Devaluing Section 33

What happens to “Charter values” when a statute invokes the “notwithstanding clause”―and what this might mean for Québec’s Bill 21

Here is a little puzzle I have thought of when reading an intriguing Policy Options post by Grégoire Webber, Eric Mendelsohn, and Robert Leckey. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that the invocation of section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the notorious “notwithstanding clause” by a legislature ― for example, by Québec’s legislature enacting
Bill 21, an anti-religious dress code ― does not prevent the courts from pronouncing the statute to which it applies contrary to the Charter. The “notwithstanding clause” does not insulate the statute from judicial review, but merely means that the statute continues to operate regardless of that review’s outcome. I am tentatively inclined to agree, and may have more to say on this soon. But for now, I want to raise a somewhat different issue.

If Bill said that public servants guilty of wearing religious symbols are to lose their jobs, or that overtly religious persons cannot be hired for the positions to which clause 6 applies, then that rule would be protected by the “notwithstanding clause”, and so would be its straightforward application. But in fact Bill 21 does not itself specify what happens if its prohibition, in clause 6, on “wearing religious symbols” is disregarded. Rather, clause 12 merely provides that “[i]t is incumbent on the person exercising the highest administrative authority” over those to whom that prohibition applies “to take the necessary measures to ensure compliance”. The taking of those necessary measures would presumably be an administrative decision, subject to judicial review. And this is where things get interesting, in the sordid way in which anything having to do with judicial review of administrative decisions is interesting.

In a sane system of judicial review of constitutionally suspect administrative decisions ― like the one set out in Slaight Communications v Davidson, [1989] 1 SCR 1038 ― a decision to discipline, and eventually to dismiss, a public servant for breaching the prohibition on wearing religious symbols would, I think, have to be valid, so long of course as Bill 21 is protected by the “notwithstanding clause”. Such a decision is impliedly authorized by the statute, so to challenge its constitutionality one would need to challenge the statute itself, and the “notwithstanding clause” means that, whatever other consequences that challenge may have, the statute continues to operate.

But we no longer have a sane system of judicial review of administrative decisions that raise Charter issues. (I should make clear that I have grave misgivings about Slaight‘s correctness on the merits; it is only its approach to judicial review that I approve of.) What we have, instead, is the approach first set out in Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395, under which the issue is not whether an administrative decision is authorized by a statute interpreted so as to comply with the Charter, but whether it gives as full an effect to “Charter values” in light of the statute’s objectives. How the “notwithstanding clause” fits into this scheme is not at clear.

The question is, does the application of the “notwithstanding clause” to a statute suspend the application of “Charter values” to decisions authorized by that statute? And the answer to that question is by no means obvious. Doré itself, of course, is silent on the matter, as are its successors Loyola High School v Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 12, [2015] 1 SCR 613 and Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293. So too is the text of section 33 of the Charter, which speaks of legislation “hav[ing] such operation as it would have but for the provision of th[e] Charter” (emphasis mine) in respect of which section 33 is invoked. The Charter says nothing about “values”.

Are these values the same as Charter rights, in which case they might be ousted along with the “provisions” muted by the invocation of the “notwithstanding clause”? The cases at least suggest otherwise. In particular, in Loyola, the majority spoke of “Charter protections” as a category encompassing “values and rights” [35; emphasis mine], suggesting that values and rights are different. It added that “Charter values [are] those values that underpin each right and give it meaning”. [36] And so, one might at least make a serious argument to the effect that the values remain intact regardless of the temporary inapplicability of the Charter‘s provisions (and rights), and that Doré‘s injunction that “administrative decisions are always required to consider fundamental values” [35; emphasis in the original] remains in full force, notwithstanding the “notwithstanding clause”.

The reluctance of the framers of Bill 21 to spell out, in the legislation itself, the unpalatable consequences they presumably intend, combined with the perverseness of the administrative law doctrines endorsed by the Supreme Court, may thus result in the nullification of one of the bill’s most significant features ― its attempt to exclude judicial scrutiny. I hope that no one doubts my distaste for Bill 21. I have denounced its illiberalism here, arguing that Quebeckers ― and the rest of us ― need to stop fearing “the way in which others might use their liberty if we do not preemptively coerce them”. And I have myself defended what some might think of as a workaround designed to challenge the constitutionality of Bill 21 despite its invocation of the “notwithstanding clause”. And, more broadly, I have long argued that the “notwithstanding clause” would be best left untouched. But I cannot say I find the idea of relying on “Charter values” to subvert the invocation of the “notwithstanding clause”, even one as distasteful as Bill 21’s, especially satisfactory either. The whole concept of “Charter values” is a figment of the judicial imagination, and it usually serves, no matter the protestations of the TWU majority, to water down constitutional rights and to subvert the authority of the supreme law more broadly.

One should note, also, that even if the argument that Charter values continue to apply despite the “notwithstanding clause” is successful, there would remain the issue of weighing these values against statutory objectives. I will not say much about this here, beyond observing that there is glaring conflict between the ostensible aims of Bill 21 as a whole, stated in its clause 4, which are “(1) the separation of State and religions; (2) the religious neutrality of the State; (3) the equality of all citizens; and (4) freedom of conscience and freedom of religion”, and its real aims, and in particular, the aim of the ban of wearing religious symbols. I am not sure how a court would deal with this, but here again the reluctance of the framers of of Bill 21 to forthrightly admit that they are trying to simply purge Québec’s officialdom of overtly religious individuals may well open a space for judicial subversion.

