Theorizing Administrative Law

Does Dunsmuir Have a Philosophy?

Mark Walters, McGill University

Canadian judges occasionally pause to reflect upon larger theoretical ideas that are normally only implicit in the reasons that they give. Dunsmuir was one of those occasions. Writing together for the majority of the Supreme Court of Canada, Justices Michel Bastarache and Louis LeBel prefaced their analysis of the issues in the case with a general statement about the constitutional foundations of judicial review in administrative law. Re-reading those passages today, they strike me as having a distinctively Diceyan tone. The two principles that Bastarache and LeBel JJ. identify at the foundation of judicial review, the rule of law and legislative supremacy, are the same principles that Dicey identified as the animating principles of constitutional law, and the responsibility that they ascribe to judges for resolving the “underlying tension” between the rule of law and legislative sovereignty tracks Dicey’s views of ordinary courts and administrative power closely (Dunsmuir v. New Brunswick, [2008] 1 S.C.R. 190, 2008 SCC 9, para. 27). In reading these passages I could not help imagining someone—Harry Arthurs came to mind—declaring that the Dunsmuir judgment began its life “with the dead hand of Dicey lying frozen on its neck” (my imaginary Arthurs would of course be borrowing this famous line from William Robson, “The Report of the Committee on Ministers’ Powers” (1932) 3:3 Political Quarterly 346, 351).

The paragraphs on theory in Dunsmuir contrast sharply with another judicial excursus on administrative law theory that is perhaps somewhat forgotten today. I have in mind Justice Bertha Wilson’s discussion of the rule of law in National Corn Growers Assn. v. Canada (Import Tribunal), [1990] 2 S.C.R. 1324. At that time, Wilson J. had been worried that recent waving of the rule-of-law banner by some of her judicial colleagues signalled a weakening in their resolve to honour the spirit of the 1979 CUPE decision and its deferential approach to administrative decisions (Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 963 v. New Brunswick Liquor Corp., [1979] 2 S.C.R. 227). The story of administrative law in the common law tradition had been, she said, a tale of escape from Dicey and his dreaded followers (especially the dark lord, Lord Hewart) who employed the conceptual formalism of the rule of law and the associated idea of jurisdiction against administrative discretion to advance conservative ideas contrary to the modern welfare state. Wilson J. feared the return of rule-of-law conceptualism and expressed her preference for the “pragmatic and functional” approach to administrative powers which had begun to emerge in Canadian cases a few years before.

As it happened, the language of “pragmatic and functional” would reign supreme in Canada for some twenty years, defining the essence of administrative law for a generation of lawyers and law students. And then, just as quickly as it entered judicial discourse, it was gone. Its demise brings us back to Dunsmuir, for of course it was here that “pragmatic and functional” was unceremoniously dropped, its “name” deemed by Bastarache and LeBel JJ. as “unimportant” (para. 63).

But was there something more at stake than just a name? Comparing the theoretical excursuses from National Corn Growers and Dunsmuir helps us to see the outlines of the philosophical debates that lie just under the surface of judicial reasons in administrative law. The pragmatic and functional approach seemed to draw inspiration from what Martin Loughlin has called the “functionalist style in public law”, an eclectic approach to law that emerged amongst the first wave of anti-Diceyans in the 1930s combining faith in the transformative potential of the state with an instrumentalist and realist understanding of law that was deeply suspicious of the common law and its conceptual paraphernalia, especially the rule of law (see e.g., John Willis, “Three Approaches to Administrative Law: The Judicial, The Conceptual, and the Functional” (1935) 1 U.T.L.J. 53). Functionalists wanted to clear away the old common law clutter that obstructed social policy experts and technocrats in government who were building a new and better society. As Ivor Jennings put it: “The “rule of law” is a rule of action for Whigs and may be ignored by others” (W. Ivor Jennings, The Law and the Constitution (1933), 256).

