Whoops and applause rang out in a packed Red Deer courtroom on Monday morning when a judge dismissed pandemic-related charges against Mirror café owner Chris Scott on Monday morning.
Scott was facing seven charges of violating the Public Health Act and one violation under the Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Act. He was charged after health inspectors and RCMP officers made numerous visits between January and April 2021 to check on Whistle Stop Cafe after he had been warned he was violating health orders in place at the time prohibiting in-person dining.
Crown prosecutor Peter Mackenzie, who was appearing by video link, told Red Deer Justice Jim Glass that in light of the recent Ingram decision that prosecution was “not sustainable” and would not be proceeding.
It was standing room only in the small courtroom, where more than 30 supporters crowded in to hear the judge’s decision.
Court of King’s Bench Justice Barbara Romaine ruled last month that Alberta’s Public Health Act was breached when politicians, instead of the chief medical officer of health made final decision on health restrictions. The decision was named after plaintiff and gym owner Rebecca Ingram, whose business was affected by health restrictions, including closures and distancing rules.
Outside the courthouse, Scott’s lawyer Chad Williamson said justice was served.
“We fought long. We fought hard. Had Chris capitulated to what the court has now found were unreasonable and unlawful CMOH (chief medical officer of health) orders Chris would have been submitted to further punishment, and he wasn’t,” said Williamson, who defended Scott along with lawyer, Yoav Niv, who was not present.
“A win’s a win and justice in its roundabout way was served today.”
Had Scott been found guilty he could have faced tens of thousands in fines or even jail time, he said.
Scott said the decision has not changed how he feels about his long-running legal battle.
“In the oilpatch we would call this a near-miss. We almost had a really serious incident and it’s an opportunity to look at what happened and not have it happen again.”
Williamson said when government is exercising its authority, it is obligated to do so within the law.
“That’s not to say it was necessarily malicious. This really is a technicality. The CMOH orders that came down were improper. The decision was supposed to have come from the chief medical officer. The court found, predominantly, the main decision maker was Cabinet.”
“In the future, the government’s either going to have to change the legislation or they’re going to have to comply with the legislation that gives them the power to act in that particular manner.
“The court did find that there were a number of significant breaches of people’s charter rights, but by and large those breaches were saved by the reasonable exceptions clause (of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms).”
One of the reasons many Albertans bristled at health restriction was that often appeared arbitrary and were not applied to businesses equally.
“Big box stores were able to operate with impunity, Safeway, Best Buy. But a little diner in Mirror that services a community that is far away from everywhere else — they had the big hand of government come down upon them.
“I think it’s inhuman to go after some people and not others … and produce a policy that’s not consistent and that has marks of arbitrariness.”
Williamson said he expects charges will be dropped in other cases, including that of Red Deer diner owner Wesley Langlois, who was issued a $1,200 ticket in January 2021 for allegedly violating health restrictions by allowing in-person dining.
“I think one of the issues is if the underlying legislation or law is found to be invalid can the Crown reasonably proceed in a prosecution in breach of a law that’s been declared invalid and I don’t think they can.”