A Matter of Unwritten Principle

Unwritten constitutional principles have an important, and rightful, place in Canadian constitutional law

The most striking thing, to me anyway, about the symposium on dissents from Supreme Court judgments that this blog hosted over the holidays was the popularity of Justice LaForest’s dissent in the Provincial Judges Reference, [1997] 3 SCR 3. No fewer than five of our contributors mentioned it as one of their top three: Dwight Newman, Emmett Macfarlane, Jonathan Maryniuk, Howard Kislowicz (although he cautions that he might not actually agree with Justice LaForest), and Bruce Ryder. They have all praise Justice LaForest for emphasizing the importance of constitutional text, as opposed to the unwritten, extra-textual “underlying principles” on which the majority relied. Agreeing with them, albeit relying on a different dissent, that of Justice Rothstein in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31 was Asher Honickman.

This degree of agreement among an ideologically and professionally diverse group sets off my contrarian instincts. So in this post I want to take issue with one aspect of Justice LaForest’s dissent, and with the esteemed scholars who are extolling it. I want to argue that unwritten principles have an important place in Canadian constitutional law, both as a descriptive and as a normative matter. To be clear, it’s not that I have come to like, or even regard as defensible, the majority opinion in the Provincial Judges Reference. Indeed, I stand by my assessment of it as one of the Supreme Court’s worst decisions! But my beef with it was, and is, not simply that it relied on unwritten principles, but that in doing so it disregarded clear, on-point constitutional text, and further that I do not think “it plausible that complex institutional arrangements”―such as independent commissions to determine judicial pay―”are constitutionally required if the constitution says nothing about them”. In other circumstances, reliance on unwritten principles can be much more justifiable.


Justice LaForest’s attack on judicial reliance on underlying principles starts from his understanding of what makes judicial review of legislation legitimate:

The ability to nullify the laws of democratically elected representatives derives its legitimacy from a super-legislative source: the text of the Constitution.  This foundational document (in Canada, a series of documents) expresses the desire of the people to limit the power of legislatures in certain specified ways.  [314]

In a democratic society, judicial review is tolerable so long, but only so long, as it amounts to nothing more than the enforcement of choices democratically made through the process of constitutional entrenchment and amendment. Its “legitimacy is imperiled … when courts attempt to limit the power of legislatures without recourse to express textual authority”. [316] “Textual authority” is be all, end all of judicial review:

The express provisions of the Constitution are not, as the Chief Justice contends, “elaborations of the underlying, unwritten, and organizing principles found in the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867” [107].  On the contrary, they are the Constitution.  To assert otherwise is to subvert the democratic foundation of judicial review. [319; emphasis in the original]

This paean to democracy and to textualism as a means of giving effect to democracy is appealing. As many of the contributors to the dissents symposium pointed out, it seems to have carried the day in in British Columbia v Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd, 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 SCR 473, where Justice Major, writing for the unanimous court, proclaimed that

in a constitutional democracy such as ours, protection from legislation that some might view as unjust or unfair properly lies not in the amorphous underlying principles of our Constitution, but in its text and the ballot box. [66]

This was, I am afraid, a crassly cynical statement, considering that the invitation to resort to the protection of the ballot box against retroactive legislation was being extended to non-voters ― to corporations, and to (understandably) very unpopular corporations at that. But, like Justice LaForest’s, this argument has undeniable rhetorical appeal.


Yet it is, in my view, a mistake to claim that it has prevailed as a matter of positive law. Before getting to its current status, let me point out that the idea that underlying constitutional principles exist and constrain government goes back at least to Justice Martland and Ritchie’s powerful dissent on the legal question in the Patriation Reference, [1981] 1 SCR 753. (It is at least arguable that it actually goes back much further, to Roncarelli v Duplessis, [1959] SCR 121 and indeed Attorney General of Nova Scotia v Attorney General of Canada, [1951] SCR 31, even the Labour Conventions Reference, [1937] AC 326, [1937] 1 DLR 673, but I will ignore these cases here.)

The key passage in Justices Martland and Ritchie’s Patriation Reference dissent is the following:

It can fairly be said … that the dominant principle of Canadian constitutional law is federalism. The implications of that principle are clear. Each level of government should not be permitted to encroach on the other, either directly or indirectly. The political compromise achieved as a result of the Quebec and London Conferences preceding the passage of the B.N.A. Act would be dissolved unless there were substantive and effec­tive limits on unconstitutional action. (821)

From there, it was not such a large step to say that these limits on unconstitutional action could, and must be, enforced by the courts, even if they were not spelt out in the constitutional text.

