A Matter of Unwritten Principle

Unwritten constitutional principles have an important, and rightful, place in Canadian constitutional law

The most striking thing, to me anyway, about the symposium on dissents from Supreme Court judgments that this blog hosted over the holidays was the popularity of Justice LaForest’s dissent in the Provincial Judges Reference, [1997] 3 SCR 3. No fewer than five of our contributors mentioned it as one of their top three: Dwight Newman, Emmett Macfarlane, Jonathan Maryniuk, Howard Kislowicz (although he cautions that he might not actually agree with Justice LaForest), and Bruce Ryder. They have all praise Justice LaForest for emphasizing the importance of constitutional text, as opposed to the unwritten, extra-textual “underlying principles” on which the majority relied. Agreeing with them, albeit relying on a different dissent, that of Justice Rothstein in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31 was Asher Honickman.

This degree of agreement among an ideologically and professionally diverse group sets off my contrarian instincts. So in this post I want to take issue with one aspect of Justice LaForest’s dissent, and with the esteemed scholars who are extolling it. I want to argue that unwritten principles have an important place in Canadian constitutional law, both as a descriptive and as a normative matter. To be clear, it’s not that I have come to like, or even regard as defensible, the majority opinion in the Provincial Judges Reference. Indeed, I stand by my assessment of it as one of the Supreme Court’s worst decisions! But my beef with it was, and is, not simply that it relied on unwritten principles, but that in doing so it disregarded clear, on-point constitutional text, and further that I do not think “it plausible that complex institutional arrangements”―such as independent commissions to determine judicial pay―”are constitutionally required if the constitution says nothing about them”. In other circumstances, reliance on unwritten principles can be much more justifiable.


Justice LaForest’s attack on judicial reliance on underlying principles starts from his understanding of what makes judicial review of legislation legitimate:

The ability to nullify the laws of democratically elected representatives derives its legitimacy from a super-legislative source: the text of the Constitution.  This foundational document (in Canada, a series of documents) expresses the desire of the people to limit the power of legislatures in certain specified ways.  [314]

In a democratic society, judicial review is tolerable so long, but only so long, as it amounts to nothing more than the enforcement of choices democratically made through the process of constitutional entrenchment and amendment. Its “legitimacy is imperiled … when courts attempt to limit the power of legislatures without recourse to express textual authority”. [316] “Textual authority” is be all, end all of judicial review:

The express provisions of the Constitution are not, as the Chief Justice contends, “elaborations of the underlying, unwritten, and organizing principles found in the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867” [107].  On the contrary, they are the Constitution.  To assert otherwise is to subvert the democratic foundation of judicial review. [319; emphasis in the original]

This paean to democracy and to textualism as a means of giving effect to democracy is appealing. As many of the contributors to the dissents symposium pointed out, it seems to have carried the day in in British Columbia v Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd, 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 SCR 473, where Justice Major, writing for the unanimous court, proclaimed that

in a constitutional democracy such as ours, protection from legislation that some might view as unjust or unfair properly lies not in the amorphous underlying principles of our Constitution, but in its text and the ballot box. [66]

This was, I am afraid, a crassly cynical statement, considering that the invitation to resort to the protection of the ballot box against retroactive legislation was being extended to non-voters ― to corporations, and to (understandably) very unpopular corporations at that. But, like Justice LaForest’s, this argument has undeniable rhetorical appeal.


Yet it is, in my view, a mistake to claim that it has prevailed as a matter of positive law. Before getting to its current status, let me point out that the idea that underlying constitutional principles exist and constrain government goes back at least to Justice Martland and Ritchie’s powerful dissent on the legal question in the Patriation Reference, [1981] 1 SCR 753. (It is at least arguable that it actually goes back much further, to Roncarelli v Duplessis, [1959] SCR 121 and indeed Attorney General of Nova Scotia v Attorney General of Canada, [1951] SCR 31, even the Labour Conventions Reference, [1937] AC 326, [1937] 1 DLR 673, but I will ignore these cases here.)

The key passage in Justices Martland and Ritchie’s Patriation Reference dissent is the following:

It can fairly be said … that the dominant principle of Canadian constitutional law is federalism. The implications of that principle are clear. Each level of government should not be permitted to encroach on the other, either directly or indirectly. The political compromise achieved as a result of the Quebec and London Conferences preceding the passage of the B.N.A. Act would be dissolved unless there were substantive and effec­tive limits on unconstitutional action. (821)

From there, it was not such a large step to say that these limits on unconstitutional action could, and must be, enforced by the courts, even if they were not spelt out in the constitutional text.

A different unwritten principle, that of the Rule of Law, was also crucial in the Reference re Manitoba Language Rights, [1985] 1 SCR 721. This is well known. Equally well known is the Supreme Court’s reliance on underlying constitutional principles, four of them, in Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217, to try to construct a legal ― although seemingly not an enforceable ― framework for dealing with separatism. (The Court referred to Justices Martland and Ritchie’s Patriation Reference dissent, although it did not acknowledge that it was, in fact, citing to a dissenting opinion!) Less famous, and not employing the rhetoric of unwritten principles, but relying on this idea in substance, are the cases of Amax Potash Ltd v Saskatchewan, [1977] 2 SCR 576, and Air Canada v British Columbia (Attorney-General), [1986] 2 SCR 539. In both of them, the Supreme Court held, without relying on any specific written constitutional provision, that provinces could not prevent litigants from arguing that provincial legislation was unconstitutional, because this would undermine the Canadian constitutional order as one in which government powers are constrained and limited.

Did the Imperial Tobacco case repudiate all this? I don’t think so. For one thing, the Supreme Court was less categorical there than the passage most often quoted, including above, would seem to suggest. Justice Major did not reject the argument based on the Rule of Law principle out of hand. He reviewed the previous cases where the principle had been invoked (though not Amax Potash and Air Canada), and concluded that it was a relatively narrow one and did not “speak directly to the terms of legislation”. [59] Yet “[t]his does not mean that the rule of law as described by this Court has no normative force”. [60] According to Justice Major, the Rule of Law mostly constrains the executive and the judiciary rather than legislatures but, at least as to them, it does have a real content.

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65, however, embraces the Rule of Law principle even more clearly and, crucially, as a constraint on the legislative power. According to the Vavilov majority,

Where a court reviews the merits of an administrative decision … the standard of review it applies must reflect the legislature’s intent with respect to the role of the reviewing court, except where giving effect to that intent is precluded by the rule of law. [23; emphasis added]

The majority goes on to specify that “[t]he starting point for the analysis is a presumption that the legislature intended the standard of review to be reasonableness”, [23] but “respect for the rule of law requires courts to apply the standard of correctness for certain types of legal questions”, [53] legislative intent notwithstanding. With Vavilov, unwritten principles, especially the Rule of Law, are back as a fully operative, and crucially important, source of our constitutional law, if indeed they had ever been displaced from that position. While Vavilov does not invoke them to explicitly invalidate legislation, it makes quite clear that legislation that conflicts with them will not be given effect.


