What are the courts to do when reviewing an administrative decision that doesn’t meaningfully (or indeed at all) address a key issue? This is one of the issues that faced the Federal Court of Appeal in Bonnybrook Industrial Park Development Co Ltd v Canada (National Revenue), 2018 FCA 136, decided last week. The case involved the review of a decision of a Minister that some provisions of the Income Tax Act had the effect of preventing her from granting a taxpayer a waiver of or an extension of time to comply with certain filing obligations ― both of which appeared to be contemplated by other provisions. The Minister’s explanation for reading the statute in the way she did was conclusory to the point of non-existence, leaving the Court to guess at her real reasons ― and indeed uncertain whether she had even turned her mind to the issue.
On the issue of the waiver, the Court is unanimous in sending the matter back to the Minister. Justice Woods, for the majority notes that “[t]here is no evidence that the Minister gave any consideration”  to the matter; Justice Stratas agrees. However, the majority, while acknowledging “concerns” with the inadequacy of the explanation given by the Minister, accepts to review her decision on the extension of time, taking the government lawyer’s arguments to “supplement” this explanation.  Justice Stratas dissents from this approach, and his reasons are worth paying attention to.
Justice Stratas insists that an administrative decision that is reviewed on a reasonableness standard ― as interpretations of administrative tribunals’ “home statutes” usually are ― must be explained. While a reviewing court can sometimes draw inferences from the record supporting an administrative decision about how and why certain issues were resolved, in the presence of only a conclusory “bottom-line position”, its “ability to conduct reasonableness review is fatally hobbled”.  Even deferential review does not require a court to take administrative interpretations of law on trust. Nor is appropriate to take the lawyers’ submissions as the equivalent of the decision-maker’s reasons; in this case, to do so would amount to “a bootstrapping of the Minister’s decision after she became functus officio”  ― that is to say, after she no longer had the authority to decide the matter.
And, since the Income Tax Act requires the Minister to decide whether to grant an extension of time, it is quite inappropriate for the courts to interpret the relevant provisions for the first time on judicial review. That would be “doing the job of statutory interpretation and reasons-writing that the Minister should have done”.  As Justice Stratas pithily points out:
My job is judicial review of the Minister, not judicial impersonation of the Minister. I do not work for the Minister. I am not the Minister’s adviser, thinker, or ghostwriter. I am an independent reviewer of what the Minister has done.
In conducting review, I am entitled to interpret the reasons given by the Minister seen in light of the record before her. Through a legitimate process of interpretation, I can sometimes understand what the Minister meant when she was silent on certain things.
But faced with a silence whose meaning cannot be understood through legitimate interpretation, who am I to grab the Minister’s pen and “supplement” her reasons? Why should I, as a neutral judge, be conscripted into the service of the Minister and discharge her responsibility to write reasons? Even if I am forced to serve the Minister in that way, who am I to guess what the Minister’s reasoning was, fanaticize about what might have entered the Minister’s head or, worse, make my thoughts the Minister’s thoughts? And why should I be forced to cooper up the Minister’s position, one that, for all I know, might have been prompted by inadequate, faulty or non-existent information and analysis? [91-93]
Would that the Supreme Court were always so clear. And would that the majority in this case, which apparently shared these concerns, and indeed gave them effect in disposing of one of the issues, had been more consistent.
The Supreme Court, of couse, has grappled with the issue of judicial “supplementation” ― which, as in this case, often means making-up ― of deficient administrative reasons in the course of reasonableness review. This problem arises because in Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9,  1 SCR 190 the Court had endorsed the suggestion, first made by David Dyzenhaus, that courts ought to defer not only to the “reasons offered” by administrative decision-makers, but also to those “which could be offered in support of a decision”.  This suggestion has always sat uneasily with the statement, made in the previous paragraph of Dunsmuir, that “[i]n judicial review, reasonableness is concerned mostly with the existence of justification, transparency and intelligibility within the decision-making process”.  Justice Stratas refers to the latter passage in explaining why reasonableness review is impossible when administrative decisions are not explained. Perhaps the high point of deference to “reasons which could be”, but were not, “offered in support of a decision was th Supreme Court’s decision came in Edmonton (City) v Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Ltd, 2016 SCC 47,  2 SCR 293, where the majority spent 20 paragraphs making up missing administrative reasons in order to purportedly defer to them. In a blog post (which Justice Stratas cites, for which I am very grateful!) I described this process “playing chess with [one]self, and contriving to have one side deliberately lose to the other”.
Justice Stratas notes, however, that the Supreme Court has, at least on occasion, been more sympathetic to the idea that there must be limits to judicial “supplementation” of non-existent administrative reasons. In particular, Justice Stratas cites Delta Air Lines Inc v Lukács, 2018 SCC 2, for the proposition that while “reviewing courts … are supposed to supplement the reasons of administrative decision-makers in some circumstances, in effect participating in the reasons-giving process”,  they are not “require[d] … to figure out … the merits of the matter, decide the merits for the administrator, and then draft the administrator’s reasons”.  Filling in gaps in an adminsitrative decision-maker’s reasons is one thing; writing these reasons on a blank slate is quite another.
This is a plausible, but arguably an optimistic view of Delta, which after all did say that “[s]upplementing reasons may be appropriate in cases where the reasons are either non-existent or insufficient”,  and sought to distinguish precedents where the Supreme Court had done just that ― albeit not Edmonton East which, as Justice Stratas points out, it did not mention. Moreover, more recently, in Law Society of British Columbia v. Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32 and Trinity Western University v. Law Society of Upper Canada, 2018 SCC 33, the Supreme Court again upheld largely unexplained administrative decisions (including one taken in unreflecting obedience to a referendum of a law society’s membership), instead of remitting them to the decision-maker.
That said, there is enough confusion and uncertainty in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence in this area that it is difficult to fault lower courts that interpret this jurisprudence, Dworkin-fashion, to make it the best it can be, whether or not the Supreme Court itself would have treated with equal consideration. And that’s precisely what Justice Stratas does in Bonnybrook, by going back to the principles underpinning administrative law, and following their implications to a rule that can, and ought to, be consistently applied. As Justice Stratas points out, the law is not a tool for the ratification of the diktats of power, and the courts are not mere rubber-stampers of ukases. For administrative decision-makers, there are no shortcuts to legality, and for the courts, no quick fixes for administrative failures.