Licence to Offend: A Case Comment on Grabher v. Nova Scotia (Registrar of Motor Vehicles)

  • 27 juillet 2021
  • Matilda Lici

You may not think of licence plates as a feminist issue, but last year, the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia made a strong pronouncement on the impermissibility of personalized license plates that promote or may be seen to promote gender-based violence. The ruling halted a four-year dispute over a contentious personalized licence plate between Nova Scotia’s Registrar of Motor Vehicles and Lorne Wayne Grabher.

Twenty-seven years ago, Mr. Grabher’s family applied for and obtained a personalized licence plate bearing his family surname, which was renewed annually without incident for nearly three decades. In October 2016, around the time when the infamous Donald Trump Access Hollywood tape was unearthed, the Registrar of Motor Vehicles received a complaint claiming that the wording “GRABHER” was offensive. The Registrar subsequently cancelled Mr. Grabher’s personalized licence plate, and Mr. Grabher’s appeals to the Registrar to reconsider its decision were unsuccessful.

Mr. Grabher then brought an application seeking a declaration that the Registrar’s cancellation of his licence plate infringed sections 2(b) and s. 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (“Charter”), and that sections 5(c)(iv) and 8 of the Personalized Number Plates Regulations infringed s. 2(b) of the Charter and were therefore of no force or effect. He argued that his use of the personalized plate “GRABHER” was an expression of his Austrian-German heritage and immigrant background. Mr. Grabher also contended that the Regulation resulted in the creation of a distinction based on nationality, race or ethnic origin insofar as it treated a German name as an English phrase and ascribed an “idiosyncratic and demeaning reading” to it, all of which signaled to the public that there was something objectionable about the Grabher surname.