mardi 3 février 2015

What role for freedom of expression in contempt of court proceedings?

by Olga Redko
Student-at-law
Irving Mitchell Kalichman s.e.n.c.r.l.

On January 21, the Quebec Court of Appeal rendered a decision in Nadeau-Dubois c. Morasse (2015 QCCA 78), overturning the appellant’s conviction for contempt of court. The decision has received some media attention because it concerns one of the leaders of Quebec’s 2012 student movement, but it is also of particular interest because it deals—albeit, respectfully, more laconically than it might have—with the intersection between freedom of expression and contempt of court.
 

As Quebec readers probably know well, in spring 2012 the leaders of various post-secondary student organizations mobilized their members to demonstrate against the provincial government’s proposed increases to university tuition levels. In addition to large-scale protests in Montreal, organization leaders—among them Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the appellant in this case—encouraged students to propagate a strike at post-secondary educational institutions by, among other things, boycotting class attendance and blocking others’ access to classrooms.
 
In the course of these protests, the Superior Court rendered various injunctions to ensure that non-striking students and faculty members had access to the educational institutions. In May 2012, Émond JCS, as he then was, issued a safeguard order to prolong an injunction prohibiting anyone from obstructing access to courses at the Université Laval. Shortly thereafter the appellant Nadeau-Dubois gave an interview to Radio-Canada in which, when asked to comment on the issuance of such orders, he replied:

[15]        Ce qui est clair c’est que ces décisions-là, ces tentatives-là de forcer le retour en classe, ça ne fonctionne jamais parce que les étudiants et les étudiantes qui sont en grève depuis 13 semaines sont solidaires les uns les autres, respectent, de manière générale là, respectent la volonté démocratique qui s’est exprimée à travers le vote de grève et je crois qu’il est tout à fait légitime pour les étudiants et étudiantes de prendre les moyens pour faire respecter le choix démocratique qui a été fait d’aller en grève. C’est tout à fait regrettable là qu’il y ait vraiment une minorité d’étudiants et d’étudiantes qui utilisent les tribunaux pour contourner la décision collective qui a été prise. Donc nous, on trouve ça tout à fait légitime là, que les gens prennent les moyens nécessaires pour faire respecter le vote de grève et si ça prend des lignes de piquetage, on croit que c’est un moyen tout à fait légitime de le faire.

Several days later the respondent Jean-François Morasse presented a motion in Superior Court to force Nadeau-Dubois to appear for a contempt of court charge. Jacques JCS found him guilty of this charge under article 50 C.p.c. for having incited other students to contravene Émond JCS’s safeguard order.
 
The Court of Appeal, with Dufresne JCA writing the unanimous decision, overturned the guilty finding. Dufresne JCA confirmed, first, that a contempt of court charge is an exceptional procedure that is to be used parsimoniously, particularly given the high penalties to which an accused might be subject (para 39). Moreover, finding contempt of court too easily might reduce the perceived gravity of such an offense and actually jeopardize respect for the courts: 

[40]        … if the use of contempt is not “most jealously and carefully watched and exercised”, as was once famously said – a court's outrage might be treated as just so much bluster that might ultimately cheapen the role and authority of the very judicial power it seeks to protect (quoting Kasirer JCA in Centre commercial Les Rivières ltée c. Jean Bleu inc.2012 QCCA 1663 at para 7).

Dufresne JCA reiterated the requirements for finding contempt of court, which have been imported into Quebec from the common law:

[32]        Chacune des composantes de l’outrage au tribunal doit donc être prouvée hors de tout doute raisonnable. Dans Droit de famille — 122875, mon collègue d’alors, le juge Pierre J. Dalphond, faisait sien l'extrait suivant des motifs du juge Saunders pour la Cour d'appel de la Nouvelle-Écosse dans l’arrêt Godin :

7. in a case of civil contempt the following elements must be established beyond a reasonable doubt:

(i)  the terms of the order must be clear and unambiguous;

(ii)  proper notice must be given to the contemnor of the terms of the order;

(iii)  there must be clear proof that the contemnor intentionally committed an act which is in fact prohibited by the terms of the order, and

(iv)  mens rea must be proven which, in the context of civil contempt proceedings, means that while it is not necessary to prove a specific intent to bring the court into disrepute, flout a court order, or interfere with the due course of justice, it is essential to prove an intention to knowingly and wilfully do some act which is contrary to a court order.

Applying these strict requirements to the case at hand, Dufresne JCA first held that the complainant failed to meet the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for establishing that Nadeau-Dubois had knowledge of the content of Émond JCS’s order. The circumstantial evidence that Nadeau-Dubois was aware of the general existence of various injunctions against members of different student groups and at different educational institutions was not sufficient to prove that he was aware of the specific content of the order at issue. In so finding, Dufresne JCA emphasized that the burden rests on the complainant to prove knowledge of the order beyond a reasonable doubt:

[57]        Avec égards, on ne peut inférer, par cette simple déduction, la preuve hors de tout doute de la connaissance de l’Ordonnance. Au mieux, on pourrait parler d’une preuve par prépondérance, et encore. Mais, au-delà de tout, le fardeau de preuve ne pouvait être inversé, ni directement ni indirectement.

