Access to Justice and Political Ignorance

I will do one last post ― for now, that is, until the Supreme Court’s judgment comes out ― prompted by the British Columbia “hearing fees” case I have been blogging about. In this post, I want to step back a little, and offer some thoughts on the bigger picture of which the “hearing fees” ― a price charged by the provincial government for time in court ― fit into the broader access to justice problem.

I’m not sure if this comes across clearly in my posts on the subject, but I am quite worked up about these fees. I think that there is something very wrong about them. While I have argued that legally, they are objectionable as a violation of the constitutional principle of the Rule of Law, the strictly legal claim cannot ― and is not intended to ― capture the feeling of injustice that these fees provoke. (That is true of any legal claim, in my view ― though others, notably my brilliant NYU colleague Emily Kidd White, might disagree.) But while legal claims are best left relatively confined and technical, as a matter of political morality, it is appropriate to denounce the hearing fees not just as violations of specific constitutional rules and principles, but as an unconscionable barricade against access to justice.

They are not the only such barricade, of course. Even in jurisdictions where there are no hearing fees, litigants are required to pay fees for any number of court “services,” including the filing of a claim. The state sanctions and enforces the cartels that limit the supply and drive up the prices of legal services, otherwise known as law societies. Judging by the backlogs in the courts, there are not enough judges and/or courtrooms to handle all the cases in a timely manner, which is a basic function of the state on any liberal  view, whether classical or social-democratic. (Indeed, it is a perceived need to ration court time that led B.C. to impose escalating “hearing fees” intended somehow to deter long trials.) And then, of course, there is the issue of funding for legal aid.

What is really depressing about all this is that these problems are almost entirely absent from the political conversation, or indeed the broader public debate. Lawyers (and judges) are the only ones to talk about at least some of them. They are self-interested, of course (lawyers especially), and although this does not make them wrong, it does mean that some problems created by their self-interest, notably the cartelization of legal services, are practically never discussed. Politicians, who are ultimately responsible for decisions about how legal services are regulated and how the justice system is funded do not discuss these issues.

This is, I suppose, just one more manifestation of the pervasive political ignorance that affects policy-making of all sorts. People are just not knowledgeable about politics, political institutions, or issues of public policy. Yet one would think that, unlike some of the more abstract problems (say that of public debt and the appropriate level of government spending) which might not affect anyone in particular (important though they are for us collectively) and so attract few people’s attention, the problems of access to justice not only impact real people every single day, but may indeed affect anyone at some point in one’s life, whether personal (say because of a divorce) or business. Having to wait, or not being able to afford, to take one’s case to court might not be as physically painful as waiting for a surgery, but it must be wrenching all the same. Why doesn’t the suffering of people who are being denied access to justice attract the sympathy of the public opinion?

There are a couple of developments which, although not necessarily bad ― perhaps even positive ― in themselves, might be making the problem worse. One is that that relatively few politicians are lawyers, and fewer of those who are have actually practised law than might have been in the past. (I might be wrong about this… I would welcome corrections.) Of course, lawyers have no God-given right to govern, and more occupational diversity among politicians is almost certainly a good thing. But if more politicians were aware of how serious the problems of access to justice are, they might just have been doing more about them. The other relevant development is that, to the extent the politicians have in fact done something about the difficulties with access to justice in the courts, their response has mostly been to steer people out of the courts altogether, whether into alternative dispute-resolution fora or into administrative tribunals set up to take over the resolution of some common disputes that the courts would otherwise have dealt with in the past. Again, these alternative mechanisms need not be a bad thing; they might be providing more effective forms of adjudication or fuller compensation than even a perfectly well-functioning court system would. But by relieving some of the pressure on the court system, they probably help ensure that nothing much gets done about making it into an accessible and well-functioning one.

Perhaps this is all just a self-interested rant. I am a lawyer, after all, albeit not a practising one. Of course, the public resources are limited, and there are many claims on them. Should the government spend on courts money that it is also badly needed in the schools or in the hospitals? Many people will not agree with that, even though, as I wrote here, the “existence and accessibility [of courts] are essential to what government itself is ― the kind of government we have anyway, one based on the law and not on arbitrary power.” At best, even if not a self-interested rant, this post is at most sad meditation. Sad, an inconclusive. 

A Puff of Smoke

I argued last week that the Supreme Court should find British Columbia’s “hearing fees,” which litigants must pay to bring a case in front of a judge, unconstitutional as a violation of the principle of the Rule of Law. But what about the Supreme Court’s decision in British Columbia v. Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 S.C.R. 473, asks Duncan J. MacAuliffe on Twitter. It was the basis for my saying that “the Supreme Court has understood [the Rule of Law] very narrowly; but doesn’t it stand for a still more far-reaching proposition?

In this (rather delayed) post, I would like to explain why I think that Imperial Tobacco does not compel the decision the principle of the Rule of Law cannot invalidate B.C.’s hearing fees.

The issue in Imperial Tobacco was the constitutionality of a B.C. statute which allowed the provincial government to sue tobacco manufacturers to recover the money the province spent on healthcare for people suffering from tobacco-related illnesses. The statute was clearly retroactive ― it was not a tort, prior its enactment, to cause the government economic damage by selling tobacco, and this retroactivity was one of the grounds on which it was challenged, the argument being that it violated the principle of the Rule of Law.