Is this something to be regretted though? Was Justice LaForest right that judicial review in a democracy must only ever be textualist judicial review? I don’t think so. As Stephen Sachs explains in an important essay (which I discussed here), “[n]ot all law is written law, and not every society needs to rely on it in the same way”. (164) Some societies ― including democratic societies ― may well make the choice to have unwritten law as part of their binding constitutional constraints. They might write down some constitutional rules without thereby excluding others, and then a single-minded focus on constitutional text as exhaustive of constitutional law would means that “we could be reading the text correctly while utterly misunderstanding the legal role it was to play”. (165) The question is whether Canada is that kind of society or the one envisioned by Justice LaForest.

Actually, here is another question, which might help answer the previous one: are there any societies of the kind described by Justice LaForest, where the constitution, in the sense of the supreme law, is nothing more and nothing less than the sum of written textual provisions? In the United States, for example, constitutional law includes unwritten principles (though they are not labelled in exactly this way), especially separation of powers, but also federalism. The Australian constitution has been held to incorporate implied freedoms. There might be examples to support Justice LaForest’s views, of course, but, to say the least, these views aren’t a self-evidently correct description of the concept of constitutionalism in a democratic society (which is, I think, how Justice LaForest means them). Nor are they an obviously correct interpretation of constitutionalism in Canada, given the numerous cases referred to above.

To repeat, this is not to defend the majority decision in the Provincial Judges Reference, or even to say that the outcome of Imperial Tobacco was wrong (though Justice Major’s disdainful characterisation of unwritten principles was). What arguably makes these cases different from the likes of Amax Potash, the Patriation and Secession Reference, and Vavilov, is that they involved invocations of principles to run around fairly specific textual choices. Judicial independence is protected to a greater extent, and retroactive legislation proscribed, in the context of criminal law, but not in the civil law. Right or wrong, this is the sort of “political compromise” to which Justices Martland and Ritchie referred, and courts must be careful not to “dissolve” it.

But, by the same token, they must not allow the political compromises that made Canada into a federal state, bound by a supreme constitution, and one where public authority is constrained by the Rule of Law, to be dissolved either. No doubt it is possible to take arguments based on constitutional principles too far, just as it is possible to misread or twist the meaning of constitutional text. But this is not a reason for peremptorily rejecting these arguments, let alone claiming that they are illegitimate in our constitutional order. Justice LaForest was wrong to suggest otherwise in the Provincial Judges Reference, and so, respectfully, are those who extol his dissent today.

Day One: Dwight Newman

Three dissents of principle

Professor of Law, University of Saskatchewan

In considering some dissents of note, it is important to consider what factors make a dissent stand out. Amongst these are its intellectual coherence, its adherence to basic principle, and its tendency to stand up to a majority opinion with some surface allures. In some cases, such dissents of principle end up shaping the law in future, and that is the case in varying ways with all three of the dissents I will discuss here: the dissent of Beetz J. in the Anti-Inflation Act Reference, [1976] 2 SCR 373, the dissent of La Forest J. in the Reference re Remuneration of Judges of the Provincial Court (P.E.I.), [1997] 3 SCR 3, and the dissent of LeBel J. in Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37, [2009] 2 SCR 567.

Beetz J. in the Anti-Inflation Act Reference

Justice Beetz, though not always attracting as much attention today, was an intellectual giant of his era. His dissenting opinion in the 1976 Anti-Inflation Act Reference, in which he stood up for fundamental principles of federalism, is a landmark judgment. In the case, Beetz J. wrote against the majority judgments upholding relatively popular legislation designed to combat severe inflation, including the lead judgment of Laskin C.J.C. supported by the future chief justice Dickson J.

In doing so, Beetz J. had to articulate tests for the so-called “peace, order, and good government” (POGG) power. While the majority mistakenly stated the POGG test too broadly and in ways that would harm Canadian federalism had they come to be applied in other cases, the tests articulated by Beetz J. could inform future jurisprudence, notably shaping the approaches of both the majority and the dissent in the 1988 decision in R. v. Crown Zellerbach Ltd., [1988] 1 S.C.R. 401

On the use of the national concern branch of POGG, Beetz J. actually obtained a majority even in the Anti-Inflation Act Reference itself, as Ritchie J.’s opinion signed on with Beetz J. on this issue. The judgment of Laskin C.J.C. had a peculiar ambiguity to it, not drawing clear distinctions between “national dimensions” and a “national emergency”, and Beetz J.’s dissent thus offered an appealing intellectual rigour by comparison to an approach that would have failed to offer meaningful constraints on federal power. Indeed, Beetz J. presciently warned against the dangers of the federal government inventing new powers by developing creative names for matters it sought to claim under the POGG power.

On the emergency branch, Beetz J. was ready to insist upon the need for transparency in any invocation of emergency powers, along with the other elements needed for the use of the power, including genuine temporariness.  Writing of the mixed body of evidence put forth in support of the federal anti-inflation legislation allegedly being focused on an emergency, Beetz J. showed his readiness to describe matters frankly: “I remain unimpressed” (p. 466). His dissent in the case continues to stand as a tour de force in resisting federal overreach.

La Forest J. in the Provincial Court Judges Reference

The dissent of La Forest J. in the Reference re Remuneration of Judges of the Provincial Court (P.E.I.) (Provincial Court Judges Reference), saw La Forest J. standing alone against a Court that claimed to find unwritten constitutional principles governing judicial salaries. The forthrightness of the judgment is stark, as La Forest J. wrote that “the approach adopted by the Chief Justice, in my view, misapprehends the nature of the Constitution Act, 1867” (para. 320) and he suggested that the approach adopted caused the very legitimacy of the Court to be “imperiled” (para. 316). Indeed, he saw the case as being about “the nature of judicial power” (para. 300) in so far as the rest of the Court dreamt up arguments not proffered by the parties to find unwritten principles in the preamble of the Constitution Act, 1867.

In doing so, the majority set the stage for the kind of reasoning they would end up using in the Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217 shortly thereafter. But it was La Forest J.’s resistance to judicially created principles that would later win out, as the Court had to take  steps in British Columbia v. Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 SCR 473 to fend off a surge in litigation grounded in alleged unwritten principles. The majority managed to use unwritten principles on judicial salaries and on secession but came to realize that such an approach was unmanageable for the judiciary as an institution. In Imperial Tobacco, it also indicated its arguably newfound respect for “the delimitation of […] rights chosen by our constitutional framers” (para. 65). While unwritten constitutional principles were convenient in a particular moment, the principled position is to seek to focus on the written text, and that was what La Forest J. defended. 

There has been over the years much talk that La Forest J.’s  resignation from the Court—essentially simultaneous with the release of the judgment in being announced weeks before the release and taking effect weeks after—was a mark of his profound disagreement with the decision, its methodology, and its implications for the upcoming cases. His dissent lives on as a defence of the rule of law.

LeBel J. in Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony

There are many important Charter dissents, and the dissent of LeBel J. in Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony might not be a common choice.  In some ways, the dissent of Abella J. in the same case has attracted more attention and defends some of the same positions as those within the dissent of LeBel J. But it is LeBel J.’s dissent that has a certain starkness and that marks more profoundly a certain commonsensical resistance to the majority’s convenience-oriented rejection of a religious freedom claim.

The facts concerned the religious freedom claim of a small group of 250 Hutterite farmers from some particular colonies in rural Alberta whose understanding of Scriptural principles against graven images took a particularly strict form: they took the view that they could not have their photographs on their driver licences. The province of Alberta had implemented a universal photo requirement to create a universal facial recognition database and removed an exemption previously granted to these 250 Hutterite farmers that would exclude them from the database, along with the 700,000 Albertans who did not have driver licences at all.   

