Last week, the Supreme Court issued its first decision of 2017, Ernst v. Alberta Energy Regulator, 2017 SCC 1. One can only hope that it is not a trendsetter. The decisions raises more questions than it answers. The Court is split 4-1-4, with the different opinions at odds about which questions it is necessary or even appropriate to answer, and there is no holding on the most important of these, which was whether damages for breach of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms could ever be awarded against an administrative tribunal. As Jennifer Koshan notes over at ABlawg, “[t]he Ernst decision is challenging to read”, and “[i]t is also challenging to identify the precedential value of the case.”
The case arose out of allegations that the Alberta Energy Regulator (an administrative tribunal) attempted to silence Ms. Ernst in retaliation for her criticism. She claimed that the Regulator demanded that she no longer take disagreements with it to the media, and refused to consider her submissions to it on the same terms as it did those of other members of the public in retaliation for her failure to comply, and thereby breached her freedom of expression, contrary to paragraph 2(b) of the Charter. As a remedy for this breach, Ms. Ernst sought an award of damages, arguing that it was an “appropriate and just” remedy under subsection 24(1) of the Charter.
The Regulator sought to have her claim in damages struck as devoid of any chance of success, invoking a statutory immunity clause that barred suits for “any act or thing done purportedly in pursuance of” the Regulator’s legislative mandate, “or a decision, order or direction”. Ms. Ernst, however, argued that the constitution prevented this provision from denying her the ability to bring Charter claims.
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As just mentioned, there are three sets of reasons ― and no majority. As prof. Koshan helpfully explains, there are
three key issues, although not all of the justices agreed that these issues were worthy of consideration, nor did they agree on the order in which they should be considered:
- Whether it was plain and obvious that [the immunity clause] barred Ernst’s Charter claim;
- Whether it was plain and obvious that Charter damages were not an appropriate and just remedy in Ernst’s claim against the [Regulator]; and
- Whether Ernst’s failure to provide notice of a constitutional challenge to s 43 was fatal to her claim.
In what the Court designates as “reasons for judgment”, Justice Cromwell, with the agreement of Justices Karakatsanis, Wagner, and Gagnon, finds that Charter damages will not be an appropriate and just remedy, in this case or indeed, it seems, in just about any conceivable case against an administrative tribunal, meaning that the immunity clause is constitutional ― and, assuming, as Justice Cromwell does, that it bars Ms. Ernst’s claim ―the claim must be dismissed. (I would quibble here with prof. Koshan’s otherwise insightful post: she writes that Justice Cromwell “held that [the immunity clause] did, on its face, bar Ernst’s claim for damages”. It seems to me that this somewhat mischaracterizes Justice Cromwell’s reasons, which do not amount to a holding on this point. But as prof. Koshan says, it is difficult to understand what the Court actually decides.)
Justice Abella, who concurs in the result, would instead have dismissed Ms. Ernst claim for failure to provide notice of her constitutional challenge to the immunity clause. She she also suggests, however, without deciding, that Justice Cromwell is likely right about the appropriateness of Charter damages against administrative tribunals. Meanwhile, the Chief Justice and Justices Moldaver and Brown, with whose joint opinion Justice Côté agrees, dissent on the basis that it is not plain and obvious that the immunity clause bars Ms. Ernst’s claim or that Charter damages are an appropriate and just remedy.
The three opinions trade surly accusations of procedural impropriety, implicit or explicit. Justice Cromwell accuses the dissent of having decided that the immunity clause did not plainly bar Ms. Ernst’s claim even though the Court heard no argument on this point, because Ms. Ernst herself had conceded it. The dissent responds that the issue is too important for the court to simply proceed on the assumption that the concession is right. For her part, Justice Abella implies that Justice Cromwell should not have addressed the constitutional question at all ― and, remarkably, Justice Cromwell does not even attempt to respond to this accusation (though he repeatedly refers to the obiter part of Justice Abella’s reasons!).
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Prof. Koshan has summarized the three sets of reasons in detail; there is no need for me to do so again. In the remainder of this post, I want to focus on the question, which goes ostensibly unanswered in a 4-4 tie vote (Justice Abella abstaining), of whether Charter damages can be an appropriate and just remedy against an administrative tribunal. Justice Cromwell emphasizes the “need for balance with respect to the choice of remedies” for Charter breaches.  It is hard to be against “balance”, of course, but the question is how that balance is to be struck.