The Supreme Court rejected this claim, holding that “none of the principles that the rule of law embraces speak directly to the terms of legislation” (par. 59). Indeed, it said,

the government action constrained by the rule of law as understood [by the Court's jurisprudence] … is, by definition, usually that of the executive and judicial branches.  Actions of the legislative branch are constrained too, but only in the sense that they must comply with legislated requirements as to manner and form (i.e., the procedures by which legislation is to be enacted, amended and repealed) (par. 60).

The Court rejected more substantive readings of the Rule of Law, encompassing requirements of prospectivity, generality, and fair civil trials. The requirements, it pointed out, “are simply broader versions of rights contained in the [Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms]” (par. 65), and it would be illegitimate for courts to rely on the unwritten principle of the Rule of Law as a vehicle for importing them into the constitution. Furthermore,

several constitutional principles other than the rule of law that have been recognized by this Court — most notably democracy and constitutionalism — very strongly favour upholding the validity of legislation that conforms to the express terms of the Constitution (and to the  requirements, such as judicial independence, that flow by necessary implication from those terms).  Put differently, the appellants’ arguments fail to recognize that in a constitutional democracy such as ours, protection from legislation that some might view as unjust or unfair properly lies not in the amorphous underlying principles of our Constitution, but in its text and the ballot box (par. 66).

This is strong (and, as I have suggested here, unfortunate) stuff. Still, I think that Imperial Tobacco can fairly easily ― and should ― be distinguished from  the hearing fees’ case, because two important elements that led the Supreme Court to decide Imperial Tobacco the way it did are not present in the case of the hearing fees.

One is the “expanded-version-of-Charter-rights” claim. In my view, there isn’t really anything in the Charter that protects a limited version of the claim at issue. The Rule 0f Law problem with hearing fees, I have argued, is that they are an indirect and stealthy device for preventing people from asserting their constitutional, statutory, and common law rights which ostensibly still exist as a matter of law. The Charter does not speak to this issue, and thus the situation is not the same as with retroactivity and trial fairness, which it explicitly prohibits in criminal cases, but says nothing about ― and thus tolerates ― in civil matters.

The other distinction between Imperial Tobacco and the hearings fees’ case is that in the latter, the Supreme Court’s precedents, although are probably not, by themselves, sufficient to compel the conclusion that they are unconstitutional, at least point in the direction of this outcome. These precedents, notably Amax Potash Ltd. v. The Government of Saskatchewan, [1977] 2 S.C.R. 576 and Air Canada v. B.C. (A.G.), [1986] 2 S.C.R. 539, hold that a province cannot deny a person, whether through legislation or by an exercise of executive discretion, an opportunity to challenge the constitutionality of legislation by which it deprived him of some legal rights. In other words, they mean that no one can be stripped of his or her constitutional rights by being prevented from asserting them in court. 

Now there is a step to be made from these cases to that of the hearing fees, because what is at issue there is not just constitutional rights, but all legal rights, including some which a province can modify by legislating. But the case of Wells v. Newfoundland, [1999] 3 S.C.R. 199, stands for the proposition that even non-constitutional rights have to be extinguished by clear statutory language, not by implication or stealth.

Imperial Tobacco does not discuss these cases. It certainly stands for the proposition that a province (or Parliament) can retroactively modify legal rights. But the statute at issue there did so explicitly, rather than by barring the holders of these rights access to the courts while purporting not to touch the rights in question, so the Supreme Court did not there decide whether that was permissible. And that is the issue it has to face in the hearing fees’ case.

In approaching that issue, the Court should certainly take its own advice in Imperial Tobacco and reflect on the importance of the principles of constitutionalism and democracy. Constitutionalism, for instance, means that the province cannot prevent litigants from asserting constitutional claims (the very issue decided in Amax Potash and Air Canada), which the hearing fees will do in some cases, or for that matter from asserting their claims under federal law, which they will do in others. And democracy should mean that a regulation enacted by the provincial executive should not deny litigants rights conferred or not interfered with by democratically enacted provincial statutes, which the hearing fees will do in cases arising under provincial law.

As for the Court’s broader comments about the Rule of Law not constraining legislatures and denigrating “amorphous constitutional principles,” I think they are flatly contradicted by its own jurisprudence. Legislatures, the Court itself has recognized, are bound to maintain a legal framework. Principles can have strong legal effects, none more so than that of judicial independence (which, incidentally, happens to be a much beefed-up version of s. 99(1) of the Constitution Act, 1867). They are really so much smoke ― toxic, but almost weightless, and easily blown away.


La constitution retrouvée

J’ai écrit, il y a quelques mois, que le discours constitutionnel du Parti Québécois s’apparentait à celui du Tea Party américain (ainsi qu’à celui du UK Independence Party) en ce qu’il se fonde en bonne partie sur la notion d’une « constitution perdue ». La « constitution perdue » est celle d’une époque passée, abolie au terme d’un processus de changement constitutionnel illégitime qui a résulté en une usurpation du pouvoir populaire par une institution éloignée et non-démocratique:

La constitution perdue du PQ, c’est la constitution canadienne des années 60 et 70,  d’avant le rapatriement de 1981-82, d’avant la « la Charte à Trudeau » qui aurait imposé au Québec la doctrine honnie du multiculturalisme et le pouvoir des juges de la Cour suprême. Tout comme la constitution perdue du Tea Party, celle du PQ aurait été subvertie par un processus politique et judiciaire illégitime, le rapatriement et l’adoption de la Charte canadienne s’étant fait sans le consentement du Québec. Tout comme le Tea Party, le PQ déplore un transfert du pouvoir à un organe anti-démocratique (en l’occurrence, la Cour suprême du Canada) qui priverait la province de son autonomie traditionnelle et constitutionnelle. Cette autonomie est associée non pas strictement à la grandeur nationale, mais plutôt à une pureté culturelle qui joue le même rôle dans le discours nationaliste québécois que cette dernière dans le discours de l’exceptionnalisme américain.

