Not Good Enough

The Supreme Court re-writes the law of judicial review in Canada, but not nearly well enough.

In a return to its sometime tradition of releasing high-profile decisions in the run-up to Christmas, the Supreme Court yesterday rendered its long-awaited judgment in the Great Administrative Law Do-Over, Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65. Co-blogger Mark Mancini has already written about it, but while his post is very good, I disagree with him, and with the Court’s majority, on a number of fundamental issues. Hence the need for this post. In my view, while well-intentioned and an improvement on the status quo, the majority opinion (jointly authored, ostensibly, by the Chief Justice and Justices Moldaver, Gascon, Brown, Côté, Rowe, and Martin) rests on weak theoretical foundations, and is open to future manipulation by courts that do not share its spirit or find it inconvenient in a given case.


The majority holds that when the courts review decisions made by decision-makers in the executive branch of government and other bodies acting pursuant to authority delegated by statute (for example municipal institutions, professional regulators, etc), there is “a presumption that reasonableness is the applicable standard in all cases. Reviewing courts should derogate from this presumption only where required by a clear indication of legislative intent or by the rule of law.” [10] (The presumption also doesn’t apply for issues having to do with the fairness of the procedure followed by the decision-maker.) The majority explains that “[r]easonableness review … finds its starting point in the principle of judicial restraint and demonstrates a respect for the distinct role of administrative decision makers”, [13] but nevertheless goes on to point to a number of “constraints” on administrative decision-makers that such review must enforce, thus ensuring, in the majority’s view, that they do not exceed the bounds of the authority delegated to them.

The presumption of reasonableness applies to most questions of law that administrative decision-makers must resolve. According to the majority, this is because

[w]here a legislature has created an administrative decision maker for the specific purpose of administering a statutory scheme, it must be presumed that the legislature also intended that decision maker to be able to fulfill its mandate and interpret the law as applicable to all issues that come before it. Where a legislature has not explicitly prescribed that a court is to have a role in reviewing the decisions of that decision maker, it can safely be assumed that the legislature intended the administrative decision maker to function with a minimum of judicial interference. [24]

Conversely, however, a legislature might in fact have “prescribed that a court is to have a role in reviewing” administrative decisions, either by legislating a specific standard of review or by providing a statutory right of appeal from these decisions (rather than relying on the background constitutional requirement that judicial review of administrative decisions be available). In such cases, its prescription is to be obeyed. The standard of review on appeal from an administrative decision is to be the same as on appeal from the decision of a court, which means that, on questions of law, decisions are reviewed for correctness, rather than reasonableness.

The other cases where the correctness standard will be applied are those where it is required by the principle of the Rule of Law, which according to the majority are questions of constitutional validity, “general questions of law of central importance to the legal system as a whole”, and questions of jurisdictional conflict between two administrative decision-makers. The first category remains as it was prior to Vavilov. In particular, the majority pointedly refuses to comment on the implications of its decision for the line of cases originating in Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395, which have urged deference to administrative decisions applying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to particular disputes (as opposed to the validity of legislative provisions). By contrast, the second category expands, because it was previously supposed to limited to cases outside the administrative decision-maker’s expertise. Here and elsewhere, the majority rejects the role of expertise in determining the standard of review. (More on this below.) The majority also holds, however, that the Rule of Law does not require jurisdictional questions to be reviewed on a correctness standard.

With reasonableness thus asserted as the presumptive and dominant standard of review, the majority goes on to explain what it means. In cases where reasons are given by the administrative decision-maker, these become the focus of the analysis, which must be concerned not only with the outcome the decision-maker reached, but also with the reasoning process that led to it. The reasons must be read in context, however (notably “in light of the record” [96]). At this stage, contextual elements excised from the initial standard of review analysis, such as expertise, re-appear. While the majority insists that “reasonableness remains a single standard”, [89] of review, it also seeks to

account[] for the diversity of administrative decision making by recognizing that what is reasonable in a given situation will always depend on the constraints imposed by the legal and factual context of the particular decision under review. These contextual constraints dictate the limits and contours of the space in which the decision maker may act and the types of solutions it may adopt. [90]

In any case, however, the majority emphasizes the importance of the justification for the administrative decision being apparent from the reasons (and perhaps record) that support it. The justification cannot simply be added later, on judicial review.

