Climb Out!

The Québec Court of Appeal errs in holding that corporations are protected against cruel and unusual punishment

In a case that has attracted some media attention, 9147-0732 Québec inc v Directeur des poursuites criminelles et pénales, 2019 QCCA 373 the Québec Court of Appeal recently ruled that a corporation is entitled to the protection of section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which provides that “[e]veryone has the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment”. In my view, however, the majority is mistaken. Its analysis illustrates the perils of what I have been referring to as “constitutionalism from the cave” ― the belief that our constitution is only an imperfect reflection of the true constitutional justice to which the courts ought to give effect.

Justice Bélanger’s opinion for the majority (herself and Justice Rancourt) starts with a discussion of the place of organizations, a term that includes but is not limited to corporations, in contemporary criminal law. In Justice Bélanger’s view, since the constitution is an evolving “living tree”, its interpretation ought to be fitted to the context of a criminal law that imposes liability similar to that of corporations on unincorporated associations of individuals. In this context, seeking to maintain a sharp distinction between the rules applicable to individuals and corporations “would create more problems than it would solve”. [102; translation mine, here and throughout]

Justice Bélanger then rejects the argument that corporations cannot avail themselves of the protection of section 12 because this provision aims at upholding human dignity. She points out that other Charter guarantees ― the presumption of innocence and the right to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure ― have also been linked to human dignity, yet they apply to legal persons. Moreover, deprivations of economic resources can affect people, and while corporations have distinct legal personalities, not all organisations, as the criminal law uses the term, do. In any case, “a legal person can suffer from a cruel fine that is evidenced by its rigour, harshness, and a kind of hostility”. [122]

Turning to constitutional text, Justice Bélanger notes that the section 12 rights are guaranteed to “everyone”. In the context of various other rights (for example, the protection against unreasonable searches and seizures), “everyone” has been read as encompassing legal persons.

Justice Bélanger also argues that allowing the imposition of disproportionate fines on corporations is against the public interest, as well the normal purposes of criminal punishment. Indeed, she

do[es] not believe that Canadian society would find acceptable or in the natural order of things, in whatever circumstances, that a grossly disproportionate fine cause the bankruptcy of a legal person or organization, thus imperilling the rights of its creditors or requiring layoffs. [130; footnote omitted]

Justice Chamberland dissents, making two main arguments. Perhaps the more important one is based on the purpose of section 12 of the Charter, notably as defined by the Supreme Court. This purpose is to preserve human dignity. The Supreme Court says so in multiple decisions. The Canadian Bill of Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Charter‘s legal rights, including those protected by section 12, can be traced, are “instruments that provide for protection of rights in connection with human dignity”. [57] Indeed, “[t]he assertion that no one is to be subject to cruel treatment or punishment cannot be dissociated from human dignity”. [58] While the scope of “treatments or punishments” that may potentially be regarded as cruel can evolve so as to extend to fines, the requirement that the dignity of an individual, not a legal person, be affected is fixed.

Justice Chamberland’s other argument is textual. He considers that, as a matter of plain meaning, the word “cruel” refers to the infliction of “suffering, torture, inhumanity, and barbarity, all words that are tied to living beings and cannot be related to a legal person”. [51] He adds that “[o]ne can be cruel to living beings, of flesh and blood, whether humans or animals. And not to corporations with share capital.” [54-55; paragraph break removed] Justice Chamberland adds that “[t]he English Bill of Rights 1688 and the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution specifically provide protection against excessive fines, which the Canadian Charter and the Canadian Bill of Rights do not incorporate”. [66]

In my view, Justice Chamberland comes to the right conclusion, essentially for the textual reasons that he gives, though they are worth elaborating on a bit. Take the historical or comparative context first. It is useful to start with the Magna Carta (to which Justice Bélanger, but not Justice Chamberland, alludes). The original, 1215, version of the Magna Carta (in English translation) stipulated that

For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood. In the same way, a merchant shall be spared his merchandise, and a villein the implements of his husbandry, if they fall upon the mercy of a royal court. None of these fines shall be imposed except by the assessment on oath of reputable men of the neighbourhood.

