Statutory Interpretation in Canada from the “Stratasphere”

For those interested in statutory interpretation and its effect on administrative law, I have a new piece coming out in the Advocates’ Quarterly in October. A preliminary version of the piece was posted on the Advocates for the Rule of Law website over the summer. The paper is basically a review of two opinions written by Justice Stratas of the Federal Court of Appeal. I argue that the opinions give us an opportunity to consider an underexplored area in Canada: how statutory purposes should interact with text, and the implications for the level of deference granted on questions of law to administrative decision-makers. I write the following in the introduction of the piece:

Statutory interpretation presents problems of judicial subjectivity. Though it is well-established that courts and advocates must look to the “text, context, and purpose” of a particular statutory provision to determine its meaning, little work has focused on what courts should do when purposes are stated at different levels of abstraction, or where the statute has multiple purposes which are seemingly contradictory. In fact, there are no rules governing how courts should act in these situations. The potential result of this void is the rule of “homunculi sitting in the minds of judges”; judicial subjectivity beyond statutory text.

While these problems remain, Justice Stratas of the Federal Court of Appeal provides guidance on these questions to courts and litigants in two recent cases: Williams and Cheema. After reviewing the cases, I argue that Justice Stratas’ opinions properly warn courts against characterizing highly abstract statutory purposes, outside of what the statutory text prescribes. In the context of judicial review of administrative determinations of law, doing so could facilitate an overly deferential or interventionist posture to administrative interpretations of law, beyond what text actually prescribes. This is a court created distortion. As an antidote, Justice Stratas’ opinions rightly remind us that legislation binds, and that as a matter of the rule of law, courts must enforce statutory language rather than purposes untethered to text.

 

Sunstein and Vermeule on Fuller: A View from Canada

What would Lon Fuller think about Canada’s standard of review framework?

In a fascinating article, Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule explore the concept of a Fullerian administrative law. Their main argument:

Our largest suggestion is that a Fullerian approach, emphasizing the morality of administrative law, helps to unify a disparate array of judge-made doctrines and perhaps even the field as a whole. We also contend that a Fullerian approach puts contemporary criticisms of the administrative state in their best light and allows the sharpest critics to be their best selves[…]We suggest that most sympathetically understood, the critics are tracking Fuller’s fundamental principles. As we understand these critics, they are seeking to prevent a miscarriage of the legal system by ensuring that the administrative state respects the internal morality of law, at least as an aspirational matter.

The authors posit that doctrines of administrative law—the non-delegation doctrine, the presumption against retroactivity, and the rule that agency rules and decisions should be consistent with each other—can all be understood as expression of Fuller’s principles of morality of law, even if they lack connection to traditional legal sources.

This all seems very intuitive. Some of Fuller’s explanation of what counts as law—for example, a basic convergence between the law as applied and the law on the books—can be clearly applied to administrative agencies that render its own decisions in conflict with its enabling statute. Fuller’s assertion that anything counting as law must be general, promulgated in advance, and understandable evidences a clear preference for strong ex ante rules over ex post standards—and a system of predictable rules is certainly part of most conceptions of the Rule of Law. His admonition that laws should remain constant through time also implicitly disparages administrative adjudication without any external or internal guiding law or policy.

Overall, Fuller’s definition of law as a system of rules to guide action offer important insights about Canadian administrative law. There are parts of Canadian administrative law that can be seen as inconsistent with this fundamental precept. Take the entire standard of review debacle. No matter what one thinks the particular solution is to the Gordian knot, the current state of affairs fails on two of Fuller’s grounds. Most importantly, it provides no guidance to litigants or players in the system. Counsel have to predict by rumour and speculation what standard of review will be selected in a given case—and more importantly, how it will be selected.

Just as serious is the Supreme Court’s tendency to shift the parameters of the debate from case to case. Dunsmuir was decided in 2008. Since then, the following doctrinal changes were introduced by the Court: (1) a presumption of reasonableness review on questions of law was created with a tenuous connection to the original framework set out in Dunsmuir (Alberta Teachers); (2) legislative signals designed to rebut that presumption were accepted (Tervita) and then rejected (Edmonton East, CHRC) as a methodological matter; (3) the Court accepted that an agency can make implied determinations of law (Agraira), taking another case (Alberta Teachers) out of context and adopting a doctrine that stands in tension with Dunsmuir’s admonition that decisions must be “justified, transparent, and intelligible; (4) The Court accepted that “reasonableness takes the colour of the context” (Khosa), but then rejected the idea that reasonableness has many variations, holding that it consists of one standard of review (Wilson), but it is unclear whether that comment overrules Khosa and other cases (for example, Catalyst); (5) It adopted a framework for constitutional review of agency discretion (Doré), then silently rejected it in subsequent cases (Ktunaxa), and lower courts fail to adopt it with consistency; (6) the Court reasoned that courts can supplement the reasons for decisions using the “reasons that could be offered” in cases of deficient agency reasoning (Newfoundland Nurses), then backed off that assertion (Alberta Teachers), only qualifying that reasons cannot be replaced by a decision-maker on judicial review (Delta Airlines). I could go on, but need not.

Incremental development in common law doctrine is necessary and desirable. But what the Supreme Court has done with administrative law is far from incremental. The result is the lack of clear rules as to when particular standards of review are triggered. This creates distortions in the system, with courts intervening when they should not and deferring when they otherwise should not. If this weren’t enough, the Court has failed in a number of cases to adequately explain the shifts in methodology and doctrine. An example of this is the Doré question, where the Court failed to explain its shift in approach in subsequent cases, but another less common example is the tension on the reasons doctrine between Newfoundland Nurses and Alberta Teachers, released a day apart. What the Court has established is a largely ruleless wasteland that Fuller would likely regard with suspicion.

But perhaps the most objectionable part of the Supreme Court’s administrative law doctrine is the Court’s tendency to say one thing and do another. Specifically, take the Court’s tendency to engage in disguised correctness review. Fuller would have abhorred this state of affairs, representing a divergence between the law as applied and the law on the books. The tendency to engage in disguised correctness review leaves open questions as to what the Court is actually doing. Is the Court selecting the standard of review it is forced to by law, but actually applying the standard it thinks should apply? On what basis is it making this selection? One hopes the decision is not made according to freestanding policy views or the Court’s own implicit opinions about particular decision-makers. The point is that we cannot be sure.

