The constitutionality of a regime of deference is not something much explored in the wider context of Canadian administrative law. But in Quebec, the question is a live one because of particular statutory and judicial arrangements. The Quebec Court of Appeal just released a case [the Reference] that dealt with the question head on: does a statutory court’s statutory review of administrative decision-makers become unconstitutional if that court is required to apply principles of deference?
In this post, I first review the set-up of the Court of Quebec and its relationship with various statutes that nourish it with appellate review power. Then I address the controversy surrounding the way the Court is arranged. I argue that deference in these circumstances is, indeed, unconstitutional based on first principles. It deprives the Superior Court of Quebec of a core element of its jurisdiction—its ability to review, without impediment, inferior tribunals. But I argue that there is a way around the constitutional problem. Courts should begin to recognize, and give full effect, to statutory rights of appeal as elements of legislative intent. Doing so largely eliminates deference questions and is more aligned with the task of judicial review: to discover what the legislature means when it delegates power.
The Court of Quebec, Established Law, and the Quebec Court of Appeal’s Conclusion
The Court of Quebec is a statutory court. It has been given, through a number of statutes, appellate review jurisdiction over a number of administrative tribunals in the province of Quebec. This is a key point that I will return to later: appellate, statutory review jurisdiction should be fundamentally different from an application for judicial review.
In the reference before the Court of Appeal, the chief justices of the Superior Court challenged eight separate legislative schemes that provide for appeals to the Court of Quebec. Their challenge was based on s.96 of the Constitution Act 1867, which, among other things, guarantees a core jurisdiction for the superior courts of the provinces. The challenge concerned not the establishment of a statutory court/tribunal per se (which has typified the jurisprudence around s.96), but the requirement imposed doctrinally that the Court of Quebec must apply principles of judicial deference when they review the decisions—via statutory appeal—of administrative decision-makers.
Administrative law buffs might immediately recoil at the argument, because the Supreme Court has long made clear that judicial review principles apply regardless of whether a case comes to the court via an application for judicial review or statutory rights of appeal (see Dr. Q, at para 20; Saguenay, at para 38). The Court has even held, with respect to the Court of Quebec, that it is required to apply principles of judicial deference (Proprio Direct, at paras 19-21). But recall that this argument is constitutional in nature—that the status of the Court of Quebec, coupled with the requirement of deference, runs afoul of the protections afforded in s.96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 for superior courts. This is a unique argument because it is both the jurisprudential requirement of deference and the Court of Quebec’s statutory status which, together, create an alleged unconstitutional effect.
The Quebec Court of Appeal, though, rejected this argument in whole. It held (1) that the Court of Quebec must apply common law principles, with Dunsmuir standards of review as the governing tests (see para 280); and (2) although there was a transfer of authority to the Court of Quebec that, at first glance, usurps the Superior Court’s s.96 role, this was insufficient to cause a s.96 problem, because “…all of these legislative schemes maintain the Superior Court’s superintending and reforming power” (324). In other words, there was no privative clause ousting the Superior Court’s power on “jurisdiction,” even if the Court of Quebec was to apply deferential principles of review. Since what was envisioned was not an exclusive transfer of jurisdiction (as exemplified in the s.96 cases, see MacMillan Bloedel), there was no constitutional problem.
Avoiding the Constitutional Problem: Statutory Rights of Appeal
In my view, and putting aside for the moment the constitutional concerns, whether the Quebec Court of Appeal got this right is dependent on how one characterizes a statutory right of appeal. If a statutory right of appeal is characterized as a legislative signal for a reviewing court—even a statutory court like the Court of Quebec— to simply apply the ordinary principles applicable on appeal, what basis is there for a court to apply the principles of deference? It is only by accepting that the common law principles of judicial review override clear statutory signals that we get into this problem of constitutionality, at least in the context of this case.
As noted above, though, the Court has been content to permit uniformity in the way courts review administrative decision-makers, through the application of the typical common law tests. In a variety of contexts, the Court has either treated statutory rights of appeal as non-determinative (see Pezim, at 591 and Southam, at para 54) or has specifically said that the common law principles of judicial deference apply, even in the face of a clear legislative regime governing a statutory court (Khosa, at para 25).
While the Quebec Court of Appeal rightly followed this jurisprudence, it seems to me completely wrong in principle. Under no circumstances should common law principles of judicial review apply if the legislature has specified, in the relevant statutes, a right of appeal to a statutory “court of justice” (see para 363). This is because a statutory right of appeal is an implicit legislative signal that, on questions of law, the statutory court should simply intervene in a lower administrative decision as it sees fit. Statutory rights of appeal stand for this proposition unless they contain some wording that would imply deference, or unless there are other signals in the statute, like a privative clause. Forcing these courts to apply common law principles of judicial review ignores this implicit legislative signal.
What’s more, the theoretical underpinnings of the Supreme Court’s maintenance of the common law rule are wanting. The basic point is that the very act of delegation to (apparently) “specialized” and “expert” administrative tribunals justifies deference. But there are two problems with this justification. On one hand, it is completely unjustified to impute a legislative intent of deference to the legislature when it merely delegates power. The reasons why a legislature delegates power are many, but there is no evidence to assume that it does so because it wants the decision-maker to receive deference. Why should courts assume so? Secondly, the across-the-board expertise presumption is not necessarily empirical true. In this sense, it is a classic overbroad rule.
