R v Chouhan: The Supreme Court of Canada finds room for disagreement

 

By Wei Yang

On June 25, 2021, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) released its reasons for judgement in R v Chouhan,1 a case that the Asper Centre intervened in last year.

Background

Mr Chouhan was charged with first-degree murder and was thus entitled to a trial by jury. His trial date was scheduled for September 19, 2019, the same day that legislation eliminating peremptory challenges and substituting the trial judge as the trier for challenges for cause took effect.2 Prior to the new law, a limited number of peremptory challenges were available for both the accused and the Crown to dismiss potential jurors without cause.3 Challenges for cause used to be heard by lay triers instead of the trial judge.4

The federal government introduced this legislation in response to the trial of Gerald Stanley, who was charged with murder in the death of Colten Boushie, an Indigenous man. Mr Stanley was acquitted by a jury composed of zero Indigenous persons – a result of Mr Stanley’s peremptory challenges against five Indigenous prospective jurors.5

Mr Chouhan argued before his trial that the elimination of peremptory challenges violated his ss. 7, 11(d), and 11(f) Charter rights.If the amendments were constitutional, Mr Chouhan argued that they applied prospectively and not to his trial.7 The trial judge determined that there were other sufficient jury selection protections and the amendments were purely procedural.8 Therefore, the law was constitutional and applied to all trials after entering into force, including Mr Chouhan’s; neither party was entitled to peremptorily challenge any prospective jurors. Mr Chouhan was convicted.

At appeal, the Court of Appeal for Ontario rejected Mr Chouhan’s constitutional arguments, echoing the trial judge’s finding that other jury-related protections such as representative jury rolls, judicial excusals, and challenges for cause sufficiently preserved Mr Chouhan’s ss. 11(d) and 11(f) rights.9 However, the Court of Appeal held that his substantive right to peremptory challenges was nevertheless affected.10 Therefore, the amendments applied prospectively and Mr Chouhan was entitled to peremptory challenges.11

At the Supreme Court of Canada

The Crown appealed on the temporal applicability issue and Mr Chouhan cross-appealed on the constitutional question.12 The Supreme Court of Canada released its decision from the bench: Wagner CJ declared that a majority of the Court believed that the amendments were constitutional and purely procedural. The appeal was allowed, the cross-appeal was dismissed, and the conviction was restored.

The SCC released its divided reasons eight months later. Writing the joint reasons for judgement (alongside four other sets of reasons) Wagner CJ, Moldaver and Brown JJ held that s. 11(d) does not entitle anyone to a particular jury process.13 The question to be asked on a s. 11(d) challenge is “whether a reasonable person, fully informed of the circumstances, would consider that the new jury selection process gives rise to a reasonable apprehension of bias so as to deprive accused persons of a fair trial before an independent and impartial tribunal”, citing Valente v The Queen.14 They agreed with the lower courts that representative jury rolls, the randomness of jury selection, unlimited challenges for cause, and the judge’s power to excuse (or stand aside) prospective jurors protect the independence and impartiality of the tribunal and thus the amendments were constitutional.15 In addition, the changes were purely procedural and applied retrospectively.16 The justices found that abolishing peremptory challenges will likely increase the representativeness of the jury.17 The justices specifically noted, however, that jury diversity is not constitutionally required.18

Wagner CJ, Moldaver and Brown JJ proceeded to define the scope of the existing protections. First, trial judges should consider issuing jury charges and instructions to militate against unconscious bias.19 With challenges for cause, jurors should be asked relevant questions related to circumstances of the case and whether they can set aside compromising beliefs.20 However, the questions must respect juror privacy.21The judge can exercise their discretion to exclude prospective jurors since it is unlikely that individuals will openly admit to their biases.22 Judges can also stand aside prospective jurors if doing so would uphold public confidence.23

Karakatsanis, Martin and Kasirer JJ agreed with the final disposition and the need for robust jury instructions, but cautioned against Wagner CJ, Moldaver and Brown JJ’s description of the scope of the existing jury procedures.24 They opined that it should be left for the lower courts to decide how to interpret and apply the new amendments.25 In addition, one must not rely too heavily on the randomness of jury selection since random selection within an “unequal society” does not eliminate systemic bias.26

Rowe J, in another separate concurring opinion, agreed with the disposition but cautioned against interpreting this judgement as constitutionalizing these jury selection procedures.27 Interpreting these statutes as constitutional requirements would create the absurd consequence of eliminating Parliament’s ability to repeal their own laws, undermining the principle of parliamentary sovereignty.28

