R v Boudreault: Parliament’s Cross to Bear

The rule of law does not countenance the frequent use of suspended declarations.

In R v Boudreault, 2018 SCC 58 the Supreme Court of Canada (per Martin J) struck down s.737 of the Criminal Code, which requires an offender who is found guilty, is discharged, or pleads guilty to an offence under the Criminal Code or the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to pay a “mandatory victim surcharge.” The Court found that the surcharge constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” under s.12 of the Charter, because the victim surcharge was levied on offenders regardless of “the inability to pay, the likelihood that they will face a repeated deprivation of liberty for committal hearings, or the indefinite nature of the punishment” [45]. The Court struck down the law with immediate effect.

The substantive merits of the case are not my concern, and others have summarized them. But I can’t resist dipping my toe in the water. The test developed under s.12 of the Charter of “gross disproportionality” applied to “reasonable hypothetical scenarios” has always troubled me. Gross disproportionality is not necessarily co-equal with “cruel and unusual” punishment, the latter being a legal term of art that also appears in older constitutions, like the United States’ (8th Amendment). Issues of application arise, too: it is one thing for a criminal sentence to be grossly disproportionate, but it strikes me as odd to say that a victim surcharge, parasitic on the conviction assessed against the individual, is “grossly disproportionate” or even “punishment.” The offender is simply being asked to bear some of the costs of her criminal conduct.

But, though I disagree with the substantive outcome, I take the s.12 violation as a given—instead, I think the more interesting part of the case is the decision on remedies. I see Boudreault as a small step towards peeling back the force of the suspended declaration of invalidity, which has, in recent years, been the constitutional remedy adopted by the court on the say-so of the government. This state of affairs corrodes the important organizing principle of Canada’s constitutional remedies law: the rule of law itself.

How does the rule of law situate itself in the doctrine? The remedial authority for striking down laws is s.52 of the Constitution Act, 1982. That provision simply declares that the Constitution is supreme—and so it follows that laws contrary to the Constitution are invalid. A law that is unconstitutional is no law at all, and no court or government official should apply or enforce laws that are unconstitutional.

Section 52 does not say anything about “suspended declarations,” yet they have become the go-to remedy for the Court in constitutional cases. Because the Constitution should be interpreted consistently, any justification for suspended declarations should similarly be found in the rule of law itself. But this has not been the way for the Court, which often suspends declarations without much of a thought. For example, suspended declarations were endorsed in both Bedford (prostitution laws rendered unconstitutional) and Carter (criminal prohibitions on assisted dying rendered unconstitutional). In the former case, there was barely any comment on the matter from the Court. It noted that, “[w]hether immediate invalidity would pose a danger to the public or imperil the rule of law… may be subject to debate” [167]. A mere two paragraphs later, the Court concluded that, “considering all the interests at stake” the declaration should be suspended [169]. In the latter case, the Court’s analysis was similarly brief: “We would suspend the declaration of invalidity for 12 months” [128]. What’s more, the government couldn’t meet the deadline imposed by the Court, and actually received an extension of the suspension. In these cases, the suspended declarations seemed the declaration of rote when the Court was faced with a certain type of high-profile case.

This era of the suspended declarations stands uneasily with a generation previous. The first case in which the suspended declaration was used was the Manitoba Language Reference. There, the Court found Manitoba’s failure to publish laws in both official languages to be unconstitutional; accordingly, all of Manitoba’s laws were constitutionally invalid. But the Court recognized that an immediate declaration of invalidity, reaching forwards and backwards, would invalidate all laws and acts taken under those laws in the province of Manitoba, creating a “legal vacuum” [753]. The Court framed this concern in terms of the rule of law. By declaring the statutes invalid, an element of the rule of law would be sacrificed, the part that “requires the creation and maintenance of an actual order of positive laws which preserves and embodies the more general principle of normative order” [749]. And because the rule of law required the maintenance of this order of laws, an immediate declaration according to s.52 would undermine it.

Slowly but surely, the Court extended (or, arguably, replaced) this rule of law justification for suspended declarations. In Schachter, the Court listed three situations in which a suspended declaration would “be warranted”: the rule of law justification in Manitoba Language Reference, where striking down the legislation would “pose a danger to the public”; and where striking down legislation could deprive “deserving persons” of benefits.