As the authors note, Fuller’s principles are not ironclad. Fuller himself recognized that his idea of law can be recognized as a sliding scale, with one end being the minimum morality necessary to constitute law, and on the other hand, an aspirational legal system. How we achieve the balance is fundamentally a matter of tradeoffs. As the authors argue, there is an optimal point in the design between ex ante rules and ex post standards—a point where agencies are sufficiently restricted by ex ante rules with the necessary flexibility and discretion to operate ex post. Fuller’s preference for binding rules imposes a whole host of costs at the outset. For example, for the Supreme Court to construct a standard of review rule entails great cost at the outset, because it will have to design a rule that is properly tailored to the circumstances. Costs may also incur because the rule will either be overbroad or underbroad (take my discussion of the presumption of reasonableness here). A more flexible standard entails costs of its own—but at some point along the line, Fuller’s preference for rules can be sacrificed for other goods, in order to avoid the relevant costs.

But, as I said above, there must be some baseline of rules in a legal system. Administrative prerogative and uncontrolled judicial discretion should be controlled in some way, even in light of the costs of doing so. This really just glosses the surface, but Sunstein and Vermeule are (in my humble view) onto something. From a perspective of strategy, those who are uncomfortable with the administrative state are unlikely to convince true believers that it is unconstitutional writ large, or even that deference is problematic. But individuals from different perspectives can agree that Fuller’s morality principles provide a minimum baseline for the construction of doctrine. We should ask the Court to construct clear rules that can be easily applied; or at least develop more flexible standards that are triggered in clear circumstances.

The Dead Intent of the Framers

The tragedy of Doug Ford looks less like a tragedy after all, with the Court of Appeal for Ontario staying the decision of Justice Belobaba that ruled Ford’s planned council cut unconstitutional. The use of the notwithstanding clause is off the table, for now. But it would be hasty to move on too quickly. How academics and lawyers spoke about the planned use of the notwithstanding clause provides a window into how we justify and critique the use of state power.

For example, some 80 law school faculty across Canada came out against the Ford government’s planned invocation  of s.33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in an open letter. The faculty, relying on a strong-form version of originalism (original intent, long outdated as a form of originalist reasoning), argue that Premier Ford transgressed the intention of the Charter’s framers:

The framers of the Constitution included the notwithstanding clause as a compromise to achieve consensus. But, they firmly believed that the notwithstanding clause would only be used in exceptional circumstances. This has indeed been the case since the Charter’s enactment in 1982.

If the excerpt above seems an insignificant part of the letter, the faculty use the original intent of the (yet undefined framers) to define a political norm that governs the frequency of use of the notwithstanding clause.

In 36 years, the notwithstanding clause has rarely been used. Liberal governments, NDP governments and Conservative governments at the federal and provincial levels have all been extremely reluctant to use the notwithstanding clause. Faced with judicial decisions declaring legislation unconstitutional, governments in Canada have sought alternative ways of bringing their laws into compliance with the Charter. This is precisely what the framers of the Constitution had hoped and predicted. The notwithstanding clause was only to be used in the most exceptional circumstances.

The faculty, to their credit, do not attack the legality of Ford’s planned use of the notwithstanding clause. So long as the form requirements are met, the notwithstanding clause can be invoked. Rather, they seek to define, using framers’ intent, the political boundaries that should govern this extraordinary power.

At first blush, I agree that the invocation of the notwithstanding clause should be subject to political norms and should be critically examined by citizens. There should be a justification of the use of the notwithstanding clause. This is different from the sort of legal restriction on statutory decision-making explained in Roncarelli v Duplessis. In an administrative law sense, state power is subject to the law, and the exercise of powers contemplated by statute are controlled by that statute.  That analogy is ill-fitting for a power unrooted to statute that exists in the text of Constitution itself. Nonetheless, one can meaningfully argue that a political norm of justification should accompany the use of the override. As I’ve said in this space before, Premier Ford has failed on this score.

The interesting part of the faculty letter, though, is not the substantive argument. Rather, it is the analytical footpath. The faculty seek to call up the live hands of Jean Chretien et al who “framed” the Charter to support their point of view. In fact, Chretien, former Ontario Attorney General  Roy McMurtry, and former Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow (the individuals who bartered the notwithstanding clause into the Charter through the famous Kitchen Accord) have come out to say that  the notwithstanding clause should only be used “in exceptional situations, and only as a last resort.”

It is surprising that a fairly large contingent of the Canada law professoriate endorse the proposition that the intent of the framers should mean anything in this case. Others have written about the problems with original intent originalism—determining the class of relevant “framers,” determining how to mediate between different intents among these “framers,” determining the level of generality at which intent is expressed, and the list goes on. These practical problems underline a broader theoretical problem–why, in a normative sense, should the views of Jean Chretien et al bind us today? How can we be assured that these “framers” are speaking on behalf of the meaning adopted by Parliament and the legislatures?

Even if we should accept that this intent leads to the acceptance of the relevant political norms, there is no evidence offered in the letter that other potential “framers” of the Charter shared the view of Chretien, Romanow, and McMurtry as to the use of the notwithstanding clause. For example, Brian Peckford (former Premier of Newfoundland who apparently presented the proposal of the provinces to Prime Minister Trudeau), wrote a piece arguing that Premier Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause was perfectly appropriate. He made no mention of any understanding or political commitment on the part of any other Premiers or parties as to the expected use of the notwithstanding clause. In this sense, the framers’ intent means nothing; it is dead in terms of helping to interpret even the political norms surrounding the use of the notwithstanding clause.

This is a dangerous form of originalist reasoning adopted by the faculty, and should be used sparingly with appropriate caution. It is open to abuse. Lawrence Solum argues that theories of originalism have two features (1) fixation and (2) constraint. That is, the meaning of a constitutional provision is fixed at the time of framing; and in terms of original meaning originalism, the original public meaning of the constitutional text constrains the constitutional practice of courts. To my mind, the sort of originalism relied on by the faculty fails to both fixate and constrain constitutional meaning, precisely because there is at least an open question as to the expected legal and political practice of the notwithstanding clause. There is even a question as to who should fit into the relevant class of framers, and who should not. In this sense, the form of originalist reasoning invited by the faculty is not, in substance, different from living tree constitutionalism—unfixed and unconstrained. It is an invitation to dress up the desired political outcomes of its proponents with the imprimatur of a legal doctrine.

Putting aside the faculty focus on political norms, if framers’ intent is accepted as an appropriate doctrinal model, the debate in courts will focus on which particular framers support one side of a case or another. Will some lawyers introduce affidavit evidence from Jean Chretien? Another side, Brian Peckford? Rather than focusing on the meaning of words in their context—their original meaning—framers’ intent will incentivize lawyers to spin historical tales, told through the intent of those whose view may not actually represent the state of the law.

