Federal Court grants injunction to order Leaders’ Debate Commission to accredit media organization

  • March 16, 2020
  • Christopher Wirth and Sakshi Chadha

In October 2019, just prior to a federal leaders’ election debate, the Federal Court granted an urgent injunction ordering the Leaders’ Debate Commission to permit two media journalists to attend and cover the federal leaders’ election debate. In True North Centre for Public Policy v. Canada (Leaders’ Debates Commission), 2019 FC 1424, the court subsequently released its reasons for granting this injunction.


The commission is an independent institution created by the Canadian government in 2018 to arrange the official federal election debates. Approximately two weeks prior to the October 7, 2019 scheduled debate, the commission announced that accreditation was required for media journalists to attend the debate—but provided neither information regarding the accreditation procedure, nor the criteria for granting accreditation—and required that applications for accreditation be made by October 4, 2019.

On October 3, 2019, in consultation with the Secretariat of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, the commission developed internal guidelines for accreditation. On Friday, October 4, 2019, the commission denied accreditation for the Monday, October 7, 2019 debate to two journalists, one from Rebel News Network Ltd. and one from True North Centre for Public Policy. In a short rejection e-mail, the commission stated that the journalists were denied accreditation because of their association with an organization that is engaged in advocacy.

The journalists then filed applications for judicial review of the commission’s decision and brought urgent motions in the Federal Court seeking an interlocutory injunction requiring the commission to grant them accreditation.

Federal Court Decision

On October 7, 2019, the Federal Court made an order granting the injunction and compelling the commission to accredit Rebel and True North so they could attend the debate that evening. In its reasons for granting the injunction subsequently released on November 13, 2019, the Federal Court concluded that the journalists had satisfied the three-part test for granting a mandatory interlocutory injunction and found that:

  • the journalists had established a strong likelihood that the case will succeed on the merits in setting aside the Commission’s accreditation decision as both unreasonable and procedurally unfair;
  • the journalists had demonstrated that they will suffer irreparable harm if the injunction was not granted; and
  • the balance of convenience favoured the journalists given the urgency of the decision due to the timing of the election debate and the limited media representatives involved in the legal challenge.

The Federal Court found that the journalists were likely to succeed in challenging the decision as unreasonable on the basis that the commission’s reasoning for its denial of the accreditation based on the no-advocacy requirement lacked transparency, logic and rationality. The commission accredited other media organizations that also seem to be engaged in advocacy, such as the Toronto Star, whose mandate explicitly outlined a focus on highlighting injustices and advocating for social and economic justice. Further, the Federal Court reasoned that the commission did not provide any explanation as to the definition of “advocacy”, the rationale as to why advocacy would disqualify a media representative from accreditation, and the reasoning behind reaching its decision.

The Federal Court also found that a duty of fairness applied to decisions to determine accreditation, holding that the journalists were likely to succeed on their allegation that the decisions were procedurally unfair. The Federal Court stated that procedural fairness required the commission to provide notice of the criteria for accreditation and an opportunity for the journalists to address them. Further, the Federal Court held that the commission should have declared that advocacy would adversely impact accreditation and then provide non-accredited journalists an opportunity to subsequently establish whether they are involved in advocacy. Instead, the Federal Court found that the two denied journalist’s were left “in the dark” as to the criteria surrounding their accreditation and left with no opportunity to respond.

The Federal Court also rejected the commission’s argument that the two journalists would not suffer irreparable harm because accredited media will have no more access to the election debate than individuals watching a live-stream. This logic did not acknowledge the significance of the scrum following the debate, where each leader is available to accredited media for 10 minutes to respond to questions. The Federal Court held that whether or not a journalist asks a question is unimportant to the harm analysis, instead emphasizing the importance of the lost opportunity to ask questions.


Administrative decision-makers should set out in a timely manner the criteria that must be met, along with their rationale, and provide an opportunity for an applicant to address why these criteria have been met.

Christopher Wirth is a Partner and Sakshi Chadha is an Articling Student at Keel Cottrelle LLP.