Jousting over Jurisdiction

A summary of the Supreme Court judges’ competing views on how to assess the validity of delegated legisation

The Supreme Court’s decision in West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, is, as Robert Leckey observed on Twitter, “[o]ne for the judicial-review nerds or junkies”. But it is also much more than that, because it a chilling reminder of what I recently called the Supreme Court’s “pro-regulatory bias“, and its resulting complacency in the face of administrative lawlessness. As I will explain shortly, there are four different opinions in the case, dealing with two different issues. In this post, I mostly review these opinions, quoting from them at some length. This will be quite long, I am afraid, due to the amount of ground to cover and to the importance of getting a sense of the judges’ thinking. I will offer my own comments separately.

The case arose out of a tragic accident. On land owned by West Fraser, a worker employed by an independent contractor “was fatally struck by a rotting tree”. [1] The provincial Workers’ Compensation Board fined West Fraser, for failing to comply with a regulation (that it had itself made in purported exercise of its authority under s 225(1) of the British Columbia Workers Compensation Act to “make regulations [it] considers necessary or advisable in relation to occupational health and safety and occupational environment”) requiring “[t]he owner of a forestry operation” to “ensure that all activities of the forestry operation are both planned and conducted in a manner consistent with this Regulation and with safe work practices acceptable to the Board.” As basis for its power to impose the fine, the Board relied on s 196(1) of the Workers Compensation Act, which authorized it to “impose on an employer an administrative penalty” for, among other things, failure to comply with the relevant regulations.

West Fraser challenged the legality of this fine on two grounds. First, it argued that the regulation with which it was said not to have complied was ultra vires the Board ― that was not authorized by the Workers Compensation Act. On this issue, the Supreme Court split 8-1: the majority upholds the regulation, though Justice Brown takes a very different approach from the majority judgment authored by Chief Justice McLachlin, and Justice Rowe is at best ambivalent; Justice Côté dissents. Second, West Fraser argued that, even if the regulation was valid, it could not be fined for breaching it, since within the meaning of the Workers Compensation Act it was, in relation to the victim, an “owner” (of the workplace), and not an “employer”. On this point (and, therefore, in the result), Justices Brown and Rowe agree with Justice Côté’s dissent.

* * *

For the Chief Justice, the approach to the question whether a regulation was authorized by the statute pursuant to which it was purportedly made is identical to that followed on any other “judicial review of the exercise of delegated administrative powers”, [8] and set out in Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190. Given the Board’s regulatory expertise, the issue is whether the impugned regulation “represents a reasonable exercise of the Board’s delegated regulatory authority”. [10] While “some” ― that would be the Chief Justice’s colleagues who disagree with this approach ― argue that the issue if one of jurisdiction, and thus under Dunsmuir the correctness standard applies, the Chief Justice takes the position that

Where the statute confers a broad power on a board to determine what regulations are necessary or advisable to accomplish the statute’s goals, the question the court must answer is not one of vires in the traditional sense, but whether the regulation at issue represents a reasonable exercise of the delegated power, having regard to those goals. [23]

In this case, the “delegated regulatory authority” is vast: “the Legislature indicated it wanted the Board to enact whatever regulations it deemed necessary to accomplish its goals of workplace health and safety”. [10] This “delegation of power to the Board could not be broader” [10] ― indeed, it is “unrestricted” [11] or, at least, it authorizes “any regulation that may reasonably be construed to be related to workplace health and safety”. [11]

This might be enough to uphold the regulation on the Chief Justice’s approach ― but Justice Côté, as we shall see, forces her to elaborate. The Chief Justice insists that the regulation at issue is both consistent with the purpose and “fits with other provisions of” [14] the Workers Compensation Act. And the Chief Justice invokes “two additional external contextual factors” . [19] For one thing, the impugned regulation was a “response to a concern in the province about the growing rate of workplace fatalities in the forestry sector”, and thus “a clear illustration of why a legislature chooses to delegate regulation-making authority to expert bodies — so that gaps can be addressed efficiently”. [20] For another, the Regulation is a logical extension of the owners’ existing duties. In short, even on a correctness standard, “the Regulation plainly falls within the broad authority granted” to the Board. [23]

The dissenting judges disagree with the Chief Justice’s approach. Justice Côté delivers the most sustained rejoinder. She insists that the question “whether the Board has the authority to adopt a regulation of this nature at all” “is jurisdictional in nature” [56] and so must be reviewed on a correctness standard: “[t]he Board … possesses only the authority that is delegated to it by statute”, [56] and this authority either extends to the making of the Regulation, or it doesn’t. Indeed, since it “is an unelected institution”, it is important to “ensure[] that the Board … does not aggrandize its regulation-making power against the wishes of the province’s elected representatives”. [66] Besides, unlike when it is adjudicating a dispute, an administrative decision-maker determining the scope of its regulatory authority neither possesses expertise superior to that of the judiciary, nor brings to bear policy considerations or factual understanding unavailable to the courts. And anyway, reasonableness review, which is supposed by focused on the administrative decision-maker’s reasons, can hardly be applied to rule-making decisions which the regulators need not explain: “[i]f a court does not know the reasons justifying a decision or an exercise of jurisdiction, how can it afford any deference?” [69] Justice Côté adds that the Chief Justice’s “rationale largely escapes [her]”, and her “basis for applying the reasonableness standard remains largely unexplained”. [70] The Chief Justice, she says, “has offered almost no analysis on a question that will prove to be important in subsequent cases”. [74] These are fighting words by the usually demure standards of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Justice Côté also disagrees with the Chief Justice on the merits. In her view, the impugned Regulation “impermissibly conflates the duties of owners and employers in the context of a statutory scheme that sets out separate and defined obligations for” each. [75] Consistently with the statutory purpose, set out in s 107(2)(e) of the Workers Compensation Act, to share out responsibility for workplace safety “to the extent of each party’s authority and ability”, the employers’ duties have to do with their relationship with the workers; the owners’, with the employers. They are “separate silos of responsibility”, each actor being assigned that part of the overall task of protecting workplace safety that it is “in the best position to assume”. [83] The impugned Regulation forces owners to micro-manage workers, taking up a role which the Workers Compensation Act instead assigns to employers, and is thus inconsistent with the statutory scheme and purpose. Although its powers are broad, the Board cannot do such a thing: “[o]therwise, there would be no functional limit on the Board’s ability to enact regulations … in some way connected to some abstract vision of occupational health and safety”. [87] Regardless of what might have prompted the Board to regulate in the way it did, it lacked the authority to do it.

