Andrew Lawton and True North Centre for Public Policy v. Canada (Leaders’ Debates Commission) and the Attorney General of Canada

The Justice Centre represented journalist Andrew Lawton and True North Centre for Public Policy (True North) as they continued their challenge of the federal Leaders’ Debates Commission’s last-minute decision to deny True North its media accreditation for the election debate in October of 2019. The Commission informed True North and Mr. Lawton on Friday October 4th that he could not attend the media scrum following the leaders’ election debate on Monday October 7th, allegedly because True North was engaged in “advocacy.”

This term was not defined and was arbitrary in nature since the Commission approved other media outlets that declare themselves to be advocates. In fact, on the Toronto Star’s own website, it states that the Star has “an ongoing commitment to investigating and advocating for social and economic justice.” Mr. Lawton and True North applied for an emergency court order on the afternoon of the debate, and were granted the right to attend as members of the press.

Justice Russel Zinn of the Federal Court of Canada, in detailed written reasons released the following month, described the Commission’s decision as “lacking in discernible rationality and logic” and “neither justified nor intelligible.” Although the Debates Commission initially filed a Notice of Appeal of the Order, it withdrew the appeal after reviewing Justice Zinn’s reasons.

The court application continued as Mr. Lawton and True North argued that the Commission’s initial exclusion violated their constitutional right to freedom of the press, an essential part of Canada’s free and democratic society that the Charter is meant to protect. The Commission filed a motion to strike the application of True North and Mr. Lawton, on the basis that it was moot (there were no issues left to argue) because the 2019 election was over, and it was therefore irrelevant whether or not it infringed True North’s and Mr. Lawton’s Charter rights. The Justice Centre filed a response to that motion, and brought its own motion on behalf of True North and Mr. Lawton, seeking leave of the Court to amend the judicial review application (originally prepared by the law firm that argued the injunction) to seek this Charter declaration.

The motions were argued by a virtual hearing in the Federal Court on June 18, 2020. On December 22, 2020, the Court released its Decision, granting the Debates Commission’s motion to strike True North’s application on the basis that the matter was moot. True North’s request to amend its application was therefore also denied. The Court found that considering Charter infringements, although a serious allegation, was an abstract and academic exercise in the absence of an ongoing, live dispute.

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