Saturday, March 28, 2009

Autism in the Courts in Canada - What Auton Means

What did the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Auton mean?

The decision was a stunning setback for autistic children and their families who were trying to help them receive treatment for their autism disorders. In practical terms it meant that parents seeking to compel governments to provide treatment for their children' s autism disorders would have to do so through political action. Canadian courts received a clear direction to show deference to the economic and policy decisions of governments with respect to disadvantaged groups like autistic children. No substantive right to treatment for autism was found to exist unless governments decided to provide the treatment. A complaint of discrimination could not be founded unless government had decided to provide the treatment and then did so in a discriminatory fashion.

The decision of the Supreme Court of British Columbia in Auton v. A.G.B.C., 2001 BCSC 220 (CanLII), upheld on appeal by the British Columbia Court of Appeal, Auton (Guardian of) v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2002 BCCA 538 (CanLII), had energized autism advocates across Canada. The fact findings and rulings by the Honourable Madam Justice Allan of the Supreme Court of British Columbia were, in my view, consistent with the spirit and intent of the equality provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that section of Canada's Constitution which is also intended to help fulfill in domestic law Canada's international human rights commitments. Her conclusions about the realities of autism spectrum disorders and the efficacy of Applied Behavior Analysis as a medical treatment have been borne out by the subsequent findings of other bodies, in particular the American Academy of Pediatrics, Management of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, 2007. Ultimately the Supreme Court of Canada reversed the decisions of Justice Allen and the British Columbia Court of Appeal and effectively quashed any legal recourse to compel Canadian governments to provide treatment to autistic children.

The Auton decision is one of three cited in the Submission of the Charter Committee on Poverty Issues to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as part of the Committee's 2006 Review of Canada’s Fourth and Fifth Periodic Reports Under the ICESCR (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). The CCPI argued that Canada has failed to ensure effective remedies to Covenant rights. Specifically Canada has chosen not to make the Covenant directly enforceable in its courts.

The CCPI analysis of the Auton decision follows in full:

In the Auton case, the Supreme Court dealt for the first time with the question of whether the right to equality under s.15 of the Charter imposes positive obligations to provide specialized treatment for autistic children. The parents of children with autism argued that that children with autism have unique needs and that a refusal by governments to meet those needs has a discriminatory consequence in terms of fundamental issues of dignity, security and human development. This was really the first case to explicitly challenge the Court to recognize that governments have an obligation to meet the unique needs of a clearly disadvantaged group. As such, it attracted ten governmental interveners – Canada and nine provinces, all of whom argued that the Court should not interfere with governments’ decisions on how to allocate scarce resources in healthcare, and that the right to equality should not be interpreted so broadly as to impose this kind of obligation on governments.

The Chief Justice, writing for a unanimous Court, found no violation of the right to equality. Disregarding the Court’s openness on earlier occasions to a broader paradigm of positive obligations consistent with the right to health and other Covenant rights, McLachlin, C.J. declared that the legislature “is free to target the social programs it wishes to fund as a matter of public policy, provided the benefit itself is not conferred in a discriminatory manner.”50 The Court found that to establish a claim of discrimination, the petitioners would need to show differential treatment in comparison to a comparator group - “a non-disabled person or a person suffering a disability other than a mental disability (here autism) seeking or receiving funding for a non-core therapy important for his or her present and future health, which is emergent and only recently becoming recognized as medically required.”51 Without a comparator, those with unique needs have no protection from inequality of benefits. The Chief Justice simply asserted that “there can be no administrative duty to distribute non-existent benefits equally.”

The Supreme Court was considering, in Auton, really for the first time, the constitutionality of doing nothing to meet the needs of an extremely disadvantaged group in society. It appears to have affirmed, in shocking fashion, the government’s ‘right’ to do nothing. The Court made no reference to international human rights law, and made no effort to interpret the right to equality in a more substantive manner, consistent with this Committee’s General Comment No. 9.

In every day language the Supreme Court of Canada in the Auton decision rendered the equality provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and Canada's commitments under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights meaningless. The analytic gymnastics performed by the Court amounted to saying that if a group is disadvantaged in a way that can not be readily compared to the treatment afforded a comparative group then it can not even begin to assert a claim pursuant to the equality provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Unless governments grant or recognize a right to specific services by disadvantaged groups Canadian courts will be of no assistance in compelling governments to provide such services.

To paraphrase the CCPI submission the Supreme Court of Canada, in the Auton decision, recognized the constitutionality of government's right to do nothing to help the disadvantaged - in that case autistic children.

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1 comment:

Barry Hudson said...

Hi Harold,

A lawyer question - Do you think there an international court challenge that could be initiated based on this?

Thank you,