Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Remedies for rights breaches

The idea that breach of the Bill of Rights may attract a remedy, usually called compensation, against the Crown and distinct from tortious liability for damages, has received a boost from the Privy Council: Attorney-General of Trinidad and Tobago v Ramanoop [2005] UKPC 15 (23 March 2005). The Law Lords referred to decisions of the New Zealand Court of Appeal, finding that dicta of Cooke P in Simpson v Attorney-General (Baigent’s Case) [1994] 3 NZLR 667, 678, and Thomas J in Dunlea v Attorney-General [2000] 3 NZLR 136, 152 were of particular assistance.

There is a difference between the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago, and the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, in that the former expressly provides that a person may apply by way of originating motion to the High Court for redress for breach of rights, without prejudice to any other action in respect of the same matter which is lawfully available. No equivalent exists in the latter. However, the NZBORA does not exclude a constitutional, as distinct from a private law, remedy. The question becomes one of whether the court can create a constitutional remedy for breach of constitutionally protected rights.

Professor Jim Evans has doubted the correctness of Baigent’s Case, in which a constitutional remedy was created: "What Does it Mean to Say Someone Has a Legal Right?" (1998) 9 Otago Law Review 301. In Brown v Attorney-General (discussed in these blogs, March 6, 2005) a majority of the Court of Appeal doubted, obiter, and without citing Professor Evans’s article, whether constitutional remedies should be available for breach of the right to a fair trial. The question can therefore be said still to be open.

The judgment of Thomas J, endorsed by the Privy Council, includes the following observations:

[55] Baigent’s Case established a new cause of action and remedy in compensation for a breach of the Bill of Rights. It applies, not only where there is no existing cause of action, but also where the existing cause of action and consequential remedy is inadequate. The focus is on the inadequacy as well as the availability of the cause of action. Consequently, to seek to restrict the remedy provided by Baigent’s Case to situations where there is no existing common law cause of action is not in accord with the ratio of the majority decision in that case. Furthermore, such claimed exclusivity runs counter to the fact that a number of causes of action deriving from statute or common law can and do exist concurrently and frequently overlap.

[56] Nor is the attempted exclusion particularly logical in that the cause of action under the Bill of Rights does not duplicate the common law cause of action. As I emphasise below, the common law cause of action is a private remedy to redress a private wrong. The cause of action under the Bill of Rights is a public law remedy based on a right in the nature of a public right. The Crown’s liability is not vicarious as it would be in tort. Its liability arises directly from the fact that in affirming fundamental rights in the Bill of Rights, the State has undertaken a constitutional obligation to respect, protect and vindicate those rights. Why, then, when the State has failed in that obligation should that essentially different public law remedy lie dormant if there is an equivalent common law private law civil action, and only arise from its torpor if and when there is no such cause of action? What is there in this public law remedy which would restrict it to such a back-up role? How can it be said that the elements of this public law remedy will only exist when the plaintiff has no common law remedy but not when he or she has such a remedy? Are we to pretend that the public law factors in respect of a breach of the Bill of Rights only arise where by fortuitous happenstance there is no equivalent private law remedy? Is there some policy consideration which is yet to be disclosed?

[57] I prefer to accept that Baigent’s Case established a new remedy for a violation of the Bill of Rights and that the key question which arises is not whether a remedy is available for that violation, but whether the existing private law remedies are adequate to provide an effective remedy for such a violation. Contrary to the Crown’s submission, I take the view that existing private law remedies are inadequate to vindicate those rights, and I turn to the critical need for such vindication.

[64] Compensation will not be effective to vindicate and affirm the right which has been violated, however, unless the quantum of the award recognises that a fundamental right possessed by the plaintiff has been denied. It follows that the award cannot be simply equated with damages for "equivalent" breaches of common law torts such as wrongful arrest, false imprisonment, or the like. The focus of the Court is wider and must embrace the impact of the State’s violation of the citizen’s fundamental rights."

These observations are similar to those of the Privy Council on the topic of the ingredients of the constitutional remedy (para 19) in Ramanoop.

The critical question at the present stage is whether the court should "recognise" the existence of a constitutional remedy, or whether the court should conclude that the matter is one for the legislature, and that until Parliament creates a constitutional remedy there is none. Why, however, is this an issue, after the Court of Appeal’s decision in Baigent’s Case? The CA has traditionally been regarded as normally being bound by its own decisions. Exceptions exist, where the law has been shown to have been decided wrongly, or where changes in the needs of society make change in the law desirable. Has an error in Baigent’s Case been demonstrated? Have social needs changed? The new circumstance is the existence of the Supreme Court, which last year took over the role of the less accessible Privy Council. One might surmise that the CA is willing to revise its earlier decisions in the interests of getting issues before the SC for final determination.

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