An Oddity in Strom

In October, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal released its much-anticipated decision in Strom. Strom raised a number of important issues: “ “at the intersection between professional regulation, Ms. Strom’s private life, and the s.2(b) Charter guarantee of freedom of expression in the age of social media.”  

Strom was a registered nurse. Her grandfather tragically passed at a long-term care facility. Strom took to Facebook to criticize the care her grandfather received at the facility. The facility’s employees reported the comments to the Saskatchewan Registered Nurses’ Association (SRNA). The SRNA charged Strom with professional misconduct, and the SRNA Discipline Committee found her guilty.

The Court ultimately overturned the Discipline Committee’s decision. For many reasons that I cannot explore here, I think this is the right decision, in law and in principle. But one aspect of the decision is of particular interest to me: the Court’s standard of review discussion as it related to the freedom of expression arguments raised by Strom.

Of course, in such a case, the framework that governs the standard of review analysis is Doré. Doré holds that the standard of review when a court reviews an administrative decision is reasonableness (Doré, at para 7). Doré also introduces a proportionality framework for assessing whether a decision-maker has struck a reasonable balance between the Charter right at hand and the statutory objective. Post-Vavilov, it is at least an open question about whether Doré is still good law. This is because Vavilov reaffirms that, when litigants challenge a law under the Constitution, the standard of review is correctness (Vavilov, at para 56). I, for one, have questioned why it is that different standards of review should apply, especially since the Court in Vavilov recognized that  legislatures cannot “…alter the constitutional limits of executive power by delegating authority to an administrative body” (Vavilov, at para 56).

Enter Strom.  In that case, both parties agreed that the standard of review is correctness on the Charter issue (Strom, at para 133). The Court also agreed, but only because the case came to court via a statutory right of appeal, and under Vavilov, statutory rights of appeal invite the appellate standards of review (correctness on questions of law, palpable and overriding error on questions of fact/mixed fact and law) (see Strom, at para 133). The Court noted, though, the following, at para 133:

It is not necessary to consider the question left unanswered by Vavilov, at paragraph 57; that is, what is the standard of review when the issue of whether an administrative decision has unjustifiably limited Charter rights is raised on judicial review, rather than on appeal?

This, in itself, is not really problematic. Given the fact that, for now, Doré lives another day, it would not be appropriate for an appellate court to apply the correctness standard to Doré-type situations. It is defensible—and proper—to simply classify a constitutional issue as a question of law that falls under the scope of an appeal right. And at the end of the day, it does not matter much for a results perspective, because the standard will be correctness either way.

However, in choosing the correctness standard, the Court then did something that is difficult to understand. It said the following, at para 140:

What, then, is an appellate court’s task when reviewing whether the decision of an administrative body unjustifiably infringed a Charter right? In substance, that task is summarily described in Doré at paragraph 6, despite the fact that the standard of review is correctness. The Court’s task is to determine whether the decision-maker disproportionately limited the Charter right or struck an appropriate balance between the Charter right and statutory objectives.

The Court went on to describe the question raised by the case, at para 166:

The question as to whether it has imposed excessive limits is the proportionality question. Here, it is whether the Discipline Committee advanced its statutory objective in a manner that is proportionate to the impact on Ms. Strom’s right to freedom of expression. One aspect of that question is whether the impact on her freedom of speech in her private life was minimal or serious.

The Court then went on to apply the Doré framework, though made reference to some parts of the Oakes test (see para 153).

This strikes me as an oddity. Let’s take what the Court describes its task to be. When courts apply the correctness standard, courts focus on “the conclusion the court itself would have reached in the administrative decision maker’s place” (Vavilov, at para 15). The proportionality analysis advanced in Doré, however, seems to have deference built-in to it. While Doré notes that the Oakes test and the Doré framework “exercise the same justificatory muscles,” (Doré, at para 5), Doré deference asks courts to give some weight to the statutory objective being advanced by the decision-maker. This was, indeed, a bone of contention for the dissent of Brown and Côté JJ in Trinity Western. But when a court conducts correctness review, at least in theory, the court should not give any weight to what the decision-maker’s reasons are for making

That said, there are no perfect Platonic forms in law. It is true that Oakes itself has developed to contemplate deference in its application. And it is also true that courts, post-Vavilov, have applied what I call “light correctness review” (see Planet Energy, at para 31), where a certain amount of weight is given to the decision-maker’s “…interpretation respecting the words of the Act, the general scheme of the Act and the policy objectives behind the provision.” This could be seen as a sort of Skidmore-like deference, under which courts give non-binding weight to an administrative interpretation.

That said, the inherently deferential idea of Doré review seems inconsistent with a stringent application of the correctness standard. This, to me, is a theoretical oddity, even if its effect is blunted on the edges.

Neutrality in Legal Interpretation

Nowadays, it is unfashionable to say that legal rules, particularly rules of interpretation, should be “neutral.” Quite the opposite: now it is more fashionable to say that results in cases depend on the “politics” of a court on a particular day. Against this modern trend, not so long ago, it was Herbert Wechsler in his famous article “Towards Neutral Principles of Constitutional Law” who first advanced the idea of neutral principles. He wrote that, because courts must not act as a “naked power organ,” they must be “entirely principled” (Wechsler, at 19). They are principled when they rest their decisions “on reasons with respect to all the issues in the cases, reasons that in their generality and their neutrality transcend any immediate result that is involved” (Wechsler, at 19). The goal of these so-called “neutral principles” was to avoid “ad hoc evaluation” which Wechsler called “the deepest problem of our constitutionalism” (Wechsler, at 12). While Wechsler did not put it this way, I think textualism—particularly in statute law—is the closest thing to neutrality we have, and should be defended as such.

Wechsler’s idea of neutral principles, and textualism itself, are subject to much controversy. But, in my view, it is without a doubt that a deep problem in Canadian law remains “ad hoc evaluation,” otherwise known as “results-oriented reasoning.” Some judges are starting to recognize this. In constitutional law, Justices Brown and Rowe in the recent s.15 Fraser case noted that “substantive equality”—while a laudable doctrinal goal—has been ill-defined in the cases, and “has become an open-ended and undisciplined rhetorical device by which courts may privilege, without making explicit, their own policy preferences” (Fraser, at para 146). The same potential problem attends statutory interpretation, where results-oriented reasoning is possible (Entertainment Software Association, at para 76), and administrative law, where Vavilov was concerned with provides a rules-based framework for the application of deference. All of this is positive, because it provides a guide for judges in applying rules, ensuring that the reasoning process is transparent, bound, and fair to the parties.

