In Search of Prophylactic Rules

By Plaxton, Michael | McGill Law Journal, February 2005 | Go to article overview
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In Search of Prophylactic Rules

Plaxton, Michael, McGill Law Journal

Prophylactic mies are laws created by judges to prevent violations of the constitution. Unlike constitutional rules, prophylactic rules have no constitutional status of their own. Legislatures can repeal or alter prophylactic rules, provided they devise alternative strategies for meeting the requirements of the constitution.

While the United States Supreme Court has recognized prophylactic rules, the Supreme Court of Canada has yet to do so. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has created unacknowledged prophylactic rules. Examples include the Court's requirement for a search warrant regime in Hunter v. Southam Inc. and its demand for independent provincial judicial salary commissions in R. v. Campbell. In both of these cases, the Court appears to have conflated prophylactic mies with constitutional requirements.

By failing to distinguish between constitutional and prophylactic rules, the Court has introduced confusion into several areas of constitutional law. The Court has also denied the role of Parliament and the provincial legislatures as co-interpreters of the constitution. Recognition of prophylactic rules would allow for more meaningful "dialogue" between courts and legislatures--if only in the long term.

Les regles prophylactiques sont des lois creees par les juges afin d'eviter des violations a la constitution. Cependant, contrairement aux regles constitutionnelles, les regles prophylactiques n'ont pas de statut constitutitionnel propre : le pouvoir legislatif peut les abroger ou les modifier, a condition de prevoir des strategies alternatives qui repondent aux exigences de la constitution.

Bien que la Cour supreme des Etats-Unis ait reconnu l'existence des regles prophylactiques, la Cour Supreme du Canada ne lui a pas encore emboie le pas. Pourtant, une analyse attentive des jugements de cette derniere nous indique que la Cour a deja cree des regles prophylactiques, sans les reconnaitre comme telles. C'est notamment le cas du regime de mandats de perquisition dans Hunter v. Southam Inc. et de l'exigence d'une commission independante sur les salaires juridiques provinciaux dans R. v. Campbell. Dans les deux cas, la Cour a presente ces regles prophylactiques comme des essentiels constitutionnels.

En ne distinguant pas les regles constitutionnelles des regles prophylactiques, la Cour a fait naitre la confusion dans plusieurs domaines du droit constitutionnel. La Cour refuse du meme coup au Parlement et aux assemblees legislatives provinciales leur role legitime d'interpretes de la constitution. La reconnaissance des regles prophylactiques permettrait un "echange" plus constructif entre cours de justice et corps legislatifs--ne serait-ce qu'a long terme.


I.   Constitutional Rules and Prophylactic Rules

II.  Search Warrants and Disclosure

III. Unwritten Rules, Unnecessary Prophylactics, and Campbell

IV.  Disposable Rules

V.   Dialogue and Elocution



The United States and Canada are very different in constitutional structure, history, and culture. For that reason, Canadian jurists, judges and lawyers should exercise caution when attempting to use American constitutional jurisprudence to settle Canadian constitutional problems. It might behoove Canadian jurists, however, to occasionally look to American legal scholarship and case law for concepts that help bring order to constitutional thinking, even if the substance of American case law remains something to approach warily for the purposes of transplantation.

The idea of prophylactic rules, as distinguished from constitutional rules, belongs in this category of concepts that deserve a second look. Lately, there has been a great deal of chatter in Canadian legal scholarship (as well as in the popular press and legislative assemblies) about judicial activism and whether or not the Supreme Court of Canada engages in it. More pronounced attention to prophylactic rules in Supreme Court decisions would do much to alleviate those concerns--if only in the long term.

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In Search of Prophylactic Rules


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