Choosing the right forum is half the battle
Gone are the days when getting justice in your dispute meant you had to face the regular court system. Now, it seems like everybody is a judge of something and quasi-judicial entities abound. Organizations have internal panels to handle complaints. Administrative agencies have specialized tribunals to deal with industry-specific issues. Courts appreciate the wisdom of a less expensive and uniquely-oriented body having first crack at an issue that can only reach a judge on appeal.
In the educational context, the common first move in court by counsel for institutions is to argue the dispute should not be heard by the court; that is, the court should decline to exercise its jurisdiction in this matter because it is more properly dealt with elsewhere. Where a dispute has already been heard before a specialized tribunal (e.g. a university senate committee), courts will defer largely to that tribunal’s judgment.
Many of the issues that arise within education law involve an apparent overlap in jurisdiction between several adjudicative bodies. Several recent judgments show courts declining jurisdiction when they determine the core of a dispute to lie within the jurisdiction of another body:
- In Jaffer v. York University, a student with Down syndrome alleged a tort and breach of contract by the university for its failure to accommodate him. The Ontario Superior Court of Justice agreed with counsel of the university that the student was effectively making a human rights claim, which should be heard before the provincial human rights tribunal.
- In Abrams v. Johnson, a teacher brought a defamation claim against principals and school board administrators. The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench agreed with the defendants that the claim involved, in essence, an employment dispute.
In both Jaffer and Abrams the claims by the plaintiffs involved elements that were within the jurisdiction of the courts, but upon scrutiny in each case the courts determined that they were more properly dealt with by other bodies.
To reduce legal fees and proceed quickly, parties to disputes within the world of education must make sure their claims are brought before the right adjudicator.
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