But, in many ways, neutrality as a principle in our law is under attack. A common adage has become “law=politics,” and this broad, simple statement has elided the nuances that must apply when we speak of interpretation. This is true on both sides of the “political aisle” (a reference I make not out of any desire to do so, but out of necessity). Some who believe in notions of living constitutionalism or unbounded purposivism would tie the meaning of law to whatever a particular political community thinks in the current day, ostensibly because the current day is more enlightened than days past. In some ways this might be true as a factual matter (putting aside questions of legitimacy). But, as we are learning in real time, we have no guarantee that the present will be any more enlightened than the past.  Still others now advance a novel idea of “common good constitutionalism,” under which the meaning of constitutional text—whatever it is—must align with a “robust, substantively conservative approach to constitutional law and interpretation.” The goal is a “substantive moral constitutionalism…not enslaved to the original meaning of the Constitution.” These views have something in common: they purport to view the interpretation of law as a means to an end, reading in to legal texts contentious, political values that may or may not be actually reflected in the laws themselves.

The attack on neutrality from these camps—that span the spectrum—follow a familiar path, at least implicitly. They reason from an end. In other words, the argument assumes that some end is coextensive with moral justice, whatever that is. It assumes that the end is a good thing. It then says that the law should encompass that end because it is good.

Legal interpretation should not work this way. Laws, whether statutes or Constitutions, embody certain value choices and purposes. They have an internal meaning, quite apart from what other people want a particular law to mean. In this way, it is true that law is a purposive activity, in that law does pursue some end. But, as is well known, law is not co-extensive with justice, nor is it helpful to the interpretation of laws to say they pursue the “common good” or some other bromide. Even if one could come to some stable definition of such terms (a tall task indeed) that could guide the task of legal interpretation, it isn’t clear that all of the goals associated with some external philosophy are co-extensive with the law as adopted.   Laws do pursue purposes, but they do not do so at all costs—they often pursue limited or specific goals that are evident only when one reads the text (see the debate in West Fraser between the opinions of McLachlin CJC and Côté J on this point). This is why purpose is usually best sourced in text, not in some external philosophy.

If we accept that law is indeed a purposive endeavour, and that the words used by legislatures and drafters are the means by which purposes are enacted, then textualism is a defensible way of discovering those purposes. Textualism is simply the idea that we must read text to discover all that it fairly encompasses. Textualism is really a family of tools that we can use to discover that text. There are the linguistic canons—ejusdem generis, and the like—that are generally based on the way humans tend to speak in ordinary terms. There are contextual canons, such as the rule that statutes must be interpreted holistically. There are substantive canons of construction (which I will get to later). And there are other tools, like purpose, which can guide textualist interpretation so long as it is sourced properly. Unlike other theories of “interpretation,” these tools are designed to find the meaning of the law from within, rather than imposing some meaning on it without.

I can think of at least three (and probably more) objections to the point I am making here. First, one might say that textualism and its family of tools are not themselves neutral. For example, some of the substantive canons of construction might be said to be imbued with presuppositions about the ways laws must be interpreted. For example, there is the rule that statutes altering the common law require a clear statement in order to do so.  This is not a value-neutral tool, it could be said, because it makes it difficult for statutes to override what one might call a generally “conservative” common law. I do see the merit of this argument, which is why I (and some other textualists) may wish to assign a lesser role to substantive canons. Indeed, since I believe in legislative sovereignty, the legislature should be able to change the common law without a clear statement. Of course, these canons could be justified on other grounds that I do not have space to explore here. For example, they could be justified as a matter of precedent, or as a matter of “stabilizing” the law.

Second, one might trot out the familiar canard that textualism as a general matter leads to “conservative” outcomes. To put this argument in its most favourable light, one might say that textualism leads to cramped interpretations of statutes, robbing them of their majestic generalities that could serve to achieve certain political aims. It’s worth noting three responses to this position. First, the “cramped interpretation” argument tends to conflate strict constructionism and textualism. Indeed, textualism may sometimes lead to “broad” interpretation of statutes if text and purpose, working synthetically, lead to that conclusion. A great recent example is the Bostock decision from the United States Supreme Court, which I wrote about here. There, textualism led to a result that was actually more protective of certain rights.  Second, the use of political labels to describe legal doctrines is a pernicious trend that must come to an end. Even if these labels were actually stable in meaning, and not themselves tools of cultural warfare, it is unfair to assume that any one legal theory is always something. I understand the need to box everything, these days, into neat categories. But sometimes, law can mean many different things. And tools used to interpret those laws, as much as possible, should remain apart from the political aims those laws wish to pursue.

Third, it might be said that true neutrality is not of this world. That is, it could be argued that a Solomonic law is impossible, and no matter what, the act of interpretation is a fundamentally human activity that will be imbued with traditionally human biases. I accept this point. Because judges are humans, no system of rules will always remove the human aspect of judging, nor should it. The best we can do is design a system of rules, in mind of the tradeoffs, that limits the pernicious forms of biases and political reasoning that could infect the law. We won’t always get it right, but we should not take the nihilistic view that the entire enterprise of law as something separate from politics is not worth pursuing.

Finally, one might argue that law is inextricably political. It is cooked up in legislatures made up of thoroughly political individuals, with agendas. It is enforced by people who have biases of their own. I also accept this point. But this argument, to me, runs up against two major problems that limit its force. First, while the making of law may be a political activity, that does not mean that the rules we use for interpretation should be. Not at all. In fact, one might say that the rules of interpretation should be used to discover the meaning of the law, whatever political result it encompasses. Second, there is a major is/ought problem here. Just because the making of law is political does not mean we should not be concerned with a system of rules designed to limit biases that might infect the judging process. All people, regardless of ideology, should find this goal laudable.

