Arbitration Act does not bar appeal from master's decision to judge: Alberta Court of Appeal

Provision specifically addressing right of appeal found in Court of Queen's Bench Act, majority said

Arbitration Act does not bar appeal from master's decision to judge: Alberta Court of Appeal
Alberta Court of Appeal in Calgary, Alberta

In a recent case, the Alberta Court of Appeal for Alberta ruled that the Arbitration Act does not bar an appeal from a decision of a master to a judge of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench.

In Agrium v Orbis Engineering Field Services, 2022 ABCA 266, the appellant separately engaged the respondents in 2013 to provide services relating to upgrading one of its production facilities. Their contract included a mandatory arbitration agreement.

A dispute arose, and rather than proceed to arbitration, the appellant filed a civil action with the Court of Queen’s Bench only days before the limitation period expired. When the appellant served the respondents with the claim, the period for commencing an arbitration proceeding had long expired.

Two years later, the respondents applied to a Court of Queen’s Bench master to strike the action against them. The master dismissed the applications. They then appealed the master’s decision to a Court of Queen’s Bench judge.

The respondents argued in their appeals that the mandatory arbitration agreement precluded the appellant’s action against them. The appellant applied to strike the appeals on the ground that s. 7(6) of the Arbitration Act precludes an appeal from a master’s decision.

The judge allowed the respondents’ appeals and struck the action. The appellant appealed the judge’s decision to the Alberta Court of Appeal.

In dismissing the appeal, the Court of Appeal found that s. 7(6) of the Arbitration Act does not preclude an appeal from a master’s decision to a Court of Queen’s Bench judge.

According to the court, the parties did not dispute that there is a valid mandatory arbitration provision in their contract that binds them. Thus, the issue on appeal is “a question of law that engages principles of statutory interpretation to which the standard of correctness applies.”

 The court noted that the judge identified the applicable principles of statutory interpretation and considered the ordinary meaning of the words used in s. 7(6) of the Arbitration Act within the legislative framework governing appeals from a master. That framework includes the Court of Queen’s Bench Act, the Interpretation Act, and the Alberta Rules of Court.

“The judge concluded the Court of Queen’s Bench Act and the Arbitration Act were not in conflict, but rather could be interpreted in a manner that made one harmonious with the other without straining the language used in either,” the majority wrote. “We agree with her analysis.”

Since the present case involves several pieces of legislation, the court said it is equally important to consider the principle for harmonizing different statutes: “interpretations that minimize the possibility of conflict or incoherence among different enactments are preferred.”

Moreover, the court discouraged conflict avoidance strategies in interpreting statutes, such as “specific overrides the general” or “reading legislation down in certain circumstances and liberally in others,” where no genuine conflict exists.

“Here, the appellant’s attempt to ignore the statutory right of appeal that exists between the two levels of decision making within the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta manufactures a conflict that does not necessarily exist,” the majority wrote.

Even if s. 12 of the Court of Queen’s Bench Act − which confers a right of appeal from a master to a judge of the same court – conflicts with the statutory prohibition in s. 7(6) of the Arbitration Act, the court rejected the argument that the Arbitration Act has a more specific provision that would override the right of appeal in the Court of Queen’s Bench Act.

“Rather, the provision that specifically addresses the right of appeal is that in the Court of Queen’s Bench Act,” the majority wrote. “We agree with the judge that the two acts can be interpreted harmoniously without derogating from the rights conferred by one or the purpose intended by the other.”

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