—Robert Leckey, McGill University
[cross-posted from UK Constitutional Law Blog]
In December 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada declared the constitutional invalidity of three major provisions in the domestic criminal law on sex work. Specifically, in Canada (Attorney General) v Bedford, the Court struck down prohibitions against keeping a bawdy-house, living on the avails of prostitution, and communicating for the purposes of prostitution. The judges accepted argument by current and former prostitutes that the challenged provisions deprived them of their security of the person in a way incompatible with the principles of fundamental justice, contrary to s 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. For the Court, the challenged provisions constrained sex workers’ ability to take steps to protect themselves. Sex work itself being legal, those prohibitions exacerbated its risks in a way that marked them as grossly disproportionate or overbroad.
Although the decision’s substance offers much for scholars of fundamental liberties to chew on, my present concern is the order issued and its implications for constitutional review. Whilst s 4 of the Human Rights Act 1998 merely empowers judges to declare that primary legislation infringes rights, without affecting its legal force, s 52(1) of Canada’s Constitution Act, 1982 affirms the Constitution of Canada’s ‘primacy’. It stipulates that any law inconsistent with the Constitution, of which the Charter is part, ‘is, to the extent of the inconsistency, of no force or effect’. On prevailing readings, this provision empowers the Court to strike down legislation it determines to be unconstitutional. Thus, although taxonomists of Bills of Rights debate the precise implications of the Charter’s distinctive elements, such as its derogation or ‘notwithstanding’ clause, the Canadian form of constitutional review appears to be relatively strong.
In Bedford the Supreme Court declared the challenged provisions to be invalid, but suspended its declaration of invalidity for one year. The Court expects Parliament to avoid an eventual regulatory void by enacting replacement legislation before that year elapses. Indeed, the Government of Canada has already launched online consultations.
This delayed remedy is doubly significant. Most concretely, it means that despite their ostensible legal victory, sex workers will continue to suffer risks to their safety seen by the Court as severe enough to make the provisions incompatible with fundamental rights. Early experience indicates that local authorities are enforcing the provisions to varying extents. Indeed, this state of legal uncertainty arguably undermines the rule of law. Still, strictly speaking, the provisions remain in force.
In addition, the suspended remedy in Bedford represents the culmination of judges’ reshaping of their role under the Charter. The initial position in Canadian law was that declaring legislation to be inconsistent with the Constitution made it immediately invalid. The first major exception arose in 1985, when the Supreme Court of Canada concluded that a century’s lawmaking by a provincial legislature was invalid for failure to follow a constitutional manner-and-form requirement to enact laws in French as well as English. The Court invoked the rule of law – its imperative to avoid a legal vacuum – in order to deem the legislation valid for the time required to translate and reenact the provincial statute book.
A few years later, in its leading judgment on constitutional remedies, the Court contemplated that, exceptionally, it might suspend a declaration of invalidity made under the Charter. A delay would be warranted where striking down legislation with nothing in its place would threaten the rule of law or pose a danger to the public.
The Court has never disavowed that discussion, but it has subsequently changed its approach. The judges have developed the habit of suspending declarations of invalidity in Charter cases. In doing so, they commonly refer not to threats to the rule of law or to the public, but to the appropriateness of making space for a legislative response. For some commentators, this approach fosters a democratically healthy ‘dialogue’ between judiciary and legislature.
Speaking comparatively, the Canadian judges have fashioned for themselves a remedial discretion that the Constitution of South Africa bestows on its judges. Section 172(1)(b)(ii) of the South African constitution contemplates that the judges may make ‘an order suspending the declaration of invalidity for any period and on any conditions, to allow the competent authority to correct the defect’.
The Supreme Court of Canada’s brief remedial discussion in Bedford merits scrutiny. The Court takes it as ‘clear that moving abruptly from a situation where prostitution is regulated to a situation where it is entirely unregulated would be a matter of great concern to many Canadians’. In contrast, ‘leaving the prohibitions … in place in their present form leaves prostitutes at increased risk for the time of the suspension – risks which violate their constitutional right to security of the person’. The judges hold that the ‘choice between suspending the declaration of invalidity and allowing it to take immediate effect is not an easy one’. They do little, however, to show themselves grappling with the difficulty. Without any explicit effort to weigh the opposing considerations or to compare their foreseeable costs and benefits, the Court concludes that the unconstitutional law should remain temporarily in force.
In effect, the Supreme Court of Canada has turned 180 degrees from its position twenty years ago. Danger used to be a reason for, exceptionally, suspending a declaration of invalidity. Now the Court suspends a declaration – in deference to the ‘great concern’ of ‘many Canadians’ and to Parliament’s prerogative to tackle a policy issue – in the face of evidence that the unconstitutional laws daily imperil the vulnerable class of sex workers.
More broadly, then, Bedford crystallizes the Court’s shift from using orders under the Charter to cease the effect of laws violating rights to using them to identify legislative priorities. To be sure, there are non-negligible political effects to the Court’s declaration that the prostitution laws harm their intended beneficiaries and to its 12-month countdown for Parliament. Still, that the sex workers should exit the courthouse as ‘victors’ while continuing to bear the brunt of laws shown to violate their fundamental rights suggests that the judges have used the remedial discretion they ascribed to themselves so as to weaken constitutional review in Canada.
The Canadian judges’ apparent underuse of their constitutional powers invites further study. Might this phenomenon countermand democratic theorists’ disappointment about how rarely Canadian parliamentarians have used their legislative override? It may also be a counterexample to the hunch – think of American judges’ recognition of the right to privacy in the penumbra of the First Amendment – that when judges reach beyond the constitutional text, they do so to expand rather than to restrain their powers.
For me, the crucial methodological takeaway – whatever your politics on rights, courts, and legislatures – is how partial a story about the character of judicial review emerges from a Bill of Rights’ text. To understand the political impact of a Bill of Rights, we need to scrutinize the procedural dimensions of its application by judges – matters too often dismissed as lawyerly ‘technicalities’. I contribute to this endeavour in my forthcoming book, Bills of Rights in the Common Law.