I close with this. I understand that we live in sclerotic times in which there are passionate political views on many sides. There is a natural tendency to impose those views into law. We lose something when this happens. While perhaps not a sufficient condition for legitimacy, it is central to the Rule of Law that laws be promulgated and interpreted in a fair way. Generality, as Wechsler notes, is one guarantee of fairness. If we give up on generality and neutrality in interpretation, then we must admit that judges are simply political actors, agents of politicians, without any need for independence. It is self-evident that this is undesirable.

Linguistic Nihilism

One common line of attack against textualism—the idea that “the words of a governing text are of paramount concern, and what they convey, in their context, is what the text means (Scalia & Garner, at 56)—is that language is never clear, or put differently, hopelessly vague or ambiguous. Put this way, the task of interpretation based on text is a fool’s game. Inevitably, so the argument goes, courts will need to resort to extraneous purposes, “values,” social science evidence, pre or post-enactment legislative history, or consequential analysis to impose meaning on text that cannot be interpreted.

I cannot agree with this argument. For one, the extraneous sources marshalled by anti-textualists bristle with probative problems, and so are not reliable indicators of legislative meaning themselves. More importantly, an “anything goes” approach to interpretation offers no guidance to judges who must, in tough cases, actually interpret the law in predictable way. In this post, I will explore these arguments. My point is that a sort of linguistic nihilism that characterizes anti-textualist arguments is not conclusive, but merely invites further debate about the relative role of text and other terms.

**

Putting aside frivolous arguments one often hears about textualism (ie: “it supports a conservative agenda” or “it is the plain meaning approach”), one clear criticism of textualism is that interpretation is not self-executing. Jorge Gracia, for example, writes:

…texts are always given in a certain language that obeys rules and whose signs denote and connote more or less established meanings. In addition, the audience cannot help but bring to the text its own cultural, psychological, and conceptual context. Indeed, the understanding of the meaning of a text can be carried out only by bringing something to the text that is not already there…

Gracia, A Theory of Textuality: The Logic and Epistemology, at 28

Sullivan calls this situation the “pervasive indeterminacy of language” (see here, at 206). Put this way, as Sullivan notes, it is impossible to interpret text in its linguistic context:

It is not possible for judges  who interpret a provision of the Criminal Code or the Income Tax Act to wipe out the beliefs, values and expectations that they bring to their reading. They cannot erase their knowledge of law or the subject of legislation. They cannot case aside legal culture, with its respect for common law and evolving constitutional values…Like any other readers, if they want to make sense of a text, judges must rely on the context that they themselves bring to the text (see 208).

This form of linguistic nihilism is highly attractive. So goes the argument, if texts cannot be interpreted on their own, judges should and must bring their own personal biases and values to the text, as a desirable or inevitable result of the unclear text. And if that’s the case, we should adopt another type of interpretive record—perhaps one that centres what a judge in a particular case thinks the equities ought to be.

**

This argument aside, I find it hard to accept. First, the tools that are inevitably supposed to resolve these ambiguities or vagueness themselves are ambiguous and vague; so it is hard to hold them up as paragons of clarity against hopelessly clear text.

Let’s consider, first, the tools often advanced by non-textualists that are supposed to bring clarity to the interpretive exercise. Purpose is one such tool. In Canadian statutory interpretation, purpose and context must be sourced in every case, even when the text is admittedly clear on first blush (ATCO, at para 48). Put together, text, context, and purpose must be read together harmoniously (Canada Trustco, at para 47). But sometimes, purpose is offered by anti-textualists as an “out” from ambiguity or vagueness in the text itself. The problem is that sourcing purpose is not self-executing either. Purpose can be stated at various levels of abstraction (see here, and in general, Hillier). In other words, purpose can be the most abstract purpose of the statute possible (say, to achieve justice, as Max Radin once said); or it could be the minute details of particular provisions. There can be many purposes in a statute, stated in opposite terms (see Rafilovich for an example of this). Choosing purposes in these cases can be just as difficult as figuring out what words mean. This is especially so because the Supreme Court has never really provided guidance on the interaction between text and purpose, instead simply stating that these things must be read “harmoniously.” What this means in distinct cases is unclear. This is why it is best to source purpose with reference to text itself (see here).

Legislative history also presents well-known problems. One might advance the case that a Minister, when introducing a bill, speaks to the bill and gives his view of the bill’s purpose. Others may say differently. In some cases, legislative history can be probative. But in many cases, legislative history is not useful at all. For one, and this is true in both Canada and the US, we are bound by laws; not by the intentions of draftspeople. What a Minister thinks is enacted in text does not necessarily equate to what is actually enacted (see my post here on the US case of Bostock). There may be many reasons why bills were drafted the way they were in particular cases, but it is not probative to think legislative history (which can be manipulated) should be some cure-all for textual ambiguity or vagueness.

Finally, one might say that it is inevitable and desirable for judges to bring their own personal values and experiences to judging and interpreting statutes. This is a common refrain these days. To some extent, I agree with those who say that such value-based judging is inevitable. Judges are human beings, and are not robots. We cannot expect them to put aside all implicit value judgments in all cases. But one of the purposes of law, and of the rules of interpretation, is to ensure that decisions are reasoned according to a uniform set of rules applicable across the mass of cases. We have to limit idiosyncratic reasoning to the extent we can/ If we give up on defining with clarity such rules—in order to liberate judges and their own personal views—we no longer have a system of interpretation defined by law. Rather, we have a system of consequences, where judges reach the results they like based on the cases in front of them. This might sound like a nice idea to some, but in the long run, it is an unpredictable way to solve legal disputes.

**

If all of the tools of interpretation, including text, are imperfect, what is an interpreter to do? One classic answer to this problem is what I call the “anything goes” approach. Sullivan seems to say that this is what the Supreme Court actually does in its statutory interpretation cases (see here, at 183-184). While I question this orthodox view in light of certain cases, I take Sullivan’s description to be indicative of a normative argument. If the Supreme Court cannot settle on one theory of interpretation, perhaps it is best to settle on multiple theories. Maybe, in some cases, legislative history is extremely probative, and it takes precedence over text. Maybe, in some cases, purpose carries more weight than text. This is a sort of pragmatic approach that allows judges to use the tools of interpretation in response to the facts of particular cases.