That said, we shouldn’t bristle at the opening provided by the faculty. There is, perhaps for the first time, a willingness to accept forms of originalism. If the faculty intended to fix the constitutional political practice of the notwithstanding clause at the time of framing, that intent is better vindicated by original meaning (to the extent it can be discerned) precisely because it fixes and constrains. Of course, a rational person would rather bet on a system of rules that prevents political hijacking of legal interpretation, because political power can be wielded in any direction. A safer gamble—a better methodology—is a form of doctrine less amenable to political reasoning. Given the faculty acceptance of some model along these lines, I look forward to seeing how a focus on fixation and constraint can influence other areas of the Charter.

Toronto v Ontario: A Remedy Seeking a Right

Constitutional politics and the notwithstanding clause

Yesterday, Justice Belobaba of the Ontario Superior Court released his decision on the Ford government’s plan (“Bill 5”) to cut Toronto City Council in half, deciding that it infringed the s.2(b) Charter right to freedom of expression. In response, Ford announced his government would reconvene the legislature and pass a bill to invoke the so-called “notwithstanding” clause of the Charter, under which Charter rights can be “overridden” (though this word isn’t used in the text) for a period of five years.

It was an eventful day all around, and there were many comments from people more qualified than I to speak on freedom of expression, the notwithstanding clause, and the interaction between the two. I will, however, comment on two points in this sordid saga: (1) the conflation of s.2(b) and s.3 of the Charter in Justice Belobaba’s decision; (2) the notwithstanding clause

Freedom of Expression in the Electoral Context

First, to the decision. Justice Belobaba began the analysis by properly noting that the question was “not whether Bill 5 is unfair. The question is whether the enactment is unconstitutional” [7]. But just as quickly, Justice Belobaba ultimately concluded that the province had “clearly crossed the line” [9] because (1) Bill 5 was enacted in the middle of an election campaign and (2) it doubled the population size of wards in the city, breaching a voter’s right to “effective representation” [20]. On the timing issue, Justice Belobaba concluded that the freedom of expression right was impacted because of “confusion” and “uncertainty” owing to Bill 5 [30]. The ultimate conclusion was that “…the candidate’s ability to effectively communicate his or her political message to the relevant voters” was impacted by Bill 5.

While I won’t dwell on the point, this seems a stretch. Section 2(b) is broad and the Supreme Court rightly affirms the particular importance of political speech (see Libman, at para 31). But it doesn’t guarantee a right to expression in perfect circumstances—nor does it proscribe government conduct that could make political speech “ineffective.” The fundamental question under s.2 is whether a government law “limits” speech. There is a distinction between effectiveness of speech and freedom of speech; the latter is a necessary condition, the former is not. If courts begin to delve into the messy business of striking down government laws that merely affect the effectiveness of speech, the Charter could end up restricting the marketplace of ideas in ways that are typically repugnant to a liberal order. Practically, it also means that in some cases the court will need to determine whether a law renders speech “ineffective,” which would require some fairly metaphysical evidentiary standards, not to mention a voyage into the content of the speech. It is even more difficult to prove an infringement in cases where, as here, the purported restriction speaks only to the environment (confusion and uncertainty) in which candidates campaign, not to legal restrictions on the political campaigns and voters themselves, such as in the typical s.2(b) electoral cases: BC FIPA, Thomson Newspapers, Libman.

I’m more concerned with the second finding in the decision—the essential application of s.3 of the Charter concerning voting rights in a case where it does not apply. Section 3 textually reads that it applies to voting for federal and provincial representatives. Under the purposive approach to constitutional interpretation, the purpose of s.3 is to guarantee “effective representation” (Reference Re Prov Electoral Boundaries) in these fora. Mathematical parity is not the test, but what constitutes effective representation appears to be a fraught question. But in this case, against the backdrop of one affidavit, Justice Belobaba concluded that the expressive right to vote for effective representation had been breached because the ward population size had been doubled [51, 60]. This is fundamentally the language of s.3, not s.2(b). Justice Belobaba, to his credit, is alive to this concern. He ultimately concludes that voting is a form of expression rendered ineffective by Bill 5, and whether or not it is rooted in s.3, it can be transposed to the s.2(b) context [43 et seq]. But here again we get into the business of effectiveness—especially what constitutes an effective vote. The language is striking, calling to mind a category mistake; should we be in the business of assigning value to votes based on resulting effectiveness?

Regardless, s.2(b) and s.3 are distinct Charter guarantees. They have distinct purposes, with “effective representation” being the purpose of s.3. While these purposes may sometimes overlap, it seems to me that the purposive approach to Charter interpretation has to insist on some analytical distinction between the rights to be of any use. If rights are to be interpreted in their “historic, political, and philosophic” context, surely that purposive context changes with the right in question. This has particular implications for the relationship between Charter rights and s.1 of the Charter. As Peter Hogg notes in his important article, how we construe Charter rights at the infringement stage has implications for the s.1 stage. If a right is construed broadly at the first stage (the purpose is construed broadly), then we leave s.1 for more work to do. Similarly, a right that is characterized with a narrow purpose may leave less work for s.1. This is a rough-and-ready purposive analysis, but it means that regularly mixing and matching Charter rights can have consequences for the evidence required to prove a Charter breach, the evidence required to sustain one, and the intensity of review that courts apply to particular infringements.

There is also the obvious problem here of essentially applying a Charter guarantee where it doesn’t apply to municipalities (despite Justice Belobaba’s comments regarding Haig, I think he fundamentally imported s.3). I call this “constitutional substitution.” It means that a court, seeking to vindicate a result that seems unfair or unjust in the abstract, massages a chosen constitutional right that will best achieve that result. It is perhaps an uncommon phenomenon, but it is present in this decision—s.3 does not apply, s.2(b) does. While I’m alive to the idea that the s.2(b) electoral cases could implicate s.3, those cases dealt with different legislative schemes that, again, directly impacted/limited the ability of participants in the political system to participate (ie) through financial restrictions.

I don’t mean to advocate for a “watertight compartments” approach to Charter rights, in part because I think the reality of constitutional facts makes this difficult. That said, as Mike Pal very aptly noted, we have no real doctrinal means to deal with overlap of constitutional rights as opposed to the reconciliation of rights. We should start from the premise that the Charter lists distinct guarantees that the Supreme Court has insisted should be interpreted with distinct purposes. From there, we deal with the hard cases that arise where rights overlap, such as in the case of s.2(b) and s.3. And this isn’t the only area of the Constitution where rights can overlap—the recent Ktunaxa ruling demonstrates a contested area between the freedom of religion guarantee and Aboriginal rights under s.35. While each overlap may have to be resolved differently, some unified principles would be helpful.

