Clash of Courts

Senior Superior Court judges are suing Québec over its provincial court’s jurisdiction; other provinces will be affected if they succeed

I don’t think the story has received much attention outside of Québec yet, but it’s not because it doesn’t deserve to be noticed: as La Presse reports, the Chief Justice, Senior Associate Chief Justice, and Associate Chief Justice of Québec’s Superior Court are suing the provincial government, arguing that much of the civil jurisdiction of the Court of Québec is unconstitutional. More specifically, they are seeking declarations that Québec could not, consistently with section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867, grant its provincial court exclusive jurisdiction to hear cases where the amount at issue is more than $10 000 or any powers of judicial review over provincial administrative tribunals, because these powers are reserved for federally-appointed judges.

Currently, the upper limit of the Court of Québec’s jurisdiction in civil matters is set at $85 000. Should the Superior Court judges prevail, their court’s workload is bound to increase very substantially, though I haven’t yet seen any clear data on this point. But repercussions  will be felt well beyond Québec’s borders. British Columbia has set the upper limit on its provincial court’s jurisdiction in civil disputes at $35 000; Alberta, at $50 000. The principles on which the applicants rely apply across Canada, of course, and the boundaries between the jurisdictions of superior and provincial courts would need to be re-drawn in several provinces, if not quite to the same extent as in Québec.

Though I am sure that much more will be said about this dispute as it develops, my initial impression is that the Superior Court judges have a strong case. Although it says nothing of the sort, section 96 has long been understood to stand for the proposition that the courts to which it refers, including Québec’s Superior Court, have a protected “core” of jurisdiction. This core jurisdiction ― that which they exclusively had at the time of Confederation ― cannot be taken away from them or transferred to other courts (which is to say the Federal Court or provincial courts created pursuant to section 92(14) of the Constitution Act, 1867, such as the Court of Québec). As the Superior Court judges’ application shows, in Québec, the exclusive jurisdiction of (what at Confederation became) section 96 courts started at $100, which, adjusted for inflation, is said to be less than $10 000. (The application does not go into any detail as to exactly how this inflation adjustment proceeds ― the exercise is bound to be an inexact one over 150 years ― but let’s assume that the figures given are at least roughly correct.) As Québec expanded the jurisdiction of its provincial court over the last 50 years (for the most part, when it was governed by the Parti québécois), it took more and more out of the former exclusive jurisdiction of the Superior Court, impinging ever more on what the Supreme Court, in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31, described as its “historic task … to resolve disputes between individuals and decide questions of private and public law”. [32]

Indeed, the Superior Court judges’ argument is not new. Frédéric Bachand, then a professor at McGill and now himself a Superior Court judge, mentioned it in my civil procedure classes ― 10 years ago. And, while I’m not sure about this, I doubt that the point was a novel one even then. Prof. Bachand, as he then was, also pointed out that no litigant had a good reason to raise the issue, and he was right about that too ― but the wonders of public interest standing, which the Superior Court judges very plausibly claim, mean that the matter will have to be addressed regardless.

Just how it will be addressed is still a troubling question. The prospect of Québec’s Superior Court adjudicating, even in the first instance, a claim about its own jurisdiction brought by its three most senior judges is unsettling. The judges’ Application details their fruitless attempts to get the provincial government interested in the matter. For a while now, they have pushed for the issue to be referred to the Court of Appeal. A reference would indeed have been the preferable procedural vehicle, both to avoid casting the Superior Court in the unseemly position of being judge in its own cause, and also because the questions to be addressed are not of such a nature as to require a trial to be held, while appeals all the way to the Supreme Court are certain in any event. I’m not sure exactly why the Québec government has so far refused to take this course. Perhaps it was daring the judges to sue in their own court, and hoping that they would not compromise themselves in this way. But now that, rightly or wrongly, its dare has been taken, there is nothing to be gained from continued obstinacy.

Indeed, I wonder if the federal government would not do well to intervene and refer the issues directly to the Supreme Court, should Québec’s obstinacy continue. While federal references on the constitutionality of provincial legislation are uncommon, Québec itself has no compunctions about referring questions regarding the constitutionality of federal policies to the courts. And of course the issue of the respective jurisdictions of superior and provincial courts directly concerns the federal government, which would have to pick up a substantial tab for the salaries of additional section 96 appointees if Québec’s Superior Court judges are successful. Even more importantly though, because these judges are appointed and paid by the federal government, I think it has a direct interest in helping them maintain their continued impartiality and good standing, and arguably a duty to do so (a political duty, of course, not a legal one).

Whatever exactly happens, one has to hope that it happens quickly. An important question has been raised, with strong arguments to support the proposition that the way the court  systems of several provinces are organized is unconstitutional. This question deserves to be answered, but having it litigated by senior judges in their own court is surely not the right way to go about it. Yet if the judges are looking bad, the provincial government that seemingly dared  them to do it is even worse. It is not taking its constitutional responsibility for the administration of justice ― on which it purports to rely to justify its allegedly unconstitutional legislation ― seriously at all. It is high time for it to come to its senses ― and perhaps for the federal government to intervene if it refuses to do so.

First of All Our Laws

Natural law in a Québec Court of Appeal decision in 1957

Starting with the Reference re Alberta Statutes, [1938] SCR 100, but mostly in the 1950s, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a series of decisions which came to be known as upholding an “implied bill of rights” in the Canada. The actual holdings of these decisions were often relatively narrow ― they held, for example, that provinces could not outlaw political or religious ideas, because doing so was part of Parliament’s criminal law power. Yet both the obiter comments of some judges and the general trend of these cases seemed to give a fairly clear indication that the Supreme Court would, to some extent at least, resist the arbitrary exercise of both legislative and executive power in Canada, and protect civil liberties.

