How far can an administrative agency go before it fetters its decision-making discretion? This is an important practical question. On one hand, the Federal Court of Appeal has recognized that agencies can issue guidelines—even in absence of any legislative authorization to do so (Thamotharem, at para 56), in part because agencies are masters in their own house (Prassad, at 568-569). One might argue that such a power is important and necessary for good government. But on the other hand, agencies cannot bind their own decision-makers through non-legal, non-binding policy guidelines—this impinges on the necessity, at common law, for decision-makers to exercise their functions independently. How do we square this impossible circle? How does independence—central to the Rule of Law, subject to statutory constraints—govern the efficiency of the administrative state?
The case of CARL v Canada, a recent Federal Court case, attempts to address this problem. In this post, I first address the issue at play in CARL. Then I address implications of the decision for good administration. Specifically, I argue that the Parliament should resile from broad-based delegations that empower decision-makers to issue guidelines; instead, these delegations, in order to respect the common law principle of independence, should clearly delineate when and where it is appropriate for decision-makers to bind themselves. The desire should be for more specificity in delegation.
CARL involved a challenge by the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL) against four so-called “jurisprudential guides” [JG] issued by the Chairperson of the Immigration and Refugee Board [the Board], purporting to guide other members of the Board. Under s.159(1)(h) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act [IRPA], Parliament has authorized the Chairperson of the Board to issue JGs, which are guidelines based on model decisions by other decision-makers on the IRB. CARL challenged four JGs (Nigeria, Pakistan, India, and China) on different grounds, only one of which is relevant for us here: “Do the impugned JGs unlawfully fetter Board members’ discretion and improperly encroach upon their adjudicative independence?” (para 55).
After concluding that the JGs in question permissibly specify issues of fact for decision-makers to consider, the Federal Court turned to the main issue of fettering. The Court, after considering the principle of adjudicative independence at common law (there was no Ocean Port argument about statutory ousting; see para 147), started the analysis by stating that there was no authority which permitted a decision-maker “to issue a JG or other “soft law” instrument that constrains the complete freedom of quasi-judicial decision-makers to make their own factual determinations, free from pressure or inducement from others” (102). The Court distinguished this sort of guideline from other situations, such as where a Minister issued his own policy guidelines (see Maple Lodge), and a situation where an adjudicative decision-maker bound itself as to its own procedures (Thamotharem).
The question of whether a guideline impermissibly fetters the discretion of a decision-maker turns on a basic distinction; whether a guideline purports to specify factual circumstances beyond the circumstances before a decision-maker (see para 172). It is fair game, in other words, for a guideline to set out general considerations that a decision-maker should undertake. It is not fair game for guidelines to impose “…an expectation that factual conclusions will be adopted or a requirement to provide reasoned justification as to why such conclusions were not adopted” (see para 150). A lack of indication in a guideline, for example, that each case should be judged on its own merits could be a significant problem (para 139). On the basis of these principles, the Court found that three of the four JGs presented a fettering problem.
One might say that this case is largely a run-of-the-mill, administrative law case. One could be right. But normal cases sometimes present an opportunity to grapple with difficult and fundamental issues in administrative law. On that front, there are two main issues that this case raises: (1) the proper balance between administrative efficiency and Rule of Law concerns and (2) the specificity of Parliamentary delegation on these issues.
In my view, the Court in CARL basically outlines the correct principle at the outset when it said that
As far as factual determinations are concerned, the principle that “s/he who hears must decide” is sacrosanct. It is a fundamental pillar of the rule of law. It cannot be sacrificed on the altar of achieving greater consistency and efficiency in administrative decision-making (at para 1).
