In the United States, the Administrative Procedure Act governs federal administrative decision-making. Among other things, the APA prescribes a number of minimum standards for what I call the “bowels” of administrative law—the ugly business of rules, regulations, and guidelines adopted under statutory authority that touch the everyday person. For example, when an agency promulgates rules made pursuant to congressionally delegated authority, the agency must provide the public with adequate “notice and comment” procedures, calibrated to the importance of the rule. On the other hand, rules that are merely policy or interpretive guidelines are generally not subject to notice and comment procedure. When an agency, however, exercises its delegated powers, it must provide adequate notice and comment.
In my view, the APA provides some acknowledgement that internal agency guidelines, even procedural ones, could impact substantive rights. It presents a supralegislative standard that certain procedural guidelines must meet if there is a chance that the rights and interests of citizens could be impacted. This, to my mind, is the primary function of the notice and comment procedure. It gives citizens the right to have a say on the sorts of rules that may adversely impact their ability to challenge administrative action. It is an attempt to reconcile the deep constitutional challenge of the administrative state with the rights and freedoms of individuals.
In Canada, on the other hand, little academic work focuses on the sort of internal agency guideline I’m concerned with—putatively procedural guidelines, adopted under statutory authority, that could have a significant impact on the ability of claimants to challenge administrative action. This could leave administrative decisions insulated from challenge. Putting aside the historical work of John Willis, a notable recent exception is the work of Lorne Sossin, who in a series of articles fleshes out a framework for classifying the wide gamut of agency guidelines and directives that could structure the broad statutory discretion of an administrative decision-maker. Professor Sossin has done a service in this regard, and I can do no better than a piece by Professor Sossin and France Houle. But I merely wish to underline a point made by Professor Sossin and Houle. In Canada, we have not grappled with the role that procedural guidelines could play in impacting the ability of citizens to challenge the state. Relatedly, we have not addressed what role citizens should and do play in the formulation and adoption of these guidelines.
From one perspective, agencies empowered by legislatures can be seen as operating in a deeply democratic space to which courts should defer. By that, I mean that agencies particularize democratic mandates adopted by the legislature in a way that the legislature simply cannot. Agency guidelines can develop the legal order or fill gaps in it. Much like a principal-agent relationship, the agency stands at the “hard end” of administrative law, achieving the legislature’s goals while efficiently and expertly managing disputes. As Metzger and Stack argue, we must view this business of administrative law as “administrative government” in an “administrative world”—these tribunals are fundamental parts of the law-making state in the modern world. It follows that overbearing “legal” norms should not be used to disincentivize the development of agency and policy guidelines.
But we know in Canada that, even when acting pursuant to statutory authority, administrative decision-makers do not have free rein. According to Roncarelli, there is no such thing as untrammelled discretion that can operate without regard to some intelligible statutory delegative principle. At the same time, beyond this general proposition, there is no general doctrinal guide for when courts should be skeptical of internal, procedural guidelines that could impact on the ability of litigants to challenge administrative action–with or without adherence to a statutory delegation.
A statute, for example, that delegates an agency the full power to develop rules of evidence leaves a great deal of discretion to the agency to decide on the sort of disclosure it must grant a claimant. Short of a constitutional challenge based on the case to meet principle and principles of fundamental justice, an agency could limit the disclosure of evidence to a claimant. This might seem benign. But it could make more difficult challenges to administrative action because a claimant may not have the best evidence to challenge the administrative decision. The effect? Less investigation of administrative action.
Standing rules are a better example. The legislature could delegate broad power to an agency to determine who has standing to challenge decisions. Any procedural rule adopted under this broad authority could be legal, but that same rule could pose problems for other rights and interests. On one hand, if the agency adopts a liberal standing rule, more claimants will be let through the door and have the ability to hold agency decisions to account. Such a rule would exact a cost in the coin of agency resources, and that alone may impact the ability of the agency to efficiently respond to other complaints. On the other hand, a restrictive standing rule exacts a cost in a very different currency: the rule of law. If, under broad statutory authority, an agency adopts a standing rule that permits the denial of standing to many claimants, an administrative decision could be practically immunized from review. The concern is that the administrative state could use the statutory authority it has been given to entrench its own power or the power of stakeholders. In such a situation, an agency could insulate itself from meaningful review while still acting within the four corners of a statute.
This is not a hypothetical situation. In Delta Air Lines v Lukacs, the Supreme Court recently dealt with the Canadian Transportation Agency’s interpretation of its own rules for standing, governed by a broad statutory authority. In that case, it did not appear that the Agency adopted a written rule for the situations in which it would grant standing. But it did adopt a particular version of the common law test for standing that made it more difficult for claimants to challenge the Agency’s action. While the Supreme Court held that this version of the common law test was inconsistent with the Agency’s enabling statute, what about a case where there is a restrictive standing guideline that is consistent with the enabling statute? In such a case, many claimants could be excluded. And the worry is that an agency could be insulated from review based on an arbitrary guideline.
The difficulty of addressing this problem should not be understated. In fact, this may not even be a “problem” that can be addressed through the courts. As noted above, the use of so-called “soft law” can be placed on a spectrum. As KC Davis noted in his important work, Discretionary Justice, we could have mere policy directives moving along into quasi-legislative rules. On the former end of the spectrum, such guidelines may not have the force of law. Even quasi-legislative rules that as Sossin and Houle note could develop or interpret the legal order may not themselves be justiciable. If these guidelines are adopted within the bounds of statutory authority, what warrant does a court have to intervene?
I’m not opposed to this line of thinking, because legislative intent defines the scope of agency authority. At the same time, there is something unsatisfying about the conclusion that agencies can themselves lower the probability of their decisions being scrutinized by litigants and ultimately courts. For that reason, as the Americans determined, the legislature is probably the best place to reckon with the difficult balance required between the delegation of power to administrative decision-makers and the ability of claimants to challenge agency action. A legislature could prescribe standards that allow claimants to have a say in the sorts of guidelines adopted by an agency. I do not expect such legislative guidance to come any time soon. But one could hope for the regulation of administrative law’s bowels.