Abella J agreed that the amendments were constitutional but dissented on its temporal applicability. In opposition to Wagner CJ, Moldaver and Brown JJ’s more conservative approach, Justice Abella held that as long as judges “vigorously exercise their authority” by using their stand aside power to increase jury diversity and jurors are asked more probing questions when challenged for cause, the accused’s s. 11 rights are sufficiently protected.29 However, the abolition of peremptory challenges still affected a substantive right; the ability for an accused to participate in the empanelment of a jury they themselves view as representative and impartial is a substantive right even if it is not a constitutional one.30 The amendment, therefore, was not purely procedural and did not apply to Mr Chouhan’s trial.31

Côté J, in dissent, claimed Wagner CJ, Moldaver and Brown JJ attempted to create a new jury regime to disguise the fact that the existing one is inadequate.32 The abolition of peremptory challenges creates a gap in the system, violating Mr Chouhan’s s. 11(f) Charter right.33 Stand asides do not sufficiently preserve impartiality because they do not completely eliminate the possibility that the prospective juror will be empanelled.34 Jury rolls are not necessarily representative: when they are sourced from municipal assessment rolls, it prevents some Indigenous persons from being selected.35 Those who have committed certain provincial and criminal offences are also omitted from the jury roll, which excludes many Indigenous and Black persons who are disproportionally represented in the criminal justice system.36 Finally, without peremptory challenges, there is no assurance that jurors will share similar life experiences to the accused, affecting the common sense, competence, and fact finding ability of the jury.37 This infringement cannot be saved under s. 1 of the Charter: it is not rationally connected to the objective of combatting jury discrimination and promoting jury diversity, nor is it minimally impairing (peremptory challenges ought to have been regulated, not eliminated).38 In the alternative, the abolition applied prospectively.39

Implications

The Asper Centre is pleased to see that a majority of the Court shared our view that the amendments were constitutional. The majority of the Court also recognised the reality of unconscious bias, as we stated in our submissions, in addition to affirming the Asper Centre’s argument that peremptory challenges were only one component of a jury selection system that otherwise provides sufficient protections for an accused person.40 However, we recognize the differing views on peremptory challenges in relation to jury representativeness.

Nader Hasan, co-counsel for the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association and the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers (and adjunct professor at UofT Law and Asper Centre’s Fall 2020 constitutional litigator-in-residence), who intervened to support Mr Chouhan’s cross-appeal, lauded Côté J’s dissent.41 Despite the Court’s disposition, Hasan noted that this decision will empower defence counsel to more aggressively challenge for cause prospective jurors.42

R v Chouhan continues the Supreme Court of Canada’s pattern of divided opinions.43 Although the judgements on the constitutional question and temporal applicability were relatively clear, this decision nevertheless produced five distinct sets of reasons, none of which represented a plurality or majority of the Court. This division likely reflects the diverse views on the effectiveness of peremptory challenges on jury representativeness, as demonstrated by the parties’ submissions. Ultimately, however, this outcome leaves Canadians and lower courts with a clear conclusion but without decisive directions.

Wei Yang is an incoming 2L JD student at the Faculty of Law and is currently one of the Asper Centre’s summer research assistants.

