Is This Correct?

Should deference be denied to administrative interpretations of laws that implement international human rights?

Gerald Heckman and Amar Khoday have recently posted on SSRN a forthcoming article, due to be published in the Dalhousie Law Review, called “Once More Unto The Breach: Confronting The Standard of Review (Again) and the Imperative of Correctness Review When Interpreting the Scope of Refugee Protection”. As the title suggests, Professors Heckman and Khoday advocate that correctness, rather than reasonableness, be standard used to review questions of law relating to the interpretation of the provision of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) relative to refugees, especially sections 96-98, which implement in Canadian law the requirements of international treaties on the rights of refugees and persons in danger of being subject to torture. Long-time readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that I welcome this pushback against the dogma of reasonableness review. Despite this, I have serious reservations about the argument made by Professors Heckman and Khoday. If its implications are pursued to their logical conclusion, they may swallow the law of judicial review whole. This may not be a bad result, but I would rather that it were brought about differently.

Professors Heckman and Khoday begin by reviewing the existing cases on the standard of review in the refugee protection context. They find that

the Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal are now reviewing decisions involving administrative decision-makers’ interpretation of provisions of the IRPA that implement the basic human rights conferred by international conventions on a reasonableness standard because in their view, the presumption of reasonableness review of these decision-makers’ interpretations of their home statute has not been rebutted. (9-10)

They also note, however, that the Supreme Court, when it has ventured into the immigration and refugee law area, has often conducted searching review, albeit sometimes under the label of reasonableness, which in principle calls for judicial deference to administrative decision-makers. The Federal Court of Appeal too has sometimes remarked that, while the reasonableness standard applies, the range of reasonable outcomes in this area may be very limited, so that there is little to choose from between reasonableness and correctness.

Professors Heckman and Khoday disagree. They are concerned that deferential review opens the door to inconsistent decisions behind upheld as reasonable. In their opinion, this is intolerable: “[t]he scope of universal protections” embodied in IRPA’s provisions “cannot depend on whether a refugee claimant has the good fortune of having her claim decided by an adjudicator who happens to subscribe to” a view of those provisions that is favourable to her case instead of a different “yet equally reasonable alternative interpretation”. (22) And while “disguised correctness review” would help avoid this problem, it is not principled or transparent.

Intead, Professors Heckman and Khoday insist that

a non-deferential approach to judicial review is required for questions of law arising from administrative decision-makers’ interpretation of statutory provisions that serve to implement human rights conferred in international conventions that bind Canada (11)

After all, non-deferential correctness review is still supposed to be applied to questions of central importance to the legal system ― and, according to Professors Heckman and Khoday, the interpretation of statutory provisions that give effect to Canada’s commitments under international human rights law belong to this category. This is both because of the importance of the substantive interests at stake for refugee claimants and because, due to their “proclaimed universality”, “basic international human rights” must receive a uniform interpretation. (13) Indeed, “[t]he provisions of an international convention defining the scope of basic human rights protections can only have one true meaning”. (22)

Professors Heckman and Khoday add that there is a multitude of decision-makers who may be involved in deciding questions involving the interpretation of the IRPA‘s refugee-related provisions; that most of them are not legally-trained; and that Parliament itself has recognized, in section 74(d) of the IRPA, the existence of “serious question[s] of general importance” in this area. These reasons too suggest that courts should see to it that the IRPA‘s provisions receive a uniform, and legally correct, interpretation. And, they argue, if the Supreme Court will not do so, then Parliament should intervene and legislate correctness review for questions of law arising out of the application of the IRPA‘s refugee-protection provisions.


One way to read Professors Heckman and Khoday’s article is as a recognition of the dark, repressive side of the administrative state. Contrary to a certain progressive mythology, in whose thrall we still live, as co-blogger Mark Mancini recently observed here, the administrative state doesn’t only consist of benevolent and beneficent technocrats, rainbows, and unicorns. As I wrote in my contribution to last year’s Dunsmuir Decade symposium, we must

recall what is at stake in judicial review of administrative decisions. Proponents of deference often think of it as a means of protecting the decisions of an administrative state devoted to economic regulation in the name of social justice, or at least of enlightened technocracy. But there is much more to the administrative state economic than labour boards or arbitrators, whose decisions supply a disproportionate share of material for the Supreme Court’s administrative law decisions. The law of judicial review of administrative action applies also to the review of correctional authorities, professional licensing bodies, immigration officers, human rights tribunals, even universities and municipalities, and much else besides. People’s ability to enjoy their property or to practice their profession, their right to enter into or to remain in Canada, even their liberty … can depend on the way in which an official or a body exercising powers (purportedly) delegated by a legislature interpret the law. 

