Nonprofit group has public interest status in mental health law case: highest court

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OTTAWA — A nonprofit has standing to challenge mental health law in a British Columbia court, even if no one is a plaintiff in the case, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled.

The unanimous court decision on Thursday came six years after the Council of Canadians with Disabilities challenged the constitutionality of mental health legislation in British Columbia that allows non-consensual psychiatric care.

Two individual co-plaintiffs dropped their claims, but the board hoped to sue without them.

The council promotes the equality, independence and rights of people living with physical and mental disabilities in Canada, pursuing these goals through advocacy, policy development and the advancement of rights. – sometimes through litigation.

A judge ruled that the action should be dismissed on the grounds that the council lacked public interest standing to pursue the challenge on its own.

However, the British Columbia Court of Appeal found that the council’s complaint was a comprehensive challenge to specific legislation that directly affects all members of an identifiable group in serious, specific and general ways, regardless of experiences. individual.

The Court of Appeal ruled that there should be a new hearing in the British Columbia Supreme Court on the issue of public interest standing, prompting the province’s Attorney General to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

In its ruling, the nation’s highest court said public interest status allows individuals or organizations to bring cases to court even if they are not directly involved in the case and even if their own rights are not infringed.

It can therefore play a pivotal role in litigation involving the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, where the issues can have a broad effect on society as a whole, Chief Justice Richard Wagner wrote on behalf of the court.

In deciding whether to grant public interest standing, a court must consider whether the case raises a serious issue, whether the party bringing the action has a genuine interest in the case, and whether the proposed prosecution is a reasonable and effective way to proceed.

A court must also be careful to allocate scarce judicial resources and weed out busy litigants, ensuring that courts benefit from the opposing viewpoints of those most directly affected by the issues, the Supreme Court said.

A directly affected plaintiff is not essential to establishing a concrete, well-developed factual framework for a case, Wagner wrote.

Public interest litigants can establish such a framework by calling concerned or knowledgeable non-plaintiff witnesses, he said. “If a directly assigned co-plaintiff is not required, then potential public interest litigants should not have to justify – or compensate for – the lack of one.”

The counsel’s pleadings are well written and raise a serious issue: the constitutionality of laws that implicate — and allegedly violate — the Charter rights of people with intellectual disabilities, he added.

The council’s claim undoubtedly raises issues of public importance that transcend its immediate interests, Wagner said.

“The litigation has the potential to affect a large group of people, namely people with intellectual disabilities. In addition, granting public interest standing in this case will promote access to justice for a disadvantaged group who has always faced serious obstacles in bringing such disputes to court.

Furthermore, the closing arguments reveal that the case is not based on individual facts, Wagner said.

“Much of the case can be argued on the basis that the legislation is unconstitutional on its face because it authorizes, in certain circumstances, forced psychiatric treatment without the consent of the patient or a substitute decision maker,” he said. -he writes.

“Expert evidence about how healthcare providers deal with involuntary patients and evidence about particular patients can provide useful information about how legislation is enforced.”

Attorney Michael Feder, who argued the case on behalf of the council, said the decision “has great significance for access to justice and for ensuring that discriminatory and other unconstitutional laws can be challenged in court. courts”.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 23, 2022.

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