What is more, however, Dufresne JCA found that the actus reus of the offense had not been proven. He held that Nadeau-Dubois’ statements in the RDI interview had not clearly urged students to contravene court orders in order to physically prevent others from attending class—even interpreted in the most negative light possible, the appellant’s reference to picket lines did not actually encourage using these lines to block access to classrooms (paras 71-72).

In discussing the actus reus of the offense, Dufresne JCA briefly devoted some space to addressing the implications of freedom of expression, protected in section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as article 3 of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, to a charge of contempt of court. He noted that: 

[74]        … le droit de faire connaître au public le plus large possible la position que l’on défend, avec force et conviction, dans un conflit donné, relève de la liberté d’expression protégée par les chartes canadienne et québécoise et du droit sous-jacent à l’information.

[75]        C’est ce droit qu’exerçait l’appelant lors de l’entrevue télévisée à la source de la condamnation pour outrage au tribunal. Au contraire d’une violation résultant d’un geste ou d’une action identifiable concrètement, les propos tenus par une personne prêtent souvent, et davantage, à interprétation. Lorsque l’accusation d’outrage porte sur des paroles prononcées en contravention d’une ordonnance judiciaire, l’exercice est plus délicat. Le fardeau de prouver l’outrage comporte alors une difficulté additionnelle, soit celle de considérer si les propos tenus publiquement enfreignent réellement l’ordonnance judiciaire. C’est encore plus vrai si les propos émanent d’un tiers non désigné à l’injonction.

[76]        Généralement, l’argument fondé sur l’al. 2b) de la Charte canadienne doit être examiné en fonction de l’article premier. Cet examen n’est pas pertinent en l’espèce. Comme l’infraction reprochée consiste à donner une interprétation à des paroles prononcées en public pour décider si elles constituent une incitation ou un encouragement à contrevenir à l’Ordonnance, la prudence s’impose à l’interprète. L’exercice d’un droit garanti, en l’occurrence la liberté d’expression, est en cause en pareilles circonstances. Il importe donc d’être conscient de cette dimension dans l’évaluation des propos tenus pour pallier le risque de paralyser l’exercice de ce droit fondamental ou d’imposer indirectement une certaine forme de censure.

Although the Court of Appeal’s disposition of the present case did not turn on the application of section 2(b) or article 3, Dufresne JCA’s analysis in these paragraphs merits closer inspection, because Quebec’s jurisprudence is actually unclear as to how a violation of either the Quebec or Canadian Charter must be considered in the contempt of court context.

The solution that Dufresne JCA suggests (although, in my view, without sufficient elaboration) is an interpretive one — essentially, courts must bear the value of freedom of expression in mind when assessing whether the impugned speech actually contravened, or endorsed contravening, an order of the court. Presumably the speech should be interpreted as not infringing an order to the extent that doing so is possible.

This form of analysis is certainly an attractive possibility given that it accords with the accused individual’s lack of any burden of proof in contempt proceedings; moreover, a “reading down” of the impugned speech would enable a court to respect the individual’s fundamental freedoms while maintaining a position of proper regard for judicial authority. Yet Dufresne JCA’s discussion in paragraph 76 leaves multiple questions unanswered. What if the speech at issue contained far more explicit incitements to violate an injunction—would freedom of expression considerations then become meaningless? Is there any room for a consideration of the severity of the contravention, or its effect on the administration of justice? If freedom of expression were not addressed or pleaded when the injunction was first granted, should an analysis of the injunction’s validity nevertheless be conducted in a defence to a contempt of court proceeding?

Moreover, in light of the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Doré c. Barreau du Québec (2012 CSC 12), it is less clear whether an Oakes analysis or its equivalent under section 9.1 of the Quebec Charter would be an appropriate alternative approach. This may particularly be the case if an accused individual claims that the source of damage to a protected right is the finding of contempt itself, not merely the statutory basis for the contravened order. Although not administrative actors, courts deciding contempt charges are exercising what is, to some degree, a discretionary function: Centre commercial Les Rivières ltée c. Jean bleu inc., 2012 QCCA 1663 at para 73. The exercise of this judicial discretion is a separate issue from the validity of the contravened order, and there must surely be guidelines in place to guarantee that a judge who decides to condemn a person guilty of contempt of court does so having taken proper account of that individual’s fundamental freedoms. A balancing exercise akin to what is suggested in Doré may be one possible approach, although it would surely require adaptation to the particular context of article 50 C.p.c. (or its successor, article 58 of Quebec’s new Code of Civil Procedure).

The respondent Mr. Morasse has already indicated he will appeal the present decision to the Supreme Court, so if that Court accepts to review this case, we may obtain some clarification on these questions. Until then, the Court of Appeal’s judgement in Morasse still clearly reiterates that the burden in Quebec to prove contempt of court is high, it remains on the complainant, and the constituent elements of the offence must each be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and without resorting to presumptions drawn from circumstantial evidence. As to where freedom of expression figures in the equation, though, is still unclear.

Reference : [2015] ABD 48

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