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Civil Litigation - Civil procedure - Contempt of court - What constitutes - Impairing order or dignity of the court - Judgments and orders - Disobedience or non-compliance with - Knowledge requirement

Thursday, November 10, 2016 @ 7:00 PM  

Appeal by Morasse from a judgment of the Quebec Court of Appeal setting aside Nadeau-Dubois’ conviction and sentence for contempt of court. Nadeau-Dubois was the spokesperson for one of the most active student organizations in the province, which organized protests and picket lines in various post-secondary institutions over proposed increases in university tuition fees. Morasse was a student in his final year at Laval University. On April 12, 2012, Morasse obtained a provisional interlocutory injunction that mandated free access to the facilities in which classes for the visual arts program were held. It also ordered all persons who were then boycotting classes to refrain from obstructing or otherwise blocking access to classes by way of intimidation or through other actions likely to have this effect. On May 2, 2012, the Court renewed the injunction through a safeguard order valid until September 14, 2012. That order reaffirmed the prohibition against obstructing or otherwise preventing access to classes, but made no specific reference to picketing generally. Eleven days later, Morasse filed a motion under art. 53 of the Quebec Code of Civil Procedure (Code) for contempt against Nadeau-Dubois in relation to comments he made during a television interview. He alleged that Nadeau-Dubois publicly incited people to contravene the order. The motion alleged a violation of art. 761 of the Code, which created an offence for contempt that related specifically to breaching injunctions. On the merits of the contempt motion, the Court concluded that because the order had not been served on Nadeau-Dubois, he could not be found guilty of contempt of court under art. 761. However, the Court found Nadeau-Dubois guilty under art. 50 of the Code, which provided that a person was guilty of contempt of court if he/she disobeyed any process or order of the court or of a judge thereof, or acted in such a way as to interfere with the orderly administration of justice, or to impair the authority or dignity of the court. Nadeau-Dubois was sentenced to 120 hours of community service. The Quebec Court of Appeal unanimously allowed the appeal. It concluded that the statements made during the television interview fell short of establishing that Nadeau-Dubois knew of the existence and content of the court order. The conviction and sentence were consequently set aside and an acquittal entered.

HELD: Appeal dismissed. The power to find an individual guilty of contempt of court was an exceptional one. Nadeau-Dubois was ordered by the court to appear to answer charges under both arts. 50 para. 1 and 761 of the Code, notwithstanding that Morasse only brought charges under art. 761. Both arts. 50 and 761 had been interpreted harmoniously with the common law. The accused in a contempt proceeding had to be made aware of the precise nature of the charges laid against him or her. Nadeau-Dubois was neither named nor described in the injunction issued by the Court on May 2, 2012, and both prior courts concluded that a conviction for contempt under art. 761 of the Code could not be entered against him. The only issue, therefore, was whether Nadeau-Dubois was guilty under art. 50 para. 1. To have Nadeau-Dubois convicted under the first branch of art. 50 para. 1, which related to disobeying any process or order of the court or of a judge, Morasse had the onus of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the Court’s order was clear, that Nadeau-Dubois had knowledge of it and that he intentionally did what the order prohibited. However, there was no evidence that Nadeau-Dubois had knowledge, either actual or inferred, of the May 2nd injunction. The fact that at the time of the interview there were other injunctions that had been issued in the context of the student protests did not prove that Nadeau-Dubois knew of the injunction in question. Given that it was only conjecture to impute to Nadeau-Dubois knowledge of the court order of May 2nd, let alone its contents, it would be untenable to attribute to Nadeau-Dubois an intention to breach it through the words he used in the interview. In addition, the trial judge inferred in the circumstances that Nadeau-Dubois’ endorsement of students picketing in general amounted to an encouragement to use picket lines to block access to classes. However, merely saying that picketing was legitimate, even if understood as equivalent to barring access, fell far short of encouraging others to engage in unlawful conduct. As for the second branch of art. 50 para. 1, which related to whether Nadeau-Dubois’ words or acts interfered with the orderly administration of justice, or impaired the authority of dignity of the court, Morasse’s failure to prove Nadeau-Dubois’ actual or inferred knowledge of the May 2nd order was dispositive. If Nadeau-Dubois did not know about the order, he could not have intended to interfere with it, or encouraged others to do so.