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.

Who Pays for Justice?

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard the oral arguments in the B.C. hearing fees case, now known as Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), a case I have much blogged about as it made its way through the B.C. courts (where it was known Villardell v. Dunham, both on trial and on appeal). You can watch the hearing here, or read the rough transcript I have made. I will give an overview of the oral argument in this post, and have some comments in a separate one.

Just by way of reminder, the hearing fees at issue are  imposed, in all civil cases litigated in the B.C. Supreme Court (which is a court of first instance), on the party setting the case down for trial, escalating with the trial’s length. Under the current rules, the first three days are free; days 4-10 cost 500$ per day; and subsequent days each cost 800$. The cost of any protracted trial can thus quickly become prohibitive, not only for lower-income litigants, but even for middle-class people. The rules allow a judge to exempt an “impoverished” litigant who applies for permission not to pay the fees, a term that the Court of Appeal read to extend to all litigants unable to “meet their everyday expenses if … required to pay the fees” (par. 41). 

Not good enough, say the Trial Lawyers and the BC branch of the Canadian Bar Association, as well as a number of interveners, who argue that the fees impede access to justice and prevent the less well-off litigants from having their disputes resolved by courts. The provincial government, however, defends its approach, arguing that its twin objectives of cost-recovery and rationing of court time not only are legitimate within its constitutional power to administer courts, but are in fact ways of ensuring access to justice by making sure that at least some court time is available to all litigants.

When I discussed Justice McEwen’s ruling (holding the fees unconstitutional) at first instance, I noted that three threads run through his reasons: a separation of powers argument, according to which the hearing fees interfered with the constitutionally protected prerogatives of the judiciary; an individual rights argument, according to which there is a constitutionally-protected right to go to court, with which the fees interfere; and a difficult-to-characterize argument according to which the hearing fees are contrary to a certain idea(l) of what public services ought to be like. The appellants and the interveners who support them made versions of all three of these arguments, in what seemed a rather uncertain search for constitutional support the claim the hearing fees are unconstitutional.

The separation of powers argument led them to invoke section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which the Supreme Court has read as protecting a core of jurisdiction of which superior courts cannot be deprived. Indeed, even the respondent, as well as some of the other provinces, conceded that at some hypothetical level, hearing fees would be so high as to prevent superior courts from having any litigants before them, thus infringing this core jurisdiction, although they argued that the fee regime at issue was not problematic in this way.

The individual rights argument took two different forms. Mostly, the right of access to courts (which the parties tended to refer to as access to justice, although ― as the provinces pointed out ― access to justice involves many different things) was said to flow from the constitutional principle of the Rule of Law, which the Supreme Court has long recognized, albeit giving it a very narrow meaning. The appellants especially relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in B.C.G.E.U. v. British Columbia (Attorney General),[1988] 2 S.C.R. 214, where Chief Justice Dickson spoke of the courts’ power, “under the rule of law,” to remove barriers to “access to courts” ― although in that case, the barriers at issue (picket lines) were physical, rather than financial. But a different argument, advanced by the West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, was to the effect that the right of access to courts was a component of the right to liberty, and maybe also of that to the security of the person, protected by section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that the hearing fees infringed this right contrary to principles of fundamental justice, due to their disproportionate effect on women and the least well-off.

The provinces vigorously resisted the Rule of Law argument. BC claimed that the constitution is limited to the documents referred to in s. 52(2) of the Constitution Act, 1982 (though the Supreme Court’s recent decision in L’affaire Nadon seems to make that claim quite implausible). Ontario argued that the Rule of Law, except a very thin version of it recognized in the Manitoba Language Rights Reference, is an aspirational concept which legislatures ought to be left free to implement in their own ways. Québec said it was only an interpretive principle ― although, interestingly, it endorsed the s. 7 of the Charter argument for the hearing fees’ unconstitutionality, which the other provinces that addressed it rejected, noting that civil justice was deliberately excluded from the Charter’s text.

As for the argument that the imposition of fees for access to courts is contrary to what public services ought to be like, it was made by Joseph Arvay on behalf of the Advocates’ Society. Mr. Arvay contended that the resolution of disputes by courts is a public good, to be paid for by the public, and not by one or both of the litigants. Courts, in this respect, are similar to public schools and hospitals, to voting and to the police. They provide general, not private benefits, and their costs should be borne by all, not by some.

