On Canadian Statutory Interpretation and Recent Trends

I have had the pleasure of reading (for the first time front-to-back) the legal interpretation classic, Reading Law by Justice Scalia and Bryan Garner. For Canadian courts struggling with how to source and use purpose when interpreting statutes, Reading Law provides valuable assistance. It does so by outlining two schools of thought on how to source purpose, schools of thought that are prevalent in Canadian debates and recent decisions over statutory interpretation. On the one hand is purposivism; on the other hand is textualism. While these schools do not actually differ about whether purpose should form part of the interpretive exercise, they do differ about how to actually determine what purpose governs. Canada’s recent statutory interpretation cases point to the textualist direction.

The first school of thought, broadly known as purposivism, is apparently Canada’s leading approach to statutory interpretation.  Purposivism “acknowledges that the meaning of language is imprecise and measures words against contextual, schematic, and purposive considerations” (see Hutchison, here, at 8). Aharon Barak claims that:

[a]ccording to purposive interpretation, the purpose of a text is a normative concept. It is a legal construction that helps the interpreter understand a legal text. The author of the text created the text. The purpose of the text is not part of the text itself. The judge formulates the purpose based on information about the intention of the text’s author (subjective purpose) and the “intention” of the legal system (objective purpose) (Barak, Purposive Interpretation, at 110).

The motivation behind purposivism is a sort of legal realism that queries whether text can ever truly be clear enough to be a dominant force in legal interpretation (see, for a characteristic example of this line of thinking, the opinion of Breyer J in FCC v NextWave Personal Communications Inc, 537 U.S. 293, 311). Purpose is thus a way to deal with latent ambiguities that may naturally arise in text. And importantly, purpose is focused on the “ends” a statute is designed to achieve, perhaps at a high level of abstraction or generality. On a radical purposive account, the goal of interpretation is to effectuate whatever the court determines the purpose(s) to be; text is merely a means to the end of purpose. Put differently, text is derived from purpose under the purposive account.

On the other hand is “textualism.” Textualism receives a bad rap in Canada, but that is probably more due to caricature than a real appraisal of the merits and demerits of the textualist method. Here Scalia & Garner have much to say. While the central feature of textualism is the idea that “if the text…is clear, interpreters should not impeach the text using extrinsic evidence of statutory purpose…” (Manning & Stephenson, Legislation and Regulation, at 94), textualism does not ask a court to “put on blinders that shield the legislative purpose from view” (Scalia & Garner, at 20; see also William Popkin, “An ‘Internal’ Critique of Justice Scalia’s Theory of Statutory Interpretation,” 76 Minn L Rev 1133, 1142 (1992)).  Instead, purpose is “deduced from a close reading of the text” (Scalia & Garner, 20).  Put differently, purpose is derived from text on the textualist account.

Why are textualists concerned about purposes achieved without reference to the text? First, textualists are concerned about the generality problem (see Max Radin, “Statutory Interpretation,” 43 Harv L Rev 863, 876 (1930)). A court motivated by its own results-oriented reasoning could choose a purpose that is barely represented in text, or is otherwise quite abstract in relation to text. Indeed, at the highest level of generality, every statute could be said to pursue “justice and security” (see Radin). But choosing that purpose could distort the means used by the statute chosen to achieve its ends by “enabling…crabbed interpretations to limiting provisions and unrealistically expansive interpretations to narrow provisions” (Scalia & Garner, at 20). This particular problem also has resonance in administrative interpretations of law, where an expansive purposive interpretation of enabling provisions could actually result in more deference to decision-makers than what the text itself allows.

Second, textualists are concerned with the realities of the legislative process and the fact that legislatures are imperfect. The takeaway from the Legal Process school, which influences purposivism, is that legislatures pursue reasonable purposes reasonably. But textualists understand that legislation, especially in the US, is a result of legislative compromise. While purposes may be clear, text pursues purposes in different ways. In this way, textualists are more concerned with the implementational rather than the ulterior purposes of legislation. Legislation can implement purposes in text in various ways.  A generalized example here is instructive:

For example, a statute providing a specific protection and a discrete remedy for purchasers of goods can be said to have as its purpose “protecting the consumer.” That would not justify expansive consumer-friendly interpretations of provisions that are narrowly drawn (Scalia & Garner, at 57).

