10 Things I Dislike About Administrative Law

A perspective from a skeptic

Inspired by Leonid’s post on the Constitution, I’ve decided to list the 10 things I dislike about administrative law in Canada in advance of the planned revisit of Dunsmuir.

One’s personal list of problems with administrative law will inevitably reflect one’s views of what administrative law is and should be, and indeed, what law is and should be. Reasonable people will disagree on this, but perhaps we could agree on two fundamental starting points (even if we disagree on their interaction). First is the idea that absent constitutional objection, legislative delegation to administrative decision-makers should be respected, and courts should give effect to legislative language using the ordinary tools of statutory interpretation (set out in cases like RizzoCanada Trustco). Second is the Rule of Law; courts must survey the  statutory boundaries of inferior tribunals to determine (1) the level of deference owed and (2) whether the decision is legal. On this account, administrative law can be understood as a form of control over the diffused form of decision-making the administrative state has wrought.

As I hope to show (quite tentatively, I might add), the Supreme Court has moved away from these first principles, often at the expense of the Rule of Law. The main point of the Supreme Court’s administrative law doctrine is an acceptance of deference to the “unrestricted” power of administrative decision-makers (see West Fraser, at para 11). By limiting the circumstances in which courts can review the propriety of the administrative state, the Court has “read in” a doctrine of deference that may not be prescribed by the enabling statute or the role of courts to enforce constitutional precepts as “guardians of the Constitution” (Hunter v Southam). The Court has constructed its own administrative law rules to operationalize its vision of deference.

  1. Selecting the standard of review

The standard of review is the obsession of Canadian administrative lawyers. The Supreme Court has fed this obsession by creating an overly complex standard of review analysis that is tenuously connected to the overall principles of the Rule of Law and legislative supremacy. The sine qua non of the analysis is a presumption of reasonableness on issues of home statute interpretation that is virtually irrebuttable (see Edmonton East, at para 22). This presumption is the imposition of judicial preference on a statute that may not agree with that preference, contrary to the hierarchy of laws. It is profoundly inconsistent with the idea that courts must enforce the law as they find it (see Justice Brown’s comments in CHRC on this front). At the same time, the Court has failed to explain or justify the relationship between the presumption, the categories inviting correctness review, and other legislative factors. Lower courts understandably struggle with this superstructure that might work in Supreme Court chambers but do not work in the context of judicial review.

I prefer a doctrine that puts the onus to defer on legislatures. Otherwise, the default position (especially on questions of law) should be de novo review by courts–consistent with their constitutionally defined supervisory jurisdiction (see point 7).  If legislatures want to constrain decision-makers, they will prescribe—for example—a “statutory recipe” that the decision-maker must follow (Farwaha, at para 91; Boogaard, at paras 43-44).  If not, on certain matters, the legislature may use open-textured language, directing the decision-maker to act “in the public interest” for example. The former will force a more searching standard of review, the latter a lesser one. The point is that we no longer need the labels of “reasonableness” or “correctness.” After all, administrative law is very simply a specialized branch of statutory interpretation (Bibeault, at para 120), recognizing the fundamental fact that the administrative state is statutory in nature.

  1. Applying the standard of review of “reasonableness” on questions of law

To the parties, whether a decision is reasonable (or, I prefer to say, simply “legal” ) is the central question on judicial review. But the Supreme Court has not explained what constitutes a “reasonable” decision, particularly when it comes to determinations on questions of law.  It simply says that reasonableness takes the colour of the context (Khosa, at para 59) with the range of outcomes expanding or contracting based on the “context”. All of this is metaphorical and unhelpful to litigants and lower courts.

At one level, we can question whether the decision-maker’s interpretive process for determining the content of the law is “reasonable”—does the decision-maker engage with the text, context, and purpose of the statute? This may impose a “lawyerly” methodology on decision-makers, inconsistent with a commitment to legal pluralism that nominally defines the Supreme Court’s deference doctrine.

That being so, I think we should expect decision-makers to articulate their decisions in ways cognizable to the rest of the legal system, if we value uniformity in the way these decision-makers deal with disputes. But I think this is a pipe dream. We can’t expect, for example, all “line decision-makers” to understand the finer points of statutory interpretation. All we might expect is that a decision is actually made by a decision-maker with cogent reasons so that courts can evaluate it. When faced with an administrative decision, say, interpreting an enabling statute, a court simply has to decide whether the decision fits within the statute. Courts apply the ordinary tools of statutory interpretation to do this. I say more about this process here, but suffice it to say that whether a decision “fits” with an enabling statute can be answered by asking whether the decision renders a result at odds with the purpose of the statute (properly construed); whether the decision is precluded by other parts of the statute; and whether the text of the statute precludes the interpretation undertaken by the decision-maker. This is not far from what the Newfoundland Court of Appeal did in Allen, a commendable decision.

