The Cake Bill

The flaws in the UK government’s two-faced Bill of Rights Bill

The UK government has introduced its Bill of Rights Bill: a long, if not exactly eagerly, awaited replacement for the Human Rights Act 1998, which gives effect to the European Convention on Human Rights in UK law. The Bill will limit the ability of the UK courts to enforce rights protections in the UK in various ways, some of them arguably defensible ― at least in the abstract ― and many not defensible at all. In this, I offer my initial thoughts on some of the Bill’s most salient aspects. My overarching theme will be that the government is trying to have its cake ― or rather, several different cakes ― and eat it ― or them ― too.

It may be worth briefly noting where I’m coming from on this. I think that I am more sympathetic to the concerns with judicial overreach in the implementation of the Convention and the Human Rights Act 1998 than many, perhaps most UK public law academics. Moreover, I have no particular attachment to the Convention and especially the European Court of Human Rights, whose judgments consistently strike me as unimpressive or worse. At the same time, as readers of this blog will know, I do strongly favour protections for individual rights vigorously enforced by an independent judiciary. So if the point of human rights law reform were for the UK to go its own way, and even leave the Convention so as to reject the Strasbourg Court’s mistakes, while making robust arrangements to secure rights, I would be quite happy.

But that is not at all what it is proposed. It would be an exaggeration to say that the Bill embraces the worst of both worlds ― the Convention/Strasbourg world and that of UK parliamentary sovereignty ― but it blends them in a way that strikes me as remarkably inelegant and unattractive.


For all the talk of a “British bill of rights” over the years, the Bill of Rights Bill remains closely tethered to the Convention. It (largely) eschews any definition of rights, and in clause 2 tamely incorporates by reference the substantive provisions of the Convention (which are also set out in a Schedule), just as the Human Rights Act had done. It also refers to various other definitions and provisions of the Convention. Perhaps this was the path of least resistance, but if the idea was to produce a statement of the UK’s own commitment to rights, this is a missed opportunity. Perhaps, on the contrary, the government wanted to signal that rights are simply alien to the UK’s legal system. That would be a deplorable distortion of the (admittedly complex) historical and constitutional truth. Either way, this is an example of the government trying to have it both ways: both distancing the UK legal system from that of the Convention and the Strasbourg court, but also remaining bound to it.

The main apparent exception to this refusal to articulate a distinct list of rights concerns clause 4 of the Bill, which refers to “the right to freedom of speech”. The Convention itself refers, instead, to the freedom of expression. But this distinction is mostly for show. Subclause 2 clarifies that “‘the right to freedom of speech’ means the Convention right set out in Article 10 of the Convention (freedom of expression) so far as it consists of a right to impart ideas, opinions or information by means of speech, writing or images (including in electronic form).” Again, the Bill is acting like Very Grownup child who will not stray out of mommy’s sight.

More importantly, clause 4 is mostly just for show substantively. Its first subclause says that “a court must give great weight to the importance of
protecting” free speech. Put to one side the question of what this even means, and whether courts now fail to “give great weight” to the freedom of speech. This hardly matters, because subclause 3 excludes most conceivable use cases from the scope of clause 4’s application. Freedom of speech is not to be given great weight in deciding “any question [regarding] a provision of primary or subordinate legislation that creates a criminal offence”, or questions about contractual or professional duties of confidentiality, or immigration, citizenship, and national security cases. Just that! What’s left? So far as I can tell, defamation and privacy issues (and note that clause 22 of the Bill puts a thumb on the scale against pre-trial restraints on publication ― though it does not prevent them entirely). It’s not nothing, I suppose, but a provision that grandly announces the importance of an English-sounding freedom of speech (rather than the dastardly Latinate “expression”) only to clarify that it applies only to fairly narrow categories of cases is another example of the Bill’s two-facedness.

I turn now to a different aspect of the Bill, the one to which I have at least a modicum of sympathy: its interpretive provision, clause 3. The Bill does away with one of the contentious elements of the Human Rights Act, section 3 (coincidentally), which provided that “[s]o far as it is possible to do so … legislation must be read and given effect in a way which is compatible with the Convention rights”. Courts took that pretty far, holding at one point that even unnatural readings of statutory provisions were “possible”, provided they did not mess with the main thrust of the legislation at issue. Where primary legislation was concerned, such re-interpretation was the only remedy that could do an applicant some tangible good, and moreover it avoided the need to declare legislation incompatible with convention rights. But by my own lights it was inappropriate nonetheless, and I am not sorry to see it go. I wish the UK allowed the courts to disapply legislation incompatible with rights, but I don’t think that judicial re-writing is an appropriate substitute for such a remedy (see e.g. here).

I also appreciate the Bill’s gesture at textualism and perhaps even an originalism of sorts with its requirement, in clause 3(2)(a) that courts interpreting a Convention right “must have particular regard to [its] text … and
in interpreting the text may have regard to the preparatory work of the Convention”. As an abstract matter, this is the right approach to interpretation. More on whether it makes sense in the context of UK human rights law presently. First, let me note that the Bill doesn’t actually embrace originalism, because it also allows the court to “have regard to the development under the common law of any right that is similar to the Convention right”. Contrast this with the Supreme Court of Canada’s rightful scepticism of jurisprudential developments post-dating the framing of the Charter in Quebec (Attorney General) v 9147-0732 Québec inc, 2020 SCC 32 (on which see here).

Anyway, the trouble is that this provision is another show of rigour and independence that will do no one much good. To the extent that the courts will follow it and adopt readings of Convention rights that are tethered to the text and “that diverg[e] from Strasbourg jurisprudence” as contemplated by clause 3(3)(b), they simply ensure that the Strasbourg court will find that the UK has violated its Convention obligations as interpreted by Strasbourg itself. It will be a pain in the neck for claimants, and it might allow the government to rage at those unconscionable European judges ― indeed, it is hard not to wonder whether this, as much as anything else, is really the point ― but that’s about it. The UK cannot unilaterally change the way the Convention is interpreted, even if its proposed interpretive methodology is better than the one endorsed by the European Court of Human Rights, and it cannot escape its Convention obligations by proclaiming that Strasbourg jurisprudence is no part of UK law.

Other interpretive provisions aren’t even well-intentioned. Clause 3(3)(a) makes adjudication of Convention rights into a one-way-ratchet by providing that courts “may not adopt an interpretation of [a] right that expands the protection conferred by the right unless the court has no reasonable doubt that” Strasbourg would do the same. While I understand discomfort with the idea that rights can be ― seemingly ― forever expanding by judicial fiat, this is unambiguously bad, though not unambiguously much else. The Bill doesn’t explain what it means by “expand” ― notably, what is the baseline? The existing Strasbourg jurisprudence? The original meaning? The original expected applications? Just what is “the protection” that must not be expanded? Does a new factual scenario count? And, fundamentally, whatever this all means, why is that (by implication) restricting the scope of a right is permitted but expanding it is not? If rights are in some sense fixed, they must be fixed against restriction as well as expansion; indeed, this is an important argument for originalism (see e.g. here), though not the most important one.

Another largely arbitrary limitation on the way rights are to be interpreted and applied is clause 5, which prohibits interpretations of Convention rights that would impose “positive obligation[s]” on public authorities ― i.e. simply require them “to do any act”. (The prohibition is categorical for the future cases, while existing interpretations that would fall afoul of it can only be retained on some stringent conditions.) Now, here too, I have some sympathy for the underlying motivations: so far as I can tell, the Strasbourg court can be fairly cavalier with demands that authorities do this or that, and its conception of the limits of the judicial role is different from that which you will find in common law jurisdiction. The Convention itself protects primarily what are known as negative rights ― that is, “freedoms from” rather than “rights to”. But understandable motivations aren’t enough.

The lines drawn by the Bill are too rigid. While it can be a useful guideline, the distinction between positive and negative rights is not nearly as clear-cut as the Bill’s drafters seem to assume. Sometimes, this is a textual evidence. Take Article 3 of the First Protocol to the Convention, by which the UK “undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot”. This is manifestly a commitment to “do acts”, lots and lots of them, and if the UK should fail to live up to it, I don’t understand how a court ― let alone a court having “particular regard to the text” can decline to order the government to get on with it. Once again, Strasbourg, here we come. But this is only the most obvious example. Even a seemingly purely “negative” right, say to be free from a random arrest by a rogue police officer, can have a positive corollary ― namely, to be promptly released if so arrested. Does the government really think a UK court should not be able to infer such a right (assuming it has not already been inferred ― sorry, I am far from being fully caught up on Convention jurisprudence) from Article 5 of the Convention? Meanwhile, the Bill doesn’t address what might actually a more disturbing aspect of Strasbourg’s positive obligations jurisprudence: their indirect imposition on private parties, who are thus burdened with duties the Convention quite clearly didn’t intend to impose on them.

