Don’t Try This at Home

I had missed this story when it came out, but better late than never. The CBC reports on the work of a Windsor Law professor, Julie Macfarlane, according to whose estimation “up to 80 per cent of people in family court and 60 per cent in civil cases represent themselves.” This is is, as she says, “huge,” and creates all sorts of problems for the system, which did not develop with self-represented litigants in mind, and of course for the self-reps themselves. They are, more often than not, bewildered by the process, and emerged frustrated. The report quotes prof. Macfarlane as saying that “[s]ome people feel so burned by this process they need counselling. They’re feeling so emotionally overwhelmed, they need more than legal advice.”

Prof. Macfarlane finds that this wave of self-representation has two main causes. The obvious one is that budgets for legal aid, especially in civil matters, are extremely tight. But the other, says she, is that “[m]any people who, in the past, may have decided they could pay for a lawyer if they scrimped and saved on something else, are increasingly coming to the conclusion that, given the amount of information on the internet, perhaps they can do this for themselves and save a great deal of money in the process.”

That is quite ironic, since the accessibility of legal information is supposed to make “access to justice” easier. But law and justice, as any first-year law student learns, are very different beasts. CanLII might succeed in its stated goal, which “is to make Canadian law accessible for free on the Internet.” Yet it seems that by making law freely accessible, such resources give people a false sense of being able to succeed in the legal system without professional help, and even without more than a very superficial acquaintance with it, which leads them to fail to get the justice, if any, that the system could give them if used properly.

That’s not to say that CanLII should shut down. It is a precious resource, for lawyers and others alike. But it has a perhaps non-obvious downside, of which we should also be aware.

In fact, the whole issue of self-represented litigants and access to justice abounds in complexities that are forgotten more often than they should be. Continue reading “Don’t Try This at Home”

An Ancient Parliamentary Right

I learned something about constitutional and Parliamentary tradition yesterday, and decided I’d post about because I was probably not alone in my ignorance of this quirk. Apologies to those in the know already!


Each session of the mother of parliaments, at Westminster, and her daughters throughout the Commonwealth, starts with a Speech from the Throne, which sets out the Crown’s – so, by convention, the cabinet’s – agenda for the session. Debate on the government’s agenda as outline in the Speech from the Throne is the first order of legislative business, and the vote on the Address in Reply – the formal response of each House of Parliament to the Speech from the Throne – is a vote of confidence. So far, so familiar.

But, it turns out, not exact. Actually, the first order of business, in the House of Lords and the House of Commons at Westminster, the Senate and the House of Commons of Canada, and the Ontario Legislative Assembly (and perhaps others – I haven’t researched other provinces) is not debating the Speech from the Throne, but the introduction and first reading of a bill that has nothing to do with the Speech from the Throne. In the U.K. House of Commons, it is the Outlawries Bill. In the House of Lords, it’s the Select Vestries Bill. In the Canadian House of Commons, it is Bill C-1, An Act respecting the administration of oaths of office. In the Senate, it is Bill S-1, An Act relating to railways. The British bills seems to have a substantive content relevant to their titles. Canadian ones do not have anything to do with oaths of office, or railways, or anything else. Their only section reads:

1. This bill asserts the right of the House of Commons [or Senate, in S-1] to give precedence to matters not addressed in the Speech from the Throne.

This wording is revealing. It is unusual, indeed strange, for an act of Parliament to “assert,” although this is not altogether unique in Canadian legislation: the National Horse of Canada Act, S.C. 2002 c. 11, “recognize[s] and declare[s].” More importantly, it probably is unique for an Act of Parliament – even for a bill – to refer to itself as a “bill” rather than as an “Act”.

The reason for this unique wording is that these are bills that are not meant to become Acts. The preamble to C-1 explains this tradition:

Whereas the introduction of a pro forma bill in the House of Commons before the consideration of the Speech from the Throne demonstrates the right of the elected representatives of the people to act without the leave of the Crown;

Whereas that custom, which can be traced to 1558 in the Parliament at Westminster, is practised in a number of jurisdictions having a parliamentary form of government;

And whereas it is desirable to explain and record the constitutional relationship represented by that custom …

That of S-1 is similar, though of course it makes no reference to “the elected representatives of the people.” It also does not specify the date on which the custom of the pro forma bills originated.

This is perhaps as well, since there seems to be some confusion on this point. The latest iteration of Ontario’s version of the pro forma bill, more transparently named An Act to Perpetuate an Ancient Parliamentary Right, also refers to 1558. But the earliest version available on the legislative assembly’s website, dating back to 1998, claims that

[t]his practice dates back to the reign of Elizabeth I, when on March 22, 1603, (just two days before her death), Parliament made this assertion of independence from the Crown for the purposes of legislation.

