A response to Asher Honickman’s take on the section 7 of the Charter
In a very interesting essay written for CBA Alberta’s Law Matters and published at the website of Advocates for the Rule of Law, Asher Honickman discusses the role of the judiciary in constitutional cases, focusing on section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Mr. Honickman tries to chart a middle course between what he describes as “judicial supremacy” and “legislative supremacy” ― the views that, respectively, “when it comes to interpreting the Charter … more is better” and judges should expand the scope of its provisions accordingly, and that the Charter as a whole was a mistake. Mr. Honickman’s argument is both rich and well stated. It is also, in my humble opinion, largely misguided. Because it is both rich and concise, it does not lend itself to an easy summary. I would urge the reader to take his or her time to go through it. For my part, I will respond to some specific points Mr. Honickman makes, over a couple of posts. I will start here with his take on the past, present, and future of section 7 itself.
Mr. Honickman argues that the Supreme Court misinterpreted section 7 from the beginning of its engagement with it in Re B.C. Motor Vehicle Act,  2 S.C.R. 486, expanding its scope well beyond the procedural issues to which it was intended to apply. More recently, the Supreme Court expanded section 7 further by recognizing principles of fundamental justice which not particularly fundamental or even particularly legal. Moreover, the Court unjustifiably relaxed the requirement that a section 7 claimant be “deprived” of the rights the provision protects, and accepted findings of deprivation, or infringement, based on “the indirect effects of the law [and] on contentious social science evidence.”
Mr. Honickman concedes that “[r]eturning now to the original meaning [of section 7] would be impracticable, as it would mean erasing more than thirty years of Charter jurisprudence.” He suggests, however, that section 7 be applied only in the context of the administration of justice ― if not to procedural matters, then at least when the impugned rules create an offence. Moreover, “the state action must amount to a real deprivation, which is a higher hurdle to overcome than mere infringement,” and the deprivation must be readily apparent by looking at the law’s “purpose and its immediate legal effects,” without recourse to social science evidence. Finally, principles of fundamental justice must not be added to without caution; in particular, the prohibitions on overbreadth and gross disproportionality are too vague and insufficiently capable of consistent application to qualify.
One of Mr. Honickman’s targets is the tendency of Canadian academics and activists to demand that section 7 be used by courts to force governments to provide all manner of goodies. For example, in Tanudjaja v. Canada (Attorney General), 2014 ONCA 852, the Court of Appeal for Ontario was asked to consider a claim that governments, both provincial and federal, were obliged to implement social programmes to help people access housing. The Court found the claim not to be justiciable, and refused ― rightly, as I have argued. To that extent, I agree with Mr. Honickman: section 7 is, and ought to remain, a shield to protect individuals from the state, not a sword to put to the throat of elected representatives in order to force them to spend money and enact regulations at the behest of interest groups.
Beyond that, however, I do not share Mr. Honickman’s views. I do not think, for instance that the issue of the original meaning of section 7 is as clear as he suggests. In our paper on whether the Supreme Court has actually rejected originalism as a method of constitutional interpretation in Canadian law, Benjamin Oliphant and I argue “that Justice Lamer’s reasoning in Motor Vehicle Reference [was] quite similar to the type of analysis that many (‘new’) originalists would support,” (22) given its close attention to the text and context of section 7. In particular, while Mr. Honickman thinks that Justice Lamer (as he then was) was wrong to ignore the meaning which courts had attributed to the phrase “principles of fundamental justice” in the Canadian Bill of Rights, that phrase was, as Justice Lamer noted, used in an explicitly procedural context in the Bill, rather than as a qualifier of a general guarantee of rights to life, liberty, and security of the person.
Nor am I persuaded that there is a very significant difference between “deprivation” and “infringement” of section 7 rights. A day’s imprisonment would, everyone would agree, constitute a “deprivation” of liberty, but is it really a worse imposition than years without the ability to take elementary precautions imposed by the Criminal Code’s prostitution-related offenses invalidated in Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72,  3 S.C.R. 1101, as Mr. Honickman suggests? I don’t think so. What is, and what is not, a “deprivation” is arguably a matter of degree ― the term used by the framers of the Charter is vague. I agree that it should be taken to refer to somewhat serious interferences, but I’m not sure that the Supreme Court has ever done otherwise.
Nor do I think that we should be distinguishing between “direct” and “indirect” effects of laws whose constitutionality is called into question. Admittedly, as I wrote in my first comment on Bedford,
I think that the Supreme Court conceded too much when it accepted a low, and arguably meaningless, causation standard to find that the impugned provisions caused harm to sex workers. The violence and exploitation which prostitutes suffer are not just “sufficiently connected” ― whatever that means ― to the law. They are its entirely foreseeable consequences.
But while I believe that the Court ought to revise its formulation of the causation standard, I do not think that a notion of “directness” is very helpful. To repeat, the harms caused by the prostitution provisions that gave rise to the constitutional complaint in Bedford were arguably indirect, but real and foreseeable all the same. And while I have, ever since Bedford came out, struggled with some very significant problems that can arise when courts rely on, and indeed expect to be presented with, extensive social science evidence in constitutional cases, I do not think that courts should forswear the use of such evidence, because failure to understand the world in which their decisions apply can cause these decisions to be very badly mistaken.
Finally, I am not persuaded by Mr. Honickman’s criticism of some of the principles of fundamental justice identified by the Supreme Court. The prohibition on gross disproportionality is at least an arguable case ― it certainly involves a measure of subjectivity in its application. But that of overbreadth is a time-honoured legal principle. It is, for instance, a staple of the First Amendment jurisprudence in the United States. Of course, Mr. Honickman is right that identifying a law’s purpose is a somewhat subjective exercise, and that it can potentially be manipulated by judges acting in bad faith, or simply indulging in results-oriented reasoning. But the exercise is a fairly routine one, being at the heart of the application of section 1 of the Charter, and indeed of ordinary statutory interpretation. That it can be done badly does not mean it cannot be done well or should not be done it all. Excessive judicial enthusiasm at identifying principles of fundamental justice is a potential problem for the interpretation of section 7 ― I criticized, for instance, the B.C. Court of Appeal for having pronounced the independence of the bar such a principle, with far-reaching and in my view disturbing implications, though fortunately the Supreme Court did not follow its reasoning. Still, the same could be said of just about any constitutional right. I don’t think that that’s a reason to always construe such rights narrowly.
In short, I am mostly not persuaded by Mr. Honickman’s criticisms of the current section 7 jurisprudence, interesting though they are. While I share many of his concerns about where that jurisprudence may be headed in the future, I do not think that the way to address them, or to prevent them from becoming reality, is necessarily to reject the current approach, and to narrow down the scope of arguably the most fundamental of all Charter rights. Whatever section 7’s sins, they are not mortal ones.