A man who was illegally detained for almost three days last year is seeking authorization from the Superior Court to file a class-action lawsuit against the Quebec government on behalf of every person who was illegally detained by the province’s correctional services. Damages could amount to millions of dollars.
Last week, The Globe and Mail revealed that at least 454 people were illegally detained for periods ranging from one day to almost three months in Quebec detention centres over the last decade because of sentence miscalculations, identification mistakes and other clerical errors.
The Globe also found that few of them are ever compensated.
Sylvain Desroches’s application to launch a class-action lawsuit, filed Tuesday, alleges the incidents are the result of government negligence and warrant compensation for all members of the group, who were deprived of their constitutional rights to freedom and protection against arbitrary detention.
Each year “dozens or even hundreds of people are unjustly deprived of their liberty in Quebec due to administrative negligence committed by representatives” of Quebec’s ministries of Justice and Public Security, the application says.
Mr. Desroches and his lawyers allege that although Quebec identified “more than 450 people who have been illegally detained as a result of its administrative mismanagement” in the last decade, “almost all of these victims were never compensated.”
“The Respondent, who cannot ignore this injustice, does nothing to remedy it,” they argue.
Mr. Desroches, 49, appeared in court last June to face charges of breaking and entering, stealing goods of $5,000 or less in value, and failing to comply with a court order. He was placed in preventive detention pending his trial, which began on July 29.
At the end of the first day of hearings, the trial judge ordered that Mr. Desroches, who has since pleaded guilty to his charges, be released, and adjourned the trial to Sept. 12, 2022.
But, contrary to the court’s order, a representative of the Ministry of Justice failed to release the plaintiff and issued a warrant for his detention, the application says, sending Mr. Desroches back to the Montreal Detention Centre, also known as Bordeaux jail.
Mr. Desroches, who was unaware of the alleged mistake and expected to be released, distributed his personal effects to other detainees upon his arrival at the detention centre.
“Seeing the delay in releasing him, the Plaintiff inquired of a guard who, to his great astonishment, advised him that he would remain imprisoned,” at the detention centre until his next court date more than one month later, the application says.
Mr. Desroches protested and asked that this be verified, to no avail. Guards asked him to return to his cell, where he continued to plead his case until a fellow detainee ordered him to be quiet and he was put in lockdown until the next afternoon, the application says.
On July 30, Mr. Desroches called his lawyer as soon as the lockdown was lifted, but she was unable to get him released until Aug. 1.
Mr. Desroches and his lawyers, from Coupal Chauvelot and Kugler Kandestin law firms, argue that the situation experienced by the plaintiff was “far from isolated” and that it is “indefensible to detain people ‘by mistake.’”
They ask that each member of the class action be allotted $10,000 per day of illegal detention in compensatory damages for the “anguish, anger and frustration” they felt, along with $5,000 in punitive damages “given the unlawful, intentional and malicious acts” of the Quebec government in unduly denying them of their freedom.
This could easily amount to millions of dollars, given the hundreds of potential class action members. For Mr. Desroches alone, it represents $35,000.
Illegal detentions in Quebec were recently under the spotlight when Nicous D’Andre Spring, 21, died after an altercation with Bordeaux guards took place on Dec. 24, 2022. The Ministry of Public Security has acknowledged that Mr. Spring was supposed to be freed the day before and was illegally detained at the time of his death.
“At the heart of a free and democratic society is the liberty of its subjects,” wrote former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci in a famous 2002 dissenting opinion. “Liberty lost is never regained and can never be fully compensated for; therefore, where the potential exists for the loss of freedom for even a day, we, as a free and democratic society, must place the highest emphasis on ensuring that our system of justice minimizes the chances of an unwarranted denial of liberty.”
Referring to this passage, Louis-Nicholas Coupal, one of Mr. Desroches’s lawyers, said, “we can never give them back that day. What remains is financial compensation and then, to improve the situation.”
Mr. Coupal added that, although reaching out to potential members of the class action could present challenges as they may still be detained or otherwise vulnerable, he was confident that the government could provide helpful information if the lawsuit is authorized to move forward.
In an interview, he said the law firms would also try and publicize the lawsuit to reach as many potential class action members as possible.
Quebec’s Ministry of Justice declined to comment “out of respect for the judicial process,” spokesperson Isabelle Roy wrote in an e-mail. The Ministry of Public Security did not immediately reply to The Globe’s request for comment.