Wednesday, 15 October 2014

When all else fails, accuse someone of a conflict of interest

Gary Mason offers a forceful critique of the BC Liberals' handing of the South Okanagan Park in today's Globe and Mail.
But his analysis contains an important flaw.  He accuses someone of a conflict of interest without stating any  plausible grounds for such an accusation.  The error is in these paragraphs:
My sense is there is zero appetite in Victoria to do anything about the new demands for a national park. In fact, the government recently illustrated its disdain for those advocating for the park by naming one of its most vocal detractors, Greg Norton, to the Agricultural Land Commission’s Okanagan Region panel.
If this isn’t a conflict of interest, I don’t know what is. I can just imagine the howls from some ranchers in the area had a park advocate been named to the same panel. It wouldn’t be allowed to stand, and neither should Mr. Norton’s appointment. There are parcels of the proposed park that are in the Agricultural Land Reserve; the ALR and its area commissioners would obviously have a say in the fate of those lands.
It’s inconceivable that the government didn’t know of Mr. Norton’s virulent opposition to the park at the time of his appointment. He has been the face and voice of the “Grasslands Coalition” that has actively fought against it. If the people of the South Okanagan needed any more proof of where the Liberal’s stand on Parks Canada’s proposal, they have it now.
 I'm tempted to say that whenever someone makes the statement "If this isn't a conflict of interest, I don't know what is," we should all put on our skeptic specs.  Nothing in Mr. Mason's analysis even begins to make a case for conflict of interest.

Being strongly opposed to something does not create a conflict of interest.  Holding strong views on an issue which you are then given responsibility over by appointment to a tribunal does not create a conflict of interest.  It may, if certain other circumstances are present, be the start of a complaint about bias.  But that's not Mr. Mason's complaint.

A conflict of interest exists when there is a conflict between a private interest and a public duty, such that your ability to discharge your public duty may be tainted by your private interest.  "Private interest" in this context is not the same as "holding an opinion".  A conflict would arise if Mr. Norton owed his livelihood to his opposition to the park proposal and then was given a quasi-judicial or political role in respect of the park status.  A judge who owns shares in a company should not decide a case involving that company.  A politician who owes money to a constituent should not advocate for that constituent.  No such facts are alleged in Mr. Mason's article.   All that we know is that Mr. Norton has strong views about the park.  That's not enough.

(To be clear, I don't know Mr. Norton, and have no strong opinion on the proposed park.)

Mr. Mason may not like Mr. Norton's appointment.   But I think does his own argument a disservice by making an accusation that has no substance.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Two more observations about the court hearing fees decision

Two more points about the court hearing fees decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General) 2014 SCC 59.


The decision creates an asymmetrical principle of access to justice. 

The majority held that there is a constitutional right of access to the province’s superior courts. 

This right is grounded in section 96 of the 1867 Constitution Act, buttressed by the so-called unwritten principle of the rule of law.  Section 96 deals with the appointment of judges to the provincial superior courts.  (In our province this is the Supreme Court of British Columbia.)  It has no application to provincial courts.  Accordingly, while there is a constitutional right of access to the superior courts, there is no such right of access to provincial courts.  Litigants who may wish to complain about the difficulty of access to provincial court justice will not be able to rely upon this decision.

Interestingly, there are no hearing fees in provincial court. 

And in fact, you can deal with most family law issues in provincial court.  Including custody, for example, which was the major issue in the trial in this case.  There was a property issue that could only be decided in a superior court, but the issue that took the most time at this trial was a question of custody.  There is surely some irony in the fact that the major issue in this case could have been decided in a provincial court where there are no hearing fees.


The $3500 court hearing fee was held to be unconstitutional because, in the words of the majority, “for many litigants [payment of the fee] would require sacrificing reasonable expenses.”

I don’t disagree that litigation is expensive, unbearably so for most people, but it’s not the hearing fee that is the real problem.

