Last week, the Supreme Court issued an important judgment on the law of public interest standing. Although it might seem like a technical issue, the importance of standing, or locus standi, was already clear to Archimedes 2200 years ago, when he asserted that if given a place to stand, he would move the earth. Ok, maybe he didn’t mean that sort of locus standi, and anyway he spoke Greek, not Latin. But in law no less than in physics, if you want to move the earth, you need a place to stand.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Canada (Attorney General) v. Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society, 2012 SCC 45 makes finding one easier. It relaxes, or clarifies, as the Court’s judgment insists, the test courts use to determine whether to grant “public interest” standing to a party who does not have standing―simply put, the right to initiate a lawsuit―to challenge the legality or constitutionality of government action under the traditional (“private interest”) definition of standing, which requires the would-be plaintiff to have a specific personal interest in the dispute.
The would-be plaintiffs in Downtown Eastside are an organization and a former sex-worker who want to challenge the constitutionality of the Criminal Code‘s provisions relating to prostitution, which they say infringe their rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association, security of the person, and equality before the law. Since they neither stand accused under the Criminal Code provisions they want to challenge nor are likely to find themselves in that position, they have no “private interest” in the challenge. But, they say, they should be given standing in the public interest. The Supreme Court of British Columbia refused to do so; the Court of Appeal reversed that decision, and the government appealed. The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal.
Courts can grant a would-be plaintiff public interest standing when his challenge raises serious and justiciable issues, the plaintiff has a genuine interest (in a non-technical sense―this is not a legal interest, in the sense of a personal stake) in the dispute, and, as the Supreme Court put it in Minister of Justice of Canada v. Borowski,  2 S.C.R. 575 at 598, “there is no other reasonable and effective manner in which the issue may be brought before the Court.” But, as Justice Cromwell explains in his opinion for the unanimous Court, “no” here doesn’t quite mean no.
Rather, than a categorical bright-line rule, the test is a flexible standard, requiring the court to assess “whether, in all the circumstances, the proposed suit is a reasonable and effective way to bring the issue before the courts” (par. 37). This still allows the courts to accomplish the purposes of the rules on standing: to keep away “mere busybodies” (more hypothetical than real, says the Court) and economize judicial resources; to ensure that courts will be expose to a full adversarial debate; and to keep them within the bounds of their constitutional role. At the same time, it helps enforce “the principle of legality,” which requires constitutional and statutory authorization for government action, by ensuring that no unconstitutional or illegal action can permanently escape a legal challenge.
Justice Cromwell provides (par. 51) a helpful, albeit non-exhaustive, list of factors to be taken into account in deciding “whether the proposed suit is a reasonable and effective way to” litigate an issue. These include 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―in practice, not in theory.
Applying these considerations to the would be-plaintiffs in Downtown Eastside, Justice Cromwell finds that they favour granting them public interest standing. In particular, he considers that, contrary to what the trial judge had found, it would be very difficult for the same set of issues to be raised in any other manner. To be sure, individual sex workers or their clients are often charged under the Criminal Code’s prostitution provisions. But even when they challenge the constitutionality of the provisions under which they are charged, they do not―and cannot as of right―challenge the whole scheme adopted by Parliament to deal with prostitution. Nor do they have the sort of resources the would-be plaintiffs here will bring to bear. (Anyway, many of these challenges are not heard because the cases are resolved otherwise.) He also notes that, given the legal and social stigma prostitution engenders, potential individual plaintiffs are unwilling to come forward to bring a comprehensive challenge of their own volition.
This could turn out to be a very important decision―or not. The degree to which the circumstances in which sex workers find themselves prevent them from challenging the laws that affect them might be unique. And we have no way of knowing, for now, just how flexibly courts will apply the “reasonable and effective” standard Justice Cromwell articulates.
I will, at least for now, refrain from further commentary. That is, first, so as not to over-extend an already lengthy post. But second, and more importantly, because my NYU colleague, Trudeau Scholar, and wonderful person, Lisa Kerr, who worked on the winning side of this case with the Pivot Legal Society (which represents the would-be plaintiffs), will soon guest-blog about it here. I am very much looking forward to her comments. I’ll save mine for later, if there is anything left to add.