Brief Comments on the Notwithstanding Clause

I can’t do much to add to the already booming discussion on the notwithstanding clause. I for one accept its legitimacy as part of the constitutional order, in part because of the evidence that it formed a part of the pact leading to the Charter, adopted itself by our elected representatives and because one part of the Constitution cannot be breached by another. The notwithstanding clause is a power that can be used by elected officials assuming they follow the form requirements set out in the Ford case (no relation).

I will venture two points. First, simply because the notwithstanding clause is legitimate itself doesn’t mean that it can’t be misused illegitimately. The exercise of state power—even a constitutionally entrenched power—does not operate in a vacuum. We should expect a duty of good-faith in a constitutional democracy to attach to the use of such powers; put differently, and without entering the foray into constitutional conventions, we should expect elected officials to abide by constitutional norms as they are defined.

Part of this norm, given the atrophied s.33, should be a public justification for the use of the extraordinary override. The populist justification put forward by Premier Ford is lacking for this reason. No one says that the seminal Ford case compels Premier Ford to do anything but pass a properly formed bill. But in a deliberative, representative democracy, we should expect leaders to justify their use of extraordinary state power, especially as it applies to the override of constitutional rights, themselves adopted by legislative actors. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist No. 10, we expect in a representative democracy that our leaders will not appeal to factions (as in a direct democracy) but to the highest ideals of the legal order.

A second point about the notwithstanding clause, especially on constitutional substitution. The effect of Justice Belobaba’s ruling is to open the door to the use of the notwithstanding clause on s.3 of the Charter, the essence of his legal findings. Yet this is doubly prohibited by the Constitution. As I say above, s.3 only applies to Parliament and the legislatures and at any rate cannot be overridden by the notwithstanding clause. Though Justice Belobaba framed his findings under s.2(b), his ultimate conclusion was framed in the right to effective representation that would be infringed by having councilors who cannot respond to voter complaints [57]. He was most concerned with being able “to cast a vote that can result in meaningful and effective representation” [59]. This is in substance a finding under s.3. Yet by framing the finding under s.2(b), Justice Belobaba opens the door both to the application of s.3 to municipalities and to the use of the notwithstanding clause against, in essence, a s.3 finding. If we accept that the right to effective representation is infringed, we should worry about the notwithstanding clause’s use here.

Vote ‘em out

I offer these comments tentatively, largely because we are in unchartered waters. At the same time, two final points. First, I disagree with those who say this is a constitutional crisis. Constitutions are meant to be durable, to withstand pressure by those seeking to break constitutional norms, or even the inadvertent pressure of complacence. In some ways (putting aside the constitutional substitution concern) this is a textbook case of the court issuing a ruling and the government responding.

Second, I think the best way to understand Justice Belobaba’s ruling is to conclude that he saw a wrong, fashioned a remedy, and hooked it to a right. On most accounts, though the duty of procedural fairness does not attach to acts of the legislature, there was something unfair about the way in which Bill 5 was introduced and the context of the Premier’s contentious relationship with Toronto Council. Most likely this was an arbitrary decision by the Premier. In the face of this unfairness, Justice Belobaba found a way to get around the problem of s.3 by applying s.2(b) and by stretching the meaning of s.2(b) itself. I do not see this as a proper response to legislative unfairness. The best responses are for PC MPPs to oust Ford, or for the voters to do so.

10 Things I Dislike About Administrative Law

A perspective from a skeptic

Inspired by Leonid’s post on the Constitution, I’ve decided to list the 10 things I dislike about administrative law in Canada in advance of the planned revisit of Dunsmuir.

One’s personal list of problems with administrative law will inevitably reflect one’s views of what administrative law is and should be, and indeed, what law is and should be. Reasonable people will disagree on this, but perhaps we could agree on two fundamental starting points (even if we disagree on their interaction). First is the idea that absent constitutional objection, legislative delegation to administrative decision-makers should be respected, and courts should give effect to legislative language using the ordinary tools of statutory interpretation (set out in cases like Rizzo, Canada Trustco). Second is the Rule of Law; courts must survey the statutory boundaries of inferior tribunals to determine (1) the level of deference owed and (2) whether the decision is legal. On this account, administrative law can be understood as a form of control over the diffused form of decision-making the administrative state has wrought.

As I hope to show (quite tentatively, I might add), the Supreme Court has moved away from these first principles, often at the expense of the Rule of Law. The main point of the Supreme Court’s administrative law doctrine is an acceptance of deference to the “unrestricted” power of administrative decision-makers (see West Fraser, at para 11). By limiting the circumstances in which courts can review the propriety of the administrative state, the Court has “read in” a doctrine of deference that may not be prescribed by the enabling statute or the role of courts to enforce constitutional precepts as “guardians of the Constitution” (Hunter v Southam). The Court has constructed its own administrative law rules to operationalize its vision of deference.

  1. Selecting the standard of review

The standard of review is the obsession of Canadian administrative lawyers. The Supreme Court has fed this obsession by creating an overly complex standard of review analysis that is tenuously connected to the overall principles of the Rule of Law and legislative supremacy. The sine qua non of the analysis is a presumption of reasonableness on issues of home statute interpretation that is virtually irrebuttable (see Edmonton East, at para 22). This presumption is the imposition of judicial preference on a statute that may not agree with that preference, contrary to the hierarchy of laws. It is profoundly inconsistent with the idea that courts must enforce the law as they find it (see Justice Brown’s comments in CHRC on this front). At the same time, the Court has failed to explain or justify the relationship between the presumption, the categories inviting correctness review, and other legislative factors. Lower courts understandably struggle with this superstructure that might work in Supreme Court chambers but do not work in the context of judicial review.

I prefer a doctrine that puts the onus to defer on legislatures. Otherwise, the default position (especially on questions of law) should be de novo review by courts–consistent with their constitutionally defined supervisory jurisdiction (see point 7). If legislatures want to constrain decision-makers, they will prescribe—for example—a “statutory recipe” that the decision-maker must follow (Farwaha, at para 91; Boogaard, at paras 43-44). If not, on certain matters, the legislature may use open-textured language, directing the decision-maker to act “in the public interest” for example. The former will force a more searching standard of review, the latter a lesser one. The point is that we no longer need the labels of “reasonableness” or “correctness.” After all, administrative law is very simply a specialized branch of statutory interpretation (Bibeault, at para 120), recognizing the fundamental fact that the administrative state is statutory in nature.

  1. Applying the standard of review of “reasonableness” on questions of law

To the parties, whether a decision is reasonable (or, I prefer to say, simply “legal” ) is the central question on judicial review. But the Supreme Court has not explained what constitutes a “reasonable” decision, particularly when it comes to determinations on questions of law. It simply says that reasonableness takes the colour of the context (Khosa, at para 59) with the range of outcomes expanding or contracting based on the “context”. All of this is metaphorical and unhelpful to litigants and lower courts.