I finally turn to the last issue I want to discuss at some length: the Bill’s attempt to force courts to defer to Parliament. Specifically, clause 7 provides that when determining whether a statutory provision is incompatible with a Convention right and, in the course of doing so, “decid[ing] whether the effect of the provision … strikes an appropriate balance between different policy aims [or] different Convention rights, or … the Convention rights of different persons … [t]he court must regard Parliament as having decided … that the Act” does strike such a balance. The Court is, further, to “give the greatest possible weight to the principle that, in a Parliamentary democracy, decisions about how such a balance should be struck are properly made by Parliament”. One problem with this is that this is all quite vague. Indeed, perhaps all this bluster means nothing at all. A court may well stipulate that Parliament decided that its law was fine and dandy and conclude that the greatest possible weight to give to this decision is precisely zero. On its face, the clause doesn’t actually preclude that.

But of course that’s not the interpretation the government will be hoping for. So let’s try taking this clause more seriously. So taken, clause 7(2)(a), which deems Parliament to have appropriately balanced all the rights and policy considerations involved is reminiscent of the late and unlamented “presumption of expertise” in Canadian administrative law, whereby courts were required (albeit by judicial precedent, not an Act of Parliament) to pretend that administrative decision-makers were experts regardless of whether the decision-maker in question had demonstrated any expertise bearing on the issue or could be plausibly expected ever to do so. I have called this “post-truth jurisprudence“, and I regard clause 7(2)(a) as a specimen of similarly post-truth legislation. It demands that the courts accept for a fact something that will by no means always be true. Many rights issues are unanticipated ― indeed, they arise precisely because they were not thought of when the legislation was being drafted. To the extent that, as the Bill’s drafters want us to believe, Parliament does take rights seriously, it will usually redress the issues it can anticipate before enacting legislation. It is no calumny against Parliament, however, to say that it cannot foresee all the problems that can arise. If anything, the calumny is to insist that whatever problems do occur, Parliament must have intended them to.

And then, there’s the matter of the assertion in Clause 7(2)(b) that decisions about balancing rights, or rights and policies, “are properly made by Parliament” “in a parliamentary democracy”. The “parliamentary democracy” bit is either a red herring or a misnomer. There are parliamentary democracies with robust judicial review of legislation ― Germany and India come to mind. What the Bill really means, but doesn’t quite want to say, is something like “a constitution based on parliamentary sovereignty”. Indeed, clause 7(2)(b) is reminiscent of the language in the preamble of Québec’s anti-religious dress code statute, which proclaims that “in accordance with the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, it is incumbent on the Parliament of Québec to determine the principles according to which and manner in which relations between the State and religions are to be governed in Québec”, by way of foreshadowing exclusion of judicial supervision of this law’s compliance with constitutional rights. I cannot help but suspect that the UK government is deliberately less forthright than its Québec counterpart because, yet again, it is trying to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to make courts to rubber-stamp parliamentary legislation instead of passing their own judgment on its compliance with rights, but it doesn’t want to admit that it is undermining the (already weak-form, and often quite deferential!) judicial review that UK courts have been engaging in. It might even be hoping to trade on the respect the European Court of Human Rights has developed for UK courts over the years to persuade the Strasbourg judges that legislation they rubber-stamped was really alright. I doubt it will work very well.


There would be a lot more to say. Much ― really, a shocking part ― of the Bill is devoted to nipping various claims in the immigration and refugee context in the bud. Some ― though less ― also tries to stick it to prisoners. I don’t like that one bit. As the most intelligent and principled opponent of judicial review of legislation, Jeremy Waldron, has come to recognise, if anyone has a claim to the assistance of the courts in order to defend their rights, it is precisely these groups, often unpopular and politically voiceless. Instead of being granted special solicitude, they are disgracefully singled out for special burdens. That said, in various smaller ways the Bill gets in the way of other rights claimants too.

But this is already a long post, and it should be clear enough that, in its present form, the Bill is not much good. To repeat, I’m no great fan of the Human Rights Act that it is meant to replace. That law’s weaknesses are mostly baked in for as long as the UK remains party to the Convention, but perhaps some of them could have been ameliorated. Instead of trying to do that, the government came up with a set of proposals that will, if enacted, make everything worse. Quite radically worse for some people, and less radically, but just enough to be noticeable, for everyone else. And for what? Chest-thumping now, and lost cases at Strasbourg later. Even a sovereign legislature in a parliamentary democracy can only ever say that it will have its cake and eat it too; it cannot actually do it.

Undignified

The Supreme Court holds that life imprisonment without parole is unconstitutional. Its reasons are unconvincing.

In R v Bissonnette, 2022 SCC 23, the Supreme Court unanimously finds unconstitutional the provision of the Criminal Code that, in effect, allowed persons found guilty of multiple murders to be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. The Court holds that the denial of a chance at release to all those on whom such sentences are imposed makes their imposition cruel and unusual, regardless of the nature of the crimes leading to it, and so contrary to section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In my view, the Supreme Court is wrong.

The case concerns a man who, executing a premeditated plan, entered a mosque “and, armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a pistol, opened fire on the worshippers. In less than two minutes, he caused the death of six innocent people” [11] and injured others. The prosecution sought to have him sentenced to serve the mandatory periods of parole ineligibility for each of the murders consecutively, amounting to a total of 150 years. But the Superior Court and the Court of Appeal both found that doing so would be unconstitutional. The former re-wrote the law to impose a 40-years ineligibility period. The latter simply struck it down and imposed the default sentence for a first-degree murder, life imprisonment and parole ineligibility for 25 years.


Writing for the Court, the Chief Justice draws on its recent decisions in Quebec (Attorney General) v 9147‑0732 Québec inc, 2020 SCC 32 and Ward v Quebec (Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse), 2021 SCC 43, to hold that section 12 of the Charter protects human dignity, which “evokes the idea that every person has intrinsic worth and is therefore entitled to respect”. [59] A punishment may contravene section 12 in two distinct ways. The more familiar one, which is involved in cases on mandatory minimum sentences that make up the bulk of section 12 jurisprudence, involves punishment that is grossly disproportionate to the particular offence for which it is imposed. To decide whether a given punishment is contrary to section 12 on this basis, the court must consider the offence. But there is a separate and logically prior category of section 12 breaches. It concerns punishments that are “intrinsically incompatible with human dignity”. [60] Here, the question of disproportionality does not arise at all; the punishment is simply not one that may imposed, no matter the offence. This category is “narrow” [64] but its contents “will necessarily evolve” along with “society’s standards of decency”. [65]

A punishment that belongs to this category “could never be imposed in a manner consonant with human dignity in the Canadian criminal context” because it “is, by its very nature, degrading or dehumanizing”, taking into account its “effects on all offenders on whom it is imposed”. [67] The Chief Justice adds that “the courts must be cautious and deferential” [70] before concluding that a punishment chosen by Parliament is of such a nature. However, once they reach this conclusion, because the imposition of such punishment is categorically forbidden, it can no more be discretionary than automatic, and it will not be mitigated by the existence of a prerogative power of mercy.

With this framework in mind, the Chief Justice considers whether effective life imprisonment without parole, which is what a parole ineligibility period of 50, let alone 75 or more years amounts to, falls into the category of punishments that “degrading or dehumanizing” by nature. In his view it is. There seem to be two somewhat distinct though no doubt mutually supportive reasons why this is so. On the one hand, such a punishment denies the important of rehabilitation as a part of the sentencing process. On the other, it is especially harsh on those subject to it.

On the issue of rehabilitation, the Chief Justice argues that life imprisonment without parole is incompatible with human dignity because “it presupposes at the time of its imposition, in a definitive and irreversible way, that the offender is beyond redemption and lacks the moral autonomy needed for rehabilitation”. [81] Rehabilitation is inextricably linked to human dignity, and “negat[ing] the objective of rehabilitation from the time of sentencing” “shakes the very foundations of Canadian criminal law”. [84] Even if rehabilitation seems unlikely, “[o]ffenders who are by chance able to rehabilitate themselves must have access to a sentence review mechanism after having served a period of incarceration that is sufficiently long to denounce the gravity of their offence”. [85] Rehabilitation can take the back seat to denunciation and deterrence, but not left by the wayside, as it were. The Chief Justice adds that “the objectives of denunciation and deterrence … lose all of their functional value” after a point, “especially when the sentence far exceeds human life expectancy”, which “does nothing more than bring the administration of justice into disrepute and undermine public confidence in the rationality and fairness of the criminal justice system”. [94]

As for the harshness of life sentences without parole, the Chief Justice quotes descriptions of this sort of punishment as tantamount to a death sentence and writes that “[o]nce behind prison walls, the offender is doomed to remain there until death regardless of any efforts at rehabilitation, despite the devastating effects that this causes”, [82] such as “the feeling of leading a monotonous, futile existence in isolation from their loved ones and from the outside world”, [97] which can even lead some to suicide. But the Chief Justice is clear that this does not foreclose each and every sentence that would have the effect of “dooming” the offender to remain in prison until death: “an elderly offender who is convicted of first degree murder will … have little or no hope of getting out of prison”. [86] This is nonetheless acceptable “since it is within the purview of Parliament to sanction the most heinous crime with a sentence that sufficiently denounces the gravity of the offence”. [86] What matters is that the existing 25-year parole ineligibility period does not “depriv[e] every offender of any possibility of parole from the outset”. [86]

The Chief Justice then considers comparative materials, reviewing the laws and some case law from a number of countries, as well as some international jurisdictions. I will not say much about this to avoid overburdening this post, though the Chief Justice’s comments about the way in which such materials can and cannot be used, which echo those of the majority in Québec Inc, are worth considering. I will note, however, that the most pertinent comparative source of them all, the sentencing judgment in the New Zealand case of  R v Tarrant, [2020] NZHC 2192, about which I have written here, is simply ignored. This isn’t entirely the Chief Justice’s fault, since, so far as I can tell, the factums for the prosecution and the Attorneys-General of Canada, Québec, and Ontario also fail to mention it. Yet I find the omission striking, and culpable on the part of both the lawyers and the Supreme Court.