Understandably less well-known are the decisions of the lower courts that tended to the same effect. In Morin v Ryan, [1957] Que QB 296 (CA), for instance, the Québec Court of Appeal awarded damages to a plaintiff it founded to have been defamed by being characterized as a “militant communist” ― a decision F.R. Scott described as “a healthy check on incipient McCarthysm”. Another such decision, which I have recently come across, is Chabot v School Commissioners of Lamorandière, (1957) 12 DLR (2d) 796.  Like many of the “implied bill of rights decisions” it concerned the religious freedom of Jehovah’s Witnesses ― in this instance, in the context of a school system organized along religious lines.

The applicant’s children were attending a Catholic public school ― the only kind there was in their rural municipality. After the family joined the Witnesses, the parents wrote to the school to request that the children not be required to take part in the daily prayers and to study religion-related content. What we would now call a “reasonable accommodation” seems to have worked well enough for a while, but eventually ― perhaps after some trivial misbehaviour by the children, though many of the judges seem quite skeptical of this ― the arrangement broke down. The children were expelled, and the school authorities made it clear that they would only re-admit them on condition that they take part in the full programme of religious activities. The father sought a writ of mandamus to compel the school to admit his children with the condition that they be exempted from religious exercises.

At the Court of Appeal, the case was heard by a bench of seven judges ― testament, I take it, to its special importance. Six sided with the father. Justice Rinfret, as he then was (Édouard Rinfret, that is, not to be confused with his father Thibodeau Rinfret, the Chief Justice of Canada), dissented, protesting that

no one wants to place any obstacles in the way of the religious liberty of the appellant or his children, no one aspires to force him to send his children to the school of the commissioners; if he does it, it is of his own volition, because he wanted to; but if it is his wish and if he insists on sending them there, he is obliged to … follow the regulations [as to religious exercises and studies] established by competent authority. (826)

The law, after all, allowed religious “dissentients” to establish their own schools. If the Chabot family was one of the few or even the only one in its small town, that was not Catholic, the law paid no heed to that; they should still set up their own school, or comply with the rules of the Catholic majority.

But the court’s majority did not see it this way. For them, the issue was one of religious liberty ― and indeed of natural rights. On its face, to be sure, the case was about interpreting the applicable legislation and regulations, and deciding whether they were ultra vires the province, notably in light of some of the already-decided “implied bill of rights” cases. Justice Casey, for instance, starts by putting the case before the court in this context:

During the past few years our Courts have been called upon to consider those fundamental rights commonly called freedoms of speech and of religion, and while differences have arisen in solving specific problems, never has the existence of these rights been put in doubt. (805)

But, more than in those cases, the judges who decided Chabot were explicit in their references to implicit rights prior to positive law, which guided their interpretation and application of that law. Thus Justice Pratte says that “it appears useful to recall that the right to give one’s children the religious education of one’s choice, like freedom of conscience, is anterior to positive law”. (802) Having quoted a couple of English decisions to this effect, and a passage from Aquinas cited in one of them, Justice Pratte writes that

if one considers natural law, first of all our laws, it is necessary to conclude that children who attend a school are not obliged to follow a religious teaching to which their father is opposed. (802)

Similarly, Justice Casey was of the view that “[w]hat concerns us now is the denial of appellant’s right of inviolability of conscience [and] interference with his right to control the religious education of his children”, which rights “find their source in natural law”. (807). Justice Hyde (with whom Justice Martineau agreed), also took the position that the school authorities’ position amounted to an assertion that they could

force upon [non-Catholic children attending Catholic schools] the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and oblige them to go through forms of worship in accordance with that faith. It requires no text of law to demonstrate that this cannot be so. (813; paragraph break removed.)

Justice Taschereau (that is André Taschereau, not to be confused with his cousin Robert Taschereau, then judge on the Supreme Court and later Chief Justice of Canada), sounded a perhaps slightly more Dworkinian note:

It would … be contrary to natural law as well as to the most elementary principles of our democratic institutions that a father could not exercise the right or fulfil his obligation to instruct his children without renouncing his religious faith (834; emphasis added.)

Of the majority judges, only Justice Owen was more cautious, saying that “[t]here are differences of opinion as to the nature of [religious freedom], whether it is a civil right
or a political or public right”, although he too had no difficulty in concluding that it “is a right which is recognized and protected in Canada”, while pointing to limited legislative, and no constitutional, authority.

Now, it is not entirely clear quite what relationship between positive and natural law the judges envisioned. Certainly they were prepared to let natural law guide their choice between plausible interpretations of ambiguous legislative provisions, and either to read down or to declare ultra vires regulatory provisions inconsistent with their chosen interpretation and thus with natural law. But would they go further and actually invalidate positive law for inconsistency with natural law? None of them finds it necessary to do so, but there is at least a hint that they might. Justice Hyde seems to suggest that compliance with natural law might be a constitutional requirement, saying that the school authorities’ power to determine the curriculum

cannot be construed to override [a] basic principle of natural law. It would require very specific provisions in the Act to that effect to justify any such interpretation and then, of course, the constitutionality of such provisions would be a matter for consideration. (813)

Justice Casey might be going further still, stating that rights which

find their existence in the very nature of man … cannot be taken away and they must prevail should they conflict with the provisions of positive law. Consequently if the regulations under which, rightly or wrongly, this school is being operated make it mandatory that non-Catholic pupils submit to the religious instructions and practices enacted by the Catholic Committee then these regulations are ultra vires … and invalid. (807; emphasis added)

That said, the same Justice Casey cautions that

while in principle no one should be coerced into the practice of a religion, or subjected to compulsion in following outwardly the dictates of conscience, or prevented from practising as he sees fit the religion of his own choice, this immunity disappears if what he does or omits is harmful or opposed to the common good or in direct violation of the equal rights of others. (805)

Meanwhile, Justice Pratte suggests that Québec’s education system was designed so as to “take into account the rights of the family in the matter of education.” (800) His and his colleagues’ decision, then, might only rely on natural law the better to advance the positive legislator’s objectives, as well as to protect natural rights.

