Victory for Abbotsford homeless as court rules in favour of access to justice

On Friday, March 27, the B.C. Court of Appeal delivered two rulings that represent significant victories for homeless people in Abbotsford and across Canada.

The court heard two appeals regarding whether or not groups representing vulnerable people who are unable to come to court individually can challenge state actions that breach the rights of their members.

The appeals stem from actions involving the City of Abbotsford and the Abbotsford Police Department. Days before Christmas 2013, the City evicted a number of homeless people from Jubilee Park in downtown Abbotsford. In 2014, the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors (DWS) filed a constitutional challenge responding to that eviction and challenging three municipal bylaws that affect the city’s homeless population. Many members of DWS were part of that eviction. Their landmark case will be heard by the B.C. Supreme Court over a six-week period, starting on June 29, 2015.

Following two days of hearings, three justices of the Court of Appeal dismissed the City of Abbotsford’s argument that the BC Supreme Court should not hear how police and city staff enforced bylaws against the city’s homeless population.

The Court of Appeal disagreed with the argument that the Abbotsford Police Department is a third-party and that the City, therefore, cannot be held responsible when their police officers breach people’s constitutional rights.

The Court of Appeal also ruled that DWS should not have to pay over $20,000 for documents required from the Abbotsford Police for the upcoming trial. The Court of Appeal found that DWS should not bear these costs at this time because DWS has raised serious allegations of police misconduct against Abbotsford’s homeless. The question of who should pay will now be decided after trial.

These are important access to justice victories for DWS, and homeless and marginalized people in general. The court’s ruling reduces the barriers that marginalized groups may face when bringing an action against public institutions like the city and police.

Pivot Legal Society is representing DWS at trial this summer, challenging the City of Abbotsford’s Consolidated Parks Bylaw, Consolidated Street and Traffic Bylaw, and Consolidated Good Neighbour Bylaw that prohibit sleeping in a park overnight, erecting a basic survival structure, and even sleeping in a car. 

If their challenge is successful, it will result in those bylaws being struck down, a recognition that if there are a lack of housing options the law can not stand in the way of access to basic safety measures.  

Ultimately, it could lead to an important shift away from policing and criminalizing homelessness, compelling governments to start working towards long-term and sustainable solutions for housing people.