Courts Without Cases: The Law and Politics of Advisory Opinions

By Kylie de Chastelain

The Asper Centre recently hosted Professor Carissima Mathen, author of Courts Without Cases: The Law and Politics of Advisory Opinions (2019), for a dynamic Constitutional Roundtable about her new book, with Professor Lorraine Weinrib as discussant.

Professor Mathen’s book, described by Professor Weinrib as a “milestone” in Canadian Constitutional writing, explores the under-studied but vitally important institution of Supreme Court references. References are opinions given in the absence of a live case. They are put forward to the Court by the executive branch and the opinions that result are called “advisory opinions.” Those who have studied constitutional law will be familiar with references, but what many don’t realize is that some of Canada’s most important judicial decisions did not emerge from cases, but from references. Same-sex marriage, assisted human reproduction, Senate Reform, Quebec secession and patriation are only some of the landmark opinions that have emerged from references. In Professor Mathen’s words, each constitutes an important “constitutional moment,” and yet, references have remained chronically unexplored by legal scholars. Mathen has sought to change that through her book, which is the first focused examination of references in Canadian legal scholarship.

References are not uniquely Canadian but the way they are handled by our judicial system sets Canada apart from other Anglo-American countries. In South Africa, Israel, India, and numerous European countries, specialist “constitutional courts” address a variety of issues through references. As Professor Mathen emphasized, what is notable about the Canadian context is that the Supreme Court performs “both an adjudicative and an advisory function.” This function was enumerated in the Supreme and Exchequer Court Act, which created the Supreme Court of Canada, in 1875.

Professor Weinrib suggested that the reference phenomenon was institutionalized “by accident,” but that it was much needed, in part because Canada’s formal written constitution was initially fragmented and incomplete. In particular, the lack of a domestic amending formula made it very difficult for the federal government to govern. The reference function allowed federal and provincial governments to raise questions and discern the legal elements of political issues before bringing them back to the legislature; effectively using the court to establish a guiding framework for the nation’s development. This dynamic also allowed the executive to pre-emptively explore important legal issues before a case emerged and a decision was handed down in a conventional trial.

However, in the present day, Professor Mathen has argued that references and advisory opinions pose two potential problems with regard to Canada’s federal system. The separation of powers is essential to how the Canadian state operates, but by vesting courts with the ability to do more than adjudicate cases, references might be viewed as extending the judicial function beyond its optimal boundaries. In addition, because references can only be put forward by the executive branch, they arguably align the judiciary and the executive and exclude the legislature, even though the issues addressed in references are often very salient to the legislative context. Further, this arrangement could give the impression that the court is subservient to the executive; threatening the idea that the judiciary is independent. Courts are expected to address the references put forward to them, but as Professor Mathen explained, the Supreme Court is not always so accommodating.

On several occasions, the Supreme Court has refused to engage with the references put to them by the executive. Sometimes, the Court has rejected the requests outright, and in other cases it has re-interpreted the questions asked. By way of illustration, Professor Mathen pointed to the Patriation Reference, where the executive asked whether there was a constitutional problem with amending the constitution without provincial consent. In its opinion, the Court divided on its interpretation of the question, exploring whether all provinces – or only some provinces – had to agree with a constitutional amendment in order for it to pass.

Most interesting in Professor Mathen’s view is the fact that the Supreme Court has never explained why it sometimes chooses to refuse reference requests. Section 53(4) of the Supreme Court Act stipulates that the court has a duty to hear and consider all references, but despite this, the Court reserves the right to ignore references outright or to ignore sub-questions in a given reference, as it did in the Same-sex Marriage Reference.  Here, the Court refused to answer Question 4 of the reference, which asked if the opposite-sex requirement for marriage for civil purposes was consistent with the Charter. ostensibly because it was concerned about any “confusion” that could emerge if it answered in the negative.  More specifically, the Court stated that it would “exercise its discretion” not to answer the question, in part because the federal government had “stated its intention to address the issue of same-sex marriage legislatively regardless of the Court’s opinion” and that answering Question 4 could potentially undermine the government’s “stated goal of achieving uniformity in respect of civil marriage across Canada” if it answered the question affirmatively. Mathen suggested that the Court’s refusal to answer demonstrates the intention of the Court to retain first and foremost a legal role, as the chief constitutional arbiter, and the primary interpreter of its norms.

