The conventional wisdom has been that decisions of churches are private decisions, made by private institutions, and therefore are not open to judicial review. In other words, if a member is disciplined by a church (by, for example, being expelled), they cannot apply to the courts to have that decision reviewed.
The member may still have remedies available to them in contract and/or in tort, but it has been generally accepted that they cannot apply for the statutory remedy of judicial review.
A recent decision from the Alberta Court of Appeal may turn that thinking on its head.
The case of Wall v Judicial Committee of the Highwood Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, 2016 ABCA 255, concerns a congregant named Randy Wall who was expelled from the Church for engaging in drunkenness. As a result, Mr. Wall's business as a realtor suffered, because most of his client base were Jehovah's Witnesses. As a result of his expulsion, the Jehovah's Witness community would no longer do business with him.
Mr. Wall exhausted the avenues of appeal that were available to him within the Jehovah's Witness hierarchy, without success. The Church upheld his expulsion, and Mr. Wall applied to the Courts for judicial review of the church's decision. The Church moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that private decisions of private institutions are not susceptible to judicial review. The Alberta Court of Queen's Bench held that the case could go ahead, and the Church appealed.
On appeal, the Alberta Court of Appeal released a split decision. In dissent, Justice Wakeling held that decisions of private institutions are not properly the subject of judicial review. Justice Paperny and Rowbotham, however, departed from this traditional understanding.
The majority held that the availability of judicial review is discretionary. They further held that, because the standard of review was one of deference, they were unwilling to interfere with the decision of the lower court judge. The majority concluded that a court does have jurisdiction to review the decision of a religious organization when a breach of the rules of natural justice was alleged. Because Mr. Wall had alleged a breach of the rules of natural justice in how he was expelled from the Church, the Court properly had a role in reviewing whether or not the rules of natural justice were followed.
The result means that Mr. Wall can now have a judge of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench review his expulsion from the Jehovah's Witness Church, and potentially order him to be reinstated. It also means that the extremely narrow grounds upon which a court will undertake judicial review of a religious organization's decisions has been widened. It remains to be seen if this is just a small evolution in the law of judicial review, or if it is the beginning of a larger trend of courts becoming more willing to review the decisions of religious organizations.