The Cruel Ritual of the Ontario Bar Exam

Every June, lawyers-to-be in the province of Ontario make the pilgrimage to one of a few cities to undergo the ritualistic exercise of writing the bar exam. For many, the bar exam—otherwise known as the lawyer licensing exam—represents a large part of the process to become a lawyer in the province of Ontario. Students migrate into convention halls with their little Ziploc baggies of highlighters and granola bars, and carry in large bags their heavily indexed binders of material. But the Law Society of Ontario’s (LSO) bar exam is not an exercise in actually demonstrating competence. Instead, the regulator has imposed a search-and-destroy style exam on students, in which the charges must find the right answer buried in their indexed binders. If the goal of the bar exam process is to ensure that students have a minimal level of competence in the profession, it is hard to see how the bar exam achieves that goal.

More to the point, it appears that the only good justification for a bar exam of this sort is to teach students how to take a timed examination under strict conditions. But what purpose does this justification have in terms of competency for a lawyer? Indeed, other that imposing needless anxiety and pressure on already debt-burdened students, how does this ritual do anything for competency? Maybe it could be justified as a tradition that all lawyers should have to bear—but this seems like a thin reed on which to charge students for the pleasure of it.

Instead of taking the bar exam as a given, perhaps Ontario should start from first principles. What is the goal of the licensing process? Starting from the highest level of abstraction, the Law Society Act states that a goal of the LSO is to ensure that “all persons who practise law in Ontario or provide legal services in Ontario meet standards of learning, professional competence and professional conduct that are appropriate for the legal services they provide.” In its “Options for Lawyer Licensing: A Consultation Paper,” the LSO noted the following:

Lawyer candidates are required to demonstrate proficiency in respect of competencies that reflect the minimum requirements of both barristers and solicitors entering the profession in the seven areas of law that are most frequently practised. The current barrister and solicitor examinations provide a means of testing candidates’ abilities in core knowledge, application and critical thinking competencies, irrespective of their educational background.

With this connection to the competency requirement in mind, the LSO also defended its licensing process, citing only one article from American scholars:

The LSO’s licensing examinations are internationally-recognized as high-quality, psychometrically-defensible professional qualification assessments.

That relatively unsupported assertion aside, the LSO to its credit recognized in its consultation paper that the licensing process needed some amendment. In fact, the LSO outlined four options for the licensing process. Two of those options would add a “skills-based” examination to the existing bar exams. Indeed, the option ultimately chosen by the LSO would involve ”[c]onsideration of some form of skills testing in the licensing process.” But there did not appear to be a serious appraisal of whether the bar exam—from a common-sense, regulatory perspective—really advances the goals of competency. In other words, while some form of skills-testing is probably tied closer to a regulatory goal of ensuring competency, I fail to see how the mode of the existing licensing examinations does anything to even basically ensure that competency.

The Ontario mode is not the only one that could be followed. In Manitoba, for example, the focus of the process is almost entirely skills-based rather than examination-based. Instead, through the CPLED program, students are exposed to different tests in oral advocacy, writing, and other areas that are more directly related to lawyer competency. One can at least make the regulatory business case for this mode of testing as connected to testing lawyer competency.

I cannot say the same for Ontario’s whack-a-mole-style licensing examinations. While the LSO tries to suggest that its licensing exam is acclaimed internationally (simply on the basis of one US article), I truly would like to know, at the level of regulatory policy, the justification for a bar exam of Ontario’s sort. From where I am standing, it appears as nothing more than a cruel joke to already-burdened students.

Environmental Sustainability is Not An Unwritten Constitutional Principle

On the IACL-AIDC Blog, Professor Lynda Collins (Ottawa) suggests that “ecological sustainability [should be recognized] as an Unwritten Constitutional Principle (UCP)—a foundational, binding norm to provide guidance to courts and legislators as we navigate the difficult waters of our current environmental crisis.” This argument also appeared in a joint article by Prof. Collins and (now Justice) Lorne Sossin, where the authors link this nascent principle of environmental sustainability to the Constitution’s apparent status as a living tree. In short, without the UCP of ecological sustainability, or whatever the principle is defined as, “the Constitution would become ‘self-defeating’; to extend the metaphor, it would be a dying tree rather than a living tree” [318].

I strongly disagree with the thrust of both the blog post and the article. While environmental sustainability is a noble objective, and I commend the authors for saying so, interpretation of legislation or assessment of the legality of discretionary decisions cannot be driven by our own personal policy preferences (Hillier, at para 33) . Simply because environmental sustainability is a good idea does not make it a constitutional mandate. Accepting it as such would continue a dangerous trend in constitutional law—a desire to transform the Constitution into a vessel for popular modern policy objectives, thereby making it a document of majoritarian rule rather than a counter-majoritarian restriction on governmental action.

I first wish to show why environmental sustainability cannot be a UCP. Then I assess the dangerous implications of recognizing such a principle.

***

For a UCP to be recognized by a court, it must meet general certain criteria. In the Quebec Secession Reference, at para 49, the Court generally described these criteria as follows:

Behind the written word is an historical lineage stretching back through the ages, which aids in the consideration of the underlying constitutional principle. These principles inform and sustain the constitutional text: they are the vital unstated assumptions upon which the text is based….These defining principles function in symbiosis.

But these principles are not free-standing licences for judges to read-in modern “values” into the Constitution that is designed to be resistant to change. In fact, the principles are institutional or structural in nature. They “inform and sustain the constitutional text…” (my emphasis). Consider some of the commentary from the Quebec Secession Reference:

These supporting principles and rules, which include constitutional conventions and the workings of Parliament, are a necessary part of our Constitution because problems or situations may arise which are not expressly dealt with by the text of the Constitution. In order to endure over time, a constitution must contain a comprehensive set of rules and principles which are capable of providing an exhaustive legal framework for our system of government. Such principles and rules emerge from an understanding of the constitutional text itself, the historical context, and previous judicial interpretations of constitutional meaning [32].

[…]

The principles assist in the interpretation of the text and the delineation of spheres of jurisdiction, the scopes of rights and obligations, and the role of our political institutions [52].

Consider also the Court’s comment in the Patriation Reference, at 874:

[The Constitution of Canada includes] the global system of rules and principles which govern the exercise of constitutional authority in the whole and in every part of the Canadian state.

