Posts tagged ontario

Flurry of recent court decisions impacting schools and universities

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There have been a series of recent court decisions effecting schools and universities.  They involve institutions in a variety of different provinces, which means slightly different rules may apply, and they touch on various different issues - but they should be kept in mind by any institution’s decision-maker or legal advisor. 

Here they are:

1.   Solicitor-Client Privilege (Alberta)

In Lana v. University of Alberta (CanLII), a university appeals tribunal penalized a student based on allegations of non-academic misconduct in connection with an allegation of sexual assault.  The student sued for judicial review.  A part of that lawsuit, he also claimed that the university should be required to produce all communications between the appeals tribunal and its lawyer.  Although normally lawyer-client communications are allowed to be withheld on the basis of “privilege” (Wikipedia), the student argued that either that privilege was waived or an exception to the rule should apply because the appeals tribunal broke rules of procedural fairness.  The court ruled against the student and upheld that the privilege should remain in place. 

2.    Anxiety Disorder (British Columbia)

In Singh v. University of British Columbia (CanLII), the Supreme Court of Canada denied a student leave to appeal in connection with her lawsuit for judicial review, which is discussed further here.  The student failed four courses and claimed her performance was due to an anxiety disorder.  She got unfriendly outcomes from university tribunals and took the issue to court, where she failed repeatedly.  This is cautious reminder about how far courts will go to try to give students a fair shake.

3.    Negligence (Ontario)

In Rollins v. English Language Separate School Board #39 (CanLII), the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld the decision of a lower court dealing with a claim of negligence resulting in injuries suffered by a student due to a rollerblade accident.  There was very little evidence about the event itself, and the initial judge refused to draw certain inferences that would establish the facts needed by the student to advance the claim.  That decision was validated.

4.    Negligence / Jury Direction (Nova Scotia)

In Marshall v. Annapolis County District School Board (CanLII), the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal ordered a new trial in connection with a school bus that hit a young child, causing serious injuries.  The first trial involved a determination by jury, and the child’s guardian successfully argued that the judge failed to give the jury the right guidance.  A further appeal of this decision will appear before the Supreme Court of Canada (CanLII).

5.    Religious Freedom

In S.L. v. Commission scolaire des Chenes (Lexum), Catholic parents wanted a local school board to exempt their children from receiving a mandatory ethics and religious culture educational program, which is required in Quebec schools.  They took the issue to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled that the parents had failed to show that the program interfered with their ability to pass along their faith to their children.  Rather, the court considered the program to expose students to a comprehensive overview of various faiths, which does not amount to an indoctrination of relativism but merely reflects a fact of modern life.

Does the Charter apply to universities? The plot thickens with recent decision

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Many university administrators and student leaders have been watching with interest as the legal dispute between anti-abortion activists and Carleton University winds it way through the courts (see here and here for background). 

Specifically, the curiosity surrounds one issue: does the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms apply to universities? 

If the Charter does apply, then political activists, not to mention anyone else with a grievance against a university, have an incredible legal tool at their disposal, while universities have the nightmare of a possible deluge of Charter claims winding up on their doorsteps. 

In a decision (CanLII) released last week, Madam Justice Toscamo Roccamo of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled that the portion of the pleadings (Wikipedia) of the anti-abortion activists dealing with the Charter argument against Carleton should be struck because it fails to disclose a reasonable cause of action. 

Translated into normal words: the Charter argument – in the court’s view – stinks and should not be allowed to form part of any ongoing litigation. 

After a string of Supreme Court of Canada decisions dealing with this question (discussed more here), a university would be subject to the Charter if either of the following applied:  

  1.  the university, in its entirety, is fairly said to be an “organ of government” because of the degree of governmental control over it as an organization; or
  2. a specific activity of a university is fairly said to be “government” even though the rest of university’s activities would not be.

This approach makes sense: the Charter applies to government actors, and universities should not be subject to the Charter unless they are, or are doing something, governmental.

For a long time, universities liked this view, which was echoed repeatedly in court decisions.  But the recent Pridgen decision (discussed more here and here) was reason for concern.  In that case, the court reviewed the legislation behind the University of Calgary and found that the university “is not part of the government so as to make all of its actions subject to the Charter .  That is, even though, among other things:

  • universities in Alberta are established by legislation;
  • various members of governing university bodies are appointed by the province; and
  • the Lieutenant Governor in Council has the ability to restrict how those rights are used,

the court still did not consider the university to be “government” in its entirety.  However, the court did find that the university “was implementing a specific statutory scheme or government program with respect to the actions” at issue, given that universities in Alberta generally function within that legislation hand-in-hand with government – at least as far as post-secondary education is concerned – to carry out what is essentially a government program.  In that sense, the university operates as a “partner” with Alberta when it comes to educating (though not necessarily when hiring and firing employees, for example). 

This is key:

When a university committee renders decisions which may impact, curtail or prevent participation in the post‑secondary system or which would prevent the opportunity to participate in learning opportunities, it directly impacts the stated policy of providing an accessible educational system as entrusted to it under the PSL Act. The nature of these activities attracts Charter scrutiny.

