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The Superior Court reaffirms the autonomy of Quebec’s universities and dismisses an application for authorization to institute a COVID-19-related class action

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Litigation and Dispute Resolution Bulletin

On June 3, 2021 Superior Court Justice Claude Bouchard dismissed an application for authorization to institute a class action against 15 Quebec universities in the case of Larose c. Corporation de l’École des Hautes Études commerciales de Montréal 2021QCCS 2299.

Summary of the facts

Claudia Larose, a student at Université Laval, wanted to institute a class action on behalf of Quebec students enrolled for the Winter 2020 term; she was seeking a partial refund of tuition fees on the grounds that the remote education disseminated by the universities was of poorer quality and that some extracurricular services had not been rendered. According to Ms. Larose’s claim, the COVID-19 pandemic amounted to a situation of force majeure that released the universities from some of their contractual obligations, while at the same time giving rise to a corresponding partial refund of tuition fees.

Decision of the Superior Court

Justice Bouchard pointed out that universities are autonomous and independent institutions that have considerable discretion in managing their academic and administrative affairs; that allows them to adapt their teaching methods and their supply of extracurricular services to circumstances, including in response to exceptional occurrences like the pandemic that affected the Winter 2020 term. He therefore dismissed the application, saying it did not present any defendable cause of action that could satisfy the second criterion of article 575 of the Code of Civil Procedure.

Conclusion

According to the principle of judicial restraint that has been enshrined in case law, courts refrain from getting involved in the activities of universities unless they make unreasonable, arbitrary, discriminatory or unfair decisions. In this case, the application for authorization to institute a class action contained no allegations of that sort, nor any facts in support of such allegations, which must be held to be proved.

More recently, on July 16, 2021, Superior Court Justice Pierre-C. Gagnon upheld an application for authorization to institute a class action against private elementary and secondary schools and colleges in the Montreal area, which appeared very similar to the Larose case. Justice Gagnon rightly pointed out that he was not bound by the Larose decision due to the distinctive status of Quebec universities, which are not governed by the same legislative framework as private schools and colleges.

Fasken has the experience and all the resources you need for advice and assistance regarding all aspects of public law and class actions. Fasken’s team of Mr Christian Trépanier and Mr Maxime-Arnaud Keable represented one of the Quebec universities in the Larose case.

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