La primauté de la législation

La semaine dernière, la Cour supérieure du Québec a rejeté la demande visant, entre autres, à faire déclarer inconstitutionnelle la “Loi 204”, qui exempte rétroactivement l’entente sur la gestion du futur amphithéâtre de Québec, conclue entre la ville de Québec et Qubecor, de l’exigence d’un appel d’offre (dans la mesure où cette exigence s’y appliquait, ce que la ville a toujours nié), dans De Belleval c. Québec (Ville de), 2012 QCCS 2668. Les demandeurs avaient formulé une multitude d’arguments constitutionnels à l’encontre de la loi. Ils soutenaient qu’elle violait la primauté du droit, notamment en raison de son caractère rétroactif, ainsi que la Charte canadienne des droits et libertés et la Charte des droits et libertés de la personne (québécoise), en enfreignant leurs droits à la liberté de conscience et à la liberté d’expression, à la sécurité, à un procès équitable, et aussi en étant vague et excessive. Une si longue liste de prétentions est généralement un mauvais signe – un signe de désespoir sinon d’incompétence de l’avocat – et elle l’a été en l’espèce. Le juge Jacques n’a pas été persuadé.

L’argument le plus étoffé des demandeurs portait sur la rétroactivité de la Loi 204. La plupart des philosophes du droit qui se sont penchés sur  la primauté du droit considère la non-rétroactivité du droit comme un élément essentiel de ce principe. Le droit est censé guider l’action de ses sujets. Or, une loi rétroactive, qui applique certaines conséquences à des actions déjà commises, ne saurait le faire. De plus, comme l’a fait remarquer notamment Lon Fuller, elle remet en cause l’intégrité des autres lois en vigueur, laissant entendre qu’elles sont susceptibles d’amendement rétroactif. Même une loi rétroactive qui accorde des bénéfices ou écarte les sanctions (plutôt que d’en imposer), comme la Loi 204, peut être problématique à bien des égards, comme le soutient Jeremy Waldron dans un article intitulé “Retroactive Law: How Dodgy Was Duynhoven“. La rétroactivité est une des critiques les plus communes de la common law ou du droit prétorien en général, par exemple dans la célèbre formulation de Jeremy Bentham, qui comparait la common law à la “loi” qu’un homme donne à son chien en le battant pour une transgression quelconque (dont le chien n’avait évidemment pas idée qu’il s’agissait d’une transgression), et les défenseurs de la common law, tels que Ronald Dworkin et F.A. Hayek, font beaucoup d’efforts pour repousser cette attaque.

Cependant, la jurisprudence canadienne est claire. Outre la garantie de la non-imposition de sanctions criminelles rétroactives à l’alinéa 11(g) de la Charte canadienne, rien n’empêche les législatures canadienne de légiférer de façon rétroactive. C’est l’enseignement, par exemple, de l’arrêt de la Cour suprême Colombie‑Britannique c. Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltée, 2005 CSC 49, [2005] 2 R.C.S. 473, où la Cour à jugé constitutionnelle une loi créant rétroactivement un recours permettant au gouvernement de recouvrer les dépenses causées par le tabagisme. Le juge Jacques rejette donc l’argument fondé sur la rétroactivité – avec raison, eu égard à la jurisprudence qui le liait (et qu’il ne manifeste, du reste, aucune envie de remettre en question).

Cette jurisprudence, à mon avis, est un désastre. Le grand A.V. Dicey qui, à la fin du 19e siècle, faisait l’éloge à la fois de la “souveraineté du Parlement” et de la primauté du droit (qu’il a été le premier à étudier de façon systématique), s’en serait félicité. (Ce n’est pas une coïncidence que Dicey était plutôt favorable aux “indemnity acts” – des lois rétroactives écartant des sanctions que le droit normalement en vigueur attache à certains actes, similaires la Loi 204.) Cependant, les opinions académiques sur la primauté du droit ont bien changé depuis un siècle. Or, les tribunaux canadiens ont toujours une compréhension très étroite de la primauté du droit, la limitant à l’exigence de l’existence de règles de droit et d’une autorisation juridique pour toute action gouvernementale, mais excluant – sauf garantie constitutionnelle explicite – tout autre exigence de forme, de procédure ou de fond que la primauté droit, telle que comprise par les philosophes du droit, impose aux législatures (et que le professeur Waldron revoit, par exemple, ici).

