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.

The Prerogative of High-Handedness

Today, the Federal Court of Canada has issued its decision in Turp v. Canada (Justice), 2012 FC 893, rejecting Daniel Turp’s challenge to the federal government’s decision to withdraw Canada from the Kyoto Protocol. Unambiguously correct in law, this decision illustrates the importance of politics, and the limits of the power of the courts to hold governments to account.

Mr. Turp contended that the decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol was a violation of the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act (KPIA) enacted by Parliament in 2007 and of the constitutional principles of the Rule of Law, separation of powers, and democracy. The government argued that it acted pursuant to the royal prerogative which gives the executive broad authority to conduct foreign affairs, including to enter in and withdraw from treaties, and that constitutional principles did not reduce this discretion.

The court acknowledged that a statute such as the KPIA can limit royal prerogative and direct the government’s action in an area where the prerogative, in the absence of legislation, would have made it discretionary. Such a limitation must, however, be expressed with some (though it is perhaps not clear how much) clarity. After examining the KPIA, the court finds that it simply does not do this. While its stated purpose is to ensure that Canada meets its obligations under the Kyoto protocol, the court points out that “the government’s decision to withdraw from the Protocol is clearly provided by article 27 of that Protocol and thus the government was in compliance with it.” Furthermore, the obligations the KPIA itself imposed on the government were not justiciable, and the statute has anyway now been repealed. There is no violation either of the statute or of the Rule of Law principle.

The court made short work of the remaining arguments based on the principles of separation of powers and democracy. Separation of powers is not infringed since the power to decide to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol remained with the executive, not having been removed from it by statute. And any decision to consult Parliament, as the government had done before ratifying the Kyoto Protocol in 2002, is strictly voluntary. It is not constitutionally required.

In the realm of foreign policy, the government is for the most part constitutionally free to be stupid, to be high-handed, to act in disregard of Parliament’s wishes. It is for Parliament, and ultimately for the voters, to find remedies for these problems. Mr. Turp apparently intends to appeal, but he would be well advised not to waste his time and money on judicial battles, and to save his energy for politics.

Constitutional Implications

I have come across a fairly interesting new article, “A Comparative Analysis of the Doctrinal Consequences of Interpretive Disagreements for Implied Constitutional Rights,” by Zoë Robinson, of DePaul University’s College of Law. On the basis of a comparison between Australia and the United States, specifically between the development of a right to free political communication in Australia and the right to abortion in the U.S., Prof. Robinson argues that judicial implication is a rather ineffective way of  protecting rights. Implication of rights is always the result of dubious interpretive methods; it is vulnerable to criticism, which makes judges self-conscious; it also results in “a paucity of interpretive resources which could support doctrinal developments” (96). I think prof. Robinson is right, as an empirical matter, about the weakness of implied rights, but I doubt that her explanations for it are sufficient, or even correct.

To help us think about the problem of implied rights, it is useful to cast a wider net than prof. Robinson does. One way of doing this is to bring Canada into the comparison. We have, after all, our own “implied bill of rights,” consisting mostly of the freedom of (political) speech. Another, which reflecting on implication in Canadian constitutional law suggests, is to compare implied rights not to “express” rights, as prof. Robinson does, but to other implied constitutional rules, which in Canada we know as “underlying constitutional principles,” and which also exist in American law (the separation of powers jurisprudence is, for example, built on the implications of the three-branch structure of government created by Articles I, II, and III of the U.S. Constitution).

The story of Canadian “implied bill of rights” cases seems to suggest that prof. Robinson may well be right. Despite high-minded rhetoric and apparent promise, the idea of rights implicit in the preamble of, or the institutions created by, the Constitution Act, 1867, was never endorsed by a majority of the Supreme Court, and never served as the actual ratio decidendi of a case; it was always raised in obiter by, at most, a couple of judges at a time. While lauded by some academics, notably F.R. Scott, it was criticized by others, notably Bora Laskin. And in the late 1970s, the Supreme Court came to reject it, in Dupond v. City of Montreal, [1978] 2 S.C.R. 770, (though justice Laskin, ironically, dissented). Despite this rejection, and the subsequent coming into force of the Charter, the “implied bill of rights” is not quite dead and buried (Justice Lebel, for example, referred to it with approval in his concurring opinion in R. v. Demers, 2004 SCC 46, [2004] 2 S.C.R. 489), but there is not much life in it either.

Yet looking at underlying constitutional principles provides a useful contrast. You’d think that they would be affected by the same problems as implied rights – dubious origins, vulnerability to criticism, impossibility to develop into something jurisprudentially useful. And to some extent they certainly are. They have indeed been criticized – for example, in a scathing paper by Université de Montréal’s Jean Leclair – and the Supreme Court’s unanimous, and dismissive, almost contemptuous, rejection of underlying principles as source of implied constitutional protections in British Columbia v. Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 S.C.R. 473, seems to confirm that implication is not a reliable source of rights. But that’s not the whole story of underlying principles. They have been applied to powerful effect in judicial independence cases (indeed, it is certainly arguable that the Supreme Court has gone too far with the principle of judicial independence), and also in the Manitoba Language Rights reference, [1985] 1 S.C.R. 721,  in which the Supreme Court managed to declare unconstitutional Manitoba’s entire statute book unconstitutional for not being enacted in both official languages without creating chaos, by the device of suspending the declaration of invalidity, in the name of the underlying principle of the Rule of Law.

What the cases involving underlying principles seem to suggest is that these principles are more easily used to work out fundamentals of constitutional structure than individual rights. The situation in America, at least as I understand it, confirms this thought, since separation of powers cases there seem to excite nowhere near the same degree of hostility, and to be subject to nowhere near the same degree of judicial self-doubt, as cases that can be described as involving implied rights. Why this should be so, I do not quite understand. Perhaps it is merely because rights cases are more high-profile and (or because) more intelligible to the layperson than structural cases. Perhaps there are other reasons why courts are more confident in their ability to get constitutional structure right than individual rights. However that may be, implied constitutional rules are not bound to be anemic and fruitless. If implied constitutional rights are, there ought to be some further explanation, specific to rights themselves, and not applicable to all constitutional implications.

See You in Court!

This is the second part of my comments on the BC Supreme Court’s judgment striking down hearing fees the province imposed on litigants who wanted to go to trial, which I summarized here. Yesterday, I wrote about he separation of powers line of argument in Justice McEwan’s reasons. I turn now to the suggestion, which also runs through his judgment, that there is something like an individual right to go to court.

The Charter, of course, contains no such right. Well, at least not generally. Subs. 24(1) does provide, however, that “[a]nyone whose rights or freedoms, as guaranteed by this Charter, have been infringed or denied may apply to a court of competent jurisdiction to obtain such remedy as the court considers appropriate and just in the circumstances.” Still, if that’s a right to go to court – that’s what it sounds like to me – it’s a narrow one. Most cases have nothing to do with the Charter. The dispute before Justice McEwan was about child custody, and before the question of the fees arose, the Charter was not at issue at all.

Justice McEwan makes two main arguments for why there is a right to go to court, and it is a general one. The first is that going to court is a form of democratic participation, protected by the democratic principle of the constitution. The second is that it is a feature of our constitutional order and a requirement of the Rule of Law. Continue reading “See You in Court!”