Post-Truth, Redux

A faithful application of Vavilov reasonableness review exposes the rot at the core of Canada’s administrative law

Co-blogger Mark Mancini has already posted on the Federal Court of Appeal’s recent decision in Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc v Canada (Attorney General), 2021 FCA 157. He argues that it is a good illustration of how courts should review administrative decisions on the reasonableness standard, following the Supreme Court’s instructions in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65. I agree with Mark’s analysis, so far as it goes: as a rigorous application of Vavilov that rightly emphasizes legal constraints on administrative decision-making, Justice Stratas’ reasons for the Court in Alexion are excellent. (In fact, let me highlight an additional passage that Mark does not mention: Justice Stratas notes, rightly, that administrators must interpret statutes “in a genuine, non-tendentious, non-expedient way … Result-oriented analysis is no part of the exercise”. [37] Amen!)

But, in my view they are also an excellent illustration of the considerable flaws of the Vavilov framework, with its insistence on the centrality of administrative reasons on all issues subject to the reasonableness standard of review, including issues of statutory interpretation. Indeed, Alexion illustrates the fundamental soundness of the approach taken in the case that is the great bogeyman of Canadian administrative law: the House of Lords’ Anisminic Ltd v Foreign Compensation Commission [1969] 2 AC 147. The concurring judges in Vavilov accused the majority of following Anisminic. If only!

As Mark explains in more detail, Alexion reviewed a decision by the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board that the company was selling a product “at a price that, in the Board’s opinion, is excessive” (s 83 of the Patent Act). The Court of Appeal invalidated the Board’s decision, holding that it did not explain its reasoning on key issues, including the interpretation of s 85 of the Patent Act, which sets out the criteria the Board must apply in deciding whether the price of a patented medicine is “excessive”. As Justice Stratas notes,

[a]t best, on this point the Board obfuscated, making it impossible for a reviewing court to know whether the Board has helped itself to a power it does not lawfully have. By obfuscating, the Board has effectively put itself beyond review on this point, asking the Court to sign a blank cheque in its favour. … 

[T]he Board may have helped itself to powers the statute has not given it. The absence of a reasoned explanation on certain points means that we cannot be more definitive than that. [44]-[45]

Justice Stratas notes that the Board appears to have found the pricing of Alexion’s product unreasonable, and expresses his “fundamental concern … that the Board has misunderstood the mandate Parliament has given to it under s 85. At a minimum, a reasoned explanation on this is missing“. [48; emphasis mine] And further:

Section 85 speaks of “excessive” pricing, not  “reasonable” pricing. The two seem much different. If in fact they are not different, in the circumstances of this case the Board had to explain why. Nowhere does the Board do so. [52; emphasis mine]

If I may paraphrase Justice Stratas, he is saying: it looks like the Board is doing something it’s not supposed to be doing under the statute, but hey! maybe it’s not do these things, or maybe it can do these things after all ― and we, the Federal Court of Appeal, can’t know for sure. The suggestion here ― that, absent good quality reasons given by the administrator, a reviewing court cannot say whether the administrator, in Justice Stratas’ eloquent words, “helped itself to a power it does not lawfully have” ― is entirely consistent with Vavilov. There the majority insisted that

the focus of reasonableness review must be on the decision actually made by the decision maker …  The role of courts in these circumstances is to review, and they are, at least as a general rule, to refrain from deciding the issue themselves. Accordingly, a court applying the reasonableness standard does not ask what decision it would have made in place of that of the administrative decision maker … conduct a de novo analysis or seek to determine the “correct” solution to the problem. [83]

On this approach, Justice Stratas and his colleagues are not supposed to come to their own view of the meaning of s 85 and verify the Board’s compliance with it. They are confined to assessing the Board’s explanations as to whether it has complied. Absent an explanation, the exercise fails. Vavilov is an improvement over the earlier cases in that, when such failures occur, it allows the reviewing court to stop there and send the matter back to the administrator for a do-over, instead of making up an explanation and deferring to it. (See Mark’s post for more on this).

But to say that Vavilov improves over what I once described as a post-truth jurisprudence requiring judges to play chess with themselves and contrive to lose is not to say much. In fact, Vavilov does not even leave post-truth jurisprudence behind. For how else should we think of a requirement that judges ― of an appellate court, no less ― insist that they “cannot be definitive” about the interpretation of a statutory provision and about whether an administrator “helped itself to a power it does not lawfully have” ― which is to say, exceeded its jurisdiction (there, I said it) in applying that provision?