It may yet be, then, that the story of Bill 21 will turn out to have something that will look, from the standpoint of the protection of individual rights, more or less like a happy ending. But we should not let ourselves be deceived. Two wrongs do not make a right. One can hardly make up for the Québec legislature’s unwillingness to be bound by constitutional law by exploiting similar unwillingness on the part of the Supreme Court. And maybe, just maybe, the court would in fact recoil before the prospect of following the implications of the Doré line of cases all the way to the nullification of section 33 of the Charter. Who knows ― they might even seize the opportunity for getting rid of Doré and restoring some sanity to the Canadian law of judicial review.

To be honest, I’m not sure which outcome is more desirable. On the one hand, I want to see Bill 21 undone. On the other, although the Québec legislature would have no cause for complaint if it is tripped up by its own cowardice, those of us who care about the Rule of Law could not happy by its further subversion, even if we like the immediate results. But then again, I have the luxury of worrying about the Rule of Law from a distance. Those personally affected by Bill 21 may feel differently about this.

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.

Why Governments Are Not Angels

The SNC-Lavalin affair reveals serious challenges to the functioning of all three branches of the Canadian government

This post is co-written with Mark Mancini

Law Matters has approached us suggesting that we write a short piece on the lessons of the SNC-Lavalin affair ― and kindly accepted to let us post it here without waiting for their publishing process to take its course. So, with our gratitude to their Editor-in-Chief Joshua Sealy-Harrington, here it is.

Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of her office, and then resigned from cabinet; fellow minister Jane Philpott resigned too, and so have Gerald Butts, the principal secretary to Prime Minister, and Michael Wernick, the Clerk of the Privy Council. Ms. Wilson-Raybound and Dr. Philpott have now been expelled from the Liberal caucus. Indeed, the Trudeau government’s future is seemingly imperiled by the SNC-Lavalin scandal. In the unflattering light of these events, Canadians may rightly wonder about the way our government works.

It appears that many of the key decisions in the affair were made by the Prime Minister’s surrogates, who had no regard for the legality of the situation, but were only too happy to advance a political agenda. While the situation is still unfolding, one can already say that it has revealed significant challenges faced by all three branches of our government, and the defects in the ways in which they relate to one another.

Most fundamentally, the SNC-Lavalin affair requires us to take a grittier view of the way government works in Canada. As one of us wrote previously, government in the 20th century was widely perceived as a means to achieve certain substantive ends associated with the social welfare state.  The basic mythology held that, to break the “individualistic” mould of a judicially-developed law focused on upholding property rights and private contractual arrangements, Parliament and legislatures enacted complex legislation, to be administered by expert and efficient tribunals and agencies nested within the executive branch but more or less independent from the supervision of its political masters. This delegation was meant to remove from courts issues of collective justice deemed ill-suited for judicial resolution. The courts, meanwhile, were given a different but even more prestigious role: that of upholding a confined but elastic range of (mostly) non-economic individual rights and liberties.  

This rather Pollyannaish view of government persists today. The executive and agencies are seen as trustworthy technocrats, entitled to judicial deference (regardless of the absence of any real empirical evidence to support this view). Parliament, as the high-minded centre of political representation (at least so long as it is controlled by parties sympathetic to the redistributive project) and accountability. The courts, as the protectors of the rights of minorities. The SNC-Lavalin affair provides strong evidence that this picture is naïve.


The executive branch of government, it turns out, is not only populated by neutral, technocratic arbiters of policy. Rather, politically-minded actors, people like the Prime Minister’s former Principal Secretary, lurk in the shadows―and consider themselves entitled to really call the shots. These are the people who, in the face of an Attorney General’s refusal to cede to the Prime Minister’s pressure, said that they did not want to talk about legalities. They were ready to line up op-eds in newspapers to provide cover fire for their dismissive attitude toward law and discredited legislation adopted by a previous Parliament in which their party did not control the seats.

Instead of being guided by the law, or even (their own conception of) justice, these unelected, unaccountable apparatchiks are only motivated by the prospects of electoral success. Their empowerment means that even those decisions of the executive branch that are ostensibly protected by constitutional principles and conventions mandating their independence (like the prosecutorial function), are perceived as always up for grabs, according to the demands of political expediency.

Meanwhile, some civil servants are a quite prepared to act as the political hacks’ supporting cast, instead of standing up for rules and procedures. Mr. Wernick, the former head of the civil service, certainly was, having apparently had no compunctions about relaying the Prime Minister’s unconstitutional threats to the former Attorney-General and persisting when she warned him of the inappropriateness of his behavior.

But what of Parliament’s role in fostering accountability? Here again, one should not be too optimistic. A government that has the support of a majority of members in the House of Commons will also command a majority on, and thus control the work of, Select Committees, which are key to ensuring that the government is held to account beyond the limited opportunities afforded by the spectacle of question time. Admittedly, the committee supposedly looking into the SNC-Lavalin affair has let the former Attorney General present her version of the events, and it has made public the further documents she supplied, including the damning recording of one of her conversations with Mr. Wernick. Yet the committee is still resisting the calls to allow Ms. Wilson-Raybould to appear again to respond to Messrs. Butts and Wernick’s subsequent attempts to discredit her.

Parliament’s role as a locus of accountability is further compromised by the restrictions on what Ms. Wilson-Raybould is able―as a matter of ethics, at least―to say, even under cover of Parliamentary privilege. The problem is twofold. First, there is some debate about whether Parliamentary procedure would provide the former Attorney General an opportunity to speak despite the opposition of her former party colleagues. Second, even if such an opportunity is available, there is the matter of cabinet privilege, which in principle binds former (as well as current) ministers, even when they speak in Parliament. The Prime Minister could waive privilege in this case, to allow Ms. Wilson-Raybould to speak freely, but he is refusing to do so. 

