Ontario’s top court has stayed a ruling that upended the provincial government’s plans to cut Toronto city council in the middle of a municipal election.
The legal victory for the Progressive Conservative government means city staff can immediately focus on planning for an election using 25 wards and abandon the 47-ward model that was revived by the lower court’s decision.
It also means the government won’t have to immediately move forward with reintroduced council-cutting legislation that invoked a constitutional provision known as the notwithstanding clause to override the lower court ruling.
The province had argued the stay was necessary to eliminate uncertainty surrounding the Oct. 22 vote, and the Court of Appeal agreed.
“It is not in the public interest to permit the impending election to proceed on the basis of a dubious ruling that invalidates legislation duly passed by the legislature,” the three-judge panel wrote.
The appeal court rejected arguments from those opposed to the stay that the province was responsible for the chaos surrounding the election and thus shouldn’t be granted relief.
“We do not accept the respondents’ submission that, because Ontario exercised its legislative authority to enact Bill 5, it does not have ‘clean hands’ and should not be entitled to the equitable relief of a stay from this court,” the panel wrote.
An Ontario judge last week found that the province’s Bill 5, which reduced Toronto city council to 25 seats from 47, violated freedom of expression rights for candidates and voters.
Premier Doug Ford contested the ruling and took the unprecedented step of invoking the notwithstanding clause in reintroduced legislation to push through with his plan.
The new bill won’t be up for a final vote until Thursday at the earliest, and the province’s lawyers said legislators wouldn’t move forward with the vote if the stay was granted.
The province is also appealing the lower court ruling and lawyers said the case could be heard on an expedited basis in order to resolve the issue before a new council is sworn in on Dec. 1.
In their decision Wednesday, the judges weighing the stay said they believe the decision to strike down Bill 5 will be overturned on appeal.
“The question for the courts is not whether Bill 5 is unfair but whether it is unconstitutional,” they wrote.
“On that crucial question, we have concluded that there is a strong likelihood that application judge erred in law and that the Attorney General’s appeal to this court will succeed.”