On the blackboard, 300 times: ‘I must obey the courts!’

If you want to mess with a court, play badminton.

Do not – repeat, do not! – disobey an order of a Canadian court. Canadian courts have real powers.

Richard Ouellet (at left), a senior manager in the provincial department of Children and Youth Services, seems to have discovered this the hard way by defying an order of the Alberta Court of Appeal.

Yesterday, a Court of Appeal judge sentenced the senior government official to eight days in jail for civil contempt. Mr. Ouellet had failed to return a child to his foster mother after the court ordered the department to do so. Justice Jean Cote gave Mr. Ouellet an opportunity to avoid jail time – but only if he performs 40 hours of community service work and someone pays the foster mother’s legal fees.

In a democracy, understanding that the courts have real powers and you have to do what they say – no matter who you happen to be – should be pretty elementary. Indeed, if they taught civics in this province (which they don’t appear to do) this would be one of the useful things you’d have to learn in high school. (Hell if they did, someone would probably want to opt out under the provisions of Bill 44.)

Just in case you missed the lesson, let’s review: According to my favourite political science textbook, The Canadian Regime, by Patrick Malcolmson and Richard Myers, the fundamental principles of the Canadian judiciary are as follows:

  1. The courts are impartial. That is, they decide cases on the facts and the law, and should be free from prejudice for or against anyone who appears before them.
  2. The courts are independent. So Mr. Stelmach and Mr. Harper aren’t allowed to tell them what to do, no matter how much they think they know better. This is what really gets the goat of supporters of arbitrary measures by the government. When they invariably scream “activist courts” they usually mean independent courts.
  3. Citizens enjoy equality before the law. That is, the law applies equally to everyone, even if you’re a friend of the premier.

What’s more, the courts have real power to support these principles. So, for example, if you’re a high government official who doesn’t feel he has to obey a court order for whatever reason, they are allowed to clap you in irons. And, apparently, they’ll do it now and again!

That’s enough legal theory for now. The rest of this story is murky. It’s hard to imagine how a senior government official could have forgotten such an elementary point. The media reports leave one with a feeling there’s a hole in the story you could drive a Mac Truck through, but you can’t quite put your finger on it, maybe because it’s so big.

Who gave Mr. Ouellet the bad advice that he could ignore the court? (“He was possibly poorly advised,” said the judge, according to a report in the Edmonton Journal. Moreover, according to the judge’s ruling, this was a case of “carelessness,” not bad intent.) On what basis? Why wasn’t the child returned to his foster mom until the day before a contempt hearing was scheduled? Is ignoring orders of this type – or playing silly buggers with them – standard operating procedure for this government? Do government lawyers advise officials to do this sort of thing?

It seems to me that the problem with a province that massively elects the same party over and over and over again, no matter what, is that the big shots in the political elite that runs the place (and in Alberta that certainly includes their senior officials) forget that they don’t have a monopoly on power.

Most of the time, of course, they do, which is why it’s easy for them to forget, I guess. Usually, they can ignore the wishes and the sensibilities of individuals, or even whole communities.

But they can’t ignore the rulings of the courts, thank God. At least as long as we’re part of Canada. I’m sure it makes them mad. I’m sure they think it’s unreasonable. I’m sure they think it flies in the face of the very laws of nature.

But there it is! In Alberta, as in every other part of Canada, no matter who you are, you just have to obey the courts. It’s the law. You. Must. Obey. Court. Orders.

I don’t know about you, but I find that kind of refreshing.

2 Comments on "On the blackboard, 300 times: ‘I must obey the courts!’"

  1. Anonymous says:

    You hit the "nail on the head" with this one Dave. You have to think reading the comments on this story from various sources that there are two issues here (1) The Contempt Itself (2) System Issues. When the Judge writes ". . .complex administrative structures suggested by the evidence here must exacerbate opacity and the opportunities for deniability." ignites my imagination on the problems there must be in the Government. Reading Ken’s blog I take it that even management is fed up as he writes about his coverage of this event "Feedback has come for inside at the GOA political level and senior administrative levels."

  2. Ken Chapman says:

    David – I have read the entire Court of Appeal file on the contempt of court issue and will now be doing a blog post series on my findings about how this GOA unit ignored the rule of law and who they performed about the best interests of the child in question. Hope you read and comment regularly on the posts.

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