Finally, having found a breach of section 12 of the Charter, and in the absence of any attempt by the government to justify it, the Chief Justice considers the remedy to grant. I will not address this issue here, but stay tuned ― there will be more on it on the blog in the days or weeks ahead.


The Chief Justice’s opinion does not persuade me. For one thing, it sits uneasily with precedent. The Chief Justice duly quotes his predecessor’s judgment for the unanimous Supreme Court in R v Safarzadeh-Markhali, 2016 SCC 14, [2016] 1 SCR 180, to the effect that sentencing principles, “do not have constitutional status. Parliament is entitled to modify and abrogate them as it sees fit, subject only to s 12 of the Charter“. [71] This includes both the principle of proportionality and “other sentencing principles and objectives” [Bissonnette, 53] That would seem to include rehabilitation, which the Chief Justice enumerated in the discussion sentencing principles that precedes this passage. And yet it follows from the rest of his judgment that rehabilitation is in fact constitutionally protected. It has a special relationship with human dignity, and cannot be excluded, contrary to the suggestion in Safarzadeh-Markhali, which, however, is not overruled or indeed even discussed at this point in the Chief Justice’s reasons. This is a muddle, which is not helped by the Chief Justice’s disclaimer of any “intent … to have the objective of rehabilitation prevail over all the others”. [88] If rehabilitation, alone among the sentencing objectives and principles ― even proportionality ― is constitutionally entrenched, then it is indeed put on a different plane.

The Chief Justice might think that his disclaimer holds up because, as we have seen, he insists that rehabilitation only needs to be available to those offenders who have “served a period of incarceration that is sufficiently long to denounce the gravity of their offence”. But he does not consider whether ― and, despite his professed commitment to deference, does not consider that Parliament may have concluded that ― in some cases, “no minimum period of imprisonment would be sufficient to satisfy the legitimate need to hold [the offenders] to account for the harm [they] have done to the community [or] denounce [their] crimes”. [Tarrant, 179] If that is so, then the same reasons that prevent rehabilitation from, say, abridging the sentences of elderly murders ought to prevent it from standing in the way of life imprisonment without parole. But it does so stand, because of its alleged special connection with dignity.  

Note that dignity itself is a judicial add-on to section 12 of the Charter; it’s no apparent part of the provision. As Maxime St-Hilaire and I pointed out in our comment on the first instance judgment in this case

the Supreme Court struggled for the better part of a decade to integrate human dignity into its equality jurisprudence, and gave up ― recognizing in R v Kapp, 2008 SCC 41 [2008] 2 SCR 483 that “human dignity is an abstract and subjective notion”, “confusing and difficult to apply”. [22] 

Something, I suppose, has changed, though the Chief Justice no more bothers to tell us why Kapp was wrong than he does explaining his apparent departure from Safarzadeh-Markhali. And note, moreover, that the alleged violation of human dignity that results from life imprisonment without parole is also the fruit of a judicial say-so. The Chief Justice asserts that such a sentence amounts to denial of an offender’s capacity to rehabilitate him- or herself. But it is at least just as ― in my view more ― plausible to see it as Justice Mander did in Tarrant: as expressing the view that nothing less will adequately denounce the crime. The offender may repent it; he or she may become a saint; but still denunciation will demand nothing less than continuing imprisonment. This is not am implausible view ― again, a thoughtful judgment of the New Zealand High Court has taken it ― and the Chief Justice never confronts, let alone refutes, it.

Even if you disagree with me on this, it remains the case that the Chief Justice’s reasons suffer from a serious logical flaw on their own dignitarian terms. Again, he accepts that some, perhaps a not inconsiderable number of, people will be imprisoned without any realistic prospect of being able to apply for parole, as a consequence of their age at sentencing and the duration of a fit sentence (or indeed a mandatory ― but constitutional ― one). He claims that this acceptable because such a sentence “does not exceed constitutional limits by depriving every offender of any possibility of parole from the outset”. [86; emphasis added] But that’s not how human dignity works. Dignity, if it means anything at all, is personal. Elsewhere, the Chief Justice shows he understands this, for instance when he writes that “rehabilitation is intimately linked to human dignity in that it reflects the conviction that all individuals carry within themselves the capacity to reform and re-enter society”. [83; emphasis added] In other words, because we are separate and distinct individuals, your dignity is not upheld if I’m being treated in accordance with dignitarian requirements. Yet that is exactly what the Chief Justice’s approach presupposes. Because some people get a chance at parole, those who don’t are treated with dignity. It’s a dodge, and a very clumsy one.

Finally, although I do not think that the court’s role is “to weigh fundamental values in our society”, [2] I agree that the courts do not operate in a moral vacuum. Yet they should not seek to fill this vacuum with what Professor St-Hilaire, in our comment on the Court of Appeal’s decision in this case, and I have described as “abstract, and ultimately soulless, humanitarianism”. Sadly, this is exactly what the Supreme Court is doing here. It is striking that almost nothing about the crime that led to this case, beyond describing it as an “unspeakable horror” [1] behind which were “hatred, racism, ignorance and Islamophobia”. [10] Perhaps I being unfair here, but to me this sounds like empty slogans or, to repeat, soulless humanitarianism. By contrast, the Chief Justice’s description of the suffering of those condemned to life imprisonment without parole, which I partly quote above, is specific and vivid. I do not suppose that the Chief Justice is really more moved by this suffering than by that of the victims of the offender here. But, in his otherwise commendable determination to reject vengeance and uphold the rights of the justly reviled, he writes as if he were.


To be clear, rejecting pure vengeance as the basis of sentencing policy is right. So is the empowering the courts to check Parliament’s excesses in this realm. The politicians calling for the section 12 of the Charter to be overridden at the next opportunity are wrong, because they are opening the door to abuse and casual disregard of the rights it protects. But that does not mean that the Supreme Court is necessarily right when it protects these rights, and it isn’t right here. Bissonnette is legally muddled, logically flawed, and morally blinkered. It is not a dignified judicial performance.

Mischief and the Chief

The Chief Justice has thoughts on the Supreme Court and the political climate

Yesterday, Radio-Canada/CBC ran an article by Daniel Leblanc that discussed Chief Justice Richard Wagner’s concerns about the standing of the Supreme Court and the judiciary more broadly, and his ideas for fostering public acceptance of and confidence in their work. This made quite a bit of noise on Twitter, and I jumped in too. A reader has encouraged me to turn those thoughts into a post, and I thought that would indeed be a good idea, so here goes.

Mr. Leblanc’s article starts with a discussion of the leak of a draft opinion in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the US Supreme Court’s pending abortion case. This prompts the Chief Justice to say that “[i]t takes years and years to get people to trust institutions, and it takes a single event to destroy that trust”. The Chief Justice is worried. According to Mr. Leblanc, he “said recent global political events — like the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection attempt in Washington, D.C. — should serve as a warning to Canadians” that our institutions, notably judicial independence, are at risk. The Chief Justice is also concerned that people are misinformed, notably in that they import fragmentary knowledge of American law into their thinking about Canada’s legal system.

To gain public trust, the Chief Justice has embarked the Supreme Court on a campaign to become more accessible. This includes a social media presence, publishing “plain English” versions of opinions, and sittings outside Ottawa. Mr. Leblanc describes the Chief Justice as saying “he knows he’s taking a risk by communicating more openly and frequently with the public and by taking the court outside of Ottawa. He said he still believes doing nothing would be riskier.”

Mr. Leblanc also turns to other people, notably Vanessa MacDonnell, to second the Chief Justice’s concerns. According to him, Professor MacDonnell “said Conservatives in the United Kingdom have criticized judges’ power to interpret the Human Rights Act, adding it’s part of a pattern of ‘political attacks’ against the courts in that country”. Attacks on judicial independence in Hungary and Poland are mentioned too, presumably at Professor MacDonnell’s behest, though this isn’t quite clear. Moreover, “Canadian institutions aren’t immune from attack either, MacDonnell said. The controversy over Conservative Party leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre’s vow to fire the Bank of Canada governor has dominated that leadership race”. Meanwhile, Senator Claude Carignan argues that “the Supreme Court is right to want to establish, through a certain communication plan, that there are differences with” its American counter part, and that it is “not there to represent a movement of right or left, or of red or blue, but … to judge the merits of the judgment according to current laws”.

So, some thoughts. To begin with, the Chief Justice deserves praise for thinking about making his court’s role and jurisprudence more accessible. Courts wield public power, and people should be able to know what they do with it. Indeed, I don’t know that anyone else thinks differently. The Chief Justice really needn’t pose as doing something “stunning and brave” with his transparency efforts; it looks a bit pathetic. But that doesn’t mean that the efforts themselves are to be denigrated.