Finally, the judiciary is unlikely to come out well of the SNC-Lavalin affair―even though it is not directly involved. For one thing, someone―and it is not unreasonable to suppose that that someone is not very far removed from the Prime Minister’s entourage or office―has seen it fit to drag a respected sitting judge, Chief Justice Joyal of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench, through the mud in an attempt to cast aspersions on the former Attorney General. (One of us, we should perhaps note, has been more critical than the other of that judge’s views. In any case, the insinuations that Chief Justice Joyal would not follow the constitution are based on, at best, a fundamental misreading of his extra-judicial statements.)

But beyond that deplorable incident of which a sitting judge has been an innocent victim, it is the former members of the judiciary whose standing has been called into question. In particular, it is worth noting that Mr. Wernick, in his conversations with Ms. Wilson-Raybould, seemed to have no doubt that the former Chief Justice would be able to provide support for the Prime Minister’s position―despite his repeated acknowledgements that he was no lawyer. There is no question that the former Chief Justice, and other former judges involved in or mentioned in connection with the SNC-Lavalin affair, were independent while they were on the bench. Yet their willingness to become hired guns once retired, and perhaps to take aim in accordance with the government’s commands, is still disturbing.


One view of the matter is that―despite the gory appearances it projects and creaky sounds it makes― “the system works”. As Philippe Lagassé wrote in Maclean’s, referring to James Madison’s well-known remark in Federalist No. 51 that “[i]f men were angels, no government would be necessary”, the test of a government is not whether its non-angelic members turn out to be fallible, and sometimes unethical, human beings, but whether “our constitutional constructs include checks and balances to deal with their naturally occurring slip-ups”.

And perhaps the SNC-Lavalin affair ought to give new life to the idea that responsible government—and its attendant norms of political accountability and control of the executive by Parliament—provide adequate checks and balances for government in the 21st century. Despite the limitations on Parliament’s ability to hold the government to account, the opposition party has been able to whip up sufficient public scrutiny to force the hand of the incumbent ministry. Notably, the exposure of the roles played by Messrs. Butts and Wernick is a consequence of the opposition’s pressure―as well as, arguably, of the ability of the media, old and new, to involve experts capable of explaining complex constitutional issues in the discussion of political events. Perhaps, if public attention to aspects of our system that we typically do not consider can be sustained once the interest in the scandal at hand subsides, the system will even come out of it stronger than it was, especially if Parliament can, henceforth, put its mind to holding the executive accountable for its exercise of the powers Parliament has delegated to it.

But this view may well be too optimistic. Just a couple of sentences before his “if men were angels” quip, Madison issued a no less famous exhortation: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” The worry is that our constitutional set-up fails to adequately establish this connection; that it does not guarantee that ambition will counteract instead of abetting ambition; and it relies too much on human character being, if not angelic, then unusually virtuous.

As Dr. Philpott observed in a statement following her expulsion from the Liberal caucus, “[i]t is frankly absurd to suggest that I would leave one of the most senior portfolios in government for personal advancement”. Similarly, it seems most unlikely that Ms. Wilson-Raybould would have taken the principled stand she took, rather than doing the bidding of Messrs. Butts and Wernick and the Prime Minister himself, had she been the ordinarily self-interested politician. The ambitious thing to do for someone in her position would have been to take a hint, and to do as she was told.

And what would have happened then? Sure, her decision to overrule the Public Prosecution Service and to make a deal with SNC-Lavalin would have had to be published, and would have generated some negative publicity. But friendly journalists marshaled by Mr. Butts, and perhaps the former Chief Justice too, would have provided cover. It seems reasonable to suppose that the SNC-Lavalin affair, if we would even have been calling it that, would have been over already, and almost a certainty that it not have become the major political event that Ms. Wilson-Raybould has made it.

In other words, it is at least arguable that whether fundamental constitutional principles are upheld by our government turns rather too much on individuals doing the right thing under great political pressure, and despite their self-interest. It is to Ms. Wilson-Raybould credit that she has acted in this way. But it seems unwise, to say the least, to rely on her successors always following her example, or to suppose that her predecessors always have set a similar one.

A more realistic view of government, and of its more or less visible denizens, may thus lead us to conclude that all is not well with our constitutional system. In one respect, Madison (in Federalist No. 48) turned out to be wrong. It is not the legislative branch but the executive that “is everywhere extending the sphere of its activity, and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex”. Law enforcement, Parliament, and perhaps even the judiciary, are endangered by its obstruction, threats, and promises of favours. We must recognize the difficulty to have the slightest chance of doing anything about it.

Is This Correct?

Should deference be denied to administrative interpretations of laws that implement international human rights?

Gerald Heckman and Amar Khoday have recently posted on SSRN a forthcoming article, due to be published in the Dalhousie Law Review, called “Once More Unto The Breach: Confronting The Standard of Review (Again) and the Imperative of Correctness Review When Interpreting the Scope of Refugee Protection”. As the title suggests, Professors Heckman and Khoday advocate that correctness, rather than reasonableness, be standard used to review questions of law relating to the interpretation of the provision of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) relative to refugees, especially sections 96-98, which implement in Canadian law the requirements of international treaties on the rights of refugees and persons in danger of being subject to torture. Long-time readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear that I welcome this pushback against the dogma of reasonableness review. Despite this, I have serious reservations about the argument made by Professors Heckman and Khoday. If its implications are pursued to their logical conclusion, they may swallow the law of judicial review whole. This may not be a bad result, but I would rather that it were brought about differently.