Footnotes:
1. R v Chouhan, 2021 SCC 26 [Chouhan].
2. Ibid at para 1, citing Bill C-75, An Act to amend the Criminal Code, the Youth Criminal Justice Act and other Acts and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, 1st Sess, 42nd Leg, 2019, c 25.
3. Chouhan, supra note 1 at paras 10, 13.
4. Ibid at para 27.
5. Ibid at para 41.
6. Ibid at para 3.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid at para 4.
9. Ibid at paras 6, 35.
10. Ibid at para 6.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid at para 7.
13. Ibid at para 31.
14. Ibid, citing Valente v The Queen, [1985] 2 SCR 673, 1985 CanLII 25.
15. Ibid at paras 33–36.
16. Ibid at para 90.
17. Ibid at para 41.
18. Ibid at paras 43, 74 (citing Abella J at para 164), 79.
19. Ibid at para 49.
20. Ibid at para 64.
21. Ibid at para 66.
22. Ibid at para 67.
23. Ibid at paras 70–71.
24. Ibid at paras 109–111.
25. Ibid at paras 111–112.
26. Ibid at para 114.
27. Ibid at para 126.
28. Ibid at paras 141–142.
29. Ibid at paras 159–161, 165.
30. Ibid at paras 167, 189, 194, 204–205.
31. Ibid at paras 165, 220.
32. Ibid at para 267.
33. Ibid at paras 260, 267.
34. Ibid at para 269.
35. Ibid at para 272.
36. Ibid.
37. Ibid at paras 275–277.
38. Ibid at paras 288–291.
39. Ibid at para 293.
40. Ibid (Asper Centre’s factum at paras 2, 3, 20).
41. Nader Hasan, “The Côté J dissent in #Chouhan is [three consecutive fire emojis]. The lead decision, on the other hand, suggests that we can deal with potentially racist jurors with a mid-trial instruction ‘don’t be racist’. [Quote Tweet]” (25 June 2021 at 11:10), online: Twitter <https://twitter.com/Nader_Hasan_law/status/1408442578501001216>.
42. Nader Hasan, “On the plus side, the Chouhan decision as a whole is a clarion call to defence counsel to be aggressive with their challenge-for-cause and stand-aside applications. There is at least some recognition that an important tool has been lost with the abolition of peremptory challenges [Reply Tweet]” (25 June 2021 at 11:10), online: Twitter <https://twitter.com/Nader_Hasan_law/status/1408442579977490435>.
43. Cristin Schmitz, “Supreme Court of Canada Hits Record Low 40% Unanimity Rate in 2019; Many Appeals Came from Quebec” (20 January 2020), online: The Lawyer’s Daily <https://www.thelawyersdaily.ca/articles/17529/supreme-court-of-canada-hits-record-low-40-unanimity-rate-in-2019-many-appeals-came-from-quebec> (last modified 21 January 2020).

LEAF and the Asper Centre welcome the Ontario Court of Appeal’s Decision in R. v. Sharma

 

A majority of the Ontario Court of Appeal has struck down Criminal Code provisions which made conditional sentences unavailable for certain offences. The ruling comes in response to Cheyenne Sharma’s constitutional challenge to these provisions, and explicitly acknowledges and draws on the arguments and information provided by LEAF and the Asper Centre in their joint intervention.

Ms. Sharma – a young Indigenous woman, an intergenerational residential school survivor, and a single mother – faced financial hardship and potential eviction for her and her young daughter. She acted as a drug courier, importing 2 kg of cocaine into Canada, and then pleaded guilty to importing drugs.

As an Indigenous person, Ms. Sharma is entitled to the use of the Gladue framework. The Gladue framework is an individualized approach to sentencing that requires judges to consider the impact of systemic factors such as intergenerational trauma of residential schools and the harms of colonial oppression, and to consider alternatives to incarceration when sentencing Indigenous offenders. These options include conditional sentences, a community-based alternative to a custodial sentence.

However, 2012 amendments to the Criminal Code made conditional sentences unavailable for offences with a maximum penalty of 14 years or life in prison, and for offences involving the import, export, trafficking, or production of drugs, with a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. As a result, Ms. Sharma was not eligible for a conditional sentence. Ms. Sharma argued that the provisions violated her rights under section 15 of the Charter, but the trial judge did not accept these arguments and imposed a custodial sentence.

LEAF and the Asper Centre intervened before the Ontario Court of Appeal to argue that the constitutionality of the provisions needed to be assessed in the context of systemic discrimination against Indigenous people, especially Indigenous women, in the administration of criminal justice.

This discrimination is clearly evident in the overwhelming overincarceration of Indigenous people, particularly Indigenous women, in Canada. In 2017/2018, Indigenous persons represented approximately four percent of the adult population in Canada, but accounted for 30 percent of admissions to provincial or territorial custody, and 28 percent of admissions to federal custody. The crisis of overincarceration has worsened over time. Between 2007/2008 and 2017/2018, for example, the number of admissions of Indigenous women to provincial/territorial custody increased by 66 percent.

The majority’s decision means that conditional sentences will now be an available option for trial judges to consider in sentencing Indigenous offenders for a wide variety of offences, provided other requirements are also met (including that the sentence is less than two years, and serving the sentence in the community will not endanger the community).

Ms. Sharma will not get to see the direct benefit of her victory, having already served her jail sentence before the appeal. The decision, however, will help to ensure that, moving forward, Indigenous offenders receive the benefit of the different approach to sentencing enshrined in the Gladue framework. It will also serve as a small step towards reducing the overincarceration of Indigenous people and in particular Indigenous women.

The majority’s decision represents an important articulation of substantive equality under section 15 of the Charter. Section 15, despite its potential for advancing equality, remains complex and under-applied. The majority’s analysis provides a clear example of how to apply section 15 where an applicant argues that a law appearing neutral on its face is discriminatory in its effect – and illustrates the potential of section 15 to be used as tool for addressing the overincarceration of Indigenous people, and Indigenous women in particular.