That said, one shouldn’t expect too much from them. To the extent that people don’t understand what the Supreme Court is getting up to, I really think it’s more because of a lack of interest or effort than any failures on the Court’s part. The major cases are reported on, tolerably well, by the media. There is CanLII Connects, which hosts summaries and comments on all sorts of cases, written by students, professors, and practitioners. There are blogs like this one. There are podcasts. There are lots of people out there, in other words, who work hard to explain what Canadian courts, and especially the Supreme Court, are doing. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying the Supreme Court shouldn’t bother. It might do some good in this regard. But, again, when people are uninformed or misinformed ― and many are ― I don’t think it’s because of a lack of accessible information. In 2022, ignorance is usually wilful.

And I will criticize the Chief Justice for one part of his outreach programme: the roadshows. I fail to see how hearings outside Ottawa are anything other than taxpayer-funded junkets. Most people haven’t the time, let alone interest, to sit through arguments, be it in Ottawa or elsewhere. I’ve sat in on a couple of Québec Court of Appeal cases, some years ago, but I was a grad student would have done anything if that meant not writing my thesis ― not the Chief Justice’s target audience, I suspect. For more productively employed people, having a hearing in their city once in a blue moon is just not going to do anything. And of course anyone already can conveniently watch the Supreme Court on CPAC. This, by the way, is really a point on which the Supreme Court of Canada is better than that of the United States.

Speaking of those Americans, though, if one is concerned about the excessive influence of American thinking and American culture on Canada’s legal system, as the Chief Justice apparently is, one probably shouldn’t invoke American news as justifications for doing anything in Canada, as the Chief Justice definitely does. Again, some of his initiatives at least are worthwhile, but they are so on their Canadian merits, not because of anything that has occurred south of the border. Of course, the Chief Justice isn’t the only one trying to have this both ways. The Prime Minister, for instance, seems pretty keen to capitalize on American news to push ever more gun restrictions ― which he successfully deployed as a wedge issue in the last election campaign. In other words, the importation of American concerns of questionable relevance is something Canadians of all sorts, and not just the dark forces supposedly gnawing away at our institutions’ foundations, do, and Mr. Leblanc would, I think, have done well to note this.

Now, let’s consider these dark forces a bit more. Specifically, I don’t think that the discussion of populist attacks on courts in Mr. Leblanc’s article is all that helpful. I’m no expert on Poland and Hungary, but I take it that some Very Bad Things really have happened there, as part of broader programmes to dismantle institutional checks and balances and constraints on government power. To say that anything of the sort is about to happen in Canada, or could succeed if attempted, strikes me as a stretch. The analogy between the courts and the Bank of Canada doesn’t quite work, since the latter lacks constitutional protections for its independence. But perhaps I am mistaken about this.

What I am pretty sure about, however, is that it is quite wrong to equate the “attacks” on the judiciary in the UK with those in Hungary and Poland. To be sure, there have been some dangerously vile attacks in parts of the media, some years ago. I have written about this here. And it may well be that the government did not defend the courts as strongly as it should have at the time. But so far as government policy, let alone legislation, is concerned, it simply isn’t fair to say that the courts have been “attacked”. There is debate about just what their powers with respect to judicial review should be for instance, and it may well be that some of the proposals in this regard are at odds with the best understanding of the Rule of Law. But nobody is suggesting anything so radical as, say, requiring UK courts to defer to civil servants on questions of law, so I’m not sure that Canadians, in particular, should be too critical about this.

The specific issue example to which Professor MacDonnell refers is even more clearly a nothingburger. It has to do with the interpretation not of the Human Rights Act 1998, but of other legislation, which the Act says “[s]o far as it is possible to do so … must be read and given effect in a way which is compatible with the” European Convention on Human Rights. As readers will know, I happen to favour very robust judicial review of legislation ― more so than what exists under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, let alone the UK’s Human Rights Act. But I’m inclined to think that UK courts have gone rather beyond the limits of what is fairly “possible” in exercising their interpretive duty. They certainly have gone further than New Zealand courts applying a similar provision. Whether or not constraining them in this regard is the right thing to do on balance, there is nothing illegitimate or worrying about it.

It is important to remember that, precisely for the reason the Chief Justice is right to work on the Supreme Court’s transparency ― that is, because the court is an institution exercising public power on the citizens’ behalf ― the Court can also be subject to legitimate public criticism. Again, criticism can be overdone; it can be quite wrong. But on the whole it’s probably better for public institutions to be criticized too much than not enough. And the courts’ powers, just like those of other government institutions, can and sometimes should be curtailed. Each proposal should be debated on the merits. Many are wrong-headed, as for instance the calls to use the Charter “notwithstanding clause”. But they are not wrong just by virtue of being directed at the courts.

Meanwhile, Canadians who are concerned about public perceptions of the judiciary should probably worry a bit ― quite a bit ― more about the actions of our own judges, rather than foreign governments, let alone journalists. Sitting judges to some extent ― as when, for instance, they decide to give “constitutional benediction” to made up rights instead of “judg[ing] the merits of the judgment according to current laws”, as Senator Carignan puts it. But even more, as co-blogger Mark Mancini has pointed out, former judges who compromise the perception of their political neutrality and lend their stature and credibility to serve the wishes of governments at home and abroad:

In short, I think that the Supreme Court is trying some useful, if likely not very important things to become a more transparent institution, which is a good thing on the whole. But it is not saving democracy or the Rule of Law in the process. One should certainly be vigilant about threats to the constitution, but one should not dream them up just for the sake of thinking oneself especially courageous or important. One should also be wary of grand transnational narratives, and be mindful of the very real imperfections in one’s own backyard before worrying about everything that’s going on in the world.

Immigration and Refugee Decision-Making: The Vavilov Effect?

It has been a while since I’ve blogged. The last few months have been—in a word—chaotic. I’m hoping to blog more regularly going forward now that some of these things have settled

One of the areas where administrative law really comes to life is in immigration decision-making, particularly front-line decision-making like visa decisions or humanitarian and compassionate decisions [H&C]. This is where the pressures, incentives, and moral worldview of “street-level bureaucrats” in particular contexts can tell us about how decisions affecting all-too-real rights and interests are made. The area, though, presents all sorts of challenges for those studying the law of judicial review.

First, immigration visa decision-making is also just one particular iteration of a broader reality: the inexplicable diversity of administrative decision-making. That diversity leaves monist accounts of the administrative state wanting. Expertise—advanced by the Progressive school as a core reason for delegation and deference—presents a different empirical reality in these contexts. In other words, this is not the labour board or the human rights tribunal where we might have more confidence in the “expert” nature of the decision-maker. In this context, not only is “expertise” not to be assumed, but what it means on the frontlines escapes easy definition.

Second, emerging democratic theories view the administrative state either as a place to facilitate and channel democratic deliberation or a place to encourage contestation (agonism). These theories are deeply insightful and may have resonance in other areas. But in some of these immigration and refugee cases, it is hard to say that there is anything substantively democratic happening. The only democratic argument is entirely formal: the delegation of power to officials to make decisions. This delegation of power must be respected, but the chances for contestation or facilitation seem far off.

Other features of front-line immigration visa decision-making present problems from the perspective of the law of judicial review. Notwithstanding what I say below, it was typically the case that visa decisions did not—and still, do not—require extensive reasons: Persaud v Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2021 FC 1252 at para 8. And in theory, this remains true post-Vavilov. What’s more, there was, and remains, a presumption that decision-makers considered all the evidence before her: Cepeda-Gutierrez v Canada, 1998 CanLII 8667. 

The combination of these rules, to my mind, creates an important tradeoff. On one hand, given the backlogs in this area of administrative decision-making, we may think that officers should not spend time writing extensive reasons. On the other hand, a paucity of reasons or an adequate record that “immunizes” decisions from effective review presents problems from the perspective of legality, but more directly, to the individuals who wish to seek judicial relief: see Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), v Canadian Council for Refugees, 2021 FCA 72 at para 102.

There should be some balance struck here. Post-Vavilov, courts in some cases are beginning to strike this balance. They have done so in favour of more substantive reasoning that addresses the legal and factual stakes to the party affected by a decision. In other words, in these cases, the courts are not abiding boilerplate and rote recitation of the facts. Nonetheless, they are not expecting long, involved reasons in every case, and they need not be perfect: the reasons can be short, but should be directed to the actual stakes facing the individual. In my view, this decisively moves the balance towards the ideal of legality, understood in this case as enhancing the role of the courts to ensure compliance with administrative law.

Here are some examples of what I am describing:

  1.  Singh v Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2022 FC 692

Here, Justice Diner describes well the post-Vavilov position on reasons:

[22] Visa officers are certainly entitled to deference, but only where their findings have at least a modicum of justification. That was entirely absent here. In the age of Vavilov, the Court cannot defer to reasoning missing from the Decision, or fill in that reasoning for administrative decision-maker. Lacking justification, the matter will be returned for redetermination

2. Rijhwani v Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2022 FC 549

This was a denial of a permanent residence application where the applicant plead H&C grounds. The applicant specifically pointed to establishment and hardship as supporting her application. The Officer did not address these factors in detail. The Court says, at para 17: “It is particularly important that when there are few factors raised—in this case only hardship and establishment—that the Officer addresses the rationale clearly for each.”

