Federal government to fight solitary confinement ruling from B.C. court

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association says the federal government has announced it will appeal a B.C. court decision that finds indefinite solitary confinement is unconstitutional.

A B.C Supreme Court justice found indefinite segregation undermines safety of inmates, staff and the public

B.C. Civil Liberties Association executive director Josh Paterson says he's shocked by the appeal. (Shutterstock/cunaplus)

The federal government is appealing a B.C. court decision that struck down Canada's law on indefinite solitary confinement, arguing it needs clarity on the issue from the courts.

The ruling was handed down last month following a constitutional challenge by British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada.

The association's executive director, Josh Paterson, said the appeal is a surprise.

"We find it shocking that our federal government has chosen to appeal this decision when the government came into office on a promise to put an end to indefinite solitary confinement," he said in a news release.

Justice Peter Leask of the B.C. Supreme Court said in his Jan. 17 decision that indefinite segregation undermines the safety and security of inmates, staff and the public.

The Crown argued the practice was reasonable and necessary, but the judge accepted the association's position that solitary confinement is cruel, inhumane and can lead to severe psychological trauma.

The ruling was suspended for 12 months to give the federal government time to draft new legislation, which Leask said must include strict time limits on segregation.

Following the decision, Paterson said the civil liberties association wrote to the federal ministers of justice and public safety seeking an end to further court action.

"Having won in court, we extended a hand to the government to work together to fix this problem to no avail," he said. "Despite us reaching out, to date, the federal government has given us no response other than filing this appeal."

Ottawa seeking 'juridical clarity'

After Leask's judgment, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the government was reviewing it and was "committed to addressing the needs of the most vulnerable in the federal correctional system."

On Monday, Goodale's office said an appeal in the case is necessary as it examines the B.C. decision and a separate ruling from a court in Ontario.

The decision from Ontario Superior Court Justice Frank Marrocco released in December found administrative segregation longer than five days is unconstitutional, but the practice itself does not violate constitutional rights, even when applied to young inmates or the mentally ill.

"Given the (Canadian Civil Liberties Association) has filed a notice of appeal in Ontario it was only prudent for us to file a similar notice in B.C. as we begin to seek juridical clarity on the issue," Goodale's office says in an emailed statement.

"In the meantime we have introduced new legislation ... to limit the use of administrative segregation and implement a system of independent oversight."

Caily DiPuma, the acting litigation director for the civil liberties association, said prisoners continue to spend weeks, months and even years in small cells without human contact. She called the federal appeal "another example of justice deferred" for the vulnerable and marginalized.

"We will not turn our backs to them, nor will Canadians. We will fight this appeal," she said in the association's news release.