Prematurity: Challenges to the Hearing Tribunal’s Jurisdiction
Perspectives for the Professions
April 2022 - 2 min read
In Goodwin v Alberta College and Association of Chiropractors, 2022 ABQB 177, the Court of Queen's Bench provided a clear statement on prematurity and the timing of judicial reviews from administrative bodies. In this case, the regulated member brought a premature application for the Court to determine issues that would be key in his upcoming disciplinary hearing. This case is also significant as it is the first judicial consideration of the Health Profession Act's sexual abuse and sexual misconduct provisions.
Goodwin met Ms. W while providing her with chiropractic treatment, and in July 2019, the two began dating. Goodwin initially referred Ms. W to another chiropractor, but she was unhappy with her treatment and returned to Goodwin as a patient. According to Goodwin, he and Ms. W have been acting as "spouses" since July 2019.
The College was made aware of Goodwin's romantic relationship with Ms. W and investigated. While Chiropractors can become romantically involved with former patients, they must allow a 12-month "cooling off" period under the College's Standards of Practice. Chiropractors may also treat current spouses or adult interdependent partners as defined by the Adult Interdependent Relationships Act.
Following the College's investigation, the matter was referred to hearing on allegations that Goodwin had engaged in a sexual relationship with his patient, which, if proven, would constitute sexual abuse under the College's Standards of Practice and Health Professions Act. A finding of sexual abuse would result in the automatic cancellation of Goodwin's registration with the College.
Before the hearing, Goodwin brought an application in the Court of Queen's Bench to determine that Ms. W was his spouse and that the disciplinary hearing was "unnecessary." Goodwin also applied for a declaration that the College's Standards of Practice were discriminatory and violated his Charter rights since his religion prohibited cohabitation before marriage, yet he and Ms. W self-identified as spouses. While "spouse" was not defined in the College's Standards of Practice, Goodwin believed the College's likely interpretation would be discriminatory.
The Court dismissed Goodwin's application, holding that courts should decline to grant relief where there is an adequate alternative statutory mechanism to address the matters in issue.
The hearing before the hearing tribunal provided that mechanism. The tribunal could determine:
- the scope of the term "spouse";
- when Goodwin and Ms. W became intimate; and
- whether Goodwin had complied with the College's Standards of Practice and subsequently the Health Profession Act's sexual abuse provisions.
The hearing tribunal could also consider Goodwin's Charter arguments. Hearing tribunals under the Health Professions Act lack the power to strike down unconstitutional legislation, but they can consider the effects of their decisions on Charter rights. Therefore, the tribunal could determine whether applying the Standard of Practice to Goodwin would infringe his Charter rights. Goodwin would also have the ability to appeal the hearing tribunal's decision if he was unsuccessful.
The Court reaffirmed that complaints directors act as "gatekeepers" – they do not make findings or render final decisions but rather determine whether there is sufficient evidence to support referring a matter to a hearing. A referral to a hearing is not a decision that can be challenged in court.
While this decision does not change the law, it reaffirms the jurisdiction of hearing tribunals to address professional disciplinary matters and interpret their home statutes. In the context of disciplinary appeals, regulated members cannot "jump the queue" by seeking direction from the Court, and must follow the legislated mechanisms and any subsequent appeals. Further, this case affirmed that hearing tribunals may consider the application of Charter issues in their ultimate determinations of unprofessional conduct.