The Bill of Rights 1688 picks up on this idea of proportionality between offence and fine, but it joins it with two other guarantees: “That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”. The Eighth Amendment repeats these exact words, only replacing “ought not to be” with “shall not be”. The Charter does things somewhat differently from its forbears. The right “not to be denied reasonable bail without just cause” is placed in a separate provision (section 11(e)) from the protection against cruel and unusual punishment (section 12). The proscription of “excessive fines”, meanwhile, has not been retained.

These drafting choices ought to matter. In particular, the Charter‘s text means that excessive fines are not, without more, unconstitutional. Now, in R v Boudreault, 2018 SCC 58, the Supreme Court held that a fine could be punishment for the purposes of section 12, which is fair enough. But of course that doesn’t remove the requirement that the fine, like any other punishment, must be “cruel and unusual” for it to be unconstitutional.

This brings me to the other part of Justice Chamberland’s textual argument: the meaning of the word “cruel”. It is remarkable, and telling, that Justice Bélanger does not directly engage with this question. Yet it is a crucial one. Both the French dictionaries to which Justice Chamberland refers and the OED define “cruel” in terms of the wilful infliction of pain and suffering or indifference to suffering. “Cruel” is not just a synonym for “excessive” or “grossly disproportionate”. Though disproportionality can be a useful indication of cruelty, it does not become cruelty unless it also causes or reflects indifference to suffering.

Now, perhaps this will always be the case with grossly disproportional punishment is inflicted on human beings. But in the case of personae fictae, the shortcut from disproportionality to cruelty is barred. As Justice Chamberland observes, legal persons cannot suffer or be pained. Justice Bélanger’s suggestion to the contrary, quoted above, strikes me as feeble. A corporation may certainly, in an objective sense, be the victim of harsh punishment and hostility. But it cannot subjectively suffer from these things.

Justice Bélanger’s main textual argument ― that section 12 protects “everyone”, and other provisions that do so apply to legal persons ― is also unpersuasive. Justice Bélanger is right that section 8 does apply to legal persons; she could also have pointed to section 2, at least some of whose guarantees (especially freedom of expression) clearly apply to corporations. But “everyone” also introduces section 7 of the Charter, whose protections, especially the right to life, can only apply to natural persons. The word “everyone”, it seems, is used ambiguously in the Charter, and we cannot rest very much on it.

Justice Bélanger’s point about human dignity being associated with rights that have been held to extend to corporations is better taken. But, by itself, it cannot clinch the argument for her position. Indeed, neither she nor Justice Chamberland should have gotten into a discussion of human dignity at all. The issue in this case can be resolved at the stage of interpretation ― of discerning the meaning the constitutional text ― without the need for construction in light of the purpose of the provision at issue. In some cases, construction is necessary to arrive at a workable way of applying a vague constitutional text. Here, by contrast, it only serves to muddy the waters.

Ultimately, Justice Bélanger decides the case the way she does because she thinks that it would be better if our constitution prevented Parliament and legislatures from imposing disproportionate fines that would cripple, and perhaps bankrupt, businesses. There is surely something to be said for this view as a normative matter. But what is “in the public interest” is not for the courts to decide. It is the politicians’ prerogative to, first, choose which limitations will be imposed on them and their successors, by framing constitutional provisions; and then by legislating within the boundaries of these provisions. It is arguable that the framers of the Charter made a mistake in failing to incorporate a protection against excessive ― and not only cruel ― fines. It is arguable that Québec’s legislature erred in imposing the minimum fine at issue in this case on a corporation guilty of a purely regulatory victimless offence (operating a construction business without a license). But it is not the Court of Appeal’s job to correct these errors.

As I have said before, it is a serious if all too common mistake to believe that the Charter’s text “is not so much a law that courts must apply as a sort of shadow in Plato’s cave, a vague reflection of true constitutional ideals that the judges must discover and explain to us cavemen”. The Charter, and the rest of the constitution, is binding law ― binding on the courts as well as on legislatures. “There can be”, I said, “no real constitutionalism in Plato’s cave. It’s time to climb out.” That includes the Québec Court of Appeal.

Happy 800th, Magna Carta!