Un texte publié ce matin par Pierre-Karl Péladeau à l’occasion du 32e anniversaire de la promulgation par la Reine de la Loi constitutionnelle de 1982 illustre à merveille cette rhétorique ― et le caractère frauduleux de cette dernière.

M. Péladeau soutient que l’avis de la Cour suprême dans le Renvoi sur le rapatriement aurait « désarmé le Québec en lui faisait perdre son droit de veto ». S’appuyant sur des allégations soulevées par Frédéric Bastien, il affirme qu’

[a]fin de favoriser l’adoption de la Charte canadienne des droits et libertés qui allait leur donner plus de pouvoir, au moins deux des neuf juges de ce nous pourrions dorénavant convenir d’appeler la Cour politique suprême ont partagé de l’information confidentielle avec Ottawa et Londres.

La Cour, selon lui,

était en flagrant conflit d’intérêts puisque la Charte allait lui octroyer d’énormes pouvoirs que d’aucuns ont qualifiés de gouvernement des juges.

Le résultat de cette décision « gravissime » n’aurait été rien de moins que la perte de la constitution. D’une part, « [l]es principes mêmes de la démocratie parlementaire en étaient ébranlés ». D’autre part, « Ottawa pouvait dorénavant ignorer les fondements historiques mêmes de la fédération ».

La Charte canadienne des droits et libertés, soutient M. Péladeau, aurait résulté en la perte de « notre compétence exclusive en matière d’éducation », en l’imposition du « multiculturalisme canadien », lequel « consiste[rait] à banaliser et saper la culture québécoise sur le territoire même du Québec », notamment par l’imposition d’accommodements raisonnables, « diminuant la propension des Néo-Québécois à s’intégrer à la majorité francophone et à nos valeurs de générosité et de solidarité. » Bref, avec

le rapatriement constitutionnel, le Québec a [...] perdu son statut de foyer national d’un des peuples fondateurs du Canada. Il a été rabaissé au rang d’une province comme les autres où divers groupes cohabitent en vertu de diverses valeurs, règles et cultures.

Voici donc ce récit de la constitution perdue que nous offre le probable futur chef de l’Oppositon officielle, et propriétaire du plus important groupe médiatique du Québec. Ce récit ment, tant par ce qu’il dit que par ce qu’il ne dit pas.

Pour commencer, si la Cour suprême avait voulu, comme le prétend faussement M. Péladeau, accélérer le rapatriement, l’adoption de la Charte canadienne, elle n’aurait pas statué que les conventions de la constitution canadienne rendaient le rapatriement unilatéral par le fédéral illégitime. Le procès d’intention que fait M. Péladeau à la Cour ne peut résister à l’évidence de ce jugement qui a grandement contrarié le premier ministre Trudeau et donné raison aux provinces. À l’époque du Renvoi sur le rapatriement, faut-il le rappeler, le Québec n’était pas seul dans son opposition au gouvernement de Pierre Trudeau ― il avait l’appui de toutes les provinces, en fait, sauf l’Ontario et le Nouveau-Brunswick. Par ailleurs, les juges de la Cour suprême n’ont pas établi, au terme d’une étude fort détaillée des précédents en matière d’amendement constitutionnel, n’ont pas établi l’existence d’un veto du Québec (ou d’une exigence plus générale d’unanimité). Il n’y a donc pas de raison de prétendre que le Québec a perdu son veto constitutionnel ― il n’en avait jamais disposé.

Les reproches que fait M. Péladeau à la Charte canadienne sont également dénués de fondements dans la réalité. La Charte canadienne a peu affecté la Loi 101, n’ayant que donné le droit à des enfants de parents éduqués en anglais au Canada (et non seulement au Québec) d’envoyer leurs enfants à l’école anglaise, et imposé un examen individualisé dans les cas d’enfants soupçonnés d’avoir recours aux « écoles-passerelles ». Les règles sur l’affichage que la Loi 101 contenait ont bien été partiellement invalidées ― mais c’était en vertu de la Charte québécoise, dont M. Péladeau ne mentionne même pas l’existence. La même Charte québécoise impose les accommodements raisonnables ― dont, par ailleurs, les plus fréquents demandeurs et bénéficiaires, en matière religieuse, ne sont pas les « Néo-Québécois » (un terme péjoratif qui cache la présence de certaines communautés culturelles distinctes au Québec depuis des siècles), mais les Québécois « de souche » appartenant à des groupes religieux minoritaires. Du reste, la Charte canadienne ne s’oppose guère à la laïcité, comme le prétend M. Péladeau. Au contraire, une des toutes premières décisions de la Cour suprême à l’appliquer, R. c. Big M Drug Mart,  consistait, en fait, en l’invalidation de la Loi sur le jour du Seigneur, qui enfreignait manifestement ce principe.