This did not occur here. Noting, at para 10,  that “brevity cannot excuse inadequacy” the Court takes issue with the “two significant errors…in under a page of reasons” that characterized this decision.

3. Gill v Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2021 FC 1441

Gill was found inadmissible to Canada for five years by a visa officer because of misrepresentation; he failed to disclose an unsuccessful tourist visa application to the United States. Gill advanced the argument that his “misrepresentation” was actually an innocent mistake. He argued that the officer did not reasonably explain why he rejected the “innocent mistake” argument.

Specifically, the officer in this case apparently took—word-for-word—reasons that were given by a separate officer in another case that was reviewed in the Federal Court. Speaking of the Cepeda-Gutierrez presumption, the Court said, at para 34:

I note, however, that the use of identical template language to express not just the relevant legal test or framework, but the reasoning applicable to an applicant’s particular case undermines to at least some degree the presumption that the officer has considered and decided each individual case on its merits.

The Court did note, however, that templates can be useful tools in high volume-decision-making [33].

I do not present these cases to make an empirical claim about what any number of courts are doing post-Vavilov. This is impossible to do without closer study. But I can say that there are many more of these cases, and I recommend you consult my weekly newsletter if you are interested in reading more. In the meantime, I think we can draw some conclusions from these cases:

  1. There is something to be said for a signal sent by a judicial review court to administrators about what they should expect. Prior to Vavilov, decision-makers may have expected strong presumptions of deference and courts claiming that inadequate reasons did not provide a standalone basis for review. Now, decision-makers may expect a closer look if their decisions are reviewed, particularly in this front-line context. One hopes that this incentivizes structural solutions within administrative bodies. This should not be hard to expect from Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, which houses Canada’s largest administrative decision-maker.
  2. No one should take this to mean that reasons need to be extensive in every case. But it should be taken to mean that boilerplate is presumptively problematic. This is because boilerplate, by its nature, does not respond to the individual stakes raised by many of the decisions in the immigration realm. This is, in part, the thinking behind the Vavilovian constraints. If the constraints bind differently in different cases—if Vavilov is truly contextual—then boilerplate is a non-starter because it will generally fail to account for the context of various decisions.
  3. Nor is this emerging line of cases overly onerous for administrative decision-makers or front-line officers. Again, the reasons need not be perfect, need not look like a judicial decision, and need not be extensive. But they must address the actual legal and factual issues at play. If a decision-maker cannot do this, then one should wonder why they were delegated power in the first place.

At any rate, this is an area that I hope receives more attention going forward.

Turning Ten

Wishing Double Aspect a happy birthday!

Double Aspect turns ten years old today. I meant it to fill a gap in the blogosphere: the absence of a blog dedicated to Canadian constitutional law. Whether or not I have managed to fill that gap at least in part, I will let the readers judge. I would like to think that Double Aspect has at least enlivened things and provided a perspective that would otherwise have been missing from the Canadian conversation. Admittedly, doing so was not really part of the original plan, but I would like to think that it has been a beneficial, if at first unforeseen, development.

Meanwhile the blog developed in other ways too. For one thing, I have been fortunate to welcome fellow scholars as guests, either on an ad hoc basis or as part of various collective endeavours. Of these, the Dunsmuir Decade symposium which Double Aspect co-hosted with Paul Daly’s Administrative Law Matters is of course the most important and memorable one. It is also a reflection of another way this blog’s remit has grown: its expansion into administrative law, to become a “full-service” public law blog. And that, in turn, is mostly thanks to the biggest and best change that has happened over the last ten years ― the addition of Mark Mancini as a full-time co-blogger. Mark has made an incredible contribution to Double Aspect, providing fresh insights that make the blog a more interesting place than it would have been with me alone, and sometimes keeping it going when I was unable to.

Speaking of which: we have been silent over the last couple of months, which of course is much longer than I would like. For me personally there has been the small matter of starting a new job and moving to the United Kingdom, while facing a couple of awkwardly placed deadlines. I know that Mark too has had deadlines galore of late. (And he has managed to keep his Substack newsletter going through it all.) However, these are all temporary difficulties. We will be back to normal eventually ― though the next few weeks will still be tough. We aren’t stopping. It would be rash to promise ten more years, but you know what? Don’t bet against it!

A final thought, since I’m on the subject of the future. One can wonder about the ongoing relevance of the blogging format, in this age of podcasts and Twitter hot takes. The expansion of the Clawbies’ ― once the Canadian law blogging awards ― coverage into such media speaks to the way people consume their legal nerdery. One can also wonder ― as people already were years ago ― whether the future of blogging, if it has one, is not with sleek, professionally run outfits like the UK Constitutional Law Blog ― though there is still nothing of the sort in Canada. But I still think that the humble personal (as it then was) or small group (as Double Aspect now is) blog can do things that other formats cannot. As I wrote then

Even if the personal blog cannot compete with a professionally edited platform for high-level scholarship on pure quality, it has its own, different value. It can be a way for new and rebellious voices to enter into and enliven the conversation. It can be a proving ground for people and ideas. It can be the record of a coherent or developing thought process. In can, in short, be many things that a edited blog [or a podcast!] cannot. Call me a blogging romantic if you will,

But before I let your steam drill beat me down,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand.

Same Pig, Different Lipstick: Bill C-11

Last year, I wrote about Bill C-10, which was concerned with “compelling companies like Netflix Inc and TikTok Inc to finance and promote Canadian content.” The Bill was controversial, not least because the law could be read to target content produced on user-driven sites (TikTok, say) targeting individual content creators rather than the tech giants and subjecting them to discoverability requirements and penalties. One of the biggest concerns was free expression. This law could be read to grant Canada’s telecom and broadcast regulator (the CRTC) power to regulate the content of individual expressions, something that—to many of us—presented constitutional and regulatory concerns. As Professor Michael Geist of the University of Ottawa stated upon the tabling of the bill, it “hands massive new powers to Canada’s telecom and broadcast regulator (the CRTC) to regulate online streaming services, opening the door to mandated Cancon payments, discoverability requirements, and confidential information disclosures, all backed by new fining powers.” 

Bill C-10 died because of the election, and some of us thought that would be the end of this. Not so. Yesterday the Trudeau Government re-introduced the same pig with different lipstick: Bill C-11. Professor Geist has led the charge on this and I would direct you to his site for deep analysis of the Bill, but for now, it’s enough to say that this Bill is generally not an improvement on its predecessor, at least from the perspective of the power it vests in the CRTC. Its central problem is hinging the entire controversy of the Bill on a clause which allows the CRTC to decide when and to whom the Act applies, subject to some exceptions. This should be, if not constitutionally problematic, politically so: this is the power to expand the scope of the law to a large class of individual users, allowing the Government to evade responsibility for this controversial choice in Parliament. In other words, the Government still has power to regulate user generated content and subject that content to discoverability regulations and users to potential penalties. It has this power despite the Bill representing that it does not.

Let’s take a look at the Backgrounder for the Bill. The Government says that this Bill solves two problems with Bill C-10. First, “it captures commercial programs regardless of how they are distributed, including on social media services.” Second, “the proposed bill is also clear that the regulator does not have the power to regulate Canadians’ everyday use of social media, including when they post amateur content to these services.” It seems, then, that the proposed bill does not apply to Canadian users or individual creators. And the opening part of the actual text of the Bill sounds promising. It says that it must be construed and applied in a manner that is consistent with “(a) the freedom of expression and journalistic, creative and programming independence enjoyed by broadcasting undertakings.” Section 4.1 (1) of the Bill sounds even better: “This Act does not apply in respect of a program that is uploaded to an online undertaking that provides a social media service by a user of the service for transmission over the Internet and reception by other users of the service.” This seems to deal with the problem so many of us had with Bill C-10 when it purported to extend its scope to the average TikTok user.

This sounds like a real improvement. But the promise fades when we consider the CRTC’s new regulation-making power. A regulation is a form of law—the power to make regulations is given to an agency by the elected legislature. This isn’t itself inherently problematic, and of course regulation-making is widespread today. But this goes further. Section 4.1(2) of the Bill basically “takes back” s.4.1(1), when it gives the CRTC power to make regulations governing “programs” despite the seeming exclusion of user content. This is something approaching–if it isn’t already–a Henry VIII clause, which allows an agency to amend a primary law (h/t Leonid Sirota for raising this point). If not constitutionally problematic, it is politically so. It allows the Government to evade responsibility for the potentially vast scope of this law.

This is the controversial clause. It is cabined by a few factors, namely s.4.2 (2) (a) which directs the CRTC to consider “the extent to which a program, uploaded to an online undertaking that provides a social media service, directly or indirectly generates revenues” as it makes regulations. As Professor Geist notes, the target here appears to be YouTube music. But there are many other types of user-generated content that could conceivably fall under the scope of the law, including user generated TikTok videos or podcasts that indirectly generate revenue and have other features that fall within the scope of the regulation-making power.

