Moving Dunsmuir past Dunsmuir

Democratic accountability for privative clauses, and its consequences for the standard of review analysis

Martin Olszynski, University of Calgary

Near the end of last year, and spurred on by yet another judgment challenging adherence to the Dunsmuir framework (Garneau Community League v Edmonton (City), 2017 ABCA 374 (CanLII), I posted a blog on the University of Calgary Faculty of Law’s ABlawg proposing a reversal of Dunsmuir’s presumption of reasonableness with respect to questions of law. Building on the constitutionalization of judicial review (Crevier v Attorney General of Quebec 1981 CanLII 30 (SCC); Dunsmuir v. New Brunswick 2008 SCC 9 at paras 27 – 32), I suggested that any presumptions ought to reflect the courts’ core competency of interpreting and applying law, which is to say a presumption of correctness review. In a nod to functionalists, however, I also suggested that this presumption should be rebuttable by the presence of a privative clause – nothing more, nothing less:

Simply put, the starting point should be that the courts, by virtue of their training, independence, and impartiality, have the upper hand in the interpretation of the law. Recognizing the realities of the modern administrative state, however, this presumption can and should be rebuttable for certain questions of law by virtue of explicit legislative provisions (i.e. privative clauses and restrictive rights of appeal). Importantly, just as the Supreme Court in Crevier held that legislatures could not oust judicial review entirely, so too certain questions of law will always be subject to correctness review – these would be the current Dunsmuir correctness categories… For all other questions of law, however, the presence of a privative clause would trigger deferential review.

Without repeating the entire argument here, one of the main concerns driving my suggested approach is that the concept of “implied expertise” as a basis for deference is simply too contradictory to be sustainable in the long run. Instead, courts should defer out of respect for the explicit decisions made by legislatures in the form of privative clauses or restrictive rights of appeal, decisions for which legislatures may subsequently be held accountable. Privative clauses, I argued, are a big deal – or at least they could be, depending on the context. Using the examples of labour and employment law on the one hand and environmental law on the other, I suggested that the need for some kind of privative clause in the former context seemed fairly obvious (with its tripartite boards and relatively heavy hearing loads) but less so in the case of the latter, where it was governments’ poor record of taking environmental considerations into account that was the impetus for such laws in the first place.

The following week, Professor Leonid Sirota posted a thoughtful reply on his Double Aspect blog. I think its fair to say that he was sympathetic to my argument, but he also expressed some doubt as to whether legislative re-arrangements of the separation of powers could really be the stuff of democratic accountability:

… Professor Olszynski argues that accountability works by pointing to his own criticism of the application of a privative clause in an environmental law case, and contrasting it with the fact “that few labour or employment lawyers would argue against privative clauses in that context”. With respect, the possibility of academic criticism does not make for democratic accountability; nor does acceptance by a relevant expert community… How many voters have ever heard of privative clauses, never mind being able to articulate any thoughts on their desirability? To believe that legislatures can, let alone will, be held accountable for eliminating the courts’ role in legal interpretation unwisely, or even abusively, requires more optimism than I could ever muster.

Tough but mostly fair. Professor Sirota is right to point out that a singular – and self-serving – reference to my own academic commentary is a poor proxy for public concern.  As it turns out, however, privative clauses have actually managed to capture both attention and opposition from time to time, as my colleague Professor Shaun Fluker recently discovered in the course of his research into statutory rights of appeals. Professor Fluker cites three reports (the 1957 Franks Report to the Parliament of Great Britain on the workings of statutory tribunals, the 1965 Clement Report to the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, and the 2012 Report of the Law Reform Commission of Saskatchewan) that indicate clear skepticism – if not outright hostility – towards privative clauses. The following passage from the Clement Report is particularly relevant:

The Committee is unanimously and firmly of the view that in every case there should be a right of appeal to the Supreme Court of Alberta on a question of jurisdiction and a question of law. No legitimate reason can be put forward why a tribunal to whom the Legislature has delegated certain defined authority should be permitted with impunity to transgress the bounds of the jurisdiction that it was intended it should exercise. Similarly, there should be no excuse for a tribunal misapplying the law, or ignoring law, to which all citizens of the Province are subject, in favour of its own views as to what should be applicable to the persons that are affected by its decisions… By this stroke there would be cut away the privative clauses still remaining in some statutes whereby the Legislature seeks to protect its tribunals from the disciplines of the Rule of Law… (at 74-75).

I can’t say whether such concerns have had any measureable impact on the presence or absence of privative clauses, but I don’t know that I have to. Democratic accountability is probably rarely – if ever – a perfect mechanism; there are often numerous competing issues that affect voter behavior. Assuming – without deciding – that the foregoing reports at least render plausible the potential for democratic accountability, there are two further issues in my proposal that require sorting out.

In my original post, I suggested that the presence of a privative clause should trigger deference for certain questions of law (excluding Dunsmuir’s four correctness categories). This, however, assumes that all such clauses are the same, which of course is not the case: there are “weak” and “strong” privative clauses; there are clauses that require leave from a court subject to its discretion, and there are those that impose a test such as requiring the identification of a question of law of some importance (as was the case in Garneau, supra). I am inclined to think that such clauses should be interpreted in the normal way, with a view towards legislative intent (essentially Rothstein J.’s approach in Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v. Khosa, 2009 SCC 12 (CanLII) beginning at para 69). Thus, clauses that impose an “important question of law” test would most likely trigger correctness (as suggested by the concurring judgments in Garneau). Bearing in mind Dunsmuir’s concern with both the legality and rationality of decision-making, I am also inclined to suggest that there should be a limit with respect to the extent to which privative clauses can preclude any review of administrative fact-finding whatsoever, but this proposal requires further thought.

The second issue, or challenge, would be to develop a normative framework to guide discussions, whether in the House of Commons or before a Parliamentary committee, about whether and in what form a privative clause may be appropriate in a given context. The structure of the administrative decision-maker, the nature of its workload, and the presence or absence of procedural safeguards in its decision-making are some of the factors that are likely to be useful here.

In the meantime and in conclusion, I am pleased to report that the federal government did recently introduce new environmental assessment legislation and it does not contain any privative clauses.

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.

One thought on “Moving Dunsmuir past Dunsmuir”

  1. As an individual whose knowledge of the law and legal process was gained first by engaging a tribunal and then by proceeding to court (initially successfully challenging that tribunal’s findings) I believe I can suggest a better solution.

    What would have better served my needs, given that I saw overt bias in everything the tribunal did, would have been access to an appeal level tribunal constituted in a manner not yet seen anywhere in Canada (though I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that there might be a model somewhere).

    I concede that such a tribunal would logically need some sort of screening process. On that for now I have no suggestions. It’s the constitution of the panel that I see as revolutionary. It would go against the prevailing flow and actually give citizens a voice. In short I see each panel composed of one professional adjudicator (possibly even a judge) and at least two members chosen from a pool of citizens who have volunteered for such service and may have had the benefit of some training. The professional adjudicator could then act as a resource for the other members as they hear the case and deliberate. It seems to me that an arrangement of that sort would give individuals like me the confidence I never had in front of either the BCLRB or the superior courts.

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