Dunsmuir and the Constitutional Status of the Administrative State

Have the courts built the administrative state into the constitution’s architecture?

Kate Glover, Western University

I presented some of the ideas summarized here at the ‘Re-writing the Canadian Constitution’ Conference at Boston College Law School, Boston, MA, 19-20 October 2017. This piece is part of a larger project that explores the constitutional character of the administrative state, as well as the implications of that character

The contemporary administrative state in the United States is, Gillian E Metzger writes, under siege on political and judicial fronts.[i] The attack is waged in the President’s tweets, in the administration’s policies, in budget cuts, in failures to fill administrative roles, and in Supreme Court decisions. While Metzger’s descriptive account of the state of administrative justice in America does not reflect the current Canadian experience, it still raises a question worth asking in the Canadian context, namely, would there be any legal recourse in the event of a similar “siege” north of the border?

Part of the answer to this question lies in the constitutional status of the administrative state. Does the network of public actors and institutions that make up the administrative state fall within the protective scope of the constitution? Or, more specifically, does this collection of actors and institutions fall under the protective arm of the constitutional amending formula?[ii] If the administrative state is entrenched within the architecture of the constitution, then the answer is yes. And if the answer is yes, action taken to dismantle or undermine the administrative state could be deemed unconstitutional, thwarted by an absence of the multilateral consensus required under the amending formula.

What, then, is the constitutional status of the administrative state?

The law has traditionally told a story about governance in Canada that imagines the administrative state not as constitutionally necessary, but as constitutionally permissible and, ultimately, constitutionally welcome. Administrative decision-makers are, as Justice Abella explains in Rasanen v Rosemount Instruments (1994) 17 OR (3d) 267 (CA), “designed to be less cumbersome, less expensive, less formal and less delayed”. These actors are, she reasoned, “to resolve disputes in their area of specialization more expeditiously and more accessibly, but no less effectively or credibly”. They are, in other words, established and operate in service of access to justice and the rule of law, but can be created – and reformed and dismantled – at the free hand of the legislature, with few constitutional constraints.

But a study of modern public law jurisprudence in Canada reveals an alternative story of governance and public justice that leads to a different conclusion about the constitutional status of the administrative state. In this alternative account, the administrative state – not in all its particulars, but in its essence and function – is a necessary or essential feature of Canada’s constitutional architecture. It follows, as noted above, that the administrative state is entrenched within the constitution and therefore tucked under the protective arm of the amending formula.

* * *

So what is this alternative account and what does Dunsmuir have to do with it?

In short, the alternative story is told by simply noticing three turns in the public law jurisprudence. Each of these turns reflects an expanded appreciation of administrative decision-makers as part of a common justice project, and together, they support the conclusion that the administrative state is now, as a doctrinal matter, constitutionally necessary. Dunsmuir and its progeny, as it turns out, are an important part of the story. They represent the first turn in the jurisprudence that is important for the story. It is in this turn that we see the emergence of the courts’ commitment to a deferential posture when engaged in review of administrative action. Relatively speaking, this posture is new. The early eras of the administrative state witnessed the courts’ active intervention in administrative decision-making. The courts relied on an expansive category of ‘questions of jurisdiction’ to justify intrusions into administrative decision-making.[iii] The message was that administrative actors were inferior decision-makers requiring strict supervision by the judiciary in the service of the rule of law.

Today, judicial resistance to administrative power has been replaced by an attitude of deference to administrative decisions, including deference on questions of law and statutory interpretation. This deferential approach emerged incrementally as the courts grappled with the challenges of relying on reasonableness as a meaningful standard of review.[iv] The commitment to deference was rooted in respect for, in the words of Professor Mullan and invoked by Justices Bastarache and LeBel in Dunsmuir, “the reality that, in many instances, those working day to day in the implementation of frequently complex administrative schemes have or will develop a considerable degree of expertise or field sensitivity to the imperatives and nuances of the legislative regime”.[v] Ultimately, in the post-Dunsmuir world, defence is the norm. While correctness review remains available on some matters, reasonableness is the default standard whenever an administrative decision-maker is interpreting its home statute or statutes that are close to home,[vi] as well as the de facto default standard in a vast number of other contexts.

