On Thursday, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Kanthasamy v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2015 SCC 61, an immigration law case. Paul Daly expertly
discusses takes apart the majority opinion from the administrative law perspective. For my part, I will deal with the substance of the decision. While I’m not an immigration law aficionado, I do have some practical knowledge of it, having clerked at the Federal Court for a year. So I’ll comment from the perspective of someone formerly (and briefly) “in the trenches,” someone who actually had to deal with cases of this sort on a regular basis.
The issue in Kanthasamy was the standard to be applied by the bureaucrats reviewing (on behalf of the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) applications for exemptions from the requirements of the Citizenship and Refugee Protection Act on the basis of “humanitarian and compassionate considerations.” In practice, most of these applications are made by people whose applications for asylum are unsuccessful and who seek to be granted permanent residence in order to avoid deportation. Mr. Kanthasamy was in this situation too. The test that had long been applied by the administrative decision-makers, and also by the Federal Court on judicial review, was drawn from a set of Guidelines issued by the government. Under this test, there existed “humanitarian and compassionate grounds” for allowing a person to stay in Canada if deportation would result in “unusual and undeserved or disproportionate hardship” to that person or to another directly affected one.
The Supreme Court was unanimous in holding that this was not the right approach. There was no unanimity, however, about what the right approach was. The five-judge majority, in an opinion by Justice Abella, insisted that the decision-maker must
focus … on the equitable underlying purpose of the humanitarian and compassionate relief application process. [They must] see the words in the Guidelines as being helpful in assessing when relief should be granted in a given case, but … not treat them as the only possible formulation of when there are humanitarian and compassionate grounds justifying the exercise of discretion. …
They should not fetter their discretion by treating these informal Guidelines as if they were mandatory requirements that limit the equitable humanitarian and compassionate discretion granted [by statute]. [31-32]
It is necessary to look at all the circumstances, and not to become fixated on specific words, treating them as discrete criteria.
For its part, the two-judge dissent, in an opinion by Justice Moldaver, emphasized the exceptional nature of “humanitarian and compassionate” applications, which must not become “a separate, freestanding immigration process, something Parliament clearly did not intend.”  The correct approach to the examination of such applications “must balance the dual characteristics of stringency and flexibility.”  A test that does this is:
whether, having regard to all of the circumstances, including the exceptional nature of H&C relief, the applicant has demonstrated that decent, fair-minded Canadians would find it simply unacceptable to deny the relief sought. To be simply unacceptable, a case should be sufficiently compelling to generate a broad consensus that exceptional relief should be granted. [101; emphasis in the original]
Justice Moldaver insists that “The ‘simply unacceptable’ test … should not be seen as wordsmithing,”  and assures us that will be readily applied because “[i]t uses concepts that are well-understood and regularly applied in Canadian law,” [ibid.] notably in the contexts of extradition proceedings and the doctrine of abuse of process in criminal law. By contrast, in the opinion of Justice Moldaver,
the test that [Justice Abella] proposes is amorphous. It does not provide any guidance to decision makers as to the kinds of factors outside the hardship test that would be sufficient to justify relief. Even more problematic, by introducing equitable principles, it runs the risk of watering down the stringency of the hardship test. Relief could be granted in cases which arouse strong feelings of sympathy in an individual decision maker, but which do not reach the stringent standard that the hardship test demands. 
“Amorphous” is, indeed, a polite way of putting it. My reaction on first reading the majority opinion was that it said nothing at all, and that I must have missed something. Having read the dissent, and re-read the majority opinion before writing this post, I have come to the conclusion that I did not miss anything, and that the majority does, indeed, abjectly fail to provide any guidance to both the administrative decision-makers and to the Federal Court, where their decisions are reviewed (if they are reviewed at all), usually without any further right of appeal. Indeed, the majority opinion is even worse than just a failure to provide guidance: it takes away what little guidance there was, saying that it was not good enough ― and replaces it with nothing.
But would the dissent’s “simply unacceptable” test have been any better? I doubt it. Justice Moldaver’s proposed measure of “simple unacceptability” is “broad consensus that exceptional relief should be granted.” Whose consensus is this? And how is a bureaucrat, or a judge of the federal court, supposed to ascertain its existence? These are silly questions of course. Acceptability and consensus, just like “community standards” and other tests of this sort, are just rhetorical devices. There exists a broad consensus if a judge ― or a bureaucrat ― thinks that there ought to exist a broad consensus, and that’s that.
Justice Moldaver says that the “simply unacceptable” test is similar to those that are applied in other areas of the law. But, while true, this assertion misses the crucial point that the people who will actually be applying this test ― i.e. bureaucrats and Citizenship and Immigration Canada ― are not familiar with those areas of the law. They are, as Prof. Daly points out, not even lawyers. Indeed, even the judges of the Federal Court, who will be reviewing the bureaucrats’ decisions ― on the deferential “resonableness” standard ― are not familiar with these areas of the law, which are related to the criminal law context, though to be sure, the Federal Court does occasionally deal with abuse of process claims. The Supreme Court recently acknowledged the limits of the Federal Court’s subject-matter expertise, in Strickland v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 37, which I blogged about here. In that case the issue was the Federal Court’s suitability to deal with family law issues, but the problem is similar in the criminal law and extradition contexts.
In short, both the majority and the dissent approach the case in a manner that is largely divorced from the reality in which it was decided and, more importantly, in which similar cases will be decided in the future. Neither provides helpful guidance to the decision-makers who are going to deal with these cases as part of their regular routine. (It might not be a coincidence that the only judge with the experience of such cases, Justice Rothstein, was not on the panel that decided Kanthasamy. With his retirement, the shortage of relevant practical experience on the Court is now permanent.) The judges act like generals who visit a distant and, on the whole, not terribly important position once in a blue moon, point in the direction of something on the horizon, and depart, self-satisfied. The local commanders might try to figure out what it is that the generals wanted, the soldiers might be impressed with confident tone and eloquent gestures, but there are unlikely to be substantial changes on the front line as a result of this visit.
As a result, I’m not at all convinced that the result of the majority’s decision will be that too many “humanitarian and compassionate” applications will be granted, as Justice Moldaver fears ― or for that matter that more will be, as Justice Abella presumably wants. (By the way, neither judge, I suspect, knows how many are actually granted now. Certainly we at the Federal Court had no idea. Since the decision is, ostensibly, the Minister’s, he or she cannot apply for judicial review of a decision granting an application, so the courts never see them.) Left to their own devices ― freed from the constraints of the Guidelines and protected by a deferential standard of review ― the bureaucrats who deal with the applications might even become less, rather than more, likely to grant the applications. After all, in my admittedly limited experience, they do not exactly share Justice Abella’s sensitivities and inclinations. More likely, however, they will just shrug off the Supreme Court’s latest pronouncement. And really, that’s pretty much what it deserves.