Social rights : the implications of selective constitutionalisation


University of British Columbia

Date Issued


Document Type



Master of Laws - LLM




This thesis is concerned with those 'social' rights that relate to the provision of the basic necessities of life; that is the right to an adequate standard of living (including food, clothing and shelter), the right to health and the right to education. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights (ICESCR) recognises obligations pertaining to the progressive realisation of these rights, whilst leaving the method of implementation within domestic discretion. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms only accords domestic constitutional protection to civil rights, leaving the implementation of these social rights within government discretion. This study will examine what has, in the Canadian experience, proven to be the practical consequences of adopting such a policy of 'selective constitutionalisation,' that puts social rights by definition outside the ambit of legal enforcement. Firstly, it will examine the court's approach to cases that have, in the absence of constitutionalised social rights, attempted to indirectly invoke social rights by encouraging a positive social interpretation of the right to equality and the right to life, liberty and security of the person, and will illustrate that the courts have failed to interpret these rights so as to indirectly protect social rights. Secondly, it will consider the relationship between legal, political and social discourse, illustrating that, in light of the non- constitutionalised status of social rights, the values underlying these rights have been marginalised in political and social discourse, facilitating reforms that have restructured and eroded the welfare state, reducing the realisation of social rights within Canada. Thirdly, it will consider the practicability of adopting the alternative approach of according equal constitutional protection and justiciable status to social rights, through an examination of the theoretical literature and the approach taken to social rights under the Final Constitution of the Republic of South Africa 1996. It will illustrate that the philosophical arguments that have been utilised to support the nonconstitutionalised status of social rights are no longer sustainable and that the constitutional experience of South Africa provides evidence that a practical alternative to the position adopted in Canada exists.


Social justice -- Canada; Civil rights -- Canada; Canada -- Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

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