These comments are clearly related to the role of unwritten principles in interpreting textual ambiguities in the constitutional text, which itself is designed to set out the institutional capacities of the state. The goal is to provide a “legal framework for our system of government.” This restriction means that unwritten constitutional principles, to be recognized, must bear some “vital” relationship to the constitutional structure and the history. These are not freestanding policy preferences: indeed, the Court said as much in the Quebec Secession Reference, when it opined that “the recognition of these constitutional principles…[cannot] be taken as an invitation to dispense with the written text of the Constitution” [53].

Some of the principles recognized thus far reflect this theory of unwritten principles as central to structural or textual concerns. Take, for example, federalism. A federal structure is established by ss.91-92 of the Constitution Act, 1867. Federalism, then, is “inherent in the structure of our constitutional arrangements” (Quebec Secession Reference, at para 56, my emphasis). Federalism responds to “underlying social and political realities” that are implicitly reflected in the “diversity of the component parts of Confederation, and the autonomy of provincial governments to develop their societies within their respective spheres of jurisdiction” (Quebec Secession Reference, at paras 57-58). The limiting principle to all of this is the use of an unwritten principle to provide meaning to unstated assumptions or ambiguities inherent in the text or structure of the Constitution. Unwritten principles are not at-large.

So, in all of this, where does ecological sustainability stand? For Collins, either of “ecological sustainability,” “respect for the environment” or “environmental protection” “…meets all of the criteria the Supreme Court has set out for “Unwritten Constitutional Principles.” This is because—picking up on language in the Quebec Secession Reference—sustainability is the “lifeblood” of the Constitution, and a
“vital unstated assumption underlying the Canadian state.” Historically, Collins relies on various documents that show that sustainability is an unwritten constitutional principle. The Charter of the Forest (1217) apparently “guaranteed to British subjects rights of access to vital natural resources” and under Roman Law, the Justinian Code enshrined a version of the public trust doctrine. The Supreme Court itself has recognized that the environment is an important fundamental value (see British Columbia v Canadian Forest Products).

But there is a problem with all of this. It is one thing for environmental sustainability—whatever that means—to be a fundamental societal value. But what is the fundamental structural link back to the Constitution? One does not appear in either Collins & Sossin’s article or Collins’ blog post. As a legal matter, environmental sustainability appears separate and apart from fundamental institutional features that are either a part of British Westminster parliamentary democracy, or are otherwise central to Canada’s particular legal arrangements. Environmental sustainability may be a bedrock societal principle, but whether it is fundamental to the Constitution—which is not necessarily co-extensive with “society,” whatever that is—is a completely different question altogether.

Of course, one might say that ecological sustainability is the basic starting point for any society with a Constitution. That is, it is so fundamental that without it, there would be no world to begin with, hence no Constitution. This argument appears absurd to me, and though Collins seems to make it at some points, it never appears as a full-fledged contention—probably for good reason. For one, the argument as taken would make “ecological sustainability,” a goal without any limiting principle, the dominant organizational principle of the entire society. This would be on the assumption that without ecological sustainability, we’d all die. While protecting the environment is an admirable and necessary goal, no one would suggest that it is a goal to be achieved at all costs. Certainly regulators would not accept this proposition because regulation often involves an eclectic mix of performance standards, design standards, and other incentives that might delay the accomplishment of pure and complete “ecological sustainability.” And yet no one would deny that these measures are somehow unconstitutional because they are not sufficiently strong command-and-control regulation. The unlimited scope of the authors’ nascent principle is a significant problem for its own sustainability.

But more importantly, the Constitution could still exist in a world ravaged by climate change. And that is the key distinction between the principle of ecological sustainability and the other so-far-recognized unwritten principles of constitutional law. The other principles are essential to the workings of the Constitution as such—and I mean this in the most strictly construed manner possible. The Constitution could not exist in any meaningful way without these principles, such that they are “vital” to its operation. Federalism gives life to the textual division of powers. Respect for minorities supports federalism. The Rule of Law is fundamental to any constitutional system. Ecological sustainability is an admirable goal to be achieved by legislatures, but it is not related to the fundamental architecture of the Constitution, such that the Constitution (not society more generally) could continue to work without it. In fact, situations of climate emergency might be the most apt circumstances for the Constitution to work its magic.

***

I want to close by outlining some of the pernicious legal and practical effects of the sort of argument advanced by Collins and Sossin. On the legal front, the correlation that the authors draw between “ecological sustainability” and the “living tree” doctrine continues to prop up this dying metaphor as a doctrine of constitutional law. Take the authors’ footnote 70, which outlines this tenuous connection in the context of the Quebec Secession Reference;

Note the recurrence of biological language in this passage (“symbiosis,” “lifeblood,” “living tree”). This language arguably reflects an implicit understanding that all our human structures depend on our biological survival. In this sense there is no principle more fundamental than that of a healthy environment.

This footnote, more than any other argument I’ve seen, illustrates at least one problem with the living tree mode of thinking. Not only is that mode completely inconsistent with the overall perspective in the Persons Case, in this context, it allows enterprising scholars to draw connections and make arguments that are based primarily on the status of sustainability as an ideal policy goal. But that is not the concern of the Constitution, properly interpreted. The living tree is a constitutional aberration, not a constitutional doctrine.

And courts have been increasingly concerned with preventing judges—let alone scholars—from pouring their preferred policy outcomes into the Constitution. I cited Justice Stratas’ comments in Hillier, above. But consider also his opinions in Williams and Cheema, where the same principle was used to the same effect in the context of statutory interpretation. We always have to be on guard for the imposition of one’s personal policy preferences into the law, when those policy preferences do not represent the duly-enacted law of the responsible legislature. How would the people who believe in environmental sustainability like it if those on the opposite side of the spectrum sought to impose a principle of “resource development” in the Constitution, tying it to tenuous constitutional signals like the fact that the federal government has the power under s.91(2) to regulate trade and commerce? The question needs no answer.

