In 1998, British Columbia started charging litigant stiff “hearing fees” for each day of a civil trial. Last week, Justice McEwan of the B.C. Supreme Court issued a monster of a judgment declaring them unconstitutional. The decision is very interesting for all sorts of reasons, but it is also abusively long. Fortunately for you, I have read it – well, much of it – so you don’t have to.
Before getting into the substance of the case, I want to say a few words about the decision; specifically, about its length. First, the facts: about 175 pages; 432 numbered paragraphs, many of them including multi-paragraph block quotations; more 70 000 words. That’s the length of a mid-sized novel. For a judgment, well, jugement-fleuve is a polite way of saying it. Perhaps it is a severe case of ‘I didn’t have the time to write a short decision so I wrote a long one’, except that it took Justice McEwan more than two years to produce it. Be that as it may, judges impose limits on the length of written submissions by lawyers. They should impose the same limits on their own work. Justice McEwan makes much of the courts’ work being for the benefit of the public. It’s not when the product is of such length that no reasonable member of the public can be expected to read it. (I’m not exactly a reasonable member of the public. But I must admit that I barely skimmed the restatement – I cannot call it a summary – of the parties’ submissions, which runs for something like 250 paragraphs. I did read all of the judge’s analysis though.)
Now to the case. The facts are simple. A couple separates, and there is a dispute over whether the plaintiff, who wants to move back to Spain, can take their daughter with her. They go to trial, unrepresented by lawyers, and the trials takes up 10 hearing days. The plaintiff is hit with a “hearing fees” bill of over 3500$ (some of which the defendant might have to cover). The fees are so high, in part, because they are imposed on a sliding scale – the longer a trial is, the higher the fee imposed for each additional day. She cannot pay, and asks the court to relieve her. The court might do this by finding her to be “indigent”. Indigent litigants have traditionally been exempt from having to pay court fees. But, Justice McEwan insists, ‘indigent’ means really, really poor. So poor one can’t afford to pay a $100 filing fee, for instance. “It is an awkward word to use to describe a middle class family’s inability to pay a month’s net salary for the two-week ‘rent’ of a courtroom” (par. 26). The exemption does not apply. The only way the plaintiff can get out of having to pay is if the fee is unconstitutional. That’s what the decision is about.
There are at least three strands of argument running through Justice McEwan’s reasons. He does not distinguish them, but they are in fact quite different. One is that the fees infringe an individual right – access to justice, the right to have one’s day in court. Another is that there is something wrong with a chooser-user-payer model of government services; a court is a public service, and should be available to all, regardless of ability to pay. The third – and I think the most significant for Justice McEwan – is that the imposition of the fees proceeds from and results in a redefinition of the courts’ role by rationing access to courtrooms and trying to steer dispute settlement to other venues. This, in Justice McEwan’s view, subordinates courts to the legislature and violates the separation and equality of the branches of government.
All of these reasons lead Justice McEwan to conclude that hearing fees are unconstitutional because they violate unwritten constitutional principles and the federal division of powers. Limiting access to courts runs counter to the Rule of Law. It is also undemocratic because court participate in the elaboration of law, and going to court thus amounts to participating in the democratic process (which is not limited to voting). A redefinition of the courts’ role, especially one that limits people’s access to courts, is beyond of provincial powers over “the Constitution, Maintenance, and Organization of Provincial Courts” under subs. 92(14) of the Constitution Act, 1867. Justice McEwan did not consider the applicability of the Charter, which was also raised in argument.
Well, that’s enough for a summary, though this only skims the surface of the judgment. I will have some comments tomorrow.