The Top Statutory Interpretation Cases of 2020

A banner year for interpretation


To say that one believes in “purposive interpretation” has been the calling card of Canadian legal scholars for some time. Saying this, as some do, is radically incomplete. That is because competing schools of thought also look to purpose. Textualists, for example, look to the context in which words are used, as well as the purpose evident in those words (Scalia & Garner, at 20). To say that one is a purposivist might as well mean nothing, because everyone—even textualists—“routinely take[] purpose into account…” (Scalia & Garner, at 20).

Far from just being a lazy turn of phrase, though, the routine deployment of the term “purposivism” as a distinct school of thought blocks us from a clearer conversation about what should matter in statutory interpretation. For example, the real division between textualists and others is how purpose is sourced in statutory interpretation: textualists are wary of importing some abstract purpose to subvert a “close reading” of the text (see Scalia & Garner, at 20; see also the opinion of Côté Jin West Fraser), while others might source purpose differently. Saying that one is a “purposivist” also does not answer an important question: which purpose should count more in interpretation, since statutes often pursue multiple purposes at different levels of abstraction? (see, for an example of this, Rafilovich). These are real interpretive questions that are only now receiving any sort of sustained attention in the case law.

I should not hide my priors here. I too think that purpose is a relevant consideration in statutory interpretation, because it assists in the task of reading text to mean all it fairly encompasses. But purpose can be abused: indeed, “[t]he most destructive (and most alluring) feature of purposivism is its manipulability” (Scalia & Garner, 20). Because purposes can be stated in all sorts of ways, it is up to the judge, in many cases, to choose the most appropriate purpose to assist in interpreting the text. Sometimes, purpose can subvert text—which, of course, is problematic if the purpose is not sourced in text (McLachlin CJC’s opinion in West Fraser is a classic example of this).  Put simply: purpose informs text, it does not supplant it (Placer Dome, at para 23).

For that reason, we must come to sound and principled ways of sourcing purpose, rather than simply stating that we look to purpose. It is this theme that defined, in my view, the task for judicial interpreters in 2020. The following three cases are, to my mind, exemplars of dealing with some of these deeper questions in statutory interpretation. Rather than simply reciting the Rizzo & Rizzo formula and taking an “anything goes” approach to interpretation, these cases delve deeper and answer some knotty interpretive questions in a way that furthers a discussion about statutory interpretation in Canada—particularly with reference to the so-called “purposive” approach. Because these cases start a conversation on these issues (and because I happen to agree with the methodology employed by the judges writing the lead opinions in each case), these are the top statutory interpretation cases of 2020, in no particular order:

Michel v Graydon, 2020 SCC 24

In this case, the Supreme Court of Canada dealt with the question whether it is “possible to vary a child support order under the [Family Law Act] after the order has expired, and after the child support beneficiary ceases to be a “child” as defined in the [Family Law Act]” [2]. This seemingly technical question of family law, however, gave rise to all sorts of interpretive problems: the role of social science evidence in statutory interpretation, the problem of unbridled consequential analysis in statutory interpretation, and the problem raised when judges invoke both “liberal” and “purposive interpretation” in the same breath.

For Brown J, the answer to question in the case was found relatively confined to the legislative text and scheme. Starting from the text of the provision, Brown J concluded that the relevant text of the Family Law Act “creates an avenue for courts to retroactively change any child support order, irrespective of the beneficiary’s dependent status and irrespective of whether the order is extant at the time of the application” [20]. This was because of the placement of the relevant statutory scheme. Among other things, s.152 contained no textual restriction on the courts—for example, s.152(1) “contains no reference to the defined term ‘child’ that might serve to qualify the authority of a court to vary child support” [22]. The scheme of the Family Law Act supported this conclusion [23].

For Brown J, this textual conclusion was basically the end of the story (see also schematic considerations at paras 24, 26, 27). Importantly, though, Brown J’s textual conclusion was supported by a properly-scoped purpose. Brown J identified that one of the dominant features of the Family Law Act—given the statute it replaced—was a desire to “expan[d] on the circumstances under which a court may vary a child support order” [28]. Read in light with the text, the result was clear.

