Mike Ward Case to be Heard by the Supreme Court: Understanding the Court Process

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On July 30th, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed to hear the case involving comedian Mike Ward and singer Jérémy Gabriel. There are many steps involved before a case makes it to the highest court in the land.

Mike Ward loses the first round

Between 2010 and 2013, comedian Mike Ward repeatedly performed a routine including jokes about Jérémy Gabriel. The young singer has Treacher Collins syndrome, which involves a physical malformation.

Mr. Gabriel’s family responded by complaining to the Commission des droits de la personne (Quebec human rights commission), which had the task of deciding whether Mr. Ward, through discrimination, damaged Mr. Gabriel’s dignity, honour or reputation.

In 2016, the Commission ruled against Mr. Ward and ordered him to pay damages to Mr. Gabriel as well as to Mr. Gabriel’s mother.  Mr. Ward refused to pay the compensation and appealed the decision to the Quebec Court of Appeal, basing his arguments on freedom of expression.

Quebec Court of Appeal: Mr. Ward loses Round 2 as well

The Quebec Court of Appeal is the highest court in Quebec and hears appeals of decisions from the Commission des droits de la personne.

To succeed on appeal, an applicant must show that the judgement being appealed is unreasonable or contains an error of law. The Court of Appeal does not repeat the same process as the tribunal which heard the case, but rather makes sure that the judgement in question is reasonable and contains no legal errors.

In 2019, the Court of Appeal upheld the decision granting Mr. Gabriel damages, but cancelled the damages granted to his mother. Mr. Ward then decided to appeal the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Supreme Court of Canada: the final and decisive round

The Supreme Court of Canada is the highest court in the land. It does not agree to hear every case brought before it, but rather chooses which appeals it will hear. A panel of three judges, or more, first examines the case on paper and decides whether to grant “leave” (permission) for the case to proceed to a full hearing before the court.  The panel considers, among other things, whether the case is of importance to the general public of Canada, and not just to the persons involved in the case.

The Supreme Court decided that the issues raised by the Mike Ward case were of importance to the general public and should proceed to a hearing. The Court’s judgement on the case will no doubt have a major social impact, as it will define the limits of freedom of expression in Canada.