On Sept. 21, 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada released an important decision on public interest standing, which determines who can bring a case to court and who cannot. The Court agreed with a coalition of groups, including Ecojustice, involved in the case that where an individual or group seeks to hold government to account by enforcing the constitution or other Canadian laws, they should not be prevented from doing so for unnecessarily restrictive reasons.
This victory has implications not only for individuals and groups wanting to enforce environmental laws, but also for a range of other public interest litigants, including human rights and civil liberties groups, as well as organizations working to protect the interests of women, children and refugees.
In a blog post from January
, I explained why Ecojustice was involved in this case. Our lawyers often represent organizations or individuals seeking to serve the public interest by protecting the environment and ensuring that governments and industry follow the law. Our clients must prove to the court that they have public interest standing in order to bring such cases.
The Supreme Court of Canada decision released last week involved a non-profit organization, representing sex trade workers in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, that sought to challenge the constitutionality of certain criminal code provisions. The government argued that the group should not be granted public interest standing, largely because they had not proven that there was no other way for these legal questions to be brought before the Court. That is, the group had not proven that someone with a “private” interest would not bring a similar challenge, for instance by way of a defence to criminal charges.
Although Ecojustice doesn’t have an interest in the outcome of this specific constitutional case, we did want the Court to modernize Canada’s outdated public interest standing law. That’s why we intervened in this case earlier this year. We wanted to ensure that the Court understood the environmental implications of its decision. We argued that rather than focusing on whether there is a hypothetical private alternative to public interest litigation, the Court should focus on ensuring the rule of law is enforced effectively. And that’s just what the Court did.
The Supreme Court of Canada’s endorsement of a more progressive public interest standing test - one that is flexible and that ensures illegal government action is properly challenged - promotes access to justice for all Canadians. It means that Ecojustice can continue working to enforce Canada’s environmental protection laws and potentially work with a broader base of clientele who are concerned about protecting the environment and human health.
Image of Lady Justice courtesy of Ian Britton