The majority’s overt invocation of natural law reads like something of a curiosity sixty years later. The rights it sought to uphold have, more or less, been subsumed in the positive protections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ― and, perhaps even more so, in Québec’s Charter of Human Rights and Liberties. Nevertheless, the questions the Court addresses are also very modern. The issue as stated by Justice Taschereau ― whether a parent “[c]an … be obliged to renounce his religious beliefs as a condition to the admission of his children to a public school of the school municipality where he lives?” (832) ― is exactly the same as that which faced the Supreme Court in Multani v Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, 2006 SCC 6, [2006] 1 SCR 256, the kirpan case. The answer the Supreme Court gave was not as novel as its critics keep on pretending it was, nor did it have to hinge on constitutional provisions which some of them affect to find illegitimate. Half a century before Multani, Québec’s highest court came to similar conclusions, on the basis of what it ― rightly in my view ― saw as truths antecedent to, and more permanent than, any constitution.

Do You Really Have to Go?

Lessons for Canada and New Zealand on resignations of MPs

A recent article by Audrey Young in the New Zealand Herald observes that the number of resignations of Members of New Zealand’s Parliament during the course of the terms for which they were elected has increased since the country moved from the first-past-the-post electoral system (which Canada now has) to the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system. Ms. Young also writes about proposals to reduce the number of resignations. There may be something for both Canada and New Zealand to learn from each other here.

The overall numbers are stark: “In the 20 years before MMP began in 1996, there were 14 vacancies ― nine caused by resignations of MPs and six by deaths while in office. [NOTE: It occurs to me that the numbers don’t add up; but the correct figure is relatively unimportant here.] In the 20 years since … there have been 48 vacancies”, 45 of them caused by resignations. New Zealand’s Parliament was enlarged when MMP was introduced, but the increase of its membership from just below 100 to 120 does not account for the growth in the number of resignations. Of course, correlation does not equal causation; but there are in fact good reasons to think that there is causation here.

Most significantly, Ms. Young notes that of the 45 MPs who resigned, 30 were “list MPs”. Yet there are at one time only 50 (or, with the occasional addition of overhang seats, sometimes 51 or 52) such MPs in New Zealand’s Parliament, compared to 70 elected in single-member districts. The smaller pool of list MPs is providing two thirds of all resignations. And it’s not hard to see why that might be the case: when a list MP resigns, he or she is simply replaced “by the next available candidate on the party list.” There is little cost for the party, for getting a soon-to-retire or an out-of-favour MP to retire, and replacing him or her with a more eager or better liked one.

Yet David McGee, a former Clerk of the New Zealand Parliament, writes in the Herald that all these resignations are “deleterious to the institution of Parliament and to the sense of obligation that members should feel to it”. While does not elaborate this very much, he adds that “[m]embers in the final year of a Parliament can and should be expected to contribute to its work for the full term that they have signed up to”. And so Mr. McGee suggests a solution to this problem. “In the case of list members … any vacancy occasioned by resignation should not be filled.” This will disincentivize the parties, which prompt most these resignations, from ever doing so.

For Canadian advocates of electoral reform generally, and especially of MMP (which I take it is the most popular option among reformers), there is a warning here. Electoral reform is likely to bring in more resignations ― and more MPs brought in from lower down party lists, without the publicity or scrutiny of elections. An unintended consequence, no doubt, but arguably still an unpleasant one. And solution proposed by Mr. McGee is not very appealing either, it seems to me; it is too dependent, for its attractiveness, on complete success. If it fails to prevent resignations, then it will result in departures from the principle of proportionality of representation ― and in a finely balanced Parliament might even cause a change in the balance of power. And to achieve the absolute success it requires, Mr. McGee’s proposal incentivizes parties in a way that is arguably no less perverse than that of the current system for being its opposite: a party will do everything to keep a list member, even one involved in scandal or found to simply be incompetent, from resigning, and diminishing its power. As Edward Willis points out,

the ability for politicians to resign is usually understood to be an important accountability mechanism. Politicians do not always cover themselves in glory, and sometimes the people want (metaphorical) blood. Falling on one’s sword in a public manner demonstrates the accountability of the political system to the people at the level of the individual politician, and for that reason alone I would be hesitant to put anything in the way that would prevent or inhibit political resignations.

The same concerns arise with respect to Mr. McGee’s proposal for dealing with resignations of MPs elected by constituencies, Mr. McGee argues that

as a condition of being declared elected, electorate members should be required to enter into a bond to serve through the full term of the parliament. The amount of the bond would not cover the full cost of a byelection … but it should be sufficiently high to provide a financial disincentive to resignation for the member and for the party backing the member.

The only exception he would make to the application of these penalties would be for those MPs who resign “on health grounds proved to the satisfaction of the Speaker or the Electoral Commission”.

The idea is similar to one that has already been implemented in Québec, where the Act Respecting the Conditions of Employment and the Pension Plan of the Members of the National Assembly provides, since 2015, that the Assembly members who do not complete the term for which they were elected forfeit the “transition allowance” to which they would otherwise be entitled. Pursuant to section 12 of the Act, a member who resigns can only get his or her allowance upon proving, to the satisfaction of the Assembly’s Ethics Commissioner, that the “resignation is due to a serious family matter or to a major health issue affecting him or a member of his immediate family.”