Il faut aussi rappeler que la Charte canadienne permet aux législatures de restreindre les droits qu’elle protège, pourvu que ce soit « par une règle de droit, [et] dans les limites qui soient raisonnables et dont la justification puisse se démontrer dans le cadre d’une société démocratique. La seule chose que le Québec (et les autres provinces) ait perdue au terme du rapatriement de 1981-82 est donc la faculté de violer les droits de ses citoyens d’une façon injustifiable dans une société libre et démocratique. Est-ce vraiment à regretter? Et l’identité et la culture québécoise sont-elles faibles au point ne pouvoir être protégées que par des violations de droits injustifiables?

La constitution perdue que M. Péladeau essaie de nous faire regretter, celle qui permettait à nos gouvernements de faire fi de nos droits en adoptant des lois telles que la Loi sur le jour du Seigneur, n’a rien de très attrayant. Il n’est donc pas surprenant que M. Péladeau, tout comme ses compagnons d’armes idéologiques, ait recours à la tromperie flagrante pour nous séduire. Le résultat des dernières élections permet cependant d’espérer que les Québécois ne sont pas dupes. En ce jour d’anniversaire, il ne faut pas pleurer la constitution perdue, mais bien célébrer celle que nous avons trouvée.

Which Way to Court?

I wrote yesterday about the oral argument which the Supreme Court heard on Monday in the case now known as Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), formerly Villardell v. Dunham. At issue is the constitutionality of the “hearing fees” which British Columbia requires a litigant setting a civil case down for trial to undertake to pay. The first three days of the trial are free, the following seven cost 500$ each, and any additional day, 800$. That’s a lot of money, and while the province offers an exemption to those too “impoverished” to pay up, and accepts that “impoverished” can and ought to be interpreted as “in need,” various organizations representing the bar are arguing that the fee is unconstitutional, for one of a variety of reasons. Some of the reasons offered, which I discuss in more detail in yesterday’s post, do not persuade me. Yet there is an argument for the fees’ unconstitutionality that I find convincing.

All parties, including the B.C. government, agree that it is wrong for people to be prevented from having their day in court by the imposition of fees that they cannot pay. Not just wrong, indeed, but actually unconstitutional. The governments that defend B.C.’s hearing fees regime point to the exemption for the needy as its essential redeeming feature. But what is it that would make it unconstitutional to deny people a hearing if they cannot pay for one? The Charter, as the lawyer representing B.C. pointed out yesterday, does not protect any civil procedure rights, and section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867, as he also pointed out, has so far only been read to protect the jurisdiction of, not to apply to the procedure before, superior courts.

Despite even the federal government taking the position that it is indeed s. 96 that would be affected by excessive hearing fees or insufficient exemptions, I am skeptical of this view, and of the broader separation of powers theme that was clearly discernible in some of the fees’ opponents’ arguments. The real issue is not that the courts are being interfered with, but that individual litigants are. I do not think it is wrong for legislatures to provide mechanisms of alternative dispute resolution, for instance, or even to encourage litigants to settle ― so long, as some of the parties noted, as this encouragement works by asking the parties to take a sober view of the merits of their case, and not by making it impossible to pursue it regardless of the merits. Too robust a view of s. 96 or of the principle of separation of powers would call such legislative efforts into question.

I am also skeptical of the argument, advanced by Joseph Avray on behalf of the advocates’ society, that the hearing fees are wrong because it is somehow impermissible for the government to charge for what is “a public good” ― understood not in its strict economic meaning, but simply as something that benefits society as a whole. Mr. Avray’s own examples show that his distinction does not work. He mentioned hospitals and schools ― but surely healthcare and education benefit the patients and the students first and foremost, as well as the public. And taking Mr. Avray at his word about education, does seriously suggest that any tuition fees in universities are unconstitutional?

That said, the idea that litigants do not profit by going to court is, I believe, correct and important. As I wrote here,

[o]nly a successful plaintiff gets something out of litigation – and even that is presumably something he was entitled to. A successful defendant doesn’t get anything, except at most a (partial) reimbursement of his fees – nor, a fortiori, a losing plaintiff or defendant.

(The one narrow exception to this, I suppose, is the plaintiff who wins punitive damages.)

The importance of this point is not, however, that it can be fashioned into a self-standing constitutional principle, but that it underscores that a litigant, whether plaintiff or defendant, comes to court not to gain a benefit, but to vindicate a right already conferred on him or her by law.

This is why the relevant constitutional principle is that of the Rule of Law. Although the Supreme Court has understood it very narrowly, even this narrow understanding encompasses the idea that “the relationship between the state and the individual must be regulated by law” (Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 S.C.R. 217, at par. 71). This requirement is jeopardized if the government can thwart persons attempting to vindicate their legal rights, not by modifying these rights by “due process of law” (i.e. at least by enacting legislation that has this effect explicitly or by necessary implication) but by making their enforcement practically impossible.

A line of cases culminating in Air Canada v. B.C. (A.G.), [1986] 2 S.C.R. 539, to which unfortunately no party referred on Monday, illustrates this principle. Air Canada wanted to challenge the constitutionality of a law enacted by the B.C. legislature but, under old rules for suing the Crown, required a fiat ― a permission ― from the Lieutenant-Governor to do so. The provincial government advised the Lieutenant-Governor not to grant the fiat. The Supreme Court held that neither a statute nor an exercise of executive discretion (whether authorized by statute or by the royal prerogative) can be used to deny a person the means of asserting his or her constitutional rights, and thus indirectly abrogating them. Air Canada and its predecessors were constitutional cases, resting (implicitly) upon the principle of constitutionalism, but in my view it is but a small step to extend this application of constitutionalism to its cousin the Rule of Law, to which it “bears considerable similarity,” as the Supreme Court recognized in the Secession Reference (par. 72).