So, the situation can be mapped in three general phases–simplified, of course: (1) Manitoba Language Reference, where the rule of law provided the exception to an immediate declaration (2) Schachter guidelines and (3) the Bedford/Carter era, where neither the rule of law or the Schachter guidelines figure prominently in the Court’s analysis. Bedford/Carter are in this respect a far cry from the Manitoba Language Reference. But in Boudreault, the Court seemed willing to at least lurch backwards toward Schachter. It ultimately concluded that “[t]he respondents have not met the high standard of showing that a declaration with immediate effect would pose a danger to the public or imperil the rule of law” [98]. To the extent that the Court actually ties back its conclusion on suspension to the Schachter guidelines, it seems willing to move away from the idea that a declaration should be suspending merely on the government’s submission. The Court characterized the Schachter guidelines as a a “high bar” [98]. And the Court, promisingly, framed its reason for hesitance in the language of the rule of law: “…in my opinion, a suspended declaration in this case would simply cause more offenders to be subject to cruel and unusual punishment” [98].

So, Boudreault can be seen in two ways. It can be seen as a throwback to a more disciplined application of the Schachter guidelines, which would be a welcome and easy doctrinal change. At the very least, the Schachter guidelines are predictable and are related (if only tangentially) to the rule of law. Or, for those of us who are more positive, Boudreault can be seen as justifying a more robust doctrine of constitutional remedies based on the rule of law, where suspensions are confined to narrow circumstance; the government is forced to deal with constitutional violations and plan for the eventuality that certain laws may be more susceptible to a successful challenge.

Any such courageous doctrinal change should start from the perspective of the rule of law. For example, it strikes me that the third Schachter category—deprivation of benefits—does not create a situation impacting the rule of law at all, and so should not justify a suspended declaration. Situations involving public safety could impact the rule of law, but the bar would have to be exceptionally high. In democratic societies of order, only the most massively disruptive situations of public safety would imperil the rule of law and justify the further imposition of unconstitutional laws. This would be a rarely used category.

Similarly, an allowance for suspensions on rule of law grounds would similarly be narrow. I can envision marginal situations like the Manitoba Language Reference, where a significant portion of the laws on the books are declared invalid, depriving a jurisdiction of a positive order of laws; or where a particularly important law governing some central set of legal relations is declared invalid (an example escapes me). Even this latter suggestion is perhaps a bridge too far, because any law could be “important.” Nonetheless, this rule of law justification would be narrowly confined, significantly more so than the Court’s existing doctrine

Those who favour suspensions might retort that, both institutionally and constitutionally, legislatures are owed deference in remedying constitutional violations. But to my mind, deference does not attach to this point of the constitutional analysis. It is one thing to defer to a government’s laws when determining whether they violate particular constitutional rights. To strike down a government law is not something that should be taken lightly, given the classic countermajoritarian difficulty—this is why stable and principled doctrine is so important. But once the law has been struck down by a court, it is wholly the legislature’s job to solve the constitutional problem. Absent some overriding rule of law concern, it is usually not (and shouldn’t be) the job of courts to patch up laws or give governments an assist through suspensions. After all, Parliament legislates. When it errs, Parliament must fix its mistake. This is its cross to bear.

In this sense, Boudreault is a refreshing change in tenor for a Court that has generally afforded deference through suspensions. One hopes it’s a renewed look to the rule of law.

Author: Mark Mancini

I am a PhD student at Allard Law (University of British Columbia). I am a graduate of the University of New Brunswick Faculty of Law (JD) and the University of Chicago Law School (LLM). I also clerked at the Federal Court for Justice Ann Marie McDonald. I have interests in: the law of judicial review, the law governing prisons, and statutory interpretation.

2 thoughts on “R v Boudreault: Parliament’s Cross to Bear”

  1. I’m not sure I buy the premise that suspended declarations corrode the rule of law. I’m not an expert on the concept, but the aspects of the rule of law that strike me as important are (1) adjudication by impartial adjudicators, who decide on the merits and not from personal animus or ulterior motives; and (2), separately, advance notice rules that guide conduct. Suspended declarations seem to me to be consistent with both of these, so I don’t see what the rule of law problem is. The practice of suspended declarations recognizes the reality that the SCC is a law-making body, albeit one with a limited role, and implements a reasonable procedural coordination with the other law making bodies. I don’t buy the argument that Parliament has made a mistake and has to live with it. The SCC is not an infallible fount of justice, and when it strikes down a law, this is indicative of a difference of opinion rather than any fundamental error on the part of the legislature.

    1. It seems to me that a basic underlying requirement of the Rule of Law is that one must actually be, well, ruled by laws (i.e. one cannot be the subject of arbitrary power). A law which is unconstitutional, as Mr. Mancini notes, is no law at all (especially because, if I understand my constitutional law correctly, the invalidity inheres from the moment it was enacted – hence the use of the term “declare”). Frequent use of suspended declarations of invalidity mean people are routinely being forced to comply with rules that are not law at all, and are in that sense pushed around by arbitrary exercises of government power.

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