The Yukon government has lost a round in its legal fight to evict a big-game outfitter it accuses of squatting on Crown land.

In a decision dated Friday, the Yukon Supreme Court has ruled that the territory's Energy, Mines and Resources Department does not have the power to evict alleged squatters from Crown land.

Only the minister responsible, Archie Lang, has the authority to do that, according to the decision by Justice Leigh Gower.

The ruling centres on the government's dispute with Bonnet Plume Outfitters, which officials have accused of building a base camp along the Bonnet Plume River in 2006 without permission.

Department authorities issued a court summons in December 2006 to have the owners, Chris and Sharron McKinnon, evicted from the camp and the camp's buildings removed within 30 days, claiming that they were illegally squatting on the land.

The eviction summons had threatened to burn down the camp unless the McKinnons could prove they had a legal right to the property.

But in April 2007, Gower ordered the summons against Bonnet Plume to be suspended.

Eviction could present 'potential jeopardy'

Lawyers for Bonnet Plume argued the summons was illegal, since the Territorial Lands (Yukon) Act states that only the minister responsible has the authority to evict suspected squatters.

Gower agreed, ruling that department bureaucrats should not have decided, on Lang's behalf, that the McKinnons were illegally squatting.

"I conclude that the discretionary power entrusted to the minister … must be exercised by the minister personally rather than by an official acting under the authority of an implied delegation," he wrote in his decision.

"Specifically, it must be the minister personally who forms 'the opinion' that a person is wrongfully or without lawful authority using, possessing or occupying territorial lands."

Gower added that the threat of having one's property burned down after 30 days, as the government had wanted to do with its summons, puts an alleged squatter in "significant potential jeopardy."

In theory, he wrote, someone who spent years building a remote home in the wilderness could get evicted and have the home burned down within 30 days — before that person had a chance to defend him or herself in court.

The ruling could force the Yukon government to reassess its efforts to force Bonnet Plume and other alleged squatters from Crown land.

Government officials did not comment on the ruling Monday.