No Room for Housing Rights

Last week, in Tanudjaja v. Canada (Attorney General), 2014 ONCA 852, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the striking out of an application seeking to have the federal government’s and Ontario’s affordable housing policies, or lack thereof, declared unconstitutional. According to Justice Pardu, who wrote for herself and Justice Strathy, the case, brought by a group of individuals who are either homeless or have precarious and insufficient housing and an NGO, had no reasonable chance of success, notably because it was not justiciable. Justice Feldman, dissenting, would have allowed it to proceed to a hearing on the merits.

The applicants did not attack any specific law or administrative decision of either government, but rather argued that their overall approach to the problem of affordable housing and homelessness was constitutionally defective because contrary to their rights to life, liberty, and security of the person (protected by s. 7 of the Charter) and equality rights (protected by s. 15). They did list a number of policies which in their view particularly contributed to the problems they sought to address, notably the insufficiency of the funding devoted to a number of social assistance programmes. As for the remedies they sought, these ranged from a (seemingly purely symbolic) declaration that “Canada and Ontario have failed to effectively address the problems of homelessness and inadequate housing,” to declarations to the effect that Canada and Ontario have failed to their constitutional duties “to implement effective national and provincial strategies to reduce and eventually eliminate homelessness and inadequate housing,” to an order that they, “in consultation with affected groups,” implement such strategies, under the supervision of the Superior Court.

The issues raised by the applicants, said Justice Pardu, are simply not the sort that courts can entertain: neither the applicants’ claims of rights-infringement nor the remedies they ask for can be effectively dealt with in a judicial setting. Courts can rule on the constitutionality of specific laws, “but a comparison between the legislative means and purpose, is impossible in this case,” [28] whether for the purposes of s. 7 of the Charter or of s. 1. Besides,

there is no judicially discoverable and manageable standard for assessing in general whether housing policy is adequate or whether insufficient priority has been given in general to the needs of the homeless. This is not a question that can be resolved by application of law, but rather it engages the accountability of the legislatures. Issues of broad economic policy and priorities are unsuited to judicial review. Here the court is not asked to engage in a “court-like” function but rather to embark on a course more resembling a public inquiry into the adequacy of housing policy. [33]

On the remedies side,

a bare declaration that a government was required to develop a housing policy … would be so devoid of content as to be effectively meaningless [while].[t]o embark, as asked, on judicial supervision of the adequacy of housing policy developed by Canada and Ontario takes the court well beyond the limits of its institutional capacity. [34]

As a result, Justice Pardu said, regardless of the extent of the specific Charter rights invoked by the applicants, “[t]he application here is demonstrably unsuitable for adjudication,” [36] and was rightly struck.

Justice Feldman, dissenting, was not so convinced. She stressed that

The novelty of the claim alone is not a reason to strike the claim. … The purpose of a motion to strike is to weed out, at an early stage, claims that have no reasonable chance of success, either because the legal issue raised has been conclusively decided against the claim or because the facts, taken at their highest, cannot support the claim. The motion to strike should not be used, however, as a tool to frustrate potential developments in the law. [49]

After discussing in some detail the possibility that ss. 7 and 15 of the Charter might be interpreted as the applicants say they ought to be, Justice Feldman says that the justiciability of positive rights claims has not yet been clearly rejected by the courts. ” As a result,” she says, “courts should be extremely cautious before foreclosing any enforcement of these rights.” [81] The fact that the application here does not aim at any specific law could give rise to “a number of procedural as well as conceptual difficulties,” but that does not necessarily prevent it from being justiciable. The “application asks the court to view Charter claims through a different procedural lens. That novelty is not a reason to strike it out.” [84] As for the remedies, they could, if necessary, be confined to declaratory relief.

For my part, I think that the majority is probably right here. As Justice Pardu says, there is no standard against which to measure the governments’ alleged failings. It is easy to say that not enough money is being allocated to solve the problems of housing affordability and homelessness ― but can the full solution of a social problem really be a moral, never mind a legal, standard by which to judge government action (or inaction)? Indeed, it is not clear that a full solution would exist even with unlimited funding. And if a partial solution, or movement towards a solution, are sufficient, as the relief sought by the applicants suggests, then how is a court supposed to decide what is satisfactory?

