Vavilov: A Step Forward

**This post originally appeared on Advocates for the Rule of Law**

Today, the Supreme Court of Canada released its decisions in Vavilov and Bell/NFL. I have previously summarized the facts of these cases and analyzed them here (Vavilov) and here (Bell/NFL).

Overall, today’s decisions (a 7-2 decision, Abella and Karakatsanis JJ concurring in result) are a net positive for the law of judicial review in Canada. The Court has done a service to the many individuals who face administrative power on a daily basis—the real winners of a clear, predictable, and conceptually sound approach. To be honest, I count myself surprised and pleased, which are odd emotions to carry when it comes to the Supreme Court’s administrative law jurisprudence. But on at least three issues, today’s decision is conceptually sound when it comes to selecting the standard of review: statutory rights of appeal, jurisdictional questions and legislative interpretation generally, and expertise. I first describe the new approach before moving to analyze these areas.

The basic takeaway from Vavilov and Bell/NFL is that the standard of review will presumptively be reasonableness across the board [16-17], but the situations in which the presumption will be rebutted take on greater importance than the pre-Vavilov Bell/NFL cases. Start with the presumption of reasonableness. It remains; this is not much of a change from existing jurisprudence, given the entrenchment of that particular rule in pre-Vavilov and Bell/NFL cases: see Edmonton East and CHRC. What is somewhat new are the circumstances in which the presumption will be rebutted. First, because the standard of review analysis is based in the common law, the legislature is free to explicitly legislate the standard of review [17]. But also—and significantly, as I will point out—now statutory rights of appeal will rebut the presumption of reasonableness and attract correctness review on questions of law (under the typical appellate standards of review) [17, 36 et seq]. Finally, where the rule of law requires correctness review—as in constitutional questions, general questions of law of central importance, and boundaries between two or more administrative bodies—the standard will be correctness [17]. Gone is the search for “context” [17], and importantly, gone is that much maligned category of jurisdictional questions [67].

Now, turning to the significant parts of this decision. The first area is statutory rights of appeal. Statutory rights of appeal have previously been considered a big nothingburger from the Supreme Court: see Dr. Q, Saguenay. As I wrote here, this state of affairs was completely unjustified. This is because rights of appeal are implied signals that a legislature intended the judicial review court to interfere with the administrative decision as it would in a normal appeal. This is contrasted with an application for judicial review, where common law standards apply. All of this is a function of the relationship between statutory and common law—statutes override the common law, and so statutory rights of appeal should override the common law standard of presumptive deference. The Court has now recognized this fact, offering the additional reason that the word “appeal” when used in legislation must be interpreted across different statutory contexts consistently [44]. This is a step in the right direction: it corrects the relationship between statute and common law that went awry in the Dr. Q line of cases.

Second, take the issue of jurisdictional questions. In the Dunsmuir era, jurisdictional questions were questions “where the tribunal must explicitly determine whether its statutory grant of power gives it authority to decide a particular matter” (Dunsmuir, at para 59). These questions were to attract correctness review (Dunsmuir, at para 50). No more. The Court has wisely done away this category of correctness review [67]. The Court noted the following:

The arguments that support maintaining this category — in particular the concern that a delegated decision maker should not be free to determine the scope of its own authority — can be addressed adequately by applying the framework for conducting reasonableness review that we describe below. Reasonableness review is both robust and responsive to context. A proper application of the reasonableness standard will enable courts to fulfill their constitutional duty to ensure that administrative bodies have acted within the scope of their lawful authority without having to conduct a preliminary assessment regarding whether a particular interpretation raises a “truly” or “narrowly” jurisdictional issue and without having to apply the correctness standard [67].

This is the approach adopted in the US: City of Arlington. And it is the approach I articulated in my paper, Two Myths of Administrative Law. It is a sound approach. All administrative actors are empowered and created by statute. In turn, the relationship between courts and administrative actors is also regulated by the degree of deference that the legislature prescribes. This is true on all questions that might come before a court—including cases that raise so-called “jurisdictional issues.” In other words, even assuming one can identify a jurisdictional question—a feat the Supreme Court has rarely been able to accomplish—there is no warrant to impose a less deferential standard if the legislature has signalled that it prefers a more deferential one on these questions. As Stratas JA pointed out in Access Copyright, a jurisdictional question “is really a question of legislative interpretation” (Access Copyright, at para 57). Here, again, the Court takes seriously the statutory basis of all administrative law, choosing to do away with a category of question that might undermine that basis.

In relation to questions of legislative interpretation, the Court does an admirable job. In applying the standard of reasonableness, the Court recognizes, first, that all administrative actors are creatures of statute [108]. This means that there is no constitutional aspect to the administrative state–decision-makers can only exercise powers delegated to them. The Court goes on to recognize that the degree of deference owed is primarily–but not totally–a function of statutory interpretation [110]. The Court notes that:

Whether an interpretation is justified will depend on the context, including the language chosen by the legislature in describing the limits and contours of the decision maker’s authority. If a legislature wishes to precisely circumscribe an administrative decision maker’s power in some respect, it can do so by using precise and narrow language and delineating the power in detail, thereby tightly constraining the decision maker’s ability to interpret the provision. Conversely, where the legislature chooses to use broad, open-ended or highly qualitative language — for example, “in the public interest” — it clearly contemplates that the decision maker is to have greater flexibility in interpreting the meaning of such language. Other language will fall in the middle of this spectrum. All of this is to say that certain questions relating to the scope of a decision maker’s authority may support more than one interpretation, while other questions may support only one, depending upon the text by which the statutory grant of authority is made.