This is attractive because it does not put blinders on the interpreter. It also introduces “nuance” and “context” to the interpretation exercise. All of this sounds good. But in reality, I am not sure that the “anything goes” approach, where judges assign weight on various tools in various cases, is all that helpful. I will put aside the normative objections—for example, the idea that text is adopted by the legislature or its delegates and legislative history is not—and instead focus on the pragmatic problems. Good judicial decisions depend on good judicial reasoning. Good judicial reasoning is more likely to occur if it depends less on a particular judge’s writing prowess and more on sourcing that reasoning from precedential and well-practiced rules. But there is no external, universal rule to guide the particular weights that judges should assign to various tools of interpretation, and even further, what factors will guide the assignment of weights. At the same time, some people might argue that rules that are too stringent will stymie the human aspect of judging.

In my view, an answer to this was provided by Justice Stratas in a recent paper co-authored with his clerk, David Williams. The piece offers an interesting and well-reasoned way of ordering tools of interpretation. For Stratas & Williams,  there are certain “green light” “yellow light” and “red light” tools in statutory interpretation. Green light tools include text and context, as well as purpose when it is sourced in text. Yellow light tools are ones that must be used with caution—for example, legislative history and social science evidence. Red light tools are ones that should never be used—for example, personal policy preferences.

I think this is a sound way of viewing the statutory interpretation problem. The text is naturally the starting point, since text is what is adopted by the legislature or its delegates, and is often the best evidence of what the legislature meant. Context is necessary as a pragmatic tool to understand text. Purpose can be probative as well, if sourced in text.

Sometimes, as I mentioned above, legislative history can be helpful. But it  must be used with caution. The same goes with social science evidence, which might be helpful if it illustrates the consequences of different interpretations, and roots those consequences back to internal statutory tools like text or purpose. But again, social science evidence cannot be used to contradict clear text.

Finally, I cannot imagine a world in which a judge’s personal views on what legislation should mean should be at all probative. Hence, it is a red light tool.

In this framework, judges are not asked to, on a case-by-case basis, assign weights to the tools that the judge thinks is most helpful. Instead, the tools are ranked according to their probative value. This setup has the benefit of rigidity, in that it does assign objective weight to the factors before interpretation begins. At the same time, it keeps the door open to using various tools that could deal with textual ambiguity or vagueness.

The point is that textualism cannot be said to be implausible simply because it takes some work to squeeze meaning out of text. The alternatives are not any better. If we can arrange text at the hierarchy of a list of other tools, that may be a solid way forward.

What Needs to Be Said

Sometimes people say things that need to be said. These things may make us uncomfortable. They may force us to look in the mirror. They may ask us to really sit and think about our conduct. We might not like to hear these things, but they might start a discussion. Or maybe they will force us to change our ways.

Enter Stratas JA in Canada v Kattenburg, 2020 FCA 164. Here, Stratas JA says what needs to be said. In the decision, Stratas JA shines a light on two increasing tendencies in Canadian law: (1) the tendency of some intervenors, contrary to governing jurisprudence, to insert international law or policy preferences in the interpretation of legislation, particularly in the discernment of legislative purpose and (2) the tendency for some judges, in extra-judicial speeches or otherwise, to weigh in on matters of public policy, typically left to the political branches. Stratas JA has launched an important conversation that we should embrace, tough as it is.

International Law and Statutory Interpretation

Let me start with the basic facts of the case. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency decided that certain wine imported to Canada from the West Bank are “products of Israel” (see the Federal Court’s decision in 2019 FC 1003 at para 3). The judicial review, among other issues, concerned whether the wine could be labelled as “products of Israel.” That’s it. Under ordinary administrative law principles, the court will assess whether the decision of the CFIA is reasonable. A typical legal task.

Here’s where it gets hairy. Sometimes, international law can enter the act of legal interpretation. If you want to know more about how this is the case, see my post on Stratas JA’s decision in Entertainment Software. The point is that international law can only be relevant to the interpretation of Canadian law where it is incorporated in domestic law explicitly, or where there is some ambiguity. Parliament remains sovereign because it controls the international law it adopts; indeed, “[s]ometimes it is clear…that the purpose of a legislative provision is to implement some or all of  an international law instrument” (Kattenburg, at para 25) (see Gib Van Ert, here, for some nuance on this). Other times, there is ambiguity that permits the consideration of international law (Kattenburg, at para 25). But other times, probably most times, international law plays no role in the interpretation of legislation, where there is no indication that the governing law explicitly or by implication incorporates international law. That was the case here.

Yet many of the intervenors in this case were motivated to bootstrap international law into the authentic interpretation of legislation. For many, the argument was that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is illegal under international law principles. This was despite the fact that nothing in the governing law was designed “to address state occupation of territories and, in particular, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank” (Kattenburg, at para 20). To make this point, some of the interveners attempted to further bootstrap the record with “hyperlinks to find reports, opinions, news articles and informal articles to buttress their claims about the content of international law and the illegality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank” (Kattenburg, at para 32).

There are many problems with what’s going on here, and Justice Stratas rightly rejected the efforts to make the case about the West Bank issue rather than the reasonableness of a regulatory decision. First, at the level of fundamental principle, judicial review of administrative action is about policing the boundaries of the administrative state, at the level of a particular regulatory decision. Some times these decisions can have major consequences, for the party subject to the decision or for the legal system on the whole. But the focus is not the at-large determination of major issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The focus is on the decision under review. And so the attempts by the moving parties to buttress the record, to force the Court’s hand into saying something, anything, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is inappropriate, to say the least. Justice Stratas rightly, and humbly, rejected the call to enter this fraught political territory.

