CHRC: The Presumption of Reasonableness and the Rule of Law

Worries about the upcoming review of Dunsmuir

The Supreme Court of Canada released a number of decisions in the last few months on standard of review. Many of these decisions are probably noise rather than signal, in the language of Professor Daly. One, however, sheds some light on an important issue before the SCC’s revisit of Dunsmuir: CHRC v Canada (Attorney General), 2018 SCC 31 [CHRC]. What is the role of legislative context in rebutting the presumption of reasonableness?

CHRC says there is no role. This is inconsistent with the Court’s own cases, and doctrinally, it subverts the role of courts in seeking legislative intent to determine the standard of review. This is another milestone in the Court’s tortured administrative law jurisprudence, and it brings no hope for the upcoming review of Dunsmuir.

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CHRC involved two human rights complaints before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal [CHRT]. These complaints centred around the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs’ previous practice of “enfranchisement.” Under this practice, the government stripped individuals of their Indian Act status and denied the children of these people from registering as status Indians—for example, a child born to a status Indian mother who married a non-status man. In response to this discriminatory policy, Parliament enacted remedial provisions which enabled persons affected by the policy to re-register under the Indian Act.  Further reforms granted registration eligibility to children affected by the enfranchisement policy.

The two complaints were centred around the amended registration provisions in the Indian Act, which need not be exhaustively described—in essence, the claimants argued that the remedial provisions were insufficient because they permitted continued discrimination on the basis of enumerated grounds [1].  The claimants framed their challenge under s.5 of the Canadian Human Rights Act [CHRA], and alleged that the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada engaged in a discriminatory practice in the provision of services.

Both complaints were dismissed on the basis that the claimants’ challenges were legislative challenges to the status registration requirements under the Indian Act. The CHRA confers remedial authority to the CHRT to render conflicting legislation inoperable, but a remedy could only be granted in circumstances where a discriminatory practice has first been established [56]. But the CHRT concluded that “legislation per se” was not a discriminatory practice in the provision of services, and for that reason, the complainants’ cases could not constitute a discriminatory practice.

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The Supreme Court majority decision was written by Justice Gascon. To the majority, the CHRT was “called upon to characterize the complaints before it and ascertain whether a discriminatory practice had been made out under the CHRA” [30]. As a result, the Court reasoned that this was an issue of home statute interpretation inviting the presumptive standard of reasonableness.

The majority next considered whether the presumption was rebutted, concluding that the case did not fall into any of the categories for correctness review established in Dunsmuir. It then turned to the so-called “contextual approach” to determine whether it rebutted the presumption of reasonableness review. That “approach” was essentially a carry-over from the pragmatic and functional era, consisting of four factors which could indicate a different standard of review than the one indicated by the presumption: (1) the presence or absence of a privative clause; (2) the purpose of the tribunal as determined by interpretation of enabling legislation; (3) the nature of the question at issue; (4) the expertise of the tribunal.

The majority noted that a presumption of reasonableness is designed to “prevent litigants from undertaking a full standard of review analysis in every case” [45]. Context, then, should play a “subordinate role”, and should be “applied sparingly” [46]. Putting context in its place, to the majority, would forego the uncertainty and debate over the standard of review.

The majority emphatically disagreed with the opinion written in CHRC by Cote and Rowe JJ, which noted that correctness would apply wherever the “contextual factors listed in Dunsmuir point towards correctness as the appropriate standard” [73]. Instead, the majority noted that where the presumption of reasonableness applies, an adoption of a contextual approach would “undermine the certainty this Court has sought to establish in the past decade” [47]. The majority concluded that “…dissatisfaction with the current state of the law is no reason to ignore our precedents following Dunsmuir” [47]. On the facts, the majority nonetheless applied the contextual analysis and concluded that the presumption of reasonableness was not rebutted.

In a concurring opinion, Rowe and Cote JJ disagreed with the majority’s obiter comments on the contextual approach. They reasoned that the approach to standard of review set out in Dunsmuir is “manifestly contextual in nature” [78]. To Rowe and Cote JJ, a contextual analysis must be undertaken where the categories inviting correctness review do not apply.  On the facts of the case, Rowe and Cote JJ would have found the presumption of reasonableness rebutted because of an absence of a privative clause and the potential for conflicting lines of authority because the CHRT does not interpret the CHRA in a discrete administrative regime [90]. Brown J concurred on similar grounds.

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In my view, the two concurrences clearly had the better of the argument here. First, the majority’s approach continues a hard-line approach to the presumption of reasonableness that is inconsistent with Dunsmuir and post-Dunsmuir cases. Second, a presumption of reasonableness that is never rebutted is contrary to the concept of judicial review.

It is unusual—in the strongest sense of the term—that the majority rooted its endorsement of the presumption of reasonableness in terms of precedent. It noted, for example, that resort to the contextual approach would “undermine the certainty this Court has sought to establish in the past decade.” This is an unexpected remark. The Court has done much in the last decade on administrative law, but establishing certainty is not on the list. Putting aside all of the other issues—which are many—the problem of context provides a good example of the Court’s odd inability to apply its own precedents.

Legislative context is integral to determining the standard of review because legislatures, not courts, can set the standard of review. Dunsmuir recognized this when it held that “[T]he analysis must be contextual” [64].  This is about as clear as it gets for the Supreme Court in administrative law.  As Justice Bastarache, one of the authors of Dunsmuir said in the recent Dunsmuir Decade series, none of the categories inviting a particular standard of review—including the presumption of reasonableness—were meant to be set in stone. Dunsmuir only said that deference would “usually result” when a decision-maker interprets its home statute [54].