Les autres arguments des demandeurs sont rejetés encore plus facilement. La Loi 204 ne limite pas leur liberté de conscience ou d’expression, puisqu’elle ne les empêche pas de s’exprimer. Elle ne menace en rien leur sécurité. Elle ne les prive pas de leur droit d’ester en justice, même si elle change le droit applicable au litige qu’ils ont amorcé. Elle n’est ni vague ni excessive. Il est difficile de voir sur quoi étaient fondées ces prétentions, et il n’est pas surprenant qu’elles soient rejetées.

Le problème de la Loi 204, sur le plans des principes juridiques, c’est bien sa rétroactivité, et aussi son manque criant de généralité, une autre exigence classique de la primauté du droit que les tribunaux canadiens ne reconnaissent pas. On pourrait dire qu’au lieu de la primauté du droit, la jurisprudence canadienne, très réticente à censurer les législatures, donne effet à la primauté de la législation.

Can the Viceroy Do Wrong?

Radio-Canada reports that Québec’s former Lieutenant-Governor, Lise Thibault, is trying to avoid having to stand trial on charges of fraud, forgery, and breach of trust, by invoking the common law rule that the Queen can do no wrong. As her lawyer puts it, criminal proceedings oppose the sovereign and the subject, and the sovereign cannot possibly sue herself. And since the charges against Mrs. Thibault relate to her time in office as the Queen’s representative in Québec, that’s what would happen if the case is allowed to go ahead.

Mrs. Thibault’s previous lawyer is apparently skeptical of the odds of her motion succeeding. So is professor Henri Brun, from Laval, whom Radio-Canada quotes saying that the principle applied in civil law―75 years ago―but criminal law is different. “As soon as a public officer commits a criminal act, he is no longer acting within his mandate; he cannot hide behind the government, behind the state” (translation mine).

That seems a little too quick. My own (admittedly quick and probably cursory) research shows that the rule that the Queen―or King―can do no wrong is, in principle, one of civil as well as one of criminal law. The Queen can do no criminal wrong, just as she can do no civil wrong. That’s the traditional common law rule, as it stood in, say, Blackstone’s time. But its import is limited in two important ways.

One is that mentioned by prof. Brun – public officers―or, to use older language, the Crown’s servants―can be sued in their personal capacity for committing criminal or tortious acts. But the question, it seems to me, is whether a Lieutenant-Governor is a public officer. This is not an area in which I am very knowledgeable, but I think that the Queen herself is not―she is not a servant of the Crown. That her servants can be criminally liable does not mean that she can. Mrs. Thibault’s argument is that she is in the same position―that she is, as it were, the Queen’s alter ego rather than her servant. I do not know whether that is correct.

The second limitation on the rule that the Queen can do no wrong has come mostly from statutes adopted by all (to the best of my knowledge) common law jurisdictions, allowing lawsuits against the Crown itself as if it were an ordinary person. Courts too have chipped away at the Crown’s immunity. But these developments, both statutory and common law, have concerned civil proceedings, not criminal.  The Criminal Code, for example, does not contain a provision making it applicable to the Crown.

So if the Lieutenant-Governor is more than a mere servant of the Crown, but rather its full-blooded personification, Mrs. Thibault might have a case. If the question has never been decided though, there are surely very good reasons to opt for a restrictive interpretation of what the Crown really is. “The Queen can do no wrong” is an anachronistic rule, and its development over the last century has been a course of consistent narrowing of its ambit.

Indeed, even if there is precedent standing for the proposition that the rule protects the Lieutenant-Governor from criminal liability, the courts might want to overturn it.

Although there is something worrying in courts abolishing defences that shield the accused from liability, which is necessarily retroactive as to the accused in whose case it happens, they have sometimes done it. Two examples are the British decision of R. v. R., [1992] 1 A.C. 599, in which the House of Lords abolished the common law rule according to which a husband could not be guilty of rape against his wife, and the American case of Rogers v. Tennessee, 532 U.S. 541 (2001), in which a sharply divided Supreme Court did away with the rule pursuant to which an accused could not be guilty of murder if the victim died more that one year and one day after the accused injured him, even though the injuries were the cause of the death. The grounds for these two rules disappeared thanks to the evolution of social morality in the first case and of medical science in the second, so that despite a certain queasiness, courts felt themselves justified in changing the common law to reflect these developments.

The common law rule that “the Queen can do no wrong” is arguably ripe for judicial intervention. Not perhaps in civil matters, where legislatures have made their own choices, which courts must respect, especially since state liability has considerable policy implications which courts might not be able to grasp. But in the narrow field of criminal offences committed by viceroys, these considerations do not apply, and there is no reason for the courts to stay their hand.

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”