“We are extremely pleased with the decision in R. v. Sharma,” said Cheryl Milne, Executive Director of the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights.The Court’s decision affirms our position that substantive equality requires a different approach to criminal justice for Indigenous people. Allowing judges to consider conditional sentences in these cases should help contribute, incrementally, to reducing the overincarceration of Indigenous people.”

“This decision is a breakthrough in how courts think about section 15 of the Charter and criminal law, and affirms the substantive equality rights of Indigenous women in the criminal justice context.” said Megan Stephens, Executive Director and General Counsel of LEAF. “The majority decision is remarkable for both its analytical rigor and its compassion concerning the devastating consequences of the overincarceration of Indigenous women, and the ongoing intergenerational harms to Indigenous women caused by colonialism, sexism, and racism.”

Case Committee and Counsel

LEAF and the Asper Centre’s arguments were informed and supported by a case committee composed of academics and practitioners with expertise in the relevant issues. The committee members for this intervention are (in alphabetical order): Emma Cunliffe (Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia), Gillian Balfour (Department of Sociology, Trent University), Martha Shaffer (University of Toronto Faculty of Law), Mary Eberts OC, Naiomi Metallic (Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University), Rakhi Ruparelia (Faculty of Law – Common Law Section, University of Ottawa), and Renée Pelletier (Olthius Kleer Townshend LLP).

We are grateful to pro bono counsel Adriel Weaver and Jessica Orkin of Goldblatt Partners LLP, who acted for LEAF and the Asper Centre in this important case.

About Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF)

The Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) works to advance the substantive equality rights of women and girls through litigation, law reform, and public education. Since 1985, we have intervened in landmark cases that have advanced equality in Canada—helping to prevent violence, eliminate discrimination in the workplace, provide better maternity benefits, ensure a right to pay equity, and allow access to reproductive freedoms.

To support our work to protect the equality rights of women and girls, please consider donating today.

About David Asper Centre

The David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights is devoted to realizing constitutional rights through advocacy, research and education. The Centre aims to 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. The Centre was established through a generous gift from U of T law alumnus David Asper (LLM ’07). For more information please visit www.aspercentre.ca.

For media inquiries, contact:

Megan Stephens, Executive Director & General Counsel
Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF)
T: 416-317-4440
E: m.stephens@leaf.ca

Cheryl Milne, Director
The David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights
T: 416-540-7619
E: cheryl.milne@utoronto.ca

Young Climate Activists Attempt to Hold Province Accountable for Inadequate Emissions Target

By Amy Chen

In late 2019, Ecojustice and Stockwoods LLP initiated a constitutional challenge (“the Application”) against Ontario’s greenhouse gas reduction target on behalf of seven young climate activists (the “Applicants”). Ontario responded with a motion to strike. Mathur et al v Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Ontario was heard via teleconference on July 13, 2020, with judgment reserved.  The Applicants were represented by Nader Hasan, the Asper Centre’s upcoming constitutional litigator-in-residence, and Justin Safayeni.

Background

In 2018, the Ford provincial government passed the Cap and Trade Cancellation Act (“CTCA”), repealing the Climate Change Mitigation and Low-Carbon Economy Act (“old Climate Change Act”). Under s. 3(1) of the CTCA, the provincial government “shall establish targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in Ontario and may revise the targets from time to time”. The new target is set out in the province’s new Environmental Plan: “Ontario will reduce its emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030”.  In comparison, the old target (when calibrated) was to reduce the emissions by about 45%.

The public interest Applicants (Sophia Mathur, Zoe Keary-Matzner, Shaelyn Wabegijig, Shelby Gagnon, Alex Neufeldt, Madison Dyck, Beze Gray) in the present case are climate activists between the ages of 13 and 24. The Applicants argue that the new target, as well as the repeal of the old Climate Change Act, violates the rights of Ontario youth and future generations under ss. 7 and 15 of the Charter. Ontario is exacerbating the current climate emergency and threatening the lives of all Ontarians by weakening the province’s target. Canada has an international obligation, under the Paris Agreement, to limit global warming to 1.5 oC above pre-industrial levels and prevent the effects of climate change from becoming irreversible. Ontario’s greenhouse gas emission levels will be too high to meet this obligation even if the target is fulfilled, making the target arbitrary and irrational. The Applicants seek mandatory orders requiring Ontario to set a “science-based” greenhouse gas reduction target for 2030 and to revise its climate action plan accordingly.

