Lowering Expectations: The Supreme Court’s Standard of Review Cases

Why, sadly, Canada’s administrative law community should probably lower its expectations.

Next week, the Supreme Court of Canada will finally conduct its once-per-decade review of the standard of judicial review. In Vavilov, and Bell/NFL, the Court will hear about a number of issues: the standard of review on questions of law, the role of reasons in administrative law, and the role of so-called “jurisdictional questions,” among others. Many administrative law aficionados will pay close attention to next week’s hearings. I have outlined my proposals for how the Court should handle these cases and judicial review more generally (here, here, and here). But no matter what one thinks about the merits of the law of the judicial review in Canada, I do not think the Court will do anything in these appeals that will affect, in any substantive way, the standard of review.

I take as a given “Daly’s law”: that is, the idea that “the more excited administrative law aficionados are beforehand, the more disappointed they will be afterwards.” Evidence helps us with this conclusion. Most recently, many administrative law watchers had high hopes for the Court’s Tran case last year. Tran was an appeal from a Federal Court of Appeal decision, where the FCA expressly noted the difficulty of applying the Supreme Court’s standard of review precedents on questions of law. But Tran frustrated our expectations by simply saying that its result would be the same under any standard of review.

I do not think we will get a Tran-type conclusion in the Vavilov and Bell/NFL cases; I expect a bit more than that given the Court’s express request for submissions on the standard of review. But I do not think that the Court will do anything exciting or substantive in these appeals. And so, I think we should all temper our expectations.

The Court is notoriously divided on administrative law in general, and the divisions are deep and intractable on foundational questions. This makes it difficult to hope that the Court will come up with a workable and constitutionally justifiable doctrine. For example, the Trinity Western case, while focused on matters outside the direct scope of these appeals, demonstrated the fault lines in how the Court views issues of judicial review. The Court has also divided on the specific issue of jurisdictional questions: see Guerin and CHRC. In those cases, the dissenters viewed the category of jurisdictional questions as fundamental to the Rule of Law. On those terms, it’s difficult to assume there is much wiggle room for the dissenters on the category. What’s more, the Court has divided on the factors that rebut the presumption of reasonableness review. In Groia, Justice Côté would have found that the presumption of reasonableness review was rebutted by the fact that “the impugned conduct occurred in a courtroom…” [166]. This factor was previously unknown to the standard of review framework, and indicates the breadth of considerations that at least one judge is thinking about on the issues. Other cases demonstrate more fundamental problems. In West Fraser, then-Chief Justice McLachlin (with the agreement of five other judges) claimed that the decision-maker in that case was the recipient of the delegation received unrestricted powers because of an “unrestricted” delegation, and so was (presumably) owed unrestricted deference. This is a bold statement that is strikingly at odds with a fundamental concept of administrative law in Roncarelli: there is no such thing as untrammeled discretion. Naturally, dissenting judges found that the enabling statute actually did confine the decision-maker at issue in West Fraser.

The problem transcends administrative law and affects broader issues that define the parameters of the debate. In Mikisew Cree, the Court split over the circumstances in which the duty to consult attached to legislative action. Two judges (Abella and Martin JJ) would have found that the legislative process was “Crown conduct” subject to the duty, despite the fact that in the Westminster tradition, the entire law-making process is immune from judicial scrutiny. Here, we have a deep disagreement about the very nature of the Parliamentary system, one which foreshadows the more specific administrative law problems.

Further, the problems that the Court has to face are broad, and that state of affairs lowers the probability of any workable agreement. The problems range from how courts should select the standard of review (the status of the presumption of reasonableness; the status of the jurisdictional questions category; the role of constitutional questions) to how the courts should apply the standard of review (what is the role of the principles of statutory interpretation?; should courts supplement reasons?). There is no reason to think the Court will create a precedent on any one of these issues, let alone all of them. Yet each of them is vitally important and deeply contested.

The factional stasis at the Supreme Court is a real shame, because now more than ever there is an academic and judicial movement that has converged on the idea that at least some reform of the law of judicial review, even at the margins, is highly desirable. Very few people are happy with judicial review in Canada. This is an important opportunity to fundamentally question the foundations of judicial review in Canada, to create a workable framework that deals with the developing Canadian administrative state.

So, if I had my way, I would take the opportunity and start from scratch. I once believed, naively, that the Dunsmuir framework was workable. A lot of people think, with good reason, that only the extensions on Dunsmuir that have caused the most academic consternation—the presumption of deference introduced in Alberta Teachers and entrenched in Edmonton East; the completely unjustified “supplementation of reasons” doctrine that the Court created out of whole cloth in Newfoundland Nurses. Of course, these doctrinal innovations have made the law unworkable. But Dunsmuir itself is a problem because it creates a sort of centrifugal force with which the Court must contend. Its categories and factors will remain, even if Edmonton East, Newfoundland Nurses, and Alberta Teachers are expressly overturned. The categories and factors are intractable precisely because there is no sense of the relationship between them on first impression. They are not necessarily connected to what I have before called the fundamental premise of administrative law: its statutory character. It would be better for the long-run doctrinal clarity of the standard of review framework if the Court began its analysis from this fundamental premise, while critically questioning whether these categories and factors are necessary at all.

But because the Court cannot even find agreement on more mundane points, it pains me to predict that Dunsmuir will remain largely unscathed. That prospect disappoints me given the opportunity the Court has created for itself. But if nothing else, administrative law scholars will have another decade of 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.

3 thoughts on “Lowering Expectations: The Supreme Court’s Standard of Review Cases”

  1. In West Fraser don’t think the CJ said that the powers of the delegate were “unrestricted”; she said the delegation itself was unrestricted.

  2. The scope of the delegation defines the powers of the delegate. Considering that the conclusion was that the Board could make any regulations it felt was necessary (at para 10 ), the breadth of the delegation and the powers it conferred were one in the same for the purposes of the case, to my mind.

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