disputes, and disputes with supervisors, even allegations of sexual harassment,” Gauthier said. “There is no comparable service on campus.”

While Rai suggested that the LICM look outside McGill for funding, Gauthier emphasized that the LICM’s top priority is McGill students and that the fee increase will directly benefit them.

“The LICM fee has never been increased, [while] the buying power of $2.00 has significantly decreased [and] our service has only increased,” Gauthier said. “The demand keeps going up and we do not have resources to keep up with the demand.”

Gauthier explained that the LICM chose to run the referendum independently due to overall difficulty and confusion when working with PGSS.

“We ran independently because there was [ambiguity] on getting back to Council and the timeline,” Gauthier said. “The process was becoming unclear and difficult to predict. Running independently was even [recommended] by PGSS [after the Council meeting on Jan. 18].”

Another issue raised by Rai was the legitimacy and transparency of an independent fee referendum, as the LICM can change who is on the “Yes” committee to their advantage.

“The ‘Yes’ committee is exempt from [PGSS] nomination procedures, [enabling] the LICM to change [the] composition of [the] ‘Yes’ committee based on who joins the ‘No’ committee, thereby making the entire process skewed,” Rai said.

Although Rai expressed doubt  over the fee being non-opt-outable, Gauthier felt that binding fees are fair if the student body votes in favour of them. She also clarified that their referendum is based on PGSS' template.

“[Voting] is optional and does not impose a fee on students,” Gauthier said. “Further, we have been very concerned about the transparency and fairness and the bylaws used are those drafted with the PGSS.”

Voting for the independent referendum opens on March 20 and ends on March 26.

A previous version of the article stated that Manmeet Rai expressed his concerns in his capacity as PGSS Chief Returning Officer (CRO). In fact, Rai communicated his concerns to the LICM in his capacity as a graduate student at the Faculty of Law after the LICM initiated their independent referendum process. Further, the title has been adjusted to more accurately reflect what transpired.The McGill Tribune regrets these errors.

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