Here lies a final and fascinating point about Supreme Court references: they are not legally binding. References are only advisory and technically co-exist with treatises, textbooks, and other scholarly legal works that have no authoritative control over judges and their decisions. But practically speaking, we do not treat references in this way. As Professor Weinrib pointed out, references serve an incredibly important function in establishing norms. Indeed, we treat references as legally binding decisions; they are taught in law schools alongside other case law, and are treated by legislatures and governments with the same gravity as a binding Supreme Court decision. This could be, as Professor Weinrib suggested, because references sometimes feel more methodologically sophisticated; more conceptual and holistic. References help to develop a rule of law that reflects fundamental constitutional principles from the outset. This is undeniably a strength of the dynamic that exists in Canada.

Ultimately, Professor Mathen has produced an accessible and engaging account of the reference power in Canada, which, for all its curiosities, is undoubtedly an integral aspect of Canadian judicial practice and legal development.

Kylie de Chastelain is a 1L student of law at the University of Toronto and the current Asper Centre work-study student.

 

Asper Centre students mark Student Law Clinic Global Day of Action

via @UTLaw https://www.law.utoronto.ca/news/asper-centre-students-mark-student-law-clinics-global-day-action

Climate Justice Working Group

Back row (left to right): Mackenzie Cumberland; Clara Pencer; Leah Kelley; and Florian Nagy. Front row (left to right): Madeleine Carswell; Keely Kinley; and Yara Willox. Members not pictured: Madeleine Andrew-Gee; Adam LaRiviere; Leora Chapman; Haleigh Ryan; and Courtney Cowan.

November 18, 2019 marks a Global Day of Action against air pollution by more than 30 student law clinics from around the world.

The Climate Justice student working group at the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law is calling on the provincial and federal governments to take meaningful action to curb emissions in Ontario.

“The recent federal election and the wave of climate strikes by young people have brought a renewed focus on climate-related issues,” says second-year law student Keely Kinley. “The idea that our Constitution could be used to safeguard and strengthen environmental rights is gaining momentum.”

The David Asper Centre is devoted to realizing constitutional rights through advocacy, research, and education, and plays a vital role in articulating Canada’s constitutional vision to the world. U of T law students can become involved in the Asper Centre’s work by volunteering with one of their student working groups. The student-led initiatives bring together 10-15 students to undertake research and advocacy in conjunction with academics, civil society groups, or members of the bar on Charter rights advocacy or current constitutional law issues.

“As a student law clinic with a commitment to social justice, the Asper Centre is committed to raising awareness of the issue of climate change in our teaching, research and activism, and to finding ways to support law students to contribute to the struggle for climate justice through the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” says Cheryl Milne, the centre’s executive director.

Approximately forty percent of Canada’s petrochemical industry is condensed into a 15-square-mile area in Sarnia, Ontario known as Chemical Valley. The student working group highlighted Chemical Valley as an example of a place where years of government inaction and an inadequate emissions regulation has resulted in a health and environmental crisis.

Just south of the city are the traditional lands of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation community. Members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation have been asking the government to review emissions standards for years, to no avail. A whistleblower has lodged three complaints over the past decade alleging inadequate engagement with the Aamjiwnaang community.

The Climate Justice working group also cites a 2017 report of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario that observed that “Indigenous people and communities are disproportionately affected by environmental problems.”

“There are strong arguments to be made that both the provincial and federal governments have duties under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to protect the Aamjiwnaang community and other residents of Chemical Valley from the harms of pollution,” says Kinley.

Section 7 and Section 15 of the Charter could both be invoked in order to protect individuals from insufficient government action in the sphere of environmental rights.

“There are any number of examples we could have chosen from. Unfortunately, Chemical Valley is just one example of where the different levels of government have failed in their obligations towards local communities,” says Yara Willox, a second-year law student. “We were happy to learn about the Ontario government’s decision to begin a two-year health study in Sarnia this fall, but it’s not enough.”

Kinley adds that a group of young Canadians recently initiated a lawsuit against the federal government for infringing their Charter rights by not taking sufficient steps to combat climate change.

“There is international precedent for this sort of litigation, and we’ll be paying close attention to the outcome.”