Practically, it continues to be my view that there are certain things that are best addressed and constitutionally assigned to legislatures—not courts. Courts are not designed to vindicate the policy goals of the moment. And, for those sympathetic to the idea that environmental sustainability is a fundamental value of Canadian society, it would seem odd to suggest that courts in the adversarial system should be the ones to vindicate that value. Instead, wide study and a nuanced regulatory response seem to be the best options from a practical perspective. And yet the blunt force of an unwritten constitutional principle—that remains undefined, unclear, and unhelpful—emerges as the regulatory response in Collins and Sossin’s article.

Clearly, the environmental crisis needs a better answer.

“Clear Enough”

Some thoughts on statutory interpretation.

As I finish my graduate studies at  Chicago, it struck me that a major theme of legal design is the degree of perfection (if any) we should expect from legal rules. Drafted legal rules—whether by the legislature or judiciary—will always be over and underbroad, because rules of general application cannot foresee every idiosyncratic individual application. In such a case, the extent to which a perfect rule can be created is dependent on the extent to which we balance the error rate of application with the ease of administrability of a straightforward rule. Here, we will never come to a perfect balance, but we can try to come to something that is defensible and workable.

The same sort of consideration applies in the field of statutory interpretation. The most important issue in statutory interpretation is the clarity exercise—how clear is clear enough? Finding that a statutory text is clear on its face leads to a number of important consequences. For one, the Supreme Court has said that where text is “precise and unequivocal, the ordinary meaning of the words play a dominant role in the interpretive process” as opposed to purpose (Canada Trustco, at para 10). Additionally, the use of Charter values in statutory interpretation to gap-fill only arises where there is ambiguity in the ordinary textual meaning (BellExpressVu, at para 28). And, as Gib Van Ert points out, the Federal Court of Appeal seems to be adopting a similar rule in the context of international law.

Some may object at the outset to a consideration of “clarity” as a means of discerning legislative intent on a particular subject. This line of opposition is deeply rooted in the idea of legal realism, with its skepticism of judicial modes of reasoning and the rejection of abstract legal thought as a means to come to clear answers on the law. Representative works in this regard include John Willis’ “Statutory Interpretation in a Nutshell,” where he argues that, in modern legislation which uses wide language (often to delegate authority to others), literal interpretation does no good, essentially because the language is broad and unclear. And he notes that even if interpretation could be  clear or plain on its face, there are differences between judges as to what “plain” constitutes (see 10 and 11). Additionally, Karl Llewellyn’s classic article on the “dueling canons of interpretation” sheds doubt on the use of the canons of statutory interpretation to come to any clear meaning that is not inspired by motivated reasoning. Underlying each of these important critiques is a belief in the relativism and contingency of language. Clarity, on this account, is probably a fool’s errand, in part because ascribing an intent to the legislature is difficult with open-textured language, and in part because language itself is inherently unclear. If this is true, it will be the rare case indeed where a court should be convinced that a text is clear.

While this might sound good to a lawyer’s ear—especially a lawyer that is paid money to exploit ambiguities—it does not comport with the way we use language in the majority of cases. And this is where the example of crafting legal rules comes into handy. One might wish to craft a legal rule to cover all of the interstitial, idiosyncratic applications—ones that are weird or abnormal. But then we create a rule that might work well in the individual case, and not in the general run of cases. Instead, we should craft legal rules based on the 98% of cases, not the 2%: see Richard Epstein’s Simple Rules for a Complex World on this score. In the realm of statutory interpretation, this means that we should start with the going-in, commonsense presumption that language is generally clear in the majority of circumstances, after a bit of listening and synthesis. People transact in the English language everyday with no major kerfluffles, and even conduct complex business and legal dealings without requiring a court to opine on the language they are using. This underlying mass of cases never makes it to court precisely because English works. The problem with statutory interpretation cases, then, is the major selection effect they present. The cases that make it to court, where the rules are developed, are the cases that are most bizarre or that raise the most technical questions. Those are not the cases on which we should base rules of general application. Instead, the rule should simply be that English works in most circumstances, as evidenced by the fact that each of us can generally communicate—with only small hiccups—in the day-to-day world.

If that is the rule adopted, and if legal language is really no different in kind (only in degree of specificity and technicality), then a court should not be exacting in its determination of the clarity of a statutory provision. That is, if language generally works on first impression, then there is no need for a court to adopt a presumption that it doesn’t work, and hence that something greater than “clear enough” is required to definitively elucidate the meaning of a text. We should merely assume that language probably works, that legislatures know language, and that courts have the tools to discern that language. While we should not assume that language is perfect, we should at least assume that it is workable in an ordinary meaning sense.

This approach also has the benefit of commonsense. Perfection is not of this world.  The legal realists put way too high a standard on the clarity of language, to something approaching perfect linguistic clarity rather than semantic workability. We should not craft legal rules around the fact that, in some far-off circumstances, we can imagine language not working.

What does this mean in operation? The American debate over Chevron deference supplies a good example. Chevron holds that where Congress has spoken to the precise question at issue, courts should not afford deference to an agency’s interpretation of law. This is Chevron Step One. If Congress has not spoken clearly, the court moves to Chevron Step Two, where it will defer to the interpretation and uphold it if it constitutes a reasonable interpretation of law. In a recent case, Justice Gorsuch concliuded at Chevron Step One that the text was “clear enough,” so that deference should not be afforded. The clear enough formulation is reminiscent of Justice Kavanaugh’s article, where he explains the various divisions among judges about clarity:

I tend to be a judge who finds clarity more readily than some of my colleagues but perhaps a little less readily than others. In practice, I probably apply something approaching a 65-35 rule. In other words, if the interpretation is at least 65-35 clear, then I will call it clear and reject reliance on ambiguity-dependent canons. I think a few of my colleagues apply more of a 90-10 rule, at least in certain cases. Only if the proffered interpretation is at least 90-10 clear will they call it clear. By contrast, I have other colleagues who appear to apply a 55-45 rule. If the statute is at least 55-45 clear, that’s good enough to call it clear.

Kavanaugh’s approach is probably closer to the right one, if we accept the general proposition that language will be workable in the majority of cases. If there is no reason to doubt language, then clarity will be easier to come by. It is only if we go in assuming the case of unworkability that clarity becomes a fool’s errand. But from a perspective of legal design, this is not desirable.