What does this dispute between textualists and purposivists have to do with Canada? From a descriptive perspective, it describes perfectly what is happening in Canadian courts right now with regards to purpose. Normatively, Scalia & Garner’s text explains why a textualist-purposive approach is well-justified.

On the descriptive account, the Supreme Court in the past has fallen victim to the “level of generality” problem. West Fraser is a classic example. There, the dispute was whether a British Columbia statute permitted fines to be levied for workplace safety violations against owners of land on which accidents occurred. The relevant provision under which West Fraser was fined was, by its text, only applicable to “employers.” But Chief Justice McLachlin, for the majority, held that the ultimate purpose of the statute was to “promote workplace safety in the broadest sense” (see West Fraser, at para 17). This allowed her to conclude that the particular text of the section under interpretation should be interpreted to cover off West Fraser’s conduct. But here is a classic example of the purposive approach: purpose was used to interpret the text under consideration, rather than the other way around.

Justice Côté in dissent, in my view, had much better of the argument. Her view was that the relevant provision had chosen the means by which to pursue the purpose of workplace safety. The text had chosen “limited means” to pursue that purpose—by limiting fines to employers (see West Fraser, at para 107). This is a classic dispute between ulterior and implementational purposes.

Justice Côté’s view has recently been picked up in recent Supreme Court cases and in cases in the Federal Court of Appeal. I cite two examples here. First is Telus v Wellman, which I wrote about here. There, the dispute was what purpose should be chosen: for the majority, the purpose of the Arbitration Act, as directly reflected in the relevant statutory provisions, was that the Act ensures that parties abide by their agreements. But in dissent, Abella and Karakatsanis JJ would have pitched the purpose of the statute at the level of “access to justice.” Moldaver J in majority rejected the dissent’s characterization, holding that this purpose could “distort the actual words of the statute” (Telus, at para 79). The access to justice purpose was not rooted in statute. Moldaver J, then, could be said to adopt a position closer to Cote J in West Fraser, and closer to the textualist position identified by Scalia & Garner.

Similarly, in Hillier, Justice Stratas rejected the Attorney General’s attempt to cast a statute at the high level of abstraction of “administrative efficiency.” Rather, he concluded that not “every section in the Act is aimed at furthering efficiency” (Hillier, at para 35). Rather, the relevant provision under interpretation “pursues a different, more limited purpose” (Hillier, at para 35). That limited purpose governed, not the abstract purpose chosen by the Attorney General.

In these cases, the Supreme Court and the Federal Court of Appeal corrects the error in West Fraser. And here is a good point to say why it is that the textualist approach adopted by Moldaver J and Stratas JA is preferable. First, as noted above, a liberal application of the purposive approach could lead to high error costs. By prioritizing ulterior motive over implementational purpose (abstract versus specific purposes), the court could fail to understand how and why a statute achieves a particular goal. In other words, reasoning backwards from purpose (as McLachlin CJ did in West Fraser) could lead to ignoring what the text actually says, and how the text decides to pursue a particular goal. For McLachlin CJ in West Fraser, it was of no moment that the relevant provision only applied to employers. But this was the interpretive dispute at hand. The interpretive approach in West Fraser, in this sense, ignores the import of the text.

Secondly, and pragmatically, choosing more abstract purposes of statutes over more implementational ones does not actually help the interpretive task. To say that the purpose of a statute is “access to justice” will rarely do anything to determine how the text is actually supposed to be interpreted. This is because there are many different ways that a statute can methodologically choose to pursue access to justice. More likely, abstract, ulterior purposes can be used to distort text to achieve policy outcomes the interpreter likes. This is profoundly violative of the Rule of Law.

And finally, as Scalia & Garner note, perhaps the most important interpretive canon is that one which says that “[t]he words of a governing text are of paramount concern, and what they convey, in their context is what the text means” (Scalia & Garner, at 56). This sentiment has been expressed by the Supreme Court of Canada, particularly where text is “clear” (see Celgene, at para 21). It is as old as Justinian’s Digests (“A verbis legis non est recedendum”). A powerful principle of democracy justifies the canon. It is, after all, text which is enacted by our democratic institutions. Purpose should revolve around text, such that the purpose with the most reflection in text should govern. Sourcing text from purpose risks prioritizing an ideal with little democratic pedigree over the specific and finely-wrought means by which the text enacts that purpose.

Overall, and while no Canadian court will probably ever describe itself as textualist, courts in Canada are increasingly looking to text to discern purpose. In my view, this is a salutary development.

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.

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