The Diceyan Trope

Metaphors, labels, and particular phrases seem to be a constant theme running through Canadian law. In virtually every area of public law, the Supreme Court deploys clever labels and metaphors to convey ideas that are bundled with certain inferences or assumptions about the ideas themselves. The most famous, perhaps, is the living tree model of constitutional interpretation, which is so ingrained that it has taken academic articles to dislodge its place in the constitutional zeitgeist. Other examples abound.

On one hand, these linguistic devices are useful shorthand. Rather than explaining complex concepts, they allow the Court and others to quickly express a complicated idea in a way that lawyers and academics can understand. On the other hand, they shortcircuit critical analysis of the ideas they represent. Rather than acting as useful stand-ins for complex ideas, I fear that they have become broadside representations of certain way of viewing Canadian law; concepts that, through frequent usage, have become immovable stones that represent closely-held positions.

Perhaps this is most evident with one of the most widely-deployed tropes: the attack on one of the dark lords of administrative law, A.V. Dicey.

I confess that the inspiration for this post was Justice Abella’s recent speech in New Zealand, in which she, as usual, attacked the “Diceyan” conception of administrative law. Lest one should think this is an isolated incident, this Diceyan label also infected the Vavilov and Bell/NFL hearings at the Supreme Court, when one intervener argued that other Commonwealth jurisdictions have gotten by without a standard of review analysis, and a judge retorted that this is because they are trapped in a Diceyan mode of law. As Audrey Macklin explains respecting this exchange, “[The] insinuation behind this remark is that these benighted commonwealth judges are trapped in some nineteenth century intellectual dungeon.”

I fear that this insinuation is the one meant by Justice Abella. Bundled within the Diceyan attack is a number of presuppositions. As far as I can tell, the attack on Diceyanism is an arrow in the quiver of those judges and scholars who were inculcated in the New Deal and Keynesian era of technocracy, expertise, and social policy.  Often called administrative law “functionalists,” (people like John Willis and Harry Arthurs) the functionalists worried about Diceyan administrative law as a way to fill-in conservative ideals under the rule of law rubric. To their minds, cases like CUPE [1978] best recognize the social policy aims of tribunals and their technocratic expertise.

I’ve written before about why these arguments are ill-fitted to the modern administrative state.  Administrative decision-makers now no longer operate in a narrow field of social policy, but also inhabit the most repressive areas of the state: prisons and border officers, for example. Technocratic expertise is one thing, but legal expertise is quite another, and decision-makers are now tasked more than ever with deciding complex legal problems for which they are not necessarily trained. Put differently, there is no reason to believe that an expert in subject-matter A will necessarily have expertise in legal area B. Nor is there any reason to believe that the expert will be able to explain her conclusions in language that permits accountability through judicial review–this is the problem of immunization to which the Federal Court of Appeal is increasingly drawing attention.  The assumptions underlying the functionalist view, if they ever existed, no longer exist as a general matter.

In fact, there is much about Dicey to be admired. The first consideration, though, is determining what Dicey actually meant. While functionalists try to paint Diceyan as a rank anti-administrativist, there is some nuance to his position. Dicey was comparing with a particular style of administrative law—“droit administratif”—which Dicey thought was alien to English legal principles. Particularly, he believed that a separate body of law governed relationships between citizens and the state, as opposed to citizens and other citizens. State actors were not subject to scrutiny by the ordinary courts, but rather special administrative courts. The concern for Dicey wasn’t the exercise of delegated power—he actually allowed for the exercise of legislative powers by delegated actors in the English context, entities like municipal bodies. Instead, it was the worry that different rules might privilege state actors. This concern still worries us today.

But administrative law as we now know it is not about granting rights and privileges to state actors (putting aside ideas of qualified immunity). State actors are subject to the ordinary jurisdiction of the courts. The only doctrine that dilutes this oversight is self-imposed: doctrines of deference that courts created themselves to grant delegated actors “policy space.” No matter, while administrative law as we know it arose subsequent to Dicey, Dicey is probably not as radical as his opponents make him out to be.

What’s more, Dicey’s fundamental principles remain relevant today. His explanation of the rule of law contained within it the seeds of a more substantive approach, one of “legality” underlying all exercises of public power. This is still a useful and important concept, particularly as we consider how best to control discretion exercised by administrative actors. There is nothing in Dicey’s principle of legality that implies a necessarily conservative orientation. All it insists is that courts have an important, perhaps exclusive, role to play in policing the boundaries of the administrative state.  And unless we are willing to attack the independence of judges by insinuating that their policy preferences infect their judicial duty, maybe we should not be so worried about courts like the functionalists were.

More broadly, Dicey did attempt to wrestle with the distinction between parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law, as I outline here. This is a concept that continues to bedevil us today in discussions about standard of review, and the extent to which Parliament’s law should oust the ability of the courts to review decisions on a de novo basis. As Mark Walters aptly noted in his contribution to the Dunsmuir Decade symposium:

Dicey made some mistakes and the punishment for his sins seems to be that his name is forever associated with that flawed “Diceyan” understanding of public law. However, some of the most difficult and underappreciated passages in his famous book, Law of the Constitution, come in the course of an attempt to explain how judges may resolve the tension between the rule of law and parliamentary sovereignty—passages which make little sense unless we assume that the “spirit of legality” that he says shapes all legal meaning is a substantive ideal that justifies and legitimates the exercise of governmental powers

This Diceyan concept—identified by Walters—is still centrally important today. But it has been forgotten, in part due to the negative inference drawn by those who label particular proposals as “Diceyan.”

This is not to say that these arguments are altogether immune from attack. For example, it is controversial to say that courts should have an exclusive role to play in the rule of law. In the modern era, a focus on courts also tends to crowd out discussion about the best controls on administrative discretion that exist: those imposed by Parliament itself.  I also think that Diceyanism can be used to justify an all-out, Phillip Hamburger-style attack on the existence of the administrative state writ large. For some, this is a good thing. But for others, there may be reason to think Diceyanism is open to abuse.

My point here is not to say that Dicey was right or wrong–clearly, like most humans, he was a bit of both. Either way, to my mind, it is not a foregone conclusion that Diceyan administrative law is a wholly improper theory of the administrative state. Like most theories, Diceyan administrative law contains important principles that should animate future research directions, but it is not a cure-all. Invoking the Diceyan trope does little to further intelligent debate about what administrative law should look like in the 21st century.

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.

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