In Lobo v. Carleton University, the Ontario decision released last week, the court kicked aside any sort of precedent from Pridgen:

The Plaintiffs’ reference to the outcome in Pridgen v. University of Calgary, 2010 ABQB 644 (CanLII), 2010 ABQB 644, 497 A.R. 219, under appeal, fails to recognize that the Court made specific reference to the governing structure of the university in that case which involved significant government involvement.  On this basis, the Court found the university was delivering a specific government program in partnership with the government. By contrast, the Carleton University Act, 1952 created an autonomous entity whose structure and governance is in no way prescribed by the government. Subsequent enactment of the Post‑secondary Education Choice and Excellence Act in no way derogates from that autonomy.

Here’s the take-over message: ultimately, whether the Charter applies to a particular university or university activity may depend on the legislation behind the university.  Assuming neither Lobo nor Pridgen are appealed, universities and students will have more to work with when trying to find out whether the relevant legislation is on one side of the fence or the other.

Ontario court dismisses “bad” claim from student-plaintiff

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Occasionally, universities are dragged to court by students in a way that makes me pity institutions of higher learning.   One example of this type of event is reflected in the decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice released last month in Murray v. Lakehead University (CanLII), where the student-plaintiff started the lawsuit but didn’t even bother to show up to argue his case.  The student, Robert Murray, apparently lived near the courthouse, and the court took a 20 minute break while people tried to reach him at home - but nothing.

Mr. Murray started the lawsuit by filing an incomplete “statement of claim” that, simply put, alleged his thesis supervisor negligently performed her duties by failing to provide him with the proper oversight.  As a result, he demanded the university pay him the gross salary he would have earned had he decided not to spend two years on the degree, which he calculated was equal to $70,000.

Lakehead, which is located in northern Ontario,  took the same procedural step commonly taken by universities when confronted with a claim by a student: an application to dismiss the claim on the basis that it does not “disclose a reasonable cause of action”.  In this case, the university maintained that (1) the claim does not show the essential ingredients of a negligence claim; and (2) there is no viable claim because of the considerable discretion granted to universities in academic matters.

On the first point, the court clearly emphasized how an allegation of negligence must be structured:

As to the substantive law, a claim in negligence must establish that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care; that the defendant breached that duty of care; and that damages resulting were caused by the breach of the duty of care.

On the second point, the court referred to Jaffer v. York University and Gauthier c. Saint-Germain, two recent decisions of the Ontario Court of Appeal (discussed here and here) that confirm the following rule regarding student claims again universities: the courts will dismiss such a claim unless the student can show that the subject matter of the claim falls outside the broad discretion granted to universities over academic matters.  

Courts do not consider themselves to be appropriately situated to supervise academic issues at universities.  The rationale for the broad discretion approach is set out in the following passage in Blasser v. Royal Institution for Advancement of Learning (CanLII):

In any university, … there are certain internal matters and disputes that are best decided within the academic community rather than by the Courts. This is so, not only because the Courts are not as well equipped as the universities to decide matters such as academic qualifications, grades, the conferring of degrees and so on, but also because these matters ought to be able to be decided more conveniently, more quickly, more economically and at least as accurately by those who are specialized in educational questions of that kind. In addition, of course, there is very good reason not to risk compromising the essential independence of universities by undue interference in their academic affairs.

This rationale may be problematic for a number of reasons, but the first step, which was not taken by the student in Murray, is to show up.

Small claims court as a venue for parents of bullied students

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Janet Steffenhagen reported last week on her blog Report Card that parents in Ontario have threatened to bring their individual grievances against school boards before the small claims court.  According to a school board official in Waterloo, the Ontario government should move to stem the tide of parental litigation before the floodgates open.  Reporter Greg Mercer, of  TheRecord.com, quoted John Shewchuk as saying the following:

We want to raise an alarm bell with the government . . . we think they’ve got a little bit of a problem on their hands… You can just see the herd coming over the hill. You’re going to find more people who quite frankly just don’t like the answer they got, so they’re saying ‘fine, I’m going to sue you.’ 

I think we’re going to see a whole lot more of this as people understand that you can go pay your 75 bucks and sue a school board, and you might just hit the jackpot.  There are folks out there who can get dollar signs dancing in their eyes, and think it might be an easy score.

British Columbia’s small claims court is fascinating tool established by the government to provide access to justice for non-lawyers (or those for whom it was impossible or inefficient to hire a lawyer) with relatively small amounts of money at stake in their disputes.  It is extremely user-friendly but has been subject to considerable criticism for being too favourable to debtors.  Also, it gives tremendous discretion to judges – which can be a good or bad thing, depending on your view of the judges. 

Shewchuck’s concern about “floodgates” is a compelling one: it is in nobody’s interests for anyone and everyone with a complaint about a teacher, school or school board to start a lawsuit.  And the legal system should not be exploited as a tactic to overwhelm a public institution.  But this isn’t necessarily a flaw with a culture among parents; it’s a flaw with the small claims court.  If there are trends emerging of plaintiffs starting lawsuits with no real merit, the system should weed them out before they cost the system too much money.  As well, opening the floodgates is generally a bad thing if it is unjustified.  Parents with legitimate grievances should be entitled to demand through the court system, if necessary, that school boards fulfil their obligations. If those obligations are too great, then that is a different matter.

When it comes to bullying, in particular, there is a lot to consider before advancing a lawsuit.  Getting involved in a small claims proceeding may cost a frustrated parent more than $75.  A legal approach to bullying should be sophisticated and well thought out.  Like many things, it may be worth it for parents to visit a lawyer, even briefly, to get basic legal advise before moving ahead if its clear no progress is being made dealing directly with a school or school board.

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