Professors Heckman and Khoday begin by reviewing the existing cases on the standard of review in the refugee protection context. They find that

the Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal are now reviewing decisions involving administrative decision-makers’ interpretation of provisions of the IRPA that implement the basic human rights conferred by international conventions on a reasonableness standard because in their view, the presumption of reasonableness review of these decision-makers’ interpretations of their home statute has not been rebutted. (9-10)

They also note, however, that the Supreme Court, when it has ventured into the immigration and refugee law area, has often conducted searching review, albeit sometimes under the label of reasonableness, which in principle calls for judicial deference to administrative decision-makers. The Federal Court of Appeal too has sometimes remarked that, while the reasonableness standard applies, the range of reasonable outcomes in this area may be very limited, so that there is little to choose from between reasonableness and correctness.

Professors Heckman and Khoday disagree. They are concerned that deferential review opens the door to inconsistent decisions behind upheld as reasonable. In their opinion, this is intolerable: “[t]he scope of universal protections” embodied in IRPA’s provisions “cannot depend on whether a refugee claimant has the good fortune of having her claim decided by an adjudicator who happens to subscribe to” a view of those provisions that is favourable to her case instead of a different “yet equally reasonable alternative interpretation”. (22) And while “disguised correctness review” would help avoid this problem, it is not principled or transparent.

Intead, Professors Heckman and Khoday insist that

a non-deferential approach to judicial review is required for questions of law arising from administrative decision-makers’ interpretation of statutory provisions that serve to implement human rights conferred in international conventions that bind Canada (11)

After all, non-deferential correctness review is still supposed to be applied to questions of central importance to the legal system ― and, according to Professors Heckman and Khoday, the interpretation of statutory provisions that give effect to Canada’s commitments under international human rights law belong to this category. This is both because of the importance of the substantive interests at stake for refugee claimants and because, due to their “proclaimed universality”, “basic international human rights” must receive a uniform interpretation. (13) Indeed, “[t]he provisions of an international convention defining the scope of basic human rights protections can only have one true meaning”. (22)

Professors Heckman and Khoday add that there is a multitude of decision-makers who may be involved in deciding questions involving the interpretation of the IRPA‘s refugee-related provisions; that most of them are not legally-trained; and that Parliament itself has recognized, in section 74(d) of the IRPA, the existence of “serious question[s] of general importance” in this area. These reasons too suggest that courts should see to it that the IRPA‘s provisions receive a uniform, and legally correct, interpretation. And, they argue, if the Supreme Court will not do so, then Parliament should intervene and legislate correctness review for questions of law arising out of the application of the IRPA‘s refugee-protection provisions.


One way to read Professors Heckman and Khoday’s article is as a recognition of the dark, repressive side of the administrative state. Contrary to a certain progressive mythology, in whose thrall we still live, as co-blogger Mark Mancini recently observed here, the administrative state doesn’t only consist of benevolent and beneficent technocrats, rainbows, and unicorns. As I wrote in my contribution to last year’s Dunsmuir Decade symposium, we must

recall what is at stake in judicial review of administrative decisions. Proponents of deference often think of it as a means of protecting the decisions of an administrative state devoted to economic regulation in the name of social justice, or at least of enlightened technocracy. But there is much more to the administrative state economic than labour boards or arbitrators, whose decisions supply a disproportionate share of material for the Supreme Court’s administrative law decisions. The law of judicial review of administrative action applies also to the review of correctional authorities, professional licensing bodies, immigration officers, human rights tribunals, even universities and municipalities, and much else besides. People’s ability to enjoy their property or to practice their profession, their right to enter into or to remain in Canada, even their liberty … can depend on the way in which an official or a body exercising powers (purportedly) delegated by a legislature interpret the law. 

I asked, then, whether “[i]s it enough to tell” people whom the state is about to deprive of these important rights or interests, that this deprivation rests on a legal interpretation that is “justified, transparent, and intelligible” ― but doesn’t have to be correct. Professors Heckman and Khoday say that, at least as to refugee claimants, the answer is “no”. I certainly make no objection to that, and I would welcome similar blows being aimed at as many of the other heads of the administrative hydra as possible. If anything, I think it is too bad that Professors Heckman and Khoday don’t say much about this broader context.

Now, of course there is nothing wrong with an article such as theirs concentrating on the inadequacy of deferential review in just one area. But the trouble with the approach taken by Professors Heckman and Khoday is that, although they do not say so, it reaches very far indeed. If the fact that a Canadian law implements some supposedly important right under international law must mean that this law has “one true meaning” that must be ascertained and enforced by the courts, then reasonableness review of administrative decisions is an endangered species, perhaps critically so.

It’s not just the bureaucrats who administer refugee law and the human rights tribunals, which Professors Heckman and Khoday briefly mention, who will lose the benefit of deference. It’s the correctional authorities, since Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that “[a]ll persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person” and, further, that “[t]he penitentiary system shall comprise treatment of prisoners the essential aim of which shall be their reformation and social rehabilitation”. It’s labour boards of all sorts, since the right to join labour unions is protected by Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as provisions of both the ICCPR and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); the latter specifically protects the right to strike, too. It’s employment tribunals and arguably various professional licensing bodies, too, since Article 23 also protects “the right to work [and] to free choice of employment”, and the ICESCR includes provisions to the same effect. It’s various social security tribunals, since Article 11 of the ICESCR protects “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living”. It might be the CRTC, since Article 19 of the ICCPR protects “the right to freedom of expression … includ[ing] freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas … through any … media of his choice”. It will even be the Patent and Copyright Offices, since Article 27(2) of the Universal Declaration stipulates that “[e]veryone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author”.