While the majority opinion of McLachlin C.J.C. (erroneously) accepted the creation of the database itself as the government objective for purposes of analyzing any infringement and McLachlin C.J.C went so far as to suggest that the farmers in question could simply arrange alternative transportation, LeBel J. eviscerated the majority logic in a few lines. Writing against the judgment of McLachlin C.J.C. —who grew up in rural Alberta—it fell to LeBel J. to point out the importance of a driver’s licence in rural Alberta and to suggest that an appropriate constitutional balance was not obtained “by belittling the impact of the measures on the beliefs and religious practices of the Hutterites and by asking them to rely on taxi drivers and truck rental services to operate their farms and to preserve their way of life” (para. 201). 

The defence of collective aspects of religious freedom resonating through various parts of LeBel J.’s dissent (and the subject of a beautiful passage about communities of faith at para. 182), also found in Abella J.’s dissent, won out in Loyola High School v. Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 12, [2015] 1 SCR 613.  There, McLachlin C.J.C. and Moldaver J., wth Rothstein J. also signing on, decided to state that LeBel J. had not actually been in dissent on the significance of religious communities and the collective dimensions of religious freedom (para. 93). Sadly, such reassurances may have come too late, as many understood the majority opinion in Hutterite Brethren as implicitly about worries about future cases involving Muslims, and the majority’s tolerance of government restrictions probably set a tone for the years to come. But, in principle, LeBel J.’s dissent came to be the law on these aspects.

Another, fascinating dimension of LeBel J.’s dissent also deserves more attention than it has received thus far. In his dissent, he also fosters new thought on the Oakes test for rights limitations, recognizing explicitly some problems in how it had come to be applied over the years. This thought was also prescient, and further rethinking of the Oakes test has emerged as an arena for ongoing discussion. Like other great dissents of principle, LeBel J.’s dissent in Hutterian Brethren sparkles with intellectual energy and stands on fundamental points of principle in ways that make it endure not as a mere minority report but as a light for the future.

Mulling over Miller

Some thoughts on the UK Supreme Court’s decision in “the case of prorogations”

It’s been a while already, but I would like to say a few things about the UK Supreme Court’s decision that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advice, last moth, that the Queen prorogue the Westminster Parliament for five weeks was unlawful, and that the prorogation is a nullity. The unanimous decision by Lady Hale and Lord Reed, R (Miller) v Prime Minister, [2019] UKSC 41 (Miller (No 2)) breaks new and, in my view, shaky constitutional ground. It is an understandable response to what Lord Sumption has accurately described as Mr. Johnson’s “constitutional vandalism”. But, while understandable, I am not persuaded that it is right.

I should note, of course, that I am no great expert on UK constitutional law. Many people who are have written about Miller (No 2) already, but, due to my recent travels and speaking engagements, I haven’t been able to keep up with the torrent of commentary. Anyway, the principles at stake are similar to those that apply in Canada and New Zealand, and I wanted to produce a record of my own thoughts regarding Lady Hale and Lord Reed’s reasoning. Add salt to taste. I will also add a note on the applicability to this decision to Canada, where of course the ability of a Prime Minister to procure the prorogation of Parliament for political purposes is something that has already been done, and could be attempted in the future.


The substantive issue in Miller (No 2) was whether the Prime Minister’s advice that the Queen prorogue Parliament for a five-week period was unlawful, either because it interfered with the constitutional principles of Parliamentary sovereignty and government accountability to Parliament, or because it had an improper purpose. But as a preliminary matter the Court had to decide whether the matter was justiciable at all. If it found that it was, and that the prorogation was unlawful, it also had to consider the appropriate remedy.

The argument against justiciability was that the substantive issues were subject to political accountability rather than judicial scrutiny and that there were, in any case, no legal criteria by which the lawfulness of advice to prorogue Parliament could be determined. For the judiciary to step into this controversy would offend against the separation of powers. But the Court rejected this contention. The fact that the decision it was asked to review was made by a political actor, had political resonance, and was potentially subject to political accountability did not, without more, mean that courts should refrain from reviewing its legality. As for the separation of powers, it would only be enhanced “by ensuring that the Government does not use the power of prorogation unlawfully with the effect of preventing Parliament from carrying out its proper functions”. [34]

The power to prorogue Parliament is based in the Royal prerogative; that is to say, it is a power of the monarch that is recognized by the common law (rather than having a statutory foundation). The common law also outlines the limits of prerogative powers. Doubts about justiciability, the Court says, can legitimately arise if the dispute concerns the lawfulness of the exercise of a prerogative power within its proper limits. However, there is no question that it is the courts’ role to draw the limits in the first place. The dispute here, the Court says, involves just this sort of line drawing.

How are the limits of a prerogative power to be ascertained? Unlike with a statutory power, there is no text to guide the court. However, the scope of any prerogative power “has to be compatible with common law principles”, including “the fundamental principles of our constitutional law”, [38] which, despite the fact that the UK’s constitution is not codified and consists of “common law, statutes, conventions and practice”, “are enforceable by the courts in the same way as other legal principles”. [39]

Two such principles help circumscribe the scope of the power to prorogue Parliament: Parliamentary sovereignty, and the accountability of government to Parliament. The former means not only “that laws
enacted by the Crown in Parliament are the supreme form of law in our legal system” [41] but also that the executive cannot get int the way of Parliament “exercis[ing] its legislative authority” [42] as it would be in the absence of limits on the power of prorogation. While prospect of unlimited prorogation may be hypothetical and subject to “practical constraints”, [43] its very existence would be incompatible Parliamentary sovereignty, and therefore intolerable. The same goes for the accountability of the Ministry to Parliament,

through such mechanisms as their duty to answer Parliamentary questions and to appear before Parliamentary committees, and through Parliamentary scrutiny of the delegated legislation which ministers make. [46]

This accountability serves to ensure that “citizens are protected from the arbitrary exercise of executive power”, [46] but it too would be undermined by long-term prorogations.

It follows then that, while a short period of prorogation is acceptable as not interfering with Parliament’s legislative power or its scrutiny of the executive, the longer Parliament stands prorogued, the more these principles are put at risk. There is no bright-line limit between what is and what is not lawful. Rather,

a decision to prorogue Parliament (or to advise the monarch to prorogue Parliament) will be unlawful if the prorogation has the effect of frustrating or preventing, without reasonable justification, the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions as a legislature and as the body responsible for the supervision of the executive. [50]

Whether a given prorogation has this effect, and whether, if so, a justification has been provided for it, are questions of fact of “no
greater difficulty than many other questions of fact which are routinely decided by the courts”. [51] The court must decide these questions “with sensitivity to the responsibilities and experience of the Prime Minister, and with a corresponding degree of caution”, [51] but it can and must decide them. In this case, the Court finds that the length of the prorogation will interfere with Parliamentary sovereignty and the accountability of government, and that the justifications advanced on behalf of the Prime Minister are unpersuasive. Its decision on the latter point is influenced by the evidence given by a former Prime Minister, Sir John Major.