As I wrote here,

Our legal rights arise under the constitution, statutes, or the common law. Superior courts have jurisdiction over both constitutional and common law rights, as well as many statutory rights … Provincial legislatures cannot modify constitutional or federal statutory rights. They can modify or even extinguish rights arising under provincial statutes or the common law but, generally speaking, must do so in clear terms. … Making it impossible for people to go to court to vindicate their rights arguably amounts to their de facto abolition – yet the province cannot abolish constitutional and federal statutory rights, and further, it is abolition by stealth, which is not permissible even for provincial statutory and common law rights.

This, it seems to me, is the problem with hearing fees. Their effect, at the very least, and arguably even their purpose, is to prevent people from vindicating their legal rights whenever this vindication requires more time in court than a litigant can afford, which is contrary to the Rule of Law requirement that our relationships the government (and, to some considerable extent, with each other!) be structured by law.

Importantly, this requirement, and thus the approach based on it, does not depend on the nature of the litigants, as both the exemption regime defended by B.C. and other governments and the attempt to ground a right of access to courts in s. 7 of the Charter do. These approaches mean that it is perfectly fine to deny a small business or an NGO the right to go to court ― because such entities can neither be “impoverished” in any normal sense of the word nor benefit from s. 7 rights. Yet it seems to me that it is no less wrong to prevent them from asserting what they believe to be valid legal claims than it is to do so with individuals. Legal rights are rights regardless of what sort of person or entity happens to hold them, and the Rule of Law principle appropriately recognizes that. 

Will the Supreme Court go that way? I wouldn’t bet on it. The Court has often been reluctant to rely on underlying constitutional principles, except that of judicial independence. Still, I think that this approach is at least as close, and probably closer, to the bounds of its precedents as any other that was proposed to it on Monday. The Rule of Law is, admittedly, a somewhat Protean and very contested concept, and Ontario’s lawyer had a point in arguing that to some considerable degree, it an aspirational principle the implementation of which must be left to legislatures. Still, if it is to mean anything, the Rule of Law must include the ability of citizens to claim what the law says is theirs. A government that abides by the Rule of Law can be allowed to deny them this right.

Who Pays for Justice?

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard the oral arguments in the B.C. hearing fees case, now known as Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), a case I have much blogged about as it made its way through the B.C. courts (where it was known Villardell v. Dunham, both on trial and on appeal). You can watch the hearing here, or read the rough transcript I have made. I will give an overview of the oral argument in this post, and have some comments in a separate one.

Just by way of reminder, the hearing fees at issue are  imposed, in all civil cases litigated in the B.C. Supreme Court (which is a court of first instance), on the party setting the case down for trial, escalating with the trial’s length. Under the current rules, the first three days are free; days 4-10 cost 500$ per day; and subsequent days each cost 800$. The cost of any protracted trial can thus quickly become prohibitive, not only for lower-income litigants, but even for middle-class people. The rules allow a judge to exempt an “impoverished” litigant who applies for permission not to pay the fees, a term that the Court of Appeal read to extend to all litigants unable to “meet their everyday expenses if … required to pay the fees” (par. 41). 

Not good enough, say the Trial Lawyers and the BC branch of the Canadian Bar Association, as well as a number of interveners, who argue that the fees impede access to justice and prevent the less well-off litigants from having their disputes resolved by courts. The provincial government, however, defends its approach, arguing that its twin objectives of cost-recovery and rationing of court time are not only legitimate within its constitutional power to administer courts, but in fact ways of ensuring access to justice by making sure that at least some court time is available to all litigants.

When I discussed Justice McEwen ruling (holding the fees unconstitutional) at first instance, I noted that three threads running through his reasons: a separation of powers argument, according to which the hearing fees interfered with the constitutionally protected prerogatives of the judiciary; an individual rights, argument, according to which there is a constitutionally-protected right to go to court, with which the fees interfere; and a difficult-to-characterize argument according to which the hearing fees are contrary to a certain idea(l) of what public services ought to be like. The appellants and the interveners who support them made versions of all three of these arguments, in what seemed a rather uncertain search for constitutional support the claim the hearing fees are unconstitutional.

The separation of powers argument led them to invoke section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which the Supreme Court has read as protecting a core of jurisdiction of which superior courts cannot be deprived. Indeed, even the respondent, as well as some of the other provinces, conceded that at some hypothetical level, hearing fees would be so high as to prevent superior courts from having any litigants before them, thus infringing this core jurisdiction, although they argued that the fee regime at issue was not problematic in this way.

The individual rights argument took two different forms. Mostly, the right of access to courts (which the parties tended to refer to as access to justice, although ― as the provinces pointed out ― access to justice involves many different things) was said to flow from the constitutional principle of the Rule of Law, which the Supreme Court has long recognized, albeit giving it a very narrow meaning. The appellants especially relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in B.C.G.E.U. v. British Columbia (Attorney General),[1988] 2 S.C.R. 214, where Chief Justice Dickson spoke of the courts’ power, “under the rule of law,” to remove barriers to “access to courts” ― although in that case, the barriers at issue (picket lines) were physical, rather than financial. But a different argument, advanced by the West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, was to the effect that the right of access to courts was a component of the right to liberty, and maybe also of that to the security of the person, protected by section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that the hearing fees infringed this right contrary to principles of fundamental justice, due to their disproportionate effect on women and the least well-off.