Summary of Motion Hearing

The issue of the motion was whether the Application should be struck for disclosing no reasonable cause of action.  The hearing primarily revolved around three issues: (1) whether the Application is justiciable, (2) whether the claims within the Application are “inherently speculative in nature”, and (3) whether the Application requires the recognition of positive rights, and if so, whether the Application can be struck on that basis.

(1) Whether the Application is Justiciable

Ontario’s first argument was that the Application is non-justiciable, or that the courts do not have the institutional capacity or legitimacy to adjudicate on this case. Ontario relied on Tanudjaja v Attorney General of Canada, a Charter challenge against the “social conditions” created by the federal and provincial governments that perpetuate homelessness and inadequate housing. The Ontario Court of Appeal found the case to be non-justiciable because there was “no judicially discoverable and manageable standard for assessing… whether [the governments’] housing policy is adequate”. Ontario argued that this Application, like Tanudjaja, asks the Court to assess the soundness of public policy, which is beyond its institutional capacity. The target is a piece of public policy that outlines Ontario’s “aspirations” regarding climate action, not a legally binding commitment.  The Applicants are asking Ontario to establish a “science-based” target that would allow for a “stable climate system”; these are not concrete, legal parameters that could be judicially reviewed.

The Applicants argue that the target is a policy made in pursuant to a statutory mandate (the CTCA), which falls under the definition of “law” for the purposes of a Charter challenge (Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority v. Canadian Federation of Students). The Applicants are challenging actual laws, not merely “social conditions”, and seeking relief defined by scientifically knowable standards. These standards can be judicially determined and have been judicially determined by courts in international jurisdictions. Neither complexity nor novelty can justify striking the claim.

(2) Whether the Application is “Inherently Speculative In Nature”

Section 7 Charter claims cannot be premised on speculations about the effects of government action (Operation Dismantle v. The Queen).  Ontario’s second argument was that the Applicants’ section 7 claims are speculative and incapable of being proven – the claims assume that the target determines actual emissions, that the target will not change, and that federal policy will not have an effect on Ontario’s emissions.

The Applicants argue that they fully intend to prove their claims based on expert evidence, and whether they would be successful in doing so should be determined at a hearing on its merits. As per Bedford v Canada and Canada v PHS Community Services Society, Charter applicants only have to establish a “real and substantial connection” between the impugned government conduct and the alleged harm. The Applicants are allowed to seek relief for potential future harms even if the government is not the dominant cause of these future harms.

(3)The Issue of Positive Rights

Ontario’s final arguments concerned the government’s positive obligations. First, Ontario does not have any constitutional obligations to keep the old Climate Change Act. Unless there was a constitutional obligation to enact the old legislation, the Ontario legislature is free to repeal and replace it (Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic v. Canada). Second, the Applicant is asking Ontario to take positive steps to combat the adverse effects of climate change, even though neither ss. 15 or 7 of the Charter gives individuals positive rights. Although Gosselin v. Québec left open the possibility that there may be “special circumstances” where positive rights could be recognized, many appellate cases have declined to recognize these positive rights. The lower courts are therefore bound by precedent until the Supreme Court of Canada changes the law (Tanudjaja, trial decision).

The Applicants argue that this case does not require the recognition of positive rights. This case is not merely challenging the repeal of legislation or government inaction, but directly challenging government action. The Ontario government regulates, authorizes, and incentivizes dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions through the CTCA and the target. The law is clear that this authorization and regulation is enough to constitute a reasonable cause of action (Dixon v. Director, Ministry of the Environment). The Applicants do not seek a declaration regarding HOW the target is to be achieved, and hence are not demanding any positive obligations from the government. They are merely demanding that the target and the climate action plan be constitutionally compliant.  Even if this Application requires the recognition of positive rights, many courts have relied on Gosselin to deny motions to strike. To strike the claim at this stage would freeze section 7 rights in a manner that is contrary to the “living tree” constitutional interpretive principle.

What Next?

The outcome of this motion will serve as a critical turning point in the fight for climate justice by answering one key question:  Can the provincial government be held legally accountable for its inadequate climate action plan? In an interview with the Asper Centre, Mr. Hasan posited that there could be positive outcomes for climate justice whether the claim is struck or not. If the claim is struck, the Applicants would likely appeal the decision; such an outcome would give the appellate courts an opportunity to consider the complex legal issues involved and set a precedent for climate change litigation in Canada. If the claim proceeds, the Applicants would be permitted to present their evidentiary record. A judge would hear “striking and chilling” testimonies regarding the catastrophic effects of climate change and the fact that these effects will become irreversible if drastic action is not taken. As stated by Mr. Hasan: “I feel quite confident that, if we ever get the evidentiary record in front of a judge, the judges are going to want to do the right thing.”