The Court must, then, decide on the remedy. The applicant would have been content with a declaration to the effect that the Prime Minister’s advice to prorogue Parliament was unlawful, but the Court goes further. Having rejected the contention that the prorogation is part of “proceedings in Parliament” whose validity the courts are precluded from reviewing by Article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1688, it finds, that the Order in Council signed by the Queen to require the prorogation,

being founded on unlawful advice, was likewise unlawful, null and
of no effect and should be quashed. This led to the actual prorogation, which was as if the Commissioners had walked into Parliament with a blank piece of paper. It too was unlawful, null and of no effect. [69]

The prorogation never happened.


As noted above, one can understand why the Supreme Court decided the way it did. Indeed, the reasoning of Lady Hale and Lord Reed has a certain elegance to it, and I think it is fair to say that a constitution in which the power to prorogue Parliament cannot be abused for partisan or political purposes is preferable to one where it can be. It would indeed be shocking if the Prime Minister were to attempt proroguing Parliament for years on end. As Canadians will recall, it is equally shocking when the Prime Minister uses a prorogation to avoid being held to account by Parliament. The question, though, is whether the United Kingdom actually had such a constitution, prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller (No 2).

Canadians, of course, will be interested in what our constitution has to say on this. Let me begin with that. Unlike the United Kingdom’s, Canada’s constitution is partially codified and entrenched. As it happens, this entrenched constitution includes a specific provision that speaks to the possibility of indefinite prorogations: section 5 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides that “[t]here shall be a sitting of Parliament and of each legislature at least once every twelve months”. An attempt to prorogue Parliament, or a legislature, for more than a year would be flatly unconstitutional, and a court ought to be able to recognize this and, pursuant to section 24(1) of the Charter, provide any “such remedy as the court considers appropriate and just in the circumstances”.

But what about abusive attempts to prorogue Parliament for periods of time shorter than a year? In my view, the Charter settles this matter differently than the common law constitution of the United Kingdom. Instead of a standard of justification, as under the latter, the Charter sets out a bright-line rule, and it would be inappropriate for the courts to re-write the constitution that we actually have in order to improve it on a pattern suggested, decades after its enactment, in a jurisdiction whose own constitutional landscape is, on this point, somewhat different from ours. The Supreme Court of Canada rejected an attempt to invoke constitutional principles to add to the Charter’s proscription on retroactive criminal law in British Columbia v Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 SCR 473, and it should follow the same logic in rejecting an attempt to import Miller (No. 2) into Canadian law.

This is not to say that the one-year line drawn by the Charter‘s framers is especially satisfactory. Certainly shorter prorogations can be abusive, as we saw in 2008. Perhaps our constitution could be improved by an amendment to section 5 of the Charter, just as it would in my view be improved by an expanded proscription against retroactive legislation. But of course such an amendment is not for the courts to effect. And, as I will now suggest, it is not obvious that such an amendment ought simply to codify the Miller (No. 2) decision.

Indeed it is not clear that the authors of Miller (No. 2) viewed it as a model for anything else that would follow. At the outset, the insist that the case “arises in circumstances which have never arisen before and are unlikely ever to arise again. It is a ‘one off'”. [1] It is worth pointing out that this is an unusual statement for a court to make, and it should, I think, ring some alarm bells. (Consider another instance where a court said something similar: Bush v Gore, 531 US 98 (2000) where the per curiam majority opinion noted that its “consideration is limited to the present circumstances”. (109))

At the very least, one suspects that, despite its confident assertions about its ability to resolve factual claims about the necessity for a prorogation, the Court probably hopes that it will not have to do so again. And, perhaps even more fundamentally, the Court may well realize that it has not really articulated a principle against which to judge the lawfulness of prorogations so much as asserted the power to do so on a case-by-case basis. The Court gets away with it by shifting the burden of proof onto the Prime Minister, who is asked to justify his request for a prorogation instead of the applicants having to actually show that it was flawed in some legally cognizable way (as opposed to “merely” stinking to high heaven). Mr. Johnson was not prepared to discharge the burden. His successors, presumably, will not make the same mistake.

Seen in this light, Miller (No. 2) looks less as a re-assertion of constitutional principle in the face of a band of governing vandals, and more like a power grab. The vandals, admittedly, are real, so the power grab is for a good cause, but it’s a power grab all the same. This impression is only reinforced by the way in which the Court re-framed the issue from the legitimacy of a particular (albeit disturbing in the extreme) exercise of an undoubted prerogative power (namely, that of proroguing power) to that of the scope the prerogative. The cases on which the Supreme Court purports to rely sought to preserve a space for the exercise of prerogative powers that would not be amenable to judicial review, being too bound up with issues of policy and politics. Miller (No. 2) does not repudiate these cases, but it suggests a way around them: it is enough to say that, correctly understood, the issue concerns the scope of a prerogative power rather than the lawfulness of its exercise within its acknowledged scope.

If the prerogative of dissolution had not been abolished in the UK, this trick could have been applied to engage the courts in reviewing its exercise. (Of course, this prerogative has been preserved in Canada, even in jurisdictions that have adopted purportedly fixed election dates; this is an additional consideration that ought to give pause to Canadian courts urged to import the Miller (No. 2) reasoning here.) The same goes for the prerogative of mercy and the prerogative powers in relation to foreign affairs or war. In fairness to the Supreme Court, I doubt that it really wants to go there. If urged to embark on this sort of review, it can still say that, this time, the issues do not go to the scope of the prerogative. But that only highlights the fact that the reasoning in Miller (No. 2) is results-oriented. A one-off indeed. I don’t think this is the stuff of great constitutional law.

There are at least a couple of additional issues worth addressing about Miller (No. 2), one of which I will make here, and the other in a separate post. The former is that the Supreme Court’s conception of Parliamentary sovereignty is, in my view, something of a departure from how this concept has been understood until now. The orthodox view is that it referred to the supremacy of the law enacted by the existing Parliament over any other law ― common law, regulations, and even statutes enacted by Parliaments past. In recent decades, this view has been somewhat tempered by a growing acceptance Parliaments dictating the “fanner and form” ― but not the content ― of future statutes. Of course Parliamentary sovereignty in this orthodox sense is not at all affected by prorogation. But the Supreme Court expands this principle, by saying that it requires that there be no obstacles, or at least no obstacles created by the executive, in the way of a Parliament that might legislate, as opposed to one that already has.

I wonder how much the Court has thought this through. There is a tension between this understanding of sovereignty and the few that Parliament can complicate the life of its successors by enacting “manner and form” requirements. There is an even stronger tension between this view and the musings of some judges (Lady Hale among them!) about the possibility that Parliamentary sovereignty isn’t quite absolute, and that there might be some laws that Parliament cannot enact (or rather, that Courts would be justified in not giving effect to some laws). Again, future courts might resolve this tension by saying that the expanded version of Parliamentary sovereignty is a single-purpose idea meant to control the executive and not the other branches of government. But I wonder whether, in trying to stave of off the absolutist claims of the executive, the Supreme Court hasn’t provided intellectual ammunition for similar claims by Parliament.

The other way in which Miller (No. 2) departs from past, and indeed very recent, understandings of how the UK constitution (and other constitutions derived from it) works, which I will not address in detail here, has to do with the distinction between the legal and the political constitution. This distinction was a sharp one, or so we were told told by writers such as A.V. Dicey and courts in cases like Re: Resolution to amend the Constitution, [1981] 1 SCR 753 (Patriation Reference) and R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, [2017] UKSC 5 (Miller (No. 1)). Statutes and common law rules were legal and legally enforceable rules; constitutional conventions, political and not legally enforceable. In Miller (No. 2) the lines between these types of constitutional rules are are blurred. This might not be all bad, but I will defer this to a separate post, which I will try to write in a not-too-distant future.


