Supreme Court rules against tabling French-only court documents in B.C.

OTTAWA – The Supreme Court of Canada has struck down an attempt to file French-only court documents in British Columbia, in a minority language-rights case that could have a ripple effect in parts of the country.

Lawyer Mark Power, who was part of the legal team arguing for the right to plead in French, said the case will have a different impact in different provinces.

Friday’s 4-3 decision will be felt in some provinces — B.C., Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island — where groups will be forbidden from tabling documents in the minority language alone, he said.

It will not apply, he said, in six provinces that have laws or constitutional protections guaranteeing access to the court system in either official language.

That includes New Brunswick, which is officially bilingual under the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms; Quebec and Manitoba, which received similar protections under the 1867 Constitution; and Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan, which have passed laws that allow certain French language rights in court, he said.

The Supreme Court ruled Friday that there are no such guarantees in B.C.

It ruled that a 1731 British colonial law, requiring that court documents be tabled in English, still stands there. That high court decision confirmed lower-court rulings in B.C.

“It is not inconsistent with Charter values for the B.C. legislature to restrict the language of court proceedings to English,” Justice Richard Wagner wrote in the verdict. “The Charter does not require any province other than New Brunswick to provide for court proceedings in both official languages.

“Although the Charter reflects the importance of language rights, it also reflects the importance of respect for the constitutional powers of the provinces; federalism is one of Canada’s underlying constitutional principles. It would be open to the B.C. legislature to enact legislation to authorize civil proceedings in French, which would no doubt further the values embodied in the language rights provisions of the Charter.

“However, in the absence of such an initiative, one cannot be imposed by the Court.”

The case stems from a previous lawsuit against the B.C. provincial government by a francophone parents’ group and French-language school board, citing violations to the right to be educated in French there.

In support of their case, they tabled 195 pages of documents, in French only.

When challenged by the B.C. government, the francophones argued that they should not have to spend the money to translate court submissions.

The country’s top court ruled Friday that those documents indeed must be translated.

This decision relates only to the dispute over translated documents — and not to the original education case, which has not yet been heard.

Power called that verdict “disappointing.” But he cast it as only one stage in a broader legal battle.

“The ruling doesn’t change the heart of the case,” he said.

“It will just cost more.”