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Hill v. Church of Scientology of Toronto

Hill vs. Church of Scientology of Toronto [1995] 2 S.C.R. 1130 is a libel case against the Church of Scientology interpreting Ontario's libel law in relation to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The famous United States Supreme Court case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan[?] 376 U.S. 254 (1964) is not followed.

FACTS: Moris Manning (an appellant) and representatives of the Church of Scientology (the other appellant) held a press conference on the courthouse steps. Manning, wearing his barrister's gown, read from and commented upon allegations in a notice of motion by Scientology intending to commence criminal contempt proceedings against a Crown attorney (the respondent Casey Hill). The motion alleged that the respondent had misled a judge and had breached orders sealing certain documents belonging to Scientology. At the contempt proceeding where the appellants were seeking a fine or imprisonment against the defendant, the allegations against the respondent were found to be untrue and without foundation. The crown attorney commenced an action for damages in libel against the appellants. Both appellants were found jointly liable for general damages of CDN$ 300,000 and Scientology alone was liable for aggravated damages of CDN$ 500,000 and punitive damages of CDN$ 800,000. The judgment was affirmed by the Ontario Court of Appeal[?]. The major issues raised in this appeal are: Is the common law of defamation valid in light of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and can the jury's award of damages can stand.

The Charter, interpreting the common law and freedom of expression

APPELLANTS' ARGUMENTS: The appellants contended that the common law of defamation in Canada failed to evolve with Canadian society. Too much emphasis in the common law had been placed on the need to protect the reputation of plaintiffs at the expense of freedom of expression. This, they argued, was an unwarranted restriction imposed in a manner that cannot be justified in a free and democratic society that could survive a limitations clause challenge. The appellants added that if the element of government action was insufficient to attract Charter scrutiny, the principles of the common law ought to be interpreted, even in a purely private law action, in a manner consistent with the Charter. This, they argued, could only be achieved by the adoption of the "actual malice" standard of liability found in the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.

THE COURT'S REASONS: In two opinions, (Majority opinion written by Cory J. per La Forest, Gonthier, Cory, McLachlin, Iacobucci and Major JJ., concurring in result: L'Heureux-Dubé J.) the court rejected those arguments while continuing to apply RWDSU v. Dolphin Delivery Ltd., [1986] 2 S.C.R. 573, that the Charter cannot rewrite the common law. Though the common law should be interpreted according to general Charter principles. This did not mean that the Court had to adopt the American jurisprudence "actual malice" standard of libel that has been seriously criticized in the U.S. and other countries.

In refusing to change Canadian law and bringing it more into line with "actual malice" standard applied in the US law (following the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan case) Cory J., writing for the majority, stated (at ¶ 138):

Freedom of speech, like any other freedom, is subject to the law and must be balanced against the essential need of the individuals to protect their reputation. The words of Diplock J. in Silkin v. Beaverbrook Newspapers Ltd., [1958] 1 W.L.R. 743, at pp. 745-46, are worth repeating:

Freedom of speech, like the other fundamental freedoms, is freedom under the law, and over the years the law has maintained a balance between, on the one hand, the right of the individual . . . whether he is in public life or not, to his unsullied reputation if he deserves it, and on the other hand . . . the right of the public . . . to express their views honestly and fearlessly on matters of public interest, even though that involves strong criticism of the conduct of public people.

In L'Heureux-Dubé's concurring reasons her analysis of the Charter issue applying to common law is succinctly stated: (at ¶ 206):

First, however, in order to dispel any possible confusion regarding the applicability of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to the common law, I note that this issue can be easily summarized in the following two principles, both of which were first articulated by McIntyre J. in RWDSU v. Dolphin Delivery Ltd., [1986] 2 S.C.R. 573:

1 The Charter does not directly apply to the common law unless it is the basis of some governmental action.

2 Even though the Charter does not directly apply to the common law absent government action, the common law must nonetheless be developed in accordance with Charter values. (To the same effect, see R. v. Salituro[?], [1991] 3 S.C.R. 654, Dagenais v. Canadian Broadcasting Corp.[?], [1994] 3 S.C.R. 835, and R. v. Park, [1995] 2 S.C.R. 836, per L'Heureux-Dubé J.)

In other words, the basic rule is that, absent government action, the Charter only applies indirectly to the common law.

RESULT: The Supreme Court upholds the Ontario Court of Appeal decision and the underlying jury award of general, aggrevated and punative damages.

Largest Libel Award in Canada

The jury award that was upheld in this appeal was the largest libel award in Canadian history. Barrister Manning and the Church of Scientology were found jointly liable for general damages of CDN$ 300,000. Scientology alone was liable for aggravated damages of CDN$ 500,000 and punitive damages of CDN$ 800,000, making Scientology's total liability CDN$ 1,600,000.

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