To repeat yet again, I am not criticizing the reasoning in Miller (No. 2) because I approve of, or even regard as at all defensible morally, the actions of the Prime Minister that led to it. The Supreme Court acted out of genuine and perfectly understandable concern with gross abuse of power, for which it found no redress in the orthodox legal toolkit, and so took unorthodox measures. As H.L.A. Hart wrote long ago, in cases where constitutional fundamentals are at stake, courts can reshape them and so transform our understandings of what law even is; “all that succeeds”, he observed, “is success”. Clearly, the UK Supreme Court has been successful. And perhaps that’s all that history will remember.

But the price of present success is, at best, considerable uncertainty about the future. Will the reasoning in Miller (No. 2) ever be followed, and if so, to what end? Will it serve to involve the courts in review of deeply political decisions about foreign affairs, war, and peace? Will the expansion of the understanding of Parliamentary sovereignty rebound it ways we may yet regret? Again, I wonder how much the Supreme Court ― pressed for time as it was, and apparently hoping to deliver a “one off” decision ― has really pondered all this. We, at any rate, have the leisure ― and the need ― to reflect on what it has done.

Neither Here Nor There

I have summarized the Supreme Court’s decision in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, the B.C. hearing fees case, here. Over a furious dissent by Justice Rothstein, the Court held that while provinces can impose some hearing fees, the fees cannot constitutionally result in “undue hardship” on litigants, preventing them from asserting their legal claims. The Court found that the B.C. fees do not pass this test, and declared them unconstitutional. As I wrote in the conclusion of my earlier post, the majority’s reasons leave some important questions unanswered. They also rest on shaky foundations, which Justice Rothstein’s dissent exposes. Yet Justice Rothstein’s own arguments are even less persuasive than the majority’s.

Perhaps most significantly in practical terms, the majority’s reasons do a poor job of answering the question of what fee or fee and exemption structure is constitutionally acceptable. The threshold the majority sets out for the acceptability of hearing fees ― that they must not cause “undue hardship” to litigants or make them “sacrifice reasonable expenses” ― strikes me as quite vague.

It also seems to have been formulated with only individual litigants in mind. But what about corporations? Not big corporations for which litigation is just another business expense, but small businesses ― say a convenience store engaged in a dispute with a supplier ― or non-profits? I suspect that to such litigants, the BC hearing fees can represent a significant expense, and perhaps a prohibitive one in some cases. But how will the “undue hardship” and “reasonable expenses” tests apply to them? Yet the majority’s rationale for finding some fees unconstitutional, which is that they interfere with the courts’ core jurisdiction and the Rule of Law, ought to apply to corporate litigants as well as to individual ones.

Most importantly, Justice Rothstein is right to point out that the majority’s pronouncements on the role that exemptions from fees can play in a constitutional hearing fees scheme are contradictory. As he explains, the majority says that “as a general rule, hearing fees must be coupled with an exemption that allows judges to waive the fees” (par. 48), while also saying that making litigants “come before the court, explain why they are indigent and beg the court to publicly acknowledge this status and excuse the payment of fees” (par. 60) can be demeaning and burdensome. Whether the exemption is framed in terms of “impoverishment” or “undue hardship” changes nothing to this fact; nor does it alleviate the majority’s “concern the exemption application itself may contribute to hardship” (par. 60). It is perhaps worth recalling that, as I noted at the time, at oral argument Justice Moldaver seemed convinced that an exemption regime was “unworkable.” The majority reasons (which Justice Moldaver signed on to!) do not really address this concern.

And then, there’s the question of whether a province could impose fees for hearings in provincial court (to which s. 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867, does not apply). Or, for that matter, in administrative tribunals. Now even British Columbia seems not to impose hearing fees in provincial courts, so this particular question might be purely academic but, at least in theory, anchoring the protection of access to adjudicative fora in s. 96, as the majority does, seems to suggest that access to other adjudicators ― which, no less than superior courts, even if under their supervision, engage in the determination of private and public law rights of individuals ― is not protected.

Beyond these practical worries, which may end up generating yet more costly and time-consuming litigation if British Columbia or some other province imposes fees coupled with an “undue hardship” exemption, the majority’s reasons are theoretically weak. Section 96 is a very dubious ground on which to rest a conclusion that hearing fees are unconstitutional. Justice Rothstein is quite right that the fees do not “limit the type of powers [s. 96 courts] may exercise.” They do not, in other words, interfere with these courts’ jurisdiction as it had been understood in the s. 96 jurisprudence, which has always been concerned with the removal of types of cases (e.g. judicial review of administrative tribunals) from the superior courts’ purview. The fact that courts may have fewer litigants able or willing to go before them cannot, in itself, be an interference with their jurisdiction. (If it were, a great many rules encouraging litigants to settle their dispute or to use alternative dispute-resolution mechanisms would be unconstitutional too.) As I have argued before, “the real issue [with the hearing fees] is not that the courts are being interfered with, but that individual litigants are.”

In the post just quoted, I argued that the Court should resolve the case on that ground, because hearing fees have the effect of preventing litigants from asserting their legal rights, which legislatures cannot abrogate, if at all, without clearly stating their intent to do so ― something the hearing fees do not do. So I am happy that the majority discusses the rule of law, even though it does not make that principle the main ground for its decision, and doesn’t go as far as the I would have liked. The majority is right that there cannot be a Rule of Law if people cannot assert their rights in court, and that “[i]f people cannot challenge government actions in court, individuals cannot hold the state to account ― the government will be, or be seen to be, above the law” (par. 40). To my mind, that ― rather than s. 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 ― is the key to resolving “the fundamental issue of principle” regarding the constitutionality of hearing fees, all the more since there is already a line of cases, culminating in Air Canada v. B.C. (A.G.), [1986] 2 S.C.R. 539, standing for the proposition that legislatures or governments cannot indirectly deny citizens’ constitutional rights by preventing them from asserting them in court. Unfortunately, the majority does not mention this jurisprudence (which was also ignored by the parties and the interveners). Instead, it tries to link the Rule of Law to s. 96, but the connection seems to me awkward and unconvincing.

It is, perhaps, an attempt to rebut Justice Rothstein’s criticisms, though the majority opinion never addresses his dissent directly. But while I share Justice Rothstein’s skepticism at the majority’s reading of s. 96, I think that his brutal attack on its reliance on the Rule of Law misses the mark. Justice Rothstein argues that an unwritten principle, especially one so “vague and fundamentally disputed” (par. 100) as the Rule of Law, cannot justify striking down laws on the basis of their content. But it’s not the substance of a law that is at issue with the hearing fees ― it’s the fact that litigants will be unable to assert or defend their rights under any law, whatever its content. In Jeremy Waldron’s terminology, the conception of the Rule of Law that is at issue here is neither a substantive nor a formal one (both of which the Supreme Court had rejected in the past), but a procedural one. Justice Rothstein, in my view, has no answer to the majority’s point that allowing hearing fees to prevent people from defending their legal rights places the government above the law, which the Court had already said would be a Rule of Law problem.

