SCC balks on two student grievance cases against universities
The Supreme Court of Canada announced this morning that it has dismissed separate applications by two students in claims against their universities for leave to appeal (Wikipedia) respective decisions of the Ontario Court of Appeal, each of which were discussed previously on this blog. Both of the appellate court decisions are powerful statements on the approach of courts to student grievances and, more precisely, the limits of the jurisdiction of judges when confronted by a student claimant:
- In Gauthier c. Saint-Germain (CanLII), a graduate student in education at the University of Ottawa sued the university and her two thesis supervisors, alleging that her initial supervisor promised her a scholarship, acted inappropriately, negligently supervised her work and caused her mental distress, and claiming that her new supervisor was incompetent. Additionally, she argued that the university breached her contract by not providing competent faculty. The university responded that the court did not have jurisdiction to hear the student’s claim because it was essentially an academic issue to be resolved within the university’s internal processes. The university won before the motions judge but lost at the appellate level, where the Ontario Court of Appeal found that the grievance could properly proceed within the jurisdiction of the court because it involved a claim in tort and contract, even though it arose from academic matters.
- In Jaffer v. York University (CanLII), a student with Down Syndrome claimed York University failed to properly accommodate his disability. Similar to the student in Gauthier, Jaffer framed his arguments in terms of tort and contract; the Ontario Court of Appeal agreed that the court had jurisdiction because of how the claims were framed but held that the legal documents filed by the student (at least in their current condition) showed that the claims were untenable.
The issue at the heart of these cases - to what extent are disputes between students and universities involving academic matters beyond the jurisdiction of the courts – has been subject to a series of judgments over the decades that have left students and university administrators with a confused sense of the boundaries of the “internal autonomy” of universities. These decisions, along with Nazik Amdiss and University of Ottawa, Ltd. (CanLII), indicate a renewed interest on the part of the courts to assert jurisdiction over student grievances when they are properly pleaded in tort or contract, despite the connection to academics.
None of the universities in these cases really got what they wanted, namely a declaration by the courts that despite the increasing integration of university life and mainstream society the traditional autonomy granted to universities to manage disputes related to academic affairs should be maintained. Many (see, for example, McMillan LLP’s case comment here) had hoped for the Supreme Court of Canada to hear appeals to these decisions and clarify the line that should be drawn, but no such luck.