Martin J concurred in the result, but conducted a policy analysis to support her concurrence. In Martin J’s view, child support cases called for (that old standard) of a “fair, large, and liberal construction” [40]. For Martin J, this sort of construction required a “contextual and purposive reading of s.152” that looks to “its wider legislative purposes, societal implications, and actual impacts” [40] in a way that “takes into account the policies and values of contemporary Canadian society” [70]. Martin J concluded that “a jurisdictional bar preventing these cases from being heard not only rests in unsound legal foundations, it is inconsistent with the bedrock principles underlying child support and contributes to systemic inequalities” [40].

I agree with both judges that the text and context in this case supports this reading of s.152. But while both judges agreed on the ultimate result, the method they used to reach the result differs in important ways. While Brown J focuses largely on a contextual reading, Martin J incorporates other information, statistics, and an evaluation of the consequences of the interpretation to the result. As I will note, in this case, these approaches do not lead to dramatically different conclusions, because the tools all pointed to a certain result: text, social science, context, consequences. But where text and such other factors conflict, Martin J’s opinion raise a number of problems, in my view.

There are three comments to make about this case, and why it is important. First, Brown J’s opinion avoids the pitfalls that might be associated with external aids to interpretation.  Specifically, Martin J looked to various social science data related to poverty, family relationships, and marginalization. These are important topics, and in this case, the evidence supported the interpretation that Brown J undertook on the text. But the question arises: what to do when current social science evidence contradicts an analysis undertaken on the text? Put differently, if the text points in one direction, and that direction exacerbates problematic trends in social science evidence, which governs?

It is one thing to suggest that where the text is ambiguous, an interpretation which solves the supposed “mischief” the statute was aimed to solve should be preferred. One could make a case for that argument. But where the text and the evidence are directly contradictory, courts must follow the text because that is what the legislature enacted. This may sometimes lead to interpretations that do not make sense to contemporary society, or are unjust in face of empirical evidence, because the text was enacted at a particular time. But this is simply a function of the task of statutory interpretation, which is to determine what the legislature meant at the time of enactment (as I note below, this itself is a rule of interpretation). It must be remembered that external aids can be used to assist in interpreting the text. They cannot be used to subvert it. Martin J’s approach could lead to that result—though, as I note, the problem does not arise in this case because the text and evidence pointed to the same interpretive result.

Secondly, both opinions could be read as cabining the role of pure policy or consequential analysis in statutory interpretation, which could be an invitation for results-oriented reasoning. It is true that evaluating the competing consequences of interpretive options is a fair part of statutory interpretation (see Sullivan at 212 et seq; see also Atlas Tube, at para 10; Williams, at para 52). But there is a caveat: consequences cannot be used to dispense with the written text. This most arises in the context of the absurdity canon, where absurd interpretations of statutes are to be avoided. However, an overapplication of the absurdity canon can lead to many “false-positives” where consequences are labelled absurd in the judge’s opinion, even if those consequences are arguably a product of the text. This undermines the legislature’s role in specifying certain words. Instead, consequences can only be used to determine which of various “rival interpretations” are most consistent with the text, context, and purpose of the statute (see Williams, at para 10). In this way, consequences are not used to determine which interpretation is just or unjust in an abstract sense, but which interpretations are most consistent with the statute’s text, context, and purpose.

Brown J clearly used this sort of justified consequential analysis in his opinion. In connecting his preferred interpretation to the properly-scoped purpose of s.152(1), it was clear that his interpretation furthered that purpose. This is a proper use of consequences consistent with the text as the dominant driver of purpose.

On the other hand, Martin J’s opinion could be read in two ways: one undesirable, one not. First, it could be read as endorsing a wide-ranging assessment of consequences, at a high level of abstraction (for example, justifying her consequential analysis with reference to the need to abolish systemic inequalities: see paras 40, 70, 101).  This might be a very good thing in the abstract, but not all legislation is designed to achieve such lofty goals. If interpreted in such a way to reach a result the statute does not reach, statutes can be conceived as addressing or solving every societal problem, and therefore as resolving every unjust consequence—and this could lead to overextensions of the text beyond its ordinary meaning (see Max Radin, “Statutory Interpretation” 43 Harv L Rev 863, 876 (1930)).  This reading of Martin J’s opinion is not desirable, for that reason.