When this idea was first floated in 2013 by the then-Minister responsible for Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship, Bernard Drainville ― who would later resign from the National Assembly in June 2016, right in the middle of a legislative term ― I criticized it here. I noted that the supposed “moral contract” between the voters and their representatives, which bound the latter to serve out their terms, appeared to be a matter of wishful thinking, if the experience of the leader of Mr. Drainville’s own party was anything to go by. Pauline Marois had resigned from the National Assembly in 2006, saying that “her heart [was] no longer in it”, and yet came back and was elected again in 2007, later becoming Premier. More importantly, though, I wrote that “requiring members of the assembly to serve out their terms would have perverse effects”, notably in that

it would incentivize a member mired in ethical problems, or even one charged with an offense, to cling to his or her seat rather than resigning and giving it up to another, better able to represent his or her constituents. And more broadly, citizens would not be well served by a representatives whose heart … was no longer in it, and who only show up at the Assembly in order to eventually collect their allowance. Mr. Drainville’s proposal would likely create such zombies.

Needless to say, not many people pay heed to my rants, and the proposal had sufficient bipartisan support that it was eventually enacted, not by Mr. Drainville’s Parti québécois, but by the Liberals who replaced them in government in the meantime.

If New Zealaders get serious about taking action against MP resignations, they would do well to consider Québec’s experience. It is still very brief, but perhaps already instructive. My worries about zombie-MNAs waiting to collect their allowance might have been exaggerated, though of course it is impossible to tell. What is clear, however, is that a financial penalty will not deter at least some legislators from resigning mid-term. Mr. Drainville himself did it, to take up a radio talk-show host job, after Pierre-Karl Péladeau resigned as Parti québécois leader and quit politics. Mr. Péladeau’s own resignation might have fallen within the scope of the “serious family matter” exemption, but his case also shows that a penalty that would be a serious matter for most people would have been of no concern at all to someone as wealthy as he is.

Indeed, this may be unsurprising. In New Zealand itself already denies any sort of golden parachute to members of Parliament who leave before the end of their term. Section 11 of the Members of Parliament (Remuneration and Services) Act 2013 only provides an “additional salary” to those who are “member[s] of Parliament immediately before the dissolution of a Parliament” ― and yet it has not stopped resignations. Admittedly, the amount to which members who serve out their term are entitled is only three months of salary, as opposed to up to a year in Québec. Still, that many choose to forego it ― even leaving just months before they would become eligible for it ― suggests that when a legislator becomes sick and tired of legislating, he or she may walk away from easy money just to get away from it. (Take that, all you cynics who think that politicians are only in it for greed or lust for power!)

Our institutions have flaws; sometimes, very visible, even obvious flaws. Members of Parliament resign without finishing the job for which they were elected; governments come to office without the support of a majority of the people. It is tempting to look for an easy fix to these flaws. But these fixes may be less effective than they seem, and may create problems of their own if implemented. Moving to an electoral system featuring party lists may raise the number of parliamentary resignations; requiring prospective MPs to pay a bond to ensure against their resignation may fail to provide that insurance, yet deter the less well off from standing for office. Tinkering with the rules may feel satisfactory, but it is perhaps better to remember that no system is perfect.

Events Next Week

I’ll be visiting McGill and Yale next week. Come say hello!

Next Tuesday, the 29th, I’ll be taking part in a discussion on “Conscience and the Constitution in Canada” at the McGill Faculty of Law (specifically, in NCDH 101). I will be speaking on the conflict between freedom of conscience and state authority, in particular as it played out in the litigation about the constitutionality of the Canadian citizenship oath, about which I have written a great deal here. The other participant will be Brian Bird, a doctoral candidate at McGill, who will be speaking about the legal history of freedom of conscience in Canada. The fun starts at 1PM and goes on until 2:15.

By the way, this event is organized by the Runnymede Society, which is a new group that aims at fostering conversations and debates on matters constitutional in Canadian law schools, and in particular at presenting students with a broader range of views and perspectives than they might otherwise be exposed to. I think it is a very exciting and useful project, and I am very excited to be taking part in one of their first events. Thanks to the Runnymede Society’s president, Joanna Baron, for inviting me!

And next Thursday, the 31st, I will be moderating a panel on “Popular Sovereignty and a Québec Constitution” at the Symposium on Does Québec Need a Written Constitution?,which will be taking place at Yale, in Luce Hall (LUCE), Room 203. The proceedings start at 9:45, and the panel that I’ll be chairing ― and on which Maxime St-Hilaire (a sometime guest here at Double Aspect), Mark Walters, and Nelson Wiseman will be speaking starts at 1PM. Many thanks to Richard Albert, the convener of the Symposium, for inviting me to do this.

If you are able to attend either event, please come say hello!

Marriage Drama

A row about civil and religious marriage in Québec is quite unnecessary

In early February, Québec’s Superior Court delivered what should have been a fairly routine judgment dismissing a weak constitutional challenge to provisions of the province’s Civil Code that have usually ― although not always ― been regarded as requiring a person celebrating a marriage to notify the registrar of civil status. Instead, Justice Alary’s decision, Droit de la famille — 16244 has, not unlike some trivial incidents in a couple’s life, sparked a furious row. The row is, as usual, meaningless ― though it can make us reflect on the institution of marriage.