More generally, Justice Rothstein’s approach to constitutional interpretation is unconvincing. His position is an absolutist one ― since hearing fees are not prohibited by the constitutional text, they are permissible, whatever their consequences. Yet even the B.C. government did not take that view and accepted, at oral argument, that in the absence of a suitable exemption, fees could create a constitutional problem. Justice Rothstein’s paeans to democracy mask the fact that the fees are imposed by the rules of court, not by legislation actually enacted by elected representatives of the people. They also ignore the problem of near-total ignorance of access to justice issues by the electorate, which I describe here.

The majority, at least, ends up in the right place, more or less, although its reasons leave a lot to be desired from a theoretical standpoint and fail to answer many important practical questions. Justice Rothstein makes some important points in criticizing them, but his critique ultimately fails.

For Sale, at the Right Price

This morning, the Supreme Court of Canada has released its judgment in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, the B.C. hearing fees case. A five-judge majority led by the Chief Justice holds that although a province can, in principle, impose some form of fees for access to courts, the fees British Columbia levied on litigants who set their cases down for trial in the province’s courts, escalating to 800$ per day starting on the 10th day of a trial, are an unconstitutional interference with the core jurisdiction of superior courts protected by s. 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 as interpreted in light of the Rule of Law principle. Justice Cromwell, concurring in the result, would have held that the rules imposing the fees are, in their present form, not authorized by their enabling legislation, and thus invalid. Justice Rothstein, dissenting furiously , would have found that the fees are constitutional. In this post, I will summarize the majority decision and the dissent (setting aside Justice Cromwell’s concurrence). I will comment in a separate post.

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The Chief Justice holds that, as a general matter, provinces are allowed to impose hearing fees, as well as fees of other sorts, on people who go to court, pursuant to their power under subs. 92(14) of the Constitution Act, 1867, to “make Laws in relation to … [t]he Administration of Justice in the Province, including the Constitution, Maintenance, and Organization of the Provincial Courts.” While there is a right of access to courts, its exercise can be subject to conditions. Fees “may be used to defray some of the cost of administering the justice system, to encourage the efficient use of court resources, and to discourage frivolous or inappropriate use of the courts” (par. 21). The Chief Justice rejects the distinction that the appellants and some interveners defended at oral argument between hearing fees and fees of other kinds (such as filing fees) which courts in every province levy. The real issue, for her, is not “the type of the fee,” but whether the effect of its imposition is “to deny certain people access to the courts” (par. 22).

According to the Chief Justice, that consequence, a denial of access to courts, is prohibited by s. 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 which acts as a limit on the province’s power over the administration of justice. On its face, s. 96 merely provides that the federal government is responsible or appointing the judges of superior courts. But it has long been held to imply the existence of an irreducible core of jurisdiction in these courts as well, which the provinces (or Parliament) cannot take away from them. The Chief Justice holds (par. 32) that hearing fees can have that effect:

The historic task of the superior courts is to resolve disputes between individuals and decide questions of private and public law. Measures that prevent people from coming to the courts to have those issues resolved are at odds with this basic judicial function.  The resolution of these disputes and resulting determination of issues of private and public law, viewed in the institutional context of the Canadian justice system, are central to what the superior courts do. Indeed, it is their very book of business.

Thus hearing fees (or, presumably, any other court fees), cannot constitutionally “deny people the right to have their disputes resolved in the superior courts” (par. 36).

For the Chief Justice, “this suffices to resolve the fundamental issue of principle in this appeal” (par. 38). Nonetheless, she also explains at some length that her conclusion is also supported by the constitutional principle of the Rule of Law. The Rule of Law requires that people be able access courts, which in the Canadian constitutional framework means first and foremost superior courts. The Chief Justice argues (par. 40) that

[i]n the context of legislation which effectively denies people the right to take their cases to court, concerns about the maintenance of the rule of law are not abstract or theoretical. If people cannot challenge government actions in court, individuals cannot hold the state to account ― the government will be, or be seen to be, above the law.  If people cannot bring legitimate issues to court, the creation and maintenance of positive laws will be hampered, as laws will not be given effect.  And the balance between the state’s power to make and enforce laws and the courts’ responsibility to rule on citizen challenges to them may be skewed.

The Chief Justice concludes (par. 42) that

[t]he right of the province to impose hearing fees is limited by constitutional constraints.  In defining those constraints, the Court does not impermissibly venture into territory that is the exclusive turf of the legislature.  Rather, the Court is ensuring that the Constitution is respected.

Any fees for access to courts, the Chief Justice says, cannot “cause undue hardship to the litigant” (par. 45) ― that is, they cannot “require[] litigants … to sacrifice reasonable expenses in order to bring a claim” (par. 46). If hearing fees are imposed, they “must” (par. 48)

be coupled with an exemption that allows judges to waive the fees for people who cannot, by reason of their financial situation, bring non-frivolous or non-vexatious litigation to court.

The BC hearing fees regime, the Chief Justice holds, does not pass this test. It provides an exemption from fees for litigants who are “impoverished,” but the economic evidence is that the fees are so high that even those who would not ordinarily cannot be called poor cannot really afford them. It will not do to simply read the word “impoverished” broadly enough to cover middle-class litigants unable “to pay a fee that amounts to a month’s net salary” (par. 59). Requiring litigants to apply for the “impoverishment” exemption is also problematic because it may be “an affront to dignity and imposes a significant burden on the potential litigant of adducing proof of impoverishment” , a burden that will be worse in less “clear cases of impoverishment” (par. 60). Furthermore, the current escalating fees regime does not really promote efficient litigation. It penalizes those whose trials are long, not necessarily those whose trials are inefficient, and requires payment from a party who may not even have the control over the trial’s length, a problem which the possibility of an eventual compensation by way of an award of costs does not really address.

The Chief Justice considers the possibility of broadening the exemption for “impoverished” litigants by reading in the the terms “in need,” as the Court of Appeal had done, but rejects it. It is not clear, in her view, that the provincial legislature or government would have taken that approach, nor is it clear that even the broader exemption would be sufficient. The Chief Justice decides “to declare the hearing fee scheme as it stands unconstitutional and leave it to the legislature or the Lieutenant Governor in Council to enact new provisions, should they choose to do so” (par. 68).

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To Justice Rothstein, this is a usurpation (though he is too polite to use this word) of the “territory that is quintessentially that of the legislature” (par. 82). In his view, “there is no express constitutional right to access the civil courts without hearing fees” (par. 81), and absent a violation of such a clear constitutional right, courts ought to stay away from policy disagreements ― including, in this case, a policy disagreement about who should pay for the judicial system, and how. For Justice Rothstein, the conclusion that s. 92(14) of the Constitution Act, 1867, authorizes the imposition of hearing fees should be the end of the matter. He “take[s] exception to the majority striking down the British Columbia hearing fee scheme on a novel reading of s. 96 and the rule of law” (par. 85); “free (or at least affordable) access to courts is a laudable goal” (par. 86), but one for the political branches of government to realize as they see fit.

In Justice Rothstein’s view, the hearing fees do not trench on the superior courts’ core jurisdiction; limits on access are not the same thing as removals of jurisdiction. “The hearing fees,” he concludes, “are a financing mechanism and do not go to the very existence of the court as a judicial body or limit the types of powers it may exercise” (par. 90). Justice Rothstein faults the majority for not applying the existing test to determine whether the core jurisdiction of s. 96 courts is infringed, effectively accusing it of abandoning the law because it does not support its preferred conclusions.