Today is the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta Libertatum ― or just the Magna Carta, among friends. The Great Charter has been much celebrated, and also derided, of late. In the New York Times, Sarah Lyall does an excellent job of summarizing the competing perspectives. The celebrations tend to emphasize Magna Carta’s role as a symbol of liberty and the Rule of Law. Consider, for instance, that Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has called for a “Magna Carta” to protect the openness of his invention. (The Economist has a somewhat cheeky take on this today.) The critics point out that this symbolism is largely made up, a 17th-century fabrication. In its own day, the Magna Carta was a miserable failure: King John, who signed the Magna Carta, swiftly proceeded to get the Pope to dispense him from the duty to abide by it. There is not much for me to add, but I would like to venture some thoughts not on the contemporary significance or historical insignificance of the Magna Carta, but on what I take to be two if its timeless lessons.

The first is that the relationship between universalism and particularism in the realm of human rights is very complicated. The Magna Carta includes some clauses that are still cited today because they appeal to us as much as they did to the people of 1215. This is especially true of the injunction (in clause 39) that

[n]o free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.

In a recent judgment, the Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, also alluded to the next clause, whereby King John promised that “[t]o no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.” And while I don’t think the Magna Carta is much cited in this context, the idea of proportionality in punishment that is so important in contemporary Canadian jurisprudence was already there, in clause 20:

For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood. In the same way, a merchant shall be spared his merchandise, and a villein the implements of his husbandry, if they fall upon the mercy of a royal court.

Of course, it is true that, as Carissima Mathen noted in a recent op-ed, “[b]arbaric practices, like public execution and torture, continued apace.” But then, medieval England was not the only place where proclaimed ideals were not exactly matched by actual events.

Still, it is sometimes said that the past is a foreign country. And so it is tempting to think that if the ideals of due process of law were had such an attraction for the people of that foreign place, they are no mere concerns of a particular time and place. They speak to something universal in human nature. So when the governments of places such as Russia or China try to dismiss calls that they abide by these rights as some sort of cultural imperialism, an attempt to impose the neuroses of Western modernity on their nations’ vastly different cultures, we could call their bs.

At the same time, it is undeniable that many of the Magna Carta’s provisions were very much artifacts of their particular place and time ― and the same is true of (just about?) any other rights-protecting document that has followed it. It is difficult for us to believe that the removal of “[a]ll fish-weirs … from the Thames, the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea coast” had the same importance as due process of law, but there it is in the Magna Carta, in clause 33. It’s a reminder, I suspect, not all of the or the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, will appear equally important 80 years after their enactment ― never mind 800.

The other lesson of the Magna Carta concerns the importance of enforcement mechanisms for the limitation of governmental power and the protection of individual rights. It is, I think, seldom mentioned, but the Magna Carta actually included an enforcement clause, clause 61. The mechanism it put in place was, however, very much medieval. The barons were to elect 25 of their number, to whom people who considered their rights to be infringed could complain. Four barons would then go to the king, and if the king

make no redress within forty days, … the four barons shall refer the matter to the rest of the twenty-five barons, who may distrain upon and assail us in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of the land, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, or anything else saving only our own person and those of the queen and our children, until they have secured such redress as they have determined upon.

In other words, the only possible remedy for a rights violation was civil war. Which, frankly, seems a bit of overkill for a failure to remove a fish-weir from the Thames ― or even, for that matter, for a corrupt trial. Even if King John had been inclined to abide by the promises he made on the field of Runnymede, it is doubtful that the Magna Carta would have been much of a success. Any good faith disagreement between him and the barons would have led to wars, which would probably have caused people to hate the Magna Carta more than anything ― unless the parties also thought that a fish-weir wasn’t really worth a civil war, in which case the Charter would have become a dead letter anyway.

Perhaps it is then better that things turned out the way they did. It is King John who has gone down in history as the villain of the play, and not the Magna Carta. (Indeed, I cannot help but wonder whether he would have done things differently had he known that signing that document would be his greatest claim to fame!) The Great Charter, free any legacy of being applied ― and perverted ― by fallible human beings, can remain a shining symbol of our beliefs in liberty and the Rule of Law. I, for one, hope that its 1000th anniversary is greeted with at least as much fanfare as the 800th.

Entrenching and Expanding Rights

In an interesting post over at Concurring Opinions, Renee Lerner discusses the history of the constitutional protection for trial by jury, including in civil cases, in the United States, and suggests that this history holds a cautionary lesson. Prof. Lerner highlights the importance which the common law heritage and the purported “immemorial” “rights of Englishmen” associated with it had for the Americans of the Revolutionary period. These rights were thought to have been codified in the Magna Carta ― and “[t]he right Americans most often invoked in connection with the Great Charter was the right to trial by jury.” This, as prof. Lerner explains, was in no small part a myth: “The barons at Runnymede,” when they forced the Magna Carta on King John,

certainly did not intend to enshrine common-law trial by jury, which did not exist for criminal cases in 1215 and hardly for civil cases. In the language of Chapter 39 concerning “judgment of his peers,” the barons were trying to ensure that they would be tried by other barons, not by royal judges or ordinary juries.

