A court in Ontario, Canada has ruled that a constitutional climate lawsuit brought by seven young people against the provincial government can proceed to trial. That lawsuit – Mathur et al. v. Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Ontario – challenges the scaled back 2030 climate target set by the Ontario government under conservative Premier Doug Ford. The youth plaintiffs contend that the weaker climate policy - which would contribute to more dangerous climate change - is unlawful under the Canadian constitution that protects fundamental rights.
The decision issued November 12 by Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice rejects the government’s motion to dismiss the case. According to a press release from the nonprofit environmental law group Ecojustice (which supports the plaintiffs in this case), the decision marks the first time “a Canadian court has ruled that fundamental rights protected under the [Canadian Charter on Rights and Freedoms] can be threatened by climate change and citizens have the ability to challenge a Canadian government’s action on the climate crisis under the highest law in the land.”
The plaintiffs – seven young Ontarians between the ages of 13 and 25 – filed the case in November 2019 against the government of Ontario alleging violations of sections 7 and 15 of the Canadian Charter, which establish rights to life, liberty, and security of the person and to equal justice under the law. Specifically the lawsuit challenges the government’s 2018 law repealing the 2016 Climate Change Act – which required Ontario to slash greenhouse gas emissions at least 37 percent (below 1990 levels) by 2030 – and replacing it with a plan that sets a laxer 2030 target of 30 percent emissions cuts. The youths say the government’s weaker policy on reining in emissions at a time of climate crisis endangers their health and their lives.
“We know the climate crisis isn’t going away. The Government of Ontario’s failure to take necessary climate action is a violation of my Charter rights to life, liberty, and security of the person – and the rights of all Ontarians,” Alex Neufeldt, a 24-year-old plaintiff from Ottawa, said in a press release.
“I look forward to seeing the Premier in court,” she added. “My fellow applicants and I understand that our future is at stake and we’re not backing down from this fight.”
In the court’s ruling, Justice Carole J. Brown determined the case was justiciable, or able to be handled by courts, and found it was not obvious the plaintiffs’ claims had no reasonable chance of success, contrary to government’s position. The decision stands in contrast to a recent ruling from the Federal Court of Canada in a similar youth climate lawsuit (La Rose v. Her Majesty the Queen) dismissing that constitutional challenge to the federal government’s climate policies.
But the Ontario case survived the initial bid to dismiss because, unlike the La Rose federal lawsuit, it challenged a specific policy (Ontario’s 2030 climate target) rather than the entirety of government conduct pertaining to energy and climate change.
Lawyers representing the Ontario youth plaintiffs applauded the Superior Court’s decision to keep the case alive.
“This landmark decision ensures the seven courageous young people leading this litigation will get their day in court. For the first time in Canadian judicial history, government inaction on the climate crisis will be put on trial,” Fraser Thomson, a lawyer with Ecojustice, said.
“The government tried to argue that the courts aren’t the right place to address climate change, and that the problem is so big and complicated that Ontario’s targets can’t impact Charter rights,” added Nader Hasan, partner with the law firm Stockwoods LLP. “This victory is a resounding rebuke of those claims. The court agrees with us that this case should move ahead and we look forward to that happening.”