Administrative Law’s Virtues and Vices

What Joseph Raz’s classic Rule of Law article tells us about administrative law

Joseph Raz’s article on “The Rule of Law and Its Virtue” (eventually incorporated in the collection of essays The Authority of Law: Essays on Law and Morality) is well known, mostly for the argument that the Rule of Law should not be confused with good law, and that a legal system can be thoroughly iniquitous while still complying with its requirements. The Rule of Law (I follow Jeremy Waldron’s practice in capitalizing the phrase), Professor Raz famously says, is like the sharpness of a knife: a knife needs to be sharp to be useful, and a legal system should comply with the requirements of the Rule of Law to be effective, but that tells us nothing at all about whether the knife is being used to cut bread or to kill people, and whether law is used to protect or to repress them. Professor Raz describes his “conception of the rule of law”  as “formal”, (214) although a number of its tenets have to do with the operation of the courts, and best described (following Professor Waldron again) as procedural, rather than formal.

I think, however, that Professor Raz’s understanding of the Rule of Law amounts to a substantive one in one particular area, in which his insights are not, so far as I know, particularly appreciated: administrative law. Administrative decision-making and its review by the courts are at the heart of the Razian Rule of Law. The third Rule of Law “principle” Professor Raz lists, after the ones calling for “prospective, open, and clear” (214) laws and “stable” ones, (214) is that “the making of particular laws (particular legal orders) should be guided by open, stable, clear, and general rules”. (215) This is a warning about the dangers of administrative (and executive more generally) discretion:

A police constable regulating traffic, a licensing authority granting a licence under certain conditions, all these and their like are among the more ephemeral parts of the law. As such they run counter to the basic idea of the rule of law. They make it difficult for people to plan ahead on the basis of their knowledge of the law. (216)

This is not to say that no executive power can be exercised consistently with the Rule of Law. Professor Raz suggests that the problem with its “ephemeral” nature

is overcome to a large extent if particular laws of an ephemeral status are enacted only within a framework set by general laws which are more durable and which impose limits on the unpredictability introduced by the particular orders. (216)

This framework includes

[t]wo kinds of general rules … : those which confer the necessary powers for making valid orders and those which impose duties instructing the power-holders how to exercise their powers. (216)

The former are the substantive statutory (or prerogative) basis for the exercise of executive power. The latter, which I think would include both procedural rules strictly speaking and those guiding the administrative decision-makers’ thought process (such as the prohibition on taking irrelevant considerations into account or acting for an improper purpose), form an important part of administrative law.

Professor Raz’s next Rule of Law “principle” is that of judicial independence. But the way he explains is also directly relevant to administrative law. Professor Raz points out that

it is futile to guide one’s action on the basis of the law if when the matter comes to adjudication the courts will not apply the law and will act for some other reasons. The point can be put even more strongly. Since the court’s judgment establishes conclusively what is the law in the case before it, the litigants can be guided by law only if the judges apply the law correctly. … The rules concerning the independence of the judiciary … are designed to guarantee that they will be free from extraneous pressures and independent of all authority save that of the law. (217; paragraph break removed)

Although Professor Raz does not explore the implications of this for administrative law (why would he have, in the post-Anisminic United Kingdom?), they seem obvious enough. Only independent courts applying the law, and not acting on extra-legal considerations can assure that the law is able to guide those subject to it. Administrative decision-makers, however, typically lack anything like the safeguards that exist for the independence of the judiciary. In Canada, in Ocean Port Hotel Ltd v British Columbia (General Manager, Liquor Control and Licensing Branch), 2001 SCC 52, [2001] 2 SCR 781,  the Supreme Court has held that there is no constitutional requirement of administrative tribunal independence. In Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v Government of Saskatchewan, 2013 SKCA 61, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal upheld legislation that allowed an incoming government to summarily dismiss all the members of an administrative tribunal in order to replace them with those deemed more ideologically  acceptable. Indeed, for many administrative tribunals, their sensitivity to considerations of policy ― and ideology ― is part of their raison d’être. This makes it essential that independent courts be committed to policing these (and other) tribunals’ compliance with the law ― with the entire framework of stable general rules that guide administrative decision-making, both the limits on substantive grants of power and the procedure- and process-related administrative law rules. Judicial deference to non-independent, policy-driven administrative decision-makers is incompatible with legally bound adjudication that is necessary for the law to provide guidance, and is thus anathema to the Rule of Law as Professor Raz describes it.

Professor Raz’s next Rule of Law requirement is that “[t]he principles of natural justice must be observed”. This is a point that obviously applies to administrative law, as everyone now agrees ― in a (perhaps insufficiently acknowledged) victory for administrative law’s erstwhile critics. But here too it is worth noting Professor Raz’s explanation: respect for natural justice is “obviously essential for the correct application of the law and thus … to its ability to guide action”. (217) (Of course, respect for natural justice is important for other (dignitarian) reasons too, but they are not, on Professor Raz’s view, embedded in the concept of the Rule of Law.)

