The Alberta Court of Appeal recently confirmed a health profession regulator’s authority to enact regulations in the public interest, even if no harm is occurring. In Sobey’s West v. College of Pharmacists of Alberta (2017 ABCA 36), Sobey’s sought judicial review of a College policy (incorporated into a regulation to give it the force of law) that prevented pharmacies, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians from offering inducements to clients that required the intervention of a pharmacist or pharmacy technician. Sobey’s acquired Safeway and continued Safeway’s policy of permitting Air Miles loyalty points to be collected by clients filling prescriptions at their pharmacy. While no complaints were made to the College about the loyalty points program, Sobey’s West sought judicial review of the policy, arguing that it curbed competition. At the time, Sobey’s West was challenging a similar policy in the court in British Columbia.
The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench (the trial division in Alberta) found that the College’s policy was ultra vires (outside the authority of) the College. The Alberta Court of Appeal reversed the trial judge’s decision, indicating that the College has legislative authority to enact law that protects the public interest. Therefore, the policy prohibiting the collection of Air Miles loyalty points on prescription drug purchases was within the jurisdiction of the College. This decision is consistent with Sobey’s West v. College of Pharmacists of B.C. (2016 BCCA 41), where the B. C. Court of Appeal found a similar college policy was within the authority of the College to make (and reversed the B.C. trial division decision).
The reasoning of these decisions is consistent with the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Katz Group Canada Inc. v. Ontario (Health and Long‑Term Care) (2013 SCC 64), where the Supreme Court of Canada upheld provincial drug benefit legislation and regulations whose intent was to increase transparency in generic drug pricing on the grounds that the regulations were consistent with the stated purpose of the enabling legislation. The court explained, in a unanimous decision, that to be found ultra vires, regulations must be shown to be inconsistent with the objective of the enabling statue or the scope of the statutory mandate. The court noted that there is a presumption of validity regarding regulations, which means that the regulations should be reconciled with the enabling statute in manner that is possible to construe them as intra vires and that the onus of proving them ultra vires is on the challenger – not on the rule-maker to justify them. The court also makes a point of noting that it is not the court’s role to assess the policy merits of the rules nor the partisan, social, or economic issues that may have been the catalyst for their creation.
Does the decision of the Alberta Court of Appeal, together with the Supreme Court of Canada’s presumption of validity for regulations, imply that regulators have a wide berth to enact restrictive rules as a matter of public interest, and that such rules will be difficult to challenge on judicial review? While regulators do have considerable latitude to enact regulations as a matter of protecting the public, each challenge to a regulation will turn on the particular wording of the regulation or policy in question, and on the precise wording of the enabling statute. In the past, regulations preventing the charging of block fees by physicians were judged to be ultra vires the Medicine Act because the court found they were made for the purpose of preventing extra-billing rather than for protecting the public, thus departing from the statutory mandate. See: Szmuilowicz v. Ontario (Minister of Health), (1995) 125 D.L.R. (4th) 688 (Gen. Div.).
Similarly, regulations preventing dentists from advertising their services using content that was informational, accurate, and helpful to individuals choosing a dentist were struck down as contrary to the right to freedom of expression protected by the Charter: see Rocket v. Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario, (1990) 71 D.L.R. (4th) 68 (S.C.C.).
In a third case, regulations preventing inactive physiotherapists from practising beyond their scope of practice were found by the court to be unauthorized: see Lefko v. College of Physiotherapists of Ontario, (1998) 116 O.A.C 86 (Div Ct).
These cases show that professional regulations are not impossible to successfully challenge.
Consequently, it is recommended that regulators, when seeking enactment of such rules into legislation, carefully draft the proposed rules to ensure that they are consistent with the regulator’s statutory mandate and do not exceed the scope of authority granted by the enabling legislation.
For help in drafting regulations for health professions, please feel free to get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.