Respecting the Doukhobors' Rights in British Columbia
Ages 14-18

MysteryQuest 15
Support Materials 2 (Briefing Sheet)

Reasonable Limits on Charter Rights

Basic or fundamental rights are not absolute under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Even when a right has been infringed by a government authority, it may still not be a violation of the Charter if there are good reasons for limiting the right. When applying the Charter, judges must determine whether it may be reasonable to limit the exercise of a right in a certain range of situations. The task of applying this “reasonable limits” clause is a difficult one. Over the course of deciding a number of key cases, the Supreme Court of Canada has elaborated on how reasonable limits are to be determined.

The Court has clarified that even though a right has been infringed, it may be permitted if three conditions are met:

  • it can be shown that the limitation is prescribed by law;
  • the objective in limiting the right is clearly justified;
  • and the means used to limit the right is also clearly justified.

Prescribed by Law

To be “prescribed by law,” a limit must either be embodied in a valid law or be authorized by a properly delegated official or agency. For example, a government official making decisions on an inconsistent, arbitrary basis would not be acting in a manner prescribed by law. Much of the time, a limitation is prescribed by law in that police officers or other governmental agents are authorized by specific statutes to act in these instances. But the law must provide the officials with clear guidelines or standards upon which to base their assessments; otherwise, their decisions may not be accepted as legally prescribed.

Clearly Justified Objective

The second stage in establishing the reasonableness of a limitation is to show that its objective or purpose of limiting the right is of sufficient merit and importance to justify overriding a constitutionally protected right or freedom. This involves balancing the interests of the state and the rights of the individual — the more serious the infringement of the right, the more important the objective sought in limiting the right must be. A limit would be clearly unjustified if its objective was inconsistent with the values of a “free and democratic society” – examples of such values include respect for the dignity of persons, equality and social justice, and respect for cultural and group identity.

Clearly Justified Means

The final consideration in defending a limitation on a right requires showing that the means used to pursue the objective is clearly justified. Three factors to consider are whether the:

  • means is carefully designed to achieve the objective in question;
  • means interferes as little as possible with the right or freedom in question (there is no less disruptive way to achieve the desired result);
  • government action does not cause more harm than it avoids.

If a government can show that the limits it has placed on basic freedoms meet the above conditions, then its actions are “reasonable limits” under the Charter.