The British bills seem to actually have a traditional substantive wording, related to their titles. But their purpose is exactly the same as that of the Canadian pro forma bills, for which they have served as a model (though as you can see, we have somewhat innovated on it).


This is all quite amusing, as are many other constitutional traditions originating in Westminster. But it in a way, it is also rather sad. Pro forma bills are bald assertions of power, not intended to lead to its exercise. Having won its independence from, and then control over, a once-powerful Crown, Parliament has become the servile instrument of the Cabinet. The executive is once again in control of the agenda, and whatever Parliament says at the beginning of each of its sessions, it does not give precedence, or indeed almost any consideration, to matters not put before it by the Cabinet. (Indeed, it is the Prime Minister who tables Bill C-1 in the House of Commons.) Legislative supremacy, or even autonomy, is not much more real now than under the Tudors and the Stuarts.

Drop That Gun! (But Keep the Bullets)

The Superior Court of Ontario has recently delivered its decision in The Queen v. Montague, 2012 ONSC 2300, an interesting case at the intersection of the topics property rights, and gun rights, about which I wrote here and here. In fact, in the latter post, I had mentioned a previous decision in this case, by the Ontario Court of Appeal, rejecting a challenge to the constitutionality of Canadian firearms law based mostly on the English Bill of Rights, 1689. The accused, William and Donna Montague (William, mostly), had been found guilty of a variety of firearms-related offences; they had deliberately let their licences and registration for their firearms lapse. Hundreds of weapons and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition had been be seized at their residence. Following their convictions, the Crown applied for forfeiture of the weapons and ammunition, worth over $100,000, pursuant to par. 491(1)(b) of the Criminal Code, which provides that firearms and ammunition (inter alia) involved in or which are the subject matter of an offence, if it has been seized, “is for forfeited to Her Majesty and shall be disposed of as the Attorney General directs.”

The Montagues argued that the application of this provision, at least in their circumstances, would infringe their property rights protected by the par. 1(a) of the Canadian Bill of Rights. In their view, forfeiture – that is, a form of expropriation without compensation – should not be imposed automatically and for an offence which is a malum prohibitum rather than a malum in se. In such cases, “due process of law” – which the Canadian Bill of Rights makes a condition on any deprivation of property – requires a judge to have discretion to order that the property subject to par. 491(1)(b) of the Criminal Code be disposed of otherwise than by forfeiture (for example by transferring legal title to it to a trustee who would sell it for the former owners’ benefit). They also raised, in passing it would seem, ss. 7 and 12 of the Charter.

Justice Wright’s reasons are somewhat muddled―indeed it is not quite clear where he is summarizing the Crown’s position and where he is giving his own analysis of the issue. However, his conclusion is that “in a proper case s. 491(1)(b) of the Criminal Code might well be ‘construed and applied as not to abrogate, abridge, or infringe or to authorize the abrogation, abridgement or infringement’  of the accused’s right to enjoyment of property,” as s. 2 of the Canadian Bill of Rights requires. What this seems to mean is not that courts should only apply the Canadian Bill of Rights “in a proper case”―it’s a law after all, and must always be applied―but rather that “in a proper case” a court might exercise its discretion in the way suggested by the Montagues.

I doubt the soundness of this conclusion as a matter of black-letter law. As either Justice Wright or the Crown – unfortunately it is not clear which – notes, a notion of “substantive due process” has not, so far, been recognized in Canadian law. (Though of course “principles of fundamental justice” in s. 7 of the Charter are very substantive indeed. Yet the Supreme Court, in deciding, in Re B.C. Motor Vehicle Act, [1985] 2 S.C.R. 486 that they were so, made much of the fact that the Charter‘s drafters did not use the expression “due process”.)

As a matter of legal philosophy things are a bit more complicated. Jeremy Waldron argues persuasively that hearings and an opportunity to make submissions are a necessary part of any legal regime worth the name. Yet I do not think that this condemns automatic sanctions, be they forfeitures or―in different cases – mandatory prison sentences (such as the mandatory term of life imprisonment which the Criminal Code imposes for murder), on the basis that such sanctions are not properly legal. I do not think that every legal consequence of every fact need be up for argument, so long as the actual existence of the fact is required to be established in accordance with a good legal procedure. Such sanctions might be too harsh, but that is a different story. The claim that the concept of law or the Rule of Law has substantive (and not only formal and procedural) qualifications is very controversial; I, for one, do not buy it.

Be that as it may, Justice Wright refuses to exercise his new-found discretion to save the Montagues from the forfeiture of their firearms:

[41]      The firearms do not present a case where a citizen has unwittingly become embroiled in bureaucratic “red tape”.  They do not present a case where the forfeiture is so overwhelmingly disproportional to the offense that justice cries out for a remedy.

