Under the so-called “modern approach” to statutory interpretation, courts are instructed to take into account the text, context, and purpose of a statute. But perhaps because the “text, context, and purpose” recital is so commonplace, other difficult interpretive questions are masked under its patina. For example, which takes priority—text or purpose? The Supreme Court has said that clear text is dominant in the interpretive process (see Placer Dome, at para 21; Canada Trustco, at para 10), but at the same time, the Court has often adverted to the role of purpose in interpretation, to the extent that purpose or policy considerations could override clear text (see the opinion of then-Chief Justice McLachlin in West Fraser Mills, at paras 40, 43). And, even if one could work out what the proper relationship is between text and purpose ,there is no guidance from the Court about what purpose, at what level of abstraction, should be relevant in the analysis. I have written about these issues before.
Luckily, the Supreme Court has provided some guidance to answering these questions in Telus Communications v Wellman, 2019 SCC 19. While the approach advanced in the case is not strictly textualist, it does represent the important idea that text dominates in the interpretive process, and that overall policy goals should not be permitted to override that text. While the Supreme Court is a laggard to these important conclusions (see the opinions of Stratas JA in Williams, Cheema, and Hillier), they come better late than never.
The case involved an important question of statutory interpretation under Ontario’s Arbitration Act and Consumer Protection Act. Wellman filed a class action against Telus, consisting of both “consumers and non-consumers” . The action alleged that Telus “engaged in an undisclosed practice of ‘rounding up’ calls to the next minute such that customers were overcharged…” . All of the contracts binding the class provided that any claims “arising out of or in relation to the contract, apart from the collection of accounts by Telus, shall be determined through mediation, and failing that, arbitration” .
The problem for Wellman et al, though, was that not all of the members of the class were “consumers.” Under the Consumer Protection Act, the arbitration clauses in the contracts are invalid, because “it would otherwise prevent class members who qualify as ‘consumers’ from commencing or joining a class action of the kind commenced by Mr. Wellman” . The Consumer Protection Act “shields consumers from a stay of proceedings under the Arbitration Act” . Telus conceded this point as regards the consumers. But there were non-consumer, business customers included in the class. The core question was whether they could escape the effect of a stay sought by Telus.
Wellman said that, under the Arbitration Act, s.7(5), the court had discretion to refuse Telus’ request for a stay against the business customers, so that the business customers could continue in the class. Section 7(5) says the following:
7 (5) The court may stay the proceeding with respect to the matters dealt with in the arbitration agreement and allow it to continue with respect to other matters if it finds that,
(a) the agreement deals with only some of the matters in respect of which the proceeding was commenced; and
(b) it is reasonable to separate the matters dealt with in the agreement from the other matters.
Telus, though, fundamentally disputed this claim, arguing that under other provisions of the Arbitration Act, exceptions are set out that are exhaustive of all the legislative exceptions in the Arbitration Act scheme. Accordingly, to Telus, the Consumer Protection Act does not apply to the business consumers, and instead, the business claims should be stayed under the Arbitration Act .
Analysis in the Case
Moldaver J wrote for the majority, accepting Telus’ argument. After citing the general modern approach to statutory interpretation of text, context, and purpose, he first grounded his view of the statute in its purpose. One of the principles of the Arbitration Act, appearing in the legislative history, was the need to ensure that parties “abide by their agreements,” and that the law was designed to enshrine this idea . Subsequent cases in courts across the country, to Moldaver J, accepted this idea .
Turning to the text, specifically s.7(1) of the Arbitration Act, Moldaver J wrote that it established a general rule: “where a party to an arbitration agreement commences a proceeding in respect of a matter dealt with in the agreement….the court “shall,” on the motion of another party to the agreement, stay the court proceeding in favour of arbitration” . This is, obviously, a mandatory statutory rule. Wellman, though, argued that s.7(5) excerpted above is an “independent, standalone” exception to s.7(1) . This provision, which permits a “partial stay”—meaning that the court has a discretion to stay some of the claims for arbitration—is available if certain statutory preconditions are met and if the court exercises its discretion in favour of the stay. Wellman argued that s.7(5) could be read so that the court “may refuse to stay” the business customers’ claims. But Moldaver J rejected this proposition, focusing on the text of s.7(5) in its statutory context. The text of s.7(5) says nothing about a court “refusing to grant a stay,” and to him: “…where the legislature intended to authorize the court to refuse a stay, it did so through the words ‘may refuse to stay’” . Those words did not appear in s.7(5). And, with this text and context in mind, Moldaver J turned to purpose: allowing Wellman’s argument would “reduce the degree of certainty and predictability associated with arbitration agreements,” permitting the business customers to escape the effect of a stay .
