Reconsidering mistakes of law and discoverability

Samuel Beswick, a Harvard legal scholar, studies the impact a mistake of law has on the discovery of a claim.  In Under the Limit‘s first guest post, he makes a compelling argument for reconsidering how Canadian limitations law might alter its approach to mistakes of law in the discovery analysis.

Mistake of law as a basis for extending the limitation period?

Common law countries have long determined that discoverability governs limitation on actions “grounded on” mistake (as the former Alberta statute put it) or that seek “relief from the consequences of” mistake (as the English Limitation Act provides). Back when the law of unjust enrichment was thought to allow restitution only for mistakes of fact, discoverability provisions had not much to do with mistakes of law. Now that the mistake-of-law bar has been abandoned, it is apt to ask: when can a mistake of law be discovered?

In England, this problem has driven multi-billion-pound-sterling unjust enrichment litigation, spurring private law scholars and confounding courts. The answer that the English courts have given, succinctly put in FII Test Claimants v HMRC, is that:

[372] … [I]n the case of a point of law which is being actively disputed in current litigation the true position is only discoverable … when the point has been authoritatively resolved by a final court.

I have recently sought to show that England’s answer to the discoverability of mistakes of law is arbitrary, jurisprudentially strained, internally inconsistent, and effects bad policy.

What’s remarkable (albeit it hasn’t to date been remarked on) is that this doctrine is also totally contradictory to Canadian precedent on this issue. The position in Canada, summarized in Hill v Alberta, is that:

[9] … Discoverability refers to facts, not law. Error or ignorance of the law, or uncertainty of the law, does not postpone any limitation period.

In Canada, time runs on mistake-of-law claims whether or not a claimant has discovered their mistake. This causes other problems, which I have endeavoured to draw out in a recent paper.

There is, however, a middle ground between England’s “authoritative judgment” understanding of limitation on mistakes of law and Canada’s “exception” to the discoverability principle, a full account of which will be appearing in the LQR. The short answer, though, is this: mistakes as to the law should be considered discoverable once a claimant is in a position to plead them in a statement of claim. Discoverability is not about finding out one’s legal position from a court. It is about having adequate time to be able to plead one’s case to a court.


Federal: The limitation of actions under s. 31 of the Expropriation Act

In Canada v. Milne, the Federal Court of Appeal held that no limitation period applies to an action under s. 31(1)(a)(i) of the Expropriation Act:

[3]  The central issue before the motion judge was the proper interpretation of subparagraph 31(1)(a)(i) of the Expropriation Act – whether it provides that there is no limitation period, and thus ousts the operation of subsection 39(1) of the Federal Courts Act, or merely establishes a point in time after which an action may be commenced, subject to the limitation period determined in accordance with subsection 39(1) (in this case the limitation period prescribed by the Ontario Act). Paragraph 31(1)(a) of the Expropriation Act reads as follows (underlining added):

31 (1) Subject to section 30, 31 (1) Sous réserve de l’article 30:
(a) a person entitled to compensation in respect of an expropriated interest or right may, a) une personne qui a droit à une indemnité pour un droit ou intérêt exproprié peut:
(i) at any time after the registration of the notice of confirmation, if no offer under section 16 has been accepted by him, and (i) après l’enregistrement de l’avis de confirmation, si elle n’a accepté aucune offre faite en vertu de l’article 16,
(ii) within one year after the acceptance of the offer, in any other case, (ii) dans un délai d’un an à compter de l’acceptation de l’offre, dans tout autre cas,
commence proceedings in the Court by statement of claim for the recovery of the amount of the compensation to which he is then entitled; or engager des procédures devant le tribunal par voie d’exposé de la demande pour le recouvrement du montant de l’indemnité à laquelle elle a alors droit;

[4]  The motion judge applied the “modern approach” to statutory interpretation endorsed by the Supreme Court in Rizzo & Rizzo Shoes Ltd. (Re), [1998] 1 S.C.R. 27 at para. 21, 1998 CanLII 837 (SCC), 1998 CanLII 837. He read the words used in subparagraph 31(1)(a)(i) – “at any time after” – in their statutory context and in light of the object and purpose of expropriation legislation.

[5]  Applying this approach, he found the words to be clear and unambiguous. He noted the Supreme Court’s holding in Toronto Area Transit Operating Authority v. Dell Holdings Ltd., [1997] 1 S.C.R. 32 at 46, 1997 CanLII 400 (SCC), 1997 CanLII 400, that expropriation legislation (there the Ontario statute) “should be read in a broad and purposive manner in order to comply with the aim of the Act to fully compensate a land owner whose property has been taken,” and observed that if accepted, the Crown’s position could deprive a land owner of compensation. He interpreted the provision as expressly stating that no limitation period applies, so that subsection 39(1) of the Federal Courts Act does not incorporate Ontario limitations legislation by reference. He also took into account the decision of the Alberta Court of Appeal in Calgary (City) v. Lafarge Canada Inc.1995 ABCA 313 (CanLII) at para. 15, 169 A.R. 363, in which the Court gave the same meaning to the phrase “at any time” as it appeared in Alberta expropriation legislation. He therefore determined that the action was not statute-barred.

[6]  In addition, the motion judge considered whether there is a discrepancy between the English text of subparagraph 31(1)(a)(i), which uses the phrase “at any time after,” and the French text, which uses “après.” Relying on dictionary definitions, he concluded that there is no discrepancy: both texts convey the meaning of “whatever time.” He therefore found it unnecessary to apply the rules, set out in R. v. Daoust2004 SCC 6 (CanLII) at paras. 26-31, [2004] 1 S.C.R. 217, that govern the interpretation of bilingual legislation where the two versions are discordant.

[7]  The Crown now appeals to this Court, submitting that the motion judge erred in interpreting subparagraph 31(1)(a)(i) as providing that there is no limitation period, and in failing to interpret it as merely establishing the point after which an action for compensation may be commenced, subject to the limitation period incorporated by subsection 39(1) of the Federal Courts Act. The issue of statutory interpretation raised by the appeal is an issue of law, subject to the correctness standard of appellate review.

[8]  In my view the conclusion of the motion judge was correct, substantially for the reasons that he gave. I will briefly address only one element of his reasons, as well as one aspect of the Crown’s submissions in this Court that represents a change in position from that argued before the motion judge.

Federal: Where does a cause of action arise?

The limitation period in s. 39(2) of the Federal Courts Act applies when a cause of action arises otherwise than in a province:

(2) A proceeding in the Federal Court of Appeal or the Federal Court in respect of a cause of action arising otherwise than in a province shall be taken within six years after the cause of action arose.

When does a cause of action arise in a province? The Federal Court of Appeal’s decision in Canada (Attorney General) v. Liang clarifies:

[19]           A cause of action is a set of facts that provides the basis for an action in court: see Markevich, at paragraph 27. A cause of action arises in a province when all of the elements of the cause of action are present in that province: see Canada v. Canada Maritime Group (Canada) Inc.1995 CanLII 3513 (FCA)[1995] 3 F.C. 124 at page 129, 185 N.R. 104Apotex v. Sanofi-Aventis2013 FCA 186 (CanLII) at paragraph 105, [2015] 2 F.C.R. 644. The question as to which facts constitute the plaintiffs’ cause of action and where they arose does not appear to have been canvassed in the Federal Court and it was not debated on this appeal. Given the importance of the question for these litigants and for the jurisprudence, I would allow the appeal in part and return this question to the Federal Court, to be decided as directed by the case management judge.