by Mashoka Maimona and Renuka Koilpillai
The “Habeas Corpus Best Practices” panel was one of the highlights of the Asper Centre’s Immigration Detention Symposium, held on March 15, 2019. The panellists were immigration and refugee lawyers Subodh Bharati, Jared Will, and Swathi Sekhar. The lively panel was moderated by the Refugee Law Office’s Simon Wallace, who explained that the panel would focus on the current status of habeas corpus, and how it can be used as a litigation strategy in immigration detention cases.
Habeas corpus is a common law writ of relief for immigration detainees to challenge their detention as unlawful. Previously in Canada, as Will outlined, habeas corpus applications could not be used by people who were being held in immigration detention, as courts consistently held that they did not have jurisdiction to hear the case. This changed after Chaudhary v Canada, where the Ontario Court of Appeal (ONCA) stated that habeas corpus is a better remedy in cases of long-term detentions. Fast forward two years to 2017, where in Ogiamien v Ontario, the ONCA extended the use of habeas corpus to immigration matters whenever it can be shown to be a more advantageous remedy than the standard immigration processes. Although this was a step in the right direction, according to Will, Brown v Canada determined that habeas corpus applications should not be attached to Charter damages claims, as a Charter claim “distorts what is otherwise intended to be an expeditious process….and gives the Charter damages claim a higher priority for hearing than it would otherwise receive.” The 2018 SCC appeal in Chhina (decision still pending) will provide important clarification on the scope of habeas corpus, potentially expanding or narrowing the judicial remedies in reviewing a person’s immigration detention.
Bharati’s goal in a detention review is to demonstrate that the immigration detention is unlawful: if it is “unhinged from the immigration purpose” (see Charkaoui and Chaudhary) or if there is any deprivation of liberty that follows from a procedurally unfair process. He called for s. 11 of the Charter to apply to immigration detention matters. Section 11 covers the legal rights that apply to those “charged with an offence,” including (a) the right to be informed without unreasonable delay of the specific offence, (b) the right to be tried within a reasonable time, and (e) the right not to be denied reasonable bail without just cause. Even the SCC has expressed disbelief that any administrative tribunal could imprison someone (see R v Wigglesworth), yet the Federal Court continues to maintain that s. 11 does not apply to immigration matters.
The Chhina appeal demonstrates that there is a greater concern by our courts in extending Charter rights to non-Canadians, as opposed to questioning why everyone does not enjoy the same set of rights, Bharati said. Under s. 11(d) of the Charter, Canadians enjoy the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to the law in a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal. Non-Canadians can, however, be placed in a maximum security prison without these safeguards. The defendant in a criminal bail hearing is brought to court in his or her street clothes — because “the presumption of innocence requires the garb of innocence,” as “every defendant is entitled to be brought before the court with the appearance, dignity, and self-respect of a free and innocent” person (see Eaddy v People). However, in immigration detention matters, where detainees are not being held for any criminal purpose, they appear at detention review hearings wearing an orange prison uniform. The detentions themselves can even be held in maximum security prisons. The minds of decision-makers who pass through these gates with armed guards can be reasonably assumed to be tainted. What follows from a procedurally unfair process is by its very nature unlawful, Bharati reminded the audience.
When asked about future litigation strategies, Bharati shared his stark truth: “One realization I’ve had is that the law is not meant to be the vehicle for social reform. It’s very difficult. Laws are made by people in power to keep their power. It’s about keeping the status quo.” Systemic change through the judicial system is about understanding the underlying principles, he added. One of these principles in how we measure the legitimacy of a law in its equal application.
Sekhar flagged how detainees are further criminalized for “non-cooperation” by CBSA officers, who threaten to invoke s. 16 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) and charge her clients criminally. This is done without understanding the experiences of the detainees, such as their potential fear of returning to their country, or how months and even years of incarceration affects their mental health.
Will advocated for more rules in this area, pointing to Quebec’s Code of Civil Procedure as an exemplar for its accelerated process for handling habeas corpus applications — a process that affords detention cases the importance and urgency they deserve. Forty-eight hours after providing notice, a detainee can plead in front of a judge (as everything else gets bumped down the list). This seems unsurprising, given the high-stakes in such detention cases that involve the deprivation of people’s liberty, dignity, minds, and lives. However, while the question on the writ is straightforward, boiling down to whether the affidavit raises reasonable and probable grounds to challenge the detention, detainees face “tense resistance” from the Department of Justice and the Ontario courts. The reality is that habeas applications are resource intensive and time-consuming, Will added, and because of the sheer length of the process, a habeas application may not be in a detainee’s best interest. Nevertheless, the first tool in a detainee’s arsenal is the threat of a habeas, he suggested.
Mashoka Maimona and Renuka Koilpillai are 1L JD Candidates at the Faculty of Law. They are also members of the Asper Centre Immigration & Refugee Law student working group this year.