Another problem is the attempt to use international law to guide, where it is inappropriate to do so, the ascertainment of legislative purpose. When courts interpret statutes, they do not do so with the aims of achieving a result that the judge thinks is “just,” “right,” or even “fair.” The goal is to interpret statutes authentically, so that we can plausibly determine what the legislature meant when it used certain words in enacting a law. Contrary to fashionable legal realism, courts and decision-makers must do their best not to reverse engineer a desired outcome through interpretation (see Vavilov, at para 121, but also see the litany of Federal Court of Appeal and Supreme Court cases on this point). Here, the intervenors clearly tried to use international law to reach a desired policy outcome. But all of the intervenors, piled up together, shouldn’t be able to encourage courts to engage in this pure policy reasoning. Indeed, as Justice Stratas notes, “[s]o much of their loose policy talk, untethered to proven facts and settled doctrine, can seep into reasons for judgment, leading to inaccuracies with real-life consequences” (Kattenburg, at para 44). And to the extent that doing so is contrary to established Supreme Court precedent, Justice Stratas was right to call out this pernicious behaviour.

None of this is to suggest that intervenors do not play an important role in Canadian law. None of this is to suggest that international law cannot, in appropriate circumstances, play a role in the interpretation of legislation. But a new Canadian textualism is emerging that rebuffs policy reasoning and at-large international law arguments. All for the better.

The Role of the Courts

In Kattenburg, Justice Stratas also made a number of comments that, I think, needed to be said about the activities of some Canadian judges. Here is the gist of his comments:

[45]  As for judges, some give the impression that they decide cases based on their own personal preferences, politics and ideologies, whether they be liberal, conservative or whatever. Increasingly, they wander into the public square and give virtue signalling and populism a go. They write op-eds, deliver speeches and give interviews, extolling constitutional rights as absolutes that can never be outweighed by pressing public interest concerns and embracing people, groups and causes that line up with their personal view of what is “just”, “right” and “fair”. They do these things even though cases are under reserve and other cases are coming to them.

This comment raises the important question of the difference between the legal world and the political world. It has become increasingly common to hear that law=politics. In some sense, this is true. Law is the product of political deliberation. And because judges are only humans, there is always a risk that a judge’s experiences and personal views may guide the interpretation of legislation. No legal system can reduce this risk to zero, and perhaps it is unwise to do so.

But this is a completely different proposition from the normative question: should the political views of judges affect the interpretation of laws or judicial review of administration action? Obviously the answer is no. So, in legislative interpretation, we create a series of rules to guide legal interpretation. We ask courts and decision-makers to focus on text, context, and purpose—authentically. In other words, while law is the product of politics, that fact does not give judges the right to interpret laws as they wish.

There are a number of examples of prominent judges who have, extrajudicially, blurred the lines between law and politics. At least two judges of the Supreme Court have suggested that their job is to decide what is best for Canadians, for example (see Justice Moldaver here and then-Chief Justice McLachlin here). This is a real misapprehension of the judicial role. Judges aren’t tasked with making the best normative decisions for Canadians. That is Parliament’s job. Of course, the problem is that politics can be slow and frustrating. But that is no reason to bypass the legislature for a quick judicial resolution.

Another example, but by far not the only one, is Justice Abella. Justice Abella frequently enters the public fray to provide her views on certain legal issues. Quite separate from the content of these interjections, it is typically not the role of a Supreme Court judge to write popular columns, putting their thumbs on the scale of pressing public issues that might make their way to the Court. It is one thing to set out one’s view of the law in reasons for decision. We can agree or disagree on that reasoning, in the legal academy. It is another to take to the streets, as a judge, and participate in the political process by setting out one’s view of the law—whatever it is–in the context of popular publications. On a related note, in fact, this is not just an affliction of judges that might be considered “progressive.” As I wrote here, in the United States, conservatives are increasingly looking at the courts as an instrument of power, rather than as neutral and objective arbiters of the law.

I could go on and on. The point is that Justice Stratas is on to something in Kattenburg. The comments come as we see, increasingly, the veneration of judges as heros, who are celebrated when they enter the political fray by many in the bar. RBG on the left, with the action figures and paraphenalia. Scalia on the right, to a somewhat lesser extent. In Canada, the “stanning” of judges like Justice Abella as if they were celebrities. Judges are just “lawyers who happen to hold a judicial commission” (Kattenburg, at para 41). When put that way, it seems remarkably odd that we celebrate certain judges the way we do. We should celebrate judges for applying the law and following precedent to the best of their ability. We should refrain from celebrating the results of cases over the reasoning. And judges, themselves, should generally stay out of political debates. Indeed, lawyers are just lawyers, and law school confers no special insight on issues of moral or political weight, compared to the rest of the population.

Sad for some lawyers to hear, I am sure. But it needed to be said.

On John Willis and the Pesky Politics of Administrative Law

John Willis was and is considered one of Canada’s most important administrative law academics. As a student of administrative law and the law of judicial review, one cannot skip Willis’ classic works, like his books “The Parliamentary Powers of English Government Departments” and “Canadian Boards at Work”—and his caustic papers, including his attack on the McRuer Report and his famous “Three Approaches to Administrative Law: The Judicial, The Conceptual, and the Functional.” Especially in this latter piece, Willis sets out his comprehensive functional theory of the law of judicial review—that theory holds that courts, with a typically “conservative” orientation, could never understand the difficulties of governments that, post-New Deal, were concerned with social welfare. Accordingly, courts should butt out, in service of the expertise, efficiency, and progressive orientation of administrative decision-makers.

While Willis should obviously be commended and respected as an eminent scholar of administrative law, there is a core problem at the centre of Willis’ thought that should stand as a warning for us in the modern era. Willis fundamentally viewed administrative law as a project of politics. As R. Blake Brown notes in this article, and as Willis himself always argued, the law of judicial review (and administrative law more broadly) was not about legal principles or controls on the administrative state, but was rather designed to limit the interference that legalist, conservative courts could wrought on tribunals pursuing the social good in an expert way. But this sort of thinking runs into two fundamental problems: (1) it ignores the fact that, strategically, administrative power can and has been used to fulfill the policy aims of governments who do not have any designs on social welfare goals—this was a clear blind-spot in Willis’ own work, one that led him to over-trust government; and (2) normatively, as recent Supreme Court and Federal Court of Appeal jurisprudence tells us, there is a meaningful difference between law and politics when it comes to the interpretation and application of laws governing judicial review. Granting deference based on the supposed underlying political motivations of particular decision-makers undermines this separation.