This conclusion was forcefully expressed by Rothstein J in Khosa. In that context, the Supreme Court majority held that the ordinary principles of judicial review apply when the Federal Court reviews decisions of federal decision-makers. But the Court gave no effect to the Federal Courts Act, which establishes certain grounds of review that could also be said to imply standards of review (see s.18.1(4)). Rothstein J noted that “a common law standard of review analysis is not necessary where the legislature has provided for standards of review” (Khosa, at para 99). Instead, where the legislature has done so, the common law idea of deference melts away. It is for the legislature to evaluate expertise, and include a privative clause, if it sees fit to mandate deference; it is not for the court to simply override legislative language in service of some court-created ideal of deference.
Rothstein J’s position is on better footing. Rather than buying into the expertise presumption, and the subversion of the relationship between common and statutory law that it creates, his position expresses support for the typical relationship between these two types of law; statutory law takes priority over the common law. It is for the legislature to prescribe the relevant standard of review. And in the context of the Court of Quebec—at least the relevant statutes in the case—the legislature has. Of the eight statutes at play in the Quebec case, all of them contain a statutory right of appeal. Some even contain language specifying that “The Court can confirm, alter or quash any decision submitted to it and render the decision which it considers should have been rendered in first instance (see para 217; s.175 of the Professional Code). This is strong, “correctness”-type language. Even in absence of such language, a statutory right of appeal ousts the common law rule of deference, and removes any constitutional doubt from the issue. In each case of a statutory right of appeal, it is a sign that deference should not be the modus operandi.
Addressing the Constitutional Problem: The Core of Judicial Review
But, whether or not my preferred position is adopted, there could still be cases where deference arises—either by legislative language or judicially imposed doctrines. In such a case, was the Quebec Court of Appeal right to hold that there is no constitutional problem with deference?
In my view, it was not. The starting point is the Supreme Court’s comment in MacMillan Bloedel that it is not permissible for the legislature to remove any “core” powers of the superior courts in the provinces (MacMillan Bloedel, at para 37). As the Court noted, “ [d]estroying part of the core jurisdiction would be tantamount to abolishing the superior courts of general jurisdiction.” Therefore, even abolishing part of the core jurisdiction is tantamount to destroying it all, according to the Supreme Court. This conclusion was cited by the Quebec Court of Appeal (at para 46).
What is protected in the core jurisdiction? For our purposes, as the Quebec Court of Appeal noted, “the exercise of a superintending and reforming power over the provincial courts of inferior jurisdiction and provincial public bodies” is part of the core (at para 45, citing MacMillan Blodel at paras 34 and 35). This is an aspect of the core jurisdiction which can never be removed—even in part. Yet the effect of asking the Court of Quebec to apply deference is to dilute this reviewing function. As Professor Daly notes in his “Les appels administratifs au Canada” (2015) 93 Canadian Bar Review 71:
This power of the Superior Court to correct certain types of illegalities committed by inferior tribunals in the exercise of their jurisdiction was an integral part of the Court’s supervisory authority as it existed in 1867; it is therefore clear that such control power cannot be validly transferred by the Legislature from the Superior Court to a court that is not comprised within the enumeration contained in s. 96 of the B.N.A. Act.
Attorney General (Que.) et al. v. Farrah  2 SCR 638 at p. 654. See similarly Séminaire de Chicoutimi v. City of Chicoutimi, 1972 CanLII 153 (SCC),  S.C.R. 681.
The requirement of deference significantly dilutes this role, to the point where the core power of the superior court is imperiled. This is because of a “double deference” problem, as Professor Daly argues. The Court of Quebec will apply deference to the administrative tribunal’s legal findings. Then, the Superior Court will defer to the Court of Quebec. When the Superior Court defers, though, it simply asks whether the Court of Quebec’s decisions is reasonable or not. It does not get a first instance glimpse of the legality of the decision. This double deference problem significantly limits, if not fundamentally changes, the task of the Superior Court.
The Court in the Reference responds to this problem by saying that:
[W]hen the Superior Court hears an application for judicial review of a judgment of the Court of Quebec, it must begin by focusing on the administrative decision in order to first determine whether the Court of Quebec identified the appropriate standard (which, in Superior Court, is a question of law subject to the correctness standard, and then determine whether it applied the standard properly. Thus, strictly speaking, the judgment of the Court of Quebec is set to one side and the impugned administrative decision is the one under review.
This might solve the double deference problem, but it creates a whole other issue: it deprives the Court of Quebec of the appellate jurisdiction that the legislature intended it to have (see Professor Daly’s post here). Now, the Court of Quebec’s ruling is set aside. Here again is another example of courts failing to respect legislative intent.
This is a less-than-ideal solution to the constitutional problem of double-deference.
This is a complex case, and my views are necessarily tentative. But I think, in the first place, that the constitutional problem can be avoided in many cases by simply giving effect to the appellate jurisdiction that the legislature granted to the Court of Quebec. In cases where the problem does arise, I think the Quebec Court of Appeal’s solution to the problem is less than ideal, because it again ignores legislative intent.