[42]      The firearms present a case where a knowledgeable individual cold bloodedly and with knowledge of the potential consequences deliberately and publicly broke the law. Courts cannot stand by and appear to condone such behavior. Civil Society is entitled to defend itself. Civil disobedience as a political technique is only morally justifiable and thus eligible for the protection of the court where the perpetrator has been denied access to the political institutions of the nation. This was the case at the time of Gandhi. This was the case at the time of Martin Luther King, Jr. They had no alternative other than violence which they both eschewed. Notwithstanding this, both of these individuals understood the needs of society and accepted the consequences of their civil disobedience.

He does exercise it, however, to reject the forfeiture of some of the ammunition, on the ground that it was not actually illegally stored. The jury found otherwise – but that, he says, is because they were not informed of the relevant regulations at trial. I’m not sure about the propriety of this intervention, even assuming that Justice Wright is correct about having the necessary discretion. I do not know enough, really, to form an opinion on this point. If you do, I would love to hear yours.

Humpty Dumpty

Last week, the Globe’s Neil Reynolds blamed all the troubles, real or imaginary, of Canadian federalism on the “peace, order, and good government” (POGG) clause of s. 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867. Undeterred by his failure last time around to grasp the actual constitutional law he was bewailing, which I pointed out here, Mr. Reynolds is at it again, albeit with a new culprit: subsection 2A of s. 91, which authorizes Parliament to legislate with respect to “[u]nemployment insurance.” A week ago, Mr. Reynolds was ignorant of that provision’s existence, and castigated Employment Insurance (EI) as an abuse of the POGG power. It’s nice to know he might actually have read the Constitution Act, 1867. It would have been even nicer if he had acknowledge his previous mistake, but never mind.

Mr. Reynolds is manifestly distressed by what he perceives as the downfall, apparently in 1943, though I’m not sure why then, of the “limited, decentralized government” the Constitution Act, 1867 set up. Notwithstanding Lord Atkin’s “prescient warning” in the Unemployment Insurance Reference about the dangers of a federal spending power which “would afford the Dominion speedy passage into the provincial domain,” provinces and the federal government agreed to a constitutional amendment which transferred the competence to legislate with respect to unemployment insurance from the provinces to Parliament. Mr. Reynolds thinks this was catastrophic:

As Lord Atkin anticipated, the program led, a single surrender of provincial jurisdiction at a time, to a notional constitution that lets federal governments collect taxes and distribute the proceeds to any person, organization or corporation it wants.

We now think it absurd that a British aristocrat could have blocked – as illegal – a national unemployment insurance program in Canada. In retrospect, Lord Atkin proved more perceptive than this country’s determined centralizers. He perceived that the [Constitution Act, 1867] protected Canadians’ human rights by protecting their property rights from excessive federal power.

Mr. Reynolds then goes on to follow Lord Atkin (dissenting in Liversidge v. Anderson) in invoking Alice’s question to Humpty Dumpty:  “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Humpty Dumpty thought he could. Mr. Reynolds apparently is Humpty Dumpty himself, thinking as he does that he can make our constitution mean so many different things.

For it is absurd to blame the alleged abuses of the federal spending power (the power to collect taxes and distribute the proceeds however it sees fit, without regard to exclusive provincial jurisdiction) on EI. The power to implement EI is narrow, clear, and grounded in a specific constitutional provision; the problem of the federal spending power is precisely that it is unlimited in scope, vague, and has no clear constitutional basis. EI and the federal spending power are polar opposites.

And it is equally absurd to claim that the Constitution Act, 1867 “protected Canadians’ human rights by protecting their property rights from excessive federal power.” For one thing, property rights are no less vulnerable to provincial than to federal invasion. The most economically radical government in Canadian history was the Social Credit one that came to power in Alberta in 1935. Its repressive legislative programme was struck down by the Supreme Court in the Alberta Statutes Reference, [1938] S.C.R. 100, because it infringed the broad economic powers of Parliament. And the extent of these powers – over taxation, over the banks, over interest rates, over bankruptcy – means that if Parliament set about undermining property rights, it could very well have done it. Of course, the framers of the Constitution Act, 1867, rejected the American example and refused entrenching protections for property rights in the constitution (as did the framers of the Charter).

More broadly, Mr. Reynolds’ belief that Canada is an absurdly centralized country with a federal government of unlimited power is groundless. Canada might be the most decentralized federation in the world; it is certainly less centralized than the United States, Australia, or Germany. Just last year, in Reference re Securities Act, 2011 SCC 66, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down – to the consternation and disbelief of many centralizers in the business and academic communities – the proposed federal securities legislation. Canadian federalism is alive and kicking – too much for some. Mr. Reynolds would really do well to find another topic on which to fulminate.

