Supreme Court of Canada issues decision with grave consequence for marginalized communities’ access to justice


OTTAWA – The Supreme Court of Canada has released a decision today that will impact the human rights protections available to vulnerable groups who want to challenge government discrimination. The court confirmed that the laws made by government are not “services.” The Court’s ruling will make it more difficult for people and groups to challenge discriminatory laws using human rights systems. This decision further erodes a declining state of access to justice in Canada.

The case of Canadian Human Rights Commission v Attorney General of Canada was heard by the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) in November 2017. The Community Legal Assistance Society (“CLAS”), in coalition with other non-profit legal clinics, intervened to ensure that the interest of its constituents, predominantly low-income and marginalized groups, was represented before the Court.

At the heart of this case is the ability of systemically marginalized communities to secure remedies to discrimination through human rights tribunals instead of having to resort to costly and lengthy Charter cases when the discrimination is a result of government legislation. This is particularly crucial in the current climate where a lack of access to justice in the Canadian judicial system has been decried for many years by legal organizations across the country.

“We have an access to justice crisis in this country, and the courts are increasingly unavailable to all but the wealthiest among us" said Kevin Love, a staff lawyer with CLAS. "Most of the benefits that low-income people rely on are set up by government laws.  A Charter challenge about government benefits can easily cost the parties hundreds of thousands of dollars. Human rights tribunals, on the other hand, provide an accessible, much less expensive forum for the resolution of complaints.”

In 2016, Jessica Alford made a human rights complaint challenging laws in British Columbia that clawed back her Employment Insurance maternity and parental benefits from her family’s provincial disability assistance.   She claimed this discriminated against women who pay into the EI system like everyone else but then get nothing out of it when they take maternity and parental leave. “The human rights process was much simpler and easier to deal with than going to court.  I was able to resolve my complaint and now the law has been changed to let families keep these extra benefits when they need it the most.”

The coalition included CLAS, the Income Security Advocacy Centre, Sudbury Community Legal Clinic, Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, and HIV AIDS Legal Clinic of Ontario. All of these legal clinics provide frontline services including free legal assistance to low-income and marginalized individuals, many of whom rely on government income supports for their very survival.

The Coalition was represented by Marie Chen and Niiti Simmonds of the Income Security Advocacy Centre.

The Supreme Court of Canada decision can be found here.

The Coalition’s legal argument is available here.

A Backgrounder can be found here.


Media inquiries:
Sozan Savehilaghi, Communications Coordinator
Community Legal Assistance Society
Office: 604-657-0667, Cell: 778-322-5349