Justice Rothstein is similarly unimpressed with the majority’s invocation of the underlying principle of the Rule of Law. Underlying principles might serve to fill “gaps” in the constitutional text, but there is no gap here. The constitutional text, which includes specific rights of access to courts in Charter and criminal cases, but not in other situations, must remain supreme. “In using an unwritten principle to support expanding the ambit of s. 96 to such an extent,” Justice Rothstein says, “the majority subverts the structure of the Constitution and jeopardizes the primacy of the written text” (par. 93). Moreover, the right of access derived from s. 96 is “absolute” and not subject to the limitations and derogations which apply even to “fundamental” rights under the Charter. Justice Rothstein also points out that in British Columbia v. Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 S.C.R. 47, the Supreme Court had suggested that the Rule of Law cannot serve to strike down legislation on the basis of “its content.” To do so is to undermine both the power of the democratically elected legislatures and the certainty of the written constitution provisions.

Besides, Justice Rothstein argues, the hearing fees do not really have the unfortunate effects which the majority attributes to the. The exemption for “impoverished” litigants can apply “where the hearing fees themselves would be a source of impoverishment” (par. 107). Cost awards can offset some the impact of the hearing fees. And courts themselves have a responsibility to keep trials short, thus reducing the amount of hearing fees due. Long (and thus costly) trials are exceptional, and should be even more so, something the fees can help achieve. Finally, Justice Rothstein points to the inconsistency of the majority’s saying both that judges must have discretion to waive any hearing fees and that the process of applying for such an exemption may be a burden and an affront to the dignity of the litigants.

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Justice McEwen at first instance, argued that “some things,” including access to civil courts, “are not for sale.” The Court of Appeal in effect held that selling access to courts is fine so long as it is given away for free to those “in need.” For its part, the majority of the Supreme Court seems to have some misgivings about the sale of access, but concludes that it is tolerable provided that the price is not too high. But its decision leaves some important questions unanswered, as I will argue in my next post. It also rests on shaky foundations, which Justice Rothstein’s dissent exposes. Yet Justice Rothstein’s own arguments are even less persuasive than the majority’s. This is, on the whole, a very unsatisfying case.

A Puff of Smoke

I argued last week that the Supreme Court should find British Columbia’s “hearing fees,” which litigants must pay to bring a case in front of a judge, unconstitutional as a violation of the principle of the Rule of Law. But what about the Supreme Court’s decision in British Columbia v. Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 S.C.R. 473, asks Duncan J. MacAuliffe on Twitter. It was the basis for my saying that “the Supreme Court has understood [the Rule of Law] very narrowly.” But doesn’t it stand for a still more far-reaching proposition?

In this (rather delayed) post, I would like to explain why I think that Imperial Tobacco does not compel the decision the principle of the Rule of Law cannot invalidate B.C.’s hearing fees.

The issue in Imperial Tobacco was the constitutionality of a B.C. statute which allowed the provincial government to sue tobacco manufacturers to recover the money the province spent on healthcare for people suffering from tobacco-related illnesses. The statute was clearly retroactive ― it was not a tort, prior its enactment, to cause the government economic damage by selling tobacco, and this retroactivity was one of the grounds on which it was challenged, the argument being that it violated the principle of the Rule of Law.

The Supreme Court rejected this claim, holding that “none of the principles that the rule of law embraces speak directly to the terms of legislation” (par. 59). Indeed, it said,

the government action constrained by the rule of law as understood [by the Court’s jurisprudence] … is, by definition, usually that of the executive and judicial branches.  Actions of the legislative branch are constrained too, but only in the sense that they must comply with legislated requirements as to manner and form (i.e., the procedures by which legislation is to be enacted, amended and repealed) (par. 60).

The Court rejected more substantive readings of the Rule of Law, encompassing requirements of prospectivity, generality, and fair civil trials. The requirements, it pointed out, “are simply broader versions of rights contained in the [Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms]” (par. 65), and it would be illegitimate for courts to rely on the unwritten principle of the Rule of Law as a vehicle for importing them into the constitution. Furthermore,

several constitutional principles other than the rule of law that have been recognized by this Court — most notably democracy and constitutionalism — very strongly favour upholding the validity of legislation that conforms to the express terms of the Constitution (and to the  requirements, such as judicial independence, that flow by necessary implication from those terms).  Put differently, the appellants’ arguments fail to recognize that in a constitutional democracy such as ours, protection from legislation that some might view as unjust or unfair properly lies not in the amorphous underlying principles of our Constitution, but in its text and the ballot box (par. 66).

This is strong (and, as I have suggested here, unfortunate) stuff. Still, I think that Imperial Tobacco can fairly easily be distinguished from  the hearing fees’ case, and should be so distinguished, because two important elements that led the Supreme Court to decide Imperial Tobacco the way it did are not present in the case of the hearing fees.

One is the “expanded-version-of-Charter-rights” claim. In my view, there isn’t really anything in the Charter that protects a limited version of the claim at issue. The Rule of Law problem with hearing fees, I have argued, is that they are an indirect and stealthy device for preventing people from asserting their constitutional, statutory, and common law rights which ostensibly still exist as a matter of law. The Charter does not speak to this issue, and thus the situation is not the same as with retroactivity and trial unfairness, which it explicitly prohibits in criminal cases, but says nothing about ― and thus tolerates ― in civil matters.

The other distinction between Imperial Tobacco and the hearings fees’ case is that in the latter, the Supreme Court’s precedents, although they are probably not, by themselves, sufficient to compel the conclusion that the fees are unconstitutional, at least point in the direction of this outcome. These precedents, notably Amax Potash Ltd. v. The Government of Saskatchewan, [1977] 2 S.C.R. 576 and Air Canada v. B.C. (A.G.), [1986] 2 S.C.R. 539, hold that a province cannot deny a person, whether through legislation or by an exercise of executive discretion, an opportunity to challenge the constitutionality of legislation by which it deprived him of some legal rights. In other words, they mean that no one can be stripped of his or her constitutional rights by being prevented from asserting them in court. 

Now there is a step to be made from these cases to that of the hearing fees, because what is at issue there is not just constitutional rights, but all legal rights, including some which a province can modify by legislating. But the case of Wells v. Newfoundland, [1999] 3 S.C.R. 199, stands for the proposition that even non-constitutional rights have to be extinguished by clear statutory language, not by implication or stealth.

Imperial Tobacco does not discuss these cases. It certainly stands for the proposition that a province (or Parliament) can retroactively modify legal rights. But the statute at issue there did so explicitly, rather than by barring the holders of these rights access to the courts while purporting not to touch the rights in question, so the Supreme Court did not there decide whether that was permissible. And that is the issue it has to face in the hearing fees’ case.

In approaching that issue, the Court should certainly take its own advice in Imperial Tobacco and reflect on the importance of the principles of constitutionalism and democracy. Constitutionalism, for instance, means that the province cannot prevent litigants from asserting constitutional claims (the very issue decided in Amax Potash and Air Canada), which the hearing fees will do in some cases, or for that matter from asserting their claims under federal law, which they will do in others. And democracy should mean that a regulation enacted by the provincial executive should not deny litigants rights conferred or not interfered with by democratically enacted provincial statutes, which the hearing fees will do in cases arising under provincial law.