With files from the Climate Justice working group

Read the Climate Justice working group’s op-ed

Asper Centre students call on the Ontario and federal governments to act on air pollution

via UofT Faculty of Law News: https://www.law.utoronto.ca//news/students-call-ontario-and-federal-governments-act-air-pollution

Monday, November 18, 2019

 

Today, November 18th, is the Student Law Clinic Global Day of Action for Climate Justice. We are a student working group at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and, on this day, we call on our provincial and federal governments to take meaningful action to curb emissions in Ontario. The harmful consequences of air pollution are widespread and government inaction only exacerbates them. In Sarnia’s “Chemical Valley”, for example, where petrochemical facilities are responsible for around 10% of Ontario’s total emissions, the government’s inadequate regulations and foot-dragging have contributed to a health and environmental crisis.

The health data speaks for itself. Sarnia’s cancer rates are significantly higher than the rest of Canada’s. In the Aamjiwnaang First Nation community, whose traditional lands are just south of the city, the birth ratio of baby girls to boys is nearly 2:1. A wide range of respiratory problems and conditions that impair lung function have been linked to the pollutants emitted by Chemical Valley’s oil refineries and chemical plants. The list goes on. These findings are deeply troubling and should have spurred government action long ago. While we are encouraged that the provincial government will begin a two-year health study in Sarnia this fall, this is, in itself, insufficient.

Last month, a whistleblower painted a damning picture of the government’s response to air pollution in Chemical Valley. The whistleblower lodged three complaints between 2009 and 2019 alleging inadequate engagement with the Aamjiwnaang community. The Ontario government’s reluctance to take effective action on this issue is, unfortunately, not without precedent. In 2018, Ecojustice brought an application for review of the province’s air quality standards pursuant to Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights on behalf of two affected individuals. The government did not change its course.

Fortunately, there is another way to hold our governments accountable. The idea of using the Constitution to defend environmental rights is gaining momentum. Both the provincial and federal governments have clear duties under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to protect the Aamjiwnaang community and other residents of Chemical Valley from the pollution that affects their land and their persons.

Section 7 of the Charter recognizes every individual’s right to life, liberty and security of the per-son. It encompasses the right to be free from physical or psychological harm resulting from gov-ernment actions or omissions, and could arguably be invoked to protect individuals from future harm. The negative health outcomes in Chemical Valley, if they are conclusively linked to deficient regulations, could form the basis of a section 7 claim.

Section 15 of the Charter protects individuals from discrimination. A law or policy that inordinately affects individuals on the basis of race, ethnic origin, or other grounds may constitute discrimination under the Constitution. Following a recent visit to Canada, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, Mr. Baskut Tuncak, not-ed not only the inadequacy of the existing regulatory framework, but also its “deeply unsettling” impact on the Aamjiwnaang First Nation. A 2017 report of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario similarly observed that “Indigenous people and communities are disproportionately affected by environmental problems.” The recently reelected Liberal government ought to be especially concerned about these findings, given its campaign promise to fully implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which recognizes Indigenous peoples’ “right to the conservation and protection of the environment.”

Governments have a legal duty to correct the harmful and discriminatory regulatory schemes and environmental policies that are endangering communities across Canada. From Chemical Valley to Alberta’s tar sands, the dire consequences of government inaction are becoming increasingly clear. Last month’s federal election revealed voters’ renewed focus on climate-related issues. Climate strikes galvanized students across the country and drew attention to the social inequalities that flow from bad environmental policy. A group of young Canadians recently initiated a lawsuit against the federal government for infringing their Charter rights by not taking sufficient steps to combat climate change. These developments show that Canadians want better air quality, sustainability, and environmental rights. Provincial and federal governments should take note and take action before it’s too late.

Climate Justice working group members:

1Ls (first-year law students):
Clara Pencer
Adam LaRiviere
Mackenzie Cumberland
Madeleine Andrew-Gee
Leah Kelley
Leora Chapman
Courtney Cowan
Florian Nagy
Madeleine Carswell
Haleigh Ryan

Group leaders:
Yara Willox (2L)
Keely Kinley (2L)

News Release: Asper Centre and Justice for Children and Youth organize youth consultations for legal challenge to Canada’s voting age

Toronto, November 14, 2019 — In partnership with several child rights organizations, Justice for Children and Youth (JFCY) and the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights (Asper Centre) have secured case development funding from the Court Challenges Program, which helps finance cases of national significance related to constitutional human rights issues. They will be hosting a consultation for children and youth to inform a legal challenge against Canada’s minimum voting age.

