In Surrey Knights Junior Hockey v. The Pacific Junior Hockey League (released October 2018), Justice Winteringham of the Supreme Court of British Columbia found that a junior hockey team had been denied procedural fairness in its expulsion from the league and further ordered expulsion proceedings against the team to stop.
The Surrey Knights are a Junior B hockey club that plays in the Pacific Junior Hockey League. The League is a society governed by the British Columbia Societies Act and provides competition of players aged 16 to 20. The Club is a member of the League.
In the early 2015-16 season, the Knights were playing another team when, in the third period, the game became rough. The coach and majority owner of the Club, John Craighead, left the team bench and was alleged to have assaulted the opposing coach and an opposing player. The incident was witnessed by the League president, Ray Stonehouse, who attended the game.
No charges were laid by the police. However, BC Hockey suspended Craighead from all game-related functions for three years. Twenty-one months after the incident, a motion was brought to expel the Club from the League.
Because he witnessed the event, Stonehouse purportedly recused himself from the expulsion process. Despite that, he remained involved, including by refusing requests for information by the Club's counsel, offering his opinion on preliminary applications and attending the hearing as a witness.
Justice Winteringham found that the League violated the requirements of procedural fairness and its actions were oppressive to the Club.
(a) Dictates of Procedural Unfairness
First, Winteringham J. found that the notice to the complainant was fundamentally unfair in the following respects:
● the League never provided a response to the Club's request for particulars of the complaint against it until the closing argument, when the League governors were told that the Club's liability to expulsion rested exclusively on its association with Craighead as majority owner;
● notice to Craighead personally had to be differentiated from notice to the Club, which was not given; and
● lack of adequate notice constituted a breach of the principles of natural justice
(b) Unbiased Decision-Maker
Justice Winteringham also found that, while the League president properly removed himself from presiding over the hearing itself, he improperly involved himself in rendering decisions that were significant to the hearing. Specifically, Stonehouse:
● presided over a meeting of the governors where they decided to proceed to a full hearing rather than dismiss the complaint on a summary basis;
● participated in the decision-making relating to the request for documents by the Club's counsel; and
● authored a decision purporting to dismiss the Club's application for a hearing on the issue of jurisdiction.
Applying the test for bias, Winteringham, J. found that a reasonably informed bystander would perceive bias by the decision-maker in these circumstances. She found that there was procedural unfairness in Stonehouse's involvement in preliminary decisions that were significant to the hearing itself.
The lack of procedural fairness (a denial of natural justice) also supported the finding of oppression. In addition, the League needed to ensure that, in seeking to expel the Club, it respected the rights and interests of the Club, not just those of the majority owner. The minority owner had a significant financial interest at stake. The players on the team would be affected, either by being dispersed to other teams or to no team at all.
3. Key Observations
This case strongly supports the requirements of natural justice.
● First, if the League is seeking to expel a member, it must give adequate notice to the member. Notice to a co-owner is insufficient.
● Second, where there is a conflict of interest (such as a League official who witnessed the incident that lies at the heart of the complaint against the member), that official should not have a hand in, or any involvement with, decisions relating to the discipline proceedings. Not sitting on the panel of governors who decide on expulsion is insufficient.
● Third, the League needs to consider the effect of an expulsion on people other than the former coach. The minority owner and the Junior B players were also affected by a decision to expel the Club from the League. The League must take their rights and interests into account. Otherwise, the decision to expel a member may be oppressive or unfairly prejudicial.