Let’s start by reviewing Willis’ functionalism. Willis self-described himself as a “government man,” and “what actually happens man.” By this he meant he was less concerned about the legal principles of a 19th century constitution, but rather was concerned with the making of “effective government” (see “Administrative Law in Retrospect” at 227). Functionalism crafted doctrine to align with the way government operates and the programs government is responsible for implementing. At the time of Willis’ writing, the struggle for government was the implementation of social welfare programs, closely associated with the New Deal. Delegation to administrative tribunals was one of the ways that these programs were implemented. A functional approach, then, would respect the legislative choice to delegate

In my view, deference to administrative tribunals in the functionalist mould was supported by a number of presuppositions about administrative decision-making, but the most important one for our purposes was what I call the “political” presupposition. Deference on the functionalist account was justified because of the apparent political valence of the decision-makers under review and what they were designed to achieve. Says Michael Taggart (at 257), describing the functionalists of the era:

These left-leaning scholars were deeply resentful of what they saw as conservative judges twisting the pliable rules of statutory interpretation to favour the existing order, privileging the rich and the powerful, and defeating the purposes of statutes intended to further the interests of the workers, the homeless, and the least well-off in society.

Deference on functionalist grounds was therefore a reactionary force, one that was a political project designed to fight back against the supposedly conservative orientation of the courts, that used legal principles to stunt the social welfare programs of governments.

Willis himself clearly fell in this category. A social democrat, Willis railed against any sort of thinking that would interfere with the prerogatives of government, undertaking social programs. He viewed government as fundamentally changing in light of the New Deal:

The State had changed its character, had ceased to be soldier and policeman, and was rapidly becoming protector and nurse…Again the right of the community bulk larger than the rights of the individual (See Parliamentary Powers at 13 and 51).

Risk described Willis’ functionalism as such:

Willis’ thinking about law and government can best be summarized by dividing it into three parts. The first is his observations and attitudes about government and its institutions….He perceive the nature and extent of the expansion of government, and its implications for the structure and functions of the legal institutions. He perceived a changing relation between the individual and the community, and how legislative policies were expanding the claims of the community against the individual, and circumscribing common law ideals….He had a great faith in experts, and he believed the courts should give liberal scope to the agencies on review (see Risk, at 545).

The political appreciation of administrative tribunals as representing the needs and wishes of the “community” was a constant thread through Willis’ scholarship advocating for a judicial “hands-off” approach to decision-makers like labour boards.

So, what are the problems with such an approach? To my mind, there are two. First, Willis’ political approach to deference fails on its own terms: it fails, on any complete account, to actually reach an ideal of social justice. This is because deference itself has no political valence, and can be easily used to vindicate decisions of administrators that run counter to social justice. And secondly, on principle, a political approach to deference runs counter to our positive law and to the good reasons for it.

Let’s first tackle the issue of social justice and its connection to doctrines of deference. As I’ve written time and time again, using deference as a means to reward the  decision-makers we like –because we ascribe to them some political ideal—is an unprincipled and politically naïve way to view the law. Let’s start with the latter contention. Willis’ supposition seems to be that courts themselves cannot be trusted to uphold the purposes of ameliorative legislation because of their conservative orientation. But it is not axiomatically true—and in fact, it seems bizarre—to suggest that deference will always serve to advance social welfare principles. It does no such thing.

The development of the administrative state is simple proof of this. When Willis was writing, he made the near-sighted appreciation that deference supported the administrative state as it existed at that time. At that time, observers were mostly concerned with labour tribunals, who were seen as consummate experts in their craft. But Willis either did not predict that deference would and could also have to attach to tribunals he did not appreciate under his social welfare rubric. That is, and I have said before, there are other aspects of the administrative state that do not map so neatly onto any past or modern description of social justice. Prisons, an area of interest for me, come to mind—perhaps the place where administrative discretion, at least prior to the CCRA, was most unbounded. Another example, that of immigration decision-making,  also comes to mind. What, beyond brash politics, justifies treating these tribunals any differently?  If one believes in deference, how can one say that prisons are any less deserving of deference than any other decision-maker?

This does not strike me as a consistent approach based on social justice. Later in Willis’ career, this thought must have occurred to him. That is because, in his “Administrative Law in Retrospect,” Willis addressed the question of a number “fashionable cults” which, to him, were negatively affecting the prerogatives of government:

This is very interesting coming from someone who is committed to social justice. How could it be consistent, if one accepts some political justification for deference based on social justice, for Willis to deny prisoners a right to be heard? Why are prisoners less good, in Willis’ eyes, than unions before a labour board? Willis’ myopic conception of social justice was profoundly underinclusive, even on its own terms.

Another explanation of this oddity is that Willis was not committed to social justice at all. Rather, it is very likely and possible that Willis was indeed a “government man” in the most literal sense of the term. Any action that could offend a government prerogative, in his eyes, was abhorrent. So the “cult of the individual,” and prisoners, all serve to run against government, even if government offends social justice. But this stands inconsistently with the idea of social justice. Social justice, on any cohesive account, is not about empowering government for the sake of government. The problem is that government can act in ways that contradict the theory of social justice

The above point challenges Willis on his own social justice terms, but there is an external, doctrinal reason to be wary of Willis’ approach to deference. It is indeed true that the fight for deference in Canada is overlayed by considerations of politics. After all, the laws delegating power to decision-makers—or laws that work to limit the scope of power for these decision-makers—are passed against the backdrop of a legislature that is a partisan organ. But that is a separate matter altogether from the actual legal justifications for deference, which like the interpretation of statutes, should be a separate concern from politics. Luckily, our law recognizes this fact clearly, and does so for good reasons. Vavilov, for example, does not base deference on any good-faith presumptions about the expertise of decision-makers. Now, the very fact that the legislature delegated power—any power—to any decision-maker is a fact worthy of deference. The tool of delegation as the grounds of deference has the benefit of being agnostic as to how one can judge, politically, particular tribunals. And Vavilov itself (at paras 120-121) cautions against reverse-engineering doctrine to suit a desired outcome. Clearly, Willis’ political approach to doctrine (and the arguably political approach of the common law courts) run afoul of our current law, which erects a clear separation between deference as a doctrine and the political results of a deferential approach. Justice Stratas in the Federal Court of Appeal has made a similar point in the context of statutory interpretation and judicial review: see Williams, at para 48; Cheema, at para 74; and Hillier, at para 33.

