Jan 6, 2017

Pitting public safety vs. the welfare of “sentient beings”

Montréal (Ville de) c. Lours, 2016 QCCA 1696 (CanLII)
There has been much public discussion in recent months surrounding the City of Montreal’s decision to introduce a city-wide ban on pit-bulls[1]. The by-law was enacted in reaction to the tragic mauling death of a Pointe-aux Trembles resident this summer[2], and it has sparked a rigorous and at times emotional public debate over the fairness and effectiveness of such bans, and over the wisdom of enacting breed specific legislation in general. The issue quickly made its way before the Courts and in the last two months, no less than three decisions have come down weighing in on the matter.
Within days of promulgating its by-law, the City was in court opposing a request for judicial review and a stay of the by-law’s provisions dealing with pit-bulls. The Plaintiffs, Mme Odette Lours and the SPCA, were attacking the legislation on multiple fronts, arguing inter alia that the offending provisions were (i) discriminatory and therefore ultra vires; (ii) vague, arbitrary and unreasonable and therefore unconstitutional; (iii) irreconcilable with Article 898.1 CCQ and certain other provisions of Quebec’s Animal Health Protection Act; and finally that they violated both the Canadian and Quebec Charters of rights and freedoms (specifically, sections 7 & 8 respectively).
On October 5th, 2016[3], Superior Court Justice Louis J. Gouin ordered a stay of the impugned provisions, suspending their application until such time as a final decision was rendered on the merits of the Plaintiffs’ application for judicial review. Justice Gouin summarized his reasons for granting the stay in the following manner:
[18] En effet, le Tribunal est d’avis que les Demanderesses ont rencontré les critères mentionnés précédemment, en démontrant une urgence réelle et immédiate, une apparence de droit possible, soit l’existence d’au moins une «question sérieuse», et un préjudice sérieux ou irréparable, la balance des inconvénients penchant définitivement en leur faveur.
[19] Cette «question sérieuse» vise plus précisément la compétence même de la Ville car, en adoptant les Dispositions litigieuses, lesquelles semblent inconciliables avec d’autres dispositions législatives, la Ville pourrait avoir outrepassé le cadre de sa compétence.
[20] Aussi, par l’emploi de mots vagues et ambigus, la Ville a amplifié le sérieux du problème, au point où certaines des Dispositions litigieuses soulèvent plus de questions qu’elles n’apportent de réponses.
The City immediately sought and obtained leave to appeal Justice Gouin’s decision[4], and a hearing was scheduled for late November.
In the intervening period, another decision of the Superior Court came down concerning very similar provisions of a pit-bull ban enacted by the Municipality of Lavaltrie. On November 24th, 2016[5], Superior Court Justice Guy Cournoyer released his decision in the context of an appeal brought by a citizen of Lavaltrie that had been fined for possessing a prohibited “pit-bull type” dog.
Commenting on the question of vagueness of the definition of “pit-bull”, Justice Cournoyer relied heavily on the decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal in Cochrane v. Ontario (Attorney General)[6] where similar, albeit by no means identical, provisions of a province-wide ban went under careful scrutiny. In the Cochrane case, the issue of vagueness of the definition of “pit-bull” was flatly set aside, the Court reasoning as follows:
[37] Vagueness describes a lack of precision in legislation that leaves its meaning and application unacceptably uncertain. Legislation should provide fair notice to citizens as to what conduct is prohibited, appropriate limits on the discretion of law enforcement officials and a proper basis for coherent judicial interpretation. A law that implicates the s. 7 right to life, liberty and security of the person will be struck down as being inconsistent with the principles of fundamental justice if it is not sufficiently intelligible to meet these objectives.
[41] I agree with the application judge's conclusion that the definition of "pit bull" in s. 1(1)(b)-(e) and 1(2) sufficiently delineates an area of risk and provides a basis for intelligible debate and interpretation. The core of the definition is the reference in s. 1(1)(b)-(d) to the three named breeds that have defined physical characteristics that are accepted by kennel clubs and dog breeder associations. That well-defined core is not exhaustive, but it provides a point of reference that identifies the essential physical characteristics for pit bulls. The phrase “substantially similar” is commonly used in statutes to embrace a somewhat broader class than that captured by an enumerated list of referents. To the extent that the definition of “pit bull” extends beyond the specified breeds, the substantially similar clause is capable of controlling or limiting the reach of the law within constitutionally acceptable limits.