Beyond this quest for a constitutional basis for the claim that there is something wrong with hearing fees, much of the debate was concerned with more practical matters. One was the role of exemptions for the less well-off litigants. All the parties arguing that hearing fees are constitutional claimed that the exemptions were an integral part of the fees scheme. Means-testing, they said, is not a new idea ― it happens all the time in the criminal context, when an accused person argues that government ought to pay for his or her lawyer’s services. And having a fee-and-exemption regime, they said, was much better than no fees at all, which would mostly benefit litigious corporations. Those opposing the fees, however, countered that while the fees were said to be imposed out of a concern for the efficiency of courts, requiring additional hearings into the litigants’ impecuniousness would only increase inefficiency, in addition to piling an additional burden on hard-up litigants. And then, there were concerns about the fairness and workability of inquiries into how people organize their finances, which would be necessary to determine who qualifies for an exemption. Justice Moldaver, at least, strongly suggested that this regime was “unworkable.”

The other more practical point that occupied much of yesterday’s argument was the effect of the hearing fees (or lack thereof) beyond the litigants required to pay them in individual cases. For the provinces ― especially B.C., of course ― the fees are a sensible way of rationing a scarce resource ― time in court. Escalating fees encourage litigants to conduct their cases efficiently, and thus free up time for everyone. The fees, even if they are a barrier for individual litigants, promote access to courts overall. Furthermore, if there were no hearing fees, there would be pressure to raise other fees (such filing ones) to help pay for the court system. Yet the hearing fees are not a rational way of promoting efficiency, countered the appellants. The length of a trial is not  a good proxy for the parties’ diligence. A three-day trial, free under B.C.’s scheme, might still be much too long for a simple dispute; a twenty-day trial might be a model of good organization. And the party who has to pay the fees, the one who sets the matter down for trial, might not have the control over the trial’s length. Is it an arbitrary regime, asked Justice Moldaver? Yes, said the Trial Lawyers, as well as others.

All parties agree that, at least as a matter of political morality, it is wrong for people to be prevented from defending or asserting their legal claims by government-imposed fees. But that agreement cannot bridge the questions which the Supreme Court must now resolve. Who ought to pay for the operation of the courts? How ought these payments to be structured? And, most importantly, what ― if anything ― does the constitution have to say about that? For my own thoughts on what the Court should do, stay tuned.

For Sale! (Or To Give Away)

Last week, the BC Court of Appeal issued a decision upholding the constitutionality of the “hearing fees” imposed by the government on litigants who took their cases to trial in the province’s courts, Vilardell v. Dunham, 2013 BCCA 65. The fees had been struck down last May by the province’s Supreme Court.  “Some things are not for sale,” Justice McEwan had written in Vilardell v. Dunham, 2012 BCSC 748.  (I summarized that decision here, and commented on it here, here, and here.) According to the Court of Appeal, they are, though they must sometimes be given away fee of charge.

As a general proposition, says the Court, there is nothing wrong with hearing fees. The province has always had them, except for a relatively short period around the turn of the 20th century. Indeed, they have a very long history:

Crown hearing fees and an accompanying exemption for those who cannot pay them have been a feature of the English legal system going back to the Statute of Henry VII, 11 Henry VII, c. 12, in 1494 and which we inherited upon becoming a colony in 1858. (Par. 9)

And this history matters, the Court holds, “because it shapes the relationship between the executive and the judicial branches of government” (par. 11). Since this relationship has always taken the shape of a compromise balancing the government’s right to impose hearing fees with the courts’  “power to waive payment in forma pauperis, then the claim for a constitutional right to be free of them falls away” (par. 14).

Furthermore, the Court holds that there is no general, unqualified right of access to justice. Provincial legislatures, which are responsible for the administration of justice, have the power to impose conditions on access to courts. The Court is also unpersuaded by a Nova Scotia case in which that province’s hearing fees scheme was held to be unconstitutional.