For Justice Cromwell, damages should not be too widely available. He gives two reasons for denying them in this case. First, if Ms. Ernst was wronged, she had an adequate alternative remedy in the form of an application for judicial review. It is her own fault that she did not make one. Had she done so, a court could have set aside the Regulator’s unconstitutional decisions. Indeed, “judicial review would in all likelihood provide vindication in a much more timely manner than an action for damages” ― if it had been initiated “promptly”, anyway.  Second, allowing claims for Charter damages to be brought against administrative tribunals would interfere with “good governance” by “chilling” their exercise of “responsibilities of a policy-making and adjudicative nature.”  Defending against damages actions is time- and money-consuming and distracting, and tribunals will be tempted to act “defensively” to avoid having to do so. Justice Cromwell adds that “allowing Charter damages claims to be brought … has the potential to distort the appeal and review process”,  and undermine the finality of administrative decisions. Moreover, the rule barring such claims needs to be categorical, since case-by-case consideration of whether a given claim might amount to an “appropriate and just” remedy would defeat its purposes.
The dissent disagrees with this; indeed, it is aghast at the prospect of a blanket immunity from Charter claims for administrative tribunals. Whether an application for judicial review ― which cannot lead to an award of damages ― would be an adequate alternative remedy is too early to say. As for concerns about good governance, courts should recall that “Charter compliance is itself” such a concern, indeed “a foundational” one.  While damages awards will likely not be “appropriate and just” “where the state actor has breached a Charter right while performing an adjudicative function”,  there is no need to expand immunity from such awards for non-adjudicative actions, especially when, as is alleged to be the case here, the actions at issue are “punitive”. At most, “certain state actors are subject to qualified immunities”,  such that it is only possible to claim damages against them for abuse of power or actions outside of their functions. In other words, there is no need for a blanket rule precluding case-by-case consideration, as Justice Cromwell suggests.
For my part, I do not think that Justice Cromwell’s arguments in favour immunizing administrative tribunals are persuasive. I thus sympathize with the dissent, Indeed, I wonder whether even it may go too far in favour of immunity of adjudicative decision-makers. In New Zealand, the Supreme Court’s holding in Attorney-General v Chapman  NZSC 110, that damages for the breach of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 are not available when the breach results from actions of the judiciary has been criticized, including by the two dissenting judges, who pointed out that while a personal immunity for judges is necessary to prevent the sort of ill-effects that worry Justice Cromwell, it is not so clear that the state should also benefit from this immunity.
Be that as it may, I think that the dissent is right to be skeptical of the need for an immunity for decisions that are not of an adjudicative character. Of course defending Charter damages claims may be a distraction and a drain on an administrative tribunal’s resources. But that’s true for any government entity that could be subject to such damages. On Justice Cromwell’s logic, we might as well abolish this remedy (admittedly already underdeveloped and moribund as it is). And as for the worry that administrative decision-makers may suffer a “chilling effect” ― that is as much a feature as it is a bug. If we care about the constitution, shouldn’t we want government entities to worry about acting unconstitutionally, instead of being concerned that they will? Perhaps there is a level of concern that would be excessive. But are we anywhere near it? It is, as the dissent points out, for the government to prove that good governance considerations preclude Charter damages awards; Justice Cromwell’s reasons show no evidence of such proof having been produced (unsurprisingly at such a preliminary stage in the litigation).
Finally, a word on a precedent that Justice Cromwell dismisses, it seems to me, rather too quickly. In Canada (Attorney General) v. TeleZone Inc., 2010 SCC 62,  3 SCR 585 and companion cases, the Court held that a litigant who want to bring a private law damages claim against the government did not have to first pursue a judicial review claim to have the decision from which the claim purportedly arose quashed. Justice Cromwell notes that “[t]he Court did not comment on the appropriateness of a Charter damages award against a quasi-judicial board.”  That’s true so far as it goes. But the principle underlying the TeleZone decision was that litigants are entitled to seek compensation for losses caused by the government, and so to pursue a damages action, without having the underlying decision set aside, because judicial review and damages claims are of a different nature. TeleZone does not dispose of Ernst, not least because it involved private law rather than Charter damages claims, and it is possible that the function of Charter damages is at least somewhat different, making judicial review a closer substitute. I am skeptical about that, but need to think more about this. In any case, it is too bad that Justice Cromwell seemingly does not trouble himself with this question (and also that the dissent does not raise it).
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In the event, Ernst only flags the issue of potential liability of administrative decision-makers for Charter breaches. It does not dispose of it. This is as well, because the decision is not going to be a Supreme Court classic. But it is worrying all the same. If it turns out that administrative decision-makers cannot be held to account for Charter breaches except by way of judicial review (and holding them to account through that means is a tricky business in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Doré v. Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12,  1 SCR 395!), then one will have to wonder whether they will bother thinking about their Charter obligations at all.