Chastain v. B.C. Hydro and Power Authority,  2 W.W.R 461 (“Chastain”)
– CLAS Lawyers Ian Waddell, Q.C. and David Mossop, Q.C.
This was the first consumer class action launched in Canada in 1972. It successfully resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars being returned to thousands of consumers, the vast majority of whom had a low-income.
Ms. Karen Chastain, a mature student at Simon Fraser University, along with a few other plaintiffs, sued on their own behalf, as well as for the class of any persons in a like position, seeking a declaration that security deposits demanded by BC Hydro as a condition precedent for the supply, or continued supply, of electrical power and gas, were illegal. The action sought a permanent injunction and return of the security deposits on behalf of the entire class.
By way of background, it appears that BC Hydro was demanding security deposits from students, the unemployed, artists, and generally anybody who in the sole discretion of BC Hydro was deemed to be a risk of potentially not paying their utility bills. Additionally, when customers eventually closed their accounts and the deposits were returned, no interest was paid to these poorest of customers.
This discriminatory practice turned out not to be based on any hard evidence, but merely on prejudicial assumptions.
Following a new American legal concept of the “class-action law suit”, in which you sue on behalf of a group of people suffering the same illegal action and not just yourself, two of our first lawyers at CLAS, Ian Waddell, Q.C. (our second Executive Director at the time) and David Mossop, Q.C., decided to frame the legal action in this manner. The two also researched and relied on a legal principle that a public utility in a monopoly position cannot discriminate amongst its customers (note: this action predated the BC Human Rights Code).
The action was ultimately successful and BC Hydro was ordered to repay $350,000 to 12,500 people. After being put on notice that the BC Government intended to appeal the decision, Mr. Waddell was subsequently informed that the newly elected BC Premier, Dave Barrett of the NDP, had instructed that the appeal be abandoned. As Mr. Waddell states in the first chapter, “Community Law”, of his political memoir, “Take the Torch”, “Forty years later, Mossop wryly told the Community Legal Assistance Society’s anniversary gathering that we had arranged to win the 1972 provincial election to prevent an appeal”. Mr. Waddell also noted, “Because this case never went to appeal, it seems to have been lost in the mist of past cases, but I do believe a determined Ms. Chastain made legal history”.