And this is how the Court applied the presumption of reasonableness in subsequent cases. There are a number of cases in which the Court looked to context to determine whether the presumption was rebutted; by my count, at least the following: Entertainment Software Association v SOCAN, 2012 SCC 34; Rogers v SOCAN, 2012 SCC 35; Marine Services International v Ryan Estate, 2013 SCC 44; McLean v British Columbia (Securities Commission), 2013 SCC 67; Tervita Corp v Canada (Commissioner of Competition), 2015 SCC 3; Mouvement Iaique Quebecois v Saguenay, 2015 SCC 16; CBC v SODRAC, 2015 SCC 57; Edmonton (City) v Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres, 2016 SCC 47 (though noting Justice Karakatsanis’ skeptical remarks regarding the contextual approach); Barreau de Quebec v Quebec (Attorney General), 2017 SCC 56; Williams Lake Indian Band v Canada (AANDC), 2018 SCC 4; Groia v Law Society of Upper Canada, 2018 SCC 27.

I repeat these cases for dramatic effect. It is an example of the Supreme Court saying one thing and doing another—something some judges of the court recognized was a risk in administrative law in Kanthasamy [112]. In CHRC, there is no explanation for why context should be abandoned, especially in light of all of these precedents and Dunsmuir’s clear, unequivocal statement.  Shouldn’t certainty be one of the underlying goals of doctrinal reform, particularly in this troubled area? Changing approaches year-to-year does not provide any guidance to courts and litigants.

Quite aside from the lack of consistency in the Court’s standard of review framework, a presumption-only approach also frustrates the search for legislative intent. “Legislative context” as Justice Brown noted in CHRC is really just a proxy for determining legislative intent. When one speaks of “legislative context,” one means statutory indicators that set the standard of review implicitly: statutory rights of appeal, signs of concurrent jurisdiction, privative clauses, statutory indications of purpose, and the like. Or, perhaps there is explicit legislative guidance on the standard of review. It was always understood that these signs of legislative intent should bind courts; this is just an implication of the hierarchy of laws, under which courts must respect law absent constitutional objection.

The presumption-only approach in CHRC raises profound challenges to the task of courts on judicial review to determine legislative intent. The challenge can be framed in the classic “rules vs standards” debate in law and economics terms. The “rules versus standards” debate probably impacts every area of law, because laws and doctrine can be framed as either hard-and-fast “rules” or flexible “standards.” Rules have certain benefits—cost savings are achieved because the rule applies to the mass of legal situations, and there is no need to conduct a case-by-case investigation. But rules can be overbroad—if they are not appropriately tailored, they can apply in situations where the underlying justifications for the rule do not exist.

The presumption of home statute interpretation can be viewed as an overbroad rule, because on the happening of a certain event (home statute interpretation), the content of the law is defined (deference). It is rooted in the justifications of expertise and legislative intent.  But because the CHRC approach tells lower courts not to look to context, we simply never know if the legislature intended a standard of review other than the one indicated by the presumption. The presumption could apply in cases where the legislature did not intend reasonableness, even though the Dunsmuir factors (which could be understood as standards) implicitly set a different standard of review.

Not to put the point too strongly, but if this is the case, what is the point of a standard of review analysis? Couldn’t we create some sort of computer program in which cases are filed and the standard of review is selected by the computer? The point of the Dunsmuir factors is individual tailoring—they are designed to be applied by courts in cases where a statutory indication of legislative intent is evident. This requires some human appreciation of what an enabling statute implicitly sets the standard of review to be. But if judges simply say “reasonableness” all the time, the role of courts on judicial review is reduced to rote copying of a paragraph saying that deference applies, even where it should not.

This goes to the point of judicial review. The role of the courts on judicial review, as noted in Bibeault, is so important that it is given constitutional protection [126]. That role, rooted in the Rule of Law, is to authentically determine what the legislature intended the standard of review to be. When the Court binds itself to its own presumption–simply an evidentiary device–it subordinates its constitutional role to the police the boundaries of the administrative state.

The systemic costs of the CHRC approach are  exacted in the Rule of Law and against the constitutional role of the Court. As Leonid once wrote, judicial review can be understood as a cost-benefit analysis. While the costs saved through the presumption may be high, the potential costs of imposing the wrong standard of review could lead to more administrative decisions being upheld than what the legislature intended. The effect is case-by-case, an administrative state turned loose, increasingly unmoored by law. CHRC sanctions this unleashing of the administrative state.

This is not to say that the reasonableness review urged by CHRC is inconsistent with the Rule of Law (though I think there is a case to be made on that front). But expanding the class of cases in which reasonableness should and does apply, when that expansion is not mandated by law, presents a serious challenge to the Rule of Law and the role of courts in enforcing it.

CHRC worries me on this front. It demonstrates that the Court is not looking to the underlying constitutional precepts of judicial review. It does not seem to have seriously considered the costs to its approach. Nor is it even attempting to distinguish its own precedents in creating its new approach. Observers should worry about where the Court’s mind is going in advance of its planned review of Dunsmuir.

Author: Mark Mancini

I am a graduate of the University of New Brunswick Faculty of Law, and a current LL.M. student at the University of Chicago Law School. I clerked at the Federal Court for Justice Ann Marie McDonald. I have interests in administrative law broadly, with specific interests in substantive review of administrative interpretations of law. I am also interested in law and economics, particularly remedies law viewed from an economic perspective. Any views expressed on Double Aspect are mine, and mine alone.

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