The majority suggests that there are two main ways in which an administrative decision can be so flawed as to deserve to be qualified as unreasonable: “a failure of rationality internal to the reasoning process”, or “a decision … in some respect untenable in light of the relevant factual and legal constraints that bear on it”. [101] The first category points to requirements of logic and coherence. The second, to the principle that “[e]lements of the legal and factual contexts of a decision operate as constraints on the decision maker in the exercise of its delegated powers”. [105] These include, but are not limited to,

the governing statutory scheme; other relevant statutory or common law; the principles of statutory interpretation; the evidence before the decision maker and facts of which the decision maker may take notice; the submissions of the parties; the past practices and decisions of the administrative body; and the potential impact of the decision on the individual to whom it applies. [106]

Without fully summarizing the majority’s explanations of these points, I will note that it insists that administrative interpretations of law must not be permitted to “disregard or rewrite the law as enacted by Parliament and the provincial legislatures”. [108] The discretion permitted by these laws might be narrow in some cases and broad in others, but never unlimited: “[r]easonableness review does not allow administrative decision makers to arrogate powers to themselves that they were never intended to have, and an administrative body cannot exercise authority which was not delegated to it”. [109] Moreover, administrative decision-makers, no less than courts, are required to follow the “modern principle of statutory interpretation”, because

[t]hose who draft and enact statutes expect that questions about their meaning will be resolved by an analysis that has regard to the text, context and purpose, regardless of whether the entity tasked with interpreting the law is a court or an administrative decision maker. [118]

At the same time, the majority insists that reasonableness review on questions of law remains deferential; indeed it is no different from review “reviewing questions of fact, discretion or policy”, [115] and one should not expect “administrative decision makers … to apply equitable and common law principles in the same manner as courts in order for their decisions to be reasonable”. [113] Even “questions relating to the scope of a decision maker’s authority may support more than one interpretation”, [110] although this will not always be so.


To repeat, I do not share the widespread view that the majority opinion represents a great achievement for Canadian administrative law. To me, it is a dubious compromise that can and likely will be applied in contradictory ways. Justice Stratas has compared Canadian administrative law to “a never-ending construction site where one crew builds structures and then a later crew tears them down to build anew, seemingly without an overall plan”. (1) The latest structure is built on theoretical sand, and I would not bet on its long-term stability.

Most fundamentally, the majority’s justification for doubling down on the “presumption of reasonableness” that emerged over that last decade is weak. As I explained here, in Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190, the Court had articulated three rationales for deference: legislative intent, the expertise of administrative decision-makers, and the absence of determinable answers to legal questions. The Vavilov majority explicitly repudiates expertise as a justification for judicial deference, and renounces the (always implausible) claim that legal questions always lack determinate answers that courts can discover. It is left with, and doubles down on, legislative intent.

But its understanding of legislative intent is essentially made up. There is no actual evidence that legislatures intend the courts to defer to administrative decision-makers, at least in the absence of privative clauses which often purport to oust judicial review completely, and to which Canadian courts have long refused to give full effect, treating them instead as signals for deference. The majority doesn’t even discuss privative clauses, or any other indications (short of enacting standards of review by statute) that a legislature actually intended the courts to defer, including on questions of law. It just assumes it knows what the legislatures want. Yet legislatures might delegate powers to administrative tribunals for any number of reasons, ranging from a confidence in their technical expertise, to a desire to politicize a particular area of the law, to rank protectionism. It’s far from obvious to me that all of these entail a presumption of deference. Besides, although it commendably chooses to give way to legislative intent in holding that statutory appeals must be treated as, well, appeals, the majority doesn’t quite give up on imposing its own view of statutory language, insisting that section 18.1 of the Federal Courts Act is nothing more than a procedural provision that tells the courts nothing about the standard of review. This perpetuates the misbegotten holding of Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v Khosa, 2009 SCC 12, [2009] 1 SCR 339, which Mark quite understandably listed as one of the worst decisions of the last half-century.

It would be much better to start with non-deferential correctness review as a default, and put the onus on the legislatures to indicate otherwise, ideally by legislation specifically addressing the standard of review or, perhaps, by privative clauses. That’s assuming that such indications are even constitutional, of course. I am yet to be persuaded that this assumption is warranted. I’m not persuaded of the contrary either, but I have my doubts. As I have explained here, Joseph Raz’s analysis of the Rule of Law seems to imply that administrative decision-making must be founded on correct application of stable legal rules by officials and, in order to ensure such correct application, review of their decisions by independent courts. In Vavilov, the majority (rightly, I think) implies that the principle of the Rule of Law can override legislative intent. That’s why constitutional and other centrally important questions trigger correctness review, whatever a legislature’s wishes. But the majority does not give nearly enough consideration to what the Rule of Law requires in the context of judicial review of administrative decisions.

