Canada: Closing The Door On Judicial Review Of Private Entities: A Comment On Judicial Committee Of The Highwood Congregation Of Jehovah's Witnesses V Wall

Last Updated: June 18 2018
Article by Dina I. Awad and David P. McCutcheon

We recently wrote about a case of the Divisional Court of Ontario, The Conservative Party of Canada v Trost, 2018 ONSC 2733, in which the Court held that judicial review was not available to review decisions made by private entities that are not exercising statutory authority. On May 31, 2018, the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed this conclusion in its decision in Judicial Committee of the Highwood Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses v Wall, 2018 SCC 26. The Supreme Court held that, because a voluntary association is not exercising statutory authority, its decisions cannot be judicially reviewed. There is simply no state action which may be reviewed for legality.

Facts and Lower Court Holdings

Mr. Wall was a member of the Highwood Congregation (the "Congregation") of Jehovah's Witnesses in Calgary, Alberta. He worked as a realtor, and his clients were primarily other members of the Jehovah's Witnesses. In March 2014, Mr. Wall appeared before a committee of elders of the Congregation and was asked to repent for his sins, including instances of drunkenness relating to stresses caused by his daughter's disfellowship from the Congregation. The committee of elders concluded that Mr. Wall was insufficiently repentant, and in April 2014 Mr. Wall was disfellowshipped from the Congregation. His livelihood suffered.

Mr. Wall applied for judicial review of the Congregation's decision to disfellowship him. At first instance, and on appeal, the Court found that it had jurisdiction to hear the application for judicial review on the basis that courts may, where a breach of natural justice is alleged or a significant property or civil right is engaged, review decisions made by voluntary associations.

The Supreme Court's decision

The Supreme Court of Canada overturned the lower court decisions and held that the Congregation's decision could not be judicially reviewed. It gave three reasons for this, as follows.

Reason 1: Judicial Review Limited to Public Decision Makers

The Supreme Court noted that judicial review is a public law remedy, and "[t]he purpose of judicial review is to ensure the legality of state decision making" (at para 13). Judicial review is rooted in section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 and the rule of law. In defining the scope of judicial review, the Court stated, at paragraph 14:

Judicial review is only available where there is an exercise of state authority and where that exercise is of a sufficiently public character. Even public bodies make some decisions that are private in nature — such as renting premises and hiring staff — and such decisions are not subject to judicial review. In making these contractual decisions, the public body is not exercising "a power central to the administrative mandate given to it by Parliament", but is rather exercising a private power.  Such decisions do not involve concerns about the rule of law insofar as this refers to the exercise of delegated authority.

The Supreme Court found that allowing judicial review to proceed in respect of decisions of voluntary associations is incorrect. More specifically, judicial review is not available to review the decisions of churches incorporated pursuant to a private Act or of voluntary associations on the basis that the decisions are "sufficiently public in nature" (at para 19). Indeed, the Supreme Court expressly disapproved of courts relying on the Ontario Court of Appeal's decision in Setia v Appleby College, 2013 ONCA 753, as a basis for holding that decisions with a sufficiently broad public impact could be judicially reviewed. Indeed, there is a distinction between the meaning of "public", in the sense of raising "questions about the rule of law and the limits of an administrative decision maker's exercise of power" (at para 20), and "public", in the manner of ordinary speech. Administrative law remedies are only available for the former.

Reason 2: No Cause of Action

The second ground for dismissing Mr. Wall's application was that there was no legal basis for the Congregation's decision to be reviewed. While "there is no free standing right to procedural fairness with respect to decisions taken by voluntary associations" (at para 24), this does not preclude private law remedies from being sought. However, such remedies depend on an underlying legal right involved, such as a contract or an organization's written constitution and bylaws. Membership in a voluntary or religious association or a significant personal impact caused by a decision is not sufficient by itself to create jurisdiction for the courts to review that conduct.

The Supreme Court also clarified that its decision in Lakeside Colony of Hutterian Brethren v Hofer, [1992] 3 S.C.R. 165,does not permit courts to review decisions of voluntary organizations for procedural fairness where no property or contractual rights are engaged, even if the issues raised are "sufficiently important". Rather, a legal right of sufficient importance (such as a property or contractual right) must be at stake.In this case, because the Congregation was an unincorporated association with no constitution, there was no contractual or other basis for Mr. Wall's membership.  The fact that the decision may have had a significant economic impact on Mr. Wall did not create a legal right, any more than exclusion from any other group might.

Reason 3: Justiciability

The third ground for dismissing Mr. Wall's application was that the decision of the elders was not justiciable – that is, it was an inappropriate matter for a court to decide (at para 32). While determining whether a dispute is justiciable requires a contextual, flexible analysis, the fundamental issue is whether a court is properly able to adjudicate the dispute through an adversarial process, supported by evidence, and whether the resulting decision would be legitimate and an effective use of scarce public resources.

Indeed, courts do not have the legitimacy or the institutional capacity to decide matters of religious dogma. The Supreme Court closed as follows, at paragraph 39:

In the end, religious groups are free to determine their own membership and rules; courts will not intervene in such matters save where it is necessary to resolve an underlying legal dispute.


While courts may still review decisions of private entities where causes of action are based in a contract or other underlying legal right, the Supreme Court has closed the door on judicial review for all private entities, not merely religious associations, by holding that it is solely available for exercises of statutory authority. While clarity is welcome in this area of law, further explanation as to the nature of judicial review and the powers of Canadian superior courts would have been useful. For example, the Supreme Court distinguished between matters that are "public" because they arise from an exercise of statutory authority which is reviewable to ensure compliance with the rule of law, and matters that are "public" because they have broad impact on multiple people. However, the foundation of this distinction is not clear. The Supreme Court's reference to section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 and the rule of law may not provide a sufficiently nuanced explanation.  For example, the Supreme Court has recognized that judicial review has its basis in the inherent jurisdiction of the courts (See, e.g., Ontario v Criminal Lawyers' Association of Ontario, 2013 SCC 43 at para 22). Inherent jurisdiction is a flexible concept that does not, on its face, require a strict limitation. As such, a deeper review of the interplay between the inherent jurisdiction of the courts and the scope of judicial review might have been useful.

Nevertheless, it is welcome news that the Supreme Court has resolved this issue. As a take away, litigants seeking to review decisions of private entities must now be able to identify a basis in private law to warrant a civil remedy. Otherwise, courts must decline to intervene.

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