Perhaps, then, the rejection of “pragmatic and functional” in Dunsmuir was the rejection of a set of ideas and not just a name. There is arguably some evidence in Dunsmuir of a return to the sort of positivist or formalist understanding of law often associated with Dicey. The rule of law means, according to Bastarache and LeBel JJ., that public power is authorized by law, and the judicial review of statutory power involves simply defining the boundaries of jurisdiction by reference to the intent of the authorizing lawmaker (paras. 28, 29). As a rule about the formal statutory authorization for power the rule of law is thus simply and disappointingly rule by law. Many scholars think that Dicey’s rule of law was formalist and positivist in this very sense (e.g. Paul Craig, ‘Formal and Substantive Conceptions of the Rule of Law: An Analytical Framework’ [1997] Public Law 467). The worry of Wilson and Arthurs (and the old functionalists too) is that a formalist rule of law is an empty and aimless rule waiting to be filled with judicial bias.

But if this theory of legality informs Dunsmuir, why would Bastarache and LeBel JJ. say that there is a “tension” between the rule of law and legislative sovereignty? If rule of law means legal authorization by legislation, there could never be tension between the two. And why would they describe the judicial job of upholding the rule of law as upholding not just “law” but “legality”, “reasonableness”, and “fairness” in administrative decision-making (para. 28)? Why would they say that defining the “jurisdiction” of a decision-maker involves a “standard of review analysis”, which was their new name for the old “pragmatic and functional” analysis (para. 29)? And, finally, why would they cite with approval the case of Baker v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), [1999] 2 S.C.R. 817, in which Justice Claire L’Heureux‑Dubé stated that administrative discretion must always be exercised in accordance with the boundaries imposed by statute and by the principles of the rule of law and the fundamental values of Canadian society?

The answer to these questions lies, I think, in appreciating the false dichotomy between formalism and functionalism. Dunsmuir and the many cases preceding and following it are best understood as part of an on-going interpretive project that seeks to fold together in a coherent way substantive values of legality within the complex arrangements for governance that have been created to address the realties of the modern (and post-modern) state. Formalism and functionalism both suffer from the mistaken view that law is merely a command issued by a lawmaker to others, a linear communication from state to subject; the two schools of thought differ only in terms of how judges should respond to the domains of administrative discretion created by these commands. My own view, however, is that law is better understood as a more circular discourse in which rules emanating from legislatures and administrators are interpreted in ways that can be justified in light of a unified and coherent vision of normative order that honours deeper values of political morality, including, of course, the value of legality and its unrelenting insistence that respecting equal human dignity means rejecting arbitrary power.

In the end, I think it is fair to say that the Dunsmuir theoretical excursus is Diceyan—but not in the formalist Diceyan image constructed by the functionalists. Dicey made some mistakes and the punishment for his sins seems to be that his name is forever associated with that flawed ‘Diceyan’ understanding of public law. However, some of the most difficult and underappreciated passages in his famous book, Law of the Constitution, come in the course of an attempt to explain how judges may resolve the tension between the rule of law and parliamentary sovereignty—passages which make little sense unless we assume that the “spirit of legality” that he says shapes all legal meaning is a substantive ideal that justifies and legitimates the exercise of governmental powers (A.V. Dicey, Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution, 8th ed. (London: Macmillan & Co., 1915), ch. 13). Because Dicey himself did not develop a theory of administrative discretion beyond these basic points, he cannot give us concrete answers on how administrative law, properly interpreted, should look today. However, if we step back from the details of Dunsmuir and think about the general approach taken by Bastarache and LeBel JJ., we can detect a classic interpretive effort to see how the formal and substantive values of legality and sovereignty may be reconciled in a principled and coherent yet also a pragmatic and functional way consistent with a ‘Diceyan’ spirit of legality. One could say that this is just ordinary legal reasoning. Perhaps. But because it is ordinary it is also the best kind of legal reasoning. If all that resulted from Dunsmuir was a deeper commitment to an administrative world in which the exercise of power must meet standards of “justification, transparency and intelligibility” to be lawful, then the decision should be counted as a great success.

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.

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