The Core of It: Quebec Reference and Section 96

At the end of June, the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in the Court of Quebec case (what I call, unoriginally, the Quebec Reference). The main question in the case: does art. 35 of the Code of Civil Procedure, which grants the Court of Quebec exclusive jurisdiction over all civil disputes up to a value of less than $85000, abridge s.96 of the Constitution Act, 1867. Section 96, in general, protects the role of the superior courts. The Court (per Côté & Martin JJ) concluded that the $85 000 limit, combined with the broad, exclusive grant of power to the Court of Quebec over private law issues, did abridge s.96. Wagner CJ filed a partial dissent and Abella J filed a dissent.

This case contains elements that will both clarify and muck up the s.96 world. On one hand, the Court convincingly elucidates the importance of the rule of law, the core role of the superior courts, and the constitutional limits on legislative derogation of superior court powers. On the other hand, the Court introduces a new “modified” test to add to the s.96 mix, and does not do enough to clarify the circumstances in which this test can be invoked.

As a side note, the Court also briefly addressed the deference problem that was raised by the court below. I wrote about that issue here. The Court did the right thing and held that the issue was moot given Vavilov.


Section 96 is an odd constitutional provision, in part because the bare text does not correspond to the role that the provision now plays. Section 96 gained a “judicially-nourished luxuriance” which added substantive heft to what is, on first glance, just an appointment power vested in the federal government. Now, s.96 (along with other provisions) protect the role of the superior courts as “the centerpiece of the unitary judicial system” (Quebec Reference, at para 29). In administrative law, s.96 plays an important role. It prevents the legislature, in so many words, from divesting superior courts of so-called “core” powers in favour of administrative decision-makers.

Against this backdrop, Côté and Martin JJ began their opinion by looking to the historical context in which s.96 finds itself. As we know, constitutional provisions like s.96 cannot be understood by viewing them in temporal isolation. By now, it is obvious that constitutional provisions must, in part, be interpreted by looking into the historic context—say, the historical purpose—behind these provisions (see, most famously, Big M at 344; but more recently Comeau, at para 52). In this case, the “compromise reached at Confederation that is central to Canada’s judicial system, as well as the role and purpose of s.96” formed the bulk of the analysis [30].

The historical analysis, for Côté and Martin JJ, led to the conclusion that national unity and the rule of law were the “two key principles” on which the role of the superior courts is based (Quebec Reference, at para 42). Taken together, these principles guarantee “a nucleus” to the superior courts, and s.96 “forms a safeguard against erosion of the historic compromise” (Quebec Reference, at para 41). That compromise was the division of labour between superior courts in the province and the federal government, which holds an appointment power designed to “reinforce the national character of the Canadian judicial system” (Quebec Reference, at para 43).

As for the Rule of Law, the Court made some very important comments about the role of s.96. For Côté and Martin JJ, “[t]he rule of law is maintained through the separation of judicial, legislative, and executive functions” (Quebec Reference, at para 46). The superior courts play an important role because “the task of interpreting, applying and stating the law falls primarily to the judiciary” (Quebec Reference, at para 46). They are best positioned to guard the rule of law. In fact, even though the Court has sometimes spoken favourably about the role of provincial courts in guarding the rule of law, Côté and Martin JJ specifically noted that superior courts are the “primary” guardians of the rule of law.