In absence of statutory ousting, the Court is absolutely correct—independence is an important virtue, connected to the Rule of Law. Where statutes are truly ambiguous, the courts should guard against encroachments on the principle of independence which at common law is extended to administrative decision-makers (see Matsqui). This is because of the Rule of Law itself. For example, Joseph Raz argued in his “The Rule of Law and its Virtue” that an independent judiciary is an integral component of the Rule of Law. It is impossible for all to be subjected equally to the law if the arbiter of the law is not separated from all the parties in front of it. This has particular resonance in administrative law. If an administrative decision-maker is to administer the law through delegated power, it should remain separate and apart from its controller, a particular executive actor. This is all subject, of course, to statutory constraint; the principle of parliamentary sovereignty takes priority over common law independence.
This seems easy enough in the abstract. But the problem becomes more difficult when we are speaking about when administrative decision-makers themselves purport to bind their own discretion in the name of efficiency. Here, the Court’s concern is right on point. The delegation of power to agencies is motivated, in large part, by efficiency concerns. The argument runs something like this: Parliament cannot make, and the executive cannot administer, all of the law required to run a country at any particular point; so Parliament delegates power away to do these things to so-called expert tribunals to take advantage of their expertise, and so that the laws can be administered and made efficiently in order to keep up with modern necessities. I have significant problems with this traditional story, but let us assume it is true. The delegation of power to publish JGs is important from an efficiency perspective, because it creates economies of scale. These economies of scale are particularly directed towards issues of fact, which might arise across factual contexts—this is true with regard to refugee determinations, where the same conditions and facts may frequently arise in relation to specific countries. Those who might view administrative decision-makers as repositories of expert efficiency could say that the frequent issuance of JGs under appropriately delegated authority is highly desirable. The creation of economies of scale in the administrative state—a foundational principle of efficiency—is exactly what we expect from administrative decision-makers.
But the cost of efficiency could come against the judicial independence component of the Rule of Law. If, in the name of efficiency, administrative decision-makers purport to limit the right of individuals to a common law, independent decision-maker, it is clear that the administrative efficiency concern must give way. In this sense, there is no real balance to be had between efficiency and independence. Independence must govern, absent a statute saying otherwise. Experts should be on tap, not on top.
This is particularly true in refugee contexts. Refugee determinations are not a place to experiment with economies of scale. These determinations must be based on the inherent qualities of a refugee claimant’s circumstances. It is an individual assessment. In that context, independence takes on even greater importance. Attempting to completely stultify that process through internal guidelines is profoundly corrosive of a refugee’s right to determination on the facts.
This relates to the second concern. When Parliament delegates power to create JGs in s.159(1)(h), it does so in capacious and ambiguous language:
s.159(1) The Chairperson is, by virtue of holding that office, a member of each Division of the Board and is the chief executive officer of the Board. In that capacity, the Chairperson
(h) may issue guidelines in writing to members of the Board and identify decisions of the Board as jurisprudential guides, after consulting with the Deputy Chairpersons, to assist members in carrying out their duties.
Such a delegation illustrates the broader point about efficiency that characterizes the act of delegation itself. Parliament saw fit, in this delegation, not to specify the kinds or scope of JGs that would be permissible or impermissible. For example, the Court in CARL had to decide whether JGs could be issued in respect of issues of fact. Further, it is unclear just how far a JG should be able to go, if indeed such an instrument could be used to specify issues of fact. Rather than specifying these matters, the delegation is broad-based, purporting to clothe the Chairperson of the IRB with authority to issue guidelines of any sort. But clearly, such guidelines could be problematic from an independence perspective. These sorts of broad delegations, while lawful and constitutional, are undesirable from a good governance perspective. They fail to adequately state up front the sorts of considerations that decision-makers and courts should take into effect when issuing and reviewing JGs. The failure to do so rests a great deal of authority in administrative decision-makers to issue any number of JGs, with the only control an application for judicial review.
The weight of controlling administrative discretion cannot be borne by the courts alone. Parliament, too, has a role to play in good governance; by issuing clear, legislative rules that bind these decision-makers in the exercise of their authority. The goal of such rules would be to clearly demarcate where common law protections begin and end. Put differently, administrative decision-makers should not be able to, internally, subvert the common law of independence without Parliament’s express imprimatur. Otherwise, the game is rigged from the inside.