The truth is that judges can be definitive on such things. The truth is that Justice Stratas has much to say about the meaning of s 85 and the way in which it has to be applied, as well as the more general principles of statutory interpretation (see, in particular, his important caution that “[t]he authentic meaning of the legislation … is the law, not what some politicians may have said about it at some place, at some time, for whatever reason”). [53] (I recently addressed this point here.) The truth is that, as Justice Stratas notes, “[o]ver and over again, authorities have stressed that the excessive pricing provisions in the Patent Act are directed at controlling patent abuse, not reasonable pricing, price-regulation or consumer protection at large”. [50] A jurisprudence that requires a court to assert that, notwithstanding all of this, an administrative tribunal might somehow explain all that away, and show that when it said “reasonable” it meant “excessive”, and that when it “disregarded most of the … authorities”, [51] it still complied with the law, is the jurisprudence of la-la-land.

In reality, the Board’s decision has all the appearances of a textbook example of what Lord Reid in Anisminic described as an administrative tribunal having “misconstrued the provisions giving it power to act so that it failed to deal with the question remitted to it and decided some question which was not remitted to it”. When a tribunal does so, even though in a narrow sense “the tribunal had jurisdiction to enter on the inquiry”, it loses jurisdiction in a broad sense, and the resulting decision is a nullity. Canadian courts should be able to say so ― which means that they should be free, contra Vavilov, to “decide the issue themselves”, without waiting, or even affecting to wait, to be instructed by administrators who lack the legitimacy, the independence, and the competence to speak on questions of law with any real authority.

Why is it that we can’t have nice things? An important part of the problem is the fusion, in Canadian administrative law, of what in the United Kingdom (and New Zealand) are known as legality review and reasonableness review into a (supposedly) unified category of merits review. To make things worse, the Supreme Court remains committed to an oversimplified approach to merits review, such that it almost always has to be conducted on the same reasonableness standard. The reasons-first approach may be suitable for review of fact- or policy-based administrative decisions, but applied to issues of statutory interpretation it leads to Alexion-style absurdity.

What makes Alexion even more galling, though, is the nature of the administrative body it concerns. And that’s not only, and perhaps even so much, that, pursuant to s 91 of the Patent Act the Board’s members can legally be the first five strangers the Minister of Health meets on the street one day ― or hacks. (As I wrote this, I thought I’d look up the Board’s actual membership, in the hope of being able to add a disclaimer to the effect they are all, in fact, wise and experienced experts. Only, there doesn’t seem to be any information about them on the Board’s website. Of course that doesn’t prove that they actually are hacks, let alone people the Minister met on the street, but one might have thought some transparency was in order. UPDATE: Mea culpa. The information is there, however counter-intuitive its presentation may seem to me. The members’ bios are here.)

Worse is the fact that the Board acts as both prosecutor and judge in the cases it handles, the separation of powers be damned. This par for the course in the administrative state, to be sure ― but no less pernicious for all that. I note, for the sake of completeness, that it is “Board Staff” that “filed a Statement of Allegations” against Alexion, rather than Board members ― but staff (pursuant to s 93(2)(b) of the Patent Act) are managed by the Board’s Chairperson, i.e. one of its members. The Board’s internal “separation of powers” is more sham than ersatz.

Why exactly should the views of this judge-and-prosecutor, this two-headed abomination against due process of law, about the meaning of the statute it is charged with applying be entitled to any regard by actual judges? In Vavilov, the Supreme Court insists that this is to respect Parliament’s intent. But, as I have been saying since my first comment on Vavilov here, the Court ignores Parliament’s direction, in s 18.1(4)(c) of the Federal Courts Act that the federal courts grant relief when administrative decision-makers err in law, which clearly requires these courts to come to their own view about what statutes mean and whether the administrator in a give case has complied with the law. In this way too, Vavilov perpetuates Canadian administrative law’s disregard for truth.

In case this needs to be clarified, none of the foregoing is a critique of Justice Stratas and the decision in Alexion. As I said above, I think that the decision is about as good as it could have been while being a faithful application of the Vavilov framework. If the Board takes what Justice Stratas seriously, it will make a much better, and most importantly, a lawful decision next time. It is the framework itself that is rotten.

But the rot set in four decades ago, and no judge of the Federal Court of Appeal can solve them ― even one who has made Herculean efforts to, like Justice Stratas. Perhaps even the Supreme Court cannot fully undo the damage it has inflicted on our law when it turned away from the Anisminic path and waded into the dark forest of deference to the administrative state. But if Alexion illustrates the possibilities ― and the limits ― of what the Supreme Court accomplished in Vavilov, and I think it does, then one has to conclude that the Supreme Court hasn’t tried very hard at all.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law and legal philosophy 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.

2 thoughts on “Post-Truth, Redux”

  1. Professor Sirota’s claim that there is no information on the PMPRB website with respect to current members of the Board is simply incorrect.

    1. I appreciate the correction. I hadn’t found this information when I looked at the time of writing the post. I have now. Thanks!

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