What does all of this mean? The bottom line for the Court—and this is somewhat of a new formulation—was that s.96 protects against the creation of parallel or shadow courts that mirror the functions of s.96 courts (see paras 53 et seq). To this end, the court has historically developed two tests to prevent legislative derogation from s.96. First is the so-called Residential Tenancies test, determines whether a legislative grant “affects a jurisdiction that has historically been exercised by the superior courts” (Quebec Reference, at para 71). The second is the so-called “core jurisdiction” test, solidified in MacMillan Bloedel. Both have different functions in preventing the creation of parallel courts. The Residential Tenancies test protects the historic jurisdiction of the superior courts. It “was established at a time when…a modern administrative state was emerging in Canada” to which the Court was “sensitive” (Quebec Reference, at para 77). For the Court, a purpose of this test was to “avoid stifling institutional innovations designed to provide administrative rather than judicial solutions for social or political problems” while still protecting the historical jurisdiction (Quebec Reference, at para 77). The core jurisdiction test, on the other hand, serves as a backstop, even if a particular grant passes the Residential Tenancies test. While what the core of superior court powers is necessarily amorphous, some common things jump to mind: judicial review jurisdiction, and for our purposes, “general jurisdiction over private law matters” (Quebec Reference, at para 82). Here, the Court concluded that the superior courts’ core jurisdiction “…presupposes a broad subject-matter jurisdiction whose scope corresponds, at the very least, to the central division of private law…” (Quebec Reference, at para 83).

Typically, the courts have not fleshed out the sorts of factors to consider when determining where a core superior court power is affected by legislative derogation. In the Quebec Reference, Côté and Martin JJ endeavoured to provide guidance where the legislature has vested a court with provincially appointed judges a jurisdiction as broad as the one in the Quebec Reference (Quebec Reference, at para 88). The judges called the collection of these factors the “modified” core test (Quebec Reference, at para 79). These factors included:

The scope of the jurisdiction being granted, whether the grant is exclusive or concurrent, the monetary limits to which it is subject, whether there are mechanisms for appealing decisions rendered in the exercise of the jurisdiction, the impact on the caseload of the superior court of general jurisdiction, and whether there is an important societal objective. This list is not exhaustive. Other factors may be relevant in different contexts: one need only think, for example, of geographical limitations.

Given that the grant of power in this case was broad and exclusive—granting the Court of Quebec power over the entire law of obligations at the monetary limit (Quebec Reference, at para 99)—s.96 was abridged by the legislative grant.

A major question that the Court addresses in this case is the scope of its reasons. That is, does this modified “core” test and the factors it involves supplant the old “core jurisdiction” test?:

The multi‑factored analysis we are adopting here is not intended to replace the current law. The analysis under s. 96 continues to involve two tests. The first — the Residential Tenancies test— continues to apply to any transfer of historical jurisdiction of the superior courts to an administrative tribunal or to another statutory court. The second — the core jurisdiction test — continues to apply in order to determine whether a statutory provision has the effect of removing or impermissibly infringing on any of the attributes that form part of the core jurisdiction of the superior courts. Where a transfer to a court with provincially appointed judges has an impact on the general private law jurisdiction of the superior courts, the question whether the infringement on the core jurisdiction is permissible or impermissible should be answered having regard to the factors discussed above. 


While Wagner CJC and Abella J’s opinions are interesting and contain information worth reading, I think there are good and bad elements of the majority’s opinion in this case.

First, the good. It is reassuring to see a “resounding endorsement” of the role of the superior courts in the Canadian constitutional order. Sounding in both national unity and the rule of law, the majority has—more than rhetorically—strengthened the “rampart” that s.96 erects against the creative reassignment of superior court powers (Quebec Reference, at para 145). Specifically, the Court’s comments on the Rule of Law are interesting and welcome. We see, here, a glowing endorsement of the role of the separation of powers in Canadian law, and the role of the Rule of Law in relation to the separation of powers. For a Court that has insisted there is no strict separation of powers in Canada, it is interesting to see that, whatever the content of the separation is, it does real analytical work in relation to s.96.  Relatedly, it is reassuring to see the Court draw a direct separation between provincial courts and superior courts. Clearly, the latter have a greater constitutional footing than the former.

Another good piece of this decision: the synthesis of the case law around the prohibition of parallel courts. Section 96 has a somewhat tortured history, and it is defensible for the Court to distill the cases down to a simple proposition: legislatures cannot create parallel or shadow superior courts. In fact, this is the role s.96 has typically played in the constitutional order. Consider, for example, the controversy at issue in Farrah. There, a provincial legislature created a tribunal that had exclusive jurisdiction over questions of law, supported by privative clauses. As the Court noted in Crevier, the Farrah problem was the de facto creation of a s.96 court (Crevier, at 238). More examples abound, and so the Quebec Reference’s synthesis of this important point—the main goal of s.96—is important and helpful.

