The Supreme Court of Canada heard this appeal in Treaty One Territory (Winnipeg, Manitoba). This was the Court’s first time sitting outside of Ottawa.
by Amy Chen
On June 12, 2020, the Supreme Court of Canada released its judgment on Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique v. British Columbia. The primary issue was whether the Province of British Columbia failed to adequately fund its French-language school board, therefore violating the board’s s. 23 minority-language Charter rights. The secondary issue was whether the Province owed the school board damages for said violations under s. 24(1) of the Charter. The Asper Centre’s intervention focused on the scope of the government’s qualified immunity from Charter damages. The SCC affirmed the Asper Centre’s position – the government may only have qualified immunity from Charter damages if its actions are authorized by statute, not policy.
The Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie‑Britannique (“CSF”) is the only French‑language school board in British Columbia. It submitted multiple s. 23 Charter claims against the Province, including, among other things, the Province freezing its funding for school transportation. The CSF sought a significant amount of damages under s. 24(1) of the Charter.
Damages may be awarded under s. 24(1) for a Charter breach where it is “appropriate and just” from the perspective of the claimant and the state (Vancouver (City) v. Ward [Ward]). The government may use its qualified immunity to oppose a damages award if it can prove that there are concerns of “good governance” or that alternate remedies are available. This qualified immunity was first established in Mackin v. New Brunswick [Mackin]: “absent conduct that is clearly wrong, in bad faith or an abuse of power, the courts will not award damages for the harm suffered as a result of the mere enactment or application of a law that is subsequently declared to be unconstitutional”. The immunity allows public officials to carry out their duties without fear of liability, in the event that the statute is later struck down (Ward).
The trial judge found that the Province’s freeze on transportation funding constituted an infringement of s. 23, and awarded CSF $6 million in damages. She concluded that the Province was not immune to damages in this case, as she did not foresee any chilling effects to good governance or government decision-making.
On appeal, the British Columbia Court of Appeal (BCCA) set aside the $6 million remedy, endorsing a broader reading of Mackin. A government can utilize its qualified immunity when fulfilling its legislative or policy-making function, excepting any conduct found to be “clearly wrong, in bad faith or an abuse of power”. The BCCA found precedent for this interpretation in the 2006 Ontario Court of Appeal case Wynberg v Ontario [Wynberg], which rejected a distinction between legislative and policy-making functions regarding the Mackin immunity. The trial judge was found to be in error for considering chilling effects and “overriding” the Province’s qualified immunity in the present case. The Province acted in good faith pursuant to policy, and therefore the CSF was not entitled to any damages.
The Asper Centre’s Position
The Asper Centre, as represented by Professor Kent Roach and Anisha Visvanatha (Norton Rose Fulbright Canada), opposed the BCCA’s extension of the scope of qualified immunity. In its factum, the Asper Centre stated that the BCCA erred in considering Wynberg, an outdated case that ignored the distinctions between s. 24(1) of the Charter and s. 52(1) of the Constitutional Act, 1982. Ward clearly limited the scope of the government’s qualified immunity to government actions taken under statutes, an approach which is principled, democratic, and based on the rule of law.
The Asper Centre further argued that an extension of the qualified immunity would place an unfair burden on Charter claimants. After establishing the existence of a Charter violation and a functional need for damages, claimants would still have to prove that the government acted in bad faith. Meanwhile, the government would have an incentive to argue that its impugned actions were authorized by policy. Since the definition of “policy” is so vague, excessive amounts of preliminary litigation would likely be required to determine the nature of the government action. Overall, an extension of the qualified immunity would restrict access to justice and access to remedies. It would place a significant evidentiary and financial burden on Charter claimants.
The Supreme Court Judgment
The Supreme Court held that the Province unjustifiably breached CSF’s s. 23 Charter rights in two instances: first, when they denied CSF adequate funding for school transportation; second, when they denied CSF an Annual Facilities Grant. The lower courts interpreted s. 23 too narrowly, without fully considering the section’s remedial purpose.
While a significant portion of the judgment concerned the interpretation of s. 23, the Majority adopted all of the Asper Centre’s arguments concerning remedies. They recognized that Ward was the appropriate authority and that the qualified immunity should only apply to state actions authorized by legislation. They agreed that it was appropriate for government immunity to apply “in respect of a well-defined instrument such as a law”, but not in respect of “undefined instruments with unclear limits, such as government policies”. It was also recognized that the extension would allow the government to avoid liability by claiming that their unlawful actions were authorized by policy, which would in turn restrict access to justice. The Majority restored the $6 million remedy and added a further $1.1 million remedy for the second s. 23 breach.
The Dissent stated that there was no principled basis to limit the application of Mackin to legislation. The question to be asked is not what the vehicle of state action was, but under what circumstances should the state be liable for damages. As Professor Roach comments, the dissent’s approach would still allow the government to insulate themselves from damages by claiming that their actions were authorized by policy.
Overall, Professor Roach is very satisfied with the outcome of this case. The Asper Centre has once again helped set a new precedent on Charter remedies and has provided significant input at the Supreme Court level.
Amy (Jun) Chen is a 1L JD Candidate at the Faculty of Law and is the Asper Centre’s 2020 summer research assistant.