It’s a Dog!

The majority’s pro-regulatory beliefs help make West Fraser a dog of a decision

In previous posts, I have summarized the Supreme Court’s decision in West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, upholding the validity of a regulation of the British Columbia Workers’ Compensation Board imposing safety-related obligations on owners of forestry workplaces, and the legality of a penalty imposed on such an owner under a statutory provision authorizing penalties against employers who do not comply with regulations, and discussed some of the administrative law issues to which this decision gives rise. As previously noted, however, West Fraser is interesting not just for what it can tell us about the finer points of judicial review, but also for what it implicitly says about the Supreme Court’s relationship to the administrative state.

In its overall orientation as well as in some details, the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice McLachlin with the agreement of five colleagues, is reminiscent of R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15 (further confirmation, perhaps, of the Chief Justice’s likely authorship of that ostensibly per curiam decision). It’s not just that the deferential approach to judicial review is, in practice, in Canada, almost necessarily a pro-regulatory position, though that’s part of the story. It’s also that, on the Chief Justice’s view of statutory interpretation, a statute’s pro-regulatory purpose is to be amplified, while whatever constraints on its pro-regulatory orientation the statute might contain are to be played down. And, most fundamentally, the Chief Justice tells us that regulation is good, and the more of it there is, the better.

As discussed in more detail in my previous posts, the Chief Justice’s approach to both issues in West Fraser is deferential ― or so the Chief Justice says. In reality, I have argued, she engages in disguised correctness review and agrees with the administrative decision-maker. But, in principle at least, it’s the deferential approach that’s binding on future courts. Conceptually, deference might be neutral as between pro- and anti-regulatory outlooks. In the United States, famously, Chevron USA v Natural Resources Defense Council, 467 US 837 (1984), which required a deferential approach to administrative interpretations of legislation, arose out of efforts at deregulation by the Reagan administration. Even so, it seems likely that administrative decisions that reduce the scope or onerousness of regulation are less likely to be challenged, so that in practice a deferential court will be a pro-regulatory court even if it has no particular desire to be one. And, of course, the prospects of serious regulatory roll-back in Canada seem rather remote.

But there is more. Whatever abstract theory might suggest, Canadian deference theorists are unabashedly in the pro-regulatory camp. David Dyzenhaus’s famous chapter on “The Politics of Deference: Judicial Review and Democracy”, from which the Supreme Court in Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190, plucked the phrase “deference as respect”, [48] urged the courts to defer to administrative decision ― because its author thought that administrative regulation was normatively desirable, notably in that it advances the cause of equality. (Professor Dyzenhaus went so far as to argue that non-deferential review of the decisions of human rights tribunals by independent courts was a “setback[] to the constitutional commitment to equality between Canadians”, (297) as if the courts were not ultimately responsible for upholding this constitutional commitment.) But for Professor Dyzenhaus, deference was a one-way ratchet: if, peradventure, “judges find themselves confronted with administrative determinations of law that flow from” deregulatory impulses, “they should not be embarrassed to ask how those determinations advance the cause of equality” (306) ― and  so to intervene if they do not. Much more recently, in her contribution to the “Dunsmuir Decade” symposium, Kate Glover proposed a novel theory according to which judicial deference to administrative decision-makers is now a constitutional requirement. Professor Glover did so in an attempt to prepare the administrative state’s defences against a (purely hypothetical, as she rightly notes) siege by deregulating anti-administrativists. This should, I think, be a warning to anyone who hopes that deferential courts would in fact be neutral as between more regulation or less.

Statutory interpretation, no less than (rhetorical) deference, is marshalled in support of regulatory expansion by the Chief Justice. She stresses that the Workers Compensation Act, the statute at issue, “is meant to promote workplace safety in the broadest sense”, [18] and discounts the more specific purpose statements that seem to suggest that this purpose is not to be pursued by whatever means necessary. Focusing on them is “formalistic” and “inconsistent with a purposive interpretation of the scheme”. [18] (To be honest, I don’t know what “formalistic” is supposed to mean here. But it’s bad, bad, bad.) When it comes to the issue of whether the statute authorized the imposition of penalties seemingly reserved for “employers” on firms that were, in the context of the events in relation to which the penalty was being imposed, “owners” but not “employers”, the Chief Justice once again favours an interpretation “more supportive of the goal of promoting safety and the overall operation of the scheme”. [38] This interpretation, as I argued in my last post, is strained to the point of rendering the statutory language meaningless. However, what mattered to the Chief Justice is that reading the statute to mean what it said “would undermine [its] goals”, while the strained interpretation “would further the goals of the statute and the scheme built upon it”. [40] In short the statutory purpose, understood in the most pro-regulatory way possible, must be given effect ― other purposes and text itself be damned.