Justice Brown also insists on correctness review for the validity of the Regulation. The matter, in his view too, is one of jurisdiction, and Dunsmuir requires the courts to provide their own answers to truly jurisdictional questions. Like Justice Côté, Justice Brown faults the Chief Justice for her “inadequate” response that “elide[s]” the issue. [113] For Justice Brown,

a central judicial function is to ensure that statutory delegates such as the Board act only within the bounds of authority granted to them by the legislature. … Public power must always be authorized by law. It follows that no statutory delegate, in enacting subordinate legislation (that is, in making law), may ever exceed its authority. The rule of law can tolerate no departure from this principle. [116; emphasis in the original]

The substantive reasonableness of a regulation, by contrast, is not a matter for the courts. Provided that the regulation was authorized by statute and not made oppressively or in bad faith, the courts should not interfere. All that said, on the merits, Justice Brown concurs with the Chief Justice. In a single sentence, he concludes that the grant of regulatory authority in the Workers Compensation Act “is sufficiently broad to support” [121] the impugned Regulation.

For his part Justice Rowe professes to “concur with [the Chief Justice’s] analysis”, [128] but only with the proviso that it be split into two parts: first a jurisdictional analysis (which presumably is to be approached on a correctness standard, following Dunsmuir); and then “a substantive inquiry into the exercise of the grant of authority” [127] and its consistency with the purpose of the statute. While Justice Rowe is of the view that the Chief Justice undertakes both of these steps, the second, as I indicated above, is largely if not entirely a response to Justice Côté. Justice Rowe’s agreement with the Chief Justice is thus more apparent than real. He also makes a point of hitting out at “one of the myths of expertise that now exist in administrative law”, [129] arguing that “‘working day to day'” to apply a statutory regime “does not” “give [administrative decision-makers] greater insight into statutory interpretation, including the scope of jurisdiction, which is a matter of legal analysis”. [129]

* * *

The second issue, recall, is whether the Board was entitled to fine West Fraser under a statutory provision that authorizes the imposition of penalties on “employers” who do not comply with regulations. Here, there is no overt dispute about the standard of review: the Chief Justice finds, and Justice Côté (with whom Justices Brown and Rowe agree) “assume[s]”, [95] that provincial legislation imposes patent unreasonableness as the applicable standard.

The Chief Justice finds that to read “employer” as extending to an owner is not patently unreasonable. To be sure, the alternative opinion is “plausible”, [37] but there are also arguments in support of the “broader” view, “one more supportive of the goal of promoting safety and the overall operation of the scheme”. [38] Since West Fraser “employed persons to carry out the duties imposed by” the Regulation, [38] ― and indeed it had, to being a corporation ― it was an “employer” as well as an “owner”. Moreover, “[t]he general scheme of the [Workers Compensation] Act is to hold both owners and employers responsible in an overlapping and cooperative way for ensuring worksite safety”. [43] Since West Fraser “had sufficient knowledge and control over the worksite in question to render it responsible for the safety of the worksite”, [47] penalizing for the safety shortcomings was reasonable.

Justice Côté sees things differently. Patent unreasonableness is a deferential standard of review, “but there are some interpretations of law that are so far beyond the pale that they cannot be permitted to stand”. [107] The statute carefully distinguishes the roles of owners and employers, and it is impossible to read a provision that only applies to one of these roles as applying to the other too. Although the same entity may play both roles in a given situation, the penalty applicable to the breach of obligations associated with one is not applicable to the breach of those associate with the other. When the legislature wanted to speak more broadly, it used the word “person” rather than the specific terms “owner” or “employer”; the Chief Justice’s “reasoning in this case effectively rewrites” [102] the Workers Compensation Act, undoing legislative choices to uphold “an unbounded interpretation” [104] by the administrative decision-maker. It is not enough, Justice Côté adds, to point to the general purpose of the statute to uphold this interpretation:

The legislature may have intended to pursue that purpose, but it did so through limited means … To hold that any interpretation that the Tribunal views as advancing the goal of health and safety can survive patent unreasonableness scrutiny would render judicial review meaningless. [107]

* * *

There is a lot to chew on here, and I will mostly do so in two upcoming posts. In the first one, I will focus on the substance of the case ― the various views on the proper approach to determining the validity of a regulation, the validity of the Regulation in this case, and the reasonableness or otherwise of the fine imposed by the regulator. (Spoiler alert: to, I suspect, nobody’s surprise, I mostly agree with Justice Côté.) In the second post, I will take a step back, and discuss the broader issues having to do with the relationship between the Supreme Court and the administrative state.

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.

2 thoughts on “Jousting over Jurisdiction”

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