Justice Beetz’s Unity of Public Law

What an old SCC case tells us about the unity of public law

Much has been written about the so-called “unity of public law”: the extent to which various fields of public law draw upon the same values and inspiration. If this sounds onerously academic, it is not. In fact, it is a unified theory of public law that justifies Doré, the ill-regarded case that attempts to equate judicial review of administrative action with judicial review of administrative determinations of constitutional law. Indeed, as part of the unity of public law, some suggest that administrative law values should not be dismissed, and should be regarded as a rich set of insights that can define the scope of constitutional review. For many, the conceptual bedrock for this idea is the decision in CUPE v New Brunswick, in which the Supreme Court advanced the idea that administrative decision-makers were valuable participants in the system of laws, owed deference and respect. That decision was fortified later, so the story goes, by Baker.

The idea that an ill-defined set of administrative law values—or administrative actors—can define the scope of constitutional review is far from certain. It is the Constitution that is supreme over ordinary law, and if anything, constitutional rights should trump whatever values we can extract from administrative law. This of course assumes that administrative decision-making has any extricable values that underpin it at all. To take the point further, rather than allowing the administrative law tail to wag the constitutional law dog, as in Doré, perhaps the reverse should be true. Whatever the Constitution prescribes should set the minimum standards for administrative decision-making.

An old Supreme Court case takes an admirable crack at defining this relationship. As far as I know, Syndicat des employés de production du Québec v CLRB, [1984] 2 SCR 412 is not a case that appears on most administrative law syllabi in Canada, nor is it a case that appears in the pantheon of administrative law classics. But a comment in the case from Beetz J, for the Court, suggests that the unity of public law should not be a one-way ratchet—it should not require the weakening of constitutional norms to suit the prerogative of administrative decision-making.

I need not address the facts of the case, except to note that at issue were two conclusions drawn by the Canadian Labour Relations Board in the context of a case involving the CBC. The first found that employees of the CBC were in an unlawful strike position because they refused to work overtime. The second was remedial in nature, ordering the union representing the employees and the CBC to arbitration.

The legal context at the time, of course, distinguished between errors of law going to jurisdiction, which were reviewed de novo by a judicial review court, and errors of law that were made in the jurisdiction of the decision-maker, reviewed on a highly deferential standard of patent unreasonableness. The Board attempted to argue, outside of these standards, that its remedial order was “not unreasonable or wrongful” [440]. But the Court concluded that the question of remedy was a question of jurisdiction, not one to which the patent unreasonableness standard applies [443]. For the Court, this question went to the basic power and authority of the Board.

Beetz J analogized the authority of the courts to review for these jurisdictional issues to the same authority that undergirds constitutional review. In a passage that should receive far more attention, Beetz J said:

                Furthermore, I do not see why different rules would be applied in this regard depending onwhether it concerns judicial review of an administrative or quasi-judicial jurisdiction, or judicial review of legislative authority over constitutional matters. When the courts of law have to rule on the validity of a statute, so far as I know they do not ask whether Parliament or the legislature has expressly or by implication given ss. 91  and 92  of the Constitution Act, 1867  an interpretation which is not patently unreasonable. Why would they act differently in the case of judicial review of the jurisdiction of administrative tribunals? The power of review of the courts of law has the same historic basis in both cases, and in both cases it relates to the same principles, the supremacy of the Constitution or of the law, of which the courts are the guardians.

This statement tells us much about how judicial review should operate today, and just how far off the track we have gotten.

Consider, first, the question of jurisdiction. It is true that the Syndicat case focuses on the now-retired metaphysical difference between a “patently unreasonable error” and “an error of jurisdiction.” As the Supreme Court noted in the recent CHRC case, the scope of “jurisdictional error” is narrowing, and for good reason. As Stratas JA outlined in great detail in last year’s Access Copyright case, when courts review administrative determinations of law, there is no principled reason to draw a distinction between errors of law going to jurisdiction or errors of law going to substantive statutory provisions. Administrative decision-makers are creatures of statute, and any error of interpretation should be reviewable in the same way, subject to the standard of review set by the governing legislature. Put this way, everything could be an error of jurisdiction—or as Justice Scalia put it, “statutory authority”—because a decision by an agency that misinterprets a provisions of its enabling legislation, jurisdiction or not, is an error of law.

If that is true, what Beetz J says is quite insightful. Rather than suggesting that the Constitution must adapt to administrative law values, he suggests that administrative review should adopt to constitutional standards, because review of the legislation for its constitutionality and review of administrative decisions engage the same judicial review function. This is an eminently reasonable position in a number of ways. First, it does not lessen the force of the Constitution in the administrative law context. While Beetz J was obviously talking about the division of powers, one of the most important critiques of Doré is the chance that it invites two definitions of constitutional rights, with a weaker one subordinate to a judicial policy of deference in administrative law. But, if a court views its power as deriving from the Constitution in either case, it should “not act differently” in the administrative law context. The same rigorous constitutional standards should apply in either case.

Second, Beetz J is aware of the maxim that legislatures should not be able to do indirectly what they cannot do directly. There is a clear incentives problem with allowing a legislature to escape judicial scrutiny under the Constitution by simply delegating powers to agencies. A less intensive standard of review for administrative decision-makers compared to legislatures would incentivize this delegation.  For obvious reasons, the legislature should not be able to escape the most intensive constitutional scrutiny available by simply enabling someone else.

Finally, it consistently interprets the role of the courts across institutional contexts. If it is true that the Charter made the courts “guardians of the Constitution,” as so many argue it did in the context of constitutional review, why should that role be weaker in the context of administrative decision-making?

What is remarkable about Syndicat, in terms of the unity of public law, is that it comes after CUPE. CUPE is regarded as some Newtonian moment of discovery, in which courts finally shared the mantle of the rule of law with agencies. Syndicat suggests that CUPE was not as dramatic as some say it is. In fact, it suggests that at least one enterprising judge believed that CUPE did not alter the traditional hierarchy of power between courts and agencies. It is the Constitution that governs this entire relationship, and for Beetz J, the Constitution prescribed the same standards of review in both settings. Why we would sacrifice this fundamental bedrock for the rarefied values of the technocracy is unclear.

Author: Mark Mancini

I am a PhD student at Allard Law (University of British Columbia). I am a graduate of the University of New Brunswick Faculty of Law (JD) and the University of Chicago Law School (LLM). I also clerked at the Federal Court for Justice Ann Marie McDonald. I have interests in: the law of judicial review, the law governing prisons, and statutory interpretation.

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