Another reading of Martin J’s opinion is that she roots her consequential analysis in the purpose of the statute as she sees it. For example, Martin J notes that her approach interprets s.152 with its “underlying purposes in mind” which includes the best interests of the child [76]. Martin J also notes that her interpretation favours access to justice, under-inclusivity, and socio-economic equality [72]. These factors may or may not be rooted to the statute under consideration.

If Martin J’s opinion is rooted in the recognized purpose of the best interests of the children, one can make the case that her opinion is justified as Brown J’s is. However, if read more broadly, Martin J could fairly be seen as addressing issues or consequences that may not fall within the consideration of the text. In the circumstances, I prefer to read Martin J’s opinion as consonant with Brown J’s. If that is done, there is no warrant to look to consequences that fall outside the purpose of the statute. But note: much will depend, as I note below, on how the purpose of a statutory provision is pitched.

Finally, Brown J’s opinion is tighter than Martin J’s in the sense that it does not raise conflicts between statutory interpretation principles. Martin J’s opinion arguably does so in two ways. First, it is well-known (despite the controversy of this practice in constitutional interpretation) that statutes must generally be interpreted as they would have been the day after the statute was passed (Perka, at 264-5). While there is some nuance on this point (see Sullivan, at 116-117), words cannot change legal meaning over time—but note that broad, open-textured terms can be flexibly applied to new conditions if the words can bear that meaning (see here). The key is that words can only cover off the situations that they can fairly encompass. But the injunction—repeated throughout Martin J’s opinion—that statutes must be interpreted in light of the “policies and values of contemporary Canadian society” [72] at least facially conflicts with the original meaning canon. To Martin J’s defense, she is not the first to say this in the context of family law and child support (see Chartier, at paras 19, 21). But nonetheless, the court cannot have it both ways, and Martin J’s opinion cannot be taken to mean that the legal meaning of texts must be interpreted to always be consistent with contemporary Canadian society.

At best, it might be said that Martin J’s opinion in this respect permits the taking into account of contemporary considerations where the text clearly allows for such considerations, or perhaps where the text is ambiguous and one interpretation would best fit modern circumstances in a practical sense. But these modern circumstances cannot be shoehorned into every interpretation.

Secondly, there is a conflict in Martin J’s opinion, in a theoretical sense, between her invocation of a “fair, large and liberal” interpretation (see paras 58, 71) and her invocation of a “purposive” interpretation  (see para 71). As Karl Llewellyn pointed out long ago, it is not unheard of for tools of interpretation to conflict. But as much as possible, judges should not invite such conflicts, and I fear Martin J did this in her opinion by conflating liberal interpretation with purposive interpretation. As I have written before, these things are not the same—in fact they are opposites. The Interpretation Act does instruct a “large and liberal” interpretation, but only as the objects of a statute permit. The Supreme Court continues to insist on an approach to statutory interpretation that uses text to ground the selection of purpose (see here). As such, text and purpose read synthetically governs—not some judge-made conception of what constitutes a “large and liberal interpretation.” This statement cannot be used to overshoot the purposes of a statute, properly scoped.

Perhaps in this case the purposes permit a large and liberal interpretation, in which case Martin J can use both of these tools interchangeably. As I said, the problem isn’t this case specifically, but what would happen if Martin J’s approach is used in the general run of cases. But it is far from clear that purposive and generous interpretation will always–or even often–lead to similar results. More likely, purpose will limit the ways in which text can be read—it will not liberate the judge to take into account any policy considerations she wishes.

Michel v Graydon raises all sorts of interesting issues. But taking Brown J’s opinion on its own terms, it is a clinic in how to clearly interpret a statute in light of its properly-scoped purpose. While Martin J’s opinion could also be read in this way, it could be read to permit a more free-flowing policy analysis that subverts legislative language. In this sense, Martin J’s opinion should be affixed with a “caution” label.