The provinces vigorously resisted the Rule of Law argument. BC claimed that the constitution is limited to the documents referred to in s. 52(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 (though the Supreme Court’s recent decision in L’affaire Nadon seems to make that claim quite implausible). Ontario argued that the Rule of Law, except a very thin version of it recognized in the Manitoba Language Rights Reference, is an aspirational concept which legislatures ought to be left free to implement in their own ways. Québec said it was only an interpretive principle ― although, interestingly, it endorsed the s. 7 of the Charter argument for the hearing fees’ unconstitutionality, which the other provinces that addressed it rejected, noting that civil justice was deliberately excluded from the Charter’s text.

As for the argument that the imposition of fees for access to courts is contrary to what public services ought to be like, it was made by Joseph Arvay on behalf of the Advocates’ Society. Mr. Arvay contended that the resolution of disputes by courts is a public good, to be paid for by the public, and not by one or both of the litigants. Courts, in this respect, are similar to public schools and hospitals, to voting and to the police. They provide general, not private benefits, and their costs should be borne by all, not by some.

Beyond this question for a constitutional basis for the claim that there is something wrong with hearing fees, much of the debate was concerned with more practical matters. One was the role of exemptions for the less well-off litigants. All the parties arguing that hearing fees are constitutional claimed that the exemptions were an integral part of the fees scheme. Means-testing, they said, is not a new idea ― it happens all the time in the criminal context, when an accused person argues that government ought to pay for his or her lawyer’s services. And having a fee-and-exemption regime, they said, was much better than no fees at all, which would mostly benefit litigious corporations. Those opposing the fees, however, countered that while the fees were said to be imposed out of a concern for the efficiency of courts, requiring additional hearings into the litigants’ impecuniousness would only increase inefficiency, in addition to piling an additional burden on hard-up litigants. And then, there were concerns about the fairness and workability of inquiries into how people organize their finances, which would be necessary to determine who qualifies for an exemption. Justice Moldaver, at least, strongly suggested that this regime was “unworkable.”

The other more practical point that occupied much of yesterday’s argument was the effect of the hearing fees (or lack thereof) beyond the litigants required to pay them in individual cases. For the provinces ― especially B.C., of course ― the fees are a sensible way of rationing a scarce resource ― time in court. Escalating fees encourage litigants to conduct their cases efficiently, and thus free up time for everyone. The fees, even if they are a barrier for individual litigants, promote access to courts overall. Furthermore, if there were no hearing fees, there would be pressure to raise other fees (such filing ones) to help pay for the court system. Yet the hearing fees are not a rational way of promoting efficiency, countered the appellants. The length of a trial is not  a good proxy for the parties’ diligence. A three-day trial, free under B.C.’s scheme, might still be much too long for a simple dispute; a twenty-day trial might be a model of good organization. And the party who has to pay the fees, the one who sets the matter down for trial, might not have the control over the trial’s length. Is it an arbitrary regime, asked Justice Moldaver? Yes, said the Trial Lawyers, as well as others.

All parties agree that, at least as a matter of political morality, it is wrong for people to be prevented from defending or asserting their legal claims by government-imposed fees. But that agreement cannot bridge the questions which the Supreme Court must now resolve. Who ought to pay for the operation of the courts? How ought these payments to be structured? And, most importantly, what ― if anything ― does the constitution have to say about that? For my own thoughts on what the Court should do, stay tuned.

Truth and Sentencing

In a pair of decisions delivered this morning, R. v. Summers, 2014 SCC 26, and a companion case, R. v. Carvery, 2014 SCC 27, the Supreme Court has endorsed the trial courts’ practice of routinely crediting time spent by accused persons before their sentencing on a more than one-to-one basis against the total duration of their sentence, the Truth in Sentencing Act, enacted by Parliament in 2009, notwithstanding. The provisions that statute added to the Criminal Code state that “the [sentencing] court shall limit any credit for that time to a maximum of one day for each day spent in custody” but add that “despite” this rule, “if the circumstances justify it, the maximum is one and one-half days for each day spent in custody,” except in some cases where this enhancement is not available. The government argued that the enhanced credit was meant to be the exception, not the rule. In particular, the government contended that it should not be granted merely to compensate for the fact that pre-sentence custody does not count for the purposes of determining when an offender becomes eligible to one or another form of early release (such as parole at 1⁄3 or statutory release at 2⁄3 of the sentence). In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Karakatsanis, the Supreme Court rejects this position, holding that the statute, as written, provides no basis for it. There are two reasons, Justice Karakatsanis points out, why courts often choose to grant enhanced credit for pre-sentence detention:

[f]irst, the quantitative rationale for the practice of granting enhanced credit is to ensure that the offender does not spend more time behind bars than if he had been released on bail (par. 23).

Importantly, because almost all offenders benefit from some form early release, this quantitative rationale applies to most sentencing cases. “The second rationale for enhanced credit,” explains Justice Karakatsanis,

is qualitative in nature. Remand detention centres tend not to provide the educational, retraining or rehabilitation programs that are generally available when serving a sentence in corrections facilities. Consequently, time in pre-trial detention is often more onerous than post-sentence incarceration. … [O]vercrowding, inmate turnover, labour disputes and other factors also tend to make pre-sentence detention more onerous.

