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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Supreme Court sides with federal government in $57 billion EI surplus case

The Supreme Court of Canada is seen in Ottawa on October 2, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

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The Supreme Court of Canada is seen in Ottawa on October 2, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA - The Supreme Court of Canada has sided with the federal government and ended a long-running legal fight with Quebec's leading labour organizations in a multibillion-dollar employment insurance case.

The unions sued the Harper government after it decided in 2010 to close the old employment insurance account and transfer the $57 billion balance into the government's general revenues.

The Confederation des Syndicats Nationaux said and the Federation des travailleurs et travailleuses du Quebec argued unsuccessfully that the move was unconstitutional.

In a unanimous 7-0 ruling on Thursday, the justices agreed with the federal argument that the matter was dealt with in a 2008 Supreme Court decision.

Justices Louis LeBel and Richard Wagner, writing for the majority, said the unions' bid for the accumulated surplus of funds, "is bound to fail."

A lower court originally sided with the federal government and dismissed the union suit, but the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned that and the government appealed to the Supreme Court.

In originally granting the federal government's action, a Quebec Superior Court judge ruled that the money belonged to the government and not the EI fund contributors.

In a 20-page ruling, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of the unions pursuing a legal action that appeared to have almost no chance of success. It said the power of courts to stop a case could be used only after careful consideration of all relevant facts.

"Judicial resources must be husbanded to ensure that the courts function properly and that litigants have access to a justice system that meets the highest possible standards," said the ruling.

"Although the proper administration of justice requires that the courts' resources not be expended on actions that are bound to fail, the cardinal principle of access to justice requires that the power be used sparingly, where it is clear that an action has no reasonable chance of success."

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