Law has a reputation for being a highly technical field, with a laser focus on commas, semicolons, and correcting the passive voice. But at the level of designing legal rules, including rules governing language, the best we can hope for is workability, not technical precision. This is because designing rules involves tradeoffs between incentives, administrability, and fit. And because humans are not perfect, we cannot design rules at this level of abstraction that are perfect. As a result, in the language context, the best we can and should do is workability in the general run of cases.

Virtual Insanity: AI and Judicial Review

I am far from an expert on the growing trend in law and life towards “algorithmic justice,” or decision-making by machines. But a report released by the Law Foundation of New Zealand and the University of Otago got me thinking about the use of neural networks, predictive modelling, and other forms of algorithmic learning in the field of administrative law. Specifically, as these complex models and machines develop, there will be an urgent need for administrative law—conceived as a form of control over delegated decision-making—to adapt to its new subjects. The key question is whether new rules governing “machine-learning” administrative law need to be developed, or whether existing rules can be massaged to apply to new contexts. In my view, with some trepidation, I think our existing rules of administrative law developed over centuries can meet the task of regulating the brave new world of algorithmic justice. The New Zealand report raises a number of interesting issues, but I want to moot a few of them to show how our rules of administrative law and judicial review can evolve to the challenge of machine learning.

Consider first the problems of delegation that might occur when considering the use of machines to make decisions. One can imagine two scenarios. In scenario one, Parliament could delegate to a machine in an enabling statute to make decisions, such that those decisions are binding. In scenario two, Parliament could delegate to a human to make decisions, but the human—perhaps due to internal agency rules or guidance documents—might in turn subdelegate to a machine.

Each situation presents important challenges that traditional Canadian doctrines of delegation will need to meet. Take the first scenario. Why would Parliament ever delegate like this? The New Zealand report notes a worrying trend, among experts and non-experts alike: automation bias. Automatic bias occurs when human operators “trust the automated system so much that they ignore other sources of information, including their own systems” [37]. We might imagine a world in the not too distant future where Parliament, as entranced by “experts” as it already is in traditional administrative law, might trust machines more than humans.

For the New Zealand report, the real problem in such scenarios is the “abdication” of decision-making responsibility [40]. For Canadians, this language is familiar—as I noted in a recent blog post, Canada’s only restriction on delegation articulated by the Supreme Court is a prohibition on “abdication” of legislative power. What if a machine is given power to formulate and apply rules? This may constitute the abdication of legislative power because a machine is not responsible to Parliament, and it is worthwhile to ask whether a machine could ever be traditionally responsible—or if a human could be made fully responsible for a neural network, given that it is so difficult to disentangle the factors on which the neural network relies [42]. Rather than delving into this morass, courts might think about adopting an easily administrable rule that is based in the Constitution and the precedents of the Supreme Court: they may need to be more willing to apply a version of the non-abdication rule to the machine context than they would in the human context.

Scenario #2 is trickier. Here, there is no abdication problem at first blush, because the delegation runs from Parliament to a responsible Minister or decision-maker formally answerable in Parliament. But what happens when subdelegation occurs to a machine, and the machine makes the decision for the responsible delegated party? The existing law in this area does not seem to see a problem with this. Take for instance the rule that a decision-maker is permitted to adopt subdelegated investigative reports as the final decision (Sketchley, at para 36 et seq). Here, courts do not apply a more searching standard of review to subdelegated parties versus primary delegations.

But the existing rule presents new challenges in the context of machine learning. In the human context, where an agency head adopts a subdelegated party’s report, the lines of accountability and authority are clear. Courts can scrutinize the subdelegated report as the reasons of the agency. But the same possibility is probably precluded in the machine learning context, at least at first blush. Courts would need to know how and why humans have accepted the “thinking” of an algorithm; or it would otherwise need to understand the modelling underpinning the machine. While these sorts of factors would be apparent in an ideal subdelegated human report, they would not appear at first impression in a decision by a machine–again, especially if the way the machine has made the decision is not easily amenable to scrutiny by a human. In such a context, if humans cannot deduce the basis on which machines made decisions, courts should afford little weight to a machine decision, or otherwise prohibit subdelegation to such machines.

This might appear as a drastic response to the potentially boundless potential of machines. But much like expertise as a reason for deference, courts should only countenance the existence of machine decision-making to the extent that it is compatible with fundamental premises of the legal system, like the rule of law. While one could have different conceptions of the rule of law, most would concede that the ability of parties to seek judicial review is one of its fundamental elements (see, on this note, Crevier). Where a court cannot conduct judicial review, and administrative decisions are immunized from review, the decisiomn is not subject to judicial review through the ordinary channels. Courts already worry about this in the context of deficient administrative records on judicial review (see Tsleil-Waututh, at paras 50-51). The same concern is present where humans, for reasons of lack of expertise or technological impediments, cannot look behind the veil of the machine in a way that is cognizable to a court.

In situations where it is possible to deconstruct an algorithm, courts should, as an element of reasonableness review, insist that humans present the modelling to courts in a way that courts can understand. Just like when courts might be asked to review economic analysis and modelling, they should insist that experts  be able to deduce from complex formulae what the machine is actually doing and how it made its decision. Subjecting machines to the ordinary world of judicial review is important as a matter of the rule of law.

Of course, all these thoughts are extremely tentative, and subject to change as I learn more. But it seems to me that courts will need to, at the very least, adjust existing rules of judicial review to suit the modern world of machine decision-making. Importantly, we need not move machines out of the realm of normal judicial review. The rule of law says that all are subject to the law, regardless of status. Even experts—machines or humans—are subject to this fundamental tenet.

Judges are Subject to Law, Too

Last summer, I wrote a blog post about a concerning case out of the Federal Court, Girouard v CJC. The gist of the case was the claim by the Canadian Judicial Council (CJC) that their reports, recommendations, and decisions in the course of the investigation of a judge were not subject to judicial review under the Federal Courts Act.