Somehow or other, no one thought to ask about lawyer fees.  In this case, of course, the litigants were not represented by counsel.  What if they had been?  Well, it’s not easy to estimate the legal fees for a ten-day trial.  But I can make some conservative assumptions.  One is that a ten-day trial is the culmination of approximately 30 days of preparation, a three to one factor.  Two, that a ten day trial should have a lawyer of some experience, and so I will assume that the lawyer is charging $250 per hour, and only charging for 8 hour days.  (In the heat of trial, lawyers often work 10 or 12 hours a day.  $250 per hour would buy you a very junior lawyer in downtown Vancouver, but probably would buy you a lawyer of considerable experience in other communities in BC.).  Simple arithmetic.  The legal fees for one party for a ten-day trial would be $80,000.

So what it is that really restricts access to justice – the $3500 hearing fee or the $80,000 legal bill?

And yes, careful readers will note I left something out.  The tax on legal fees. Which, for $80,000 in fees, would be $9600 – GST and PST.

Now you may not like those taxes.  But what we know about them is that there was a constitutional challenge to them in a case called Christie. The Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the challenge. As the majority in Trial Lawyers says, “The tax at issue in Christie, on the evidence and arguments adduced, was not shown to have a similar impact.”  That is, while the hearing fee “has the potential to bar litigants with legitimate claims from the courts”, the tax did not.

Apparently the $9600 tax is not offensive to the constitution, but the $3500 hearing fee is.  Go figure.

Friday, 10 October 2014

We need a wider vision of Vancouver's economy

As published in the Vancouver Province today (October 10).

A friend asked me what I thought the ballot-box question will be in next month’s civic election in Vancouver.

It’s a great question.

The emerging narratives of the two principal contestants do not really intersect.

Gregor Robertson’s Vision Vancouver trumpets its Greenest City agenda.

So far, Kirk LaPointe’s NPA seems mainly focused on tapping into Vision resentment; more a complaint about process than substance, perhaps, but a resonant complaint nonetheless.

Any government seeking a third term will have done something somewhere along the way to annoy just about everyone. And Vision politicians have not always been very good about including the rest of us citizens in their policy journey, so there’s a lot of grumpy folks out there.

Are there enough for the NPA to displace Vision in city hall? Is that enough of a vision to kick Vision out?

The Vision campaign is single-minded in its focus on the Greenest City agenda. I actually agree with much of it. Yes, even bike lanes. Most of them, anyway.

But here’s the rub.

Vancouver’s prosperity is, in fact, largely dependent upon the provincial resource economy.

You will not see any acknowledgment of that reality in Vision’s plan. When it comes to the economy,

Vision talks about the city it wants Vancouver to be, and ignores the city that is.

This disconnect is not trivial.

The resource economy has been the foundation of our city’s prosperity for generations and still is. In GDP terms, B.C.’s natural resources were worth $5,200 per resident in 2013.

Vancouverites know our economy still depends upon quality, high-skilled, well-paying jobs in forestry, mining, oil and gas, engineering, construction, electricity generation and more.

A new study from Resource Works will show the profound impact resource-company spending has in the Lower Mainland.

The so-called green economy — the film studios, social media companies, free trade coffee roasters, gamers and biotech geniuses — plays an increasing role, but has not taken over yet.

Moreover, resource jobs are often urban, high-tech and green. A flood of job-ready young people goes forward every year to take up work in fields like environmental engineering, geology and all kinds of technical areas.

Innovations in mining and oil-and-gas extraction have meant $258 million in annual research-and-development spending across B.C., easily surpassing such spending in the information and culture industries.

So here’s the point.

Why do we have to choose? Why can’t we have both? Why can’t Vancouver be both a progressive “green” city and one that thrives on responsible development of our province’s abundant resources?

Gregor Robertson looks out at our harbour filled with ships from around the world and sees, oh, I don’t know, relics? A threat?

Or maybe he just wishes they would all go away?

I look out at that harbour and see the Vancouver which is here and now, and the Vancouver that can be our future, along with all the exciting new industries.

Surely there is a vision for our economy that embraces all of these opportunities.

Does the NPA have something to say about that?

