Roncarelli v. Duplessis (1959), Supreme Court of Canada

Arguably one of the most important decisions in pre-constitution law.


maurice dulessisRoncarelli v. Duplessis, [1959] S.C.R. 121, was a landmark constitutional decision of the Supreme Court of Canada where the Court held that Maurice Duplessis, the premier of Quebec, had overstepped his authority by revoking the liquor licence of a Jehovah’s Witness. Justice Rand wrote in his often-quoted reasons that the unwritten constitutional principle of the “rule of law” meant no public official was above the law, that is, they could neither suspend it or dispense it. Though he had the authority to do this by the law granting him the discretion, he overstepped the reasons why he held this. It is held as an example of a ruling showing a need for rules governing the granting of authority.


Frank Roncarelli was a successful restaurant owner and practicing Jehovah’s Witness in Montreal. He was very active in the Jehovah’s Witness community and used his wealth to support persecuted members by offering bail security for those who had been arrested by the municipal government. Tension between the dominant Roman Catholic community and the Jehovah’s Witness community saw increasing arrests of Jehovah’s Witness members for selling copies of their magazines without the necessary permits under city by-laws. Roncarelli furnished bail for over 375 Jehovah’s Witness members in three years and many were arrested multiple times.

The Chief Prosecutor of the city contacted the Premier who spoke to the Chairman of the Quebec Liquor Commission. Roncarelli’s liquor licence was subsequently revoked. Extensive testimony showed the government actors believed Roncarelli was disrupting the court system, causing civil disorder, and was therefore not entitled to the liquor licence. Roncarelli was told that he was “forever” barred from holding a liquor licence and that this action was a warning to others that they would similarly be stripped of provincial “privileges” if they persisted in their activities related to the Witnesses.

Roncarelli received news of the revocation in December 1946, and while he tried to keep his business open without the licence, it was not profitable and he put it up for sale within six months. Consequently, he brought an action against Duplessis for $118,741 in damages. At trial, the Quebec Court of Queen’s Bench found in favour of Roncarelli, however it was overturned on appeal.


Did the Premier of Quebec overstep his authority in revoking the liquor license of Roncarelli?


Finding for the appellant, $33,123.53 in damages awarded plus costs.


Supreme Court JusticesThe six judges who sided with Roncarelli used different legal reasoning to reach their decision. Three judges wrote that Duplessis had ordered the cancellation which was outside his authority as premier; two judges stated that although Duplessis had the power to order the cancellation, he had done so in bad faith; and the sixth judge concluded the premier was not entitled to immunity as a public official.

Cartwright wrote a dissenting judgement which argued that it was within the power of the commission to refuse to grant Roncarelli a permit as the act only fettered the commission by delineating circumstances under which the granting of a permit was forbidden and circumstances in which the cancellation of a permit was mandatory, and nothing more. The Justice argued that as this was an administrative tribunal, and not a judicial one, it was “a law unto itself” and did not need to base its decision on anything more than policy and expediency. Cartwright went on to argue that even if the commission were to be considered quasi-judicial, in which case procedural fairness guarantees would apply, that still would not entitle the plaintiff to monetary damages.

Principle established

The unwritten constitutional principle of the “rule of law” means no public official is above the law, that is, they can neither suspend it or dispense it.

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