The case before Justice Alary involved a man who objected to the financial consequences of a divorce, and argued that he had been unconstitutionally compelled to enter into a civil as well as a religious marriage. Unbelievers, he said, have the option of simply cohabiting if they do not wish their relationship to have the legal and economic consequences the law attaches to a marriage. People of the “Judeo-Christian faith” (his terminology) lack that option, as their religion requires them to get married in order to live together. So the legal consequences of a marriage are, in his view, an infringement of the believers’ freedom of religion and of their equality rights. They should have the option of getting married religiously without incurring the legal consequences of a civil marriage.

Justice Alary easily dismissed this argument. She held that while the plaintiff’s belief that he had to be (religiously) married to cohabit with his (formerly) beloved was sincere, he had not shown that the state had interfered with this belief.  “The impugned provisions,” she observed, “certainly [did] not prevent [him] from holding beliefs having a nexus with religion. Nor did they prevent him from ‘engaging in a practice’ having to do with religion, that is to say, from getting married.” [45; translation mine] Indeed, the reason for the plaintiff’s objections is not so much his faith as his economic assessment of the family law regime. As a result, there is no infringement of freedom of religion. Subsequently, Justice Alary also finds that there is no infringement of equality rights.

This strikes me as quite obviously correct. When the law forces a person to do something that his or her religion prohibits, or prohibits him or her from doing something religion requires, that person’s religious freedom is infringed. But nothing of the sort is happening here. As Justice Alary notes, neither the plaintiff or anyone else is prevented from entering into a religious marriage. Nor is anyone required to do so. What’s happening here is that the law attaches some (unpleasant) consequences to the plaintiff’s choice to do something ― namely, to get married. This choice is religiously determined, to be sure, but I don’t think that law can take notice of that, any more than it could take notice of the fact others might get married simply because their prospective spouse pressures them to do so and they feel that they have no meaningful choice. The law simply does not look into people’s reasons for getting married. The plaintiff’s argument is identical to a religious person’s claim to a tax rebate on the ground that he or she is required, by his or her faith, to spend money on charity or tithes while non-believers need not do so. The believer chooses to comply with religious obligations, and has to live with the civil consequences of that decision.

Perhaps unfortunately, Justice Alary was not content with this conclusion. She went further and, in an obiter, opined that a religious officer who celebrates a religious marriage need not perform a simultaneous civil ceremony and notify the registrar of civil status. A religious marriage can be purely religious ― without civil consequences. It is this obiter that provoked ― about a month after the decision was published! ― furious reactions in large sections of Québec’s legal community, which saw it as exposing women and children to detrimental consequences. Some are even calling for the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its provincial equivalent to be invoked to defend “Québec’s family law” and the “collective values of Québec’s society” (translation mine).

I find these reactions perplexing. Religious marriages without civil consequences are not exactly a shocking, unheard-of thing. As Yves Boisvert pointed out in a (somewhat flippant, but fundamentally correct) column in La Presse, there are all manner of religious groups in Québec. Some of them may perform marriage ceremonies that do not comport with the Québec Civil Code’s requirements for authorizing religious officers to perform civil marriages, and these ceremonies will, then, result in religious marriages without civil consequences. Before same-sex marriage was recognized by law, some religious groups blessed same-sex unions. (Indeed, one such group was a plaintiff in the case of Halpern v. Canada (Attorney general), in which the Court of Appeal for Ontario struck down the opposite-sex definition of marriage.) Such marriages also could not have any civil consequences. As Anne-Marie Savard asks in a thoughtful post over at À qui de droit, “why must we regard this possibility as nothing more than a way for men to avoid their civil obligations,” (Translation mine) rather than a way for couples to organize their own affairs as they wish? As for calls for the notwithstanding clause to be invoked, they simply ignore the fact that Justice Alary found no infringement of freedom of religion. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the issue is simply being used, the facts be damned, by a cadre of nationalist jurists who seek for other reasons to break the existing taboos on the resort to the notwithstanding clause.

All that said, we can take the occasion for reflecting on the relationship between state, religion, and marriage. To me at least, it illustrates the folly of entangling the state in intimate relationships between men, women, and God (not all three being necessarily involved, of course). Why exactly do we need to attach civil consequences to marriage ― the sacrement, the ceremony that is? If it is the case that intimate relationships or cohabitation invariably produce unique dependency and require legal protections for their vulnerable members, then these protections should attach to cohabitation ― as indeed they already do in every province other than Québec. If this it is not the case that people involved in such relationships are incapable of meaningful choice, as Québec believes, then they should be free to contract into, or perhaps out of, an optional legal regime based on cohabitation. (For what it’s worth, I prefer the Québec position, but that doesn’t really matter now.) Either way, there is no need, and no reason, to attach civil consequences to a ceremony, whatever its name, and whether performed by a civil servant or a religious officer. If people believe that God attaches importance to a ceremony, that’s their right of course. But civil marriage simply has no raison d’être.

Attempts to point out to parties to a family row that they are fighting over trifles and should stand down seldom end well. I don’t suppose that my own belated intervention in this debate is going to change anything. Still, I thought that it was important take a calm look into what is going on.

NOTE: My apologies for the lack of posting in the last few weeks. I do have something to show for it though. More on that in a few days, hopefully.


La restriction de dépenses pré-électorales est injustifiée et possiblement inconstitutionnelle

Comme le rapporte La Presse, le Directeur général des élections du Québec, Pierre Reid, a dit dans un témoignage devant la Commission des institutions de l’Assemblée nationale travailler sur une proposition d’amendement à la Loi électorale en vue de limiter des dépenses « pré-électorale » ― c’est-à-dire celles engagées en vue des élections, mais avant le commencement de la campagne électorale officielle. Pour l’instant, ces dépenses ne sont pas limitées par la Loi. Or, la date des élections étant maintenant connue à l’avance (sous réserve de la capacité du Premier ministre de violer les dispositions sur les élections à date fixe, comme Pauline Marois l’a fait en 2014), la tentation de faire de la publicité tout juste avant l’entrée en vigueur des limites de dépenses applicables en campagne électorale va être plus forte que jamais. Nous l’avons vu au niveau fédéral, et nous risquons de le voir au Québec avant les prochaines élections. M. Reid s’en dit « préoccup[é] ». Moi, c’est plutôt son désir de limiter ces dépenses qui me préoccupe.