This list is not at all intended as exhaustive ― I’ve put it together after quickly skimming just the three major international human rights documents. There are many others, and they contain rights galore, any number of them reflected, in one way or another, in Canadian law. (I should, perhaps, make it clear that I do not mean to suggest that we should have all the “rights” purportedly recognized in these documents. Some of them, such as the “rights” of organized labour, are pernicious nonsense. But the point is that international law recognizes these things as important rights, and Canada subscribes to this view, however unfortunate this may appear to me personally.)

Of course not all legislation giving effect to these rights draws the connection as explicitly as the IRPA does in the case of its refugee protection provisions. But that shouldn’t matter, I think. Whether Parliament legislates in order to give effect, more or less transparently, to pre-existing international commitments, or the Crown subscribes such commitments on the strength of pre-existing legislation, the issue for Canadian administrative tribunals, and for Canadian courts reviewing these tribunals’ decisions, is how Canadian legislation is to be interpreted (if possible, consistently with Canada’s international obligations). So, to repeat, if follow the approach proposed by Professors Heckman and Khoday, we might have to get rid of deferential judicial review, if not across the board, then at least in many of the cases where it currently applies.

As an outcome, this would not be half bad. My own inclination would be to get rid of deference (almost) everywhere. A recognition that legislation has correct meanings that can and must be established by courts (even though this is, admittedly, not always easy) is most welcome, as I noted here. But if we are to come to this recognition, I would rather that we do in a different way than that suggested by Professors Heckman and Khoday. The existence ― or otherwise ― of legally ascertainable meanings is not, surely, a function of whether a statute reflects or even incorporates an international treaty. If legislative texts can have no meanings, then it’s not clear why treaties would escape this sorry fate; if they can, then treaties are not unique.


Canadian administrative law must change, and change radically, for reasons that have nothing to do with Canada’s commitments under international law ― though it may well be the case that such radical change will make it possible for Canada better to fulfill these commitments. That said, Professors Heckman and Khoday provide a practical illustration of one of the downsides of the status quo. More than this, they help undermine the prevailing assumption of the goodness of the administrative state and the judiciary’s deference to it. For these reasons, theirs is a welcome, if not an entirely compelling, contribution to the standard of review discussion in Canada; it is reasonable, one is tempted to say, if not altogether correct.

Can an agency choose not to enforce Bill 21?

Last week, the English Montreal School Board [EMSB] announced that it is refusing to to implement Bill 21, introduced by the Quebec government. The law would ban workers in the public sphere in positions of authority from wearing “religious symbols” while at work. The government, apparently cognizant of the challenges this could raise under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, signalled its intention to invoke the notwithstanding clause to immunize its law from constitutional scrutiny by the judiciary.

In pre-emptively declining to implement the law, the EMSB invoked constitutional objections under the Charter against the ban:

Vice-Chair Joe Ortona, who drafted the resolution, said that the EMSB believes this proposed legislation would be contrary to paragraph 2 (a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees everyone’s right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion and contrary to paragraph 2 (b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees everyone’s right to freedom thought, belief, opinion and expression.

Furthermore Mr. Ortona said that the EMSB believes this proposed legislation would be contrary to subsection 15 (1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees that everyone is equal before and under the law and guarantees the right to equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on religion and contrary to section 3 of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms which guarantees freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion, and freedom of expression.

Quite aside from the merits of the issue, there is a legitimate question of administrative law, here: can an administrative agency like a school board, empowered by statute, simply decline to enforce a law that it believes is unconstitutional? More specifically, can the agency decline to enforce the law if the law invokes the notwithstanding clause? Whatever the answer is, should agencies be able to come to their own determinations of constitutional law?

The place to start is probably the Martin and Conway line of cases. The core issues in those cases were the conditions under which an administrative agency can choose not to apply statutory provisions in its enabling statute that it considers to be unconstitutional—and if so, whether there is a power to issue personal remedies under the Charter. So these cases go, if an agency has the express or implied power to decide questions of law under the challenged provision (see Martin, at para 37), then it presumptively has the power to determine questions of constitutional law. The implied inquiry looks to a number of considerations (see Martin at para 41):

Relevant factors will include the statutory mandate of the tribunal in issue and whether deciding questions of law is necessary to fulfilling this mandate effectively; the interaction of the tribunal in question with other elements of the administrative system; whether the tribunal is adjudicative in nature; and practical considerations, including the tribunal’s capacity to consider questions of law. Practical considerations, however, cannot override a clear implication from the statute itself, particularly when depriving the tribunal of the power to decide questions of law would impair its capacity to fulfill its intended mandate. As is the case for explicit jurisdiction, if the tribunal is found to have implied jurisdiction to decide questions of law arising under a legislative provision, this power will be presumed to include jurisdiction to determine the constitutional validity of that provision.

The presumption can be rebutted by the party seeking to dislodge the Charter jurisdictional presumption, by pointing to an express or implied withdrawal of authority to decide constitutional questions: the concern is discerning whether there is an intention to “exclude the Charter, or more broadly, a category of questions of law encompassing the Charter, from the scope of the questions of law to be addressed by the tribunal (Martin, at para 42).

So the question at the outset for the EMSB is whether it has been conferred the ability to decide questions of law, either explicitly or impliedly. The enabling statute for the EMSB is the Education Act. Under s.111 of that statute, the province of Quebec is divided into “two groups of territories,” with one group constituting English school boards, like the EMSB. The EMSB, under the statute, is “a legal person established in the public interest” (s.113). There is at least some reason (even if weak) to believe under the Education Act the EMSB has the power to decide questions of law, but only a limited one pertaining to its particular mission under the Education Act. For example, under the statute, the EMSB has the power to “ensure that the basic school regulation established by the Government is implemented” (s.222) and can exempt students from that basic regulation “[f]or humanitarian reasons or to avoid serious harm to a student” (s.222). Assume for now that these rather vague and limited provisions confer a general power to decide questions of law: that general power, interpreted in light of the text, context, and purpose of the Education Act as it relates to school boards, would probably only relate to the organization of quality educational services (s.207.1), although one could argue that the same concern could apply to the context of Bill 21.

