Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch speaks to reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday. He accuses Prime Minister Stephen Harper of violating his own legislation by calling the 2008 election before he had served four years in office. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The legality of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's snap election call last fall is now in the hands of a Federal Court of Canada judge.

Lawyers for the federal government and Democracy Watch, a citizens group that monitors ethics in government, squared off in court in Ottawa on Tuesday over the issue. Justice Michael Shore isn't expected to hand down his ruling for several weeks.

A lawyer for Democracy Watch argued that Harper violated his own legislation by calling the election before he had served four years in office. "It was exactly the mischief the bill was designed to stop," Peter Rosenthal told the judge.

The only way an election could have been called then was if the government had fallen on a vote of no-confidence, said the group's founder, Duff Conacher.

"We believe that the prime minister should be found accountable because he introduced changes to the law, said they fixed election dates, and then for false reasons called a snap election in violation of those measures," Conacher said outside of court Tuesday.  "And also, we want to prevent future prime ministers from doing the same kind of thing because it’s so unfair."

Under Harper's fixed election date law, which was promised in the 2006 campaign by the Tories, the vote was not supposed to be held until Oct. 19, 2009.


Harper asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament last year, and an election was held Oct. 14. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))

When the law was introduced and passed in 2007, the minister of democratic reform, Rob Nicholson, who is now justice minister, said the measures restricted the prime minister from calling an election unless a vote of no-confidence occurred before October 2009.

But government lawyers argued that the fixed-date law does not restrict the prime minister from asking the Governor General to dissolve Parliament, as Harper did last year.

Conacher suggested that if the Federal Court rules against the Tories, some groups could launch a class-action lawsuit against the Conservative party to recoup the costs of the $350-million election and try and force the party to put the money back in the public coffers.

The legal challenge comes as the Liberals unveiled campaign-style ads on the weekend. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said last week that his party intends to vote against the minority Conservative government at the earliest opportunity after Parliament resumes on Sept. 14.

With files from The Canadian Press