Vavilov: Doing the Administrative State’s Dirty Work

Over the next few weeks, I will be taking some time in this space to summarize the submissions in the upcoming Dunsmuir review: the cases of Vavilov and Bell/NFL. Today I will focus on Vavilov, and the proposals offered by both the Appellant (the Government of Canada) and the Respondent (Vavilov) for the standard of review of administrative action. As I’ll explain, on balance, the Respondent’s formulation is most consistent with the fundamental function of judicial review.

I should note at the outset that I am the Vice-President of the Advocates for the Rule of Law group, which is intervening at the Court in the Vavilov and Bell/NFL appeals. My comments below should be read as only my view on the merits of the parties’ submissions.


In many ways, Vavilov is a perfect case to test the merits of Dunsmuir. It is a case of pure legislative interpretation. Under the Citizenship Act, persons generally born on Canadian soil receive Canadian citizenship (under the principle of jus soli embedded in s.3(1)(a) of the Citizenship Act). There are, however, exceptions contained in s.3(2)(a), (b), and (c) of the Citizenship Act:

(2) Paragraph (1)(a) does not apply to a person if, at the time of his birth, neither of his parents was a citizen or lawfully admitted to Canada for permanent residence and either of his parents was

(a) a diplomatic or consular officer or other representative or employee in Canada of a foreign government;

(b) an employee in the service of a person referred to in paragraph (a); or

(c) an officer or employee in Canada of a specialized agency of the United Nations or an officer or employee in Canada of any other international organization to whom there are granted, by or under any Act of Parliament, diplomatic privileges and immunities certified by the Minister of Foreign Affairs to be equivalent to those granted to a person or persons referred to in paragraph (a).

The Vavilov case turns on s.3(2). Vavilov was born in Canada to Russian parents who were spies for the Russian government. The parents lived in Canada under assumed identities. But for Vavilov, he was always Canadian. He did not have any suspicion that his parents were covert agents.

In 2010, while living in the US with his family, the FBI arrested his parents. This was the first time that Vavilov was made aware of his parents’ identities. Subsequently, the Registrar of Citizenship cancelled Vavilov’s citizenship, on the conclusion that s.3(2) of the Citizenship Act applies. To the Registrar, since Vavilov’s parents were not citizens or lawfully admitted to Canada, and because they were “employees of a foreign government” under s.3(2)(a), Vavilov was not entitled to citizenship.

The Federal Court of Appeal disagreed with the Registrar’s conclusion. On the standard of review, the Court noted that this is a case where the margin of appreciation was exceedingly narrow for the Registrar, for three reasons: (1) the interests of the individual affected were elevated in this case; (2) the Supreme Court had conducted searching review of immigration matters in its recent cases and; (3) the reasons were inadequate.

On the merits, the Court concluded that the words “…employee in Canada of a foreign government” must be read ejusdem generis with the words preceding it. According to the Court, the common theme underpinning the s.3(2)(a) category was the concept of diplomatic privileges and immunities. Section 3(2)(a) was designed to apply only “to those employees who benefit from diplomatic privileges and immunities” [45]. This conclusion was supported by the context of the provision. Sections 3(2) (c), for example, referred to privileges and immunities granted to persons referred to in s.3(2)(a), indicating a legislative intention that persons in s.3(2)(a) are only those with privileges and immunities. International law also supported this conclusion—the Citizenship Act “borrows many of the same phrases that the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations uses in the context of diplomatic immunity” [74]. Under the Vienna Convention, certain employees of a foreign government have immunity, specifically persons connected with the diplomatic mission. Persons not associated with the diplomatic staff are outside of the Convention, and to the extent that Convention is adopted into Canadian law, Vavilov’s parents were therefore outside the Citizenship Act exception to jus soli citizenship [58].

For our purposes, the Federal Court of Appeal’s concerns also extended to the process of reasoning by the Registrar. The Court noted that “[O]n the central statutory interpretation issue before us, the Registrar said nothing” [38]. The Registrar, as is common in administrative law, apparently relied on a report prepared by an analyst. But that report “contains only one brief paragraph on the statutory interpretation issue, and a very limited one at that” [39]. The Court was concerned that the decision was immunized from review, because it could not be sure that the central statutory interpretation issue was even considered.

The Government’s Submissions

With the facts of the case in the backdrop, the Government began its submissions by outlining its proposal for revisions to the standard of review framework set out in Dunsmuir. The government set out its proposal clearly in the first paragraph of its factum:

The standard of review should be deferential, subject only to limited exceptions where the foundational democratic principle and the rule of law make it clear that the courts must have the final word.

The motivation behind this proposal is the mere fact that the legislature granted authority to an administrative body [49]. To the government, delegation=deference.

So, we have a rule (rather than a presumption) of deference for even more matters than Dunsmuir and its progeny prescribed. Notably, no longer do we have the correctness categories of true jurisdictional questions or the category of questions of central importance to the legal system and beyond the expertise of the decision-maker.  This general category of deference applies not only to the result reached by the decision-maker but its process of reasoning. For the government, administrative decision-makers under the ambit of government should not be expected to undertake the type of statutory interpretation analysis that courts undertake [4]. And, the decision-makers should not be expected to make explicit findings on matters of statutory interpretation [60].

The only exceptions to this general rule of deference are constitutional questions (where a law is challenged before a decision-maker on constitutional grounds) and on issues of procedural fairness.

On the merits, the government argues that there was a cogent basis for the Registrar’s decision. The government highlighted that in previous versions of the Citizenship Act, there was a requirement embedded in the citizenship exception that representatives or employees of foreign governments have official accreditation, or any connection to a diplomatic mission [84]. That requirement no longer exists, and the Registrar pointed this out, concluding that the wording in s.3(2)(a) was meant to encompass additional individuals beyond just those with immunities and privileges. Since the decision-maker canvassed this legislative change, some case law bearing on the problem, and other factors, the government argues that this is a sufficient basis to uphold the legality of the decision on its deferential standard.

It appears, for the government, that this alone is enough on its prescribed intensity of review. The government argues that if there are “additional relevant interpretive factors which the administrative decision-maker did not consider, a court may examine such factors in order to discover whether the administrative decision-maker’s interpretation can be sustained” [89]. These “additional relevant interpretive factors” are the text, context, and purpose of the statute that the Registrar was tasked with interpreting. On an interpretation of these factors, the government argues that the decision is legal.

Vavilov’s Submissions

The Respondent’s proposed standard of review framework is from a different world than the government’s. He proposes a two-part framework. First, so-called “discretionary decisions” are reviewed for reasonableness. Second, questions of law are reviewed on a correctness standard. On this second prong, the Respondent concedes that the view of the decision-makers on the “purpose and policy of its own statutes will continue to deserve respect” [59]. However, courts will still have to review the administrative decision-makers’ view of its enabling statute, independently.

The Respondent also, instructively, responds to the government’s proposed standard of review framework. He first notes that while deference to administrative decision-makers presumes trust on the part of these decision-makers, “It is worth recalling that some of the most regretted episodes in Canadian history were the work of federal statutory decision-makers exercising delegated authority” [33]. And, the Respondent also notes that the government’s submission was basically an attempt to insulate its statutory decision-makers from review. Under the government’s formulation, for example, expertise is also always presumed—“no matter how limited the statutory discretion that Parliament gave to the decision-maker or how insubstantial their real expertise” [53]. Particularly on this front, the Respondent notes that the Registrar under cross-examination said that she was “not a lawyer” and therefore did not know the legal “significance” of words in the provision [102].

On the merits, the Respondent argues that the Federal Court of Appeal’s interpretation was right, particularly noting that the Registrar/analyst interpretation did not address the legislative context of s.3(2), particularly s.3(2)(c).


In my view, the Respondent accurately describes the implications of the government’s view. Particularly, the Respondent’s proposal is better than the government’s on a number of fronts if we view the matter from the basis of the fundamental function of judicial review—quite aside from any constitutional mandate for superior courts to police the boundaries of the administrative state.

First, most of Canadian administrative law doctrine is premised around the idea that the administrative state is a collection of virtuous experts creating good public policy and fairly adjudicating disputes. But the Respondent points out that this is far from the case. In fact, the state’s statutory creations have been perhaps the greatest purveyor of discriminatory treatment in the history of Canadian society. Far from being “flexible and expert,” (Edmonton East, at para 22) sometimes administrative decision-makers have been unfair, discriminatory, and even racist: particularly, the examples cited by the Respondent of the deportation of Japanese Canadians and the experience of Aboriginal peoples with residential schools are apposite. This is not to say that government agencies today have designs to discrimination. But it does mean that government agencies can make irrational decisions—particularly ones that are inconsistent with enabling law or the facts and record before it.

So, contrary to current scripture, it is not unreasonable that some would question the lawfulness of state action at the outset. And this is where the idea of a going-in rule of deference loses its force. The government wishes to create a system where state action is presumably lawful; where the mere fact of delegation speaks to the degree of deference owed by courts to a decision-maker. But on simple logical terms, a decision of a government to delegate to a satellite decision-maker says nothing about the degree of deference owed to that decision-maker by courts. Governments delegate to administrative decision-makers for a whole host of reasons: (1) the legislature does not want to spend the time setting up a complex regulatory scheme ex ante; (2) the legislature doesn’t care about the intricacies of the particular issue at hand, and wants someone else to deal with them; (3) the government legitimately feels that it does not have expertise in a particular matter; (4) the government does not want to make politically-charged decisions and wants to foist the political heat on someone else. More reasons abound. But the very fact of delegation says nothing about how courts should view that delegation, given that the reasons motivating delegation are so variable.

