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Charter Torts

. Henry v British Columbia (Attorney-General)

In Henry v British Columbia (Attorney-General) (SCC, 2015) the Supreme Court of Canada canvassed the law of Charter damages (lawsuits against government for violating of Charter rights) in the context of a prolonged wrongful incarceration. The plaintiff alleged that the Crown wrongfully withheld evidence from him that might have been applied to exonerate him. The case focussed on whether malice is a necessary element to make out such a case (akin to that requirement in malicious prosecution claims). In holding that malice was not an element in charter damage claims, the court elaborates usefully on the general nature of civil claims for Charter violations:
Does s. 24(1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms authorize a court of competent jurisdiction to award damages against the Crown for prosecutorial misconduct absent proof of malice?

[31] In the context of Mr. Henry’s claims, I would answer this question in the affirmative. Where a claimant seeks Charter damages based on allegations that the Crown’s failure to disclose violated his or her Charter rights, proof of malice is not required. Instead, a cause of action will lie where the Crown, in breach of its constitutional obligations, causes harm to the accused by intentionally withholding information when it knows, or would reasonably be expected to know, that the information is material to the defence and that the failure to disclose will likely impinge on the accused’s ability to make full answer and defence. This represents a high threshold for a successful Charter damages claim, albeit one that is lower than malice.

[32] I will discuss the legal basis and precise scope of this threshold in greater detail below. Briefly, it recognizes that while malice does not provide a useful or workable framework for dealing with allegations of wrongful non-disclosure by prosecutors, the policy underpinnings of this Court’s malicious prosecution jurisprudence inform the proper scope of Crown liability for Charter damages in this context.

[33] I emphasize “this context” because, in my view, it is neither prudent nor necessary to decide whether a similar threshold would apply in circumstances not involving wrongful non-disclosure. Mr. Henry’s claim against the AGBC is rooted in allegations that Crown counsel failed to disclose certain relevant information. It would be unwise to speculate about other types of prosecutorial misconduct that might violate the Charter, or to fix a blanket threshold that governs all such claims against the Crown. The threshold established in this case may well offer guidance in setting the applicable threshold for other types of misconduct, but the prudent course of action is to address new situations in future cases as they arise, with the benefit of a factual record and submissions.

B. Ward Provides the Governing Legal Framework

[34] Under s. 24(1) of the Charter,
[a]nyone whose rights or freedoms . . . 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.
In Ward, this Court recognized that the language of s. 24(1) is broad enough to encompass damage claims for Charter breaches. Such claims are brought by an individual as a public law action directed against the state for violations of the claimant’s constitutional rights.

[35] Charter damages are a powerful tool that can provide a meaningful response to rights violations. They also represent an evolving area of the law that must be allowed to “develop incrementally”: Ward, at para. 21. When defining the circumstances in which a Charter damages award would be appropriate and just, courts must therefore be careful not to stifle the emergence and development of this important remedy.

[36] However, Charter damages are not a silver bullet. They are just one of many remedies that may be available to individuals whose Charter rights have been breached, and their availability is not without limit. In Ward, the Chief Justice outlined a four-step framework to determine the state’s liability for Charter damages:
The first step in the inquiry is to establish that a Charter right has been breached. The second step is to show why damages are a just and appropriate remedy, having regard to whether they would fulfill one or more of the related functions of compensation, vindication of the right, and/or deterrence of future breaches. At the third step, the state has the opportunity to demonstrate, if it can, that countervailing factors defeat the functional considerations that support a damage award and render damages inappropriate or unjust. The final step is to assess the quantum of the damages. [para. 4]
[37] Under this framework, the claimant bears the initial burden of making out a prima facie case. The claimant must demonstrate that the state has breached one of his or her Charter rights and that an award of damages would serve a compensation, vindication, or deterrence function. Once that burden is met, the onus shifts to the state to rebut the claimant’s case based on countervailing considerations. The Chief Justice identified two important countervailing considerations, while maintaining that a “complete catalogue” of such considerations would be elaborated over time: Ward, at para. 33.

[38] The first countervailing consideration is the existence of alternative remedies. Section 24(1) is a broad remedial provision that provides a range of responses to Charter violations beyond a monetary award. In addition, there may be substantial overlap between private law and s. 24(1) actions against the government. Where the state can show that another remedy is available to effectively address a Charter breach — whether under the Charter or in private law — a damages claim may be defeated at the third step of Ward. For instance, if a declaration of a Charter breach would adequately achieve the objectives that would otherwise be served by a damages award, then granting damages as well as a declaration would be superfluous, and therefore inappropriate and unjust in the circumstances: Ward, at para. 37.

[39] The second countervailing consideration — and the one at issue in this case — relates to concerns over good governance. Ward does not define the phrase “[g]ood governance concerns” (para. 38), but it serves as a compendious term for the policy factors that will justify restricting the state’s exposure to civil liability. As the Chief Justice observed:
In some situations, . . . the state may establish that an award of Charter damages would interfere with good governance such that damages should not be awarded unless the state conduct meets a minimum threshold of gravity. [Emphasis added; para. 39.]
This is precisely what the AGBC, the AGC, and the numerous intervening Attorneys General argue in this case. There is a common theme driving their submissions: if the threshold of gravity is set too low for a Charter damages claim alleging Crown misconduct, the ability of prosecutors to discharge their important public duties will be undermined, with adverse consequences for the administration of justice.

[40] This theme finds expression in a number of specific policy concerns. For example, the Attorneys General argue that the spectre of liability may influence the decision-making of prosecutors and make them more “defensive” in their approach. The public interest is not well served when Crown counsel are motivated by fear of civil liability, rather than their sworn duty to fairly and effectively prosecute crime. By the same token, the Attorneys General suggest that a low threshold would open up the floodgates of civil liability and force prosecutors to spend undue amounts of time and energy defending their conduct in court instead of performing their duties.

[41] As I will explain, these concerns are very real, and they provide compelling reasons why the availability of Charter damages should be circumscribed through the establishment of a high threshold.

[42] Ward provides an example of a prior case where a heightened per se liability threshold was justified by policy reasons. In Mackin v. New Brunswick (Minister of Finance), 2002 SCC 13 (CanLII), [2002] 1 S.C.R. 405, this Court held that Charter damages were unavailable for state action taken pursuant to a law, considered valid at the time but later declared invalid, unless the state action was “clearly wrong, in bad faith or an abuse of power” (para. 78). In other words, state actors were afforded a limited immunity for actions taken in good faith under a law they believed to be valid. Citing Mackin, the Chief Justice in Ward noted that, “absent threshold misconduct”, no cause of action for Charter damages will lie in these circumstances (para. 39).

[43] When a heightened per se liability threshold has been imposed, this will have consequences at the pleadings stage. To survive a motion to strike, a claimant must plead sufficient facts to disclose a reasonable cause of action: see R. v. Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., 2011 SCC 42 (CanLII), [2011] 3 S.C.R. 45. If the alleged Charter violation occurs in a context where courts have imposed a heightened per se liability threshold, the claimant must particularize facts that, if proven, would be sufficient to establish that the state conduct met the required threshold of gravity. The failure to do so will be fatal to the claim. With these principles in mind, I turn to the applicable threshold for wrongful non-disclosure by prosecutors.

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