Law in La-La-Land

The post-truth jurisprudence of Canadian administrative law

Last month, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Edmonton (City) v. Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Ltd., 2016 SCC 47, which deals with the evergreen issue of determining the standard on which a court must review the decision of an administrative tribunal. I wasn’t able to comment on this case at the time, because 240 exam papers landed in my office a couple of days thereafter, but I would like to return to it now, because in my view the majority opinion shows quite clearly what a fantastical creature Canadian administrative law has become.

Justice Karakatsanis, writing for the majority, describes the circumstances of the dispute as follows:

Alberta residents may dispute their municipal property assessment before a local assessment review board. When one Edmonton taxpayer did so, the assessment review board decided to increase the assessment the taxpayer had disputed. [1]

The question is whether the board in question had the authority to increase ― or could only decrease or refuse to change ― the assessment disputed before it. The board obviously concluded that it did, but did not explain the decision ― admittedly because the taxpayer did not deny that it had the requisite authority. It is only on a subsequent appeal to the courts that it did so. How, then, must the board’s tacit, unexplained, decision be treated? Is it entitled to judicial deference, or can the courts simply substitute their own view of the matter?

* * *

Defer, says the majority. In the Supreme Court’s administrative law jurisprudence, deference is the presumptive stance, including on questions of law such as the one at issue.

This presumption of deference on judicial review respects the principle of legislative supremacy and the choice made to delegate decision making to a tribunal, rather than the courts. A presumption of deference on judicial review also fosters access to justice to the extent the legislative choice to delegate a matter to a flexible and expert tribunal provides parties with a speedier and less expensive form of decision making. [22]

Only when the question at issue falls within one of a few exceptional categories is the “presumption of deference” rebutted. In the majority’s view, none apply here. In particular, the fact that the legislation involved specifically provides for an appeal from the administrative decision on a question of law, as was the case here, does not matter. The administrative law framework, with its presumption of reasonableness, is to be applied regardless.

As Justice Karakatsanis notes, this framework acknowledges that “[t]he presumption of reasonableness may be rebutted if the context indicates the legislature intended the standard of review to be correctness” [32]. The dissenting judges would have found that this is the case here, because the board’s expertise lies not in the interpretation of its enabling legislation, which is at issue here, but rather in property valuation, which is not. Justice Karakatsanis is unmoved by this:

Expertise arises from the specialization of functions of administrative tribunals like the Board which have a habitual familiarity with the legislative scheme they administer. … [A]s with judges, expertise is not a matter of the qualifications or experience of any particular tribunal member. Rather, expertise is something that inheres in a tribunal itself as an institution. [33]

Having concluded that she must defer to the board’s decision, Justice Karakatsanis then face the question of how to defer to a decision that is entirely unexplained. After all, as the still-leading (although perhaps increasingly from behind) case on reviewing administrative decisions,  held, “reasonableness ‘is … concerned with the existence of justification, transparency and intelligibility within the decision-making process'” [36; citing Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190 at [47]]. But not to worry: in that same case, the Supreme Court went on to say it is enough to consider the reasons that could have been given for the decision, even though they were not, and to defer to them. This is what Justice Karakatsanis does, for 20 paragraphs. She concludes that board’s decision was reasonable.

* * *

If this is not post-truth jurisprudence, it’s pretty close. The Oxford English Dictionary, which recently chose “post-truth” as its word of the year, says that it describes “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. The Supreme Court’s vision of administrative law might not be the product of appeals to emotion, but there is certainly a great deal of personal belief unburdened by a reckoning with objective facts there.

Start with the claim that the presumption of deference is all about respecting legislative intent to grant decision-making authority to administrative tribunals rather than courts. If the Court really cared about legislative intent, wouldn’t it ask itself what the purpose of providing a statutory right of appeal on questions of law, as the legislature had done in this case, is? The majority does no such thing. It is content to affirm the irrelevance of either the text or the purpose of such provisions and holds that even if the statute says “appeal”, the courts must read “judicial review” and defer. Yet as the dissent cogently points out, the statutory text is pretty clear that the legislature wanted some questions of law (those deemed important enough by a judge) to be resolved by the courts. For all its show of deference to the legislature, the majority only cares about its own views about how administrative law should operate.