The end result, as Professor Geist says, is that this technical change “would likely capture millions of TikTok and YouTube videos.” In his post on the Bill, he summarizes the wide berth of power granted to the CRTC in Bill C-11:

Views on the scope of this regulatory approach may vary, but it is undeniable that: (1) regulating content uploaded to social media services through the discoverability requirement is still very much alive for some user generated content; (2) the regulations extend far beyond just music on Youtube; (3) some of the safeguards in Bill C-10 have been removed; and (4) the CRTC is left more powerful than ever with respect to Internet regulation.

Taking into account alternative views on the scope of the Bill, I agree. The Bill basically downloads the real decision-making a level down. Rather than the Government taking responsibility for regulation user content in this fashion, it will grant it to the “independent” CRTC. If there is controversy about a future regulation, the Government can shift responsibility to the CRTC. The regulation-making just reinforces this, granting a power to the CRTC to expand the scope of the law and to make the decisions Parliament should be making in plain view.

Others will differ. They could say that I am discounting the CRTC’s own democratic process. Or, one might say that the statute cabins the regulation-making power, and that the income-generation factor is one, non-exhaustive factor. Maybe they’d be right. But I think I could grant all of this and still maintain that the Bill purports to grant significant power to the CRTC to apply the law to users, something the Backgrounder suggests it does not. This disparity concerns me.

It is important here to address another possible response. Much is made in administrative law about the need to empower regulatory experts to make decisions in the public interest. So far as this goes, the device of delegation could be useful. But it is not always and everywhere so, and there are differences in kind. A delegation to the CRTC here may be justifiable, but the Government should take responsibility for the choice to regulate user content. Presumably, this should be something that—if it needs to be addressed—should be addressed in the primary law, rather than by the CRTC in its own wide, relatively unconstrained discretion. In other words, if Youtube music is the problem, the law should be appropriately tailored.  And the use of something like a Henry VIII clause is ill-advised, to say the least.

The basic problem here might be more fundamental. I am candidly not sure what the need for this Bill is, particularly the targeting of user content. It seems the regulatory goal here may be to subject the Act’s requirements to users who generate a certain income, for example, and among other things. If that is the regulatory goal, why is the CRTC regulatory mechanism desirable here? If the Government wants to make this policy choice, why can’t it do so in the plain view?  Perhaps I simply do not understand the CanCon-motivated reason why this particular power is justified.  I’m open to someone explaining to me what I might be misunderstanding here—perhaps something specific to this regulatory context.

Nonetheless, I think there are real democratic tradeoffs to the use of this sort of regulation-making power, and more specifically the deflection of responsibility to the CRTC. This is a controversial application of a regulatory law—with penalties—to a potential huge class of users. Not only does the Government purport not to do this, but it does it here with a delegation to the CRTC. If later challenged, the Government can simply defer to the CRTC.  I do not see this legal device—and this Bill—as any better than Bill C-10.

Glad to Be Unhappy

Some people in liberal societies are unhappy. But what exactly does this tell us?

Ross Douthat has made an interesting observation on Twitter a couple of days ago: “The biggest challenge for liberalism is the genuine unhappiness of a lot of people under the conditions of liberalism.” I’m not sure that this is right ― liberalism might be facing greater challenges now ― but let’s assume that it is. The implications of this claim are worth thinking through; they might be rather different than many, Mr. Douthat perhaps among them, might assume.

First, at the risk of being tart, if the biggest challenge a philosophy is facing is that its application makes people unhappy, that’s not such a bad problem to have. The application of most political philosophies makes an awful lot of people not just unhappy, but dead. If the worst liberalism can do to you is make you miserable ― as opposed to immiserated, like socialism, whether of left-wing or or of right-wing varieties ― that’s actually a point in favour of liberalism.

Second, we have to ask why people are unhappy about living “under conditions of liberalism”. Mr. Douthat seems to point to people annoyed at being bossed around by technocrats and to those developing harmful addictions, perhaps due to a lack of attachments and meaning in their lives. But these things are by no means peculiar problems of liberalism. Socialist systems are also dominated by technocrats; in militarized or religious authoritarian systems, the social scientists and planners are replaced by generals or priests, who boss people around just as much. And while illiberal societies may foster the social bonds that will help some people relate to their fellows, they will destroy others ― typically, those running across the boundaries of class, race, and country.

To say that people are unhappy “under conditions of liberalism” is to point to a correlation, not a causal relationship. And it is not clear that a causal relationship could fairly be established at all. As I have noted in a previous discussion of liberalism here, “critics of liberalism are often confused, or obfuscating, about its nature: it is a political, not a moral, philosophy; a theory of how political power should be organized, not of how to live a good life”. Nor does it tell people how to be happy; only that they have an inalienable right to try. It is hardly a fair criticism of liberalism that it does not achieve something that it does not attempt.

Besides, when reflecting on the real or alleged failings of liberalism, one should keep in mind the ills of its alternatives. If some people struggle in the open liberal society, others would chafe under the oppressive restrictions of an illiberal one. There is a seen-and-unseen issue here: living “under conditions of liberalism” we see those whom they do not suit. We do not see as clearly those who could thrive under no other “conditions”―indeed, those whom the masters of an illiberal society would seek to eliminate.

The people who aspired to command illiberal societies are, indeed, another group that is unhappy under liberalism. So long as liberal institutions hold, they are unable to impose their own preferences on society, either because they can’t get them democratically enacted or because these preferences, however popular, are incompatible with liberal freedoms enshrined in binding constitutions. But I don’t think that their unhappiness should count for much. Those who would rule others by censorship, manipulation, or force deserve no sympathy from those whom they would rule.

A consideration of alternatives to liberalism also brings us to the third point I wish to make in response to Mr. Douthat. Liberal societies are the only ones in which unhappiness at the state of society and indeed at life, the universe, and everything can really be expressed. This is so for two reasons, one of which is obvious, and the other less so.

The obvious one in any but the liberal societies, unhappiness with the established order ― again, not just the established political order, but also the established order of things more broadly ― is treated not merely as an intellectual challenge but as a heresy, a thoughtcrime, or a form of treason to the nation. In illiberal societies, by contrast, expressions of disaffection are actually suppressed ― and, often, the person expressing such unhappiness is suppressed (or at least forced to repent or “re-educated”) along with his or her ideas. By contrast, illiberal societies might make room for private sorrows, but only within an overall worldview that says that, at a high enough level of abstraction, things are just as they ought to be.

I should note here that some unserious people affect to think that discontent with the existing state of affairs cannot be freely expressed in modern-day liberal societies. These societies are certainly not flawless ― not least thanks to the pressure of their illiberal members. But such claims are nonetheless preposterous. One sign of this is that they tend to be freely made on the same social media platforms that are supposed to be suppressing dissent against liberalism. Meanwhile, in Canada, what is by all accounts a very disruptive political protest is ongoing blocks away from the seat of government, with minimal police reaction.

The subtler yet more fundamental reason why liberalism uniquely enables not only the expression but perhaps the very existence of unhappiness with the world is that to become unhappy one has to be able to develop a personal scale of values against which the world fails to measure up. If one’s values are the same as everyone’s, as illiberal societies tend to make them, they will integrate the answers to any concerns with the world supplied by the prevailing ideology. If one has no genuine values to speak of at all ― as is the case for the average citizen, and especially for the politicized one, under totalitarianism, as Hayek pointed out ― one has no means to critique the world.

One writer who understood this essential relationship between freedom and unhappiness is Milan Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He wrote that (I translate from the French, which itself is a translation from the original Czech, so… not ideal) “communism, fascism, all occupations and all invasions hide a more fundamental and universal evil; its image was the parade of people who march, arms raised, shouting the same syllables in unison”. People can only be made to march in this way by what Kundera calls the kitsch ― the “aesthetic ideal” of “a world in which shit is denied and where all act as if it did not exist”, which can sustain “categorical agreement with being”. Under liberalism,

where many currents [of thought] exist and the influence of one cancels or limits that of the others one can just about escape the inquisition of the kitsch. … But where one political movement holds all power, one finds oneself at once in the realm of totalitarian kitsch.

There,

All that breaks with kitsch is banished: any manifestation of individualism (for any dissonance is like a slap in the face of the smiling brotherhood), any scepticism (for he who begins by doubting the smallest detail will end doubt doubting life as such), irony (because in the realm of kitsch, everything must be taken seriously.

The open existence of unhappiness ― it’s not being packed away to “the gulag [which] can be understood as the septic tank into which totalitarian kitsch casts is rubbish” ― is only possible in a free society. It is not so much a challenge for liberalism as its crowning achievement. We should be glad to be unhappy. It means we are free.

A Cheer for Administrative Law

Administrative law can only do so much to avert injustice―but what it can do still matters

I’d like to come back, however belatedly (sorry!) to an interesting post by Paul Daly at Administrative Law Matters. Professor Daly uses the example of Novak Djokovic’s ultimately unsuccessful challenge to the Australian government’s cancellation of his visa to illustrate “the value of administrative law”. He writes:

Immigration has traditionally been a prerogative of the executive, an island of unregulated discretion in the legal system. But over the last half century or so, courts around the common law world have landed on this island, wielding principles of procedural fairness and substantive reasonableness. Several generations ago, it would have been unthinkable that a Minister would give any reasons — still less 10 pages of reasons! — to support a decision to cancel a visa. Yet because the courts now stand ready to scrutinize executive action, ministers can no longer rely on authority alone to make decisions. They must engage in the reasoned exercise of public power.

