In Anglin v Chief Electoral Officer, 2018 ABCA 296, the Alberta Court of Appeal dealt with a hidden issue in administrative law: to what extent are administrative decision-makers required to follow guidelines specifically contemplated by legislation?
In Anglin, the Chief Electoral Officer of Alberta imposed a $250 fine for breaching the Election Act. Anglin had typographical problems: “the sponsorship information on his election signs was printed in a font size smaller than that required by the Guidelines established under the Act, and was not sufficiently legible.” Anglin argued that the guidelines established by the Chief Electoral Officer do not constitute law and cannot form part of the governing statute, and as such a breach of the guidelines is not a contravention. To Anglin, there was no legal authority to impose an administrative penalty for breach of the Act .
The legislative context was dispositive to the Court. Under s.134 of the Election Act, candidates must ensure that ads comply with certain requirements “…in accordance with the guidelines of the Chief Electoral Officer” (s.134(2)). Under s. 134(3), the Chief Electoral Officer is required to “establish guidelines respecting the requirements referred to in (2)” which deals with sponsorship information. The specific guidelines adopted in this case prescribed a legibility requirement along with a minimum font size.
Based on this “clear” language , the Court concluded that the statute itself incorporates the Chief Electoral Officer’s guidelines, and that the legislature “has the power to delegate and the guidelines, like other forms of subordinate or delegated legislation are all forms of law.” This delegation, to the Court, “is incidental to legislative sovereignty.”
The Court’s reasoning raises significant problems from a democratic perspective, even though it is likely consistent with governing authority; my problem is with that governing authority itself. The making of guidelines and soft law, taken too far and unrestricted by legislatures or courts, can do an end-run around the democratic channels of adopting law, susceptible as those channels are to citizen input.
We have a few rules, insufficient as they are, to control this risk. For example, a decision-maker cannot bind herself to non-binding guidelines to the exclusion of governing law; this would be a “fettering of discretion” (see Thamotharem, at para 62). Despite express statutory authority to issue guidelines, those guidelines may not “have the same legal effects that statutory rules can have. In particular, guidelines cannot lay down a mandatory rule from which members have no meaningful degree of discretion to deviate, regardless of the facts of the particular case before them” (Thamotharem, at para 66). At the same time, for example, guidelines issued by the Human Rights Commission have been held to have the full force of law, even if they are formulated solely by the Commission (see Bell, at para 56).
The image of a spectrum is helpful here. As noted in Thamotharem, we could have guidelines that are issued without any statutory authority whatsoever—these guidelines are still, in the traditional account, useful for guiding the administrator’s decision and providing a foundation for reviewing its legality. At the other end, we could have guidelines that are adopted according to specific delegated authority, and which must be followed as if they were law; the Anglin case is a good example. In the middle, we could have a broad legislative authorization that allows an agency to simply issue guidelines without any indication as to whether they must be followed or not.
From a fundamental democratic perspective, all forms of guidelines issued in any of these ways are trouble for different reasons. If the guidelines in the first case are applied as if they were law, we have a classic fettering problem. If the guidelines in the third case are applied as if they were law, the people subject to the guidelines have no say over binding law to which they are subject. Perhaps one could argue that these democratic issues could be excused because (1) the legislature has the undisputed authority, short of constitutional constraints, to prescribe the level of procedure required for internal agency workings and (2) perhaps this is the price of a more efficient government. But the problem remains.
One might say that the Anglin case, from a democratic perspective, is not problematic at all; after all, here the legislature has said itself what is supposed to happen. But in reality, the situation is more serious. In every case, the legislature has approved the Chief Electoral Commissioner’s making of guidelines, and his power to apply them as if they were law formulated and adopted by the legislature. And from a public administration perspective, this is completely understandable. Why would the legislature want to expend the cost of conducting a deep dive into the font sizes required on a sign? This is, on the traditional account, clearly a matter for “expert” administrators.
But if we view the problem from first principles, the legislature has in effect delegated the actual power of making the law to the Chief Electoral Officer. And if we accept that such guidelines are “hard law,” then we must accept that the law could be passed in the dark of night, because administrative agencies control how and when these guidelines (read: laws) are adopted. The answer that the legislature authorized the delegation puts form before substance. The question is whether the legislature should be able to delegate the power to the Chief Electoral Officer in the first place, given that this law will not be adopted in the ordinary course of the normal legislative process.
The context of font sizes is a bad example for this argument because it is relatively unimportant. But if we allow this form of delegation writ large, extremely broad delegations of law-making authority would be permitted. A statute could simply have one line, saying “The Administrator of [whatever agency] is entitled to make Guidelines which have the force of law.” Because there is no restriction on the power to make laws in substance, these guidelines would bind as if they were law under the current authority.
The US has some experience with this phenomenon, with its nondelegation doctrine. In practice, United States courts rarely interfere with broad delegations. But at least they have a doctrine—that a delegation must be accompanied by an “intelligible principle” to guide agencies. Here, there is no such controlling doctrine.
A restriction on Anglin-type delegations would actually likely attack very few delegations and interfere minimally with good government. The delegation problem does not arise as strongly—(ie) as a strict form of delegation in substance—in a case where the legislature authorizes the agency to make guidelines to structure its discretion. Without knowing for sure, I’d imagine this is a more common form of delegation. But where the legislature simply allows an administrator to make law itself, this seems to be a bridge too far.