  1. Expertise

Courts assume that expertise is, at the very least, a practical reason for deference—legislatures delegate to decision-makers because of their expertise. In fact, expertise is a key reason undergirding the Supreme Court’s presumption of reasonableness on questions of home statute interpretation. But there is never an investigation into whether this expertise exists in reality, nor is there ever an explanation of the sort of expertise that would be relevant to trigger deference. The Court assumes that “…expertise is something that inheres in a tribunal [which tribunal?] itself as an institution” (Edmonton East, at para 33).

Putting aside this mysterious statement, if expertise is a good practical reason for deference, the Court should move away from the general assumptions and explain in each case (1) the relevant sort of expertise required to trigger deference and (2) whether there is any statutory evidence that such expertise exists in practice.  As I have written before, this was the general approach used by the Supreme Court in the pragmatic and functional era (Pushpanathan is a good example). Why this approach is no longer appropriate is a puzzle.

  1. Lack of academic and judicial focus on agency procedures and policies

In law schools, administrative law almost exclusively is taught as the law of judicial review. Little attention is paid to the bowels of administrative law—the different sorts of decision-makers in the “administrative state,” their policies and procedures, the effect of “guidelines” (binding or non-binding) on individual litigants, and the profound democratic challenge posed by the adoption of policy guidelines imposed without the consent or consultation of the people subject to the guidelines.  While Lorne Sossin has done some important work in this regard, academics would do well to examine and further define the taxonomy of potential internal policies that could impact individual litigants, and the extent to which they could deviate from the statutory grant given to the decision-maker.

  1. Jurisdictional Questions

The perennial unicorn of administrative law, the concept of the jurisdictional question continues to haunt the law of judicial review. These are (largely hypothetical) questions on which a decision-maker is afforded no deference, because they go to the authority of the decision-maker to respond to the case in front of it at all.

In CHRC, the majority of the Court rightly noted that the concept of the jurisdictional question is quite indistinguishable from other questions of law a decision-maker is asked to address. Dissenters on the Supreme Court (particularly in CHRC and its predecessor, Guerin) think that the concept of jurisdictional questions is important to the role of courts on judicial review to enforce the Rule of Law. Essentially, to the dissenters, the Rule of Law requires correctness review because deferring to administrative decision-makers on their own jurisdictional limits allows the “fox in the henhouse”—virtually unreviewable administrative authority over legal limits.

But as Justice Stratas noted in a recent Access Copyright case (and before him, as Justice Scalia of the Supreme Court of the US noted in City of Arlington,), a judicial review court  interpreting an enabling statute on any legal question inevitably deals with the issue of its limits to enter the inquiry in the first place. These issues are all matters of legislative interpretation. As Justice Scalia noted in City of Arlington  “The fox-in-the-henhouse syndrome is to be avoided not by establishing an arbitrary and undefinable category of agency decision-making that is accorded no deference, but by taking seriously, and applying rigorously, in all cases, statutory limits on agencies’ authority.”

The jurisdictional questions doctrine only makes sense if the Rule of Law mandates more searching review for questions of jurisdiction opposed to all other legal questions—assuming that a clear division can be drawn between these questions. But when it comes to administrative law, there is no meaningful distinction between legal questions and questions of jurisdiction—authority to make a decision in either category rests wholly on the statutory grant given to the decision-maker. As Justice Scalia noted in City of Arlington, a better descriptor for the concept is simply “statutory authority.” On this account, jurisdiction is not a concept that adds anything of substance.

  1. Charter Values

The religion of deference has even extended to constitutional issues. Truth be told, more ink has been spilled on the idea of Charter values than I think is necessary. Others have written about the doctrinal problems with Charter values as originally understood in Doré. These problems were exhaustively explored in Rowe J’s judgment in the Trinity Western case, and I need not revisit them here.

I will simply say that the benefits of Charter values that were promised by the Court’s judgment in Doré have yet to come to fruition. As I wrote here, the Supreme Court (and lower courts)  cite Doré without applying its key holdings, basically applying the same tests associated with legislative challenges and particular Charter provisions than the “Charter values” (whatever they are) themselves. Even defenders of Charter values acknowledge that they have been applied inconsistently.

One wonders if there is any promise to the use of Charter values, or whether these values are unknowable, useless, and unhelpful in judicial review. To my mind, it is for the defenders of Charter values to move beyond the abstractions and lay out how—exactly—Charter values are fundamentally different from Charter rights, warranting a different analysis and relaxed standard of review.

  1. There are unexplored constitutional issues with aspects of administrative law

Section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 has been interpreted as the foundation of the power attributed by the Constitution to courts of inherent jurisdiction. The test described in Residential Tenancies (NS) determines whether or not a particular power can be transferred from Parliament and legislatures to statutory tribunals.  But there is separately a “core” of s.96 powers that cannot be transferred (MacMillan Bloedel, at para 15) to statutory tribunals.

To my mind, the supervisory jurisdiction of superior courts over inferior tribunals—on questions of law, specifically— is included in this core of superior court jurisdiction (MacMillan Bloedel, at paras 34-35).The concept of a core is a useful connection to the original purpose of s.96 courts to provide uniform interpretation of law.

