A Bar Brawl

The Québec Bar has launched a constitutional challenge against a substantial part of the Conservative government’s “tough-on-crime” agenda, Radio-Canada reports. In an application filed in Québec’s Superior Court, it contends that every provision of the the omnibus criminal law bill, C-10, enacted by Parliament this year as the Safe Streets and Communities Act, S.C. 2012 c. 1, that creates or increases a mandatory minimum sentence of imprisonment is unconstitutional. (A note on terminology: I, for one, do not wish to play the government’s game by using the tendentious and self-serving name it chose for this piece of legislation, so I will refer to it as bill C-10, even though, the bill having become law, this is not strictly correct.)

The grounds for the challenge are summarized at par. 9 of the application. The Bar argues that the mandatory minimums breach s. 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which prohibits deprivations of liberty except “in accordance with principles of fundamental justice,” first, because they are arbitrary in that they bear no relationship to the stated objectives of the legislation, and, second, because they might result in sentences disproportionate to offences. For this reason, some of them also breach s. 12 of the Charter, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Furthermore, says the Bar the mandatory minimums infringe the equality rights of Aboriginal Canadians, protected by s. 15 of the Charter. Finally, they are an intrusion on judicial functions and thus contrary to the principles of judicial independence and separation of powers.

There have been plenty of challenges against specific elements of bill C-10. I have blogged about some of them―my posts on the topic are collected here. But this is a different beast. Rather than an accused challenging the specific provision pursuant to which he is charged, this is an interest group attacking the entire policy of mandatory minimum sentences wholesale―but doing it not in the context of the political debate, but in the courts.

Yet in some ways, the application of claim reads like a political rather than a legal argument. It asserts that

minimum sentences … do not serve the public interest; respond to no real need; do not contribute to protecting citizens; and do not permit the realization of the public safety objective (par. 3; translation mine throughout).

It also points out that the vast majority of Canadians do not feel unsafe because of crime and that both the number and the severity of crimes committed in Canada has long been falling.

For the most part, though, the application elaborates the four grounds of unconstitutionality listed above. I will not discuss them in detail here. I canvassed some of the applicable principles in previous posts dealing with challenges to elements of bill C-10, and I might return to the substance of the Bar’s arguments in future posts, especially to the claims about judicial independence and separation of powers. For now, I want to say a couple of things about the challenge as a whole.

One question I want to address is whether the Bar has standing to bring a challenge of this sort. Of course, it is not accused of any crime. It argues that, nevertheless, it has “public interest” standing to bring this application in accordance with the principles set out by the Supreme Court in its recent decision in Canada (Attorney General) v. Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society, 2012 SCC 45, which I summarized here. (Another explanation of the decision, by Pivot Legal, which represented the respondents, is here.) In that case, the Supreme Court held that public interest standing should be granted when “in all the circumstances, the proposed suit is a reasonable and effective way to bring the issue before the courts” (par. 37). In particular, courts should consider a would-be plaintiff’s “capacity to bring forward a claim,” the possibility that the litigation would bring before the courts an issue affecting those too disadvantaged to litigate on their own behalf, and the existence of alternative avenues for the issues, and the perspective a would-be plaintiff brings on these issues, to be brought before the court (par. 51). The Bar argues that its challenge fits these criteria. It is a concerned with rights and liberties, has intervened in a variety of constitutional cases to protect them, and seeks to have the constitutionality of the mandatory minimums determined at once, in order to prevent the potential violation of the rights of a great number of accused.

That may indeed be so, but I do not think that the Bar’s challenge is comparable to that which the Supreme Court allowed to go ahead in Downtown Eastside. Unlike in that case, there seems to be no special difficulty in bringing constitutional challenges against mandatory minimum sentences by the traditional route―by individuals who stand accused of crimes conviction of which carries a mandatory minimum sentence. Indeed, many such challenges have already succeeded or are working their way through the courts. Now the existence of alternative routes by which a constitutional challenge can be brought is not dispositive, the Supreme Court said in Downtown Eastside. But there are other differences too. In that case, the Court emphasized the fact that the challenge was to the entire scheme Parliament adopted to regulate prostitution; such a wholesale challenge gives the court a much more complete picture than piecemeal attacks on individual provisions. Here, although the challenge aims at a large number of similar provisions, they are really quite disparate, and not part of a single scheme attempting to respond to one social problem. Finally, a crucial point about the Downtown Eastside challenge is that the groups bringing it are able to marshal substantial evidence to support their claims, evidence that individual accused would be most unlikely to bring to bear on their cases, and which is likely to be essential to the challenge’s chances of success. Here, the Bar does not seem to intend to bring any sort of evidence that would not be accessible to an accused. Its application relies largely on past decisions of courts, including for examples of cases where the new mandatory minimum sentences would have been disproportionate, rather than on social science or testimony which it would be uniquely well-positioned to gather, as the respondents in Downtown Eastside.

This brings me to the second point I wanted to make. The Bar’s challenge ill suits the very nature of the judicial review of legislation as it is understood in Canadian law. Judicial review of legislation in Canada normally happens in the context of specific disputes, with a set of facts to which the court can look to appreciate the effect of the legislation it is reviewing in real life. Of course, the facts of the case tend to be no more than a starting point; courts must also think beyond them when evaluating the constitutionality of legislation. Nevertheless, they often insist, and rightly so, on the importance of a “factual matrix” for adjudication. Adjudication, after all, is application of the law to a set of facts. It might involve other things too, like the development of the law, but at a minimum, it is that. The Bar’s challenge to the constitutionality of mandatory minimum sentences is abstract. It is a shortcut. Its very raison d’être is to avoid waiting for the relevant facts to arise. That’s not how judicial review is supposed to work.

My two cents is that the Bar’s challenge to mandatory minimum sentences will fail because the Bar does not have standing to bring it. And so it should. This is not to say that mandatory minimum sentences are a good idea, or even constitutional. But they should be challenged in real cases, as indeed they are already being all over the country.

6 thoughts on “A Bar Brawl

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