Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Opening Closed Doors: Fédération autonome de l'enseignement c. Commission scolaire de Laval, 2014 QCCA 591

A background check on a teacher reveals criminal history. He is fired by the elected members of the local school board after a meeting held behind closed doors. He contests the decision and seeks to question three of the commissioners before an arbitrator. They refuse, citing privilege. Unsuccessfully, as it turns out: Fédération autonome de l'enseignement c. Commission scolaire de Laval, 2014 QCCA 591.

For the majority of the Quebec Court of Appeal, Bich J.A. rejected the claim of privilege.

She began by noting the importance of the testimony of the commissioners. Although their decision was rendered in the name of the school board, they were the ones capable of shedding light on the decision-making process and reasons taken into account:
[69]        Puisque ce sont eux qui connaissent les faits de l’affaire (même si techniquement la décision est celle de la commission), il paraît donc pertinent d’interroger les commissaires qui ont adopté la résolution du 29 juin 2009 sur le contenu de celle-ci, le processus qu’ils ont suivi afin d’en venir à cette décision, les motifs du renvoi, la nature de leurs discussions à ce sujet, etc., ce qui permettra de statuer sur la validité et l'opportunité du congédiement au regard de la loi et des dispositions de forme et de fond de la convention collective.
Significantly, the school board was unable to rely on any recognized class of privilege to rebut the presumption against secrecy (para. 70).

Public interest immunity was also unavailable. Bich J.A. noted that in Dunsmuir, the Supreme Court of Canada had emphasized that employees in contractual relationships are not, generally, subject to public law procedural protections. The flipside, she reasoned, was that the employer could not for its part claim the benefit of public interest immunity:
[80]        Il résulte de tout cela, logiquement, que si l’organisme étatique, à titre d’employeur, est considéré comme un employeur privé et n’est pas tenu de respecter les règles de droit public applicables aux décisions de l’administration, il ne peut pas non plus, dans sa relation avec les salariés ou le syndicat qui représente ces derniers, revendiquer les privilèges, immunités ou quasi-immunités qui sont ordinairement rattachés à sa qualité de corps public (sauf disposition législative ou conventionnelle précise).
Was there any other reason that the arbitrator could not ask questions of the commissioners? In particular, did they benefit from the immunity sometimes enjoyed by adjudicative bodies and elected representatives? Bich J.A. was unpersuaded. Bodies enjoying immunity typically take decisions that are judicial or legislative in nature. Quite properly, one cannot interrogate a judge on the reasons for a decision, or a parliamentarian on the basis for voting for legislation.

But the school board fell in a different category. Its decision was neither judicial nor legislative in nature. Moreover, the school board's unilateral, contractual decision was not transformed into a judicial or quasi-judicial one by virtue of the fact that it had respected the rules of procedural fairness:
[92]        La situation de l’espèce se distingue nettement de celle qui était en cause dans l’arrêt Clearwater. D’une part, le débat ne porte pas sur la compétence de la commission de procéder au congédiement et la preuve que l’on cherche à obtenir a tout à voir avec l’enjeu du litige. D’autre part, la commission scolaire qui, par l'entremise de son comité exécutif, prend, par voie de résolution, la décision de remercier un salarié de ses services n'exerce pas une fonction législative, réglementaire ou politique. Elle n'exerce pas non plus une fonction discrétionnaire. Surtout, elle n’exerce pas, ce faisant, une fonction publique : en prenant la décision de congédier le salarié, elle « ne fait qu’exercer ses droits privés à titre d’employeur » (Dunsmuir, paragr. 103) et ne peut être assimilée à un « corps législatif »....
[126]     Or, la décision de congédiement, en l’espèce, n'a pas été prise dans l'exercice d'une fonction juridictionnelle, et ce, même si, dans le respect d'une certaine équité procédurale, le comité exécutif a préalablement entendu le syndicat et l'enseignant. Qu’il ait agi ainsi ne fait pas qu’il a exercé une fonction juridictionnelle et ne transforme pas la nature de ce qui est une décision essentiellement unilatérale et contractuelle. Ce n’est pas là-dessus que l’employeur peut asseoir un quelconque « secret du délibéré ».
Interestingly, Bich J.A. applied a standard of correctness to the arbitrator's decision, on the basis that the privilege claim was a question of general law of central importance to the legal system outside the expertise of the arbitrator. It would apply across a whole range of decision-makers and could be raised equally before courts and administrative decision-makers, which pointed to the need for a uniform response:
[49]        Ces questions se révèlent importantes pour l'administration de la justice au sens large... Ce sont des questions touchant l’ensemble des décisions prises par les corps publics (voire même privés) agissant par l’entremise d’organes décisionnels collectifs (conseil municipal ou conseil scolaire, comité exécutif d’une municipalité ou d’une commission scolaire, conseil d’administration ou comité exécutif d’une société, par exemple). Ce sont également...des questions susceptibles d’être soulevées (et qui d’ailleurs l’ont été) devant les cours de justice autant que les tribunaux administratifs et qui exigent une réponse uniforme.
The issue is similar to that raised before the Federal Court of Appeal in Slansky v. Canadian Judicial Council, 2013 FCA 199 (blogged here). There, Stratas J.A. dissented on the basis that allowing a claim of public interest immunity would prevent a reviewing court from doing its job. Much the same logic applies here, though at one remove. Without hearing testimony from the commissioners, the arbitrator could not give a fully reasoned decision. And without a fully reasoned decision from the arbitrator, a reviewing court could not assess the reasonableness of the arbitrator's decision (or the reasonableness of the school board's decision, had the applicant foregone arbitration).

