Administrative law – Decisions of administrative tribunals – Coroner’s inquest – Judicial review – Parties – Standing – Test – Public interest – Bias
Vass (Committee for Justice) v. Lucas,  O.J. No. 4553, Ontario Superior Court of Justice, October 26, 2006, K.E. Swinton J
Otto Vass died on August 9, 2000 after being restrained by police officers. A Coroner’s Inquest into his death was scheduled to begin October 16, 2006. The widow and son of Otto Vass were granted private law standing to appear at the Coroner’s Inquest on December 9, 2005. However, in early September 2006, the Coroner was informed that counsel for the widow would not be appearing at the inquest. At that time, CJOV, a coalition of concerned community members, friends and colleagues of Otto Vass and individuals involved in the mental health and justice systems, applied for standing. Section 41(1) of the Coroner’s Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. C37 requires the Coroner to grant standing to a person “if the Coroner finds that person is substantially and directly interested in the inquest”. The Coroner concluded that CJOV did not have direct and substantial interest in the inquest and denied its application for standing. CJOV then brought an application before the court for judicial review of this decision.
The Court noted that a Coroner’s decision on standing was a determination of mixed fact and law. The Court must show restraint and defer to the decision of the Coroner, unless he or she has made a jurisdictional error or a serious error in principle that would result in an unfair inquest: Stamford v. Harris (1989), 38 Admin. L.R. 141 (Div. Ct.).
The Court held that the Coroner did not commit a serious error of principle in ruling that CJOV did not have a substantial and direct interest in the inquest. The Court noted that CJOV did not meet the private law test for standing, as it had no relationship with Mr. Vass prior to his death of such a nature as to warrant standing to represent his interest and it did not have any involvement in the circumstances of his death. With respect to the test for public interest standing, the Court noted that this was a two-fold test: (1) whether the applicant has a substantial special knowledge of the issues that are within the scope of the inquest; and (2) whether the applicant brings a unique perspective to the issues different from other public interest groups applying for standing. The Court held that the Coroner did not make an error in principle in concluding that CJOV did not meet this two-fold test.
The Court also rejected CJOV’s argument that there was a reasonable apprehension of bias on the part of the Coroner against CJOV and the family. The allegation had been based on comments made by the Coroner in his rulings. The Court held that a reasonable and well-informed person, having read the rulings of the Coroner, would not have concluded that the Coroner lacked impartiality.
In the result, the application for judicial review was dismissed.
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