At one level, we can question whether the decision-maker’s interpretive process for determining the content of the law is “reasonable”—does the decision-maker engage with the text, context, and purpose of the statute? This may impose a “lawyerly” methodology on decision-makers, inconsistent with a commitment to legal pluralism that nominally defines the Supreme Court’s deference doctrine.

That being so, I think we should expect decision-makers to articulate their decisions in ways cognizable to the rest of the legal system, if we value uniformity in the way these decision-makers deal with disputes. But I think this is a pipe dream. We can’t expect, for example, all “line decision-makers” to understand the finer points of statutory interpretation. All we might expect is that a decision is actually made by a decision-maker with cogent reasons so that courts can evaluate it. When faced with an administrative decision, say, interpreting an enabling statute, a court simply has to decide whether the decision fits within the statute. Courts apply the ordinary tools of statutory interpretation to do this. I say more about this process here, but suffice it to say that whether a decision “fits” with an enabling statute can be answered by asking whether the decision renders a result at odds with the purpose of the statute (properly construed); whether the decision is precluded by other parts of the statute; and whether the text of the statute precludes the interpretation undertaken by the decision-maker. This is not far from what the Newfoundland Court of Appeal did in Allen, a commendable decision.

  1. Expertise

Courts assume that expertise is, at the very least, a practical reason for deference—legislatures delegate to decision-makers because of their expertise. In fact, expertise is a key reason undergirding the Supreme Court’s presumption of reasonableness on questions of home statute interpretation. But there is never an investigation into whether this expertise exists in reality, nor is there ever an explanation of the sort of expertise that would be relevant to trigger deference. The Court assumes that “…expertise is something that inheres in a tribunal [which tribunal?] itself as an institution” (Edmonton East, at para 33).

Putting aside this mysterious statement, if expertise is a good practical reason for deference, the Court should move away from the general assumptions and explain in each case (1) the relevant sort of expertise required to trigger deference and (2) whether there is any statutory evidence that such expertise exists in practice. As I have written before, this was the general approach used by the Supreme Court in the pragmatic and functional era (Pushpanathan is a good example). Why this approach is no longer appropriate is a puzzle.

  1. Lack of academic and judicial focus on agency procedures and policies

In law schools, administrative law almost exclusively is taught as the law of judicial review. Little attention is paid to the bowels of administrative law—the different sorts of decision-makers in the “administrative state,” their policies and procedures, the effect of “guidelines” (binding or non-binding) on individual litigants, and the profound democratic challenge posed by the adoption of policy guidelines imposed without the consent or consultation of the people subject to the guidelines. While Lorne Sossin has done some important work in this regard, academics would do well to examine and further define the taxonomy of potential internal policies that could impact individual litigants, and the extent to which they could deviate from the statutory grant given to the decision-maker.

  1. Jurisdictional Questions

The perennial unicorn of administrative law, the concept of the jurisdictional question continues to haunt the law of judicial review. These are (largely hypothetical) questions on which a decision-maker is afforded no deference, because they go to the authority of the decision-maker to respond to the case in front of it at all.

In CHRC, the majority of the Court rightly noted that the concept of the jurisdictional question is quite indistinguishable from other questions of law a decision-maker is asked to address. Dissenters on the Supreme Court (particularly in CHRC and its predecessor, Guerin) think that the concept of jurisdictional questions is important to the role of courts on judicial review to enforce the Rule of Law. Essentially, to the dissenters, the Rule of Law requires correctness review because deferring to administrative decision-makers on their own jurisdictional limits allows the “fox in the henhouse”—virtually unreviewable administrative authority over legal limits.

But as Justice Stratas noted in a recent Access Copyright case (and before him, as Justice Scalia of the Supreme Court of the US noted in City of Arlington,), a judicial review court interpreting an enabling statute on any legal question inevitably deals with the issue of its limits to enter the inquiry in the first place. These issues are all matters of legislative interpretation. As Justice Scalia noted in City of Arlington “The fox-in-the-henhouse syndrome is to be avoided not by establishing an arbitrary and undefinable category of agency decision-making that is accorded no deference, but by taking seriously, and applying rigorously, in all cases, statutory limits on agencies’ authority.”

The jurisdictional questions doctrine only makes sense if the Rule of Law mandates more searching review for questions of jurisdiction opposed to all other legal questions—assuming that a clear division can be drawn between these questions. But when it comes to administrative law, there is no meaningful distinction between legal questions and questions of jurisdiction—authority to make a decision in either category rests wholly on the statutory grant given to the decision-maker. As Justice Scalia noted in City of Arlington, a better descriptor for the concept is simply “statutory authority.” On this account, jurisdiction is not a concept that adds anything of substance.

  1. Charter Values

The religion of deference has even extended to constitutional issues. Truth be told, more ink has been spilled on the idea of Charter values than I think is necessary. Others have written about the doctrinal problems with Charter values as originally understood in Doré. These problems were exhaustively explored in Rowe J’s judgment in the Trinity Western case, and I need not revisit them here.

I will simply say that the benefits of Charter values that were promised by the Court’s judgment in Doré have yet to come to fruition. As I wrote here, the Supreme Court (and lower courts) cite Doré without applying its key holdings, basically applying the same tests associated with legislative challenges and particular Charter provisions than the “Charter values” (whatever they are) themselves. Even defenders of Charter values acknowledge that they have been applied inconsistently.

One wonders if there is any promise to the use of Charter values, or whether these values are unknowable, useless, and unhelpful in judicial review. To my mind, it is for the defenders of Charter values to move beyond the abstractions and lay out how—exactly—Charter values are fundamentally different from Charter rights, warranting a different analysis and relaxed standard of review.

  1. There are unexplored constitutional issues with aspects of administrative law

Section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867 has been interpreted as the foundation of the power attributed by the Constitution to courts of inherent jurisdiction. The test described in Residential Tenancies (NS) determines whether or not a particular judicial power can be transferred by Parliament and legislatures to statutory tribunals. But there is separately a “core” of s.96 powers that cannot be transferred (MacMillan Bloedel, at para 15) to statutory tribunals.

To my mind, the supervisory jurisdiction of superior courts over inferior tribunals—on questions of law, specifically— is included in this core of superior court jurisdiction (MacMillan Bloedel, at paras 34-35).The concept of a core is a useful connection to the original purpose of s.96 courts to provide uniform interpretation of law.