Now, in fairness, to the Chief Justice, she arguably is dealing with a real interpretive difficulty. Probably all, certainly most statutes involve compromises between a number of values or purposes. The Workers Compensation Act promotes workplace safety, of course, but it also accommodates a measure of free enterprise. It could, after all, have imposed  even more invasive regulation that might have done even more for workplace safety ― but the legislature chose to only go so far towards that purpose, because going further might have undermined other purposes that it also valued. Or, to take another example, human rights legislation doubtless aims at achieving equality in society ― but the limits on its scope, for example the fact that it is typically not applicable to personal, non-economic relationships, suggests that it respects a measure of personal liberty ― implicitly anyway. The problem, though, is that if the legislature enacts a provision that specifies the purpose of a statute, it is likely to present  some, perhaps just one, of the values that the statute actually accommodates, as the purpose it seeks to realize, and omit the others. This might be done for political reasons ― it might not look good to tell workers, or voters, “we’re protecting you, but only some, since protecting you more would actually put a bunch of you out of work”. Perhaps more forgivably, this might also be because, relatively to the previous state of the law, the statute does move things in the direction of more protection, so characterizing that as its main purpose is not unfair. But, either way, the legislature is misleading those who read and try to understand the statute ― above all the courts ― by giving them a distorted view of its objectives.

What are the courts to do when the legislature does this? I think they should do what Justice Côté did in West Fraser ― read the whole statute and give effect to its terms, not letting the (one-sided) purpose section override the substantive provisions. By choosing to focus on the purpose indication (and to read it selectively to emphasize its pro-regulatory aspects), the Chief Justice once again implicitly privileges regulation. For the same political reasons I refer to above, it seems likely that the legislatures will systematically overstate the significance of their regulatory purposes, and understate whatever countervailing values might also be animating them. So, a judge who overvalues statutory statements of purpose at the expense  of the text will tend to produce pro-regulatory outcomes even  without setting out to do so. But I doubt that the Chief Justice is such a judge.

In fact, her reasons in West Fraser suggest that the Chief Justice’s basic disposition is in favour of regulation ― the more of it the better. She is comfortable with a legislative mandate to an administrative agency “to enact whatever regulations it deemed necessary to accomplish its goals of workplace health and safety”, [10] going so far as to characterize this as an “unrestricted delegation of power”. [11] Though admittedly it is unlikely that the Chief Justice means this adjective literally, it is remarkable that she appears untroubled by the idea of an unrestricted regulatory mission. Later, when discussing the issue of the penalty, the Chief Justice writes that “[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] by way of justifying holding the ones responsible for violations of obligations the statute only seems to impose on the others. As in the area of what used to be known as division of powers, “cooperation” comes to mean the accumulation of regulatory mandates ― and is seen as a good thing. The Chief Justice’s shows her attitude towards such mandates most clearly when she makes a point of observing that the regulation challenged in West Fraser was adopted

in response to a concern in the province about the growing rate of workplace fatalities in the forestry sector … provid[ing] a clear illustration of why a legislature chooses to delegate regulation-making authority to expert bodies — so that gaps can be addressed efficiently. [20]

It is important that something be done about social problems, and whatever is done about them by regulators ― presumed,  conclusively, to be experts ― must therefore be good. There is only a step, if that, from here to what Sir Humphrey Appleby described as “the politician’s logic”, and what later became known as “the politician’s syllogism“. Something must be done; this is something; therefore this must be done. The Chief Justice has, on the occasion of her already-happened-but-still-impending retirement, and indeed before, been much praised for her statecraft. In West Fraser, she reminds one of The Right Honourable Jim Hacker, MP.

Of course, by criticizing the Chief Justice’s pro-regulatory views ― and those of the other judges in the West Fraser majority ― I do not mean that judges ought to become the flag-carriers of deregulation. They should be neutral and, within constitutional bounds, give effect to the legislation that Mr. Hacker’s colleagues, in their wisdom, enact. Much of this legislation will delegate considerable regulatory powers to administrative agencies. That’s too bad, so far as I am concerned, but this a policy view, not a constitutional argument. However, judges should not, in the name of doing something, be trying to give the regulators freer rein than legislators intended. In Yes, Prime Minister, just before Sir Humphrey formulates the politician’s syllogism, his mentor, the wily Sir Arnold Robinson, exposes its logic by proposing a different one with the same logical structure: “all cats have four legs; my dog has four legs…” “Therefore,” concludes Sir Humphrey, “my dog is a cat.” Well no. And so West Fraser is a dog of a decision.


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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