For the reasons I outlined in my blog post, this argument was both surprising and unfortunate:

I see this case as an extreme example of the modern trend of administrative law: towards more regulation and more administrative decision-makers that have court-imposed “unlimited” powers (see West Fraser, at para 11). Once we accept even one instance of such a decision-maker, vested by statute, we have to conclude that no court can speak ill of that “unlimited” decision-maker. Obviously this has profound effect on the Rule of Law, individual liberties, and due process. Take this case–dissenting members of the CJC were concerned that certain anglophone members of the CJC could not evaluate the entire record, which was in French. This implicates the fairness of the process for Justice Girouard. A purpose of judicial review is to ensure this basic fairness, but if we make administrative decision-makers beyond reproach, we sit them alongside the basic law of the land–the Constitution. And of course, legislative bodies acting alone cannot establish new constitutional provisions.

And, because of finer legal points, I thought that the CJC’s case was weak. For example, though the membership of the CJC is made up of s.96 judges, which would counsel a restrained approach to judicial review, the premise of the CJC is as a “statutory investigatory institution, vested with powers only so far as the statute allows.” The CJC is, like all administrative decision-makers, rooted in statute. And as a result, the membership of the CJC does not bear on the question of whether it is subject to review.

Luckily, the Federal Court of Appeal recently affirmed the Federal Court’s holding that the CJC is subject to judicial review. This is the right result, and one that prioritizes the rule of law—the supervision of all state actors, regardless of their status, under higher law—over administrative fiat, even fiat issued by judges.

It is worthwhile to explore the Federal Court of Appeal’s reasoning to see why the court got the case right. Under the Federal Courts Act, the definition of a federal board was recently confirmed by the Supreme Court in Mikisew Cree—a judgment to which Chief Justice Wagner, who is the head of the CJC, signed his name. Section 2 of the statute defines a reviewable “federal, board, commission or other tribunal” as one that exercises statutory powers or powers under an order made pursuant to Crown prerogative (Mikisew Cree, at para 18). Here, we see the idea that the root of agencies subject to judicial review in the Federal Courts is fundamentally statutory in character. On this front, the Court reviewed its test in Anisman, which provides that a court, to determine whether a body falls within the Federal Courts Act, must consider the source of the powers exercised and the nature of those powers (see para 37).

Consider first the source of power. Here, the Court—as I did in my blog post last summer—drew a sensible distinction between the CJC as a statutory institution and its membership. The Court noted that without statutory nourishment, the CJC would not exist—it exercises no inherent powers simply because it is made up of s.96 judges (see paras 41). Moreover, the nature of the powers exercised by the CJC are not judicial, adjudicative powers per se. Rather, the CJC exercises powers that are fundamentally administrative in nature; those powers are inquisitorial, investigative, and not powers exercised by s.96 judges as s.96 judges (see paras 77-78). Since both the source and nature of the powers exercised by the CJC are rooted and defined by statute, and are typical administrative powers, it follows that they can easily fit the definition of a federal board under the Federal Courts Act. On this front, it is important to note that the CJC could have been expressly excluded from this definition by Parliament, but it was not.

There was another argument raised by counsel for the CJC based on 63(4) of the Judges Act, which deems the Board or an inquiry panel a “superior court” (see para 81). It followed, according to counsel, that this deeming clause must be read in its ordinary meaning, such that it was at least colourable that the Board should have “all the attributes” of superior court jurisdiction; and therefore, should be excluded from the definition of a statutory body under the Federal Courts Act.

Notwithstanding that this argument runs up against the stubborn fact that the CJC exists only because of a statute saying so, the Court rejected this argument on other grounds. The text of the so-called deeming provision, notably, did not denote that the CJC’s jurisdiction should expand to the full powers of a superior court, beyond the procedural powers required to manage inquiries. Notably, if Parliament wanted the CJC to be a court of superior jurisdiction, it could create it as such under s.101 of the Constitution Act, 1867, under which the Federal Court was created. But it did not do so. Absent a clearer statement, the CJC should not be presumed to possess full superior court powers, just as the Canada Transport Agency, with a similar deeming provision, is not presumed to carry those powers.

The final part of the judgment, which should be particularly commended, is the Court’s focus on the implications of the CJC’s arguments for the rule of law. Shielding the CJC from review would amount to a situation where an administrative decision-maker—simply because of some of its membership, and even though it exercises public functions—can evade the strictures of public law. In a government of laws, the possibility for this should be foreclosed. This is true no matter who makes up the overall administrative body.

Overall, there are two important points to this case to which I should draw attention. First, and as I have said time and time again, the administrative state exists not because of any constitutional mandate or legal principle other than statutory enactment. Judges attempting to insulate themselves from review could be successful if the administrative state existed as a matter of constitutional law. Indeed, there are some that argue that there are constitutional foundations to the administrative state. This sort of argument, in my view and with all due respect, is clearly wrong. And the Federal Court of Appeal seems to agree. Even when we are talking about judges, the fact that the CJC’s existence is because of statute is the definitive answer to any claim that it cannot be subject to the rule of law. Put differently, imagine the incentive effects of an opposite conclusion. Parliament could staff administrative agencies with judges, making them evasive of judicial review, and simply state that the Constitution protects the body of which they are members as part of the “constitutional administrative state.” No one should accept this line of reasoning.

Second, the fact that the court rooted its consideration in the rule of law is important. The Court could have simply analyzed the applicable law, which clearly ran up against the CJC’s claims. But it went further at para 103 by rooting the conclusion in the idea that all public officials—no matter their own august judicial status—should be subject to the dictates of law. In today’s day and age, this is a reminder that we all need.

 

The New Administrative Law II: Why Defer?

Part II of a two-part series on administrative law

In Part I of this series on administrative law, I set out the reasons why the Progressive mode of thinking about the subject has lost force in the 21st century. The basic point was that the Progressives—who thought agencies could be staffed by expert, well-intentioned people to achieve progressive goals—assumed too much. In today’s day and age, deferring to agencies on the basis of expertise or their particular substantive goals would mean drawing a consistent rule that applies to inexpert agencies and those who do not hold progressive goals.

In truth, though, this tells us nothing about what sort of judicial review doctrine should be adopted by courts—what the posture of courts should be on judicial review. The only reason I needed to write the first post in the series is because the Progressives, who are the architects behind today’s administrative state, made these weak reasons for deference the basic building blocks. The Progressives made it so political appreciations of agencies justified a deferential posture. The problem with these assumptions, though, is that they require a constant justification according to empirical facts, and a costly court-led investigation into the reasons for deference in every case. The assumptions must be true. And if they are not true, the reasons for deference melt away.

