Case Report – SCC says informer privilege absolute

In a judgment released October 11th, the Supreme Court of Canada weighed the interest protected by the informer privilege against the interest in open courts. An 8 – 1 majority held that informer privilege is an absolute bar on the disclosure of an informer’s identity subject only to the innocence at stake exception.

The majority strongly affirmed the mandatory character of the informer privilege. Writing for the majority, Bastarache J. said:

The informer privilege rule is mandatory (subject only to the “innocence at stake” exception). To permit trial judges wide discretion in determining whether to protect informer privilege would undermine the purposes of the rule. Part of the rationale for a mandatory informer privilege rule is that it encourages would-be informers to come forward and report on crimes, safe in the knowledge that their identity will be protected. A rule that gave trial judges the power to decide on an ad hoc basis whether to protect informer privilege would create a significant disincentive for would-be informers to come forward, thereby eviscerating the usefulness of informer privilege and dealing a great blow to police investigations.

Despite this forceful position, the majority did leave open the possibility that the rule might be the subject of a Charter challenge. It was disinclined, however, to embark on a constitutional analysis in the circumstances because the appeal was of a discretionary order.

The core of the majority judgement is directed at how the judiciary should operationalize the privilege, for even though the privilege must always be respected it is clear that a judge also has a duty to apply it in a manner that minimally impairs the open court principle. The majority recognized that meeting this duty can be challenging for judges because the parties will frequently consent to an in camera process.

In recommending a model process to assist judges in meeting this challenge, the majority held that:

  • a judge can appoint an amicus curiae for the limited purpose of addressing whether the evidence supports the conclusion that a person is a confidential informer
  • the media does not have standing to address this question
  • the media may have standing after the privilege has been established in a second hearing to address the issue of minimal intrusion
  • members of the media should be provided with notice rather than be hand picked
  • whether notice to the media is given is a matter of the judge’s discretion
  • the media should not be provided with identifying information and, more generally, should only be provided with information essential to making an argument

LeBel J. was the lone dissenter. Unlike the majority he framed the contest as between a constitutionally-protected principle (open courts) and a judge made rule that promotes the administration of justice (the informer privilege). He held that an absolute rule was not warranted because the privilege is not an end in and of itself. He also suggested that the majority should have embarked upon a constitutional analysis even though a Charter challenge to the common law rule was not formally made. Given the qualifier made by the majority, LeBel J. may some day get another chance to make his point.

Named Person v. Vancouver Sun, 2007 SCC 43.

One to watch – Blood Tribe at the SCC

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.