Still Playing Favourites

Despite its broader focus, the Court Challenges Program remains objectionable

The federal government has officially announced that it is bringing back the Court Challenges  Program, which provides money to individuals or groups who pursue litigation in which they assert certain constitutional or quasi-constitutional rights. In comparison with past iterations, the program will subsidize claims based on a broader range of rights ― not only equality and language rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Official Languages Act, but also those based on sections 2, 3, and 7 of the Charter (protecting, respectively, “fundamental freedoms” of religion, expression, and association; the right to vote; and the rights to life, liberty, and security of the person). Yet even with this broader focus, the program reflects a flawed and indeed disturbing approach to the constitution by the government.

As I wrote in a post for the CBA National Magazine’s blog last year, we should question the government’s decision to prioritize the enforcement of some parts of the constitution over others. I noted that the government does have a special statutory mandate, under the Official Languages Act, to promote the recognition of both official languages and, especially, the vitality of minority linguistic communities throughout the country ― but of course a court challenges programme is only one of a myriad ways in which this might be done. And there is certainly no mandate to promote some Charter rights in particular. Why are, for instance, the due process rights protected by sections 8-14 of the Charter left out? Nor is there any reason, to promote the respect of Charter rights but not that of other constitutional provisions, such as those pertaining to the division of powers.

The choice of priorities for the Court Challenges Program is symbolic, and as I wrote last year

the symbolism is wrong. In choosing to fund court litigation based on language and equality rights, Parliament isn’t just sending the message it values these rights. It also says that it values these rights more than others. In other words, Parliament is playing favourites with the different provisions or components of the constitution. Yet they are all, equally, “the supreme law of Canada,” which Parliament is bound to respect in its entirety. Thus, in my view, signalling that it regards respecting parts of the Constitution more than the rest, in itself contradicts the principle of constitutionalism.

The government’s public statements today only confirm my impression. The Prime Minister has tweeted that the Court Challenges Program “will help protect the language & equality rights of all Canadians” ― singling out the rights targeted by the old versions of the programme, and omitting even those added by the one announced today. Meanwhile, the Justice Minister brags about “reinstating the Court Challenges Program as we celebrate #Charter35 to show our commitment to human rights and the rule of law” ― without any mention of, you know, that other anniversary we are also celebrating this year, which someone committed to the Rule of Law might also want to notice.

I have other objections to the Court Challenges Program too ― notably, to the fact that it funds challenges not only against federal laws, but also provincial ones, which strikes me as disloyal behaviour for a partner in the federation. If provinces want to pay people to challenge their own laws, they do can do it on their own ― but they should have the choice. And of course, it is doubtful that such a program is really the most effective way for the federal government to uphold the Rule of Law. Giving teeth to its internal reviews of proposed legislation for Charter and Canadian Bill of Rights compliance might be one good place to start instead; there are others as well.

But as the program is first and foremost symbolic, and in light of the Prime Minister’s and the Justice Minister’s statements, my objection to the program’s symbolism, to its playing favourites with the constitution which the government ought to respect in its entirety, is perhaps the most important one. Although plenty of people in legal academia (including Grégoire Weber, who is currently an adviser to the Justice Minister) and the bar have praised the return of the Court Challenges Program, I have not seen a response to my objections. It’s not that I am entitled to have my objections responded to, of course ― but I would be very happy to publish a guest-post if anyone cares to do it. Any takers?

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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