On the surface, dissenting judgments paint alternative visions of the law in a particular case. More deeply, they demonstrate that disagreement is a fundamental feature of the way law is made in our legal tradition. I did not choose the three dissenting views highlighted here because I think they “got the law right” (though I agree with some elements of them). I chose them because, each in their own way, they question an orthodoxy and address the contingencies of Canadian constitutional law.
McLachlin J in Adler
In Adler, two groups of parents who sent their children to private religious schools sought a constitutional remedy on the basis of their religious freedom and equality rights. They were aggrieved because, though the Ontario government funded Catholic schools pursuant to its constitutional obligations under the s. 93 of the Constitution Act 1867, it did not fund any other religious schools. Adler is most often discussed in relation to the question of what courts do when one part of the Constitution appears to conflict with another. The answer, that one part of the constitution cannot invalidate another, had previously been given.(FN 1: Or, as I prefer, the legal equivalent of the theological question: could an omnipotent god create a brisket so big that even they couldn’t eat it?)
My focus here, however, is on Justice McLachlin’s (as she then was) Charter analysis. The majority held that s. 93 created a comprehensive code with respect to education, and this included the provision of both public and Catholic or Protestant schools. As such, the majority reasoned, no aspect of this system could be subject to Charter review.
Justice McLachlin, however, held that the constitutional obligations imposed by s 93 were for “Ontario to fund schools for the Roman Catholic minority in Ontario.” In other words, only the support of Catholic schools, not of public schools, was shielded from Charter scrutiny. This opened the door to Charter analysis.
Justice McLachlin held that the absence of funding for non-Catholic religious schools was not a religious freedom problem: no one was prohibited from sending their children to such schools.
She went on, however, to consider the position of non-Catholic religious schools in contrast with that of secular public schools. I would wager that for many such an analogy might seem of no assistance. The religious parents in Adler could, after all, send their children to the funded public schools. From one perspective, such access represents equality, it does not violate it. The reason Justice McLachlin’s judgment stands out is because it engages directly with the perspective of the religious parents. “To these children,” Justice McLachlin held, “public education is as inaccessible as a job on the construction site was to [a turban-wearing Sikh person].” While Justice McLachlin ultimately held that the infringement of equality rights was justified, she showed a remarkable capacity to understand a perspective that might easily have been dismissed. She was also careful to specifically reject the argument that any disadvantage experienced by the religious families was due to their choice of religion: “If a charge of religious discrimination could be rebutted by the allegation that the person discriminated against chose the religion and hence must accept the adverse consequences of its dictates, there would be no such thing as [religious] discrimination.”
Abella J in NS
A second dissent that has stayed with me is Justice Abella’s in R v NS. The case addressed whether the complainant in a sexual assault prosecution could testify while wearing a niqab, a veil worn by some Muslim women that covers the whole face except the eyes. The two accused argued that this would compromise their fair trial rights by depriving court and counsel of access to her demeanour.
The majority created a test designed to balance the fair trial rights of the accused and the religious freedom rights of the complainant. While the test speaks in terms of reconciling competing interests, I think Faisal Bhabha was right when he wrote that the impact of the test is likely that niqabi sexual assault complainants will have to choose between testifying without their niqab or not testifying (see also para 96 of the dissent). Sexual assault prosecutions typically require testimony from the complainant to lead to a conviction, and the test is structured to make such important testimony subject to a no-niqab rule (see also Natasha Bakht’s work).
One of the challenges in the case is that it hinges on the assumption that a witness’s demeanour is a valuable indicator of their credibility. The social science on this question tends in the opposite direction, suggesting that ordinary people do no better than chance at detecting deception (see here and here). Though some of this social science was put to the court, this was not done through an expert witness who was able to stand for cross-examination. Accordingly, the majority of the court would not change the common law’s widespread assumption that watching a witness testify provides reliable information about their credibility.
Justice Abella’s dissent is compelling because this did not end the analysis for her. Instead of going down the path of the social science, Justice Abella used the common law’s tradition of analogical reasoning to question the position that a witness must testify with their face showing. Perhaps most persuasive is the analogy she draws to those with “physical or medical limitations that affect a judge’s or lawyer’s ability to assess demeanour. A stroke may interfere with facial expressions; an illness may affect body movements; and a speech impairment may affect the manner of speaking… yet none has ever been held to disqualify the witness from giving his or her evidence.” This passage is remarkable because it challenges a deep assumption of our legal processes and, like Justice McLachlin’s dissent in Adler, it refuses to treat religion differently than disability on the grounds that religion is “chosen.”
La Forest J in Provincial Judges’ Reference
The last dissent I highlight relates to the unwritten aspects of our Constitution. The Provincial Judges Reference addressed whether the principle of judicial independence constrained legislatures’ powers to limit the salaries of provincial judges. The disagreement between the majority and the dissent reveals a fundamental divergence in the conception of what Canada’s Constitution is and how courts should understand it.
For the majority, the text of the Constitution only incompletely lays out the principle of judicial independence: “[t]he only way to explain the interpretation of ss. 96 and 100… is by reference to a deeper set of unwritten understandings which are not found on the face of the document itself”. The majority referred to the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867, which expresses the desire to form a country “with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.” This, the Court held, points us to seek the Constitution’s “organizing principles” in “the legal and institutional structure” of the United Kingdom.
This way of reading the constitution, by reference to underlying or organizing principles that are not explicit in the text, has become familiar. But Justice La Forest presented a way of engaging with the Constitution more firmly anchored in its text. He accepted that the Constitution “embraces unwritten rules,” but emphasized that “these rules really find their origin in specific provisions of the Constitution viewed in light of our constitutional heritage”. To the extent that judicial independence was entrenched in the Constitution, this was “accomplished… by ss. 99–100 of the Constitution Act, 1867, not the preamble”.
Here is the crux of the disagreement. For La Forest J, the written provisions of the Constitution are not incomplete expressions of the underlying principles that animate the Constitution. The express provisions “are the Constitution. To assert otherwise is to subvert the democratic foundation of judicial review”. Why? Because “[j]udicial review… is politically legitimate only insofar as it involves the interpretation of an authoritative constitutional instrument” (emphasis added).
Justice La Forest’s dissent represents a contrary view on the primacy of the text over unwritten principles. It understands the documents to be the Constitution, whereas the majority seems to understand them to be an imperfect expression of the Constitution’s principles. These are very different ways of understanding the nature of our political community and its fundamental commitments. I don’t think I share Justice La Forest’s view, but it provides a reminder that our Constitutional documents do not come with clear instructions on how they are to be read and what unwritten principles they might include. In this way, La Forest J’s dissent accomplishes, I think, the goals of writing a dissenting view: it challenges its readers to scrutinize their interpretive commitments, which often go unstated.
My students sometimes lament that dissenting views are on the syllabus. But the law is more than a set of normative propositions. The records of legal disagreements give us glimpses at alternate possibilities; they model how a society characterized by deep divisions can rely in part on law to build a life in common.