One to watch – Blood Tribe at the SCC

10 Oct

The Supreme Court of Canada is scheduled to hear an appeal of Blood Tribe Department of Health v. Canada (Privacy Commissioner) on February 21, 2008.  The case will present an opportunity for the Court to comment on a principle it first articulated in 1982 in Descoteaux v. Mierzwinski – that laws authorizing interference with solicitor-client privilege must be interpreted restrictively.  Of perhaps greater interest, it will be the Court’s first opportunity to provide significant commentary on the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.

The dispute arose when the respondent to a complaint alleging a failure to provide access to personal information refused to produce records of communications that it claimed to be subject to solicitor-client privilege.  In demanding the records be produced, the Commissioner relied on the investigatory powers granted by section 12 of PIPEDA, a broadly-worded provision which does not expressly grant the power to order the production of records over which solicitor-client privilege is claimed. 

Litigation ensued and the Federal Court held that the Commissioner had the power to order production.  It did so by applying a purposive analysis, stressing the Commissioner’s “central role in achieving the important objectives of the legislative scheme.”

The Federal Court of Appeal disagreed with the lower court’s approach, which it found to be inconsistent with the Mierzwinski strict interpretation principle and the concept of solicitor-client privilege as a substantive rule of law.  It stated:

In short, the reason express language is required to abrogate solicitor‑client privilege is because it is presumptively inviolate. The exception for solicitor‑client privilege in the PIPEDA is not what shelters privileged documents from disclosure. The law of privilege does that. The exception simply recognizes that privilege.

There are some finer points to the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision that may also catch the Supreme Court’s interest, including (1) whether the principles developed in interpreting the federal Privacy Act should be applied in interpreting PIPEDA and (2) what effect should be given to language authorizing the exercise of powers “to the same manner and to the same extent as a superior court.”

Blood Tribe is likely to remain relevant given that Parliament’s Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics made a rather moderate recommendation in its recent Statutory Review of the Personal Information and Electronic Documents Act.  Asked by the Privacy Commissioner to address the gap to her investigatory powers identified by the Federal Court of Appeal in Blood Tribe, the Standing Committee only recommended that PIPEDA be amended to expressly permit her to apply to the Federal Court for an expedited review of solicitor-client privilege claims. 

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