• Cameron G. White

When Can a Court Review A Voluntary Organizations Internal Decisions?

Updated: Jul 5

Voluntary organizations such as religious groups, political parties, and charitable agencies have a general right to govern their own affairs. However, when internal disagreements or conflicts arise within these organizations, do courts have the jurisdiction to intervene in private organizations and resolve internal disputes?

Two recent decisions by the Supreme Court of Canada found that in general, courts do not have jurisdiction to oversee these internal disagreements or conflicts.


THE WALL DECISION

The first decision in 2018 came in Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Judicial Committee) v. Wall 2018 SCC 26. Mr. Wall had been a member of a Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Calgary since 1980 however he was expelled from the church after admitting to engaging in sinful behaviour and violating rules of the faith. Mr. Wall sought judicial review claiming that the principles of natural justice and the duty of fairness were breached. He also claimed that the decision of the church negatively impacted his work as a realtor, as his Jehovah’s Witness clients were no longer allowed to communicate with him following his expulsion. Both the trial judge and the Court of Appeal found that the court had jurisdiction to hear the case however, the Supreme Court of Canada, in a unanimous decision, reversed this decision and outlined three guiding principles for cases where a member (or former member) seeks relief against a voluntary organization:

  • judicial review is reserved for state action pursuant to a statutory power of decision. Even if a church or charity was incorporated by statute this does not give a court jurisdiction to review the organizations internal decisions.

  • The complaint must be for a serious breach of an underlying legal right based in contract, tort or statute. An alleged violation of procedural fairness by itself is insufficient.

  • even when review is available, courts will only consider those issues that are justiciable. Purely theological issues are not justiciable.

The Supreme Court found that no basis had been shown that Mr. Wall and the church intended to create legal relations. The Court went to state however that “…the Congregation does not have a written constitution, by-laws or rules that would entitle members to have those agreements enforced in accordance with their terms.” Did this mean that all a member of a voluntary organization had to do to show an intention to create legal relations was to show that the organization had a written constitution, bylaws or rules?


THE AGA DECISION

This question was answered by the Supreme Court in the May 2021 decision, Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada St. Mary Cathedral v. Aga 2021 SCC 22. In this case, the church was incorporated and had a written constitution and bylaws. The Ontario Court of Appeal concluded that when voluntary associations have written constitutions and bylaws, they constitute a contract. The Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeal decision and clarified its comments in Wall, stating that “Membership in a voluntary association is not automatically contractual. Even a written constitution does not suffice.”


THE TAKEAWAY

The Wall and Aga decisions restrict a member’s ability to seek judicial review of a voluntary organization’s decision. A court will only have jurisdiction to intervene to address concerns of procedural fairness when legal rights are at stake. The decisions are positive for religious and other voluntary organizations as it upholds and ensures their autonomy, enabling these organizations to determine their own rules and membership. The cases reaffirm that without a binding and enforceable contract, the private decision-making of voluntary organizations are protected from legal interference.


Contact Us

If you have any questions or concerns or are interested in discussing your voluntary organization legal rights, please contact us at (604) 736 9791 or email Cameron White cw@dwslaw.ca

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Disclaimer: This article is not intended to serve as, or should be construed as legal advice, and is only to provide general information. Should you require legal advice for your particular situation, please get in touch with us.