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Administrative Tribunals May Apply Charter to Strike Down Unconstitutional Laws
October 14, 2003

On October 3, 2003, the Supreme Court of Canada released its judgment in Nova Scotia (Workers’ Compensation Board) v. Martin. The Court’s decision clarifies the ability of administrative tribunals to apply the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to strike down unconstitutional provisions in statutes or regulations over which they have jurisdiction.

Background
The appellants, Donald Martin and Ruth Laseur, suffered from chronic pain following workplace injuries. Both sought workers’ compensation benefits under the Nova Scotia Workers’ Compensation Act. A Regulation established under that statute restricted the entitlement of chronic pain sufferers to benefits under the Act.

The appellants claimed that the Regulation violated section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it discriminated against them on the basis of a physical disability (i.e., chronic pain).

Nova Scotia’s Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal (“WCAT”) applied the Charter and struck down the Regulation. This decision was reversed by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal.

Issues
On appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, two questions were put before the Court:

  • Could WCAT, as an administrative tribunal, apply the Charter?
  • Did the Regulation contravene the Charter?

strong>Decision
The Supreme Court of Canada allowed the appellants’ appeal, and concluded that WCAT, as an administrative tribunal with jurisdiction to answer questions of law, was empowered to apply the Charter. The Court ruled that where administrative tribunals have the jurisdiction, whether implicit or explicit, to decide questions of law arising under a statute or regulation, it is presumed that they also have jurisdiction to rule upon the constitutional validity of the provision. This presumption may only be rebutted by showing that the legislature intended to exclude the Charter from the tribunal’s authority over questions of law.

The Court remarked:

The Charter is not some holy grail which only judicial initiates of the superior courts may touch. The Charter belongs to the people. All law and law-makers that touch the people must conform to it. Tribunals and commissions charged with deciding legal issues are no exception … If the Charter is to be meaningful to ordinary people, then it must find its expression in the decisions of these tribunals. (para 29)

Importantly, the Court observed that a determination by a tribunal that a provision in its enabling statute is invalid pursuant to the Charter is not binding on future decision makers, within or outside the tribunal’s administrative scheme. It is only by obtaining a declaration of invalidity by a superior court that a litigant can establish the general invalidity of the legislation for all future cases.

On the merits, the Court concluded that the Regulation contravened Section 15(1) of the Charter, as it discriminated against the appellants on the basis of a physical disability.

This decision may have an impact on other provincial workers’ compensation schemes that treat certain disabilities in an exclusionary or restrictive manner.

(click here for full text of the judgment)