Entertainment Software Association, 2020 FCA 100

ESA will stand, I think, for some time as the definitive statement in the Federal Courts on how to conduct statutory interpretation, and the role of international law in that endeavour.

In this case, the facts of which I summarized here,  the Copyright Board offered an interpretation of the Copyright Modernization Act that arguably placed extraneous materials ahead of the governing text. Here is what I wrote about the Board’s conduct at the time:

The Board’s chosen materials for the interpretive exercise were stated, according to the Court, at a high level of generality (see paras 53-54). For example, the Board focused on the preamble to the Copyright Modernization Act to divine a rather abstract interpretation that supported its view on international law (paras 53-54). It also invoked government statements, but the Court rightly noted that these statements construed s.2.4(1.1) as a “narrow, limited-purpose provision” [56], not as an all-encompassing provision that permitted the collection of tariffs in both instances. The use of these materials was used by the Board to herald a different, broader interpretation than what the text and context of the provision indicated. 

The Court rebuffed the Board’s effort in this regard. By noting that the provision under interpretation was a “narrow, limited-purpose provision,” the Court rejected attempts by the Board to drive the interpretation higher than the text can bear.  This is a worthy affirmation of the importance of text in the interpretive process, and a warning about the malleability of purposive interpretation.

Why is this opinion so important? It makes a now oft-repeated point that purposive interpretation is not conducted “at large.” That is, it matters how judges state the purposes they hope to use in the interpretive task. As the Supreme Court noted in Telus v Wellman, courts cannot use abstract purposes to “distort the actual words of the statute” (see Telus, at para 79). This counts as an endorsement of the traditional separation of powers, under which “…the responsibility for setting policy in a parliamentary democracy rests with the legislature, not the courts” [79].

ESA is important because it implements what the Supreme Court has now repeated in Telus, Rafilovich, and other cases. It is now clear law that purposes cannot be used to subvert text; that text is the starting point in legislative interpretation, and that in sourcing purpose, text confines the scope of the exercise. In my view, ESA (expertly written by Justice Stratas) makes the clearest case yet for a sort of text-driven purposivism in the context of Canadian statutory interpretation.

Canada v Kattenburg, 2020 FCA 164

One underlying theme of much of what I have written thus far is a worry about results-oriented reasoning in statutory interpretation. To some, this might not be a risk at all. Or it might be a desirable feature: after all, if all law should simply be an adjunct of politics, then the policy preferences of judges are fair game. Of course, I readily admit that no legal system can reduce the risk of subjective policy-driven interpretation to 0; nor should it. But the Rule of Law, at its most basic, means that the law governs everyone—including judges. Part of the law judges must apply are the rules of statutory interpretation. Those rules are designed not to vindicate what the “just” result is in the abstract, what is “just” at international law (except where international law and domestic legislation meet in defined ways), or even what is “just” to the judge at equity or common law–except, of course, when statutes implicate common law rules. Statutory interpretation is a task that requires determining what the legislature thought was just to enact. As such, the rules of interpretation are guided towards that goal, and are necessarily designed to limit or exclude the preferences of judges or others, even if we reach that goal only imperfectly.

This important theoretical point was made in relation to the ascertainment of legislative purpose and international law in Kattenburg by Stratas JA. In Kattenburg, the underlying substantive issue was simple and narrow, as I wrote in my post on the case:

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency decided that certain wine imported to Canada from the West Bank are “products of Israel” (see the Federal Court’s decision in 2019 FC 1003 at para 3). The judicial review, among other issues, concerned whether the wine could be labelled as “products of Israel.” That’s it. Under ordinary administrative law principles, the court will assess whether the decision of the CFIA is reasonable. A typical legal task.

However, on the intervention motions in Kattenburg, Stratas JA noted that some intervenors ttempted to further bootstrap the record with “hyperlinks to find reports, opinions, news articles and informal articles to buttress their claims about the content of international law and the illegality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank” (Kattenburg, at para 32). Stratas JA rejected such efforts.

