Nova Scotia

Gabor Lukacs continues federal court fight for access to files

Gabor Lukacs has upped his game. Instead of advocating for the rights of air travellers, he’s now fighting for the constitutional rights of all Canadians.

His victories have ensured air travellers receive cash compensation for being bumped from oversold flights

Consumer advocate and frequent flier Gabor Lukacs has taken on the airlines a couple of times now over their bumping practices, and won. (CBC)

Gabor Lukacs has upped his game. Instead of advocating for the rights of air travellers, he’s now fighting for the constitutional rights of all Canadians.

Lukacs is a mathematician by trade. His work on airline passenger rights falls somewhere between a gruelling hobby and an unpaid second career. He’s already a public figure in Canada thanks to a string of successful complaints lodged with the Canadian Transportation Agency.

His victories there have ensured air travellers receive cash compensation for being bumped from oversold flights.

While Lukacs isn’t a lawyer, he can certainly talk like one. Today in Federal court in Halifax, he unfurled a complex argument about why he (and by extension everyone else) should have unfettered access to complaint files held by the Canadian Transportation Agency.

A little background: the legal system in Canada operates under the “open court” principle. It means that citizens can observe criminal trials and civil lawsuits while they’re underway, and then tell others about what they saw.

It also allows the public free access to examine and copy court documents. There are many exceptions of course, such as shielding the identity of youth offenders or sex assault victims, but these exceptions always have to be justified against the wider guarantee of openness.

An Air Canada passenger jet lands at Halifax Stanfield International Airport in Halifax on Jan. 21, 2013. The Canadian Transportation Agency has ruled that Air Canada must give passengers between $200 and $800 when they are involuntarily bumped from a flight. (The Canadian Press)

It’s clear the “open court” principle applies to the Canadian Transportation Agency. That’s because the CTA is a quasi-judicial body. It’s set up by legislation to wield court-like powers, sorting through facts and making binding orders in its area of authority.

Lukacs' constitutional challenge Tuesday arose because he asked to view a complaint file held by the agency.

Lukacs wanted to sit and read the submissions from the aggrieved travellers and the airline (Air Canada). But instead, the Canadian Transportation Agency sent Lukacs redacted copies of the file.

Lukacs says large swaths of the complaint document were missing. Even the name of Air Canada’s lawyer was blanked out. The CTA says this was done to protect the privacy of the participants. Lawyers say they have no choice because it’s governed by the federal Protection of Privacy Act.

Lukacs calls this an absurd situation where the public is being denied access to public records. He thinks it’s a violation of the “open court” principle, and that privacy law shouldn’t apply to what are effectively court documents.

A lawyer for the Canadian Transportation Agency argued today that while the “open court” principle applies to its complaint files, the Agency also has the authority to redact them under the Privacy Act. In effect, he argued that the Privacy Act has the power to modify the “open court” principle.

The justices reserved their decision in the case. 

About the Author

Jack Julian

Reporter

Jack Julian joined CBC Nova Scotia as an arts reporter in 1997. His news career began on the morning of Sept. 3, 1998 following the crash of Swissair 111. He is now a data journalist in Halifax, and you can reach him at (902) 456-9180, by email at jack.julian@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter @jackjulian

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