Wellman also relied on certain policy considerations to support his preferred interpretation of the text . One of these was a general principle of “access to justice,” which “[removes] barriers to seeking relief in court” . But there were two problems with importing this idea as a decisive principle for the case: (1) a rarefied idea of access to justice should not “be permitted to distort the actual words of the statute, read harmoniously with the scheme of the statute, its object, and the intention of the legislature, so as to make the provision say something it does not…the responsibility for setting policy in a parliamentary democracy rests with the legislature, not the courts…[i]t is not the role of this Court to re-write legislation ; and (2) the Ontario regime pursues access to justice by “shielding consumers from potentially harsh results of enforcing arbitration agreements…” by exempting consumers “and only consumers” from “otherwise freely negotiated agreements” . This is in conjunction with the Arbitration Act’s pursuit of the overall principle that parties should abide by their agreements. Access to justice, as a general idea, should not “be permitted to overwhelm the other important objectives pursued by the Arbitration Act…” .
While I do not have space to recount the minority opinion of Abella and Karakatsanis JJ, I want to note a particularly fiery charge that they chose to level at Moldaver J: “The majority’s approach, with respect, in effect represents the return of textualism. The words have been permitted to dominate and extinguish the contextual policy objectives of both the Arbitration Act and the Class Proceedings Act [citations omitted]…” . To the minority, the “overall purpose” of the Arbitration Act “was to promote access to justice” .
I want to say three things about this case. First, the minority’s charge of “textualism” against Moldaver J is inaccurate and sloppy; (2) Moldaver J’s approach, while not textualism, represents a defensible “textually constrained purposivism,” that guards against a court aggrandizing to itself the power to “read-in” language to a statute; (3) both of the opinions show why relying on legislative history is such a fraught enterprise.
Consider first the minority’s textualism charge. I can only imagine that Abella and Karakatsanis JJ were trying to make a rhetorical point, because I cannot believe that they—learned judges of our Supreme Court—could so misunderstand an entire school of interpretive thought. Textualism is directly opposite to “purposivism,” which is primarily concerned with the ends a statute pursues. To the textualist, purpose is encompassed in the means the statute pursues. It is not concerned with an overall statement of purpose, per se: consider Scalia J’s opinion in MCI and WVUH v Casey, and also Judge Easterbrook’s article, “Statutes’ Domains.”
But Moldaver J’s opinion does not just focus on means. It considers the ends of the Arbitration Act, including the overall “purpose” of respecting the agreement reached by parties in their contracts. Moldaver J’s approach is much more realistic than the minority’s approach, which chooses the “access to justice” purpose as the “overall purpose”—with no justification other than, apparently, judicial fiat. Moldaver J’s approach recognizes that there are other purposes of the statute at play. This is not textualism.
That said, Moldaver J’s approach does recognize that purposes do not exist in the abstract. They must be tied to statutory means. What is relevant is not the court’s appreciation of what access to justice means, but what the legislature thinks it means, and the words the legislature used to represent that idea. And that legislative instantiation is existent in the Arbitration Act and Consumer Protection Act, working in pari materia. As Moldaver J noted, the Ontario regime is focused on permitting access to justice for “consumers,” by allowing them to pursue claims in court. When we are talking about business customers, though, the legislation does not speak in abstract terms about access to justice writ large–the Arbitration Act has defined means to grant a partial stay, not means to refuse to grant a stay. It pursues the goal with limited means, in conjunction with other fairly discernible statutory purposes. Abella and Karakatsanis JJ—poets, apparently—say that “a provision must be assessed in all its textures — language, purpose, effect — to prevent the suffocation of its meaning by a technical literal reading of the words” . But here, poetry suffocated prose, because the language of the statute works in symbiosis with purpose. Purpose does not override text. And in this respect, to my knowledge, it is not hornbook law that the Canadian approach is “intentionalist,” as Abella and Karakatsanis JJ say , understood in the sense that intentions should override text. Intentionalism would mean taking a psychologist’s armchair and determining what a legislator meant to say; not what was said.
This makes sense from a democratic perspective. Legislators, in their heads, may think of purposes when they enact laws. These purposes may range from “the public good,” on one hand, to minute, technical considerations on the other. Because a court cannot discern which purpose ended up becoming law, we have to think about what the best evidence of the law could be in the circumstances. Usually, text is that best evidence. While it is not always definitive and clear—because language is not always definitive and clear—it is better than unexpressed intentions or abstract, tangential purposes.
I want to raise a final note about the use of legislative history. Both sides of the case relied on different aspects of the legislative history to support their particular interpretation. Because various statements existing in the legislative history are not ranked by importance, it is difficult for any court or observer to put more or less weight on various statements. So, like Judge Leventhal once said, legislative history is like looking over a crowd and picking out your friends. A judge predisposed to one interpretation will use legislative history to support his own view of the matter. If we are going to allow legislative history to be a valid part of statutory interpretation, it should only be relied on with severe caution, as an afterthought, and with the idea that its probative value is exceedingly low.
Notwithstanding the quibble about legislative history, Moldaver J’s opinion is worthy of note because it finally recognizes that judges, under the guise of judicially divined “purposes,” cannot override a contextual interpretation of the text. The text is what the legislature enacted. It should govern.