Administrative law – Fisheries – Permits and licences – Compliance with legislation – Powers under legislation – Judicial review – Procedural requirements – Legitimate expectations – Promissory estoppel
St. Anthony Seafoods Limited Partnership v. Newfoundland and Labrador (Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture),  N.J. No. 187, Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court – Trial Division, July 31, 2003, Russell J.
In May of 1998, St. Anthony made arrangements with Chianti Food Processors Inc. to lease their facilities for its processing operation. St. Anthony’s intention at that time was to concentrate on processing shrimp. St. Anthony may have intended to get involved in snow crab and other species in the future, but as at May 1998, it did not plan to process snow crab and presumably did not need a snow crab licence in order to do what it had initially planned. On June 3, 1998, the Minister of Fisheries replied to a letter from St. Anthony in which St. Anthony requested licensing for a crab processing facility. The letter stated:
In response to your letter dated May 30, 1998, authorization is given for the issuance of the core fish processing licence previously held by Chianti Food Processors Limited to your company. The core licence will permit your company to process all species of fish, including, snow crab, with the exception of shrimp landed from vessels fishing in the NAFO Area 4R.
Although St. Anthony tendered evidence that it had designed and constructed an engine room with enough capacity to accommodate snow crab processing in addition to shrimp processing at an extra cost of approximately $400,000, the court was not satisfied on the evidence that the Plaintiff at any relevant time advised the Defendant that it had incurred expenses on the basis of getting a crab licence. Thus, the court considered the Minister’s action and decision in light of the fact that the Minister was not aware that the Plaintiff was spending money to upgrade its operations in anticipation of a crab licence being granted.
In 1999, 2000 and 2001, St. Anthony applied for and was granted licences for the purchase of all species of fish except shrimp from the NAFO Area 4R and snow crab. In September of 1999, representatives of St. Anthony’s met with the Minister of Fisheries. The Minister advised that the crab licence was still there for them but that he understood that St. Anthony was not going forward with the crab because they were trading it for shrimp at that time. The court characterized this meeting as confirmation that the licence for snow crab had still not been issued but that it was available for the Plaintiff if St. Anthony decided to proceed with snow crab processing.
In June of 2001, St. Anthony formally applied for a crab license and the Minister rejected the application. St. Anthony then commenced this action for an Order that the Minister issue the snow crab licence and for damages arising out of its refusal to do so.
The court reviewed the Fish Inspection Act, R.S.N.L. 1990, c. F-12, which provided the Minister with the discretion to refuse to issue a licence without assigning any reason. The court characterized this as a broad discretionary power, reflecting the legislative intent to provide for the issuance of licenses with a view to governing the appropriate processing of fish within the province.
In considering whether procedural fairness had been given to St. Anthony, the court held that the evidence did not disclose the Minister knew that the Plaintiff was spending money on the basis that the Minister supported the Plaintiff’s snow crab licence. The correspondence indicated that the Minister kept the Plaintiff informed of the actual state of affairs with respect to the licence, including the ultimate refusal, and so procedural fairness was afforded to St. Anthony.
The court held that the doctrine of legitimate expectations is an extension of the doctrine of procedural fairness, and could not afford St. Anthony’s substantive relief in the action, given that St. Anthony was afforded procedural fairness.
The court considered St. Anthony’s argument that there was a promissory estoppel established by the earlier representations and conduct of the Minister which prohibited him from later refusing the issuance of the snow crab licence. The court referred to the case of Comeau’s Sea Foods in which it was held that a public law estoppel clearly requires an appreciation of the legislative intent embodied in the power whose exercise is thought to be estopped. The court held that the statutory power in question here was a wide discretionary power, on the broad grounds of public policy, to issue or not issue the fishing license, and that estoppel was not available.
Finally, the court considered the question of whether the Minister’s decision to refuse to issue the licence constituted an abuse of discretion and was patently unreasonable. The court held that the more discretion that is left to a decision maker, the more reluctant the courts should be to interfere with the manner in which the decision makers have made choices among various options, following the case of Baker v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration),  2 S.C.R. 817.
St. Anthony’s action against the Minister for refusal to issue a snow crab licence was dismissed.
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