Professor Daly has written on this issue, particularly on the issue of transferring judicial review functions to intermediate statutory tribunals. But I think more work should be done to square the constitutionality of the administrative state with the supervisory jurisdiction of superior courts. For example, full privative clauses could be unconstitutional if they block the supervisory jurisdiction of superior courts–on all questions of law, not just “jurisdictional” issues as noted in Crevier. I also would not concede that deference doctrines on questions of law—which dilute the supervisory function—are consistent with the role of superior courts. The list goes on, and it’s a list that could be explored with reference to the original meaning of s.96.

  1. The Supreme Court’s reasons doctrine

The Supreme Court tells us that we should pay attention to the “reasons that could be offered” by an administrative decision-maker before concluding that reasons are insufficient, warranting review (Dunsmuir, at para 48). This doctrinal innovation was based on a line taken from an academic article that did not speak to the mechanics of judicial review.

While the Supreme Court walked back this development in Delta Air Lines, it still remains the case that courts can supplement the reasons of decision-makers. This is problematic on a number of fronts. First, it was the legislature that delegated the decision-maker the power to make “justifiable, transparent, and intelligible” decisions. That power was not vested in the courts. Second, it is profoundly inconsistent with a notion of deliberative deference for a court to gin up reasons for a decision that the decision-maker may not have provided. Third, by abiding a culture of unjustified decision-making in the administrative state, the Court incentivizes decision-makers to limit the provision of reasons in their decisions, basically immunizing their decisions from meaningful review (see the discussion in Tsleil-Waututh Nation). But because the Court has stated that insufficiency of reasons is not a standalone basis for allowing a judicial review (Newfoundland Nurses, at para 14), a judicial review court is left in the unenviable position of having to defer to a potentially unjustified decision.

If a decision is unreasonable because of a lack of justification, it should be remitted. It is the remedial stage of the judicial review in which the court determines whether the decision can be maintained, looking to the record, for example (see Lemus, at para 33). Otherwise, courts may inadvertently allow unjustified decision-making.

  1. Deference to implied interpretations of law

The same comments I made in (8) apply here. Agraira holds, for example, that courts can defer to determinations of law that are “necessarily implied” within an ultimate decision (at para 48). Relying again on the magic line from the academic article, the Court concluded that it could consider the reasons that could be offered in support of a decision. But in Agraira itself, the Court noted that it could not “determine with finality the actual reasoning of the Minister.” I fail to see how a judicial review court, in those circumstances, can determine whether the reasoning and outcome fit within a range of reasonable outcomes.

  1. The standard of appellate review

This is a technical but important point. On an appeal of a judicial review court’s determinations, the Supreme Court insists that appellate courts should apply the judicial review standards of review–reasonableness and correctness–rather than the typical standards of appellate review set out in Housen. The appellate court is to “step into the shoes” of the lower court to determine whether that court selected and applied the proper standard of review (Agraira, at para 46). The effect of this is the same review, twice, of an administrative decision.

There are a number of problems with this. The first rests in the distinction between a first instance judicial review court and an appellate review court. If, as I posit above, judicial review is fundamentally a task of statutory interpretation (on both standard of review and the merits), then the appellate court is looking at particular legal issues raised in that interpretation by an appellant. This is fundamentally no different than the typical fare of appellate courts in most instances; determining whether a lower court interpretation of law is correct according to Housen.

Also, it makes little sense for an appellate court to redo a first instance court’s interpretation of a statute for reasons of judicial economy. Further, judicial review is supposed to be a summary procedure. Even at the appellate level, this should hold true.

Girouard v CJC: An Administrative State Coup?

The administrative state is not a constitutional mandate

A few weeks ago in this space, I mooted the arguments that could stand against the constitutionality of the administrative state. I alluded to an argument—percolating in Canada—that the administrative state could be mandated by the Constitution. I wrote this piece in a fully hypothetical mindset. But I forgot about a case in the Federal Court, Girouard v Canadian Judicial Council, in which the Canadian Judicial Council [the CJC] essentially attempted to constitutionalize its status as a statutory administrative tribunal by making it beyond judicial review. The Federal Court thankfully rebuffed the argument.

First, the brief facts. The CJC is a statutory body that has authority to review the conduct of federally appointed superior court judges. The CJC is made up of 39 members—chief justices, associate chief justices, and other senior judges—and is chaired by Chief Justice Wagner.

When a complaint is made against a member of the judiciary, the CJC has authority to investigate. It could do so through an Inquiry Committee [IC]. According to the Judges Act, which governs the CJC, the CJC may appoint an IC consisting of its membership or members of the bar of a province having at least ten years standing (s. 63(3)). After the inquiry has been completed, the CJC will report the conclusions and make recommendations to the responsible Minister (s.65).

Two inquiries were completed in the case of Justice Girouard, a judge of the Quebec Superior Court. In 2012, Justice Girouard was caught on a video that allegedly showed him involved in a drug deal. The CJC was asked to review Justice Girouard’s conduct. The first inquiry rejected the allegations against Justice Girouard, but raised concerns about the credibility and reliability of the facts reported by Justice Girouard. The CJC accepted the conclusion of the IC. In 2016, the Minister and Minister of Justice of Quebec filed a joint CJC complaint regarding Justice Girouard’s lack of credibility during the first IC. A second IC was convened, which found that Justice Girouard was not forthcoming during the first inquiry process. The CJC accepted that conclusion in its recommendation report to the Minister. In the main judicial review, Justice Girouard challenged the IC report to the CJC and the CJC report to the Minister, among other decisions.

The case here was a motion to strike brought by the CJC, which essentially argued that the CJC was a superior court, and not a federal board, commission or tribunal subject to judicial review under the Federal Courts Act. To the CJC, the Judges Act expressly notes that the CJC is “deemed” to be a superior court. Apart from the Judges Act, the CJC also argued that judicial independence as a constitutional principle compels the conclusion that the Federal Court has no authority to review the CJC, composed as it is of s.96 judges. The Federal Court rejected these arguments, concluding that the CJC is a statutory federal body subject to judicial review under the Federal Courts Act. Relatedly, the Federal Court concluded that the CJC does not possess the traditional indicators of a superior court, despite the fact that its membership is drawn from the ranks of s.96 judges.

The legal arguments presented by the CJC, to my mind, are problematic on three fronts: the implication of the CJC’s argument runs into problems at the level of fundamental principle; second, on specific legal points; and third, on the context in which this decision was made.

