P.E.I. patronage victims awarded full costs by chief justice

Ongoing court challenge deals another blow to the political practices of Conservative Premier Pat Binns

 

Charlottetown (16 August 2006) - Chief Justice Gerard E. Mitchell of Prince Edward Island has awarded full legal costs to eleven public employees who are fighting a landmark discrimination case against the Conservative government of Premier Pat Binns.

The workers were fired a decade ago in an old-fashion political patronage purge. They are seeking damages and compensation.

The decision, which will cost the province an estimated $250,000, is unusual. Normally only partial costs are awarded. Thus, it is being interpreted as a signal of displeasure by the top court with the way the government is handling the case.

David Hooley, the lawyer representing the workers, said the ruling sends a strong message that the courts believe these employees were unfairly treated.

“In effect, it’s a sanction that the court uses to express its displeasure with a party, for the way that they are conducting the litigation,” Hooley told the Charlottetown Guardian. "The way the P.E.I. Court of Appeal sees it is that the province is out of line and they are expressing their view with this additional sanction.”

Hundreds fired

When Binns was elected premier in 1996 hundreds of employees were fired in the time-honoured provincial tradition of punishing enemies and rewarding friends when political power changes hands.

The mass exodus, estimated at 800 to 900 workers, prompted a wave of complaints, alleging discrimination, to the provincial human rights commission. Binns responded by using his majority in the legislature to change the provincial Human Rights Act the following year, restricting any settlements that might arise from the firings to token amounts.

Most employees elected, unhappily, to accept the cheap settlements. But the eleven holdouts refused and challenged the government in court.

They eventually won a lower court ruling in their favor and last winter their case was bolstered big-time with a sweeping decision by the appeals division of the province's highest court. That decision, also rendered by Mitchell, blasted the Binns government for violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by indulging in the "notorious" practice of political patronage.

"Patronage has a long tradition in this province," Mitchell wrote at the time.

"It is a systemic problem the existence of which is so notorious and longstanding it requires no formal proof. One of the chief manifestations of the patronage system has been the wholesale purging of unprotected government employees that regularly follows a change of governing party."

'Unconstitutional'

Now, with the added weight of his second ruling, lawyers are reviewing all of the cheaply-settled cases with a view to trying to reopen them on grounds that they were resolved prematurely by legislation that has now been deemed unconstitutional.

“All the respondents are of very modest means,” Michel writes in his most recent decision.

“In our view, for the government to bring forward this unconstitutional legislation specifically aimed at thwarting and short-circuiting their efforts to access remedies that up till then had been available to all who filed discrimination complaints under the (Human Rights Act) is deserving of an award of costs on a substantial indemnity basis.”

The case is being closely monitored by the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) and its provincial component, the P.E.I. Union of Public Sector Employees (PEIUPSE). The province has asked the Supreme Court of Canada to hear the case. A decision is expected in Ottawa this fall. NUPGE

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