Tort Claims and Canadian Prisoners

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Prisoners, Tort Claims, Ashely Smith, Conditions of Confinement, Duty of Care of Prisons, Operation and Policy of Prisons


Prisoners can be tragically wronged by the prison system, as highlighted by the recent Ashley Smith case. Tort actions have proven to be a problematic form of recourse for them. Negligence claims made by prisoners face many obstacles at every stage of the analysis: the duty of care, standard and breach, and causation. The authors offer an overview of tort litigation coming out of Canadian prison with a focus on health care based negligence claims, risks arising from other prisoners and the risk of self-harm. They find that these cases are unevenly resolved when the plaintiff is a prisoner. The paper further considers “conditions of confinement” and attempts to determine whether this standard could give rise to a novel duty of care. The authors outline several impediments to the imposition of such a duty. They note that Canadian courts are reluctant to impose duties on public actors, particularly when the conduct in question walks the fine line between operational and policy-oriented action. Improving conditions of confinement would be an expensive undertaking and the imposition of a duty of care would involve costly funding decisions, so the authors determine that the courts would be unlikely to accept it as a legitimate duty of care. If tort litigation can be made more accessible to prisoners the end result may be the improved enforcement of their entitlements and the betterment of internal prison conditions.