The first issue: if we accept the CJC’s argument, we can conclude that at least some of the administrative state is constitutionalized, simply because a s.96 judge (acting non-judicially) is on the committee. This is because the CJC argues that it is superior court, unreviewable without a right of appeal, despite being a body created by Parliament. Specifically, the CJC argues that the Federal Court cannot review the CJC because it does not fall into the definition of a federal board, commission, or tribunal in the Federal Courts Act. According to the CJC, this seems to be for two reasons: (1) because, properly interpreted, the definition does not encompass s.96 courts and (2) a principle of judicial independence precludes the Federal Court from exercising review over s.96 judges.

Both arguments run into what I call the fundamental principle of all administrative law: its statutory character, open to amendment or rescission at any time by the legislature. Tomorrow, for example, Parliament could remove the Immigration and Refugee Board, because the Constitution does not require the maintenance of a body to process refugee applications. We would revert to a pre-administrative law world, in which the executive (the responsible Minister) would process humanitarian and compassionate applications, for example. Put differently, and except in defined circumstances (such as those in Vriend, where Parliament has already spoken on a matter), the Constitution does not ordinarily require a legislature to positively act, much less to establish a robust administrative state. If the CJC is not open to judicial review under the ordinary channels, its actions are insulated from review, taking on a constitutional character. In the ordinary course, we would reject this argument—both on principle and because the Supreme Court has said that Parliament cannot establish s.96 courts (Crevier).

Why does this matter? While the CJC did not expressly argue this, its argument implites that the CJC can be put beyond review. An administrative actor created by statute should never be put beyond review, new-fangled theories of “constitutional structure” and administrative law constitutionalism notwithstanding. In constitutional democracies, government power must be subject to law. This means a neutral arbiter must determine if government properly exercised power according to law–the Rule of Law, at the very least, encompasses this principle of legality. If an administrative decision-maker, no matter the rank of its members or their august titles, is put beyond review, we approach a government by executive fiat and prerogative, not a government of laws adopted lawfully.

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.

The only wrinkle in the Girouard case is the membership of the CJC—in part, s.96 judges. A principle of judicial independence does require some separation between the judicial branch and the other branches of government. Resting on this, the CJC argued that s.96 judges—whenever acting in any capacity—exercise powers as a member of a court of inherent jurisdiction. But the CJC is established not as a loose confederacy of s.96 judges acting in a judicial, adjudicative role, deciding individual cases and applying the law. This is the hallmark of the judicial function (see Residential Tenancies at 743). Rather, it is established as a statutory investigatory institution, vested with powers only so far as the statute allows. The CJC has no other inherent power—no constitutional power to vindicate a right with a remedy—and has no supervisory jurisdiction, other powers typical of a superior court. It is acting only as a sort of self-governing professional body for judges, according to the terms of the statute. In absence of any exercise of a judicial function, and given the statutory basis of the CJC, there’s no reason to believe that the CJC should be constitutionalized as a s.96 court simply because, in another capacity, members of the CJC exercise judicial functions–notwithstanding the specific facts of the Supreme Court’s comments in Ranville (distinguished by the Federal Court).

In fact, the implication of the converse is absurd. The CJC stands and falls as a whole–as an institution. As I note above, the CJC ICs, for which the CJC sought immunity from review, is in part made up of s.96 judges. But the ICs can also include members of the bar of 10 years standing. The CJC’s argument implies that this does not matter so long as there are s.96 judges on the IC, the IC and the CJC together exercise s.96 functions, acting as members of a court of inherent jurisdiction. This sets up an interesting set of incentives. In order to make statutory bodies immune from review, Parliament could set administrative decision-makers composed in part by s.96 judges—perhaps composed of just one s.96 judge among other lawyers. On the CJC argument, this body would be beyond review without a right of appeal. Parliament could use the Constitution to game the fundamental principle of administrative law.

The real question is whether judicial review by the Federal Court infringes the judicial independence of a s.96 judge. Judicial independence has some textual mooring (ss. 96-100 of the Constitution Act, 1867 and s.11(d) of the Charter), but it is an “unwritten constitutional principle,” which guarantees “administrative independence, financial security, and security of tenure” (Provincial Judges Reference, at para 118). The CJC says that security of tenure is at stake, as removal of a judge requires an impartial process. The Court in the Provincial Judges Reference said something similar regarding financial security, but I am not sure the same result is compelled in these circumstances. It is not as of the Federal Court is some government administrative body that could allow the executive to interfere in the workings of the CJC—thus breaking the wall that should be set up between judiciary and executive. The Federal Court is itself independent. In the ordinary course, again, constitutional principles do not compel a particular legislative process or system. It simply requires a reality; that judges and executive/legislatures be separate.

Finer legal points also work against the CJC (though I note the CJC’s very sophisticated statutory analysis-see the factum below). The CJC argued that it is not subject to review in the Federal Court because the Federal Courts Act expressly excludes s.96 judges—and the power of the CJC is rooted not in a federal law (the Judges Act) but in a constitutional principle. The CJC says that if the Judges Act were removed tomorrow, the authority of the judiciary to investigate other judiciary members would remain. Again, on this I recoil instinctively. The CJC makes decisions as an institution—this the CJC recognizes. That institution, separate from its individual members, is created by statute. The Judges Act is one statutory manifestation that implements the principle of judicial independence, but is not the only one and perhaps not even the best one.

The CJC also points to s.63 of the Judges Act, which says that the CJC is deemed to be a “superior court.” In written argument, the CJC spends a lot of time discussing this deeming provision. I’m alive to the idea in statutory interpretation that a deeming provision creates a virtually irrebuttable legal fiction, but an unconstitutional statutory provision (deeming or no) cannot stand. An attempt by Parliament, through a deeming provision, to establish a s.96 court runs into constitutional problems on federalism grounds and on the Crevier grounds noted above. Even if this was not so, the particular deeming provision in this case is similar to ones that exist in other statutes. For example, the Canadian Transportation Agency similarly has “…all the powers, rights and privileges that are vested in a superior court” (Canadian Transportation Act, s.25). Yet no one argues that this provision alone grants the Canadian Transportation Agency the power to act as a superior court beyond powers pertaining to the procedures of the Court.

Finally, the context of the decision indicates that the CJC is aware of its statutory character. As noted by Paul Warchuk, the CJC tried once—the right way—to amend the Judges Act to make itself immune from review. A few years ago, the Minister of Justice sought recommendations on how to amend the Judges Act. The CJC recommended at that time that it be put beyond the ordinary judicial review procedure, subject only to an appeal to a statutory appeal body.

The CJC failed in these efforts, which basically mirror its submissions in Girouard. But implicit in this attempt is a recognition by the CJC that it is a statutory body subject to review by the Federal Courts system like any other federal body. After all, Federal Court judges are superior court judges (see s.4 of the Federal Courts Act, which establishes the Federal Court as a “superior court of record”). I’m not sure what changed between this recognition of its status and the Girouard case.