Not for Sale

On to the third (and maybe last) part of my comments about the the BC Supreme Court’s judgment striking down hearing fees the province imposed on litigants who wanted to go to trial, which I summarized here. On Thursday I wrote about the separation of powers aspect of the judgment; on Friday about its suggestion that there is a right to go to court. I turn now to the idea that the imposition of hearing fees is wrong not (just) because it infringes the judicial branch’s prerogatives or the rights of the citizens, but because it departs from a certain idea of what government and public services ought to be like.

This argument is related to the one about separation of powers; indeed, although Justice McEwan’s rhetoric suggests otherwise, I think it is necessary to make the separation of powers argument plausible. Taken on its own, the claim that the judiciary must be master in its own house and the legislature has no business interfering with the role of the courts by enacting rules that encourage people to settle disputes otherwise than through adjudication is incredibly far-reaching. It would make rules designed to encourage settlement (like Rule 49 of the Ontario Rules of Civil Procedure) or legislation providing for recognition and enforcement of arbitral awards constitutionally suspect ― but I don’t believe any court in Canada would think this a plausible constitutional principle. What might make the claims of impermissible interference with courts plausible here is the nature of the change imposed, rather than the mere fact that the legislature intervened in the working of the judicial branch.

The hearing fees imposed by British Columbia had the purpose and effect of “rationing” courtroom time and of making the people who actually go to court pay for the upkeep of the civil justice system. They reflected a conception of the civil justice system as a service of which people choose to avail themselves, and which benefits those who make this choice. If that’s what civil justice is, it is logical enough to make its “users” pay for it. That’s how arbitration works, for instance. But it’s not what civil justice is, says Justice McEwan. Continue reading “Not for Sale”

See You in Court!

This is the second part of my comments on the BC Supreme Court’s judgment striking down hearing fees the province imposed on litigants who wanted to go to trial, which I summarized here. Yesterday, I wrote about he separation of powers line of argument in Justice McEwan’s reasons. I turn now to the suggestion, which also runs through his judgment, that there is something like an individual right to go to court.

The Charter, of course, contains no such right. Well, at least not generally. Subs. 24(1) does provide, however, that “[a]nyone whose rights or freedoms, as guaranteed by this Charter, have been infringed or denied may apply to a court of competent jurisdiction to obtain such remedy as the court considers appropriate and just in the circumstances.” Still, if that’s a right to go to court – that’s what it sounds like to me – it’s a narrow one. Most cases have nothing to do with the Charter. The dispute before Justice McEwan was about child custody, and before the question of the fees arose, the Charter was not at issue at all.

Justice McEwan makes two main arguments for why there is a right to go to court, and it is a general one. The first is that going to court is a form of democratic participation, protected by the democratic principle of the constitution. The second is that it is a feature of our constitutional order and a requirement of the Rule of Law. Continue reading “See You in Court!”

Don’t Piss Off the Crocodile

As promised, I have some comments on the B.C. Supreme Court decision striking down hearing fees, which I summarized here yesterday. In fact I’ll have a lot of comments, too many for just one post. I start off today with some thoughts on what I take to be the main line of argument in Justice McEwan’s judgment: the claim that the imposition of the fees is a violation of the separation of powers, encroaching on the superior courts’ protection by the judicature provisions of the Constitution Act, 1867, and violating the principles of the Rule of Law and the independence of the judiciary.

There is a saying (in Russian anyway) that one should not piss off a crocodile before having swam across the river. Now imagine that you’re constantly swimming in that river, back and forth. You really, really don’t want to piss off the crocodile. That seems to be the message implied and to some extent explicit in Justice McEwan’s decision. The river, that’s the courts. The government, and specifically the Attorney-General, is the guy always swimming there. And the crocodile, well, that’s Justice McEwan himself (and presumably his colleagues too).

In fact, as the BC Injury Law Blog reports, all the crocodiles in the river were already quite unhappy before this particular fight came about. But now, this crocodile is mad as hell. The government thinks the river is about to burst its banks because there are too many people going in there. It has decided to build bridges (i.e. steer litigants away from the courts―in private or judicial mediation,  settlement programs, etc.) and to charge people for going into the water. The longer they stay there, the more they need to pay. But this is not really, or at least not primarily about the money. “Cost recovery is only the secondary purpose of the fees according to the AGBC. The first is rationing court time. ” (Par. 309). That, says the crocodile, changes the nature of the river. And the river is his, not the government’s, so he won’t stand for it. Continue reading “Don’t Piss Off the Crocodile”