Next, consider the claim that the administrative decision-maker’s expertise entitles it to judicial deference. The majority does not discuss the expertise of the board whose decision is at issue here. It does not meaningfully respond to the dissent’s argument that the board has no particular expertise on the question before the Court. It is content to state an airy generality: the very existence of a specialized tribunal is enough to make it an expert. Why? It seems almost as if the Supreme Court is embracing that pop-psychology staple about 10,000 hours of doing something being enough to make one master it. Here’s news for the Court: that’s not true. The dissent’s take on this issue is, once again, more realistic:

an administrative decision maker is not entitled to blanket deference in all matters simply because it is an expert in some matters. An administrative decision maker is entitled to deference on the basis of expertise only if the question before it falls within the scope of its expertise, whether specific or institutional. [83]

As mentioned above, the dissent would have found that the question at issue here was not within the scope of the board’s expertise. The majority, once again, is uninterested in facts or, as the dissent also notes, in legislative intent (which in some case may well be to create a decision-maker without legal expertise), and ignores them the better to apply its beliefs about the proper relationships between courts and administrative decision-makers.

And all that for what? Not to actually defer to the supposedly expert board’s reasoning ― but to make up a reasoning that the board may or may not have come up with on its own, and defer to that. As Paul Daly put it (aptly, it goes without saying),

Karakatsanis J. points to multiple features of the elaborate statutory scheme that might be said to support the alternative interpretation and explains how each of them is nonetheless consistent with the Board’s interpretation (if one can call it that), much of which is supported by reference to a decision made by another body that “formerly” had appellate jurisdiction from the Board [44]. This, frankly, is quite bizarre. Who knows what the Board would have said if these points had been made to it? Indeed, who knows what the Board will say in future cases when these points are made to it? (Paragraph break removed)

It’s as if Justice Karakatsanis were playing chess with herself, and contriving to have one side deliberately lose to the other. This, admittedly, is not a post-truth reasoning. It is outright fiction.

* * *

As you can probably guess, I do not like any of it one bit. Perhaps this is not a very educated feeling. I have not thought about administrative law as much as prof. Daly, for instance, or many others. (I do have plans to get more serious about it, but it’s a medium- or even a long-term project.) I hope, however, that there may be some value in even an uneducated person stating the view that the emperor has no clothes, and that his proceeding any further in this state is offensive to public decency. What is more difficult for an uneducated mind is to say what dress the emperor ought to put on. Prof. Daly argues

that the only way to move the law forward within the existing framework without starting again from scratch is to apply reasonableness review across the board, with the important caveat … that the range of reasonable outcomes will be narrower in cases featuring an appeal clause.

I cannot comment on this suggestion, beyond saying that I am, in my uneducated state, extremely uneasy with deferential review of administrative decisions on questions of law. I will say, though, that I’m not at all sure that starting again from scratch is not the right thing to do, or even the only possible thing to do.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

5 thoughts on “Law in La-La-Land”

  1. First, don’t abandon all hope. The Court said that tribunals should be granted deference not that they shouldn’t be subject to any review at all, they did not come close to questioning whether the issue should have been subject to appeal at the Queen’s bench level. Ostensibly, if you set up a tribunal system, the point of the system is to avoid court, not as a step in your way to final resolution at Court. So this decision and everything in the line of Dunsmuir makes sense from that point of view.

    Second, and relatedly, there is a practicality aspect to the decision. A review on the correctness standard increases chances of success which is one of the three parts of a Dunsmuir analysis. Although they never state it explicitly, it seems to me a concern about volume must underlie some of this decision. Tribunals are an increasingly useful and affordable alternative to Courts. Opening the door too widely limits the effectiveness of the tribunal and would increase the workload of tribunal appeals in the courts.

    Third, the whole case is based on something that was not in dispute at the actual hearing! To find the the Board did not give adequate reasons for the decision would have been tantamount to saying that there was not enough obiter commentary in the decision, not a great alternative. The majority found that the presumption of jurisdiction was reasonable, I’m not sure this is as controversial as you’re making it out to be.

    Finally, I’m really surprised you left out a reference to para. 35 in this discussion. In that paragraph, the Court admits the limit the contextual approach (the true source of post-truth decision-making) and encourages legislatures to resolve this issue for them with legislation.

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