The second jurisprudential turn of note is witnessed in the expansion of administrative decision-makers’ jurisdiction over constitutional matters. The law has not always granted these actors direct access to, or responsibilities under, the constitution. However, since the later decades of the twentieth century, public law jurisprudence has been loosening the judicial grip on constitutional interpretation. Where do we see this loosening? Martin and Conway are two examples.[vii] Here, we see the Court invoking access to justice, administrative expertise, and constitutional logic to conclude that public officials who are empowered to decide questions of law are also necessarily empowered to answer related constitutional questions and to grant Charter remedies, unless such authority has been clearly revoked. Doré is another example.[viii] There, the Court counselled deference when reviewing decisions of administrative decision-makers that engage Charter values. Again, tracing the increasingly broad and central role of administrative decision-makers in carrying out constitutional analysis and duties seen in Baker, Conway, and Dunsmuir, the Court in Doré held that a deferential approach reflects the “distinct advantage that administrative bodies have in applying the Charter to a specific set of facts and in the context of their enabling legislature”. Clyde River and Chippewas of the Thames First Nation are two final examples.[ix] These cases confirm that the actions of administrative decision-makers can both trigger and fulfill the Crown’s duty to consult Indigenous peoples whose rights and interests are affected by public decisions. In effect, these cases confirm that administrative actors are drawn into treaty relationships, bear the weight of upholding the duties of the honour of the Crown, and share responsibility for pursuing the goal of reconciliation of Indigenous peoples and the Crown. Ultimately, this set of cases suggests that public decision-makers have a direct and close relationship to the constitution, bearing meaningful responsibility in upholding, fulfilling, and applying constitutional obligations and remedies. It is a relationship that would be difficult to reconcile with the notion that the administrative state is not itself central to the architecture of the constitution.

The third and final turn in the jurisprudence is seen in the shrinking limits on administrative powers and jurisdiction under section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867. Section 96 protects the special status and core jurisdiction of the superior courts. In the early decades of the twentieth century, section 96 was interpreted broadly and strictly, precluding the transfer of any judicial power to administrative decision-makers or statutory courts.[x] This protectionist stance was hostile to the creation and expansion of the administrative state, severely limiting the dispute resolution and adjudicative powers that could be delegated to administrative decision-makers and the sectors in which they could be involved. On this model, the courts, and more specifically the superior courts, were at the centre of the legal system and were to be protected against the intrusion or usurping of power by the burgeoning administrative state.

In fairly short order, the interpretation and application of section 96 – and the limits it created for the creation of the administrative state – loosened.[xi] In the latter half of the twentieth century, the courts pivoted to a liberal and generous approach to section 96.[xii] This flexible approach authorized the administrative state to take up novel jurisdictions, with novelty measured against the conceptual categories of the nineteenth century, and to perform adjudicative roles that are either important to policy goals or integrated into a broader institutional setting.[xiii] With this shift, the courts have contributed to the conditions in which the administrative state can be nimble, sprawling, and directly responsive to the diverse social problems it is intended to address. Together with the other two jurisprudential turns chronicled here, this shift contributes to the conclusion that the administrative state can no longer fairly be conceived of as merely permitted. It is, rather, difficult to conceive of Canada’s constitutional architecture without it.

* * * * *

Dunsmuir is a case about the structural dimensions of the constitutional order; questions of standard of review always are.  And so its tenth anniversary is an opportunity to reflect not only on the particulars, but also on where Dunsmuir might fit within the grander constitutional vision. As I’ve argued here, Dunsmuir is part of a vision that sees the administrative state as a central part of the expansive set of institutions on which the country relies in the pursuit of a flourishing public life. Perhaps this shields us somewhat from a siege on the administrative state and perhaps by Dunsmuir’s next anniversary, we’ll know.