Notons, pour commencer, que M. Reid n’a pas pris la peine d’expliquer en quoi les dépenses pré-électorales sont préoccupantes. Or, une limite aux dépenses sur la communication politique est, comme la jurisprudence de la Cour suprême en la matière le reconnaît, une limite à la liberté d’expression. Il faudrait donc, avant d’imposer de telles limites, avoir une raison, une justification, un tant soit peu sérieuse. Pourtant, M. Reid n’en offre pas, et les députés présents ne lui ont posé aucune question à ce sujet. Pour ce qui est du devoir des élus et de l’administration de respecter les droits constitutionnels, on repassera.

M. Reid a également été flou sur la portée des restrictions qu’il souhaiterait faire adopter par l’Assemblée nationale. Il n’a pas été en mesure de préciser la durée de la période pré-électorale pendant laquelle les dépenses seraient limitées, par exemple. Cependant, il semble songer à une période de plusieurs mois, voire davantage. Il n’a pas, non plus, précisé si ces nouvelles restrictions s’appliqueraient aux seuls partis politiques ou également aux « tiers » ― c’est-à-dire aux individus et organismes, autres que les partis ou les candidats, souhaitant se prononcer sur les enjeux politiques. Là encore, notons que les députés n’ont pas demandé à M. Reid de préciser sa pensée.

Cependant, il est difficile de s’imaginer que les restrictions ne viseraient que les partis politiques. Si M. Reid ou les membres de l’Assemblée nationale sont préoccupés par ce qui s’est passé ou a failli se passer l’été dernier, juste avant les élections fédérales, ils ne sont pas sans savoir que les « tiers » ― notamment les syndicats (et non pas, contrairement à une certaine mythologie populaire, les multinationales) ont cherché à faire de la publicité « pré-électorale » autant, sinon davantage, que les partis politiques eux-mêmes. Et, généralement, le modèle canadien de réglementation des dépenses électorales suppose que l’on restreint davantage les dépenses des tiers que ceux des partis, afin de s’assurer que ceux-ci puissent dominer le débat public.

Or, si constitutionnalité des restrictions des dépenses pré-électorales des partis politiques n’a jamais encore été contestée devant les tribunaux, de telles restrictions n’ayant jamais encore été imposées au Canada, celles de restrictions similaires imposées aux tiers a, quant à elle, fait l’objet non pas d’une, mais de deux décisions de la Cour d’appel de la Colombie-Britannique. Dans  British Columbia Teachers’ Federation v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2011 BCCA 408 et ensuite dans  Reference Re Election Act (BC), 2012 BCCA 394, ce tribunal a jugé inconstitutionnelle la limitation à 150 000$ des dépenses d’un tiers pour une période pré-électorale de 60 jours dans la première décisions, et d’au plus 48 jours dans la seconde. Ces décisions, contre lesquelles la province ne s’est pas pourvue devant la Cour suprême, ne lient évidemment pas les tribunaux québécois, mais auraient tout de même une autorité persuasive non-négligeable.

On peut, il est vrai, se demander, comme je l’ai fait ici en commentant la plus récente de ces décisions, si la Cour d’appel n’y est pas allée un peu trop loin en soutenant que la logique de l’arrêt de principe de la Cour suprême au sujet des dépenses électorales des tiers Harper v. Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 S.C.R. 827, ne peut être étendue à la période pré-électorale. En principe, cette logique voulant qu’il faut limiter la capacité des tiers de communiquer leur message aux citoyens afin de s’assurer que les partis politiques puissent être entendus et afin d’égaliser les ressources des différentes forces en présence pourrait s’étendre au-delà de la campagne électorale, d’autant plus si les dépenses des partis sont limitées, elles aussi. Cependant, une telle extension du principe est loin d’être garantie. Comme je le soulignais dans un billet pour Policy Options où je discutais une idée similaire exprimée par Justin Trudeau, les juges majoritaires dans Harper ont insisté sur le « fait qu’aucune restriction ne s’applique à la publicité faite par les tiers avant le début de la période électorale. En dehors de cette période, les limites à l’intervention des tiers dans la vie politique n’existent pas » [112]. C’est notamment pour cette raison qu’ils ont conclu que la limitation très stricte des dépenses des tiers pendant la campagne électorale état une « atteinte minimale », et donc constitutionnellement permise, à la liberté d’expression. Si la liberté d’expression complète en période pré-électorale n’est pas respectée, l’évaluation que fera la Cour suprême des restrictions imposées aux tiers pourrait bien changer.

Au-delà du pronostic incertain sur une éventuelle décision judiciaire, il faut cependant se rendre bien compte de ce qu’une réglementation des dépenses des tiers en période pré-électorale signifierait. La réglementation, ne limiterait pas seulement la capacité des acteurs de la société civile ― des syndicats, des ONG, des mouvements sociaux, des « médias citoyens » ou de simples individus ― à s’exprimer sur les enjeux politiques. Elle imposerait aussi à tous ceux qui voudraient le faire, même à l’intérieur des limites de dépenses permises par la loi, d’onéreuses obligations de s’enregistrer auprès du Directeur général des élections et de lui faire rapport sur toutes les dépenses encourues pour faire passer leur message. Comme je l’ai dit dans Policy Options, l’extension de la limitation des dépenses des tiers au delà de la campagnes électorale serait un pas vers l’imposition d’un régime de censure politique à grande échelle.