Even if this could be seen as an implicit signal of constitutional jurisdiction under the Education Act, it is a bit orthogonal to the core interpretive question. Martin, the key case on point, says that the real question is whether the EMSB has power to decide questions of law under the challenged provision in its enabling statute (see paras 27-28, 35). But here, there is not only no challenged provision yet, but it is not the EMSB’s enabling statute. This presents two further problems: can agencies issue prophylactic constitutional rulings? And even if they can, can they do so by choosing not to apply a statute that is not their enabling statute?

It would seem odd, in light of the Supreme Court’s cases, to suggest that an administrative agency can prophylactically choose not to apply a law that otherwise applies to it. Administrative agencies are creatures of statute, and so are subject to the statutory conditions that the legislature imposes on them. Under Bill 21, the terms of the statute clearly apply to school boards (see Schedule I, (7)). Short of some dispute arising within the confines of the statutory regime created by the Education Act, there does not seem warrant for the EMSB to go out on a limb and refuse to apply a statute that has yet to have created any particular problems within its statutory jurisdiction. This seems to be what Abella J suggested in Conway, where she concluded that tribunals could “have the authority to resolve constitutional questions that are linked to matters properly before them” (Conway, at para 78).

More important than this issue, though, is the idea that the EMSB can choose not to apply a statute that is not its enabling statute. The main Supreme Court cases dealing with this issue, even the ones that predate Martin, involve the enabling statute of the decision-maker under consideration (Conway, at para 49: “These cases dealt with whether administrative tribunals could decide the constitutionality of the provisions of their own statutory schemes.” Consider the cases on this point: in Cuddy Chicks, the issue was whether the Ontario Labour Relations Board could determine the constitutionality of a provision in the Labour Relations Act. In Martin, the question was whether the Nova Scotia Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal could decide a s.15 Charter claim under the Workers’ Compensation Act and associated regulations. All of these cases involved claims tied to the regime under which the decision-maker was established, with cases “properly before them.” And this makes sense: it would be odd for Parliament to delegate power to an administrative agency, confined by a statutory scheme, to pass on the constitutionality of other statutory provisions that may only tangentially be related to the part of the Education Act (for example) that the EMSB must apply.

Even if none of this were true, the notwithstanding clause effectively limits any independent choice an agency could have about the constitutionality of the statute under which it is invoked. For one, even if one could impute an intention to the legislature that presumptively allows the EMSB to make constitutional determinations, the notwithstanding clause is a good reason to say that the legislature has rebutted that presumption with respect to the particular category of question at issue here: this is the upshot of Martin and Conway. More fundamentally, a use of the notwithstanding clause cannot be legally questioned by any actor in the system, including the judiciary. The EMSB cannot legally second-guess the choice of the provincial government (its master) to insulate legislation from constitutional scrutiny. The invocation of the notwithstanding clause flows down the entire machinery of the state, and whether we like it or not, its use is legally justifiable by the fiat of the legislature.

To my mind, the use of the notwithstanding clause also renders null any arguments that one could make that the EMSB is justified in its prophylactic ruling because of an abstract notion of “Charter values.” Despite the fact that the spectre of Charter values is increasingly being called into question, and the precedential force of cases like Trinity Western should be questioned because of the lack of reasoning on the point (see, embarrassingly for the TWU majority, para 59), the notwithstanding clause is a legislative command that compels executive actors to ignore the Charter when implementing the law in question. There would be no point in invoking the notwithstanding clause if administrative actors could choose to “independently” opine on the constitutionality of laws in the face of it. The lightning rod for a consideration of Charter values is discretion, and the notwithstanding clause neutralizes any discretion at all on the constitutional question.

To my mind, there is little warrant for the EMSB to prophylactically say it will not enforce Bill 21, given its limited statutory domain and the use of the notwithstanding clause. And this is likely how it should be. It is one thing for an administrative agency, when implementing a statute in the context of a concrete dispute, to have to pass on the constitutionality of a statutory provision—in its own statute—in order to resolve the dispute. In that case, there are at least colourable reasons why the agency should have the power to do this: if one believes in the idea that agencies have expertise on matters arising within the confines of their statute, one could say that they could also have expertise on Charter matters arising in relation to that same statute. One could also say that the legislature delegated to the agency the power to make Charter determinations, even through the imperfect proxy of a general power to decide questions of law. These same justifications lose their force when considering statutory provisions outside the enabling statute. While Bill 21 certainly does affect the realm of the EMSB, the EMSB is not conferred a general power to make constitutional determinations arising under other statutes.

A Perspective from the North

A review of Jeffrey Pojanowski’s “neoclassical” approach to administrative law

Jeffrey Pojanowski, whose contribution of “A View from South of the Border” to the Dunsmuir Decade symposium readers may recall, has posted a very interesting paper on “Neoclassical Administrative Law” on SSRN. (The article is to be published in the Harvard Law Review later this year.) Although written in an American context, Professor Pojanowski’s article should be read north of the border too, because it is framed around the tension that is central to Canadian, as well as if not more than, American administrative law: that between the Rule of Law and (what we in the Commonwealth call) Parliamentary sovereignty. Professor Pojanowski’s solution to this tension ought to be appealing in Canada ― though accepting it would require giving up some of the assumptions that are built into our administrative law.