Stratas JA’s rejection of these intervenors, and his strong words in denouncing them, raised the ire of some on law twitter. But anything worth doing won’t be easy, and Stratas JA said what needed to be said, particular when he noted that, with respect to the intervenors “[s]o much of their loose policy talk, untethered to proven facts and settled doctrine, can seep into reasons for judgment, leading to inaccuracies with real-life consequences” (Kattenburg, at para 44). 

 There’s no denying Stratas JA is pointing to an important methodological problem that is deserving of our attention. One way that purposes can be misstated, or used to subvert clear text, is by advancing broad understandings of international law to expand the purpose. As I’ve noted before, it is true that “international law can…be relevant to the interpretation of Canadian law where it is incorporated in domestic law explicitly, or where there is some ambiguity” (see here). But in many cases, international law will simply not be relevant to the interpretation of legislative texts, or the ascertainment of legislative purposes.

The attempt in Kattenburg to cast the legislative purpose to encompass some statement—any statement—on the legality of Israel’s conduct in the Middle East is a classic end-run around legislative text. While some of the intervenors may have wanted the Court to interpret the legislation in a particular way to encompass substantive policy goals encompassed in international law not only runs afoul of fundamental principle—international law only enters the task in defined, narrow ways—but it is contrary to precedent (see Vavilov, at para 121 and the litany of Federal Court of Appeal and Supreme Court cases on this point). Such efforts should be rejected.


In many ways, the three cases I have chosen as important for interpretation in 2020 are all representative of a broader theme of which lawyers should be aware. That is, there is much more happening behind the curtains in Canadian statutory interpretation than might appear at first blush. “Purposive interpretation” is not the end of the story. What matters is how we source purpose, the sources we assess to assist the interpretive task, and the role of text in grounding the interpretive process. These cases all come to defensible conclusions on these questions. The insights of these cases can be distilled into a few key propositions:

  1. Purpose must be sourced in relation to the relevant text under consideration. In this way, we are interpreting text as the legislature enacted it, and we are not using purpose to subvert that authentic reading of the text.
  2. There are reasons to be worried about consequential analysis, to the extent it could permit an expansion of legislative purposes beyond text.
  3. There are reasons to be worried about international law, to the extent it could permit the expansion of legislative purposes beyond text.

All for the better.

A Happy New Year for interpretive nerds!

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.

2 thoughts on “The Top Statutory Interpretation Cases of 2020”

  1. The great thing about Scalia* was that he invested the dry world of statutory interpretation with passion. But that is his failing too, and why I am a little suspicious about the textualism/purposivism binary. Because since Pufendorf we are all purposivists and we are textualists. So right from the beginning, we knew that laws against shedding blood on the streets of Bologna are not aimed at surgeons. And only a cartoon textualist says otherwise. But then the purposivist also knows that part of the point of putting laws down in writing is to give some certainty about what they are, so only a cartoon purposivist would disagree with your three last propositions, at least for some value of “worry”.

    So where is the real dispute? Just as no one admits to being a literalist, no one admits to wanting to make the text irrelevant. On the basis of Bertrand Russell’s game of conjugation (

    1. I contextualize/you make policy arguments/our learned friend distorts the words of the statute for political purposes

    2. I rely on the plain meaning/you engage in a highly textual analysis/our learned friend is a bloody-minded literalist.

    Scalia’s main commitment was to reject “legislative history” as a guide to interpretation. He combined a claim that all that matters is how the ordinary *reader* would respond to the text, as opposed to the intention of the author, with a complaint that progressive readers brought their politics to the text. I don’t know if he ever really addressed the point that my subjective certainty about what a text means is not proof that the text’s meaning is clear, but only that it is clear given my presuppositions about it.

    *Garner is great too, but on this point I think he followed Scalia.

  2. On Kattenburg in particular, I am not sure how you detach the question of the geographic scope of the legal territory of a state from international law. I recognize this is a politically sensitive issue and it makes sense that judges want to avoid such issues, but it seems like the question of whether the West Bank is within Israel for the purposes of Canadian law can’t really be detached from such questions.

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