Professor Daly acknowledges that “[a]dministrative law is no panacea. Hardly any immigrant has Djokovic’s resources and will receive the Cadillac justice he has been receiving.” That’s true of course. Still, he concludes that Mr Djokovic’s case “is an important reminder of the value of administrative law in pushing ministers and others to justify their exercises of public power in reasoned terms”. This also is true. And one might even add that, in law as elsewhere, those who cannot afford the Cadillac will often benefit from the ability and willingness of others to shell out for one.

Yet despite this I think that Mr Djokovic’s case shows at least as much that administrative law is, at best, only a partial remedy to injustice. Granting the point that it can force officials to “engage in the reasoned exercise of public power” (which is often though not always true), it does comparatively little to ensure that the power is exercised justly, and nothing at all to ensure that its existence is just. The latter of course is not administrative law’s role. But it’s a point that we should not lose sight of if we choose to celebrate administrative law. In a just world, there would be a great deal less administrative law than we need in ours.

In our world, it is indeed an achievement that immigration decisions have to be reasoned and justified. After all, the founding father of Canadian administrative law scholarship evidently lamented the fact that, although the government “regards immigration as a privilege, not as a right, and wants to avoid having to disclose to a court its sources of information about the political colour of immigrants”, courts lack the good sense to see the point: “On the other side of the ideological fence, a court , with the sweating immigrant before it, sometimes sets aside a deportation order on very flimsy grounds, for instance, that it was made on a Sunday”. (John Willis, “Administrative Law in Canada” (1961) 39:2 Can B Rev 251 at 258) It’s good that we’ve moved that ideological fence some way towards decency.

But let’s not kid ourselves. We haven’t moved it very far. As Maria O’Sullivan explains in The Conversation, the reasons that ostensibly motivated the cancellation of Mr Djokovic’s visa were that his ― presumed ― opposition to vaccination against the present plague might encourage similar opposition among Australians and might undermine “social order”. Professor O’Sullivan points out that ministerial explanations were questionable on their own terms. But she also notes that, perhaps more importantly for the future, the precedent set in Mr Djokovic’s case means that people’s ability to come to Australia might be taken away on account of their actual or even perceived views being a hypothetical source of possible trouble in the opinion of a minister. What starts with an arrogant fool of a tennis player won’t stop there. Yet substantive Australian immigration law seems to allow for precisely this result, and administrative law offers no redress.

Redress will come, not any further development of administrative law, but from substantive law being such to prevent this sort of injustice. In this regard, it is telling that Professor Daly sets his reference point to 50 or 60 years ago, when immigration restrictions ― and the government’s willingness to treat immigration as a privilege to be granted or withheld on a political whim ― had become generally accepted. But let’s not stop 50 years ago; let’s go back another century. In 1872, English-speaking countries simply did not restrict immigration, though health measures and quarantines did exist. (Hence let me note: I’d have very little sympathy for Mr Djokovic if he had been barred from Australia due to not being vaccinated. But that’s very much not what has happened.) In North America, immigration controls were the product, first, of anti-Asian racism in the late 19th century, and then of more generalized xenophobia in the first decades of the 20th. On the other side of the pond, as David Cannadine writes in The Victorious Century, the closing of the UK’s borders at the turn of the 20th century was the result of bigotry against the Irish and, especially, of anti-Semitism. Australia too implemented and long held to an overtly racist immigration policy.

Of course, contemporary immigration law does not discriminate as overtly. But the idea that movement across borders is something that can be regulated in the first place comes from that evil and unjust source. And it still means that people can be stopped from doing the same (often stupid) things that we are allowed, even though they are in all particulars bar their failure to have been born in the right place or to the right parents the same as us, for no reason other than that failure. The old-school racism may be gone, but the xenophobia inherent in the idea of immigration restrictions remains. And it is not administrative law that will purge it, but the realisation that the closing of the borders 120, 140 years ago was an injustice, and that it must be ended.

Hence I will only give one cheer for administrative law. Not two, for administrative law is not meant to reform repressive substantive laws, and certainly not three, for it is powerless to mend injustice raised up to the rank of political philosophy. The trouble with cheering too loudly for administrative law is that this risks making us forget these deeper injustices; we might be content with bringing order and reason to what remains, at bottom, a logic of repression.

But my cheer for administrative law ― at least, for robust administrative law, which truly holds the administrative state to its legal and constitutional duties, rather than for the all-too-often diluted version that many administrative lawyers prefer ― will be a loud one. As E.P. Thompson famously said,

We ought to expose the shams and inequities which may be concealed beneath this law. But the rule of law itself, the imposing of effective inhibitions upon power and the defence of the citizen from power’s all-intrusive claims, seems to me to be an unqualified human good. To deny or belittle this good is, in this dangerous century when the resources and pretentions of power continue to enlarge, a desperate error of intellectual abstraction. More than this, it is a self-fulfilling error, which encourages us to give up the struggle against bad laws and class-bound procedures, and to disarm ourselves before power.

Administrative law is an essential component of the Rule of Law, and so of the unqualified human good that Thompson had the wisdom to discern amid what he saw amid great substantive injustice. Hooray for it.

Precedent and Respect

When ― if ever ― can lower courts criticise their hierarchical superiors?

When, if ever, should lower-court judges criticize decisions of the higher courts that bind them? Can they do it in their reasons, whether speaking for their court or only for themselves? Judicature has published a short but thoughtful exchange on these questions between Orin Kerr and Michael Dorf. In a nutshell, Professor Kerr argues that such criticism is (almost?) never appropriate in judicial opinions; it belongs in op-eds and scholarly articles. Professor Dorf, by contrast, sees a place for it, if only a limited one. My own instincts are on Professor Dorf’s side.

For Professor Kerr, judicial opinions “receive respect not because they’re wise or well-reasoned. Some opinions are, and some opinions aren’t. Rather, judicial opinions receive respect because they are legally operative documents issued by judges with the power to issue them”. (84) It follows that

When you write a judicial opinion, you should limit yourself to what you have formal authority to decide. You should explain why you voted as you did in the case before you, as every legal opinion does. But judges shouldn’t also use legal opinions to pontificate about other views they have outside of the case and outside their authority. (84)

Since it is not the job of lower court judges to criticize their higher-ups, and since such criticism is legally inoperative, it should be saved for other venues: “Keeping your exercises of formal authority separate from your views of legal questions outside that authority helps maintain the legitimacy of the authority you exercise.” (85)

This is especially so for those views which a judge held prior to or would hold irrespective of his or her judicial office. Perhaps there is a place for judges criticizing “a [binding] precedent … when the judge’s basis for that opinion is a special insight, gained only in a judicial capacity, into how the precedent is working”. (88) But even then, the lower court judge “can draw attention” to the problem “without taking a view on whether” the higher court should reverse itself. (87)

Meanwhile, Professor Dorf’s position is that judicial criticism of binding authority ― not just higher-court precedent but also legislation ― is appropriate in a wider range of circumstances. For him, it is important that “in a well-functioning judicial hierarchy, information flows both ways. Lower court judges have knowledge and views that can and should usefully inform judges on higher courts”. (85) If lower court judges “spot a defect — a rule that misfires or that ought to but does not contain an exception” (86), for example because “a statute or opinion of a higher court [is] be based on a seemingly reasonable premise that proves false in practice” (86) ―, they might try to finesse or work around that rule. But that’s not always possible, and not necessarily appropriate. Short of refusing to follow the law (and perhaps resigning to make the point), their only other option is to criticize it in an opinion applying it.

Professor Dorf agrees that this should not happen very often. Criticism on “moral” grounds should be especially rare. Yet since “law often incorporates moral judgments, there should be room for an occasional statement by lower court judges that the precedent they must apply is wrong and thus should be reconsidered”. (86) And, regardless of the reason for it, criticism can be offered in a statement of reasons; indeed “it is hardly obvious that doing so outside of the context of a concrete case is the least controversial way to do so”. (87)


For what it’s worth, my view is closer to Professor Dorf’s; in some ways, I might go further than him. Let me begin, though, with one point he raises without developing it, and which makes me uneasy.

It is judicial criticism of legislation. As I have argued before, I think courts (including apex courts) should mostly try to avoid giving their opinions on legislation, whether to praise or to criticize it. It is not their constitutional role ― except in a constitutional challenge to the legislation’s validity or application, and even then the courts ought to focus on legal issues. Commentary on legislation is, inevitably, bound up with policy issues that are outside of the courts’ purview, and it is just as inevitably at risk of being recycled by politicians themselves, at the risk of compromising the public’s perception of the courts’ impartiality. I think courts can comment on technical issues with legislation where it fails to provide sufficient guidance to the subject and to the courts themselves. But this is probably a narrower view of permissible criticism than Professor Dorf would allow.