As for the Court’s broader comments about the Rule of Law not constraining legislatures and denigrating “amorphous constitutional principles,” I think they are flatly contradicted by its own jurisprudence. Legislatures, the Court itself has recognized, are bound to maintain a legal framework. Principles can have strong legal effects, none more so than that of judicial independence (which, incidentally, happens to be a much beefed-up version of s. 99(1) of the Constitution Act, 1867). These unfortunate comments are really so much smoke ― toxic, but almost weightless, and easily blown away.

Which Way to Court?

I wrote yesterday about the oral argument which the Supreme Court heard on Monday in the case now known as Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), formerly Villardell v. Dunham. At issue is the constitutionality of the “hearing fees” which British Columbia requires a litigant setting a civil case down for trial to undertake to pay. The first three days of the trial are free, the following seven cost 500$ each, and any additional day, 800$. That’s a lot of money, and while the province offers an exemption to those too “impoverished” to pay up, and accepts that “impoverished” can and ought to be interpreted as “in need,” various organizations representing the bar are arguing that the fee is unconstitutional, for one of a variety of reasons. Some of the reasons offered, which I discuss in more detail in yesterday’s post, do not persuade me. Yet there is an argument for the fees’ unconstitutionality that I find convincing.

All parties, including the B.C. government, agree that it is wrong for people to be prevented from having their day in court by the imposition of fees that they cannot pay. Not just wrong, indeed, but actually unconstitutional. The governments that defend B.C.’s hearing fees regime point to the exemption for the needy as its essential redeeming feature. But what is it that would make it unconstitutional to deny people a hearing if they cannot pay for one? The Charter, as the lawyer representing B.C. pointed out yesterday, does not protect any civil procedure rights, and section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867, as he also pointed out, has so far only been read to protect the jurisdiction of, not to apply to the procedure before, superior courts.

Despite even the federal government taking the position that it is indeed s. 96 that would be affected by excessive hearing fees or insufficient exemptions, I am skeptical of this view, and of the broader separation of powers theme that was clearly discernible in some of the fees’ opponents’ arguments. The real issue is not that the courts are being interfered with, but that individual litigants are. I do not think it is wrong for legislatures to provide mechanisms of alternative dispute resolution, for instance, or even to encourage litigants to settle ― so long, as some of the parties noted, as this encouragement works by asking the parties to take a sober view of the merits of their case, and not by making it impossible to pursue it regardless of the merits. Too robust a view of s. 96 or of the principle of separation of powers would call such legislative efforts into question.

I am also skeptical of the argument, advanced by Joseph Avray on behalf of the advocates’ society, that the hearing fees are wrong because it is somehow impermissible for the government to charge for what is “a public good” ― understood not in its strict economic meaning, but simply as something that benefits society as a whole. Mr. Avray’s own examples show that his distinction does not work. He mentioned hospitals and schools ― but surely healthcare and education benefit the patients and the students first and foremost, as well as the public. And taking Mr. Avray at his word about education, does seriously suggest that any tuition fees in universities are unconstitutional?

That said, the idea that litigants do not profit by going to court is, I believe, correct and important. As I wrote here,

[o]nly a successful plaintiff gets something out of litigation – and even that is presumably something he was entitled to. A successful defendant doesn’t get anything, except at most a (partial) reimbursement of his fees – nor, a fortiori, a losing plaintiff or defendant.

(The one narrow exception to this, I suppose, is the plaintiff who wins punitive damages.)

The importance of this point is not, however, that it can be fashioned into a self-standing constitutional principle, but that it underscores that a litigant, whether plaintiff or defendant, comes to court not to gain a benefit, but to vindicate a right already conferred on him or her by law.

This is why the relevant constitutional principle is that of the Rule of Law. Although the Supreme Court has understood it very narrowly, even this narrow understanding encompasses the idea that “the relationship between the state and the individual must be regulated by law” (Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 S.C.R. 217, at par. 71). This requirement is jeopardized if the government can thwart persons attempting to vindicate their legal rights, not by modifying these rights by “due process of law” (i.e. at least by enacting legislation that has this effect explicitly or by necessary implication) but by making their enforcement practically impossible.

A line of cases culminating in Air Canada v. B.C. (A.G.), [1986] 2 S.C.R. 539, to which unfortunately no party referred on Monday, illustrates this principle. Air Canada wanted to challenge the constitutionality of a law enacted by the B.C. legislature but, under old rules for suing the Crown, required a fiat ― a permission ― from the Lieutenant-Governor to do so. The provincial government advised the Lieutenant-Governor not to grant the fiat. The Supreme Court held that neither a statute nor an exercise of executive discretion (whether authorized by statute or by the royal prerogative) can be used to deny a person the means of asserting his or her constitutional rights, and thus indirectly abrogating them. Air Canada and its predecessors were constitutional cases, resting (implicitly) upon the principle of constitutionalism, but in my view it is but a small step to extend this application of constitutionalism to its cousin the Rule of Law, to which it “bears considerable similarity,” as the Supreme Court recognized in the Secession Reference (par. 72).

As I wrote here,

Our legal rights arise under the constitution, statutes, or the common law. Superior courts have jurisdiction over both constitutional and common law rights, as well as many statutory rights … Provincial legislatures cannot modify constitutional or federal statutory rights. They can modify or even extinguish rights arising under provincial statutes or the common law but, generally speaking, must do so in clear terms. … Making it impossible for people to go to court to vindicate their rights arguably amounts to their de facto abolition – yet the province cannot abolish constitutional and federal statutory rights, and further, it is abolition by stealth, which is not permissible even for provincial statutory and common law rights.

This, it seems to me, is the problem with hearing fees. Their effect, at the very least, and arguably even their purpose, is to prevent people from vindicating their legal rights whenever this vindication requires more time in court than a litigant can afford, which is contrary to the Rule of Law requirement that our relationships the government (and, to some considerable extent, with each other!) be structured by law.

Importantly, this requirement, and thus the approach based on it, does not depend on the nature of the litigants, as both the exemption regime defended by B.C. and other governments and the attempt to ground a right of access to courts in s. 7 of the Charter do. These approaches mean that it is perfectly fine to deny a small business or an NGO the right to go to court ― because such entities can neither be “impoverished” in any normal sense of the word nor benefit from s. 7 rights. Yet it seems to me that it is no less wrong to prevent them from asserting what they believe to be valid legal claims than it is to do so with individuals. Legal rights are rights regardless of what sort of person or entity happens to hold them, and the Rule of Law principle appropriately recognizes that. 

Will the Supreme Court go that way? I wouldn’t bet on it. The Court has often been reluctant to rely on underlying constitutional principles, except that of judicial independence. Still, I think that this approach is at least as close, and probably closer, to the bounds of its precedents as any other that was proposed to it on Monday. The Rule of Law is, admittedly, a somewhat Protean and very contested concept, and Ontario’s lawyer had a point in arguing that to some considerable degree, it an aspirational principle the implementation of which must be left to legislatures. Still, if it is to mean anything, the Rule of Law must include the ability of citizens to claim what the law says is theirs. A government that abides by the Rule of Law can be allowed to deny them this right.