Et même en ce qui concerne la limitation des dépenses des partis politiques, comme l’a écrit le grand spécialiste du « droit de la démocratie » américain, Richard Pildes, sur l’Election Law Blog, une fois qu’on cherche à étendre la limitation des dépenses au-delà d’une période bien circonscrite de campagne électorale, la situation devient trouble. Pourquoi limiterait-on la période pré-électorale à quelques mois, voir à une année? Or, les limites à la liberté d’expression qui semblent acceptables lorsqu’elles sont exceptionnelles, ne le sont plus forcément si elles deviennent permanentes. Et c’est vers ce scénario, qui me paraît inacceptable, que M. Reid et nos députés risquent de nous entraîner. Lorsque nos dirigeants ne se préoccupent guère de la liberté d’expression, nous sommes déjà en situation de pré-censure.

L’Uber et l’argent d’Uber

Une poursuite contre Uber carbure à l’ignorance économique

Certaines personnes qui ont eu recours aux service d’Uber la nuit du Nouvel an ont payé cher. Très cher même, dans certains cas. Car, contrairement aux taxis traditionnels dont les prix sont toujours les mêmes, Uber pratique ce que l’entreprise appelle le « prix dynamique » ― un prix qui fluctue, parfois très rapidement, en fonction de la demande pour ses voitures qui existe à un endroit et à un moment donné. Puisque la demande était très forte et très concentrée à la fin des festivités du réveillon, les prix ordinaires ont été multipliés par un facteur parfois très élevé ― facteur dont un client qui commandait une course était avisé, et qu’il devait même entrer, manuellement, dans l’application afin de pouvoir passer sa commande.

Or, on apprenait vendredi qu’une des clientes d’Uber, Catherine Papillon, qui a payé 8,9 fois le prix ordinaire pour sa course, veut intenter un recours collectif contre l’entreprise, à moins que celle-ci ne la rembourse. Représentée par Juripop, elle prétend avoir été lésée par le prix « anormalement élevé[…] » qu’elle a payé. Quant au consentement qu’elle a donné en commandant sa course, elle soutient que celui-ci ne peut lui être opposé vu la lésion qu’elle a subie. Elle affirme, du reste, ne pas avoir compris ce que le « 8,9 » qu’elle a entré en passant sa commande voulait dire.

Patrick Lagacé explique bien, dans une chronique parue dans La Presse, pour les personnes dans la situation de Mme Papillon ne méritent pas notre sympathie:

La nuit du Nouvel An, vous le savez sans doute, est la pire nuit où tenter de trouver un taxi. J’ai personnellement frôlé l’amputation du gros orteil droit, un 1er janvier de la fin du XXe siècle, en tentant de trouver un taxi au centre-ville de Montréal pour me ramener à bon port, au petit matin. Des centaines, peut-être des milliers d’autres cabochons dans la même situation que moi cherchaient eux aussi des taxis, introuvables…

Un détail révélateur du récit de Mme Papillon suggère qu’elle aussi se retrouvait dans une situation similaire : elle « a expliqué qu’elle s’est inscrite sur Uber “en cinq minutes”, peu avant de faire appel à la compagnie dans la nuit du 31 décembre au 1er janvier ». On ne sait pas encore pourquoi elle l’a fait, mais on peut deviner, n’est-ce pas? (Et les avocats d’Uber ne manqueront pas, j’en suis sûr, de lui poser la question pour confirmer la réponse dont on se doute.) Alors, écrit M. Lagacé, quand les gens acceptent de payer un prix, fût-il exorbitant, qui leur est clairement annoncé, pour s’épargner la recherche futile d’un taxi qui n’arrive jamais, eh bien, c’est un choix qu’ils font et dont ils devraient assumer la responsabilité.

Le droit voit-il les choses d’une manière différente? Je ne suis pas civiliste, encore moins spécialiste du droit de la consommation. Je ne prétendrai donc pas émettre de pronostic sur l’issue de la cause de Mme Papillon. Je crois, cependant, pouvoir émettre une opinion sur ce que le résultat de ce recours devrait être si les juges qui en disposeront s’en tiennent aux principes élémentaires qu’il met en cause.

Ces principes sont non seulement, et peut-être même pas tant, moraux qu’économiques. Les biens et les services n’ont pas de valeur intrinsèque qui pourrait servir à déterminer leur prix « juste ». Leur prix sur un marché libre dépend de l’offre et de la demande. Il s’agit, en fait, d’un signal. Si un service ― par exemple une course en taxi ― commande un prix élevé, les vendeurs ― par exemple, les chauffeurs ― savent qu’ils feront beaucoup d’argent en offrant le service en question. Plusieurs vendeurs s’amènent donc sur le marché ― par exemple, dans les rues du Vieux-Montréal ― pour offrir leurs services aux acheteurs. En même temps, le prix élevé signale aux acheteurs que s’ils le veulent acquérir le service, il leur en coûtera cher. Ceux qui tiennent à l’obtenir le feront, alors que d’autres trouveront des alternatives ou attendront. C’est ainsi que le nombre de vendeurs et d’acheteurs s’équilibre, et que ceux qui sont prêts à payer sont servis rapidement. Uber prétend que ceux qui ont voulu utiliser son service le matin du Jour de l’An n’ont attendu qu’un peu plus de quatre minutes, en moyenne, grâce au nombre record de chauffeurs qui étaient sur la route. Personne parmi eux, on peut parier, n’a « frôlé l’amputation du gros orteil droit », comme M. Lagacé jadis. 