A different unwritten principle, that of the Rule of Law, was also crucial in the Reference re Manitoba Language Rights, [1985] 1 SCR 721. This is well known. Equally well known is the Supreme Court’s reliance on underlying constitutional principles, four of them, in Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217, to try to construct a legal ― although seemingly not an enforceable ― framework for dealing with separatism. (The Court referred to Justices Martland and Ritchie’s Patriation Reference dissent, although it did not acknowledge that it was, in fact, citing to a dissenting opinion!) Less famous, and not employing the rhetoric of unwritten principles, but relying on this idea in substance, are the cases of Amax Potash Ltd v Saskatchewan, [1977] 2 SCR 576, and Air Canada v British Columbia (Attorney-General), [1986] 2 SCR 539. In both of them, the Supreme Court held, without relying on any specific written constitutional provision, that provinces could not prevent litigants from arguing that provincial legislation was unconstitutional, because this would undermine the Canadian constitutional order as one in which government powers are constrained and limited.

Did the Imperial Tobacco case repudiate all this? I don’t think so. For one thing, the Supreme Court was less categorical there than the passage most often quoted, including above, would seem to suggest. Justice Major did not reject the argument based on the Rule of Law principle out of hand. He reviewed the previous cases where the principle had been invoked (though not Amax Potash and Air Canada), and concluded that it was a relatively narrow one and did not “speak directly to the terms of legislation”. [59] Yet “[t]his does not mean that the rule of law as described by this Court has no normative force”. [60] According to Justice Major, the Rule of Law mostly constrains the executive and the judiciary rather than legislatures but, at least as to them, it does have a real content.

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65, however, embraces the Rule of Law principle even more clearly and, crucially, as a constraint on the legislative power. According to the Vavilov majority,

Where a court reviews the merits of an administrative decision … the standard of review it applies must reflect the legislature’s intent with respect to the role of the reviewing court, except where giving effect to that intent is precluded by the rule of law. [23; emphasis added]

The majority goes on to specify that “[t]he starting point for the analysis is a presumption that the legislature intended the standard of review to be reasonableness”, [23] but “respect for the rule of law requires courts to apply the standard of correctness for certain types of legal questions”, [53] legislative intent notwithstanding. With Vavilov, unwritten principles, especially the Rule of Law, are back as a fully operative, and crucially important, source of our constitutional law, if indeed they had ever been displaced from that position. While Vavilov does not invoke them to explicitly invalidate legislation, it makes quite clear that legislation that conflicts with them will not be given effect.


Is this something to be regretted though? Was Justice LaForest right that judicial review in a democracy must only ever be textualist judicial review? I don’t think so. As Stephen Sachs explains in an important essay (which I discussed here), “[n]ot all law is written law, and not every society needs to rely on it in the same way”. (164) Some societies ― including democratic societies ― may well make the choice to have unwritten law as part of their binding constitutional constraints. They might write down some constitutional rules without thereby excluding others, and then a single-minded focus on constitutional text as exhaustive of constitutional law would means that “we could be reading the text correctly while utterly misunderstanding the legal role it was to play”. (165) The question is whether Canada is that kind of society or the one envisioned by Justice LaForest.

Actually, here is another question, which might help answer the previous one: are there any societies of the kind described by Justice LaForest, where the constitution, in the sense of the supreme law, is nothing more and nothing less than the sum of written textual provisions? In the United States, for example, constitutional law includes unwritten principles (though they are not labelled in exactly this way), especially separation of powers, but also federalism. The Australian constitution has been held to incorporate implied freedoms. There might be examples to support Justice LaForest’s views, of course, but, to say the least, these views aren’t a self-evidently correct description of the concept of constitutionalism in a democratic society (which is, I think, how Justice LaForest means them). Nor are they an obviously correct interpretation of constitutionalism in Canada, given the numerous cases referred to above.

To repeat, this is not to defend the majority decision in the Provincial Judges Reference, or even to say that the outcome of Imperial Tobacco was wrong (though Justice Major’s disdainful characterisation of unwritten principles was). What arguably makes these cases different from the likes of Amax Potash, the Patriation and Secession Reference, and Vavilov, is that they involved invocations of principles to run around fairly specific textual choices. Judicial independence is protected to a greater extent, and retroactive legislation proscribed, in the context of criminal law, but not in the civil law. Right or wrong, this is the sort of “political compromise” to which Justices Martland and Ritchie referred, and courts must be careful not to “dissolve” it.

But, by the same token, they must not allow the political compromises that made Canada into a federal state, bound by a supreme constitution, and one where public authority is constrained by the Rule of Law, to be dissolved either. No doubt it is possible to take arguments based on constitutional principles too far, just as it is possible to misread or twist the meaning of constitutional text. But this is not a reason for peremptorily rejecting these arguments, let alone claiming that they are illegitimate in our constitutional order. Justice LaForest was wrong to suggest otherwise in the Provincial Judges Reference, and so, respectfully, are those who extol his dissent today.

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.

5 thoughts on “A Matter of Unwritten Principle”

  1. I can’t believe there is any symposium about dissent and does not feature the great dissenter Madam Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dube. To think it mentioned McLauglin J. I am about to laugh

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