More importantly, these functional reasons for deference are not legal reasons for deference. As Justice Scalia said, they are not reasons for motivating a court to refuse to take an independent view of an agency decision.

So, the first post in this series was not a post I wanted to write, because expertise and the political goals of an agency should be wholly irrelevant to judicial review. But it was a post I had to write, because these reasons for deference need to first be put aside before embarking on a far more ambitious task: describing a defensible doctrine of judicial review.

In the spirit of the Court’s upcoming administrative law trilogy decisions, I invite readers to take a step with me into a world where there is no administrative law doctrine—but there are courts and administrative agencies. Let’s say that there is no court-made law governing the relationship between courts and agencies. All we have is our Constitution and the principles that animate it, and statutes

Luckily for us behind this veil of administrative ignorance, the Constitution itself gives some thought to how Parliament and courts should interact. When Parliament passes law, absent constitutional objection, its law binds because of the idea of parliamentary sovereignty. Putting aside thorny issues of an unconstitutional delegation of power or other constitutional challenges to administrative discretion, most administrative issues are just ordinary, hum-drum stuff involving an exercise of discretion or the interpretation of a statute.

When an administrator is delegated power under Parliament’s law to make determinations, issue rules and regulations, or adjudicate disputes, its power is confined by the statute that creates it. The administrator cannot make a decision forbidden to it by statute. Traditionally, in the common law, it was the job of the courts to interpret the limits of statutory bounds and say when a decision-maker took a decision that was not prescribed by statute. In other words, courts interpret statutes to give effect to legislative meaning regarding agencies. Courts do not invent standards to govern those agencies.

In this way, the concept of jurisdiction at common law was an attempt to synthesize parliamentary sovereignty with the rule of law. Of course, jurisdiction became a problematic concept, for the same reason that the Progressive approach to administrative law is problematic. It read a judicial conservatism into the statutes adopted by Parliament, just like Progressives wanted judges to read labour-friendly standards of review into the law. But the concept that jurisdiction was getting at—the “statutory authority” of the decision-maker—was basically sound. The idea, expressed in Bibeault, that all of judicial review is fundamentally a matter of statutory interpretation is the simple reality of the matter.

This raises the question: when does a court defer under this arrangement? In my view, the only legal and constitutional basis for deference is when a legislature expressly or implicitly says so. I have already expressed why functional or policy reasons for deference are underwhelming reasons for a court to take a hands-off approach in the interpretive process. They are empirically doubtful, and do not legally bind, because it is Parliament, not the courts, that prescribe the level of deference.

When Parliament expressly provides in a statute for the standard of review, the issue is easy. Parliament’s law binds. The trickier question exists, in the vast number of cases, where Parliament or legislatures do not expressly provide for a standard of review, and courts must do the best they can with the statute in front of them.

This moves us from the world of abstract principles in the technical, doctrinal question of judicial review: which doctrinal tools should courts use to approximate legislative meaning on standard of review when there is no clear legislative meaning available? There are any number of options, but one can divide the world into two different types of legal doctrines: rules and standards. A standard might look something like the Dunsmuir factors, in which courts are asked to look to the various indicia like the expertise of the decision-maker, the nature of the question at issue, or the existence of a privative clause or a statutory right of appeal; the former a non-binding sign that courts must defer, the latter a sign that legislatures contemplated a more searching standard of review. The goal of the standard is to take into account “context” to approximate all of the conditions under which deference could exist.

One could also imagine a rule. This has been the approach adopted by the Supreme Court as of late. In both Edmonton East and CHRC, the Court went to pains to explain that its preferred approach was a presumption of deference, based on the expertise of the “tribunal” as an “institution.” To the Court, a strong-form presumption of deference is designed to simplify the standard of review analysis and “get the parties away from arguing about the tests and back to arguing about the substantive merits of their case” (Alberta Teachers, at para 36, citing Dunsmuir, at para 145).

There are costs and benefits to both rules and standards, the complexities of which I cannot explore here. But, in at least one respect, the costs of standards cut hard in the direction of rules when it comes to administrative law: that is, the costs of “compliance” with a standard are likely exponential in a world where administrative agencies take different forms, carry different legislative, executive, and judicial functions, and take on varying policy tasks in complex regulatory environments. It is difficult for litigants to approximate the standard of review under the current scheme, because they cannot be sure with any degree of regularity what the standard will be in their case. There is also a kernel of truth in the Court’s reasoning about deferential presumptions: at the very least, they focus the parties in on the merits at the expense of the rather abstract standard of review.

But the standard of review, nonetheless, is integrally important in a world where government action is confined by law. It prescribes the conditions under which unelected judges can interfere with the actions of delegated actors, acting under authority delegated to them from elected actors. It is important to get the question right, as a matter of the rule of law. But it is also important to stabilize the law, also as a matter of the rule of law.

How do we balance these considerations? I favour a rule of interpretation similar to the one advanced by Martin Olszynski: there should be a presumption of correctness review. That presumption would operate under the well-supported idea that the legislature must affirmatively—explicitly or implicitly—speak before a court will infer deference. In other words, deference does not accrue to administrative agencies from the heavenly font of judicial chambers. It does not exist in the ether because of some expertise-worship or the desires of progressives; after all, experts should be “on tap, not on top.” Deference is, in reality, only a legal matter—only prescribed by legislators—and must be fairly interpreted to exist by courts.

The rule can be slightly relaxed when we come to understand under what conditions deference should operate. A privative clause, within constitutional limits, should bind courts and be a sign of deference—it should operate as a statutory “clear statement rule” that deference was intended by the legislature. In less clear cases, such as when statutes delegate power in broad terms (the classic “public interest” delegation is an example), courts should also defer, on the grounds that legislatures would have spoken more specifically if it wished the agency to have a more limited range of factors to consider in making a decision. Where a legislature uses a “statutory recipe,” deference should be very narrow, perhaps non-existent: if an agency has a list of factors to consider, it must consider that list, nothing more or less.

