Keeping Out or Stepping In?

When should the courts intervene in internal disputes of voluntary associations?

This is my first post since February. Apologies. Things haven’t been great, and might not improve for some time, but I do hope that, at least starting in July, I will be posting more regularly.

In Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada St. Mary Cathedral v Aga, 2021 SCC 22, the Supreme Court considered the scope of the courts’ power to interfere with the decision-making of an unincorporated private association. The dispute involved a congregation and some of its members, whom its authorities excommunicated, apparently without having given them much of a hearing.

Justice Rowe provides a neat summary of his judgment for the unanimous Court:

[C]ourts can only intervene in the affairs of a voluntary association to vindicate a legal right, such as a right in property or contract. Membership in a voluntary association is not automatically contractual. Even a written constitution does not suffice. Membership is contractual only where the conditions for contract formation are met, including an objective intention to create legal relations. Such an intention is more likely to exist where property or employment are at stake. It is less likely to exist in religious contexts, where individuals may intend for their mutual obligations to be spiritually but not legally binding. A voluntary association will be constituted by a web of contracts among the members only where the conditions for contract formation are met. [49]

The idea that courts will only intervene in the face of an alleged violation of a legal right follows from the Supreme Court’s earlier decision in Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Judicial Committee) v Wall, 2018 SCC 26, [2018] 1 SCR 750. The rules of contract formation, including the requirement that parties intend to create legal relations, and not merely socially or spiritually binding ones, are longstanding. Here, they lead Justice Rowe to find that

there is nothing that can be characterized as an objective intention to make an offer on the part of [the congregation or its leadership], and nothing that can be characterized as an objective intention to accept on the part of any of the [excommunicated members], or vice versa. [52]

But a strict application of these rules, combined with (or perhaps resulting in) the position that even a self-proclaimed constitution of the association is not necessarily a binding contract, means that the courts will keep out of the internal disputes of voluntary associations ― especially, but not only, religious ones.


People whose opinion means more than mine have been critical of this. Over at Administrative Law Matters, Paul Daly writes

the sledghammer employed in Aga obliterates any judicial enforcement of any terms in a voluntary association’s “Constitution”, even terms relating to the basic procedures for removing individuals from the organization. When read with WallAga represents a significant judicial retreat. So much for the ‘supervisory’ jurisdiction.

Again, Professor Daly’s opinion on such issues is more important than mine. But here’s a note of doubt.

I’m not sure why we should be sorry about the judicial retreat, if that’s what Aga and Wall are. The Supreme Court is clear that when employment or property (or access to resources necessary to earn a living, as in some earlier cases involving expulsions from communes of coreligionists) are at stake, the courts still should intervene. What they are retreating from are disputes about membership or leadership of voluntary associations. But should they be involved in such disputes?

I would venture ― tentatively ― that it is sensible enough to think that they should not. As Justice Rowe explains

The law concerning the formation of contractual relations embodies practical wisdom. Many informal agreements that people undertake do not result in a contract. There are, for example, mutual undertakings between friends … or between members of a household … In neither of these examples do the parties (reasonably understood) intend to be subject to adjudication as to the performance of their commitments or to the imposition of remedies such as damages or specific performance. [21]-[22] (paragraph break omitted)

These rules aren’t only about practical wisdom though. They’re also about autonomy. As Justice Rowe himself says, they allow people who don’t want the law to step into their relationships to keep it at a distance. Arguably, unincorporated voluntary associations often are places where people exercise this kind of autonomy from the legal system. Not always, to be sure. But at least as a matter of presumption and default position, there is something to be said for Justice Rowe’s (and the Supreme Court’s) approach.

At the very least, this is a matter on which reasonable people might disagree, and on which compromise solutions may be available. Professor Daly notes that provincial legislation in British Columbia and Québec enables courts to intervene in the affairs of voluntary associations, including, in the case of Québec’s Code of Civil Procedure, of “groups not endowed with juridical personality”. Perhaps this is a defensible choice, albeit one less respectful of people’s autonomy. But it’s not necessarily the only defensible choice.

In fact, there is a difference between the Québec and British Columbia statutes to which Professor Daly refers. The latter only applies to “societies” which (as it makes clear) must be deliberately incorporated by their members. If people come together and form a voluntary association without incorporating, the default regime articulated in Aga will still apply. The position in New Zealand is similar: the Judicial Review Procedure Act 2016 defines “statutory power“, which is normally subject to judicial review, as, in relevant part, “a power or right … conferred by or under … the constitution or other instrument of incorporation, rules, or bylaws of any body corporate”. A constitution or bylaws of an unincorporated association do not count.

This may be a sensible distinction to draw: a group that goes to the trouble of formalizing its operations by incorporating, and obtains the benefits of incorporation, they submit to closer scrutiny by the courts. Otherwise, they will mostly be left to their own devices, except where legal relationships such as employment or ownership are involved, or where the association takes on some regulatory or quasi-regulatory role. In New Zealand, Electoral Commission v Cameron [1997] NZCA 301; [1997] 2 NZLR 421, involving the Advertising Standards Complaints Board which, although not incorporated, effectively regulated what advertisements could and could not be distributed by the media is an example.

In fact, Professor Daly’s position may not be all that dissimilar. He asks: “What is the point of setting out procedures, rights and obligations in a document made available to members when those procedures, rights and obligations can be discarded at will?” I’m not sure how strong this objection is in Aga (where the members of the congregation, even seemingly high-ranking ones, seem not to have been aware of the relevant documents for years). But Professor Daly’s point, if I understand correctly, is that choices about the degree of formality with which an association organizes itself are important. That makes intuitive sense. But I’m not sure that the line should be drawn at the creation of a “constitution” rather than at incorporation. The latter may be a more formal, and a more easily identifiable, step, and so perhaps a better marker for the courts to refer to.

Note, by the way, that my argument here is not about religious associations in particular. There are, indeed, good reasons for the secular courts to be especially wary of intervening in their disputes, because they are likely to implicate theological considerations. But this is only a specific application of the broader principle of autonomy that is implicated when the law chooses one approach or another to judicial intervention in the private sphere. Other kinds of associations may also have reasons for wanting to keep their workings informal and outside the state’s reach.


And, to repeat, perhaps they shouldn’t be allowed to do that. Perhaps the more interventionist position chosen by the Québec legislature is the wiser one. As I have already said, my views here are tentative. But I think that a debate about first principles ― about whether it is in fact right for the state to assume the role of a supervisor over the internal doings on voluntary associations ― is worth having. By tilting the default position towards non-interventionism and so putting the onus on legislatures to introduce a different set of rules, the Supreme Court’s decision in Aga may spur something like this debate.