Son histoire est, par ailleurs, un bon rappel de ce qui arrive si les prix ne peuvent pas augmenter en réponse à une forte demande ― par exemple parce qu’ils sont fixés par décret gouvernemental, comme le sont les prix du taxi traditionnel. Puisque les prix n’augmentent pas, les vendeurs n’ont aucune raison supplémentaire d’entrer sur le marché, et il n’y en a pas plus que d’habitude. Si, en plus, le nombre de vendeurs est limité ― par exemple, parce que le gouvernement fixe un nombre maximal de licenses de taxi ― il ne peut pas augmenter pour répondre à une demande exceptionnelle par définition. Dès lors, c’est l’attente et la chance, plutôt que la volonté de payer qui déterminent qui recevra et qui ne recevra pas le service ― et les engelures s’ensuivent.

J’en arrive aux questions juridiques qui se poseront dans la poursuite contre Uber. Mme Papillon et ses avocats prétendront sans doute que le contrat qui fait en sorte qu’une course de taxi qui coûte 80$ au lieu d’une dizaine « désavantage le consommateur  […] d’une manière excessive et déraisonnable », ce qui, en vertu de l’article 1437 du Code civil du Québec, donne ouverture à la réduction de l’obligation qui découle de ce contrat ― en l’occurrence, du prix payé par Mme Papillon. Ils soutiendront aussi qu’il s’agit d’un cas où « la disproportion entre les prestations respectives des parties est tellement considérable qu’elle équivaut à de l’exploitation du consommateur, ou que l’obligation du consommateur est excessive, abusive ou exorbitante », ce qui permet également au consommateur de demander la réduction de ses obligations, en vertu cette fois de l’article 8 de la Loi sur la protection du consommateur. Ils auront tort.

Car penser que la prestation d’Uber se limite au déplacement de son client, c’est ignorer les principes économiques fondamentaux que je viens d’exposer. Uber ne fait pas que déplacer son passager d’un point de départ à un point d’arrivée. Avant même de pouvoir le faire, Uber s’assure d’abord qu’il y aura une voiture pour cueillir le client ― et qu’elle sera là en un temps utile ou, du moins, assez court pour que le client ne se gèle pas les extrémités. C’est ça aussi, la prestation d’Uber, et la raison pour laquelle les gens font appel à ses services même lorsque ceux-ci sont plus chers que le taxi traditionnel. Et c’est pour s’assurer de livrer cette prestation qu’Uber doit faire augmenter ses prix lorsque la demande pour ses services est particulièrement forte. Le recours de Mme Papillon, qui fait abstraction de cette réalité, est, dès lors, fondé sur l’ignorance des règles économiques de base ou sur l’aveuglement volontaire face à celles-ci. Si les juges qui se prononcent sur ce recours comprennent ces règles, ils le rejetteront du revers de la main.

S’ils souhaitent raisonner a contrario, les juges pourront, par ailleurs, se demander quelle serait la réparation qu’ils devraient accorder s’ils faisaient droit à la demande de Mme Papillon. Il s’agirait, de toute évidence, d’une réduction du prix payé ― mais une réduction jusqu’à quel point? Si un commerçant réussit à flouer un consommateur en lui faisant payer un prix exorbitant, mais qu’il remplit, par ailleurs, ses obligations en vertu du contrat, il semble juste de réduire le prix jusqu’à celui qui prévaut sur le marché. Or, y a-t-il un tel prix dans les circonstances qui nous intéressent? Le prix du taxi traditionnel n’a rien à voir avec celui du marché, non seulement parce qu’il est le produit d’un fiat gouvernemental, mais aussi parce que, de toute évidence, ce n’est un prix d’équilibre, c’est-à-dire un prix auquel l’offre et la demande se rejoignent. Au prix du taxi traditionnel, la demande est de loin supérieure à l’offre ― d’où l’orteil gelé de M. Lagacé. Comment un tribunal s’y prendrait-il pour déterminer le prix du marché en l’absence, justement, d’un marché ― autre que celui qu’Uber a créé? Il ne pourrait le faire que d’une façon parfaitement arbitraire, ce qui serait contraire à notre compréhension habituelle du rôle des tribunaux. (J’avais déjà soulevé un problème similaire en parlant d’un recours contre la SAQ, fondé, lui aussi, sur l’article 8 de la Loi sur la protection du consommateur.) Comment est-ce qu’un tribunal saurait, en fait, que le prix exigé par Uber n’est pas le prix du marché? C’est à Mme Papillon, en tant que demanderesse, de le prouver, me semble-t-il. Je ne vois pas comment elle pourrait le faire.

Un mot, en conclusion, sur la position de Juripop dans cette histoire. Cet organisme n’est pas un bureau d’avocats ordinaire qui défend la cause de ses clients, fût-elle guidée par la plus pure cupidité. C’est soi-disant une « clinique juridique », une « entreprise d’économie sociale », dont la mission consiste à « soutenir l’accessibilité [sic] des personnes à la justice ». Or, Juripop ne se place pas du côté de la justice en appuyant Mme Papillon. Car la justice ne consiste pas à se déresponsabiliser face aux conséquences annoncées d’actions qu’on a posées, comme elle cherche à le faire. Et la justice ne peut pas se réaliser dans l’ignorance des lois économiques. Comme le disait fort sagement Friedrich Hayek dans La route de la servitude, « [i]l peut sembler noble de dire, “au diable la science économique, bâtissons plutôt un monde décent” ― mais c’est en fait simplement irresponsable » (je traduis). Les québécois le savent, d’ailleurs: ce n’est pas réclamer justice que de vouloir le beurre et l’argent du beurre.