Cabinet secrecy has limits, Supreme Court rules

Supreme Court rules judges have the right to review cabinet secrecy orders, can force some documents to be released

The federal government does not have the right to blanket all cabinet documents in a veil of secrecy, the country's highest court ruled Thursday.

In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court said judges have the power to review cabinet confidentiality orders under certain circumstances.

The dispute involved a lawsuit against the government of Canada over wages. Some lawyers had been told they couldn't introduce a number of documents as evidence in court.

Although the papers had already been released by Ottawa, the government later said the documents contained cabinet secrets and shouldn't be part of the suit.

In the past, such sweeping claims have generally been accepted by lower court judges. But on Thursday, the Supreme Court said cabinet secrecy is not absolute or retroactive.

"The function of the clerk under the act is to protect cabinet confidences and this alone," wrote Justice Beverley McLachlin. "It is not to thwart public inquiry nor is it to gain tactical advantage in litigation."

The ruling means a group of Vancouver-based lawyers with the federal Justice Department will be able to use some cabinet documents in their breach of contract suit. The lawyers, whose annual salaries range from about $70,000 to $101,000, claim Ottawa was wrong to pay their counterparts in Toronto an average of $14,000 more per year for the past decade.