The Policy of Setting Policy: Cotnam v Rousseau and Judicial Activism
The practice of injecting policy considerations into court decisions has long been a tenet of the Ontario judiciary. However, such considerations may arguably raise questions that go beyond the scope of the decision. Cotnam v Rousseau, 2018 ONSC 216, is one such case.
In Cotnam, the Court was tasked with determining whether a pre-retirement death benefit received by a surviving spouse was available to be clawed back into an Estate pursuant to section 72 of the Succession Law Reform Act (the “SLRA”). The Respondent took the position that section 48 of the Pension Benefits Act (the “PBA”) sheltered the death benefit from being clawed back given that she was the spouse of the Deceased. The Court disagreed and held that such benefits ought to be available for claw back in order to prevent irrational outcomes resulting from their exclusion.
In the context of the facts at play in Cotnam, the Court reasoned in favour of equity, in particular, to ensure a dependant disabled child of the Deceased was properly provided for. However, the Court’s reasons appear to gloss over a fundamental conflict between the SLRA and the PBA, a clash about which the estates bar might have appreciated some judicial commentary. Specifically, the Court held that the provisions of the SLRA ascribing pension death benefits as available to satisfy a claim of dependant’s relief ought to prevail over the PBA’s provisions sheltering them from claw back.
Section 114 of the PBA provides that, “[i]n the event of a conflict between this Act and any other Act […] [the PBA] prevails unless the other Act states that it is to prevail over [the PBA].” The SLRA, in contrast, is silent as to whether its provisions are to prevail over those of the PBA.
However, the Court’s reasons make no mention of the interplay between section 114 of the PBA and the equities of ensuring the dependant daughter in Cotnam was properly provided for. While we may opine on the fact that the outcome in Cotnam favours equity over rote statutory interpretation, the estates bar is left to grapple with the apparent inconsistency with the intention of the Ontario legislature, and whether it will affect similar decisions going forward. As of this date, no written decisions have yet interpreted Cotnam, nor has the decision been appealed. Accordingly, it may be some time before the impact of the decision, if any, is felt.
Thanks for reading.
If you enjoyed this blog, please consider these other related posts: