Dealing with Delegation

Thoughts on a proposal for a judicial crackdown on the delegation of law-making powers to the executive

The explosive growth of legislation made by various government departments, boards, and other entities ― rather than enacted by Parliament, as legislation ought to be on the orthodox understanding of separation of powers ― is quite likely the most understudied aspect of contemporary constitutions, in Canada and elsewhere. In “Reassessing the Constitutional Foundation of Delegated Legislation in Canada“, an article that will be published in the Dalhousie Law Journal and is now available on SSRN, Lorne Neudorf sets out to shed light on and proposes means of reining in delegated legislation ― that is, rules made by the executive branch of government pursuant to a legislative authorization, often a very vague one. It is a worthwhile endeavour from which we have much to learn, even though Professor Neudorf’s arguments, and some of his recommendations, strike me as just as problematic, in their own way, as the phenomenon he criticizes.

* * *

This phenomenon’s importance is out of all proportion to the attention it receives. Professor Neudorf notes that “[b]y volume, delegated legislation is made at a rate of nearly 5-to-1 as compared to primary legislation”. (3) Yet the text of the constitution seems to say nothing at all about the executive being able to make law. On the contrary, the Constitution Act, 1867, endows Parliament and provincial legislatures with “exclusive” law-making powers. Still, the courts have recognized that the legislative bodies are able to mandate the executive to make rules having the force of law, and indeed even rules that override the provisions of laws enacted by legislatures. This, Professor Neudorf argues, is a mistake that needs to be reversed.

Professor Neudorf traces the mistake to a misguided introduction into Canadian constitutional law of orthodox, Diceyan, notions of Parliamentary sovereignty. The notion that “Parliament can make or unmake any law whatever” has always been out of place in a federation, where the Dominion Parliament and provincial legislatures were always subject to limits on their powers. In any event, the enactment of “[t]he Charter” in 1982 “cemented the location of Canadian sovereignty in the Constitution as opposed
to a single lawmaking institution”. (9) Judicial decisions emphasizing the plenitude of legislative powers (subject to the constraints imposed by the Constitution Act, 1867)

should be understood as less about transplanting a robust vision of parliamentary sovereignty into Canada and more about the courts prodding along and encouraging the development of new country with a distinct identity. (9)

Yet the leading precedents on the scope of Canadian legislatures’ ability to delegate its legislative powers to the executive, notably In Re Gray, (1918) 57 SCR 150, recognize no obvious limits on delegation. In Gray, Chief Justice Fitzpatrick held that, since no limitation on delegation was expressed in the Constitution Act, 1867, “within reasonable limits at any rate [Parliament] can delegate its powers to the executive government” (157) ― provided that it be able to terminate and resume the powers it temporarily cedes. Professor Neudorf argues that sweeping delegation of the kind at issue in Gray “might not be viewed as reasonable outside the context of an exceptional national security threat”, (16) but the subsequent cases did not elaborate on the constraints that this reasonableness requirement might impose.

Professor Neudorf insists that Gray rests on a “narrow and technical interpretation of the
Constitution”, an “outmoded interpretive approach”, (18) long superseded by “living tree” constitutional interpretation. Applying this approach, the courts ought to

engage with how the Constitution sees Parliament: as a key part of the basic constitutional architecture: possessing democratic, representative and accountable qualities, and the key player in bringing together different constituencies to formulate national policy and resolve pressing questions facing the country as a whole. (23)

Delegation imperils Parliament’s position, envisioned by John A. Macdonald, as the constitutional cornerstone. It hands law-making over to persons and bodies that are not representative and often operate behind the thick veil of cabinet secrecy. Delegation also undermines the Rule of Law (which provides additional reasons to favour transparent lawmaking) and the separation of powers.

Therefore, Professor Neudorf proposes a number of ways of curtailing the use of delegation. To begin with,

courts should adopt a stricter interpretation of statutory provisions that delegate lawmaking power and strengthen the rigour of the vires review of regulations to overcome the current weaknesses that allow for the delegation of broad powers
through generic words and exceptionally wide latitude for the exercise of delegated power. (30)

If Parliament wants to delegate broad legislative powers, courts ought to make it say so very clearly ― especially if these powers are meant to be exercised retroactively, punitively, or in a manner that is at odds with the Charter. Courts should also drop their deference to the executive’s interpretation of its authority to enact delegated legislation. Nothing less than constitutional principle compels this change of approach, which “will better safeguard Parliament’s constitutional role and give effect to the principle of legality and the rule of law”. (32) But sometimes, the courts should go further still:

when generic words are used in enabling legislation, which are incapable of intelligent qualification by the text, context or purpose of the statute, the court should hold the grant of authority invalid on the basis that it is impermissibly vague. (33)

Indeed, the grant of authority ought to be “narrower than the general purposes of the legislation, with some specificity for the kinds of regulations contemplated”. (33)

Professor Neudorf’s other set of proposals concerns the process by which regulations are reviewed in Parliament. He calls on Parliament to take its inspiration from the review systems that exist in the United Kingdom (which Professor Neudorf describes in some detail), and look into both the delegation provisions of bills as they are enacted, and the already existing regulations that may be flawed or ineffective. But here too, Professor Neudorf envisions a role for the judiciary:

If needed, a court may issue a declaration of the constitutional obligation as the impetus for Parliament to take the necessary action. In an extreme case where the scrutiny system is totally ineffective, the court may seek to enforce this constitutional obligation by holding inadequately scrutinized regulations as legally ineffective. (40)

Professor Neudorf concludes that, while the delegation of some legislative powers is desirable and necessary, and particular bodies (such as the legislatures of territories) can be quite different from the ordinary executive delegates, reform ― and judicial intervention to implement it ― is constitutionally justified and necessary.

* * *

I have mixed feelings about Professor Neudorf’s article. It addresses a real problem that deserves much more attention than it usually receives. I agree to a large extent both with the values underlying Professor Neudorf argument (notably, the empowerment of legislative institutions and the limitation of the power of the unaccountable executive) and with his specific proposals, as I shall explain. But, as noted at the outset, I think that the way in which Professor Neudorf makes his case, and indeed some aspects of his proposals, which follow from his approach to constitutional law, are deeply problematic.

Let me begin with the bad, to finish on a more positive note. Professor Neudorf’s general approach is an excellent illustration of what I recently described as “constitutionalism from the cave“:

On this view, the Canadian constitution … is not so much a law that courts must apply as a sort of shadow in Plato’s cave, a vague reflection of true constitutional ideals that the judges must discover and explain to us cavemen. The constitution’s text is not in any meaningful way binding on the courts; it is only an inadequate approximation, one whose imperfections judges can and ought to circumvent in an unceasing quest to get a clearer view of the ideal constitution.

Professor Neudorf refuses to attach any real consequence to the constitutional text’s apparent silence on the question of delegation; on the contrary, he chides the Gray court for having done so, declaring this an “outmoded” way of doing constitutional law. Professor Neudorf argues that, regardless of what the text says or doesn’t say, the courts should implement the ideal conception of Parliament and of its place in a democratically accountable system of government. As I explained, this amounts to a license for the courts to re-write the constitution, in defiance of its own provisions, which quite clearly do not contemplate its amendment by the judiciary.

The fact that I am sympathetic to the policy objectives that this re-writing would be designed to achieve is irrelevant; it’s illegitimate all the same. Professor Neudorf’s appeal to the so-called “Persons Case”, Edwards v. Attorney-General for Canada, [1930] AC 124, [1930] 1 DLR 98 (PC), to prove otherwise ― to show that good courts re-write constitutions to suit their policy preferences ― fails resoundingly. He faults the Supreme Court in that case for having been “disinterested [sic] in the question of the desirability of women Senators” (18) and believing that “giving meaning to the Constitution was a simple and neutral exercise in statutory interpretation”. (19) Yet Lord Sankey, whose opinion for the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council Professor Neudorf extols, similarly insisted the case did not involve “any question as to the rights of women”. (DLR 107) Lord Sankey’s opinion, as, for example, I have argued here, is a master class in statutory interpretation techniques ― not a policy judgment about the desirability of women Senators. And Professor Neudorf’s invocation of the wishes of John A. Macdonald ― odd in an article otherwise extolling living constitutionalism, but of a piece with the strategic (mis)use of original intent originalism by Canadian legal academics that co-blogger Mark Mancini described here ― is no more convincing. Macdonald was interested in the federal division of powers, not the question of delegation.

In short, I don’t think that Professor Neudorf succeeds in justifying the role he sees for the judiciary in implementing his more far-reaching proposals. A more robust judicial review of the vires of delegated legislation, including by the application of the principle of legality (which prevents the executive from trespassing on constitutional and common law rights with clear authorization by the legislature) only requires the courts to abandon their absurdly deferential, pro-regulatory posture. But it is much more difficult to make the case for the courts’ power to nullify vague delegations. (I don’t know whether this is impossible, but that’s a discussion for another time.) Professor Neudorf appeals to the doctrine developed under the Charter for determining whether a limitation of a constitutional right is “prescribed by law”. This is not satisfactory, because the courts have tended to treat even vague laws as sufficiently clear, and even more so because the Charter‘s requirements simply do not apply unless one of the rights it protects is at stake. And as for the idea that courts can order Parliament how to structure its review of regulations ― suffice it to say that it creates much greater separation of powers problems than it is likely to solve, and undermines the very autonomy and authority of Parliament as a democratic decision-making body that Professor Neudorf seeks to restore.

Behind the embrace of constitutionalism from the cave is a belief, which I think is not only misguided but also counterproductive, that supreme constitutional law must have an answer to any and all constitutional concerns. Professor Neudorf is quite right to characterize the rise of delegated legislation as a constitutional issue. But it simply does not follow that it is an issue that the courts must be able to fully address. As the experience of polities such as the United Kingdom (which Professor Neudorf cites as a model!) and New Zealand reminds us, it is possible to think intelligently about the constitution that is not supreme law at all. Indeed, these polities often pay much closer attention to the governance aspects of their constitutions than does Canada. Instead of calling on the courts to twist and stretch our supreme constitutional law, undermining their own commitment to the Rule of Law and indeed their credibility as impartial constitutional arbiters in the process, we should emulate these polities’ commitment to getting the constitution right as a matter of ordinary law and political process.

Professor Neudorf’s recommendations will, mostly, be very helpful in this regard. Greater judicial vigilance in reviewing the legality of the executive’s exercise of its delegated legislative powers is essential ― and it need not rest on dubious appeals to living tree interpretation. The principle of the Rule of Law, as developed by Canadian courts at least as far back as in Roncarelli v Duplessis, [1959] SCR 121, means that the executive’s authority, even if delegated by the legislature in ostensibly, indeed ostentatiously, broad terms, cannot be unlimited, and that the courts are not only authorized, but required to ensure that the executive doesn’t overstep the bounds of this delegation. Professor Neudorf is right to be concerned that Canadian courts are in serious danger of abdicating this responsibility. Recent decisions which he does not mention, notably West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, and Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, provide further demonstration of this point, as I argued here and here. The Supreme Court appears to see no issue what it described in West Fraser as “broad and unrestricted delegation of power”. This needs to change.

Professor Neudorf is also right to call for the development of Parliamentary procedures for the review of regulations. I wonder if the smaller number of parliamentarians in Canada in comparison with the UK might be an obstacle to copying the British system of three Select Committees devoted to the study of subordinate legislation (and the problem would, of course, be even more pressing in much smaller and unicameral provincial legislatures), but even if the UK system cannot be perfectly emulated in Canada, it seems to offer a source of inspiration if not a model for imitation.

* * *

To repeat, it is a mistake to think that judicially enforceable supreme  law must have a solution to every constitutional problem. Yet the problem Professor Neudorf identifies is real. Precisely because supreme law may be unable to help us, it is important to get ordinary law and legislative process right. Judicial review and parliamentary procedure might be less glamorous than what Canadians usually think of as constitutional law. Yet Professor Neudorf’s article should be taken as a reminder that these are properly constitutional preoccupations, and that Canadian constitutional lawyers ought to devote more of their energies to them than to the development of exotic theories about what the ideal Canadian constitution would look like.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

One thought on “Dealing with Delegation”

  1. Everything would be more honest if we repealed Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 and replaced it with the following:

    38 (1) An amendment to the Constitution of Canada may be made by a majority vote of justices of the Supreme Court of Canada, whether or not the amendment proclaimed is relevant to the case before them, where so authorized by

    (a) some research hastily conducted by one or more clerk of the Court into how the Germans do it, or
    (b) an article accepted for publication in a first- or second-tier law review.

    (2) An article referred to in paragraph (1)(b) must refer to one or more of the following:

    (a) John Rawls,
    (b) Ronald Dworkin,
    (c) the need to develop a feminist hermeneutics of the gendered body, or
    (d) Pareto and Kaldor-Hicks efficiency.

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