In a judgment rendered on June 3, the Superior Court of Quebec refused to authorize the institution of a large-scale class action against 15 Quebec universities, 12 of which are represented by a team from our firm.

The proposed class action sought the partial reimbursement of the tuition fees paid by all students enrolled in at least one university credit in the winter 2020 semester. The applicant, a student from Université Laval, claimed that the quality of teaching and the services offered by the universities as of mid-March 2020 failed to measure up to the tuition fees paid by students, following the government decrees that mandated a shift to online learning and prohibited access to campuses.

The applicant first argued the COVID-19 pandemic constituted superior force making it impossible for the defendants to perform their obligations, therefore justifying the restitution of prestations (Articles 1693, 1694 and 1699 CCQ). Alternatively, the applicant argued the simple failure to perform obligations contracted by the universities (Article 1590 CCQ). 

Despite the low burden imposed on applicants in class actions, the Superior Court allowed the challenge by the respondent universities by concluding that the legal syllogism put forth was not tenable pursuant to the second criterion of Article 575 of the Code of Civil Procedure

The court began by confirming that the contract between the students and the universities was a sui generis contract. Applying the Quebec and Canadian case law pertaining to proceedings against universities, the court held that universities were autonomous institutions with broad discretion in managing their academic affairs and it was not up to the courts, in the absence of abuse or bad faith, to interfere in how they run their operations, particularly to assess the quality of the teaching and related services. The applicant had not alleged any facts that could lead to the conclusion that the universities had acted in bad faith or unreasonably, or that they had committed an abuse of right or a denial of justice. 

In addition, the court pointed out that the applicant’s proceedings did not refer to any contractual obligations that had not been performed by the universities further to decisions that were unreasonable, discriminatory or made in violation of the duty to act fairly. The facts alleged by the applicant did not lead to the conclusion that universities had committed a fault.

The court also ruled that the deference owed by courts to university affairs was not solely applicable in matters of judicial review, but applied to any application relating to universities’ internal operations or academic activities.

The judgment therefore confirms the autonomy enjoyed by universities in organizing their internal affairs, including their reaction to exceptional circumstances such as those arising from a pandemic, and the deference owed by the courts before they interfere in this management.

Norton Rose Fulbright represented the group of 12 universities before the Superior Court.

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