Alberta Court of Appeal declines to halt contempt proceeding against former justice minister

Jonathan Denis threatened witness in wrongful dismissal litigation with defamation action

Alberta Court of Appeal declines to halt contempt proceeding against former justice minister

The Alberta Court of Appeal has refused to halt a hearing for sanctions and costs in relation to a contempt of court proceeding against former provincial justice minister Jonathan Denis, finding that it would ‘bifurcate’ the proceedings and was not in the public interest.

The dispute in Denis v. Sauvageau, 2022 ABCA 166, stemmed from a suit filed by Alberta’s former chief medical examiner, Dr. Anny Sauvageau, against the province for wrongful dismissal. During the trial, Jonathan Denis threatened to sue Sauvageau for defamation based on her testimony in court. Denis and his counsel Guardian Law Group, sent a letter to Sauvageau claiming that she had engaged in a “seven-year campaign of defamation and harassment as against Denis.” The letter also said that Denis’ group had been closely following the trial and that Sauvageau’s defamation of Denis had “continued unabated.”

Afraid of a defamation lawsuit against her if she testified any further, Sauvageau and her counsel brought the letter to the court’s attention. The court directed Denis and his counsel to appear before it to address the issue. After hearing the parties, the judge ultimately ruled that Denis was in civil contempt of court on the basis of witness intimidation. 

Denis appealed the decision and brought a stay application to stop the sanction and costs hearing from proceeding any further until the appeal of the contempt finding was determined.

The court said a stay may be ordered if there was a serious question to be determined on appeal, the applicant would suffer irreparable harm if the stay was not granted, and the balance of convenience favoured granting the stay.

Irreparable harm

The court found that Denis had failed to establish that he would suffer irreparable harm if the stay was not granted. Denis argued that his reputation would suffer because of the contempt finding against him, which would allegedly put him out of business. He claimed that because of the media attention on this case, numerous clients had already expressed concerns and a few of his colleagues had decided to leave his firm. Denis asserted that his business would be permanently harmed unless a stay was granted in his favour.

The court, however, said that the analysis of irreparable harm is prospective – to stop harm that will occur if a stay was not granted. The court found that what Denis had wanted to stop was the judge’s ruling on sanction and costs as a result of the contempt finding, not the actual finding of contempt that had already occurred.

Denis claimed that granting a stay of the proceedings would send a message that his appeal had merit. The court disagreed, saying that it would only show that there was a serious question to be decided about the contempt finding, and that the appeal was not frivolous or vexatious. A stay order would not touch upon the merits of the case.

Balance of convenience

In assessing the balance of convenience, the court would look at the public interest aspect of a case and the administration of justice. In this case, the court found that if a stay of the sanction and costs part of the proceedings was granted, it would lead to litigation by installment. The court would hear the appeal of the contempt finding first and then, depending on the outcome, the sanction portion of the proceeding would go ahead.

The court said, “this will result in a bifurcation and significant delay of the contempt proceedings in the trial court, impairing the public interest in the administration of justice.”

In addition, if Denis appealed the sanction decision, the appellate court would then hear the sanction appeal which would effectively lead to two different panels of the court hearing related appeals arising from the same facts at different times. The court noted that litigation by installment is highly discouraged as it could impair the administration of justice and lead to inefficient use of judicial resources. The court ultimately refused to grant Denis’ application for a stay of proceedings. The court would continue to hear sanctions and costs in relation to the contempt ruling against him.

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