Courts had thus developed a practice of crediting pre-sentence detention at a ratio of two days for one, and sometimes more, to account for both its quantitative and its qualitative effects. The Truth in Sentencing Act explicitly caps the credit at 1.5 days for one. But does it limit the “circumstances” that “justify” the granting of enhanced credit? Justice Karakatsanis finds that it does not. The statute’s text makes no mention of “exceptional” circumstances or of any other qualification on what the relevant “circumstances” might be that would exclude the effects of rules on eligibility for early release. The fact that the statute presents enhanced credit as exceptional is not significant. There is no rule that says that exe mmptions may not be numerous than the cases where the rule applies, and indeed the government “accepts that the lack of programs in detention facilities and overcrowding are common problems, and could result in” this being the case here (par. 47). Furthermore, Parliament must be presumed to have been aware of both the quantitative and the qualitative rationales for enhanced credit, and it failure to exclude them from consideration suggests that it had no intention of doing so. Finally, refusing to account for the effects of pre-sentence detention not counting towards early release violates the principle that similar crimes should receive similar punishment:

it is difficult to see how sentences can reliably be “proportionate to the gravity of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the offender” (s. 718.1 [of the Criminal Code]) when the length of incarceration is also a product of the offender’s ability to obtain bail, which is frequently dependent on totally different criteria.

Some offenders ― Aboriginal person in particular, but more generally all those who are isolated, marginalized, or impoverished ― will have more trouble obtaining bail than others, and would be punished more harshly for identical crimes.

Justice Karakatsanis concludes, therefore, that the old approach to the determination of enhanced credit should remain in place, subject to the cap imposed by the Truth in Sentencing Act. Even the cap, she adds, might not be unbreakable:

individuals who have suffered particularly harsh treatment, such as assaults in detention, can often look to other remedies, including under s. 24(1) of the Charter.

The Supreme Court’s decision strikes me as obviously right. There are, however, some interesting questions concerning its implications. The obvious one is whether Parliament could re-write the law, perhaps enacting a “Truth in Truth in Sentencing Act” that would specifically prevent courts from considering the “quantitative rationale” for enhanced credit. If the problem is simply that Parliament had not spoken clearly enough, it can speak more clearly. However, the part of the opinion ― which Justice Karakatsanis notes is not even necessary to dispose of the case at bar ― which discusses the violations of the principles of parity and proportionality that would result from not considering the “quantitative rationale” seem to me to be a thinly disguised warning to Parliament against taking that course. It could be transposed, almost verbatim, into an arbitrariness analysis under s. 7 of the Charter which would lead to the inexorable conclusion that the exclusion of the “quantitative rationale” amounts to a deprivation of liberty in violation of a principle of fundamental justice.

Indeed, the question of whether the current cap on enhanced credit is constitutional ― which remains the Court did not address since no constitutional challenge was before it ― remains open. Justice Karakatsanis suggests that in some cases, the courts’ inability to give credit that accounts for both the “quantitative rationale” and the “qualitative” one is unjust, and explicitly suggests that some offenders, whom it impacts especially severely, look to “remedies … under s. 24(1) of the Charter.” Yet this is an odd suggestion. In the somewhat similar context of inquiring into the constitutionality of mandatory minimum sentences, the Supreme Court has rejected the “constitutional exemption” approach ― allowing sentences below the mandatory minimum when that minimum amounted, for a particular offender, to cruel and unusual punishment contrary to s. 12 of the Charter. In such cases, the Court held in R. v. Ferguson, 2008 SCC 6, [2008] 1 S.C.R. 96, the entire mandatory minimum provision must be struck down. I’m not sure why it would be any different with the cap on enhanced credit which, like the mandatory minimum, results in some (though not all) offenders having to spend more time in prison than their circumstances justify. Could it be that the Court actually thinks that the cap is unconstitutional, and is simply reluctant to say so in so many words?

Be that as it may, this is an encouraging (and encouragingly unanimous) decision by the Supreme Court. At the very least, it shows that Courts will not take hints from Parliament in advancing the current government’s “tough on crime” agenda. If Parliament wishes to be mean, it must be clear about it. To the extent that it leaves courts discretion, they will use it to try to preserve some sense and equity in the criminal justice system. Beyond that, there is hint ― only a hint perhaps, but a fairly strong one ― that, should Parliament attempt to up the ante by eliminating this discretion, courts will respond by calling the constitution to the rescue. The truth about sentencing, as the Supreme Court suggests, is that it should be about the individual crime and the person who committed it. Not whatever tough-sounding rhetoric a government chooses to employ.

NOTE: Michael Spratt also comments on the Summers decision.

Blind Spots

In a new and fascinating paper, Jeremy Waldron asks why it is that Sir Isaiah Berlin, in his work on the Enlightenment, paid no attention to “one of the most important achievements of the European enlightenment” ― what prof. Waldron calls “Enlightenment constitutionalism.” The paper is a reflection not only on Berlin and the constitutional ideas of the late-17th – 18th century which he failed to pay attention to, but also, inevitably if only implicitly, on constitutionalism more broadly. It is also an occasion for us reflect on prof. Waldron’s own work. Prof. Waldron defines Enlightenment constitutionalism as

a body of thought that emerged in the 18th century, but originated in England in the later decades of the 17th century, about forms of government and the structuring of the institutions of government to promote the common good, secure liberty, restrain monarchs, uphold the rule of law, and to make the attempt to establish popular government— representative, if not direct democracy—safe and practicable for a large modern republic. (3)