Now, on to the (potentially) bad: there will be an inevitable confusion that arises in the application of the modified core test the Court endorses. Professor Daly says that this approach is contextual, and meshes well with other aspects of Canadian public law. Contextual tests are not necessarily bad, but it is worthwhile to point out that what they provide in flexibility they trade away in certainty. In this context, a lack of certainty could arise in two ways. First, and in general, I wonder whether we need so many tests to govern s.96. As a reminder, we have three: the Residential Tenancies test, the core test, and the modified core test for cases like the Court of Quebec. The life of the law is experience, and so the Court in the Quebec Reference had to work with the tests that had been developed. That said, in a perfect world, I do think there is a way to simplify the test to determine whether s.96 has been abridged. In my view, most of the analytical work can be done by delineating the categories of “core” jurisdiction that have been recognized by the Court in the case law. While the Residential Tenancies test does play a historical function, ensuring that s.96 protects the jurisdiction of the superior courts at least as it was at Confederation, the core jurisdiction categories could also serve this function while providing more categorical guidance. This would, I admit, entail drawing rather broadly the content of the “core,” and this is what, in part, divided the various opinions in the Quebec Reference. On this account, the core would include substantive considerations (such as judicial review jurisdiction, private law jurisdiction, etc) rather than simply procedural powers concerning the management of inherent process (see Abella J’s characterization of core powers at para 301). There would have to be play in the joints, of course, to allow for institutional innovations resulting from the exercise of legislative sovereignty, particularized by s.92(14) of the Constitution Act, 1867; but I am candidly unsure why one test, grounded in the rule of law, which protects substantive and procedural powers of the superior courts is undesirable.

Relatedly, the modified core test is supposedly limited to cases involving courts, and the lead opinion emphatically says that it is not replacing the law when it uses this modified test (see para 144) . But as Paul Daly notes, it is an open question whether this modified test applies to administrative actors as well. While I am reticent, as I said above, about adopting yet another test to govern s.96, there is no principled reason why the tests developed should apply differently based on whether the derogation is in favour of a “court” or an administrative actor. The evil with which s.96 is concerned is the creation of shadow courts that functionally act as s.96 courts. Whether the recipient of this power is an administrative actor or some administrative actor, there is a chance that a shadow court could be created by the delegation of power mixed with the liberal use of privative clauses. Indeed, in Farrah and Crevier, the issue was the de facto creation of a s.96 court, even in the auspices of an administrative body. While the Court of Quebec is a unique judicial body in Canada, Professor Daly notes that broad delegations of power have been made to various tribunals across the country. Those broad delegations would, it seem, be captured by the Court’s modified test.

The Court seems to draw a distinction between administrative actors and courts, noting that the Residential Tenancies test was in part developed to accommodate the developing administrative state. While whatever test is adopted by the Court must be sensitive to the legislative choice to delegate, the functional reasons motivating that delegation cannot exceed constitutional limits; in other words, s.96 is the brake against unfettered legislative delegation that creates unaccountable shadow courts. No matter the desirability of an administrative state, legislative action is limited by s.96. And for that reason, there is no good reason why s.96 should be different in the context of administrative actors versus courts.

There is more in this decision, including the Court’s interpretive approach when it comes to s.96. For now, though, the Quebec Reference is an important jurisprudential statement about the role of s.96. No matter the difficulties that courts may have in applying the doctrine in this case, at the very least we have important statements about the role of s.96.

Author: Mark Mancini

I am a PhD student at Allard Law (University of British Columbia). I am a graduate of the University of New Brunswick Faculty of Law (JD) and the University of Chicago Law School (LLM). I also clerked at the Federal Court for Justice Ann Marie McDonald. I have interests in: the law of judicial review, the law governing prisons, and statutory interpretation.

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