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.