Reference Re BC Motor Vehicle Act

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Reference Re BC Motor Vehicle Act
Supreme Court of Canada
Hearing: November 15, 1984
Judgment: December 17, 1985
Full case name Reference Re Section 94(2) of the Motor Vehicle Act
Citations [1985] 2 S.C.R. 486
Docket No. 17590
Prior history On appeal from the BCCA
Ruling Appeal was dismissed
Absolute liability offences cannot carry a possibility of imprisonment under the Charter
Court Membership
Chief Justice: Brian Dickson
Puisne Justices: Roland Ritchie, Jean Beetz, Willard Estey, William McIntyre, Julien Chouinard, Antonio Lamer, Bertha Wilson, Gerald Le Dain
Reasons given
Majority Lamer J. (paras. 1-98), joined by Dickson C.J. and Beetz, Chouinard and Le Dain JJ.
Concurrence McIntyre J. (paras. 99-100)
Concurrence Wilson J. (paras. 101-131)
Ritchie and Estey JJ. took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Reference Re BC Motor Vehicle Act, [1985] 2 S.C.R. 486 was a landmark reference submitted to the Supreme Court of Canada regarding the constitutionality of the British Columbia Motor Vehicle Act. The decision established one of the first principles of fundamental justice in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, beyond mere natural justice, by requiring a fault component for all offences with penal consequences. The decision also proved important and controversial for establishing fundamental justice as more than a procedural right similar to due process, but also protects substantive rights even though such rights were counter to the intent of the initial drafters of the Charter.[1]


Section 94(2) of the Motor Vehicle Act of British Columbia created an absolute liability offence of driving while with a suspended licence. To obtain a conviction, the Crown needed only to establish proof of driving regardless of whether the driver was aware of the suspension or not. A successful conviction carried a prison term of a minimum of seven days.

The British Columbia Court of Appeal held that the Act violated a principle of fundamental justice under section 7 of the Charter.


Justice Lamer, writing for a unanimous court, held that an absolute liability, which makes a person liable for an offence whether or not they took steps not to be at fault, violates the principles of fundamental justice. Therefore, any possibility of a deprivation of life, liberty, or security of person from an absolute liability offence offends the Charter. A law that violates section 7 cannot be saved by section 1 of the Charter except for extreme circumstances (ex. natural disasters, outbreaks of war, epidemics). The principles of fundamental justice impose a stricter test than section 1. Thus, any law that violates the principles of fundamental justice will most likely not be saved by section 1.

In surveying means of interpreting the constitution, Lamer dismissed the practice of relying on the testimony of the original drafters of the Constitution as interpretive aids and effectively rejected the use of an original intent approach to constitutional interpretation. Reference was made to the living tree doctrine.[2]

The Court also rejected the more restricted definition of fundamental justice under the Canadian Bill of Rights, as described in Duke v. The Queen (1972).

The Court noted that the alternative view of fundamental justice as natural justice would have been an easier requirement for the government to satisfy. That would limit the rights to life, liberty, and security of person, or, as the Supreme Court put it, place the rights "in a sorely emaciated state." Liberty, for example, would be seen as not as comprehensive a right as section 9, which guards against arbitrary arrest and detention. Security of person would also be less comprehensive than section 8 rights against unreasonable search and seizure. Such an interpretation, the Court decided, would be inconsistent with the normal reading of the Charter, demonstrated in Law Society of Upper Canada v. Skapinker (1984) and Hunter v. Southam Inc., which was meant to be generous.[3] Lamer added that sections 8 to 14 should be seen as provided examples of principles of fundamental justice.

Another reason for discarding the Duke interpretation of fundamental justice was the difference in wording between the Bill of Rights and the Charter. In guaranteeing fundamental justice, the Bill of Rights references a "fair hearing." Section 7 does not mention a fair hearing, and the only context for fundamental justice is the "much more fundamental rights" of life, liberty, and security of person.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ This distinction was later relied upon in the R. v. Morgentaler (1988) decision and then Chaoulli v. Quebec (2006).
  2. ^ Re B.C. Motor Vehicle Act, para. 53.
  3. ^ Paragraphs 26-28.
  4. ^ Para. 57-58.

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