Perhaps the ballot box question is this: which civic party has a plan that supports and encourages all sectors of economic opportunity for Vancouver?

Friday, 3 October 2014

Access to justice: two steps backward

Today in a case called Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the court hearing fees imposed by the BC government for Supreme Court civil cases.  According to the court the fee scheme is unconstitutional because it places “an undue hardship on litigants and impedes the right of British Columbians to bring legitimate cases to court.”

Many have already applauded the decision as a victory for access to justice.  Certainly, the Supreme Court intends by its ruling to make access to courts more affordable. And not just for the truly impoverished, but for anyone who would have to “sacrifice reasonable expenses” to bring a claim.

That is the court’s intent.  But it is not what will happen.  This decision, intended to improve access to justice, will almost certainly make justice less accessible.  For everyone.  

Here’s why.

The court made new law.  It expanded the reach of section 96 of the 1867 Constitution Act, which deals with the power of appointment to superior courts, and it read new constraints into section 92(14), which gives the provinces the responsibility for the administration of justice.  And it invoked so-called unwritten constitutional principles - in particular, the rule of law - to buttresss its view that hearing fees that deny people access to the courts “infringe the core jurisdiction of the superior courts.”  The result is that section 96 is read - more broadly than before - as implying a constitutionally guaranteed access to courts.  

Why is this a problem?  When the court makes new law like this the result, naturally, is more litigation, especially, when, as here, there is no support in the written words of the Constitution for the new principle.  And so we will see more litigation.  The kind of litigation that is inherently slow, complex, expensive, uncertain, and unpredictable.  Litigation that will place demands on the court system, displacing other, more pedestrian claims.  

More importantly, however, we will see court challenges that rely on this decision - the constitutional right of access to justice in particular - to oppose any government reforms intended to improve justice system efficiency.  Such reforms are always attacked by lawyer interest groups as a restraint on access to the courts.  Now such attacks will be made as legal arguments in courts.  

And courts themselves will have fewer tools to manage the cases before them: such tools, themselves, will be attacked by trial counsel as an assault on the fundamental right of all citizens to have their day in court.

There’s more.  The majority holds that hearing fees must be coupled with an exemption that allows judges to waive them in any case where “they would effectively prevent access to the courts because they require litigants to forgo reasonable expenses in order to bring claims.”  The result, of course, will be a proliferation of applications for exemption.  These applications will be supported by evidence - affidavits, and in person testimony - so judges can decide what is, and is not a “reasonable expense” for the claimant.  More applications, more court arguments, more court days spent dealing with such arguments, more experts called as witnesses to give evidence on what is, and is not, a “reasonable expense.”  And so on.  Textbooks will be written on the appellate court decisions that will have to interpret these exceptions.  Law conferences will be held.  The increased burden of this additional litigation, will not, of course, fall on the wealthy.  It will fall, one way or the other, on those who are not. 

And then there is the bit that, as the dissenting judge, Rothstein J. pointed out, is completely missing from the majority analysis:

“The majority looks at the question solely from the point of view of the party to litigation required to undertake to pay the hearing fee.  It does not consider, and has no basis or evidence upon which to consider, the questions of the financing of court services or the impact of reduced revenues from reducing, abolishing, or expanding the exemption from paying hearing fees…. How will the government deal with reduced revenues from hearing fees?  Should it reduce the provision of sort services?  Should it reduce the provision of other government services, Should it raise taxes?  Should it incur debt?”

Many of these options, if pursued, will necessarily compromise access to justice.  There will be fewer courtrooms, or fewer judges or fewer support staff.  (Or at least there will be until these resource allocation decisions are themselves challenged in court on the basis of the same principles created to decide this case!)  Because governments are of limited means - not just by whim, but by strong direction from their electors.  And every time the court invents new constitutional doctrine to impose new spending priorities on government, funding for something else, something that does not enjoy the benefit of constitutional protection, is at risk.

Access to justice is a laudable goal.  Today’s Supreme Court of Canada decision made it less reachable.