Vavilov and the “Culture of Justification”

(Alyn) James Johnson

In Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v. Vavilov (2019 SCC 65), the Supreme Court of Canada strongly endorses a “culture of justification” (at paras. 2, 14).  This concept, which has rarely been mentioned let alone employed by a Canadian court in the past (a CanLII search reveals only the concurring judgment of Justices LeBel and Deschamps in Toronto (City) v. C.U.P.E., Local 79, 2003 SCC 63), contains two main propositions.  The first proposition is that all exercises of public power must be justified by written reasons.  The second proposition looks to the effects that a reasons-giving requirement can have on institutional configurations and posits that judicial control over interpretations of the law should be loosened in favour of a more decentred and democratized approach.

These propositions, and the concept of the culture of justification itself, are closely associated with the work of David Dyzenhaus (see, for example, “The Politics of Deference: Judicial Review and Democracy”; and “Constituting the Rule of Law: Fundamental Values in Administrative Law”).  The culture of justification has also been stressed extra-judicially by the former Chief Justice of Canada, Beverley McLachlin.  In a 1998 paper, Justice McLachlin (as she then was) states that “justification [is] a precondition to the legitimate exercise of public power,” and citing Dyzenhaus, she proclaims that a culture of justification is “the definitive marker of a mature Rule of Law” (“The Roles of Administrative Tribunals and Courts in Maintaining the Rule of Law” (1998), 12 C.J.A.L.P. 171 at 174).  The institutional contours of this “mature Rule of Law” are “pluralist,” and are outlined by Justice McLachlin as follows:

The effect of a culture of justification extends far beyond the proposition that institutions must justify the decisions they make in terms of rationality and fairness.  Indeed, once a culture of justification is recognized, it affects the relationships among institutions of the state almost as much as it affects the relationship between those institutions and the citizens living under their rules.  I will develop this idea more as I continue my remarks but, briefly, I believe that one of the most intriguing aspects of the new Rule of Law is that it makes it possible for institutions other than courts to play key roles in maintaining it.  It opens the door to the idea that courts do not necessarily have a monopoly on the values of reason or fairness.  Other social institutions may indeed be capable of justifying their powers to citizens and, in fact, citizens may well see these exercises of authority as legitimate [emphasis in original] (at 174-175, 185).

In Vavilov, this vision of a democratized and decentred approach to the Rule of Law is directly echoed by Justices Abella and Karakatsanis in their concurring reasons:

The rule of law is not the rule of courts.  A pluralist conception of the rule of law recognizes that courts are not the exclusive guardians of law, and that others in the justice arena have shared responsibility for its development, including administrative decision-makers.  Dunsmuir embraced this more inclusive view of the rule of law by acknowledging that the “court-centric conception of the rule of law” had to be “reined in by acknowledging that the courts do not have a monopoly on deciding all questions of law” (at para. 241).

What is somewhat odd, however, is that while the concurring Justices endorse the institutional configurations of a culture of justification, they expressly reject the primary move made by the seven-member majority of the Court towards requiring that exercises of public power be justified through written reasons.  The majority Justices announce that reasons are “the primary mechanism by which administrative decision makers show that their decisions are reasonable” (at para. 81), and they go on to state that

Where reasons for a decision are required, the decision must also be justified, by way of those reasons, by the decision maker to those to whom the decision applies.  While some outcomes may be so at odds with the legal and factual context that they could never be supported by intelligible and rational reasoning, an otherwise reasonable outcome also cannot stand if it was reached on an improper basis (at para. 86).

While the Court stops short of imposing an across the board reasons requirement as a matter of substantive review here (I return to this point below), the statement that deficient reasons can themselves provide a basis to quash a decision is of the highest importance to a culture of justification.  A reasoned basis for a decision, it would appear, is just as important as an outcome.  On this point, Vavilov can be said to institutionalize Delta Air Lines Inc. v. Lukács (2018 SCC 2), in which six members of the Court remitted an agency’s decision for reconsideration on the basis of a flawed process of reasoning.  Delta is cited six times in Vavilov, and all of the members of the Delta majority are part of the Vavilov majority, with the exception of Chief Justice McLachlin, who retired in the interim.  In both decisions, the Court steps away from the prior governing authority of Newfoundland and Labrador Nurses’ Union v. Newfoundland and Labrador (Treasury Board) (2011 SCC 62), which provided that “the ‘adequacy’ of reasons is [not] a stand-alone basis for quashing a decision” (at para. 14). 

Justices Abella and Karakatsanis dissented in Delta, and in their strongly worded concurring reasons in Vavilov they express a continuing commitment to the Newfoundland Nurses position that deficient reasons cannot be used on their own to quash a decision (at para. 304).  Yet while they claim that their “approach puts substance over form in situations where the basis for a decision by a specialized administrative actor is evident on the record, but not clearly expressed in written reasons,” the concurring Justices do not appear to acknowledge adequately that in a culture of justification reasons are by definition a matter of “substance,” and not a simple “form” carrying an outcome.  As noted by the majority in Vavilov, reasons play a critical role in justifying a decision, particularly to a party on the losing end, and furthermore, the “discipline of reasons” is itself integral to achieving acceptable outcomes (at paras. 79-80).    

The concurring Justices’ endorsement of a “pluralist conception of the rule of law” is ultimately undermined by their refusal to the accept the bedrock culture of justification proposition that outcomes should be supported by coherent reasons.  The project of democratizing and decentering the interpretation of law, enjoined by advocates of the administrative state, requires that the “discipline of reasons” be broadly instituted.  One could say that a cogent reasons requirement is the price of admission to an institutionally pluralist administrative state.  The position mapped out by Justices Abella and Karakatsanis is troubling in that it overloads power onto executive decision-makers and does not exact enough in return in the form of reasoned justification. 

While the Vavilov majority does not expressly endorse a “pluralist” approach to the Rule of Law in the same terms as the concurring Justices, the Court’s institutionalization of a “reasons first” methodology of reasonableness analysis arguably goes a long way towards democratizing decision-making:

A principled approach to reasonableness review is one which puts those reasons first.  A reviewing court must begin its inquiry into the reasonableness of a decision by examining the reasons provided with “respectful attention” and seeking to understand the reasoning process followed by the decision maker to arrive at its conclusion (at para. 84).

A “reasons first” methodology is of course consistent with the legislature’s decision to delegate power to a body other than a court, but it is also an acknowledgment by a reviewing court that a decision-maker that has submitted itself to the “discipline of reasons” should be accorded deference and respect. 

A “reasons first” methodology and the DeltaVavilov requirement that reasons themselves are reviewable for their cogency together establish a truly “pluralist” approach to the Rule of Law in a culture of justification.  Affected citizens are entitled to a carefully justified explanation of why an executive official made a particular decision.  Executive decision-makers, receiving their lawful authority from statute, are entitled to a space in which they can justify their conclusions.  Reviewing courts, finally, are entitled to assert the power to remedy any shortcomings in reasoned justification by quashing a decision.

A final point.  The question of exactly “Where reasons for a decision are required” needs more attention.  An across the board reasons stipulation may not be feasible given the enormous variety of decisions made by executive officials.  At present, however, it appears that a procedural fairness analysis will be needed to determine if reasons are required for the purposes of substantive review (unless reasons are mandated by statute).  Revisiting and possibly tightening up the existing procedural fairness test, and clarifying its interrelation with substantive review, would be desirable. 

Author: (Alyn) James Johnson

James has a PhD in Constitutional and Administrative Law from Queen's University and worked for six years as an Associate at Norton Rose Canada in Toronto. He is currently the Principal of Public Law Solutions, a research firm in Toronto.

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