Professor Pojanowski starts by describing three ways of addressing the conflict between the courts’ role of saying what the law is and the legislatures’ prerogative of committing certain governance issues to the resolution of administrative decision-makers. What he terms “administrative supremacy”

sees the role of courts and lawyers as limited to checking patently unreasonable exercises of power by the administrative actors who are the core of modern governance. To the extent that durable, legal norms are relevant, the primary responsibility for implementing them in administrative governance falls to the discretion of executive officials, who balance those norms’ worth against other policy goals. (7)

“Administrative skepticism”, by contrast,

rejects deference to agency interpretations of law, even if the agency is charged with administering the statute. Deference shirks the judicial duty to say what the law is and introduces a pro-government bias of dubious constitutional provenance. (14)

As for those cases where the lawyers’ traditional interpretive tools are of no avail, because the administrative decision-maker has been given a policy-making role, “the [American] administrative skeptic is more likely to recommend an approach that is both more radical and more modest: invalidating the provision on non-delegation grounds”. (16-17)

Finally, the approach Professor Pojanowski terms “pragmatist” “seeks to reconcile the reality of administrative power, expertise, and political authority with broader constitutional and rule-of law values”. (18) It is relatively deferential to administrative interpretations of law, but makes “certain exceptions, such as withholding deference on major questions or jurisdiction”, (18) and “may … demand evidence that the agency engaged in reasoned decisionmaking” (18) even on those issues where it is normally prepared to defer, both interpretive and policy ones.

In jurisprudential terms, administrative supremacy comports with “a form of legal realism that dissolves the line between legal interpretation and policymaking”, deeming “most interesting questions of legal interpretation … inextricable from legislative policy choices”. (13) The skeptical position embraces A.V. Dicey’s vision of ordinary courts interpreting law as the keystone of the Rule of Law. The pragmatist view reinterprets the Rule of Law as involving “requirements of fair participation and reasoned justification”, and asks the courts to enforce these requirements, rather than to impose their view of what the law actually is.

Professor Pojanowski articulates and begins the defence of another approach to administrative law, which differs from those just outlined, though it has some affinities with each of them, perhaps especially the skeptical one. This “neoclassical administrative law … is skeptical of judicial deference on questions of law but takes a much lighter touch on review of [administrative] agencies’ procedural and policymaking choices”. (23) It seeks to preserve, indeed it emphasizes, the distinction between law and policy, and makes the courts masters of the former while asking them to stay out of the latter.

In part, this is motivated by a “formalist” rejection of the “legal realist premise that all interpretive uncertainty involves policy choices calling for political accountability and non-legal expertise”. (27; footnote omitted) To be sure statutes sometimes employ language that is only amenable to policy-laden elaboration (such as “in the public interest”); such elaboration should be the preserve of administrative decision-makers, subject only to a thin rationality review. However, this is precisely because in such “cases … there is no surface upon which traditional lawyers’ tools can have purchase”, (31) and the obverse of accepting this is a denial of “the more generalized presumption of implicit [legislative] delegation of interpretive authority”, which is no more than “a legal fiction delicately veiling a functionalism that dare not show its face”. (26) Legal questions, even difficult ones that have “more than one reasonable answer”, (33) can and ought to be answered by the courts, although “reviewing judges are likely to confer at least some mild epistemic authority on expert agencies”. (25n) In addition, the “neoclassical” position rests on a belief in the importance of the legislation governing judicial review of administrative decisions, especially (in the United States) the Administrative Procedure Act.

But while the “neoclassical” approach is similar to the skeptical one in its confidence in the law’s autonomy from politics and policy, it does not go as far in its rejection of the administrative state. It does not seek to reinvigorate the constitutional non-delegation doctrine (which holds that only the legislature, and not its creatures in the executive branch, can make law). Instead, “[t]he neoclassical approach turns down the constitutional temperature”, (36) accepting that the administrative state’s rule-making and discretionary powers are here to stay. It, in other words, “classical Diceyan public law theory adapted and persisting in a new regulatory environment”. (38)

Professor Pojanowski ends by addressing some potential criticisms of “neoclassical administrative law”. Of greatest relevance to Canadians will be his admission that

much here turns on interpretive method. The extent to which appeal to craft determinacy is plausible goes a long way toward deciding whether neoclassicism is promising or misguided. Furthermore, if interpretive formalism is inferior to strong purposivism or dynamic statutory interpretation, the case for deference is far stronger. Those methods explicitly, and to a greater degree, call for interpreters to consider policy consequences and evolving public values alongside, and sometimes above, formalist tools. The more those values infuse legal interpretation, the stronger the bite of arguments for deference based on political accountability and technical expertise. (40; footnote omitted)

Professor Pojanowski points out, however, that the pragmatist view, at least, is also tenable only if there are legal answers to at least some interpretive questions, which its adherents exclude from the scope of judicial deference.


I find Professor Pojanowski’s summary of the various existing approaches to administrative law illuminating, and his own “neoclassical” approach, mostly compelling. As a matter of first principle, I might be attracted by anti-administrativist skepticism but, especially in Canada, it is not a plausible position. Whatever might be the persuasiveness of the originalist arguments in favour of the non-delegation doctrine, and of strict separation of powers more broadly, in the United States, I doubt one can take them far in Canada. Subject to (somewhat vague) constraints on legislative abdication, the delegation of discretionary and rule-making authority is within the powers of Parliament and the provincial legislatures under the Constitution Act, 1867. The question, then, is not whether we can burn the administrative state to the ground, but whether we can ensure that it remains subject to law. The “neoclassical” understanding of administrative law is a better way of doing that then the available alternatives.

