Monday, 11 February 2013

Questions and Answers: Procedural Fairness

In Barreau du Québec c. Khan, 2011 QCCA 792, the Québec Court of Appeal held that a student who failed a bar exam was entitled to look over her exam, answer booklet, answer key and correction grid and to take notes while doing so.

With its decision in Ordre des infirmières et infirmiers du Québec c. Ngoya Tupemunyi, 2013 QCCA 134, the Court has gone even further. The issue was whether procedural fairness required the disclosure of an exam and answer key to allow the individual concerned to properly respond to the recommendations of disciplinary inquiry.

A complaint was made about a nurse; the matter was duly referred to an inspection committee. Although the committee did not feel that the allegations justified a full-fledged investigation, they nonetheless proceeded to examine the general competence of the nurse. Based on a meeting with the nurse, and the nurse's responses to a series of questions, two investigators recommended that she be ordered to take measures to improve her competence:
En conclusion, les données recueillies lors de l'entrevue de Mme Ngoya, ainsi que les résultats obtenus pour les quatre situations cliniques de type EOS et les cinq situations de l'examen écrit, mettent en lumière un besoin de perfectionnement en soins infirmiers chez cette dernière, afin qu'elle puisse assumer ses responsabilités professionnelles de façon sécuritaire.
Having considered this recommendation and representations from the nurse, the inspection committee of the Ordre des infirmières et infirmiers du Québec recommended that she complete further supervised training (stage) and study (cours de perfectionnement). The nurse was again permitted to make representations before the executive committee, which ultimately substantially adopted the recommendations of the inspection committee.

It is important to note that her right to practice as a nurse was suspended pending completion of the requirements imposed by the executive committee. In addition, although she was given access to the report of the investigators, she was never given access to the exam questions and answers on which the report was based. This was at the heart of the case.

Gascon J.C.A., delivering the judgment of the Court, began by emphasizing the personal interests of the nurse. These required that a high level of procedural fairness be imposed:
[27]        Ici, pour  emprunter les mots de la juge L'Heureux-Dubé [dans Baker] auxquels réfère le juge Rochette [dans Khan], il m'apparaît indéniable que la décision que le CE était appelé à rendre se voulait « importante pour la vie des personnes visées » et que « ses répercussions [étaient] grandes pour ces personnes ». Dans un tel cas, « les protections procédurales requises sont rigoureuses » et une personne dans la situation de l'intimée est en droit de s'attendre à une grande transparence dans le processus suivi.
[31]        Les conséquences qui peuvent découler d'une décision du CE sont donc importantes. Elles peuvent mettre en jeu le droit d'un membre d'exercer sa profession. Il est logique que le CE soit soumis à des exigences procédurales rigoureuses. 
I suppose it is logical that if a high level of procedural fairness is to be demanded when individuals have not yet entered a profession, a still higher level must be required once individuals are in a profession and their ability to practice is suspended or removed for all time. That said, there is surely a distinction between a suspension for the purposes of self-improvement and complete removal from a profession; the highest level of procedural protection should apply to the latter, but not necessarily to the former.

In any event, Gascon J.C.A. held that the nurse was entitled to disclosure of the questions and answers. The report on its own was insufficient, being only a subjective assessment of the answers given:
[32]        Dans cette perspective, j'estime que l'intimée est en droit de réclamer plus que la seule communication du rapport d'inspection. Ce rapport, bien que détaillé, n'en reste pas moins une analyse et une interprétation subjectives par les inspectrices des résultats obtenus par l'intimée à l'examen d'inspection individuelle. L'intimée veut un accès aux questions et réponses de cet examen telles que formulées, de manière à pouvoir se défendre adéquatement face à la décision envisagée par le CE de lui imposer un stage et un cours de perfectionnement et de limiter son droit d'exercice.
[33]        Devant la lourdeur des conséquences que la décision du CE peut avoir sur le droit de pratique de l'intimée, je considère légitime de lui accorder au moins ce droit de consultation, de façon à ce qu'elle ne soit pas privée, comme le note correctement le premier juge, « de son droit de pouvoir présenter […] des commentaires et observations judicieux à l'égard de la résolution du CIP et de sa recommandation adressée au Comité, puis à l'égard de la résolution que s'apprête à émettre le Comité ».
Gascon J.C.A. drew an analogy with the right to full answer and defence which is given to individuals who are subject to formal disciplinary procedures. However, the fact that these procedures are statutorily mandated -- and that no equivalent procedures attach to investigations such as the one at issue -- surely weakens the analogy. Admittedly, it is not fatal, given the reluctance of Canadian courts to allow statutory provisions to oust the protections mandated by common law procedural fairness. But it does re-emphasize the fact that these were not formal disciplinary proceedings; accordingly, one might think that procedural fairness should require less of the decision-maker.

The other arguments of the Ordre fared little better, with the result that the nurse will have another shot at convincing the executive committee not to adopt the recommendations of the inspection committee. This is sure to be a key case relied on by counsel in disciplinary proceedings and, indeed, in any situation where disclosure is sought.

UPDATE: Contrast the conclusion of Léger J. in another recent case, Chez Couture et Ami(es) Inc v New-Brunswick, 2012 NBQB 356, which was about the closure of a special care home operated by the applicants:
[62]                 As was mentioned, the applicants did not receive the investigation report, nor the details of the notes taken during the investigation. Taking into account the particular circumstances of this proceeding, including the confidential elements of the investigation, I find that the applicants received sufficient information to allow them to respond fully and completely to the allegations made against them. In my opinion, the duty of procedural fairness in the specific circumstances of the instant case does not require the disclosure of the details of the investigation. The applicants were informed of the essential information and of the elements upon which the Minister based her decision. The fact that the applicants did not receive the details of the investigation, nor the investigation report, does not, in the specific circumstances of the instant case, represent a failure to meet the duty of procedural fairness. The applicants’ participatory rights were reasonable. The applicants could not reasonably expect to be informed of all the details, given the elements of confidentiality surrounding the information collected during the investigation conducted by the Department. The applicants did, however, receive, without all the details, the essential findings of the investigation, in a manner that was adequate for them to be able to respond fully and adequately to the allegations made against them. Indeed, this is what the applicants did: after consulting their counsel, they responded in writing to the allegations against them.



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