While that is the state of the positive law, it is the positive law for a good normative reason. It is orthodox today in the academy that law cannot be meaningfully separated from politics. It is even true that some say that any attempt to do so is necessarily “reactionary” or “conservative.” But this contention does not take account of the different parts of law-making and interpretation, and the very purpose of law itself. As I mentioned above, it is of course true that laws reflect the political consensus of the legislature at the time they are passed. It would be wrong and overbroad to suggest that the making of law is or should be divorced from the political process: indeed, it is the function of our legislatures to make laws that, at least in theory, are undergirded by the support of a majority. However, this is a completely separate act from the interpretation of laws. Laws, in order to be consistent with at least one aspect of the Rule of Law, must be general rather than specific; and when a judge interprets a law, she does so to give the meaning to the text, context, and purpose of the law that is enacted on the page (even purpose, as I discuss here, is usually and ultimately guided by text). The task of interpretation of laws should not be governed by consideration of politics; of what this or that judge thinks of this or that tribunal. Should it be the case that judges grant deference because of their political views, we will go along way towards undermining our separation of powers between courts and legislatures, imperfect as it is in Canada.

Of course, it is impossible to say that politics will never enter the interpretive activity. But that is a different question altogether than how doctrine is constructed. Ideally, the way we theorize deference and interpretation should not be based on political musings; rather, theory should be based on the foundational principles of our legal order, including the choice of a legislature to delegate power and the core interpretive function of the courts. It might be orthodox to suggest otherwise these days, but in my view, the very purpose of law in the law of judicial review is to enforce the limits that legislatures themselves provide—no matter how wide or loose they are—on administrative decision-makers. It should not be the role of the courts, as Justice Stratas so eloquently says in the above-cited decisions, for courts to pick winners and losers based on politics.

Back to Willis. John Willis’ contributions to Canadian administrative law will live for the ages. But his approach to the law of judicial review should not be celebrated wholesale. Willis’ cardinal mistake was falling victim to the game started by the “conservative” common law courts. If it is true that those courts struck administrative decisions because they did not appreciate the social welfare function of those agencies, that runs counter to our governing law and the good reasons for it. But today, Willis is still celebrated; the common law courts are not. I think it is fair and appropriate to draw attention to the blindspots in Willis’ theory: his myopia regarding what he thought was “social justice”; and the specious attempt to import deference based on some political justification.

Vavilov in the Prisons

By now, Vavilov—the case in which the Supreme Court re-jigged Canada’s standard of review framework—has received sustained attention, including from yours truly. Over at Administrative Law Matters, Professor Daly has a running post outlining how Vavilov has been applied in some particular interesting cases. And on SSRN, Jamie Chai Yun Liew has an excellent article on the implications of Vavilov for marginalized persons.  Vavilov has had and will continue to have implications for particular areas of law.

My concern in this post is the way Vavilov is being applied, at least in a few cases, in an important area of administrative decision-making: the carceral state. Indeed, it is not often that prisons are mentioned as distinct areas of administrative decision-making. This is, perhaps, because the administrative state is often identified closely with the “welfare state”—a benevolent set of tribunals and decision-makers maximizing benefits for vulnerable people. This is best represented in the deification of labour tribunals as the quintessential administrative decision-maker: expert, oriented towards the public good, efficient, and cheap.

But the prisons are not some separate and apart actor in terms of administrative law. Prison decision-makers operate on delegated power, just as labour and human rights tribunals do. Prisons have become increasingly bureaucratized over time (see Malcolm Feeley and Edward Rubin’s classic text here), and with that bureaucratization has come the potential for the traditional pitfalls associated with administrative decision-making. Indeed, as I will point out in the context of a particular case, “expertise” in the prison context means something very different—it often means expertise in using punitive measures to “manage” “difficult” prisoners.  Coupled with the intersecting disadvantages of prisoners, and the level of control prison administrators—presumably without legal training—hold over those same prisoners, the risk of unlawful or unconstitutional decisions affecting the statutory or constitutional rights of prisoners multiplies. Indeed, prisons were once referred to as “lawless agencies” for good reason—they form, like immigration decision-makers, an intimate part of the administrative state as we know it.

Hence it is important to study the way in which judicial review doctrine works in the carceral state. Indeed, one would expect that Vavilov’s focus on justification might actually make a difference in the prisons, where decisions have historically been made without the close scrutiny of courts. The following two cases illustrate the divergent ways in which, at least in these two cases, Vavilov is faring against the behemothic carceral state. In one of the cases, the court takes a deferential posture based on “expertise,” arguably undermining the justificatory promise of Vavilov. In the other, the court subjects the prison decision to the scrutiny required by Vavilov’s justificatory standard.

Bromby v Warden of William Head Institution, 2020 BCSC 1119

Bromby is serving an indeterminate life sentence for first-degree murder. He was involuntarily transferred from a minimum security institution to a medium security institution in 2019. He objected to this transfer, “[r]aising concerns about the sufficiency of disclosure” in relation to the transfer [2]. Despite this objection, the transfer was approved by the Warden of the minimum security facility. However, Bromby raised a habeas corpus claim, and was successful on that claim. He was transferred back to the minimum security institution.

However, immediately following this decision, the minimum security facility initiated an “emergency involuntary transfer” based on an increase of his security classification score. The final decision to transfer Bromby from minimum to medium security was eventually made by the warden, and was delivered orally to Bromby—but he was not provided written reasons for this decision  in a timely manner, contrary to the Corrections and Conditional Release Regulations [4]. Bromby argued that “the transfer on an emergency basis was unreasonable as he did not pose a threat to the security of the penitentiary or the safety of the inmates or any other person” [5].