At present, Canadian administrative law is torn between “administrative supremacy” and “pragmatism”. Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190, the soon-to-be-former leading case, is representative of the pragmatic approach, with its insistence that

[i]n judicial review, reasonableness is concerned mostly with the existence of justification, transparency and intelligibility within the decision-making process. But it is also concerned with whether the decision falls within a range of possible, acceptable outcomes which are defensible in respect of the facts and law. [47]

By contrast, cases such as Edmonton (City) v Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Ltd, 2016 SCC 47, [2016] 2 SCR 293, which allow unjustified, unreasoned administrative decisions to stand in the name of an (almost?) irrebuttable “presumption of expertise”, epitomize administrative supremacy. That said, even the pragmatist strand of Canadian administrative law is infected with a metastasizing belief in the absence of legal answers to interpretive questions which in Dunsmuir and elsewhere has been said to warrant thoroughgoing deference to administrative interpretations of law.

In the circumstances, even reasserting the belief in the law is in fact autonomous from policy and politics, and that interpretive questions must be resolved by relying on legal rather than on administrative expertise, is a tall order. Professor Pojanowski points out that this belief goes hand in hand with a commitment to interpretation based “on the text’s original meaning, statutory context and structure, linguistic canons, and perhaps historical intent … rather than normative canons or legislative purpose at a high level of generality”. (34) Contrast this with the broad pro-regulatory purposivism of cases like West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, [2018] 1 SCR 635, and you will see just how far we have to go. Yet West Fraser, with its purported acknowledgement of an “unrestricted delegation of power” [11] to an administrative tribunal, illustrates the dangers of the prevailing Canadian approach.

That said, I have a couple of interrelated concerns about Professor Pojanowski’s approach. The broader one has to do with judicial review of policy decisions, including “interpretation” (or rather construction) of such terms as “reasonable” or “in the public interest”. I am inclined to think that the approach to (constitutional) construction set out by Randy Barnett and Evan Bernick in “The Letter and the Spirit: A Unified Theory of Originalism” is apposite here. A reviewing court should ensure, not that just that the administrative decision is rational, but also that it is a good faith attempt to further the original purpose of the statutory provision on which it is based and of the statute as a whole. While legal craft may not be able to tell us how best to serve the public interest in a particular regulatory context, it can help shed some light on statutory purpose. Indeed, I think it is necessary that courts, rather than administrative decision-makers naturally incentivized to overvalue to importance of their perceived mission and to underrate the countervailing considerations that may well have led a legislature to limit their ability to advance their agenda, be the final arbiters of statutory purpose. As Justice Rand famously said in Roncarelli v Duplessis, [1959] SCR 121

In public regulation … there is no such thing as absolute and untrammelled “discretion” … there is always a perspective within which a statute is intended to operate; and any clear departure from its lines or objects is just as objectionable as fraud or corruption. (140)

A related but more parochial concern has to do with constitutional law. Whatever deference might be warranted to administrative decision-makers engaged in the policy-laden elaboration of vague statutory terms, none should be accorded on constitutional issues. As a matter of the positive law of the Canadian constitution, the courts are the supreme arbiters of its meaning, against the executive branch as well as against the legislative. This question, if I understand correctly, does not even arise in the United States, but so long as Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395 remains on the books, it must be flagged in the Canadian context.

Another somewhat parochial question that the “neoclassical” approach to administrative law would force us to confront is that of what to do about a large number of statutory provisions that Canadian courts have so far more or less deliberately ignored or distorted beyond recognition. These are, on the one hand, “privative clauses” that purport to preclude review of administrative decisions; and on the other provisions such as section 18.1(4) of the Federal Courts Act, sections 58 and 59 of the Administrative Tribunals Act of British Columbia, and other provisions that seek to guide judicial review of administrative decisions. Privative clauses would be unconstitutional if taken literally; but instead of holding them unconstitutional and simply ignoring them as nullities, Canadian courts (used to) affect to take them seriously rather than literally, as indications that the decisions of tribunals protected by such clauses should be given greater deference. As the “presumption of deference” spread, even this position has become increasingly meaningless. Meanwhile, as co-blogger Mark Mancini has pointed out, in Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v Khosa, 2009 SCC 12, [2009] 1 SCR 339, the Supreme Court subverted the guidance that section 18.1(4) provides, insisting on imposing its own views on the standard of review applicable to decisions of federal boards and tribunals. The Supreme Court has similarly ignored provisions creating statutory rights of appeal, treating appeals from administrative decisions like judicial reviews.

Professor Pojanowski calls for such legislation to be taken as binding law rather than guidelines to be subsumed into or overridden by the Suprme Court’s own views about judicial review. This should be the obvious thing to do: statute trumps the common law. However, there is a catch; two even. First, the principle of legality holds that common law rights, including the right to access courts, including, I think it is fair to say, for the purposes of judicial review, cannot be abolished by implication. I’m not sure whether this has repercussions for interpretation of legislation that guides judicial review, but it might in some cases. Often, however, the legislation is quite clear. Notably, section 58 of the above-mentioned BC statute requires review for patent unreasonableness, including on questions of law in the case of certain tribunals. I think the courts would need to squarely face, in an appropriate case, the question of whether legislatures are constitutionally permitted to set the bar so high. And the courts should stop pretending to attach any significance to unconstitutional privative clauses.


Professor Pojanowski has articulated an approach to administrative law that is at once principled and (relatively) realistic. It responds to concerns that animate not only American, but also Canadian law, and should therefore be of considerable interest to us, not just as a comparativist curiosity, but as a source of compelling ideas. For this approach to take hold in Canada, long-held assumptions will require revision, and difficult questions will need answering. Yet it is quite clearly superior to available alternatives. Count me a cautious neoclassicist.