Roncarelli v Duplessis

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Roncarelli v Duplessis
Supreme Court of Canada
Hearing: June 2–6, 1958
Judgment: January 27, 1959
Full case name Frank Roncarelli v The Honourable Maurice Duplessis
Citations [1959] S.C.R. 121
Ruling Trial judge correct, amount awarded at trial increased by $25,000.
Court Membership
Chief Justice: Patrick Kerwin
Puisne Justices: Robert Taschereau, Ivan Rand, Charles Holland Locke, John Robert Cartwright, Gerald Fauteux, Douglas Abbott, Ronald Martland, Wilfred Judson
Reasons given
Majority Martland J., joined by Locke J.
Concurrence Kerwin C.J.
Concurrence Rand J., joined by Judson J.
Concurrence Abbott J.
Dissent Taschereau J.
Dissent Cartwright J.
Dissent Fauteux J.

Roncarelli v Duplessis, [1959] S.C.R. 121, was a landmark constitutional decision of the Supreme Court of Canada where the Court held that Maurice Duplessis, the premier of Quebec, had overstepped his authority by revoking the liquor license of one of Jehovah's Witnesses. Justice Rand wrote in his often-quoted reasons that the unwritten constitutional principle of the "rule of law" meant no public official was above the law, that is, they could neither suspend it or dispense it. Although Premier Duplessis had authority under the relevant legislation, his decision was not based on any factors related to the operation of the licence, but was made for unrelated reasons, and was therefore held to be exercised arbitrarily and without good faith.[1]


Frank Roncarelli was one of Jehovah's Witnesses and a restaurant owner in Montreal. He used his wealth to provide bail security for members who had been arrested by the municipal government.

At the time, tension and unprovoked violence by the dominant Roman Catholic community against Jehovah's Witnesses saw increasing arrests of Jehovah's Witnesses for distributing their magazines without the necessary permits under a city by-law which was later determined to be unconstitutional in Saumur v. The City of Quebec.

Roncarelli furnished bail for 375 of Jehovah's Witnesses in three years, many of whom were arrested multiple times.

The Chief Prosecutor of the city, Oscar Gagnon, overwhelmed by the number of Witnesses being arrested and then set free by Roncarelli's intervention, contacted the Premier who spoke to Edouard Archambault, Chairman of the Quebec Liquor Commission. Roncarelli's liquor licence was subsequently revoked. Extensive testimony showed the government actors believed Roncarelli was disrupting the court system, causing civil disorder, and was therefore not entitled to the liquor licence. Roncarelli was told that he was barred from holding a liquor licence and that the action was a warning that others would similarly be stripped of provincial "privileges" if they persisted in their activities related to the Witnesses.

Roncarelli received news of the revocation in December 1946, and while he tried to keep his business open without the licence, it was not profitable and he put it up for sale within six months. Consequently, he brought an action against Duplessis for $90,000 in damages.

At trial, the Québec Court of Queen's Bench found in favour of Roncarelli, however it was overturned on appeal.

Decision of the Court

In a 6-to-3 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada reinstated the trial decision, holding that Duplessis wrongfully caused the revocation of Roncarelli's liquor licence.

The six judges who sided with Roncarelli used different legal reasoning to reach their decision. Three judges wrote that Duplessis had ordered the cancellation which was outside his authority as premier; two judges stated that although Duplessis had the power to order the cancellation, he had done so in bad faith; and the sixth judge concluded the premier was not entitled to immunity as a public official.

Roncarelli was awarded $33,123.53 in damages, a fraction of his claim, plus costs in the Court of Queen's Bench and the Supreme Court of Canada. Roncarelli's son, however, maintained that it was a significant moral victory in his father's struggle against the system.

Roncarelli's legal counsel throughout were A.L. Stein and Professor Frank Scott.


Cartwright wrote a dissenting judgement which argued that it was within the power of the commission to refuse to grant Roncarelli a permit, as the act only fettered the commission by delineating circumstances under which the granting of a permit was forbidden and circumstances in which the cancellation of a permit was mandatory. Cartwright argued that as this was an administrative tribunal, and not a judicial one, it was "a law unto itself" and did not need to base its decision on anything more than policy and expediency. Cartwright went on to argue that even if the commission were to be considered quasi-judicial, in which case procedural fairness guarantees would apply, that still would not entitle the plaintiff to monetary damages.

See also


  1. Sarah Blake, Administrative Law in Canada, 5th edition, pages 99 - 100.

External links