Erga Omnes or Inter Partes? The Legal Effects of Federal Courts’ Constitutional Judgments

Does a Federal Court constitutional judgment apply only to parties to a case or can it extend beyond those parties? In other words, beyond the purview of the principles of stare decisis and res judicata, are the effects of the Federal Courts’ constitutional rulings inter partes or erga omnes? The answer to this question will shape the conduct of public authorities and private actors, the deference accorded by other Canadian courts to the Federal Courts’ constitutional jurisprudence, and, ultimately, institutional respect in the community. Little guidance can be found in the Constitution Acts, 1867-1982, the provisions of which are compatible with both inter partes and erga omnes views. With regard to provincial statutory courts, it has been held that their rulings produce inter partes effects only, as they have no inherent jurisdiction, a characteristic of superior courts. However, the resort to the notion of inherent jurisdiction fails to resolve the matter vis-à-vis the Federal Courts whose judgments are not subject to the supervisory jurisdiction of provincial superior courts. The clearest answer is offered by judicial practice and attitudes over the years, to the extent that Canadian judges have generally assumed the constitutional holdings of the Federal Courts to be erga omnes. However, as with any rule, a fortiori a judge-made law, the power to render erga omnes judgments can evolve as a reflection of the relevant changing realities in modern society. In this regard, normative considerations of the Federal Courts’ expertise and efficiency of the dispute resolution process do not clearly favour one view over the other. It is probably the value of uniformity, as adapted to a federation, that tips the normative balance in favour of the erga omnes view. Therefore, until relevant changes affecting the judicial system occur, the safest view in respect of the Federal Courts’ constitutional judgments would be to maintain the status quo.

This content has been updated on 30 December 2019 at 19 h 24 min.