Professor Daly has written on this issue, particularly on the issue of transferring judicial review functions to intermediate statutory tribunals. But I think more work should be done to square the constitutionality of the administrative state with the supervisory jurisdiction of superior courts. For example, full privative clauses could be unconstitutional if they block the supervisory jurisdiction of superior courts–on all questions of law, not just “jurisdictional” issues as noted in Crevier. I also would not concede that deference doctrines on questions of law—which dilute the supervisory function—are consistent with the role of superior courts. The list goes on, and it’s a list that could be explored with reference to the original meaning of s.96.

  1. The Supreme Court’s reasons doctrine

The Supreme Court tells us that we should pay attention to the “reasons that could be offered” by an administrative decision-maker before concluding that reasons are insufficient, warranting review (Dunsmuir, at para 48). This doctrinal innovation was based on a line taken from an academic article that did not speak to the mechanics of judicial review.

While the Supreme Court walked back this development in Delta Air Lines, it still remains the case that courts can supplement the reasons of decision-makers. This is problematic on a number of fronts. First, it was the legislature that delegated the decision-maker the power to make “justifiable, transparent, and intelligible” decisions. That power was not vested in the courts. Second, it is profoundly inconsistent with a notion of deliberative deference for a court to gin up reasons for a decision that the decision-maker may not have provided. Third, by abiding a culture of unjustified decision-making in the administrative state, the Court incentivizes decision-makers to limit the provision of reasons in their decisions, basically immunizing their decisions from meaningful review (see the discussion in Tsleil-Waututh Nation). But because the Court has stated that insufficiency of reasons is not a standalone basis for allowing a judicial review (Newfoundland Nurses, at para 14), a judicial review court is left in the unenviable position of having to defer to a potentially unjustified decision.

If a decision is unreasonable because of a lack of justification, it should be remitted. It is  the remedial stage of the judicial review in which the court determines whether the decision can be maintained, looking to the record, for example (see Lemus, at para 33). Otherwise, courts may inadvertently allow unjustified decision-making.

  1. Deference to implied interpretations of law

The same comments I made in (8) apply here. Agraira holds, for example, that courts can defer to determinations of law that are “necessarily implied” within an ultimate decision (at para 48). Relying again on the magic line from the academic article, the Court concluded that it could consider the reasons that could be offered in support of a decision. But in Agraira itself, the Court noted that it could not “determine with finality the actual reasoning of the Minister.” I fail to see how a judicial review court, in those circumstances, can  determine whether the reasoning and outcome fit within a range of reasonable outcomes.

  1. The standard of appellate review

This is a technical but important point. On an appeal of a judicial review court’s determinations, the Supreme Court insists that appellate courts should apply the judicial review standards of review–reasonableness and correctness–rather than the typical standards of appellate review set out in Housen. The appellate court is to “step into the shoes” of the lower court to determine whether that court selected and applied the proper standard of review (Agraira, at para 46). The effect of this is the same review, twice, of an administrative decision.

There are a number of problems with this. The first rests in the distinction between a first instance judicial review court and an appellate review court. If, as I posit above, judicial review is fundamentally a task of statutory interpretation (on both standard of review and the merits), then the appellate court is looking at particular legal issues raised in that interpretation by an appellant. This is fundamentally no different than the typical fare of appellate courts in most instances; determining whether a lower court interpretation of law is correct according to Housen.

Also, it makes little sense for an appellate court to redo a first instance court’s interpretation of a statute for reasons of judicial economy. Further, judicial review is supposed to be a summary procedure. Even at the appellate level, this should hold true.

 

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.

One thought on “10 Things I Dislike About Administrative Law”

  1. Many years ago my initial foray into court was as a self-represented litigant facing counsel for three powerful entities. At the close of a two day hearing I had a feeling that the result might be at least a partial win for me. The judgment found that the tribunal had decided in a manner that was patently unreasonable (and rejected my arguments about bias). I had asked (naively I suppose) that the court make the decision I had asked the tribunal to make. The matter was sent back to the tribunal. While a tribunal process (of sorts) ensued, one of the parties filed the appeal. Before the appeal was heard an actual hearing (at last) was scheduled by the tribunal. The result of the appeal gave the tribunal the excuse to cancel the hearing and again dismiss the case. It later occurred to me that time and effort would have been saved if I had been instructed to file the judicial review with the Court of Appeal, given that the appeal result did not send the matter back to the lower court.

    If the first instance court owed some deference to the tribunal why didn’t the appeal court owe some deference to the lower court?

    I later discovered the text of a speech that the judge who wrote that judgment had given at a B.C. Council of Administrative Tribunals conference. The title was “Know Thyself: Some Thoughts About Impartiality of Administrative Decision-makers From an Interested Observer”. It’s accessible on a Westlaw / Carswell database. I think it graphically illustrates the problem.

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