Gagnon J.A. dissented, taking a different view of the pertinence of the commissioners' testimony. In his view, there was enough in the record before the arbitrator to determine whether the grievance was well-founded.

UPDATE: The following passage from the speech of Lord Toulson in Kennedy v. The Charity Commission, [2014] UKSC 20 touches on the same theme as Bich J.A.'s majority reasons:
The considerations which underlie the open justice principle in relation to judicial proceedings apply also to those charged by Parliament with responsibility for conducting quasi-judicial inquiries and hearings. How is an unenlightened public to have confidence that the responsibilities for conducting quasi-judicial inquiries are properly discharged?
The application of the open justice principle may vary considerably according to the nature and subject matter of the inquiry. A statutory inquiry may not necessarily involve a hearing. It may, for example, be conducted through interviews or on paper or both. It may involve information or evidence being given in confidence. The subject matter may be of much greater public interest or importance in some cases than in others. These are all valid considerations but, as I say, they go to the application and not the existence of the principle...To the extent that an enactment contains provisions about the disclosure of documents or information, such provisions have the force of law. But to the extent that Parliament has not done so, it must be for the statutory body to decide questions of disclosure, subject to the supervision of the court. I do not see the absence of a prior statement by the courts that in general the principle of openness should apply, subject to any statutory provisions and subject to any countervailing reasons, as a convincing reason for not saying so now. Principles of natural justice have been developed by the courts as a matter of common law and do not depend on being contained in a statutory code. As with natural justice, so with open justice.
Given that a decision by a public authority about disclosure of information or documents regarding a statutory inquiry is capable of judicial review, what should be the standard of review? The normal standard applied by a court reviewing a decision of a statutory body is whether it was unreasonable in the Wednesbury sense (ie beyond rational justification), but we are not here concerned with a decision as to the outcome of the inquiry. We are concerned with its transparency. If there is a challenge to the High Court against a refusal of disclosure by a lower court or tribunal, the High Court would decide for itself the question whether the open justice principle required disclosure. Guardian News provides an example. I do not see a good reason for adopting a different approach in the case of a statutory inquiry, but the court should give due weight to the decision and, more particularly, the reasons given by the public authority (in the same way that it would to the decision and reasons of a lower court or tribunal). The reason for the High Court deciding itself whether the open justice principle requires disclosure of the relevant information is linked to the reason for the principle. It is in the interests of public confidence that the higher court should exercise its own judgment in the matter and that information which it considers ought to be disclosed is disclosed.
On this approach, open justice is a general principle enforced in the first instance by administrative decision-makers but subject to rigorous enforcement by reviewing courts, albeit with weight given to the views of the administrative decision-maker.

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