Québec – court declines request to refer parties to arbitration disputing validity of government decision to impose standard contract – #017

The Québec Superior Court determined that the true nature of a dispute covered by the litigation was over the manner in which the government imposed the contract on the litigants and not over its interpretation or application.  Corporation des services d’ambulance du Québec v. Barette (Ministre de la Santé et des Services sociaux), 2017 QCCS 4170 serves as a caution that even the most elaborate undertakings to arbitrate do not necessarily apply if the dispute is not about the contract between the parties but with the government as a third party which created it. 

Plaintiffs comprised an industry representative for ambulance services and a collection of ambulance services permit holders.  They instituted litigation against the Québec Health Minister and impleaded a number of regional health and social services organizations.  Plaintiffs sought judicial review of a decision by the Minister unilaterally imposing a standard contract of service on the entire ambulance industry.  The Minister had elected to issue a government decree by which the Minister set the basic terms and conditions of a contract applicable to all ambulance services in the province.

Plaintiffs objected to the manner in which the contract was imposed, without negotiation or any collaboration.  Plaintiffs alleged the Minister’s actions were an excess of jurisdiction, an abuse of power and a diversion of the objectives in the applicable Act respecting pre-hospital emergency services, CQLR c S-6.2 and sought the nullity of the decree.

The standard contract contained a detailed arbitration clause at article 7.6, comprising over 950 words, Two of the named Defendants were integrated health and social service centres – Centres intégrés universitaires de santé et de services sociaux (“CIUSSS”) and Centres intégrés de santé et de services sociaux (“CISSS”) – and were bound by that contract to Plaintiffs.  CIUSSS and CISSS sought a stay of the litigation and a referral to arbitration based on the arbitration clause.  They alleged that the claims made by Plaintiffs were matters within the exclusive jurisdiction of the arbitrator and therefore the court had no jurisdiction over a dispute between the parties to the standard contract.

In a succinct decision, Madam Justice France Bergeron examined the arbitration clause and readily agreed that the arbitration clause was complete. That said, she still dismissed Defendants’ application to refer them to arbitration.  Her review of the remedies sought by Plaintiffs in the litigation demonstrated that their litigation concerned the exercise of the Minister’s discretion and not a dispute over the interpretation or application of the provisions of the resulting standard contract.

Bergeron J. also noted an overlap in the manner in which Defendants styled the questions to be handled by the arbitrator and those which even those Defendants agreed should be submitted to the court.  She determined that the overlap could lead to contradictory decisions on the same questions which would be against the proper administration of justice and effectiveness of the law.