The thinkers he associates with it range from John Locke in England, to Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Siyès in France, to Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton, in the United States, as well as others, including Kant (4). Enlightenment constitutionalism’s signal achievements, prof. Waldron says, were the republican constitutions of the United States and of revolutionary France. Berlin, says prof. Waldron, took no notice of this body of thought, even though he did write ― very critically ― about the Enlightenment, including some of the work of these same thinkers. Yet the “theme,” on which they all dwelt,

of structural intricacy and design of a constitution … has a massive bearing on the plausibility of Berlin’s well-known and destructive claim that the Enlightenment aspiration to remake society has been a philosophically misbegotten source of totalitarian hubris and terror. (7)

Prof. Waldron argues that although Enlightenment constitutionalism saw constitutional design a scientific endeavour, requiring a

deliberate disaggregation — in thought first and then insistently in practice — of government into separate organizations understood functionally. (11)

Its theorists and practitioners were well aware, he points out, of the weakness of human nature, and of the conflicting values and interests that people bring to the political arena. Far from trying, as Berlin accused them of doing, to fit the “crooked timber of humanity” into some ready-made mould, they looked for ways in which these weaknesses and conflicts could be checked, balanced, and ideally even made to serve the public good. Although, as prof. W aldron notes, “all this is presented as a project of deliberate design” (17), this design was not ― in his view ― the arrogant sort that purports to submit everything to a single-minded overarching vision:

 for the Americans, constitutional design though deliberate was understood to be untidy and pluralistic, setting out to house rather than reconcile the pursuit of competing and incommensurable values (19),

and the French shared this humble conception. Prof. Waldron also observes that, in addition to its concern with the structure of government and the empowerment of citizens (and their representatives), Enlightenment constitutionalism was preoccupied with individual liberty and limits on the power of government. Yet strangely, for all his concern with liberty, Berlin paid no attention to that either. He was apparently not interested in “the institutional mechanisms that might secure the modicum of liberty he thought was ethically required for each person” (22), nor did he have anything intelligent to say about the relationship between the protection of liberty and democracy. As for the reasons for blind sport of Berlin’s, prof. Waldron suggests that the least unflattering one is, in addition to his general “lack of interest in law and legal structures” (27), that Berlin’s “conception of the theory of politics, of political philosophy … was far more ethical in its character than political” (28). Berlin, in other words, cared much more about an individual’s relationship to the community than about the ways in which the community organizes itself. This is, as I said in the beginning (unnecessarily so, since it is true of everything prof. Waldron writes) fascinating stuff. I do, however, have some misgivings about it. One question is whether it is quite fair to associate the theoretical project of Enlightenment constitutionalism as well as its practical incarnation in America, which were indeed concerned with checking, balancing, and dividing power, with the French revolutionary constitution-making, which spectacularly failed to do so, not least precisely because it failed to learn the lesson of Enlightenment constitutionalism. As Lord Acton put it in his brilliant Lectures on the French Revolution (available here for e-readers),

[t]he errors that ruined their enterprise may be reduced to one. Having put the nation in the place of the Crown, they invested it with the same unlicensed power, raising no security and no remedy against oppression from below, assuming, or believing, that a government truly representing the people could do no wrong. They acted as if authority, duly constituted, requires no check, and as if no barriers are needed against the nation. (199)

I also wonder whether the theorists and practitioners of Enlightenment constitutionalism were really as modest as prof. Waldron insists they were. (As an aside, I wonder whether this passage in prof. Waldron’s article is an attempt to rebut not only Berlin, but also Hayek, the great critic of design and immodesty.) Certainly the framers of the U.S. Constitution could be smug, as Alexander Hamilton was in The Federalist no. 68, where he wrote that “if the manner of [the election of the President] not be perfect, it is at least excellent.” Ironically, and perhaps revealingly, this “excellent” scheme of indirect rather than popular election was entirely undone by the development of a political morality more democratic than what the framers were comfortable with ― within just a few decades.

These are just quibbles. The broader point I would like to venture is that prof. Waldron’s take on Enlightenment constitutionalism might be vulnerable to a critique similar to the one he levels at Berlin: that his personal understanding of his subject leads him to miss something really important about. Arguably, the most important innovations of Enlightenment constitutionalism are federalism and judicial review of legislation. Separation of powers and bicameralism, after all, already existed, in 17th century England. Yet prof. Waldron’s tribute to Enlightenment constitutionalism says very little about either. He barely mentions “the complex relation of state to federal arrangements” (11) and

the question that exercised Madison and both his friends and opponents in the American ratification process—about what good “parchment barriers” could do, and whether the frontiers of freedom were better secured by the structural principles of a constitution than  by a dedicated bill of rights (22).

John Marshall, rightly or wrongly, gets no mention in his list of Enlightenment constitutionalists. To avoid extending this already long post too much, suffice it to say that these are important legacies of Enlightenment constitutionalism ― and, if Lord Acton is right, perhaps also the differences between the constitutional experiment which succeeded, that of the United States, and the one that failed, that of France ― and that a discussion of the subject which does not mention them seems incomplete. But, of course, prof. Waldron has always been more interested in how democratic power ought to be structured than in how it ought to be limited. This is his vision of constitutional theory ― and, much like Berlin’s vision of political theory, it results in a lack of interest in some of the crucial aspects of the phenomenon he studies.

Of course, to say that a scholar has a blind spot is a compliment more than a criticism. Most of us have “seeing spots” ― we only notice a few things here and there. Geniuses like Berlin and Waldron see almost everything, and it is against this impressive background that the blind spots are noticeable.

UPDATE: A made an idiotic typo in the post’s title, which I have now rectified.