The Supreme Court’s Leaves (Or Lack Thereof)

The Supreme Court has gone yet another week without granting leave to any cases. I am not an empiricist, and this is not something I’ve been tracking, but I gather that the Supreme Court has granted leave to less cases over time in general (not to suggest that this week is particularly representative of anything).  Statistics from the Supreme Court from 2009-2019 suggest a drop-off in leave rates, and I imagine that the rate at which the Court granted leave was higher in the 1980s and 1990s than it is now.

There is good work being done to analyze the Supreme Court’s leave practice, an area that I understand is traditionally understudied. Led by Paul-Erik Veel, Lenczner Slaght’s Data-Driven Decisions project, and its related Leave Project, attempt to understand and predict the Supreme Court’s leave practice. And while I am not an expert on the subject, I gather that there is interest in understanding why the Supreme Court has granted fewer leaves over time, and relatedly, whether it is a good or bad thing.

On first blush, the grant of fewer leaves is inconsistent with the role the Supreme Court has given itself over time. Its granting of a constitutional role for itself in the Nadon Reference suggests a court that sits at the centre of Canada’s system of laws. In Henry, at para 53, the Court said the following:

53 In Canada in the 1970s, the challenge became more acute when this Court’s mandate became oriented less to error correction and more to development of the jurisprudence (or, as it is put in s. 40(1) of the Supreme Court Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. S-26, to deal with questions of “public importance”).  The amendments to the Supreme Court Act had two effects relevant to this question. Firstly, the Court took fewer appeals, thus accepting fewer opportunities to discuss a particular area of the law, and some judges felt that “we should make the most of the opportunity by adopting a more expansive approach to our decision-making role”:  B. Wilson, “Decision-making in the Supreme Court” (1986), 36 U.T.L.J. 227, at p. 234.  Secondly, and more importantly, much of the Court’s work (particularly under the Charter) required the development of a general analytical framework which necessarily went beyond what was essential for the disposition of the particular case.

This passage packs in a number of points. First, the Court sees itself not only as an appellate authority of error correction, but as central to the development of the jurisprudence on issues of public or national importance. In turn, this could plausibly affect the doctrine the Supreme Court applies in certain areas. The Court is not designed simply to point out appellate errors, but in turn develops overarching doctrinal frameworks that sometimes requires the overruling of precedents. A modern example is the Supreme Court’s decision in Vavilov, which reads (sometimes) as an academic essay rather than a traditional judicial decision.

The fact that the Supreme Court grants fewer leaves, then, suggests a Court that is not living up to its role to develop the jurisprudence. If the Court is granting fewer leaves, it is deciding fewer cases that could “settle the law” in areas that require it. For those who see the Supreme Court’s role as, for example, arbitrating between competing national values, a lower leave rate suggests a less relevant Supreme Court than its members sometimes imagine.

On the other hand, the granting of fewer leaves is not necessarily problematic if one takes a pessimistic view of what the Supreme Court does. For most advocates across the country, the bread-and-butter of law does not occur in the august halls of the Supreme Court. Instead, it is more likely that legal issues are decided by lower courts and administrative actors. The prohibitive costs associated with bringing leave applications and appeals to the Supreme Court creates a built-in incentive for these issues to be finally decided at a lower level of decision-making.  

This is just my view, but I do not view this as a bad thing. For one,  Canada’s lower court judges are far from bit players in the development of the law. The Supreme Court gets a lot of attention, but the 9 judges on that Court are special only because of their station; not necessarily because they are more likely to come to better or more stable decisions than a lower court judge. The Supreme Court, as Robert Jackson once said, is only infallible because it is final. Our lower court judges are well-equipped to settle the law without high-stakes litigation at the Supreme Court. Vavilov provides another instructive example of this. Prior to Vavilov, the Federal Court of Appeal, led by Justice David Stratas, had attempted to make sense of the Supreme Court’s administrative law doctrine. Its approach to determining and applying the standard of review was, in many respects, adopted in Vavilov: see particularly the Vavilov Court’s approach to reasonableness. The Federal Court of Appeal itself has recently made note of this: Alexion, at para 7. There is an irony here: the Supreme Court, far from settling the law of judicial review in the 2010s, unnecessarily complicated things for lower courts and litigants. Far from stability, the Court actively made things worse. It took lower court judges doing their best to apply the law to make the Supreme Court clean up its own mess, with help from the Federal Court of Appeal.

I am not suggesting that the leave practice of the Supreme Court in recent years is a wholly good thing, but I do not necessarily see it as a bad thing either. There is nothing special in the Supreme Court’s decision-making process that makes it any better suited to decide legal questions—apart from the fact that it provides a final resolution. The finality question is important, but we should not kid ourselves: the law can and does settle without the help of the Supreme Court.

This suggests that, perhaps, the question is not whether more or fewer leaves are granted. Rather, the question may be whether the Supreme Court is granting leaves to the right cases. Vavilov, for example, was an important case on which to grant leave because the doctrine was so unsettled across the country. I am candidly not sure how many such instances exist in various areas of the law. Unfortunately, this suggestion is a non-starter: we will never know what, beyond bromides, members of the Supreme Court take into account when granting leaves.

At any rate, I don’t have the answers here and as I said earlier, there is probably more in the available data to complicate the picture I have drawn here. Nonetheless, I do think more discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of the Supreme Court’s leave practice is desirable.

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.

One thought on “The Supreme Court’s Leaves (Or Lack Thereof)”

  1. An interesting implication is that – on the reasonable assumption the justices and their clerks work as hard as their predecessors – the amount of time that goes into each decision has increased. I think the Court is also dismissing more cases from the bench than in recent decades as well, so the amount of time for the considered cases is definitely going up. This seems like something that may be common across all levels of court – the length and depth of written analysis rises with the decades. There is no way a trial judge in 1970 would be writing the kind of decisions that are common now and SCC reasons have clearly gone through many more drafts and translations than they used to.

    This is probably a good thing. But I just note that it might not be a good thing to require of administrative decision makers! They do not have the option of deciding 45 cases a year (SCC in 2020) or even 67 (SCC in pre-pandemic 2019). There is a trade off between analysis and speed, and sometimes speed is more important to the people affected – a point administrative law academics do not give enough weight to, in my humble opinion.

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