Quite the opposite from the traditional story, the potential for legislatures to shirk responsibility for important matters may invite scrutiny by courts. Delegation creates a form of distance between legislatures and decision-makers that makes it difficult for courts to conduct review. The idea is that a law passed by the legislature sets a standard—and decision-makers, relying on their own practices or ideas of what is right, and the informational asymmetry that they enjoy, can “drift” from the text of the law by which they are bound. This principal-agent problem invites, rather than counsels against, the scrutiny of courts.

On this front, the government’s standard of review proposal makes it more difficult for courts to determine whether a decision-maker is acting lawfully. Perhaps the most pernicious of the proposals is the idea that courts should presume deference on implied interpretations of law. One of the most common rationales for deference, put forward by the government above, is the idea that Parliament’s decision to vest power in an administrative decision-maker in the first place is legally significant. Even if we accept this logically deficient rationale, deferring to “implied” interpretations of law raises the prospect that the court is deferring to nothing. This is because it will be difficult for courts to determine whether the interpretive difficulty faced by the decision-maker was even addressed, let alone in a substantive way, if there is only an “implied determination.” Not to mention, of course, that if Parliament delegated to a decision-maker the power to make a decision, we should expect that a decision be made, not merely “implied.”

This is even more so where there are multiple analytical paths to a particular result. It may be easy in some cases for courts to draw a direct line to a particular analytical path from a result—in such cases, it may be easy to say what sort of interpretation is “implied” (putting aside the objection that it is the job of the decision-maker to positively pronounce on the matters it has been entrusted with by the legislature). But in most cases, if it is truly the case (as most argue) that statutes can fairly bear more than one meaning, then the reasoning employed to get to a certain result is quite important on judicial review. Where the decision-maker has multiple options, and has failed to pronounce on its reasoning, the court is left in the unenviable position of having to guess. In all cases, the quality of the reasoning adopted by the decision-maker—whether it addressed the text, context, and purpose of the statute, which cabins its discretion (McLean, at para 38)—is key. For the government to claim that these are mere “additional interpretive factors” is simply incorrect when it is the quality of the reasoning that determines whether a particular interpretation is lawful.

Vavilov shows why the government’s proposal is so flawed on both of these fronts. Even though we always presume expertise by decision-makers, the decision-maker in Vavilov basically admitted that she had no idea about the central interpretive difficulty in the case. She said she did not understand the terms of legal significance. The result she reached evinced this lack of understanding; she failed to take account of the whole of s.3(2) of the Citizenship Act and barely pronounced on the key interpretive difficulties. Yet, the text, context, and purpose of statutes are key to determining the range of reasonable outcomes available to the decision-maker. So, it is not true to say hers was a decision that fell within a range of reasonable outcomes, as Justice Gleason at the Federal Court of Appeal did in dissent. Quite the contrary, her decision was flawed precisely because her reasoning was flawed and wanting. It was unclear whether she took a proper analytical path to her decision. And yet, the government asks courts, on a hope and a prayer, to defer to this sort of reasoning merely because it is implied.

As Justice Stratas said in Bonnybrook, it is not the job of courts on judicial review to impersonate the decision-maker and fill in the gaps in deficient decisions. Yet the government’s proposal asks courts to do just that. Putting aside the constitutional objections to this posture, it fundamentally misconceives what courts are supposed to do on judicial review. Judicial review is designed to ensure decision-makers act rationally and according to law.

Courts cannot be conscripted into service by the administrative state to do its dirty work.



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.

2 thoughts on “Vavilov: Doing the Administrative State’s Dirty Work”

  1. One major question: Newfoundland Nurses? If the hope is that the Court will move away from its position in the case going forward, that’s quite understandable. But it’s less clear to me that Justice Gleason was not applying the law in light of that (arguably very problematic) case.

    1. As a preliminary matter, I note that the FCA in Lemus distinguished Nfld Nurses as a particularly unhelpful precedent when it comes to the adequacy of reasons. Considering it was released a day apart from Alberta Teachers, I tend to agree.

      Nonetheless, it is “good” law. But I don’t think it tells us anything about what to do in this case. While the Registrar said very little about the interpretive difficulty, she did turn her mind to the statutory provision at hand. And she purported to “interpret” the statute to reach her preferred result. The problem is that her analysis was wrong and incomplete because she failed to consider s.3(2)(c), as well as the international law implications of the decision. Even on Nfld Nurses, I doubt the Court could have cast aside the erroneous chain of reasoning for the right one–Delta is apposite here. Further, Nfld Nurses says nothing about the “immunization” difficulty raised by Stratas JA. That is, the idea that the court simply cannot be sure that the actual issue at play was addressed by the decision-maker, even if it is “implied.”

      And of course, as you say, Nfld Nurses is so contrary to the institutional roles of the Parliament and the courts that it makes it difficult to follow it in some cases.

      Thanks for your comment!

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