Lawyer argues legislature can be target of lawsuit by former Speaker Chris Collins

·3 min read
Former Speaker Chris Collins is suing former premier Brian Gallant, the provincial government and the legislature over how they handled allegations of harassment made against him. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)
Former Speaker Chris Collins is suing former premier Brian Gallant, the provincial government and the legislature over how they handled allegations of harassment made against him. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)

A lawyer for former Speaker Chris Collins says the New Brunswick legislature is not immune from a lawsuit over the handling of a harassment complaint against Collins.

Harold Doherty argued in Court of Queen's Bench on Monday that the centuries-old constitutional principle of legislative privilege doesn't apply in the case because the legislature was pushed to investigate Collins by former premier Brian Gallant.

"It was initiated by government. That's who initiated it," Doherty told Justice Terrence Morrison. "This was a joint effort of the legislative assembly and the government."

Lawyers for the legislature are asking Morrison to remove the legislature from the lawsuit that also names Gallant and the provincial government.

"This court does not have jurisdiction to entertain the matter," lawyer Jamie Eddy said.

The case centres around harassment allegations against Collins that came to light in April 2018.

Gallant revealed the allegations by an unnamed female former employee and expelled Collins from the Liberal caucus.

A subsequent report by an independent investigator, commissioned by the legislature, found the complaint was "founded in part" and Collins later offered what he called a "complete and unreserved apology" in front of reporters.

But last April, Collins filed a lawsuit, saying Gallant and the legislature abused their authority and breached his privacy and his employment contract, effectively ending his political career. Collins ran for re-election as an independent in 2018 and lost.

Lawyer argues legislature can't be sued in this case

Eddy argued that centuries of parliamentary tradition, as well as several Canadian court rulings, make it clear the legislature can't be sued for how it disciplines one of its own members.

Any process is under "the exclusive control" of the assembly itself and isn't subject to review by the courts, a concept "as old as Parliament itself," he said.

Jamie Eddy, lawyer representing the legislature, is asking Justice Terrence Morrison to remove the legislature from the lawsuit.
Jamie Eddy, lawyer representing the legislature, is asking Justice Terrence Morrison to remove the legislature from the lawsuit.(Jacques Poitras/CBC)

He cited a 2020 Ontario Court of Appeal ruling on Senator Mike Duffy's lawsuit against the Senate over its handling of his expense claims. The court ruled that the Senate's proceedings were privileged and it could not be sued.

The Supreme Court of Canada later refused to hear Duffy's appeal of that decision.

Eddy said there's a parallel with Collins's allegation that Gallant's office was behind the investigation of the harassment claim. In the Duffy case, the senator argued the Prime Minister's Office got involved.

But Doherty said the two cases are different.

According to Collins's case, the female employee first complained about him in 2015, when no policy on harassment existed at the legislature.

The employee asked legislature staff to help her find a new job and they did, Doherty said.

"She got exactly what she wanted. She wanted to be moved, and she got it," he said.

Harold Doherty, lawyer representing former Speaker Chris Collins, is arguing the legislature is not immune from a lawsuit filed by Collins alleging breach of employment contract, breach of privacy and abuse of authority.
Harold Doherty, lawyer representing former Speaker Chris Collins, is arguing the legislature is not immune from a lawsuit filed by Collins alleging breach of employment contract, breach of privacy and abuse of authority.(Jacques Poitras/CBC)

It was only three years later, when Collins refused pressure from Gallant's office to allow debate on a motion attacking then-Opposition leader Blaine Higgs, that the premier's office revived the complaint.

It also extended the government's workplace harassment policy to apply to the legislature and even tried in vain to have it applied retroactively, Collins claimed.

That overlap of the executive branch with the legislative branch undercut the claim of privilege, Doherty argued.

The complainant "didn't initiate the request for an investigation three years later," he argued. "That request came from the government side, the executive council side. They involved the legislative assembly in their endeavour.

"That's not governed by legislative privilege. … That's not close at all."

Collins was at Monday's hearing but the former Moncton MLA said he would not comment on the case.

Morrison said he'll rule on the motion at a later date. If he stops the case against the legislature, the lawsuit can continue against Gallant and the provincial government.