The problem, and the only problem, with hearing fees is “their potential to impede persons who cannot afford them. Wealthy individuals and corporations may not like paying the fees but they are unlikely to alter their litigation strategy because of them” (par. 26), but for people who are not well-off, they act as a real barrier to asserting their rights in court. This upsets the compromise struck by the Statute of Henry VII (par. 21), violates the principle of the Rule of Law (par. 33), and infringes the courts’ constitutionally protected “core jurisdiction” (par. 35-36).

Accordingly, the solution the Court of Appeal chooses is not to strike down the hearing fees, as the Supreme Court had done, but to expand the exemption from the duty to pay them, so that it covers not only the “indigent,” as it did until recently, or even those on public assistance or “impoverished,” as it now does, but also those “in need.” Reading in these words, “intended to mean those who could not meet their everyday expenses if they were required to pay the fees” (par. 41), eliminates the constitutional difficulty. And, contrary to what Justice McEwan had suggested about the “indigency” exemption, since the re-crafted and expanded “exemption is focused on affordability rather than socio-economic status” (par. 37), it is not offensive to the dignity of those who have to seek it.

For my part, I think this is a poor decision, mostly because it fails to engage with some of the key problems of the hearing fees, which Justice McEwan raised in his (admittedly very imperfect) reasons. Most importantly, it does not at all address the suggestion, which I think is sound, that there is something profoundly wrong with the idea that civil justice is a service of which the litigants choose to avail themselves and for which they may legitimately be made to pay. People often do not have a choice but to litigate; nor can they always settle a case. It is one thing to punish a party who refuses a favourable offer to settle, as for example Ontario’s Rules of Civil Procedure do. It is quite another to make a party pay for going to trial regardless of the reasonableness of his position.

The judgment also, in my view, misunderstands the relationship between history and constitutional principles. History helps us ascertain the underlying principles of the constitution (and of our law more generally), but it does not define them. Ultimately, the constitutional principles are the values that underpin the law today, not necessarily those that connect it to the times of Henry VII. As the future Justice Holmes famously wrote in “The Path of the Law,” 10 Harv. L. Rev. 457 (1897),

[i]t is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that so it was laid down in the time of Henry IV. It is still more revolting if the grounds upon which it was laid down have vanished long since, and the rule simply persists from blind imitation of the past.

The century of civil wars separating Henry IV from Henry VII is no good warrant for this either. The Court does not explain why the compromise that was good in the times of the first Tudor monarch should still have power over us more than five centuries after his death.

Finally, the Court’s arguments both about both the law and the facts are misguided. As for the law, the concept of constitutionally protected core jurisdiction is a shaky foundation on which to rest the requirement for a capacious exemption from hearing fees, because it only applies to superior (“s. 96”) courts, and not to provincial courts. The Court simply misunderstands the concept as protecting judicial power in general rather than the power of superior courts. In any case, it does not make sense to protect the litigants’ choice to go to trial, and their choices as to the trial’s length, as an aspect of the courts’ control over their proceedings. As for the facts, the Court is surely wrong that the hearing fees―which, after all, are concededly designed to discourage trials, especially long trials, will only affect the litigation choices of those “in need.” Not the very rich or the very large corporations perhaps, but by no means only “those who could not meet their everyday expenses if they were required to pay the fees” will do their best to minimize the amount of fees they owe and thus modify their litigation strategy and perhaps refrain from asserting legitimate claims as a result of the government’s financial pressure (which, to repeat, has nothing to do with the potential reasonableness of the legal positions litigants seek to assert). The exemption crafted by the court is thus still badly underinclusive. It is also underinclusive by failing to include corporations.  A corporation, I think, cannot be described as “impoverished or in need,” without doing violence to the English language. But corporations do have the right to sue (that’s a large part of what legal personality means), and yet a small corporation can be deterred from suing, or going to trial, by the prospect of the hearing fees just as easily as an individual.

The Court of Appeal’s decision is not only mistaken, I think, but very poorly justified. It is based on misunderstandings of fact and law, and fails to address the serious issues the case raised. It accepts, unthinkingly, the proposition that justice is for sale, even if it says that it must sometimes be given away for free. I can only hope that there will be an appeal, and that the Supreme Court will take it.