Additional arguments were raised in the parties’ written submissions. Ontario’s arguments are stated in their notice of motion to strike. The Applicant’s arguments can be found in their factum and on their website.

For more information regarding our governments’ ss. 7 and 15 constitutional obligations to address  climate change, see the Asper Centre’s UTEA working group publication- “Give our Children A Future: The Moral and Legal Obligations of the Government of Canada to Act on Climate Change”.

Amy (Jun) Chen is a 1L JD Candidate at the Faculty of Law and is the Asper Centre’s current summer Research Assistant.

What Does Vavilov Mean for Constitutional Issues in Administrative Law?

by Cheryl Milne

It seems like a lifetime ago that I last attended an in-person legal conference. It was only March 9th, and while the specter of COVID-19 was present (there were hand sanitizer dispensers at the elevator banks and we all used them), social distancing was not yet a phrase on everyone’s tongue as we sat shoulder to shoulder in the downtown conference facility. The conference hosted by Osgoode Hall Law School was a day-long examination of the Supreme Court of Canada’s long-awaited administrative law decision, Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65. I was asked to discuss its implications for constitutional issues.

The short answer is that the decision poses more questions than answers. The long version is what I think can be covered in a blog post rather than an academic paper. Hence, my attempt, from the relatively safe confines of my kitchen, to summarize what I said on March 9th and what I have thought about it since. I should add that I was joined on this two-person panel by Senwung Luk of OKT LLP, who addressed the implications for the duty to consult and accommodate, and whose succinct answer to that question was, “utter chaos.”

For those of you who were not hanging on the edge of your seats for the duration of 2019 awaiting the Court’s pronouncement on the standard of review in administrative law, the appeal involved the judicial review of the decision of the Registrar of Citizenship to cancel the Canadian citizenship of the Canadian-born son of parents later revealed to be Russian spies – their story served as inspiration for the television series, The Americans. That got some of your attention!

I don’t propose to analyze the Court’s overall approach to the administrative law questions and the standard of review here. For a more comprehensive treatment, I suggest Paul Daly’s blog Administrative Law Matters which links to his longer paper posted on SSRN. My task was to discuss the constitutional issues that the majority purported not to address.

In refusing to comment on its earlier administrative law decision in Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, the Court leaves open many questions. Doré established that the standard of review of an administrative decision that impacted Charter rights was reasonableness, rather than the application of the Oakes test under s. 1 of the Charter, but in keeping with the general theme of proportionality under s.1, the decision needed to be a proportional balancing of the Charter right with the governing statutory objective. This approach was reiterated in Loyola High School v. Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 12 and the Trinity Western decisions (referenced below). It remains controversial, with critics claiming that it fails to respect the primary or priority of Charter rights[1] and fails to place the onus on government for justifying a limitation on rights as is required under s. 1 of the Charter.[2]

The majority states clearly that “constitutional matters require a final and determinate answer from the courts” (para.55), thus attracting the correctness standard of review. But that applies only to constitutional questions, such as a challenge to the constitutional validity of legislation. The majority of the Court goes on to state,

However, it is important to draw a distinction between cases in which it is alleged that the effect of the administrative decision being reviewed is to unjustifiably limit rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (as was the case in Doré) and those in which the issue on review is whether a provision of the decision maker’s enabling statute violates the Charter… [para. 57]

 

 

 

So, you might ask what is so unclear about that? The reasonableness standard continues to apply to the Doré set of cases, while challenges to statutes require the standard of correctness. But the Court interchanges constitutional questions with the term constitutional matters, which include federalism issues and treaty rights, and glosses over any confusion that could arise over what could fit within that category. For example, the Ontario Courts of Justice Act defines a constitutional question as one that invokes the constitutional validity or applicability of a statutory provision as well as a claim for a constitutional remedy under s.24(1) of the Charter. Does this mean that the standard of correctness applies to a claim for a constitutional remedy based on government action as opposed to the validity of a statute, as anticipated by R v Conway, 2010 SCC 22?

