Halifax (Regional Municipality) v. Human Rights Commission (N.S.) et al. 2012 SCC 10
Civil Rights - Federal, provincial or territorial legislation - Commissions or boards - Jurisdiction - Complaints - Decision to request board of inquiry
Comeau complained to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission that the funding arrangements for the French-first-language schools in Halifax discriminated against him and his children on the basis of their Acadian ethnic origin. The Commission requested the appointment of a board of inquiry to deal with Comeau’s complaints. Shortly thereafter, an amendment to the Municipal Government Act (N.S.) provided for supplementary funding for schools of the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial (“Conseil”) in Halifax and a Charter challenge brought by other parents of children in Conseil schools was settled. Halifax applied for orders quashing the Commission’s decision to refer Comeau’s complaint to a board of inquiry and prohibiting the board of inquiry from proceeding.
The Nova Scotia Supreme Court, in a decision reported at (2009), 273 N.S.R.(2d) 258; 872 A.P.R. 258, granted the application. The chambers judge was of the view that, through the referral decision, the Commission had decided that the complaint fell under the Human Rights Act (N.S.), and that determination was one of jurisdiction subject to a correctness standard of review. The judge concluded that the absence of jurisdiction was clear and there would be no benefit from a fuller inquiry by the board. Relying in part on Bell v. Ontario (Human Rights Commission) (SCC 1971) (“Bell”), the judge decided that it was appropriate to intervene at this early stage and prohibit the board of inquiry from embarking on an ultimately fruitless proceeding. The Commission and Comeau appealed.
The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, in a decision reported at (2010), 287 N.S.R.(2d) 329; 912 A.P.R. 329, allowed the appeal and reinstated the board of inquiry. Halifax appealed. The appeal raised two issues. The first concerned the standard of review of the Commission’s decision to refer the complaint to a board of inquiry. The second was whether, applying that standard of judicial review, the Commission made any reviewable error in appointing the board of inquiry.
The Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the appeal. The court held that the Commission’s decision was not a determination of its jurisdiction, but rather a discretionary decision that an inquiry was warranted in all of the circumstances. That discretionary decision should be reviewed for reasonableness. The reasonableness standard of review, applied in the context of proposed judicial intervention at this preliminary stage of the Commission’s work, could be expressed as follows: was there a reasonable basis in law or on the evidence for the Commission’s conclusion that an inquiry was warranted. The court concluded that there was a reasonable basis for the Commission to be satisfied that an inquiry was warranted in all of the circumstances. The court accepted the decision in Bell to the extent that it stood for the proposition that referral decisions such as the one at issue in this case were subject to judicial review. However, beyond that, Bell should no longer be relied on.