That said, I think that lower-court criticism of higher courts’ jurisprudence is a different matter. Although the courts stand in a hierarchical relationship to one another, they are fundamentally engaged in the same enterprise of saying what the law is. In this exercise, as Justice Jackson famously put it, higher courts “are not final because [they] are infallible, but [they] are infallible only because [they] are final”. They can err, and I don’t think that it is constitutionally objectionable for their colleagues to say so ― provided, of course, that they still respect their subordinate role in the judicial hierarchy and apply binding precedent until it is overturned. (Of course, in the Canadian context, there is an exception even to this principle, set out by the Supreme Court in Canada (Attorney General) v Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 SCR 1101. In my view that was a mistake.)

Sure, it’s probably a good idea for judges to be, well, judicious about when to speak out. Their main task is to decide disputes, not to be legal commentators. But I doubt there is really much danger of this happening. Lower-court judges are simply too busy to moonlight as opinionated bloggers. Conversely, though, I might actually be more uneasy with judicial commentary on the state of the law expressed either without reference to the problems it causes in a particular case or with reference to a past decision. I think it is a valuable principle that reasons for judgment ought to speak for themselves.

So when judges consider that the issue is important enough, and that it arises starkly enough in a case before them, I think they can ― and perhaps ought to ― take the opportunity to speak out. And I wouldn’t limit this to either cases of the binding precedent “misfiring”, or being based on a mistaken premise, or even particularly strong moral disagreement. I think that, just as importantly, it can be appropriate for a lower court judge to say that a higher court’s decision is legally wrong ― that it does not fit with other precedents or with the legal landscape as a whole. It is the Supreme Court’s job to sort out these conflicts and contradictions, which are to some degree inevitable in a dynamic legal system. But lower courts can contribute to the law working itself pure by pointing out impurities ― even when it is the higher court that caused them to exist.

Ultimately, I disagree with Professor Kerr’s view of judicial opinions. To repeat, he says that they “receive respect not because they’re wise or well-reasoned”, which they need not be, but “because they are legally operative documents issued by judges with the power to issue them”. I think this confuses respect and authority. A judgment’s binding authority is a product of the law alone. But the respect due to it is indeed a function of its reasoning. A poorly reasoned judgment is still binding on the parties, and its ratio sets a precedent that binds courts below that by which it was rendered. But it doesn’t follow that this judgment is automatically entitled to respect ― that it ought to be regarded as deserving to be part of the law. As a result, it is not improper for a court bound by that judgment to express reservations about it while still applying it: in doing so, the lower court defers to the higher court’s authority, but withholds the respect to which it is not entitled.

That’s my two cents, anyway. Again, the discussion between Professors Kerr and Dorf is worth your time.

Killing for Laws

People get killed when laws are enforced. How should this bear on our thinking about the laws’ legitimacy?

There is too much law. Considering that people in the business of keeping track of it cannot even tell how much of it there is, I don’t think this claim is reasonably open to dispute. But what laws should we get rid of? One seemingly attractive answer is: all those we are not willing to kill to enforce. It’s a great rhetorical weapon against laws: while we’re probably willing to resort to violence to stop violence, the boundaries of permissible law shrink very, very fast beyond that. But on further reflection I think this is not the right way to think about the issue.

Conor Friedersdorf quoted Stephen Carter’s statement of this view in a short piece in The Atlantic some years ago. (I haven’t tracked down the source of the quotation, though I haven’t looked very hard.) Professor Carter wrote:

[E]ven a breach of contract requires a judicial remedy; and if the breacher will not pay damages, the sheriff will sequester his house and goods; and if he resists the forced sale of his property, the sheriff might have to shoot him.

This is by no means an argument against having laws. It is an argument for a degree of humility as we choose which of the many things we may not like to make illegal. … The statute or regulation we like best carries the same risk that some violator will die at the hands of a law enforcement officer who will go too far. 

David Henderson picked this up in a recent post on EconLog, which is how I came across this particular statement of the “willingness to kill” test for the appropriateness of law. Professor Henderson suggests that you

[t]hink about all the laws and regulations you want. Then think about whether you want the government to be willing to kill people if those who disobey escalate their disobedience. … Then ask yourself if that affects your thinking about any of the laws that you previously said you wanted. Laws that make gasoline cans almost useless? Laws that say you can’t have more than a certain volume of water per minute coming out of your shower head? Laws against using marijuana? Laws against growing marijuana?

Like I said above, the suggestion seems to be that we shouldn’t have such laws ― not just as a matter of policy, but that it is immoral to have such laws and to expose people to the risk of death at the hands of law enforcement for disobeying them. And, to repeat, I’m not convinced.

Part of the reason why was given shortly after Mr. Friedersdorf’s piece appeared by Joe Carter at the Acton Institute’s blog. Mr. Carter referred to Frédéric Bastiat’s argument that resort to law, and to force in enforcing it, is legitimate when, but only when, an individual would be justified in using force to assert his or her natural rights (i.e. life, liberty, and property). The law is a collective substitute for individual self-defence or self-help. Now, just as an individual will sometimes be justified in using force, but not deadly force, in protecting his or her rights, so the law’s intervention may be justified only to a degree. But an individual does no wrong if the accidental consequences of an application of force in self-defence exceed what would have been a priori justified in the circumstances. (Mr. Carter gives the example of a person struggling with a thief who falls and breaks his neck. It would have been wrong to kill the thief intentionally, but the person is not blameworthy for the accident, even though it would not have occurred had they not defended their property.) And this too applies to the law: “Intentionality”, says Mr. Carter, “carries a lot of weight in such scenarios, whether the force is being applied by me or by the Sheriff”.

I think this is mostly right, but I would add a couple of qualifications or nuances. First, I’d sharpen Mr. Carter’s argument a bit. In the example he gives, it’s not only the case that the person who struggles to keep his or her property and in the process accidentally causes the thief to die is blameless. It’s also that the thief is actually wrong ― not just to commit the theft in the first place, but also, additionally and separately, wrong to persist in it and to struggle to hang on to unjustly acquired goods. Similarly, at least if assume that the enforcement of some laws is justified, and further that it is sometimes just (more on this presently), then at least in some subset of cases “escalating disobedience” is actually wrong. The thinkers and practitioners of civil disobedience ― Thoreau, King ― warned against it. So it’s not obvious that we should have special solicitude for the person who escalates disobedience ― at least in some (significant) number of cases.

This brings me to the second qualification to Mr. Carter’s argument. He concludes by writing that “the problem is not the violence” which sometimes accompanies the enforcement of the law, but “the injustice” of far too many laws. But we have been painfully reminded, over the last few years, that too often “the violence” is indeed a problem. Even if the underlying law is just, it can nonetheless be enforced unjustly, in ways that make it impossible to analogize the suffering caused in the process to an accident of no real moral significance, let alone something the law-breaker is to blame for. Far too often, law enforcement resorts to lies, intimidation, excessive actual or threatened violence and deprivation of rights. These problems can be and too often are compounded by prejudice, notably racial prejudice. Also far too often, moreover, law enforcement agencies and agents are unaccountable for these wrongs.

This is precisely why the “willingness to kill” argument, although not strictly valid, is intuitively appealing. At the very least, it draws our attention to the costs that our preference for and belief in the legitimacy of laws imposes on others (and sometimes, though rarely, on us). It also draws our attention to the fact that, our world being rather imperfect, these costs will be rather higher than ideal theory or even analogies to improbable accidents suggest, and unjustly so. And again the injustice is often compounded by the fact these costs weigh heavier on some groups of people than on others ― on the excluded, on the deviant, on the different. We can and should try to reform the system by which our laws are enforced to lessen the disparity, but we can and should also reform the legal system as a whole to reduce the cost of its enforcement for everyone, in recognition of the fact that injustice equally distributed does not cease being injustice.

Lastly, and despite the foregoing, I’ll add that, much as I love Bastiat, there is at least one kind of laws that are, I think, justified but do not fit the strictures of his definition: namely, laws that solve coordination problems. The classic example is the rule as to which side of the road people should drive on. I don’t think that such laws can easily be explained in terms of defence of natural rights; no one person has a right to dictate to another where to go. But such laws serve to make it easier for everyone to enjoy their freedom around other human beings and increase opportunities for peaceful collaboration. They are legitimate if any laws ever are, and even anarchists would want to devise (non-state) mechanisms for enforcing ― coercively if need be ― equivalent rules. It would of course be quite wrong to punish driving on the wrong side of the road by death, and we wouldn’t want anyone to to be killed for breaking this rule, even though it is very useful and not very onerous. But that doesn’t mean that there ought to be no rule about what said of the road to drive on, even if in some small proportion of cases rule-breakers who escalate their disobedience ― say by trying to drive away at high speed when the police attempt to stop them ― will end up dead.

With these qualifications, I think that the “willingness to kill” argument doesn’t quite work, but it draws our attention to some real issues. The concerns that make it appealing to some people are not decisive for or against a particular law, or even for or against a particular theory of legitimacy. But they should at least weigh on us when thinking both about individual laws and about theories of legitimacy, and make us prefer there to be less law rather than more, other things being equal.