[i] Gillian E Metzger, “Foreword: 1930s Redux: The Administrative State Under Siege” (2017) 131:1 Harv L Rev 1.

[ii] On the protective function of the amending formula, see Sébastien Grammond, “The Protective Function of the Constitutional Amending Formula” (2017) 22:2 Rev Con Stud 171.

[iii] See e.g. Port Arthur Shipbuilding Co. v. Arthurs, [1969] SCR 85; Metropolitan Life Insurance Co v International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 796, [1970] SCR 425.

[iv] CUPE v New Brunswick Liquor Corporation, [1979] 2 SCR 227. See e.g. UES, Local 298 v Bibeault, [1988] 2 SCR 1048; Pezim v British Columbia (Superintendent of Brokers), [1994] 2 SCR 557; Canada (Director of Investigation and Research) v Southam Inc, [1997] 1 SCR 748; Pushpanathan v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), [1998] 1 SCR 982; Dr. Q, supra; Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9.  

 [v] DJ Mullan, “Establishing the Standard of Review: The Struggle for Complexity?” (2004), 17 CHALP 59 at 93, cited in Dunsmuir, ibid at para. 49.

[vi] Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner) v. Alberta Teachers’ Association, 2011 SCC 61.

[vii] Nova Scotia (Workers’ Compensation Board) v Martin, 2003 SCC 54, [2003] 2 SCR 504; Nova Scotia (Workers’ Compensation Board) v Laseur, 2003 SCC 54, [2003] 2 SCR 504; R v Conway, 2010 SCC 22, 1 SCR 765 [Conway].

 [viii] Doré v Barreau du Quebec, 2012 SCC 12.

[ix] Clyde River (Hamlet) v Petroleum Geo-Services Inc, 2017 SCC 40; Chippewas of the Thames First Nation v Enbridge Pipelines Inc, 2017 SCC 41.

[x] See e.g. Toronto Corporation v York Corporation, [1938] AC 415.

[xi] See e.g. Labour Relations Board of Saskatchewan v John East Iron Works Limited, [1949] AC 134.

[xii] Procureur Général de Québec v Barreau de la Province de Québec, [1965] SCR 772; Tomko v Labour Relations Board (Nova Scotia), [1977] SCR 112; The Corporation of the City of Mississauga v The Regional Municipality of Peel et al, [1979] 2 SCR 244; Reference re Residential Tenancies Act 1979 (Ontario), [1981] 1 SCR 714.  Indeed, the case law shows that over the past several decades, on the occasions when administrative decision-makers are challenged on section 96 grounds, the vast majority are unsuccessful. See e.g. R v Morrow, 1999 ABCA 182; Campisi v Ontario, 2017 ONSC 2884; Northstar Lumber v USWA Local 1-424, BCCA; Council of Canadians v Canada (AG), [2006] OJ No 4751 (CA); Air Canada v Canada (Commissaire de la concurrence, [2003] 18 Admin LR (4th) 14 (QCCA); Spellman v Essex (Town), [2002] OMBD No 784; Cameron v Sparks; Teal Cedar Products Ltd v British Columbia (Minister of Forests), 2008 BCSC 239; Pye v Pye, 2006 BCSC 505; Saskatchewan (Workers’ Compensation Board) v Saskatchewan (Board of Inuqiry), [1998] SJ No 503 (Sask Ct QB). Contra: Halme’s Auto Service Ltd v British Columbia (Regional Waste Manager), Decision Nos. 1998-WAS-018(c) & 1998-WAS-031(a) (Environmental Appeal Board).

[xiii] Reference re Residential Tenancies Act 1979 (Ontario), [1981] 1 SCR 714; Reference re Amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act (NS), [1996] 1 SCR 186.

 

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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