Saskatchewan inmate successfully appeals dismissed habeas corpus application
- Kate Mitchell
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In Mercredi v Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre, 2019 SKCA 8, the Court of Appeal for Saskatchewan granted an appeal brought by a provincial inmate after his habeas corpus application was dismissed by the Queen’s Bench of Saskatchewan.
The appellant, an inmate at the Saskatoon provincial Correctional Centre, was assigned a low-security rating. He was placed in different living units in accordance with security assessments completed every approximately 21 days.
The appellant was originally placed in Overflow Unit Four, a low security unit. He was subsequently placed in a secure unit, and he was then placed in a Unit A, a low security unit. The last placement, to Unit A, was the result of a unit placement decision based on his security level recommendations, assessment decisions, observations/incident reports by staff, and several unidentified documents not disclosed to the appellant for security reasons. The appellant argued that the placement in Unit A was a deprivation of his residual interests, as the conditions were more onerous in Unit A than Overflow Unit Four.
Despite the mootness of the issue, Barrington-Foote JA decided to hear the application on its merits. As stated at para 24:
“The central issue – whether corrections officials have a duty of procedural fairness to inmates in the context of unit placement decisions – is a matter of public interest. Every provincial inmate is subject to unit placement decisions which have the potential to significantly impact their residual liberty interests and would often be moot before making it to the appellate level. Indeed, as noted, I am aware of no trial-level or appellate-level decisions relating to procedural fairness in relation to unit placements. Further, the application of the duty of fairness to administrative decision-makers is an issue squarely within the wheelhouse of the courts.”
Barrington-Foote JA noted that this case was “concerned with the relative deprivation of liberty as a result of the unit placement decision”, concluding that the appellant had been deprived of liberty by being placed in the more restrictive conditions of Unit A (at paras 32-34). However, not every placement in a more restrictive unit would amount to a deprivation of liberty, at para 35:
“while not every difference between units would be sufficient to constitute a deprivation of liberty sufficient to engage procedural fairness obligations, the differences between Unit A and Overflow Unit Four are more than adequate to do so. From the inmate’s perspective, more than double the time locked alone in a separate cell is a significantly more serious denial of liberty.”
Furthermore, Barrington-Foote JA found that the decision to place the appellant was not procedurally fair. The appellant received reasons and had the opportunity to respond to his security assessment, but he did not get reasons for or an opportunity to make representation about the unit placement decision. This was not consistent with the duty of fairness owed to the appellant given the liberty interests at stake. While the governing legislation does not expressly deal with procedural fairness requirements in unit placement decisions, it does not mean procedural fairness does not apply.
While this case focused on inmates governed by provincial legislation, it has promising implications for federal inmates.
The Court of Appeal’s recognition that not all units with the same security rating are in fact equal is notable. Federal institutions that have the same security classification may have very different levels of restrictions. For example, the Correctional Service of Canada tends to treat some medium security institutions as high-medium security and others as low-medium security, offering inmates different levels of freedom. Of course, the Court of Appeal was clear that not all differences in conditions amount to deprivations of liberty.
However, it still remains challenging to contest placement decisions, as the facts of Mercredi are unique and important to the Court of Appeal’s decision. Courts often insist there be a ‘loss of something the prisoner once had’ as a threshold to finding there has been a deprivation of liberty. Inmates seeking to challenge initial security placement decisions in federal institutions have struggled to meet this criteria, as they were never at a lower security level (and therefore have never lost the greater state of liberty associated with a lower security classification). Mercredi glosses over this threshold issue though, as the appellant had already experienced the less restrictive conditions in Overflow Unit Four. It was implicitly conceded that this threshold criteria had been met.