This is a justified approach, given that all administrative actors are creatures of statute. Determining the scope of deference owed need not depend on metaphysical categories like “jurisdictional questions.” It is simply a function of determining the scope of power afforded to a decision-maker using the ordinary principles of interpretation [117]. This is a wise move that is conceptually sound and will bring greater clarity to the law.

Finally, I want to say something about the idea of expertise, which divided the majority and the concurrence in Vavilov. As I have written before, expertise is an inherently difficult idea in administrative law. The Court has taken an extreme position on expertise, holding in Edmonton East that expertise inheres in a tribunal as an “institution” (Edmonton East, para 33). But expertise is not necessarily a legal reason for deference—for example, a legislature could delegate to an inexpert tribunal just as easily as it can delegate to an expert one. The presumption of deference—based as it is on expertise—is therefore overbroad and unjustified.

The Court tacitly recognizes this in Vavilov. It notes that expertise is no longer a free-standing reason to justify deference in determining the standard of review [31]. This is partially because “if administrative decision makers are understood to possess specialized expertise on all questions that come before them, the concept of expertise ceases to assist a reviewing court in attempting to distinguish questions for which applying the reasonableness standard is appropriate from those for which it is not” [28]. And this is basically right. We cannot simply assume expertise.

The concurrence takes significant issue with this, and more generally the majority’s reasons. To the concurrence, the majority “ignores the specialized expertise of administrative decision-makers” [230]; “affords no weight to the institutional advantage of specialization and expertise that administrative decision-makers possess in resolving questions of law” [236]; and empowers reviewing courts to “freely revisit legal questions on matters squarely within the expertise of administrative decision-makers…” [251].

The death cries for expertise are unconvincing. As the majority noted, there may be situations in which decision-makers are inexpert. But courts cannot conduct a case-by-case analysis of expertise in each case. So, the best way to deal with expertise is to simply do away with it as a legal reason for deference, as far as selecting the standard of review. As the majority notes, expertise could play a role in the application of the reasonableness standard, especially in the process of reasons giving [93].

I want to briefly deal with one issue raised by the concurrence: the issue of the Rule of Law. The dissent says that “[t]he majority’s approach to the rule of law, however, flows from a court-centric conception of the rule of law rooted in Dicey’s 19th century philosophy” [240]. But this attack misses the mark. Judicial review, the cornerstone of these appeals, is fundamentally about courts reviewing administrative decision-making under the Rule of Law; it is about policing the boundaries of delegated power to ensure its legality (Wall, at para 13). This necessarily implies a hierarchical relationship between courts and decision-makers. It is the preserve of courts to ensure that administrative decision-makers follow statutory rules. The Court recognizes this in its analysis of jurisdictional questions, endorsing Scalia J in Arlington [68]. This is especially so when dealing with the Constitution, as the judiciary is the guardian of the Constitution. Correctness review in those circumstances protects the court’s role in ensuring that individuals are protected against administrative power. The Court has now recognized this, at least implicitly, as an organizing principle of administrative law.

Overall, as I mentioned above, this is a good decision all around. And more could be said about it, especially on the application of the reasonableness standard and the role of reasons. But I think that, for now, administrative law watchers in Canada can breathe a sigh of relief.

Author: Mark Mancini

I am a graduate of the University of New Brunswick Faculty of Law (JD) and the University of Chicago Law School (LLM). I am the National Director of the Runnymede Society, a national law student organization dedicated to debate on issues relating to the Rule of Law, constitutionalism, and individual liberty. I clerked at the Federal Court for Justice Ann Marie McDonald. I have interests in administrative law broadly, with specific interests in substantive review of administrative interpretations of law. I am also interested in law and economics. Any views expressed on Double Aspect are mine, and do not represent the views of the Runnymede Society.

5 thoughts on “Vavilov: A Step Forward”

  1. You say in passing that the decisions support the proposition that “there is no constitutional basis to the administrative state.” Given that there has been a lot of ink spilled on this point over the last decades, and given that various commentators have argued precisely the opposite, I would be interested in an expanded analysis that engages with those scholars who take the opposite view. Can the argument that the administrative state has constitutional status be rejected simply by referencing the statutory foundation of executive power, or is a more nuanced response required?
    I am not defending the constitutional status position, but I am interested in some more detailed consideration rather than a quick aside on this important point in the context of these important decisions.

    1. Unfortunately, that must be the subject of an entirely different post. This post was meant as a very quick response to Vavilov. Thanks for the comment, and I enjoyed your recent paper on delegation–I have one of my own coming out in the spring.

  2. I don’t disagree with you that the framework in this decision is conceptually and intellectually appealing, but setting admin law issues aside, I find the approach taken by the court here terrifying from a rule of law perspective.
    There is absolutely no respect for stare decisis in the majority decision. This is not at all like Dunsmuir’s approach to reform — Vavilov is a “year zero” reimagining of administrative law, tossing away virtually every precedent regarding reasonableness from the last fifty years for situations where there is a statutory right of appeal. There are going to be significant and as yet unknowable implications for resourcing the justice system as the courts assume the correctness mantle in more situations.
    There’s nothing unique about the Vavilov case that could possibly justify the Supreme Court deciding to take the initiative and adopt such an activist position, performing the function of what would normally be reserved for a law reform commission, and out of their own initiative. Like many revolutionary “year zero” movements, I can see how the simplicity of this new framework is likely to appeal to intellectuals and academics, but like other “year zero” style revolutionary reforms, it will have serious practical consequences that would have been more suited for a law reform commission, as appeals from administrative tribunals become more likely. And like other exercises of judicial power, once the Court begins asserting a right to wholesale rejection of stare decisis, it’s likely to do so again in other areas of law. This is something other than the traditional rule of law.

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