To illustrate the Court’s inconsistency on this issue alone, one need only look to the case of Ernst v Alberta Energy Regulators, 2017 SCC 1, admittedly not a judicial review, but a case that provides confusing analysis about what constitutes a constitutional question. The plaintiff was seeking Charter damages against the administrative body for allegedly infringing her Charter right to freedom of expression. The regulator raised the statutory provision that barred claims against it to seek a dismissal of the proceedings, while Ernst argued that the provision could not be interpreted so as to prevent a Charter claim. A minority of the Court agreed with the regulator’s interpretation that the legislation barred a damages claim, suggesting the Ernst ought to have sought a judicial review instead. Their ruling dismissing the appeal became the majority decision when Justice Abella reasoned that the claim should be dismissed because the plaintiff failed to file a Notice of Constitutional Question to have the provision declared unconstitutional. If that sounds confusing to you, you are not alone.

A further constitutional matter that could also fall within the category of general questions of law of central importance to the legal system as a whole, which is another category requiring the correctness standard of review, is the consistent interpretation of a Charter right itself. As McLachlin, C.J. (as she then was) noted in her concurring reasons in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, possibly conflating reasonableness and correctness in this context,

…[T]he scope of the guarantee of the Charter right must be given a consistent interpretation regardless of the state actor, and it is the task of the courts on judicial review of a decision to ensure this. A decision based on an erroneous interpretation of a Charter right will be unreasonable. Canadians should not have to fear that their rights will be given different levels of protection depending on how the state has chosen to delegate and wield its power. [para. 116]

 

 

 

 

In stating that it was not revisiting Doré, the majority said that “reconsideration of [its approach to the standard of review of reasonableness was] not germaine to the issues in this appeal” [para.57]. To properly examine this statement, one needs to dip one’s toe into the majority’s revised reasonableness framework. In asserting that the role of the reviewing court is to review and not to decide the issues themselves, the majority states that the review does not entail an “attempt to ascertain the ‘range’ of possible conclusions that would have been open to the decision maker” [para.83]. This specifically contradicts the language of Doré [para. 56] in respect of the proportionality analysis and the approach to judicial review generally enunciated in Dunsmuir v. New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9 [para. 47]. The Court reiterated this pre-Vavilov approach in Trinity Western University v Law Society of Upper Canada, 2018 SCC 33, where Justice Abella stated for the majority,

The reviewing court must consider whether there were other reasonable possibilities that would give effect to Charter protections more fully in light of the objectives, always asking whether the decision falls within a range of reasonable outcomes [Doré, at para.57; Loyala, at para. 41, citing RJR-MacDonald Inc. v. Canada (Attorney General), 1995 CanLII 64 (SCC), [1995] 3 S.C.R. 199, at para. 160). [para. 36]

 

 

 

It is difficult to ascertain whether a given decision that is required to balance Charter rights against legislative purpose is proportional without asking whether the decision falls within a range of reasonable outcomes. While the section 1 Oakes test is not applicable, the imperative of minimally impairing a Charter right is central to the proportionality analysis.

Another aspect of the decision that raises questions about the approach to expect in future cases is the Court’s treatment of context. The contextual approach to determining the standard of review has been clearly rejected. Reasonableness, even where Charter rights are implicated (other than a constitutional question), is the presumptive standard. However, context still plays a role in the way that a robust reasonableness review is conducted.

The majority states, “what is reasonable in a given situation will always depend on the constraints imposed by the legal and factual context of the particular decision under review” [para. 90]. However, it is also important to note that the majority in Trinity Western also stated that in the Charter context reasonableness and proportionality are synonymous, suggesting, perhaps, a different approach to the standard of reasonableness given that one could argue that proportionality requires a particular approach when assessing the impact on Charter protected rights.

While we appear to be stuck with Doré for the foreseeable future, that may not be a bad thing in light of the Court’s deferential approach to reasonableness in Vavilov. However, questions still remain under that approach as to who bears the onus for demonstrating the reasonableness of a decision, with the Courts generally requiring those challenging the decision to meet that onus. This leaves the individual alleging the breach of their Charter rights with the burden, unlike the onus on government under the Oakes test.

So, my short summary was that there are more questions than answers in respect of the implications of Vavilov for constitutional issues. Those questions for me include: What is a constitutional question? Does the interpretation of the Charter right invoke the standard of correctness or is an incorrect interpretation unreasonable? How will the context of a Charter claim alter the reasonableness standard, or will it? How will the proportionality analysis be conducted if the reviewer is not to examine alternative outcomes that could have been available? And, does the requirement of justification and the focus on reasons address any of the issues pertaining to onus that have been the subject of the criticism of Doré?

