B.C.’s highest court has ruled in favour of a father of five who embarked on a three-year challenge after the Ministry of Children and Family Development told him his four oldest children could not ride the bus unsupervised.

The case was sparked when the ministry received an anonymous complaint back in 2017. Due to a publication ban on any information that would identify the children, CTV News is not naming the father for the time being.

In Monday’s ruling, a panel of three judges unanimously agreed to allow the appeal, and declared the order requiring the father to supervise his children on the bus “unauthorized and of no force and effect.”

In an interview with CTV News, the father said the legal victory is bittersweet, in a way.

“It’s nice to win it, and finally sort of have that validation that the decision they made is not within the bounds of their authority to make, but on the other hand it shouldn’t have taken this long,” he said. “What we really wanted to underscore here is if the ministry wants to make decisions like this, they have to do it the proper way and they have to do it in the light of day, and not in a back room.”

According to the ruling, the man’s four oldest children were between the ages of seven and 10 back in 2017. At the time, he told CTV News he had ridden the bus with them many times to help prepare them for the trip to school and make sure they were ready, and added they always carried a cellphone with them just in case. He said they had never experienced any problems.

The ruling said when the ministry became involved, it determined the matter was not urgent and came up with an interim safety plan, which included a requirement for supervision while on the bus. Later communications from the ministry said the children could not be left unsupervised on transit, in the community, or at home until they were 10 years old, or had someone 12 or older taking care of them. The father was told his file had been closed.

The father said he still remembers exactly where he was when he saw the voicemail from the ministry social worker.

“It was just a silly situation where all of a sudden little things that I relied on kids being independent enough to do and they had done for years, like crossing the street to go to the corner store, they couldn’t do anymore and they didn’t understand why,” he said. “So there’s the emotional, living in fear sort of toll, and then there’s just the practical one.”

The impact has also been financial. The father said the total proceedings probably cost upwards of $70,000 over three years. He started an online fundraiser to help cover some of the costs, and said he recognizes this kind of fight would not be possible for everyone to undertake.

“I think what it really highlights to me is just how difficult it is for people who have it worse off both in terms of their circumstances and then in terms of the types of decisions that the ministry is making with regard to their families,” he said, and added he hopes this court ruling will help families in future cases. “The reason for continuing was specifically for the principle of drawing a line when it comes to ministry intervention like this, that is superfluous, really. It’s needless, it’s baseless, it didn’t look at the evidence of the case.”

The father requested an administrative review, and later a judicial review. After a Supreme Court judge found the ministry’s decision was “reasonable and correct” earlier this year, the father appealed the decision, submitting the director under the Child, Family and Community Service Act did not have the statutory authority to make such a decision regarding supervision.

In the B.C. Court of Appeal ruling, Madam Justice Barbara Fisher wrote that she agrees the director is not authorized to order parents how to care for their children in an assessment of a child’s safety. She noted while social workers may make recommendations to parents, those recommendations are non-binding, and if a parent disagrees, the director can determine whether further action is necessary.

“Given that the director did not consider the appellant’s children to be in need of protection and took no further steps, her delegates had no authority to require the appellant to supervise his children on the bus (or elsewhere),” Justice Fisher said.

Lawyer Malcolm Funt, who represented the father along with co-counsel Eric Bojm, said the case has implications for how the ministry can operate.

“One of the things that is made very clear by this ruling is that they are not allowed to give definitive orders or requirements on parents, absent going to court and getting a supervision order in the provincial court,” said Funt. “Even if they’re acting with the best of intentions, they need to understand the scope of their powers.”

In an emailed statement, the Ministry of Children and Family Development told CTV News they respect the judgement, and are reviewing the decision and “considering the court’s guidance in determining next steps and practical implications."

“As previously and publicly stated, the ministry completely supports building independence in kids and would be comfortable with children riding the bus alone if they are ready and capable of doing so safely,” the statement continued. “When the ministry receives a child protection concern, we are legislatively obligated to assess it and respond in the best interests of the child(ren)," it reads.