Read between the lines: | Just authorize it. |
On October 31, 2017, the Quebec Court of Appeal added another case to the list of judgments reversing the few decisions emanating from the Superior Court that still venture to not authorize a class action. In Asselin v. Desjardins Cabinet de services financiers inc., 2017 QCCA 1673, the Court of Appeal reminds us that the burden to be met at authorization is very low, and that excessive use of preliminary motions (motions for particulars, motions to adduce evidence) often sends the authorization process adrift, thereby impeding its speedy completion. The Court then proceeds to explain in a detailed fashion how the trial judge was wrong in deciding that the proposed class action did not satisfy art. 1003(b) (now 575(2)) and art. 1003(a) (now 575(1)) of the Code of Civil Procedure.
The specific reasons as to why the “facts alleged appear to justify the conclusions sought” (575(2) CCP) in this particular case are beyond the scope of this post. I will instead focus on the Court’s interesting comments regarding how precisely and adequately such facts ought to be presented. A number of observations from the Court of Appeal indicate that the authorizing judge should be flexible, to say the least, in her reading of the allegations. On behalf of a unanimous bench, Justice Bich writes:
 D’une part, s’il est vrai que l’on ne doit pas se satisfaire du vague, du général et de l’imprécis, l’on ne peut pour autant fermer les yeux devant des allégations qui ne sont peut-être pas parfaites, mais dont le sens véritable ressort néanmoins clairement. Il faut donc savoir lire entre les lignes. Agir autrement serait faire montre d’un rigorisme ou d’un littéralisme injustifié et donner aux propos de la Cour suprême en la matière une acception qu’ils n’ont pas. (My emphasis)
Commenting more specifically on the Application for Authorization filed in this particular case, Justice Bich adds, having acknowledged that the Application is not particularly clear notwithstanding the (over)abundance of allegations it contains:
Cela dit, il demeure néanmoins tout à fait possible de discerner dans ce dédale les éléments essentiels de la proposition factuelle et juridique que présente l’appelant. (para. 47)
Finally, while recognizing that certain allegations contained in the Application are deficient or inaccurate, the Court nonetheless cautions that substance should prevail over form:
 On sait bien que les intimées ne sont pas les émettrices des placements en question, que l’une gère et que l’autre recommande. L’usage du verbe « émettre » est donc malencontreux. Mais s’arrêter à cela sans tenir compte du reste du paragraphe et de l’ensemble du texte qui l’entoure serait refuser d’en voir le sens véritable. La forme, certes, est importante, mais ne doit pas l’emporter sur le fond, même en matière d’action collective.
In sum, the Court of Appeal instructs authorizing judges to be indulgent when assessing applications for authorization and to avoid minute analyses of specific allegations; rather, they should ultimately focus on whether the essence of the claim appears defensible on the whole.
In my view, this approach is problematic. That the authorizing judge should look past the written words and focus on the essence of the claim, as it is understood not only from what is expressed, but what is also implied, cannot be easily reconciled with the principles previously applied when determining whether the criteria under art. 575(2) is met; namely, that the allegations should not be vague, general or imprecise; and that hypotheses and speculative allegations should be discarded.
Call me formalistic (it wouldn’t be the first time), but in my view, for the purposes of authorization, a fact is one that is alleged (and not directly contradicted by evidence adduced in defence). If it’s not alleged, it’s not a fact. And it – whether it be something implied or what Plaintiff actually meant to write or ought to have written, but did not – therefore is not something that can justify the conclusions sought.
We should be mindful of the reality that applications for authorization are not drafted by your average “credulous and inexperienced” customer; rather, this important task is entrusted to sophisticated counsel who often specialize in that particular field. Do our learned friends really need additional help from the Courts to get over a threshold that can hardly get any lower? When the plaintiff cannot articulate a reasonably understandable case, it is the judge’s responsibility to discover the hidden path to authorization?