Cheryl Milne is the Executive Director of the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights

[1] Macklin, Audrey, Charter Right or Charter Lite? Administrative Discretion and the Charter (October 9, 2014). Supreme Court Law Review, Vol 67, 2014. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2507801

[2] Liston, Mary, Administering the Charter, Proportioning Justice: Thirty-five Years of Development in a Nutshell Canadian Journal of Administrative Law & Practice; Toronto Vol. 30, Iss. 2, (Jun 2017): 211-246.

Recapping Brandon Garrett’s Constitutional Roundtable on Wealth, Equal Protection, and Due Process

by Kylie de Chastelain

On Wednesday, October 2nd, 2019 the Asper Centre hosted Professor Brandon Garrett for a Constitutional Roundtable titled “Wealth, Equal Protection and Due Process.”

Professor Garrett presented work from a recent paper exploring “equal process” – a term he coined to describe the intersection between the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses in the United States Constitution. “Equal process” claims have already arisen from Supreme Court and lower court cases where the main issue is wealth inequality, but courts have been wary of engaging with constitutional issues on a cumulative or intersectional basis. Garrett argues that the “equal process” approach should be more widely implemented to help address a series of pressing civil right issues, including the constitutionality of fines, loss of voter rights or driver’s licenses, and detention for inability to pay cash bail.

To illustrate the damaging effects of “punishing the poor,” and the need for an “equal process” approach, Garrett presented findings from a compelling empirical research study he conducted at Duke Law’s JustScience Lab. The study examined driver’s license suspensions in North Carolina from 1996-2018. In North Carolina, licenses can be suspended for a failure to pay traffic tickets or failure to appear in court. Many states have similar legislation. However, in North Carolina, as elsewhere, insufficient public transit options make driving a necessity. The loss of one’s license can have substantial material effects on livelihood and employment.

Garrett and his team found that approximately 1 out of 7 driving-age individuals in North Carolina currently have suspended licenses, for a total of 1,225,000 active suspensions. Of these, 827,000 are for a failure to appear in Court, 263,000 are for a failure to comply with orders to pay traffic fines or court fees, and 135,000 are for both. This data was further analyzed against race and class metrics to find that driver’s license suspensions occur disproportionately in low-income and non-white populations. In other words, license suspension and legal procedure of this kind punish people for poverty; something the Equal Protection Clause explicitly aims to prevent.

Historically, U.S. courts have been unwilling to examine constitutional issues such as these in creative ways, preferring to examine constitutional matters in isolation. This clause-by-clause tactic, Garrett argues, fails to adequately address the complex issues arising from poverty. An interdisciplinary approach yields better results.

For example, in Bearden v Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983), a man who was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay $750 in fines but could not afford to do so eventually had his probation revoked. The Bearden Court explicitly merged Equal Protection and Due Process analyses in this case, noting that a classic procedural approach – where fine amounts are automatic regardless of ability to pay – was inherently unjust. Instead, the Court examined why the man could not pay and explored whether alternative measures could equally serve the state’s interest. Implementing a delayed payment plan, reducing the fine, or ordering time in public service could all fulfill requirements for punishment and restitution without unduly compounding the effects of poverty in this man’s life. Like this, the “equal process” approach could empower courts and litigators to raise joint claims and establish more just modes of penalty.

In this way, Professor Garrett argues, Bearden provides courts and lawyers with a strong basis for raising and trying joint claims. Adopting an “equal process” approach could empower courts to re-examine their objectives and interests in handing down punishment to society’s most vulnerable.

Following Professor Garrett’s presentation, Professor Vincent Chiao offered his comments and insight into the Canadian context. R v Boudreault, 2018 SCC 58 is a recent notable case where the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the mandatory victim surcharge provision of the Criminal Code on the basis that it was unconstitutional. As Chiao noted, the Court’s analysis in Boudreault did not focus on due process or equality but on gross disproportionality and cruel and unusual punishment as per s. 12 of the Charter.

The decision in Boudreault marked a clear departure from R v Tinker 2017 ONCA 522, where the Court reinstated victim surcharges against appellants on the basis that they were “rationally connected” to aims regarding remedy for criminal activities and accountability to victims. In Tinker, s. 12 arguments addressing cruel and unusual punishment were dismissed. But in Boudreault, as in Bearden, the Court acknowledged that victim surcharges compound the effects of poverty, effectively creating ongoing debts that are impossible for offenders to repay. Chiao emphasized that although the result in Boudreault was encouraging, Professor Garrett’s “equal process” approach could help elucidate intersectional, equality-focused jurisprudence in Canada moving forward.

Kylie de Chastelain is a 1L JD student at the Faculty of Law and is the current Asper Centre work-study student.