Of course, what I have said here is open to criticism (Professor Daly, for example, wrote a piece a few years back criticizing this line of thinking; I responded to Professor Daly’s piece, here). And nothing in here is necessarily new. Justice Stratas, for example, has written decision after decision at the Federal Court of Appeal level along these lines. Nonetheless, the contribution I seek to make here must be read in light of my previous post. My conclusions can be summarized as follows:

  1. Legislatures are sovereign within constitutional limits.
  2. This means that when legislatures delegate power, within constitutional limits, courts (as unelected actors) should respect the will of elected actors. This is a simple corollary of the English Bill of Right
  3. On that logic, it is for the legislature to tell courts just how far courts can go. In the state of nature, courts must fairly interpret those boundaries.
  4. Courts should not read progressive (or conservative) justifications for deference into the law. Courts should not presume expertise where it does not exist. Courts should not presume that agencies are owed deference because they are part of the “social welfare” state. In the latter part of the 20th century, the courts swerved in the direction of leftist politics rather than law. That tendency should be guarded against, not only because it is wrong as a matter of law, but also because it is empirically untrue. But so should the tendency to shift in conservative directions.
  5. The best rule, with this in mind, is a presumption of correctness review, with the onus on the legislature to stipulate if it wishes more deference in the context of particular statutes, using either (a) privative clauses/statutory rights of appeal or (b) broad language, implying that the legislature did not wish to limit the considerations an agency can take into account in carrying out its tasks.

The methodology here is not perfect, the considerations are not complete, and there is more that can be said. But at the very least, in this series of posts, I hope to have inspired a re-evaluation of the existing reasons why we defer to agencies. I also hope to have encouraged readers to reflect on the real reasons why we should ever defer at all.

The New Administrative Law

Part I of a two-part series: why we need to reconceptualize the administrative state and our reasons for deference.

**This is the first in a two-blog series of blog posts about re-theorizing administrative law. This first post is about why the traditional justifications for the administrative state and deference to administrative law are wanting. The next post will be about my prescription for a new doctrine of judicial review, based on new theoretical commitments**

By now, it is rote for observers of Canadian administrative law to say that the mechanics of the law of judicial review are in dire need of repair. The Supreme Court at least tentatively agrees; currently under reserve is a series of cases that could lead to renovations in the law. I have written before why I think the Court is unlikely to do anything of substance with these cases. Upon reflection, I am even more convinced that, even if the Court does something, virtually any solution it will come up with will only tinker at the edges of the problems in Canadian administrative law. This is because the whole body of law is in need of re-conceptualization and theoretical re-justification. The Court is unlikely to accomplish that task.

Why do I say this? The fundamental assumptions undergirding Canada’s administrative law have not been calibrated to the political or social realities of the 21st century. Specifically, the reasons marshalled for why we defer to administrative agencies are the same today as they were in the 1940s. This is baffling. The empirical realities of the administrative state, in the current day–connected to our traditional understandings of parliamentary sovereignty and the Rule of Law (not in conflict, as is commonly supposed)–should inform whether or not courts defer to agencies.

For the most part, Canadian administrative law continues to be stuck in the thrall of American Progressivism—by which I mean that school of thought, dominant in the New Deal era, that had at least two heads (as Richard Epstein notes here). First is the idea that power could be delegated to persons in the public service who would always act in good-faith, and be faithful agents for the pursuit of substantive goals associated with the New Deal and small-p progressive, leftist politics. Coupled in this first head was a skepticism surrounding courts, which were perceived as mired in the conservative common law. Second is the idea, championed by people like Woodrow Wilson, and going back even further to Max Weber, that administration was a science; and that the powers of the state could be wielded by experts in an efficient manner for the greater good. This was not only an American invention—in Canada, we had our own band of administrative law Progressives, including John Willis, W.P.M. Kennedy, J.A. Corry, and later on, Harry Arthurs (for a good account, see R. Blake Brown “The Canadian Legal Realists and Administrative Law Scholarship, 1930-1940” (2000) 9 Dalhousie Journal of Legal Studies 36).

If the assumptions supporting this Progressive administrative law were ever true, they are no longer true some 80 years on. Consider first the substantive goals of the administrative state. For W.P.M. Kennedy, administrative agencies were means to achieve important progressive substantive goals. Kennedy said:

New standards must be developed in all fields of human endeavor which will be in harmony with the new social philosophy of the age. Care of the sick, the poor, the aged, and the infirm, elimination of slums, control of industry in the interests of humanity, protection of children, universal education, development of natural resources for the benefit of all mankind, all demand attention.

(“Aspects of Administrative Law in Canada” (1934) 46 Juridicial Review 203 at 221)

John Willis, in his classic article “Administrative Law and the British North America Act,” also wrote that:

The years of depression since 1929 have induced legislatures to pass laws which are right out of line with traditional ways of thought and therefore distasteful both to the those guardians of the past, the lawyers, and to their wealthy clients who have, of course, been adversely affected by these laws.”

Harry Arthurs later wrote, in his attack on judges, that the “inexorable logic of the law” “produced results which seemed contrary to social justice, and sometimes, to common sense.”

But the substantive understanding of the administrative state as a purveyor of social justice is no longer true, and it is unclear if the assumptions ever were. Reading the Kennedy, Willis, and Arthurs quotes, one is surprised at their unbridled faith in government–particularly administrative agencies–to achieve herculean goals. The problems with this sort of thinking are endless. First, to the extent the administrative law Progressives attacked the common law, the criticisms were profoundly ahistorical. The common law was not, as Arthurs suggested “contrary…to common sense.” As Richard Epstein points out (and has over the course of his 50 year career), the common law rules were actually much more subtle and sophisticated than modern Progressives suppose. In areas of contract, tort, and property law, common law rules were used since the time of Roman law as simple rules of thumb for organizing contractual relations and demarcating property boundaries clearly (consider the first possession rule of property law—a simple rule that is actually derived from Roman law). They were used all this time for a reason. While tradition is the bête-noire of modern legal thought, there is at least a reason to think—however naively—that people organized different legal systems across time and geographic boundaries in common ways for a reason. Ignoring these features of the common law seems unfair, even if the common law must be adapted to new realities.

