In 2012, a privately owned Quebec company was issued a fine of $30,834 under the province’s Building Act for carrying out construction work as a contractor without holding the requisite licence for that purpose. The corporation responded by challenging the constitutionality of the fine in court, arguing that it violated the corporation’s right to be protected against “any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment” under Section 12 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The CCF chose to intervene in this case because it could have a broad impact upon the development of section 12 jurisprudence.

How the Supreme Court of Canada addresses this issue is important for all Canadians in at least two ways. First, and most obviously, the Court will decide whether corporations, and their human stakeholders, are protected by the Charter when facing fines or other punishments and treatments that are grossly disproportionate or outrageously excessive. But second, and perhaps more significantly, in this case, the SCC will set the methodology to be used by future courts in addressing similar disputes from across the nation.

This is not to say corporate rights operate in the same way as the rights of natural persons. In many cases, the law correctly treats the rights of natural persons and artificial persons differently. And a finding that Section 12 does protect legal persons results from the specific text of that Charter provision, then, and would not invite a broader extension of constitutional protections to legal persons.

That said, corporations are structures composed of human stakeholders whose livelihood and liberty are tied up with the ultimate fate of the entity. Imagine a small business is convicted of some form of criminal negligence and a completely disproportionate fine is applied that is tantamount to court-sanctioned bankruptcy. That would obviously have bad effects on individual Canadians. There is no reason in law or policy that these kinds of unfair fines cannot constitute “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Decision: Supreme Court adopts CCF’s textualist approach to constitutional interpretation in “cruel and unusual punishment” case