Thursday, 3 October 2013

Procedural Fairness before Tribunals of Inquiry: Mr. Chevrette and the Charbonneau Commission

Quebec's Charbonneau Commission is continuing to make headlines. Most recently, the testimony of Ken Pereira, a former trade union activist, is keeping the printing presses tipping over.

The Commission registered an important victory earlier this week before the Superior Court on a question of procedural fairness: Beaulieu c. Charbonneau, 2013 QCCS 4629.

One of the witnesses to the Commission made serious allegations about a former government minister, Mr. Chevrette and an associate of his, Mr. Beaulieu. The two requested the right to cross-examine the witness and Mr. Chevrette asked to be made a party to the Commission (though this request was essentially duplicative of the request to cross-examine the witness). One can understand why: the allegations made headlines for days, despite Mr. Chevrette's vigorous denials of impropriety.

The Commission refused, noting that the two would be called as witnesses at a later date and be able to give evidence. In addition, Mr. Chevrette's former political party was already a party and had the power to cross-examine the witness. In the circumstances, according Mr. Chevrette and Mr. Beaulieu the right to cross-examine the witness was unnecessary.

Roy J. refused the application for judicial review. The Commission argued that its decision, essentially an interpretation of its own procedures, should be subject to deferential review. Roy J., however, saw the question as one of procedural fairness, attracting a standard of correctness (see paras. 12-17). And, taking the five "Baker" factors into account, the level of fairness required was quite high:
[36]        Procédant à pondérer les critères, le Tribunal conclut qu’en raison de la nature de la commission d’enquête, de la nature du régime législatif, de l’importance du rapport pour les personnes visées et de la large publicité des débats, l’étendue de l’équité procédurale est très élevée, bien que distincte de celle qui s’applique au contexte judiciaire
I am sceptical that the Baker factors (nature of the interest, etc: see paras. 18-37) actually add a great deal to determining whether a particular right ought to be accorded. Usually the real test applied (after a perfunctory recital of the Baker factors) is one of necessity: does the individual need to exercise the procedural right at issue (oral hearing, right to counsel, etc) in order to participate fully in the decision-making process? On occasion, considerations of good administration might weigh heavily enough against the individual that a reviewing court will not grant the right requested. But that is not a question on which the Baker factors shed a great deal of light.

Enough editorializing! Roy J. was not impressed by the argument that Mr. Chevrette's interests were adequately protected by cross-examination by his former political party:
[39]        Le fait que le Parti Québécois ait déjà contre-interrogé M. Cloutier n’implique pas nécessairement l’inutilité d’un contre-interrogatoire par MM. Beaulieu et Chevrette. La Commission peut ordonner que plusieurs parties ayant des intérêts similaires soient représentées conjointement et partagent un seul octroi de qualité. Mais les personnes doivent être avisées en temps utile pour pouvoir unir leurs efforts, pas dans une décision postérieure à la tenue du contre-interrogatoire.
[40]        De plus, l’avocat d’un parti politique ne représente pas nécessairement les mêmes intérêts que celui d’un de ses membres. L’argent qu’aurait versé M. Cloutier, selon ses dires, n’était pas au bénéfice du Parti Québécois, mais bien au bénéfice personnel de MM. Beaulieu et Cloutier. D’ailleurs, les procureurs de la Commission ont eux-mêmes fait part de leur inconfort à ce que l’avocate du Parti Québécois représente les intérêts de M. Chevrette et ont souligné que les intérêts de l’un pouvaient diverger des intérêts de l’autre.
Nonetheless, Roy J. found in favour of the Commission. The key reason was that Mr. Chevrette and Mr. Beaulieu would have the opportunity to set the record straight later on, when called as witnesses (although this is only a collateral effect of cross-examination, the true aim of which is to establish the truth: see para. 46). In addition, further investigation by the Commission might lead them to recall the witness:
[42]        Le Tribunal rejette la demande de révision parce que le processus d’enquête n’est pas encore terminé. Le devoir d’équité s’analyse eu égard à l’ensemble du processus d’enquête. Il ne serait pas approprié d’intervenir à titre préventif avant même qu’il n’y ait violation de l’équité procédurale.
[43]        L’équité procédurale garantit certains droits, mais pas celui de choisir le moment de contre-interroger.
Moreover, in the event that the Commission makes negative findings in respect of Mr. Chevrette and Mr. Beaulieu, they will be notified and be given opportunities to respond.

It is interesting to note how Roy J. characterized the claim (at para. 43). It was not a "right to cross-examine" so much as it was a "right to cross-examine immediately". Given the context, it was not necessary to grant the right to cross-examine in order to vindicate the applicants' right to procedural fairness.

This might not be the most ground-breaking procedural fairness case ever decided (though it highlights the (dis)utility of the Baker factors) but it is a big win for the Commission. Had it lost, others shown in a bad light by testimony would doubtless have formed a disorderly queue at the steps of the Superior Court. The printing presses will continue to be busy.

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