In particular, while pretty much everyone from Justices Abella and Karakatsanis in the concurrence to Mark in his post cheers the abolition of the category of jurisdictional questions, I find it puzzling. Jurisdictional questions are supposed to be hard to identify and therefore a source of unnecessary confusion. Yet the truth is, everyone knows that such questions exist. The Vavilov majority itself mentions “questions relating to the scope of a decision maker’s authority”, [110] which is a plain-language definition of jurisdiction. In the companion case, Bell Canada v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 SCC 66, there was a statutory appeal right “on a question of law or a question of jurisdiction”. The concern really seems to be not so much that questions of jurisdiction are elusive and mysterious, but that, properly understood, this category is much broader than most people are comfortable with. It arguably includes most question of law. But that’s not a reason for pretending such questions don’t exist. If anything, it’s another reason for making correctness the default, if not the sole, standard of review on questions of law. The Rule of Law cannot permit the administrative state to expand its power just because courts shy away from the task of policing its boundaries.

The majority thinks it can address the concerns about the expansion of administrative power to which its embrace of reasonableness review gives rise by providing guidance on what such review requires. And there are genuinely commendable statements there, as Mark has observed. It is good that the majority recognizes, as some recent cases such as West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, [2018] 1 SCR 635 did not, that the powers or discretion of administrative decision-makers cannot be unlimited. It is good that it recognizes, contrary to Dunsmuir, that questions of law can, at least in many cases, be given definitive answers. And it is good that the majority instructs courts to be skeptical of the gaps in administrative decision-makers’ reasons, instead of filling them with “reasons that could be given” in support of their decisions.

I must admit, though, that I am puzzled by the attempt to square this recognition with the insistence on reasonableness review. Back in Dunsmuir, the Supreme Court said

[t]hat Reasonableness is a deferential standard animated by the principle that … certain questions that come before administrative tribunals do not lend themselves to one specific, particular result. Instead, they may give rise to a number of possible, reasonable conclusions. [47]

And of course in Vavilov itself the majority speaks of reasonableness being grounded in judicial restraint, which points to the same understanding of this concept. To me, talk of reasonableness review with only one reasonable outcome is blank prose. But perhaps that’s just an idiosyncratic understanding that I have.

More seriously, in addition to their conceptual problems, I think the reasons of the Vavilov majority contain a number of contradictions that undermine their attempt, if that’s what it is, to confine the excesses of the administrative state. For example, for all its insistence on a “robust” reasonableness review, the majority starts from the position that it is grounded in judicial restraint. Quite apart from my doubts about the usefulness of the term “judicial restraint”, I struggle to see how a standard of review can be robust and restrained at the same time. Or consider the majority’s warning that “[a]dministrative decision makers cannot always be expected to deploy the same array of legal techniques that might be expected of a lawyer or judge” and that “‘[a]dministrative justice’ will not always look like ‘judicial justice'”. [92] This seems to contradict the majority’s acknowledgment, elsewhere in its reasons, that the Rule of Law is undermined when the outcome of a legal dispute depends on the identity of the person resolving it.

Perhaps most fundamentally, the insistence that administrative decision-makers cannot “arrogate powers to themselves that they were never intended to have” [109] is not easily reconciled with the refusal to impose correctness review on jurisdictional questions. The majority holds that, subject to a requirement of justification, “a decision maker’s interpretation of its statutory grant of authority is generally entitled to deference”. [109] To my mind, this means that the administrative state is still the arbiter of its own authority, whenever a legislature fails to use sufficiently precise language ― or where a court thinks that a legislature has so failed.

Much will depend, then, on which strand of the somewhat schizophrenic majority opinion future judges decide to implement when they follow Vavilov. This is, I suppose, the price to pay for cobbling together a seven-judge majority (and getting all seven to not only agree but also sign on to this majority’s reasons), but I’m not sure that the result was worth it.


No doubt, Vavilov is an improvement over the status quo ante. Some of the wildest excesses of judicial deference to the administrative state, for example the refusal to give effect to statutory appeal provisions and the practice of making up reasons not actually given by administrative decision-makers the better to defer to them have been condemned. Some of the theoretical problems of the previous jurisprudence, notably its reliance on a fictional account of administrative expertise, have been overcome.

At the same time, the future is still difficult to predict. For one thing, Vavilov leaves some questions unanswered. For example, its guidance on questions of central importance, a seemingly expanded category of correctness review, doesn’t amount to much more than “you know it when you see it”. Perhaps more importantly, there is contradictory language in the majority opinion that can be pressed in the service of more or less deferential review, and it remains to be seen what future courts will do with it.

And, fundamentally, Vavilov is still unsatisfactory because, like the pre-existing administrative law jurisprudence, it is built on foundations that mix a fictional account of legislative intent with a tendency to favour, if not as much as before, the power of the administrative state at the expense of the judiciary. The responsibility of the courts, which are independent and whose sole commitment is supposed to be to law, not policy-making, to say what the law is is an essential safeguard for freedom and the Rule of Law. By perpetuating judicial abdication, covered up as “restraint” and deference”, in the face of the administrative state, Vavilov fails to live up to the judiciary’s constitutional role.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law and legal philosophy 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.

3 thoughts on “Not Good Enough”

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