I asked, then, whether “[i]s it enough to tell” people whom the state is about to deprive of these important rights or interests, that this deprivation rests on a legal interpretation that is “justified, transparent, and intelligible” ― but doesn’t have to be correct. Professors Heckman and Khoday say that, at least as to refugee claimants, the answer is “no”. I certainly make no objection to that, and I would welcome similar blows being aimed at as many of the other heads of the administrative hydra as possible. If anything, I think it is too bad that Professors Heckman and Khoday don’t say much about this broader context.

Now, of course there is nothing wrong with an article such as theirs concentrating on the inadequacy of deferential review in just one area. But the trouble with the approach taken by Professors Heckman and Khoday is that, although they do not say so, it reaches very far indeed. If the fact that a Canadian law implements some supposedly important right under international law must mean that this law has “one true meaning” that must be ascertained and enforced by the courts, then reasonableness review of administrative decisions is an endangered species, perhaps critically so.

It’s not just the bureaucrats who administer refugee law and the human rights tribunals, which Professors Heckman and Khoday briefly mention, who will lose the benefit of deference. It’s the correctional authorities, since Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that “[a]ll persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person” and, further, that “[t]he penitentiary system shall comprise treatment of prisoners the essential aim of which shall be their reformation and social rehabilitation”. It’s labour boards of all sorts, since the right to join labour unions is protected by Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as provisions of both the ICCPR and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); the latter specifically protects the right to strike, too. It’s employment tribunals and arguably various professional licensing bodies, too, since Article 23 also protects “the right to work [and] to free choice of employment”, and the ICESCR includes provisions to the same effect. It’s various social security tribunals, since Article 11 of the ICESCR protects “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living”. It might be the CRTC, since Article 19 of the ICCPR protects “the right to freedom of expression … includ[ing] freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas … through any … media of his choice”. It will even be the Patent and Copyright Offices, since Article 27(2) of the Universal Declaration stipulates that “[e]veryone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author”.

This list is not at all intended as exhaustive ― I’ve put it together after quickly skimming just the three major international human rights documents. There are many others, and they contain rights galore, any number of them reflected, in one way or another, in Canadian law. (I should, perhaps, make it clear that I do not mean to suggest that we should have all the “rights” purportedly recognized in these documents. Some of them, such as the “rights” of organized labour, are pernicious nonsense. But the point is that international law recognizes these things as important rights, and Canada subscribes to this view, however unfortunate this may appear to me personally.)

Of course not all legislation giving effect to these rights draws the connection as explicitly as the IRPA does in the case of its refugee protection provisions. But that shouldn’t matter, I think. Whether Parliament legislates in order to give effect, more or less transparently, to pre-existing international commitments, or the Crown subscribes such commitments on the strength of pre-existing legislation, the issue for Canadian administrative tribunals, and for Canadian courts reviewing these tribunals’ decisions, is how Canadian legislation is to be interpreted (if possible, consistently with Canada’s international obligations). So, to repeat, if follow the approach proposed by Professors Heckman and Khoday, we might have to get rid of deferential judicial review, if not across the board, then at least in many of the cases where it currently applies.

As an outcome, this would not be half bad. My own inclination would be to get rid of deference (almost) everywhere. A recognition that legislation has correct meanings that can and must be established by courts (even though this is, admittedly, not always easy) is most welcome, as I noted here. But if we are to come to this recognition, I would rather that we do in a different way than that suggested by Professors Heckman and Khoday. The existence ― or otherwise ― of legally ascertainable meanings is not, surely, a function of whether a statute reflects or even incorporates an international treaty. If legislative texts can have no meanings, then it’s not clear why treaties would escape this sorry fate; if they can, then treaties are not unique.


Canadian administrative law must change, and change radically, for reasons that have nothing to do with Canada’s commitments under international law ― though it may well be the case that such radical change will make it possible for Canada better to fulfill these commitments. That said, Professors Heckman and Khoday provide a practical illustration of one of the downsides of the status quo. More than this, they help undermine the prevailing assumption of the goodness of the administrative state and the judiciary’s deference to it. For these reasons, theirs is a welcome, if not an entirely compelling, contribution to the standard of review discussion in Canada; it is reasonable, one is tempted to say, if not altogether correct.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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