Now, in the 21st century, administrative agencies are armed with the most repressive powers of the state. We are no longer talking about expert labour boards, the darling of Canada’s Progressive administrative law theorists, and the body that dawned Canada’s modern administrative law doctrine. Now, prison wardens make decisions about the rights and interests of prisoners, some of the most vulnerable of us. The prison situation is especially concerning. So-called “administrative segregation” is a matter of judicial review, because it is an administrative decision—an exercise of discretion, which Kennedy supposed would be used to help the “sick, the poor, the aged, and the infirm.” Yet solitary confinement is, by most accounts, one of the most repressive and arbitrary forms of punishment to which one can be subject. All a matter of administrative law and judicial review.

This is why it is surprising to see Progressives continue to be skeptical about the role of courts. Administrative law progressives had and continue to have a rather obsessive focus on A.V. Dicey without realizing that Dicey’s account of administrative law accepted the idea of delegation, but was aimed at attacking a particular sort of “administrative law”—the droit administratif of France. Dicey was simply concerned with how best to control administrative power; the question is not whether delegation should exist, but how best to control it. Yet, so strong was the Progressive faith in government, that Harry Arthurs said that he “took to wondering out loud whether courts had any role to play in any field involving social conflict or controversy.”

In my view, Dicey was not the unrealistic one here. The Progressives, with their unbridled faith in the power of the state, put all of their eggs in a basket with no bottom. They ignored the experience and thinking of many of those who came before. Consider the wise thoughts of James Madison and many of the US framers, who were so skeptical of government action that they took pains to divide and separate the functions of government; government was necessary, because men are not angels, but it had to be limited and controlled. Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, expressed a similar moral skepticism about perfect, good-faith government agents:

By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the publick good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it (456).

This is not to say that government is either a force for good or evil; such characterizations are far too simplistic. I only aim to say that there is a strong moral tradition of skepticism that the Progressives simply did away with, without an understanding of the nature of delegated power: it can be used in either political direction. It is profoundly disturbing to suggest that courts should not have a role to play in policing the boundaries of the arms of the state concerned with prisons, for example.

The substantive goals did not stand alone. For Progressives, the chosen means for accomplishing these ends were the “alphabet soup” agencies of the New Deal. Indeed, John Willis famously wrote that administrative law must be viewed as a “functional” matter: “Three Approaches to Administrative Law: The Judicial, the Conceptual, and the Functional” (1935) 1 UTLJ 53). For Willis, this was true on two levels. Administrative law had to be studied as a functional matter. That is, we had to know what happened in the administrative state to actually understand administrative law. This is undoubtedly true. But Willis went further, arguing that “Expertise, avoidance of delay, reduction of expense—these are the basic reasons for the modern practice of giving the power of decision in many areas to deciding authorities other than courts.” Adding to that list was a desire for independence for these decision-makers (see Brown, at 50).

So, there are three functional reasons for deference at play here: (1) expertise (2) efficiency and (3) independence. I can only touch on these briefly, but they do not stand up to scrutiny as reasons for an across the board presumption of deference.

I have written before about expertise. The question is not whether expertise exists in the administrative state. Clearly, it does, whether intrinsically or through the development of “field expertise.” The question is whether expertise inheres in an agency as an “institution,” as the Supreme Court suggests in Edmonton East, such that we should defer as a matter of course. On questions of law, it is far from true that we should be confident to impose a rule (rather than a standard) assuming that agencies have this sort of expertise. Consider the case of Vavilov, currently under reserve at the Supreme Court. The analyst report, which formed the decision of the Registrar of Citizenship in that case, said the following (as excerpted in the Parkdale Legal Services brief):

[The analyst] confirmed that she was not a lawyer, had never gone to law school, and perhaps taken one course in administrative law as part of her degree in political science. She also confirmed that she was a junior analyst, had not relied on any internal policy guidelines or any other documentation…and had found nothing in her search of archives…

This statement does not inspire confidence in the expertise of a decision-maker. And this is not just reserved to the Vavilov case. Parkdale Legal Services outlines a number of other decisions, in the immigration context, where a decision-maker evinced a lack of expertise. It is completely unrealistic to transform this thin reed into a strong-form doctrinal presumption.

On the question of efficiency, this is perhaps one of the areas where the administrative state has failed most. At the Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada’s largest tribunal, the wait time for a refugee hearing, for example, was two years long as of November 2018. At the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, delay appears to be the watchword, due to alleged partisan interference in the appointments process. I could go on. But delay, and lack of resources, hobbles the ability of administrative justice to be a system of justice at all—even relative to courts.

And, what’s more, access to the administrative state—like the administrative state itself—is sometimes a matter of government generosity. Consider the recent cuts to legal aid in Ontario. Former Justice John Evans of the Federal Court of Appeal recently wrote an article in the Globe and Mail, focused on the fact that cuts to legal aid will hamper the ability of refugees to have a fair shot at justice. How can a system that causes such rash injustice be labelled an “efficient” system of administrative justice? If litigants do not have equal access to the system, is administrative justice at all a serious alternative to the courts?

And on independence, the story is no better. The Supreme Court of Canada itself has held, in Ocean Port, that administrative decision-makers are simply creatures of statute, controlled by the executive. Governments of all stripes have treated them as such. Consider the case in Saskatchewan, where an incoming government fired all the members of the labour board. Or, consider the recent delays in appointments to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, which in turn impact the independence and functionality of the Tribunal.

Of course, a few examples does not a theory make, but it should be cause for one to at least reconsider the foundational assumptions of administrative deference. My point here is not to say that the administrative state must be abolished because its organizing premises are frayed. It is instead to point out that if courts are to defer to administrative decision-makers, there should be good and existent reasons for deference. And, I need not prove that all of the traditional justifications for administrative power are no longer true. Even if they are only untrue by half, there is a need to reconceptualize what substantive and pragmatic justifications undergird the system of administrative law.

The problem, as I will explore in my second post, is that these policy reasons for deference have been transformed by courts into legal reasons for deference, without a concern for whether Parliament has actually, itself, done so. These reasons do not even have the benefit of being empirically true in every case, and yet they are treated as such when the SCC uses them to justify a strong presumption of deference.

The Supreme Court, in the upcoming trilogy, is institutionally unable to deal with theoretical problems of this magnitude. In reality, lawyers, judges of courts the country over, academics, and politicians should be the ones rethinking how our administrative state operates. We need a new theory of judicial deference.