Overall, while counsel for the CJC argued the best case it could and ably so (whatever my opinion is worth), I’m less inclined to support the argument because of its implication: a further extension of the administrative state into unknown terrain. The coup failed this time, but as I’ve written elsewhere, the administrative state is a fickle bedfellow.

NB: To be fair, I’ve attached the CJC’s submissions below. Thanks to Alyssa Tomkins, counsel for the CJC, for sending them over.

Mémoire CCM

The Bowels of Administrative Law

Administrative guidelines that make it difficult to challenge the administrative state.

In the United States, the Administrative Procedure Act governs federal administrative decision-making. Among other things, the APA prescribes a number of minimum standards for what I call the “bowels” of administrative law—the ugly business of rules, regulations, and guidelines adopted under statutory authority that touch the everyday person.  For example, when an agency promulgates rules made pursuant to congressionally delegated authority, the agency must provide the public with adequate “notice and comment” procedures, calibrated to the importance of the rule. On the other hand, rules that are merely policy or interpretive guidelines are generally not subject to notice and comment procedure. When an agency, however, exercises its delegated powers, it must provide adequate notice and comment.

In my view, the APA provides some acknowledgement that internal agency guidelines, even procedural ones, could impact substantive rights. It presents a supralegislative standard that certain procedural guidelines must meet if there is a chance that the rights and interests of citizens could be impacted. This, to my mind, is the primary function of the notice and comment procedure. It gives citizens the right to have a say on the sorts of rules that may adversely impact their ability to challenge administrative action. It is an attempt to reconcile the deep constitutional challenge of the administrative state with the rights and freedoms of individuals.

In Canada, on the other hand, little academic work focuses on the sort of internal agency guideline I’m concerned with—putatively procedural guidelines, adopted under statutory authority, that could have a significant impact on the ability of claimants to challenge administrative action. This could leave administrative decisions insulated from challenge. Putting aside the historical work of John Willis, a notable recent exception is the work of Lorne Sossin, who in a series of articles fleshes out a framework for classifying the wide gamut of agency guidelines and directives that could structure the broad statutory discretion of an administrative decision-maker. Professor Sossin has done a service in this regard, and I can do no better than a piece by Professor Sossin and France Houle. But I merely wish to underline a point made by Professor Sossin and Houle. In Canada, we have not grappled with the role that procedural guidelines could play in impacting the ability of citizens to challenge the state.  Relatedly, we have not addressed what role citizens should and do play in the formulation and adoption of these guidelines.

From one perspective, agencies empowered by legislatures can be seen as operating in a deeply democratic space to which courts should defer. By that, I mean that agencies particularize democratic mandates adopted by the legislature in a way that the legislature simply cannot.  Agency guidelines can develop the legal order or fill gaps in it. Much like a principal-agent relationship, the agency stands at the “hard end” of administrative law, achieving the legislature’s goals while efficiently and expertly managing disputes. As Metzger and Stack argue, we must view this business of administrative law as “administrative government” in an “administrative world”—these tribunals are fundamental parts of the law-making state in the modern world. It follows that overbearing “legal” norms should not be used to disincentivize the development of agency and policy guidelines.

But we know in Canada that, even when acting pursuant to statutory authority, administrative decision-makers do not have free rein. According to Roncarelli, there is no such thing as untrammelled discretion that can operate without regard to some intelligible statutory delegative principle. At the same time, beyond this general proposition, there is no general doctrinal guide for when courts should be skeptical of internal, procedural guidelines that could impact on the ability of litigants to challenge administrative action–with or without adherence to a statutory delegation.

A statute, for example, that delegates an agency the full power to develop rules of evidence leaves a great deal of discretion to the agency to decide on the sort of disclosure it must grant a claimant. Short of a constitutional challenge based on the case to meet principle and principles of fundamental justice, an agency could limit the disclosure of evidence to a claimant. This might seem benign. But it could make more difficult challenges to administrative action because a claimant may not have the best evidence to challenge the administrative decision. The effect? Less investigation of administrative action.

Standing rules are a better example. The legislature could delegate broad power to an agency to determine who has standing to challenge decisions. Any procedural rule adopted under this broad authority could be legal, but that same rule could pose problems for other rights and interests.   On one hand, if the agency adopts a liberal standing rule, more claimants will be let through the door and have the ability to hold agency decisions to account. Such a rule would exact a cost in the coin of agency resources, and that alone may impact the ability of the agency to efficiently respond to other complaints. On the other hand, a restrictive standing rule exacts a cost in a very different currency: the rule of law. If, under broad statutory authority, an agency adopts a standing rule that permits the denial of standing to many claimants, an administrative decision could be practically immunized from review. The concern is that the administrative state could  use the statutory authority it has been given to entrench its own power or the power of stakeholders. In such a situation, an agency could insulate itself from meaningful review while still acting within the four corners of a statute.

This is not a hypothetical situation. In Delta Air Lines v Lukacs, the Supreme Court recently dealt with the Canadian Transportation Agency’s interpretation of its own rules for standing, governed by a broad statutory authority. In that case, it did not appear that the Agency adopted a written rule for the situations in which it would grant standing. But it did adopt a particular version of the common law test for standing that made it more difficult for claimants to challenge the Agency’s action. While the Supreme Court held that this version of the common law test was inconsistent with the Agency’s enabling statute, what about a case where there is a restrictive standing guideline that is consistent with the enabling statute? In such a case, many claimants could be excluded. And the worry is that an agency could be insulated from review based on an arbitrary guideline.

The difficulty of addressing this problem should not be understated. In fact, this may not even be a “problem” that can be addressed through the courts. As noted above, the use of so-called “soft law” can be placed on a spectrum. As KC Davis noted in his important work, Discretionary Justice, we could have mere policy directives moving along into quasi-legislative rules. On the former end of the spectrum, such guidelines may not have the force of law. Even quasi-legislative rules that as Sossin and Houle note could develop or interpret the legal order may not themselves be justiciable. If these guidelines are adopted within the bounds of statutory authority, what warrant does a court have to intervene?

I’m not opposed to this line of thinking, because legislative intent defines the scope of agency authority. At the same time, there is something unsatisfying about the conclusion that agencies can themselves lower the probability of their decisions being scrutinized by litigants and ultimately courts. For that reason, as the Americans determined, the legislature is probably the best place to reckon with the difficult balance required between the delegation of power to administrative decision-makers and the ability of claimants to challenge agency action. A legislature could prescribe standards that allow claimants to have a say in the sorts of guidelines adopted by an agency. I do not expect such legislative guidance to come any time soon. But one could hope for the regulation of administrative law’s bowels.