The court held that the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal had erred by accepting jurisdiction to decide an issue of alleged discrimination in an application of the Income Security Act, when the legislature had confirmed exclusive jurisdiction on a different tribunal, the Commission des Affaires Sociales (CAS), to hear appeals in respect of decisions made under the Act

Administrative law – Decisions of administrative tribunals – Human Rights Tribunal – Jurisdiction to hear a complaint under the Income Security Act – Human rights complaints – Discrimination – Gender – Judicial review – Jurisdiction of tribunal – Statutory powers

Quebec (Attorney General) v. Quebec (Human Rights Tribunal), [2004] S.C.J. No. 35, Supreme Court of Canada, June 11, 2004, McLachlin C.J. and Iacobucci, Major, Bastarache, Binnie, Arbour and Fish JJ.

While employed in the labour force, the complainant had been participating in a government program under Quebec’s Income Security Act which provided social assistance benefits to low income families. When the complainant left work on maternity leave, she was told that she would not receive these benefits because the Employment Insurance benefits she would receive while on maternity leave were not income from employment.

The Income Security Act conferred exclusive jurisdiction on the CAS to hear appeals from dissatisfied claimants under the Act. Rather than appealing the decision to the CAS, the complainant filed a complaint with Quebec’s Human Rights Commission alleging discrimination on the basis of sex and pregnancy contrary to sections 10 and 12 of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedom, R.S.Q. c. C-12. The Human Rights Tribunal rejected the Attorney General of Quebec’s motion that the Tribunal decline jurisdiction on the grounds that the CAS possessed exclusive jurisdiction over the dispute. The Superior Court rejected the Attorney General’s motion for judicial review and suspension of the Tribunal’s proceedings. The Quebec Court of Appeal reversed those orders and held that the Human Rights Tribunal had no jurisdiction over the dispute and that the complainant’s only remedy was an appeal to the CAS.

A majority of the Supreme Court of Canada held that the key issue in each case is whether the essential character of the dispute, in its factual context, arises either expressly or inferentially from a statutory scheme. In this case, the factual context of the case showed that the essential character of the dispute was whether the complainant qualified for certain social assistance benefits, which was an issue lying within the exclusive jurisdiction of the CAS.

There is no legal justification for making a distinction between disputes that are based on human rights grounds and those that are not. The CAS had been explicitly granted power to decide questions of law arising out of the application of certain sections of the Income Security Act, and this power included the authority to declare the Minister’s decision to exclude the complainant from the benefits program to be discriminatory and to declare any provision of the Act which contravened the Charter to be of no force or effect. Where a comprehensive administrative scheme gives a specialized administrative body exclusive jurisdiction to apply and interpret that scheme, that administrative body will not lose its exclusive jurisdiction simply because a case raises a human rights issue or involves declaring a legislative provision to be of no force or effect.

Three members of the court dissented, holding that where legislation confers exclusive jurisdiction, one must go on to determine its scope. The dispute, viewed in its essential nature, was about discrimination on the ground of gender or pregnancy. The dispute was not about the interpretation and application of the relevant legal scheme. The Income Security Act does not give the CAS exclusive jurisdiction over a dispute that, viewed in its full factual matrix, is essentially a human rights claim about the validity of the law that affects the complainant and many others in her situation. The Human Rights Tribunal was the best fit for the dispute, and would not be duplicating the work of the Minister and the CAS, whose basic task is to apply the existing law and regulations in a fair manner.

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