Justice Pardu is also right that the remedies the applicants seek will be either empty words or well beyond the capacity of a court to implement. Justice Feldman’s invocation of Canada (Prime Minister) v. Khadr, 2010 SCC 3, [2010] 1 S.C.R. 44 as an example of a case where declaratory relief for a violation of the Charter was appropriate is ironically revealing. The Supreme Court’s declaration that Mr. Khadr’s rights had been infringed led to no meaningful action on the government’s part.

I share one concern with Justice Feldman, however. I believe that the claims in this case are not justiciable, but I’m not convinced that they are obviously, unarguably so. Is it impossible that a court will find them justiciable? Perhaps, but I’m not sure. If this were a ruling on the merits of the application, I would have no doubt that the majority is correct. But on a motion to strike, the issue is not whether the applicants’ claims are well founded, or even reasonably likely to be well-founded, but only whether there is any chance that they will succeed. So I’m not sure that, weak as they are, they do not meet this very low threshold.

The trouble is that, as best I can tell, there is no way to adjudicate the merits of the justiciability issue on a Charter application without having a full hearing on the merits of the application itself. So the court might be simply treating the motion to strike as an opportunity to rule on the merits of the justiciability issue, so as to avoid what it thinks is an unnecessary full hearing. And I agree that a full hearing is not necessary here. No amount of evidence of the inadequacy of the governments’ housing policies, were it to be introduced, could change the fact that a court of law is not the proper place to debate this evidence. Still, treating a motion to strike as in effect a preliminary merits hearing is not legally right.

These qualms aside, there are good reasons for the courts to refuse to adjudicate, if not any and all social and economic rights claims, then at least out of vast campaigns intended to reshape entire areas of government policy. There is the issue of competing priorities ― if not all claims on public support can be satisfied, which ones should be favoured? It’s not obvious, to say the least, that the answer to that question ought to be “those who got adjudicated first.” There is the issue of legitimacy of unelected judges having to order Parliament and legislatures to increase taxes. Charles I lost his head for trying to raise taxes without Parliamentary approval, and George III lost an empire for insisting that he had the right to tax without consent. It is, again, not obvious that judges would fare any better. There is the issue of federalism. Generally speaking, housing and homelessness are not the federal government’s responsibility (except on reserves). The federal government chooses to help the provinces discharge many of their constitutional responsibilities, and the provinces accept the money (and ask for more), but how a court could assign responsibilities between the two level of government ― something that takes sometimes difficult political negotiations ― is really beyond me. There is, finally, the issue of the law’s inherent conservatism. If a court decides that social programme X is constitutionally required, then programme X cannot be got rid of even to be replaced by a more effective but differently organized programme. If the courts decide that the Charter requires governments to build social housing, then governments cannot subsequently decide to spend that money, say, on vouchers that allow people to get their own places, even if, say, the experience of other countries shows that this leads to better outcomes for the people concerned. At best, the government would have to turn to the courts and demonstrate  that its proposed programme would be enough to discharge its constitutional obligations. But it could not really demonstrate this ― it would have to speculate, and it’s not clear that a court ought to be convinced by such speculation.

Canadian courts, unlike the powerless talking shops that generate international human rights by the hundred while knowing full well that there is no prospect of most these “rights” ever being implemented, wield considerable power, because they know that their decisions will be obeyed and enforced. They know that with great power comes great responsibility, and do not exercise it lightly. They also know that a power that overextends itself and disregards the people from whom it comes and for whom it is supposed to be exercised will not last long.

2 thoughts on “No Room for Housing Rights

  1. Pingback: Seven’s Sins? | Double Aspect

  2. Pingback: Seven’s Sins? A response to Asher Honickman’s take on section 7 of the Charter | Advocates for the Rule of Law

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