The Personal Tort Liability of Political Volunteers in Nova Scotia
Michael V. Coyle, JD*
This article may interest you if you volunteer for a political party, whether during elections or at other times, and if you have ever wondered about your exposure to personal legal liability as a political volunteer.
On April 7, 2009, just before the last provincial general election, the Government of Nova Scotia quietly amended the “Designation of Non-Profit Organizations Regulations” made under the Volunteer Protection Act to declare that Registered Political Parties in Nova Scotia are “non-profit organizations” under the Volunteer Protection Act.
Registered Political Parties are the political parties who maintain their registered status with the province’s Chief Electoral Officer under the Elections Act.
So what does that mean?
It means, quite simply, that political party volunteers are exempted, with certain exceptions, from personal legal liability for civil wrongs (torts) committed while working as party volunteers.
This is important because the exact legal status of political parties in Canada still remains unclear. While some Canadian Courts have shown a willingness in recent years to treat political parties as being ‘corporation-like’ for some legal purposes, that has not stopped even the Attorney General of Canada from arguing that political parties (even Registered Political Parties) have no corporate legal status whatsoever. If that position is correct, it means that political parties cannot be sued in their own names and they cannot defend claims in court that are brought against their volunteers. So, without the Volunteer Protection Act, political volunteers may be personally on the hook.
So what are these protections?
The Volunteer Protection Act says that
“3 (1) Notwithstanding any enactment, no volunteer of a non-profit organization is liable for damage caused by an act or omission of the volunteer on behalf of the organization if
(a) the volunteer was acting within the scope of the volunteer’s responsibilities in the non-profit organization at the time of the act or omission; and
(b) the volunteer was properly licensed, certified or authorized, if required by law, by the appropriate authorities for the activities or practice undertaken by the volunteer at the time the damage occurred…”
Since there are generally no special licenses required for political volunteers, the protection is broadly available to political volunteers who are “acting within the scope of [their] authority” and who cause “damage” to another person “on behalf of the [political party]”.
“Scope of authority” generally means what they have been authorized by the party to do. If, for example, if a person is volunteering on a sign crew for a party and they are alleged to have, say, trespassed on someone’s property while putting up a sign, the property owner would likely have no claim against the volunteer.
If, on the other hand, the sign crew member, who had no authorization from the party to do so, took it upon himself or herself to write and distribute an unauthorized leaflet that defamed the character of another person, they would probably be acting outside their “scope of authority” as a sign crew volunteer and, hence, they would not have the protection provided by the Volunteer Protection Act.
There are further exceptions for volunteers, even those acting within their scope of authority. Those exceptions are applicable when:
(c) the damage was caused by willful, reckless or criminal misconduct or gross negligence by the volunteer;
(d) the damage was caused by the volunteer while operating a motor vehicle, vessel, aircraft or other vehicle for which the owner is required by law to maintain insurance;
(e) the act or omission which caused the damage constitutes an offence; or
(f) the volunteer was unlawfully using or impaired by alcohol or drugs at the time of the act or omission which caused the damage.
So, let’s say that the sign crew volunteer mistakenly thought that he had permission to put up a sign on a particular property and he parked his vehicle lawfully on a public street and proceeded on foot across that property and erected the sign. In that case, he is likely protected by the Volunteer Protection Act cannot be (successfully) sued for, say, trespass.
But if he drove across the property in his vehicle, or if he deliberately erected a sign where he knew full well it was not permitted, or if he didn’t care whether it was permitted or not, or if he was drunk or high at the time, or if he vandalized someone’s property while putting up the sign, he would not be protected from civil liability under the Volunteer Protection Act.
If a protected political volunteer is sued, however, the person suing him must pay for the costs and fees of the volunteer’s lawyer. Section 3A of the Volunteer Protection Act says:
“3A Where an action that is brought against a volunteer for damages caused by an act or omission of the volunteer on behalf of a non-profit organization does not result in a judgment against the volunteer, the volunteer is entitled to costs on a solicitor-and-client basis.”
This is, of course, a very strong disincentive against suing political volunteers.
Please note that the Volunteer Protection Act only protects volunteers in cases involving civil wrongs, or “torts” as they are called, alleged to have been committed by volunteers. This protection likely covers things like most instances of trespass, defamation and negligence. It does not exempt political volunteers from criminal liability or from breaches of the Elections Act. And it does not prevent political volunteers from being sued for debts that have voluntarily taken on, for example, when they agree to sign a note with the bank for a party’s campaign line of credit.
* Michael Coyle is a lawyer and Chair of the Nova Scotia Election Commission. This article is intended as general information only and it is not a substitute for professional legal advice on the specific facts of any case. Examples are given only to illustrate the general principles involved. This article does not necessarily represent the views of the Election Commission or of Elections Nova Scotia.