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B.C. Court of Appeal Sets Aside Attempt to Stack Membership Rolls

In Samra v. Guru Nanak Gurdwara Society (decided 2008), the British Columbia Court of Appeal set aside attempts by three separate factions to stack the membership rolls in preparation for a vote for the election of the board of a religious institution that operated a Sikh temple in Surrey, British Columbia.

1. Facts

Guru Nanak Gurdwara Society was incorporated under the British Columbia Society Act (now the Societies Act). It had historically been able to elect its board (called in its bylaws the "executive committee") by acclamation. However, in late 2005 or early 2006, two factions emerged within the executive, which can be referred to as the Gill faction and the Samra faction.

As a result, the upcoming election was expected to be contested. The process of enrolling new members was particularly important because the faction that could attract more supporters to become members would enhance its chances of being successful in the election.

The society adopted what it referred to as a transparent process for the admission of new members, which may be summarized as follows:

● All applications for membership were to be received only through the transparent process.

● The transparent process permitted both factions to oversee and participate in receiving membership application forms at the sign-up table at the Gurdwara and to confirm that the requirements for membership were met by all applicants.

● The qualifications for membership under the by-laws of the society were primarily that the applicant:

● must be a resident of Surrey, Delta or White Rock, BC;

● must apply for membership in writing by submitting a complete and signed application for membership in the form prescribed by the executive;

● must submit the application form to the society's office in person or by an immediate family member of his family who lives in the same residence as the applicant and has the same surname; and

● must pay an annual membership fee of $25.

● The cut-off date for the admission of members was set at September 10, 2006.

During the lead-up to election, a third faction emerged, although it appears that it was in fact allied to the Gill faction.

2. Rulings

The court found the transparent process for enrollment worked well during the period from inception to the September 10 cut-off date. Approximately 2,200 members were enrolled. The validity of these membership was not in dispute. In fact, the trial judge stated:

This process is a model for future enrolment because it ensures that all members can be confident that there has been compliance with the Society's bylaws.

However, there were defects or irregularities in relation to a substantial number of the membership forms that all three groups had submitted. The defects or irregularities were material because they demonstrated the lack of compliance with the society's by-law on membership requirements. Some of the many defects and irregularities included:

● Application forms that were evidently gathered after the cut-off date, some of which were back-dated.

● Membership fees paid by the faction rather than the applicant personally.

● Incomplete forms, including the absence of dates of application.

● Rejection of the Samra faction's forms.

● Application of a higher standard for assessing the Samra faction's forms than the Gill faction's (and from the third faction supporting the Gill faction).

Each faction came to the conclusion that it was being disadvantaged because of the conduct of the other factions, creating a state of mind in which the members of each faction concluded that they were justified in violating the by-laws because the others were doing the same.

In the result, the court declared all of the membership applications invalid except those taken in the transparent process, affirming the decision of the trial judge.

3. Key Observations

The trial judge discussed the fundamental importance of the enrolment process to the integrity of the election of the executive committee, stating "if membership enrolment is not conducted fairly, then it is unlikely that the election will be fair."

The transparent process for enrollment of members was fair, unchallenged and a model for future enrollment. However, under the pressure to win the election, each faction deviated from the transparent process and tried to stack the membership rolls in its favour.

This case demonstrates the utility of adopting a transparent process for admitting members and the futility if factions, in their quest for power, deviate from the process.

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