But no matter. In the 17th century, Lord Coke and others fabricated the “myth” of an ancient right to trial by jury, and their ideas were immensely influential in America. Partly for this reason, and because “Americans of the colonial and revolutionary era also exalted the jury, as a means of furthering self-governance and nullifying despised British laws,” they entrenched it in many State constitutions and, eventually, in the Federal one.

For prof. Lerner, this was a very unfortunate mistake, for “the self-governing and law-nullifying functions of the jury came to seem unnecessary at best and often harmful.” Trial by jury, she writes, “chang[ed] from a prized right of the people to a nuisance.” And in her view, this history demonstrates the superiority of the flexible British constitution, which lacks entrenched rights. When a right becomes a nuisance, it can simply be got rid of.

Now to me this seems, to be sure, to point to a cost of rights-entrenchment ― but this cost is very much a feature, not a bug. Indeed, it might be the most important feature of them all. A major part of why Americans and, increasingly, other nations (including, of course, Canada) chose to entrench rights is precisely so that they cannot be discarded whenever a majority thinks that they have become a nuisance. (I don’t know whether most Americans actually think that jury trials are a nuisance. But let’s assume that they are.) It’s not just trial by jury ― the same goes for every right entrenched in every constitution in the world. We should be aware of the perils of inflexibility, but I don’t think that they are enough to make the case against entrenching rights. And it is worth noting that they can be addressed by somewhat more flexible constitutional amendment procedures than that of Article V of the U.S. Constitution or Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 (though its inflexibility is as much a product of politics as of the rules it contains), without abandoning entrenchment altogether.

What I think is a more interesting aspect in prof. Lerner’s story is one that she does not dwell on ― the expansion of the right to a trial by one’s peers from the nobility to the entire citizenry. In a way, this story is unremarkable. As Jeremy Waldron persuasively argues, it is the story of the idea of dignity ― an exalted status once reserved to kings and noblemen, but now attributed to all human beings. It is also the story of the right to religious liberty, which was at first only afforded to Protestants in England, and then expanded to embrace other familiar religious groups (such as Catholics and Jews), and later still the less familiar ones (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses) and the unbelievers. It is the story of the franchise, first the preserve of propertied men, and then expanded to the middle and working classes, to women and, in Canada at least, to prisoners and other groups that it traditionally excluded. We usually see these and other expansions of rights as unequivocally good. They have obvious upsides for the people who benefit from them and arguably for society as a whole, and ― so our conventional thinking goes ― no obvious downsides. Some people would beg to differ, but we tend to regard them as retrograde and bigoted. It is here that the story of the right to a jury trial might serve as an interesting cautionary tale.

If jury trials involved, both as parties and as jurors, only a narrow class of wealthy and, for the most part, not very busy people, they would not be the “nuisance” prof. Lerner describes. For one thing, the barons who demanded and obtained the right to be tried by their peers knew enough about each other’s affairs (if not specifically, then at least about the sort of life people of their social class led) to serve as reasonably effective triers of facts. They did not have, over the course of a trial, to understand the complexities of a line of business (or even, for that matter, of the functioning of a criminal gang,) For another, underpaying them for their work, or indeed not paying them at all, wasn’t the problem it is for jurors today (not only in the United States, of course). As much as the advent of the “representative republics” and the “commercial society,”  the expansion of the right to a jury trial, and the concomitant right and duty to serve on juries, to all citizens is the reason this right might be problematic today. (Incidentally, I should make clear that I do not express a definitive opinion on whether it is; at least in criminal matters, I’m tentatively inclined to think it is a useful safeguard.)

The story of the right to a jury trial might thus show that expanding a right from some citizens to all can cause significant problems in at least some cases. Of course, even if we agree with this interpretation of the story prof. Lerner tells, we need not come to the same conclusion regarding any other right. Each case must be assessed on its own merits. But we probably should at least acknowledge the possibility.