Unions at Laurentian University lose fight to unseal documents related to insolvency process

Laurentian University is introducing a series of measures to ensure students, staff and faculty members have the tools at their disposal to maximize safety when the fall semester begins. (Alana Everson/CTV News)

Unions representing staff and faculty at Laurentian University lost a court fight last week aimed at unsealing two confidential letters between the province and the university.

Laurentian filed for insolvency at the beginning of February under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act. A court-appointed mediator is handling the process, with an eye on cutting staff and programs by the end of April.

The Laurentian University Faculty Association (LUFA) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), as well as the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA), an umbrella organization representing faculty associations, filed the appeal after the letters were ordered sealed by Superior Court Chief Justice Geoffrey Morawetz in February.

The first letter is dated Jan. 21 and is from the Ministry of Colleges and Universities to Laurentian. The second is a letter from Laurentian to the ministry, dated Jan. 25.

"Laurentian has described the letters as containing 'information with respect to (the university) and certain of its stakeholders, including various rights or positions that stakeholders or (Laurentian) may take either inside or outside of these CCAA proceedings, the disclosure of which could jeopardize (Laurentian’s) efforts to restructure,'” said a court transcript of the decision. 

In his ruling, Morawetz said the "disclosure of the exhibits, at this time, could undermine the restructuring efforts being undertaken by (Laurentian).”

The Court of Appeal of Ontario ruled that because of the nature of insolvency cases, sealing orders should only be lifted "only where there are serious and arguable grounds that are of real and significant interest to the parties."

Such cases are time-sensitive, the court ruled, and "the existence of, and delay involved in, an appeal can be counterproductive to a successful restructuring."

In their arguments, lawyers for the unions said the letters directly impact their position during the insolvency process.

"They argue that the importance of the documents to the formulation of their positions is the exact reason why they should have access to the documents, not a justification for denying access to them," the transcript said.

"The moving parties have expressed particular concern that the sealing order creates an informational imbalance that may hurt them in the mediation process."

But the appeals court ruled that the impact of unsealing the letters and granting the appeal is a much bigger risk than keeping them sealed.

"As we have said, this restructuring is on an exceptionally short timeline," the transcript said. "We are told that the mediation is ongoing, with sessions occurring daily. There is urgency to being able to reach a successful restructuring by the end of April, in light of Laurentian’s financial position and the need for certainty regarding the next academic year.

"There is too great a risk that an appeal would be a distraction from restructuring efforts and thus would unduly hinder the progress of the action, which also weighs significantly against granting leave."