Justice Cournoyer ultimately rejected the Appellant’s argument on vagueness, and the municipality’s by-law withstood the challenge:
[44] L’instruction de la présente affaire fait la démonstration que les définitions contenues aux articles 12.3 et 12.5 du Règlement ne sont pas imprécises au point de ne pouvoir être appliquées à la lumière de la jurisprudence analysée et d’une preuve d’expert. Pour reprendre l’expression consacrée, un débat judiciaire sur le sens et l’application de ces articles ne se révèle pas impossible.
Curiously, however, there was no mention of Justice Gouin’s earlier decision suspending application of the City of Montreal’s by-law. Equally curious is the fact that Justice Gouin had made no reference to Cochrane in his reasons.
Enter the Court of Appeal.
On December 1st, 2016[7], the Court of Appeal overturned Justice Gouin’s sweeping stay of Montreal’s by-law, instead suspending only those provisions of the ban which (i) allow for euthanizing “pit-bull type” dogs (whether or not they are dangerous, badly injured or highly contagious) and (ii) prohibit the repossession of errant pit-bulls by their rightful owners. Like us, the Court remarked that Justice Gouin omitted to even mention the Cochrane decision, a precedent which seemed to influence the Court to the point of concluding that the Plaintiffs were on shaky ground when seeking a stay of the legislation:
[19] À l’étape du sursis, il ne revient pas à la Cour de trancher la question de déterminer si ces précédents trouvent application en l’espèce, pas plus d’ailleurs de décider de l’argument relatif à la compétence de la Ville à adopter le Règlement. Qu’il suffise pour l’instant de dire que les intimées ne peuvent prétendre à l’existence d’un droit clair. Tout au plus jouissent-elles d’un droit douteux, de sorte que le juge devait tenir compte dans son analyse des deux autres critères, soit le préjudice irréparable et la prépondérance des inconvénients.
And yet despite this finding, the Court nonetheless suspended those provisions of the by-law which present the most dire, irreparable consequences for dogs and owners alike: euthanizing otherwise well, sociable animals and prohibiting the return of inadvertently errant pets to their rightful owners. And while it is true that the City itself undertook to refrain from enforcing these provisions of its by-law, the Court of Appeal nonetheless mentioned that:
[24] À cela, il convient d’ajouter que, pour la première fois en appel, la Ville fait part des engagements qu’elle est disposée à mettre en application dans l’attente du jugement sur le fond du pourvoi en contrôle judiciaire si son appel devait être accueilli, le tout sans admission de sa part. De l’avis de la Cour, ceux-ci correspondent, pour l’essentiel, à l’ordonnance de sursis qui aurait pu être prononcée en première instance, en tenant, à ce stade, les allégations des intimées pour acquises. (emphasis added)
Clearly there’s a debate to be had here. But what is really interesting in all of this is what lies ahead. The City and MmeLours are now going to put some meat on the bones of this dispute, presumably in the form of evidence – expert and otherwise - on the need for and effectiveness of breed specific legislation. And the 2008 decision in Cochrane will surely be revisited, with the benefit of almost a decade of experience in neighbouring Ontario with its province-wide pit-bull ban. Are these measures really effective? Is public safety and the public interest at large truly served by broad, sweeping bans such as these?
And what of the fact that in Quebec, animals only recently acquired the status of “sentient beings”[8]? Will this somehow raise the bar, or otherwise distinguish Cochrane, in a manner that subjects the regulation of animals to a different, more rigorous test in Quebec? To date, very little has been written about this new class of property, and the current debate on pit-bull bans may very well present an ideal opportunity for reading important meaning into this very novel concept in Quebec law.
À suivre, to be sure!

[1] Règlement sur le contrôle des animaux, R.R.V.M., c. C-10. Technically not a breed in and of itself, the term “pit-bull type dog” is defined in the City’s by-law as follows:
« 1° un chien de race Pit bull terrier américain (« American pit bull terrier »), Terrier américain du Staffordshire (« American Staffordshire terrier ») ou Bull terrier du Staffordshire (« Staffordshire bull terrier »);
2° un chien issu d’un croisement entre l’une des races énumérées au paragraphe 1° et un autre chien;
3° un chien qui présente plusieurs caractéristiques morphologiques de races et croisements énumérés aux paragraphes 1° et 2°; »
[2] It bears mention that to this day it remains uncertain whether the dog involved in the attack was actually a “pit-bull” within the meaning of the City’s by-law.
[3] Lours v. Montréal (Ville de), 2016 QCCS 4770
[4] Montréal (Ville de) v. Lours, 2016 QCCA 1696
[5] Parisien v. Lavaltrie (Ville de), 2016 QCCS 5721
[6] 2008 ONCA 718
[7] 2016 QCCA 1931
[8] Article 898.1 CCQ