The consultation is designed to hear from children and youth on the voting age and determine a legal approach to a constitutional challenge that both respects and represents their interests. If you are interested in joining the consultations, reach out to the Asper Centre through the contact information provided below.

Section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is clear that all Canadian citizens are allowed to vote. JFCY and the Asper Centre will be working with other child rights organizations and young people to challenge section 3 of the Canada Elections Act, which prevents citizens under the age of 18 from voting in federal elections, on the grounds that the voting age requirement is unconstitutional.

17-year-old student Samantha Walsh supports a legal challenge to the voting age. “As a young person who was unable to vote during the last federal election, I’m excited about a challenge to lower the voting age. Lowering the voting age would allow youth to feel as though they are a more valued part of the society they are contributing to.”

Mary Birdsell, Executive Director of JFCY, agrees. “Decision-makers tend to cite outdated factors when denying young people access to the polls. They are the same factors historically used to deny other groups the right to vote,” she says. “We have seen a continued rise in young people’s efforts to be heard — millions marching on issues that have a direct impact on their lives and the world in which they live in, yet they still can’t vote.”

Increasing social science evidence about adolescent decision-making has established that adolescents are just as cognitively capable of voting as adults, which supports the position that the voting age restriction is unconstitutional. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.” The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child requires countries to “assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child” in accordance “with the age and maturity of the child.”

There are many international success stories of the voting age being lowered. Turnout among 16- and 17-year-olds was 75 percent in Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum, and 16-year-olds can now vote in both Scotland and Wales. In Austria, lowering the voting age increased civic interest among 16- and 17-year-olds — part of growing evidence that voting early is more likely to result in voting later in life.

Canada’s four federal political parties also permit those under 18 to vote for party leadership. The Liberal Party of Canada, Conservative Party of Canada, and Green Party of Canada allow members as young as 14. The federal New Democratic Party does not set out a minimum age for membership, but its provincial and territorial NDPs typically require members to be 14 or older. The Ontario NDP accepts 13-year-olds as full voting members. Moreover, many 16- and 17-year-olds shoulder “adult-like” privileges and duties in Canada, including being allowed to join the military, drive in many provinces and territories, work entry-level jobs, and pay taxes.

Last year, Chief Electoral Officer of Canada Stéphane​ Perrault said the idea of lowering the voting age is “worth considering.” Cheryl Milne, the Executive Director of the Asper Centre, agrees. “Our Supreme Court has made it clear that any limit on Canadians’ right to vote must be clearly justified,”. Given our political parties welcome 14-year-olds to vote in their leadership races, the position that under-18s lack the experience and knowledge to vote responsibly in federal elections is untenable.”

PARTNERS:

Canadian Civil Liberties Association

Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children

Children First Canada

Society for Children and Youth of BC – Child and Youth Legal Centre

The Students Commission of Canada

UNICEF Canada

AVAILABLE FOR COMMENT:

Cheryl Milne, Executive Director, Asper Centre: cheryl.milne@utoronto.ca or 416-978-0012

Mary Birdsell, Executive Director, JFCY: birdsem@lao.on.ca or 416-920-1633

For media inquiries with Samantha Walsh, please contact Emily O’Connor, Communications Manager at UNICEF Canada: eoconnor@unicef.ca or 647-500-4230

ABOUT JUSTICE FOR CHILDREN AND YOUTH

Justice for Children and Youth provides select legal representation to low-income children and youth in Ontario. We are a non-profit legal aid clinic and specialize in protecting the rights of those facing conflicts with the legal system, education, social service or mental health systems. We give summary legal advice, information and assistance to young people, parents (in education matters), professionals and community groups across Ontario.

ABOUT DAVID ASPER CENTRE FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS

The Asper Centre is devoted to realizing constitutional rights through advocacy, research and education. We play a vital role in articulating Canada’s constitutional vision to the broader world. The cornerstone of the Centre is a legal clinic that brings together students, faculty, and members of the bar to work on significant constitutional cases and advocacy initiatives.