The Supreme Court released its much-anticipated decision today in Toronto (City) v Ontario (Attorney General), 2021 SCC 34. While others will address the nuances of the case, the majority generally puts unwritten constitutional principles into a tiny, little box. It says that because “[u]nwritten principles are…part of the law of our Constitution…” , unwritten principles only have two practical functions: (1) they can be used in the interpretation of constitutional provisions ; (2) they can be used to “develop structural doctrines unstated in the written Constitution per se, but necessary to the coherence of, and flowing by implication from, its architecure” . In this category, the Court uses the example of the doctrine of paramountcy, the doctrine of full faith and credit, and the remedy of suspended declarations of invalidity.
I applaud the majority opinion for clarifying the role of unwritten constitutional principles. For my part, I think the functions they have outlined for unwritten principles give those principles a meaningful role in the constitutional structure while giving priority to the text. The majority aptly underscores the worry with unwritten principles–they are so abstract and potentially endless–and negates that worry by ensuring the text as a control on the use of these principles. Even better, the majority closes the door on the rather pernicious attempt to read municipalities into s.3 of the Charter .
But that is not my concern for today. What does any of this have to do with administrative law?
Post-Vavilov, there was a good argument that unwritten principles–the Rule of Law specifically–could have independent force in limiting state action in some way on the standard of review–put more bluntly, that the Rule of Law could invalidate certain legislative rules governing standard of review. The Court says, for example, that “where the legislature has indicated the applicable standard of review, courts are bound to respect that designation, within the limits imposed by the rule of law” (Vavilov, at para 35). It goes on to outline categories of questions–like constitutional questions–that demand a correctness standard because of “respect for the rule of law” (Vavilov, at para 53). This raised the argument that if a legislature were to prescribe a standard of review of reasonableness on a constitutional question, such a standard would not be given effect to by a court because it transgresseses the “limits imposed by the rule of law.”
On first blush, City of Toronto tends to throw cold water on the argument. Its insistence that unwritten principles cannot invalidate legislation could mean that a court should give effect to a legislated standard of review on constitutional questions. And because there is no express constitutional provision insisting on a correctness standard on certain questions, on a strict reading of the City of Toronto majority opinion, there would be no power to invalidate that law.
This very well may be true, and yet I think there are a few ways to reconcile City of Toronto with Vavilov that leads to the same result that Vavilov seems to suggest–a court not applying (which is strictly, though perhaps not functionally, different from invalidation) a legislated standard of review of reasonableness on constitutional questions. Much of this argument hinges on s.96 of the Constitution Act, 1867.
First, it might be said that the Rule of Law as outlined in Vavilov is a necessary interpretive principle that should be used to understand s.96. That is, we cannot understand s.96–which contemplates federally-appointed superior courts–without understanding the traditional role of these courts to conduct judicial review of administrative action on a certain stringency on certain questions. In City of Toronto, the Court cites s.96-100 as an example of unwritten principles bolstering a constitutional principle, suggesting that “unwritten constitutional principles of judicial independence and the rule have law have aided in the interpretation of [ss.96-100], which have come to safeguard the core jurisdiction of the courts that fall within the scope of those provisions” .
I think to call any of the doctrinal innovations that have come to s.96 a result of “interpretation” stretches the term a bit far. On its face, s.96 is just an appointing provision. It may be one thing to interpret what the terms of that appointing provision are, but to construct doctrine on top of the provision–or to make it work in a constitutional structure–seems to be a different judicial function.
Secondly, and I think more persuasively, the Court notes that unwritten principles can develop structural doctrines that flow from constitutional architecture . Again, the Court notes examples of this sort of doctrinal construction: full faith and credit, paramountcy, and even the legal result in the Quebec Secession Reference. As we see, some of these doctrines are quite particular to specific contexts–the Quebec Seccession Reference, for example. Others are more general. The doctrine of full faith and credit in the context of conflict of laws is a major doctrinal innovation that is not found anywhere in a specific constitutional provision. These doctrinal innovations can, in effect, change or invalidate legislation that conflict with them, though they are rooted in the text itself.
Vavilov‘s comments on standard of review best fall into this category. The standard of review framework flows from two unwritten principles themselves: legislative intent (perhaps partially reflected in the principle of “democracy”) and the Rule of Law. The Court conceives of the Rule of Law as generally the rule of courts, in that courts must retain a strong supervisory role over certain questions. It would upset the supervisory role of these courts to outlaw their ability to hold state actors to the strictest constitutional standard. This is but a logical extension of Crevier, which set the stage for an argument about the constitutionally-protected role of the superior courts.
An example and a caveat. First, the majority and dissent clash over MacMillan Bloedel. In that case, the Court arguably invalidated a legislative scheme that granted exclusion jurisdiction to a youth court. The City of Toronto majority says the holding in that case was based on the text of ss.96-101 and 129 of the Constitution Act, 1867 . The dissent, on the other hand, cites para 41 of MacMillan Bloedel to suggest that the basis of the holding was the Rule of Law itself . In my view, MacMillan Bloedel is a bit of both. The Court clearly bases its decision in s.96 (MacMillan Bloedel, at para 47). But it also says that the case is best understood “in a broader constitutional context, considering this jurisprudence along with the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867, the principle of the rule of law, and the central place of superior courts in our system of governance” (MacMillan Bloedel, at para 2). To the extent these principles and s.96 were abridged, the impugned legislative provision was “read down” as “inoperative to deprive the superior court of its jurisdiction to convict the appellant of contempt in this case” (MacMillan Bloedel, at para 43). In MacMillan Bloedel, we have a constitutional text (s.96)–>supported by the Rule of Law (unwritten principle)–>a result that the core of superior court powers were protected in this case. Vavilov falls into this same category. We can see, then, that in some cases a legislative standard of review may be “read down” as a result of the standard of review doctrine spun out from the unwritten principles of legislative intent and the Rule of Law.
The caveat I wish to raise has to do with the Federal Courts. Section 96 does not speak to statutory courts, and in theory, the Federal Courts’ judicial review jurisdiction could be abolished tomorrow unlike the superior courts. All of this, then, would stop at the Federal Courts. But I do not think this is inevitable. Once a statutory court has been made under s.101 of the Constitution Act, 1867, one might make the argument that so long as such a court exists, its powers should be construed as broadly as the powers of a superior court under s.96. But I do not commit to this argument in full, except to say that it makes practical sense to me and would uphold a consistent judicial standard for administrative action across jurisdictions.
At any rate, I think City of Toronto–despite its strong language on unwritten principles–can be reconciled with Vavilov. And at the end of the day, the result may be the same: legislation that undermines an unwritten principle may not be “given effect” according to a doctrinal innovation, even if the legislation is not “invalidated” in a strict sense. This is the best way to undertstand Vavilov‘s standard of review framework.