The following Rule of Law principle Professor Raz describes is that

[t]he courts should have review powers over the implementation of the other principles. This includes review of … subordinate … legislation and of administrative action, but in itself it is a very limited review—merely to ensure conformity to the rule of law. (217)

Although review for conformity to the Rule of Law is “limited” in the sense that it need not entail review for conformity with any particular set of substantive fundamental rights, it is nevertheless very significant. It means that the courts are empowered to ensure the consistency of administrative decisions with grants of power that purportedly authorize them, as well as with the rules that govern the procedures and processes by which they are made. And while Professor Raz does not explicitly address the question of how stringently the courts should enforce these rules, it seems clear that only non-deferential correctness review will satisfy the requirements of the Rule of Law as he presents them.

Finally, Professor Raz writes that “[t]he discretion of the crime-preventing agencies should not be allowed to pervert the law”. (218) He addresses the behaviour of police and prosecutors, and specifically their ability to exercise discretion so as to effectively nullify certain criminal offenses. Yet, presumably, similar concerns apply to administrative tribunals ― most obviously, those that are charged with the prosecution of regulatory offences, but arguably others too. Professor Raz’s argument seems to be only a special case of Lon Fuller’s insistence (in The Morality of Law) on “congruence” between the law on the books and its implementation by the authorities, at least insofar as it applies to the executive. (Fuller also wrote about the what congruence meant in the context of statutory interpretation ― something I touched on here.)

Why is this important? I don’t suppose that an appeal to the authority of Professor Raz will persuade the proponents of judicial deference to administrative decision-makers, in and in particular to their interpretations of the law. Those who defend deference argue that administrative interpretations are the law, so that there is nothing else, no statutory meaning meaning or independent standards, for the judges to ascertain and enforce. As the majority opinion in Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190 put it,

certain questions that come before administrative tribunals do not lend themselves to one specific, particular result. Instead, they may give rise to a number of possible, reasonable conclusions. [47]

In such cases, the Supreme Court held, the courts would only engage in deferential reasonableness review of the administrative decisions. Moreover, Dunsmuir suggested, and subsequent cases have confirmed, that all questions regarding the interpretation of administrative decision-makers’ grants of power (the first part of what Professor Raz describes as the framework of general rules governing the making of administrative orders) will be presumptively treated as having no “one specific, particular result”. I have already argued that this is an implausible suggestion, because

the great variety of statutes setting up administrative tribunals, and indeed of particular provisions within any one of these statutes, makes it unlikely that all of the interpretive questions to which they give rise lack definitive answers.

But Professor Raz’s arguments point to an even more fundamental problem with the pro-deference position. Those who defend this position are, of course, entitled to their own definition of the Rule of Law, which is a fiercely contested idea. If they think that the Rule of Law does not require the existence of clear, stable, and general rules, or that it can accommodate “particular laws” not guided by such general rules, well and good. (It is worth noting, however, that Dunsmuir itself embraced an understanding of the Rule of Law not too distant from that advanced by Professor Raz: “all exercises of public authority must find their source in law”. [28]) But I do not think that the proponents of deference have a response to the underlying difficulty Professor Raz identifies. In the absence of general rules that are stable enough not to depend on the views each administrator takes of policy considerations, or simply in the absence of an enforcement of such rules by independent courts, people will find it “difficult … to plan ahead on the basis of their knowledge of the law”, “to fix long-term goals and effectively direct one’s life towards them” (220). As Professor Raz notes, this compromises respect for human dignity, which “entails treating humans as persons capable of planning and plotting their future”. (221)

I do not mean to exaggerate. As Professor Raz and other Rule of Law theorists note, compliance with the Rule of Law is a matter of degree. Deferential judicial review of administrative action is a failure of the Rule of Law as Professor Raz understands it, but it is hardly the worst failure one can imagine, at least so long as some meaningful review is still involved. (Suggestions, such as that recently voiced by Chief Justice McLachlin in West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, that there can be “unrestricted” [11] delegations of regulatory power are disturbing in this regard, but perhaps they only need to be taken seriously, not literally.) Nevertheless, and whether or not the proponents of judicial deference to administrative tribunals recognize this, deference does undermine the ability of citizens to rely on the law and to plan their lives accordingly. To that extent, it does amount to mistreatment by the state, of which the courts are part. It needs, at the very least, to be viewed with serious suspicion, and probably outright hostility. An administrative law that takes the requirements of the Rule of Law seriously has important virtues; one that does not is mired in vices.

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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