I’ve written before how the Supreme Court’s approach to expertise is wrongheaded in a number of ways. Practically, by saying that expertise “inheres in a tribunal as an institution,” (Edmonton East, at para 33), the Court has simply asserted a fact that is unlikely to be empirically true across the mass of varied decision-makers. Rather, “a tribunal” is not “an institution.” The administrative state consists of many institutions, some expert, some inexpert, deciding many different questions. This is all in addition to the formal point that, in absence of legislative language specifying expertise as a reason for deference, courts do not have carte blanche to make up reasons for deference that the legislature—which created the decision-maker—would not have approved.
The Federal Court of Appeal’s recent case in CPR v Univar, without taking as hard of a line on expertise as I have above, did interestingly justify the assertion of expertise in the particular case. I view this as a positive development from the Supreme Court’s neo-Cartesian “I-say-therefore-it-is” reasoning in Edmonton East.
CPR v Univar involved a “level of service” complaint under the Canadian Transportation Act. Univar is a distributor company located on the island of Richmond in BC. Richmond is connected to CP’s rail system through a bridge. That bridge was damaged by a fire, and CPR instituted an embargo prohibiting movement of rail over the bridge. It later denied service at all to Univar because, to CPR, “the fire was a force majeure event” causing irreparable damage. Univar claimed that this denial of service breached the level of service obligation under the Act.
The Canadian Transportation Agency [CTA] found in favour of Univar, concluding that CPR breached its level of service obligations “except for two ‘reasonable pause’ periods arising from force majeure events” . In reviewing this decision, the Federal Court of Appeal (which hears direct statutory appeals from the CTA), concluded that the standard of review applicable to the CTA’s decision was reasonableness. In part, this was because of the hornbook law statement that “decision-makers’ interpretations of their home statue, with which they have particular familiarity call for deference when judicially reviewed” .
The Court could have stopped there, as the Supreme Court does. Luckily, it did not. It is worth reproducing the Court’s explanation of why the home statute presumption makes particular sense in this case :
This Court has recognized on a number of occasions, and in various contexts, the Agency’s expertise (Canadian National Railway Company v. Richardson Limited, 2015 FCA 180 at paras. 25-31; Canadian National Railway Company v. Canadian Transportation Agency, 2010 FCA 65 at paras. 27-29; Canadian National Railway Company v. Greenstone (Municipality of), 2008 FCA 395 at para. 52). Such expertise is particularly obvious when adjudicating level of service complaints under the level of service provisions of the Act. As this Court stated in Canadian National Railway Company v. Emerson Milling Inc., 2017 FCA 79 at para. 72 (Emerson Milling), the assessment of the service level obligations “lies at the very bullseye of its regulatory know-how and mandate, the very reason why Parliament has vested the Agency with jurisdiction over the merits of cases like this and has left us with just a reviewing role.
This sort of analysis is clearly an improvement over the Edmonton East approach. To be fair, it does stop short of endorsing the formal notion that expertise should be specified by the legislature, as Rennie J and Nadon J did in their reasons in Bell. Nonetheless, the Court in CPR v Univar at least does some work on the practical criticism of expertise.
This is an important development. One of the flaws of the institutional expertise justification advanced by Karakatsanis J is its lack of empirical justification when considering the sorts of questions a decision-maker might have to confront. In a statutory scheme like the Act, the Agency assesses many sorts of claims, some that are closer to its core mandate. There is no reason to presume that because a tribunal is expert in one particular area of its statutory mandate that it will be expert in all of the areas of its mandate. CPR v Univar seems to implicitly endorse this proposition, if only by suggesting that the level of service question is a core question of adjudicative policy that clearly engages the CTA’s expertise.
By at least explaining the reason why it afforded deference with reference to some empirical benchmark, the Court of Appeal significantly improved the Supreme Court’s justification-wanting reasoning for deference. That’s a small win, in my book.