Citizens concerned that the deployment of a weapons system in their place of residence will expose them to an increased risk of a devastating attack turn to the courts to try to block the deployment. They fail. To a Canadian constitutional law junkie, that’s the short story of Operation Dismantle v. The Queen,  1 S.C.R. 441. But that is also the story, on which the BBC reports, of a group of London residents who tried to challenge the decision by the British defence ministry to install a missile system on the roof of their apartment building as part of the security deployment for the upcoming Olympics. The High Court rejected their claim yesterday in Harrow Community Support Ltd v The Secretary of State for Defence,  EWHC 1921 (Admin). But although the two cases can, I think, be fairly summarized in much the same way, there are substantial differences in the courts’ reasoning.
Operation Dismantle was an attempt by a coalition of civil society groups to block the testing of American cruise missiles in Canada on the ground that it increased the likelihood of nuclear war and thereby contravened Canadians’ right to the security of the person, protected by section 7 of the Charter. The Supreme Court had “no doubt that the executive branch of the Canadian government is duty bound to act in accordance with the dictates of the Charter” (455) – and that the judiciary could verify compliance with this duty even of a cabinet decision having to do with foreign policy (459).
However, the Court held “that the causal link between the actions of the Canadian government [in allowing the missile test to go forward], and the alleged violation of appellants’ rights under the Charter is simply too uncertain, speculative and hypothetical to sustain a cause of action” (447). Chief Justice Dickson insisted that judicial “remedial action will not be justified where the link between the action and the future harm alleged is not capable of proof” (456). The problem for the appellants was that given the inherent uncertainty of international relations, “it is simply not possible for a court, even with the best available evidence, to do more than speculate upon” (454) the consequences of the decision to allow missile tests. And as subsequent decisions of the Supreme Court show, the same can be true of other governmental decisions in the realm of foreign policy. Thus the actual consequences of the Supreme Court’s holding that “disputes of a political or foreign policy nature may be properly cognizable by the courts” (459) are rather less far-reaching than they might first seem to be. A sweeping assertion of judicial power is combined with a very cautious approach to its exercise.
The decision of the High Court might seem to be, in a sense, the opposite. Justice Cave-Haddon professes extreme caution, asserting that “[m]ilitary operational deployments for reasons of national security are matters for which the Government is answerable to Parliament and not – absent bad faith or acting outside the limits of the discretion – the Courts” (par. 27). And yet he makes – on the strength of a fairly scanty record quickly put together for an application heard on an expedited basis – detailed findings of fact, including a finding regarding degree to which the installation of the missile system makes the claimants’ apartment block more likely to be a terrorist target. Unfortunately for claimants, this degree is, in the judge’s view, nil. The claimants lose, but – purportedly – on the merits, rather than because their claim is inherently incapable of prof.
The reason for my skepticism as to whether this really is a decision on the merits is that the judge appears to have accepted with no reservations the government’s testimony, and in particular that of the general responsible for the military’s Olympics security deployment. Now it is not clear whether, or how seriously, the claimants challenged that evidence. But what seems clear enough is that much of it was opinion (about the missiles’ necessity, safety, etc.), not fact capable of proof in court. And even if we treat such testimony as expert evidence, what chance would the claimants have had to challenge it even if they had tried? A high-ranked military officer is, after all, presumably the best expert on such questions, and a court would be naturally inclined to defer to him.
Perhaps it is better simply to admit, as our Supreme Court did in Operation Dismantle, that the allegations of claimants in such cases are not capable of proof. Or to hold, as both the English High Court and our Supreme Court ostensibly did not, that such cases are, quite simply, not justiciable.