Open Bar

First of all, apologies for my silence. I’m afraid I will not blog much this week either, but I should resume normal schedule next week.

I am able to write today, however, and want to discuss the decision of Québec’s Superior Court on a challenge to the standing of the Québec Bar to attack the constitutionality of the plethora of mandatory minimum sentences introduced by an omnibus criminal law bill, C-10, enacted by Parliament as the Safe Streets and Communities Act, S.C. 2012 c. 1. I blogged about the Bar’s challenge when it was launched, and said I expected it to be dismissed for lack of standing. Well, I was wrong. In Barreau du Québec c. Canada (Procureur général)2014 QCCS 1863, Justice André Roy rejects the federal government’s attempt to have the case dismissed, holding that the Bar has public interest standing. It is not, in my view, a very persuasive ruling, but it shows that the Bar’s litigation strategy, which I thought rather bizarre, might in fact be pure genius.

The test for deciding whether a litigant not personally affected by a statute should be granted public interest standing to challenge its constitutionality were most recently revised and set out by the Supreme Court in  Canada (Attorney General) v. Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society, 2012 SCC 45, which I summarized here. Briefly, the challenge must raise serious and justiciable issues, the plaintiff must have a genuine interest in the dispute, and the case must be a “reasonable and effective way to bring the issue before the courts” in all the circumstances. Relevant factors to determine whether this last criterion is met include (but are not limited to) the plaintiff’s capacity to prosecute his claim, and the possibility that the issues he raises (and his perspective on them) would be brought before the courts in a different way.

The federal government conceded that at least some of the issues raised by the Québec Bar’s challenge were justiciable and serious. Indeed, courts around Canada have already been considering the constitutionality of mandatory minimum sentences, and the Supreme Court will do so when it hears the federal government’s appeal from the decision of the Court of Appeal for Ontario in R. v. Nur, 2013 ONCA 677 and its companion cases.

On the issue of the Bar’s interest in the issue, the government tried arguing that the constitutionality of mandatory minimum sentences had nothing to do with its ostensible mission to protect the consumers of legal services. The Bar itself claimed that its mission was far broader, and that it had a legitimate interest in issues concerning courts and the justice system. Justice Roy agrees with the Bar, finding that it is “a leading actor on all questions relative to both federal and provincial legislation” (par. 42; translation mine here and throughout), and that its mission of protecting the public had a preventive component, encompassing a “social role” (par. 46) which includes the public expression of positions on issues relating to its expertise.

Finally, the government argued that the Québec Bar’s challenge is not a reasonable and effective way to get the issue of the constitutionality of mandatory minimums before the courts, claiming that the Bar’s case really involves 94 distinct challenges (the number of new mandatory minimums in C-10), many of which were already being litigated, and that it would require their consideration in a factual vacuum. The Bar, for its part, contended that its challenge was the best, and perhaps the only, way to bring before the courts an issue which individuals who could be subject to the mandatory minimum sentences would not be likely to litigate, and which is common to all the various provisions it attacks: the elimination of judicial discretion and the corresponding interference with judicial power and independence. Justice Roy agrees with the Bar, asserting that its challenge “gave raise to a judicial [sic] debate on the true issues of this legislation and posed questions that go to the heart of the judicial process in penal matters” (par. 63). “[T]he central question” (par. 67) of any individual challenge to a mandatory minimum is that of judicial discretion, and the Bar’s challenge is a reasonable and effective way of having it answered. As for the necessary factual background, it can be found in past cases cited by the Bar in its application.

Even assuming that Justice Roy’s disposition of the second part of the public interest standing test is correct (which it probably is, given the fairly lax application of this criterion by the Supreme Court in the past), I think that he goes astray in discussing the “reasonable and effective” criterion. It seems strange, if not preposterous, to me to claim that the real issue with mandatory minimums is interference with judicial power rather than the potential for disproportionate punishment in which their imposition may result. The Bar’s application itself devotes 43 paragraphs to allegations of violations of sections 7 and 15 of the Charter, and only 15 ― one third as much ― to the alleged violations of separation of powers and judicial independence. Furthermore, as I argued here, the judicial independence argument is a very weak one ― and it is perhaps noteworthy that Justice Roy does not even mention it in his discussion of the first part of the standing test. I still think that it would be astonishing if this argument were to succeed. And if we set it aside, the Bar’s challenge becomes, as the federal government contended, nothing more than an unwieldy collection of challenges to a large number of independent statutory provisions, presented in a factual vacuum which the Bar and Justice Roy propose to fill with hypotheticals. It is miles away from the Downtown Eastside case, where public interest standing was first and foremost the only way to bring crucial, probably even determinative, facts to bear on a challenge to a unified statutory scheme.

Justice Roy, it seems to me, has fallen for the Bar’s litigation strategy, which is really brilliant ― whether deliberately or accidentally so. By making a doomed, nearly frivolous argument, on which it is most likely to lose when the merits of its case are appraised, the Bar is nonetheless able to give a very different look to its constitutional challenge, and thus get over the standing hurdle, which it should never have overcome. Having overcome it, it can discard this argument altogether, or confine it to the throwaway status that is the best that it deserves, and focus its energy on its more serious claims, which it should not have been allowed to make in the first place. Litigators take note.

I hope the Court of Appeal will take note too, however. I don’t know if the federal government intends to appeal (though it seems like a pretty good bet), but if it does, it should win. I have no love lost for its “tough-on-crime” legislation generally or mandatory minimums in particular, but this case, if it goes forward, will make constitutional litigation into an open bar. As I wrote in my original post, this is not consistent with the nature of judicial review of legislation in Canada. Courts should not allow it to happen.

NOTE: Hat tip to Maxime St-Hilaire for making me aware of the decision, which I had missed.

3 thoughts on “Open Bar

  1. Pingback: Up We Go | Double Aspect

  2. Pingback: Bar This Claim | Double Aspect

  3. Pingback: A Standing Invitation | Double Aspect

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