In response to this claim, the Warden trotted out an old standard of prison decision-making: the rather specious appeal to “micromanagement” and “expertise.” As the respondent submitted:

  1.    It is not the role of reviewing courts to micromanage prisons even where they feel that intervention measures other than a transfer might have been taken in addressing inmate behaviour. While the applicant may have preferred for other actions to be taken to attempt to manage his risk, deference is owed to the Warden’s assessment that the applicant was unmanageable within Mission (Minimum) Institution.

. . .

  1.    The Decision was . . . reasonable . . . based on the facts and legal constraints before the Warden. The decision of the Warden, a prison administrator familiar with the complexities of Mission (Minimum) Institution and the security classification of inmates, should be provided with deference to decide that the applicant was presently incapable of management within an open perimeter environment. The thorough explanations provided and thoughtful insight as to the specific interventions that the applicant can work towards in becoming a minimum security inmate reflect the Warden’s significant expertise in identifying and managing offender risk. Accordingly, a high degree of deference is owed to the Warden in his decision.

 

The Court largely accepted this line of thinking:

However, it is the January 2020 Decision that I must assess for reasonableness and determine whether it falls within the range of possible acceptable outcomes which are defensible on the facts and the law. I find that the decision does. That is because the warden is entitled to deference in the decision‑making process. The decision of the warden, a prison administrator familiar with the complexities of Mission Institution and the security classification of inmates, set out the basis for why it was that Mr. Bromby presented as being incapable of management within an open‑perimeter environment [63].

There are two general problems with this line of thinking.

First, I confess that I don’t understand how this line of thinking is at all consistent with Vavilov. Vavilov did away the presumption of expertise for administrative decision-making, instead focusing on “demonstrated expertise” (Vavilov, at para 93). It is true that this demonstrated expertise “may reveal to a reviewing court that an  outcome that might be puzzling or counterintuitive on its face nevertheless accords with the purposes and practical realities of the relevant administrative regime…” (Vavilov, at para 93). This does, fairly, give some latitude for prison decision-makers such as the Warden in this case to apply their knowledge of a particular situation to a dispute. But in this case there is no interrogation of the demonstrated expertise of the Warden. That is, the court does not determine whether the supposed expertise of the Warden was actually demonstrated in the reasons. The fact that, in the court’s view, “[t]he record establishes that the warden turned his mind to all of the relevant considerations…” [65] is not enough to warrant an acceptance of pre-Vavilov law on expertise. This has particular resonance in the prison context, where expertise has often been assumed without demonstration (see Lisa Kerr’s wonderful article here).

I acknowledge that it is genuinely difficult to demonstrate, in the prison context, what actually constitutes “expertise.” Vavilov opens the door to the operational realities of prisons—including issues of security—factoring into a decision. But there is no critical assessment here by the court of how the Warden’s expertise featured into this decision. This seems to be what Vavilov prescribes, and it arguably should factor into any assessment of reasonableness, particularly where the consequences are dire for the individual (Vavilov, at para 133).

Moreover, it is important to recognize that “expertise,” as a general proposition, and especially in the carceral state, can refer to many different things. Simply stating, as the court does in Bromby, that wardens have expertise masks the real question: in what? As Lisa Kerr notes in another outstanding article, at 259, expertise can cut both ways, especially where constitutional rights are at stake. Expertise could be a veneer for stereotyping or discrimination, as I note below.  This is an important normative reason to deny administrative decision-makers a presumption of expertise, which Vavilov explicitly rejects—but which has, based on Bromby, perhaps not filtered down to the carceral state.

Finally, I must acknowledge the old trope about “micromanagement” of prisons, trotted out by the respondent in Bromby. Judicial review is, it is true, not about micromanagement of administrative decision-making. It is about policing the boundaries of statutory schemes designed to cabin administrative activity; it is a traditionally legal and doctrinal activity. As Kerr again aptly acknowledges:

The organization dynamics of prisons tend to resist constitutional constraints, due to the political powerlessness of inmates and the structural isolation of corrections from the community. The status of the inmate is defined in relation to managerial goals, rather than in relation to an externally defined moral norm, and prison managers tend to focus on their vision of scientific management rather than the larger legal order. Amid these institutional tendencies, only the judiciary has the inclination and ability to impose a regular and comprehensive legal framework. The judiciary is a necessary play in prison legality, rather than a necessarily amateur outsider at risk of “micromanagement.” The spirit of habeas corpus, with its strict emphasis on legality and access to justice, so as to challenge deprivations imposed on the physical body, has always had this in mind.

This is fundamentally important. Judicial review is a check against the seductive force of administrative exigency, in which people might be assimilated based on stereotypes or useful organizing tools rather than as individuals. Yet prisons, at the same time, must acknowledge the rights (statutory and constitutional) of prisoners—this is acknowledged in CSC’s enabling legislation.  Ensuring that these rights are upheld is the function of judicial review, which should not be reduced to some afterthought when evaluating the panoply of control mechanisms at the hands of prison decision-makers.

Johnston v Canada (Atorney General), 2020 FC 352

Contrast the previous case with Johnston out of the Federal Court. Johnston involved an inmate at Kent Institution. As a federal inmate, Johnston received payments from Correctional Service Canada “at a modest daily rate” [1]. However, CSC began withholding 100% of Johnston’s modest pay. This is because he had not paid a costs order in favour of the Attorney General. As such, Johnston filed a judicial review of the decision to make the a 100% reduction in his inmate payments.

The Court concluded that, though the relevant statutory scheme gave the CSC the legal authority to make deductions, “it was unreasonable for the CSC to withhold all of the applicant’s income without considering the purpose and principles that govern CSC and without considering the impact the deductions would have on the applicant” [4].

The problem in this case was marred by issues with the record. As the Court noted, the only record of decision was an email chain originating in the CSC. That email chain revealed that there was no “explanation or justification for making deductions from the applicant’s inmate income” apart from the obvious costs order [14]. Specifically, the record did not say “anything about…why the amount of the deduction was set at 100 percent of the applicant’s inmate income” [15].

While Vavilov does note that reasons are not required in every case (Vavilov, at para 77), reflecting well-known law, the case does note that “where reasons are provided but they fail to provide a transparent and intelligible justification…the decision will be unreasonable” (Vavilov, at para 136). This is precisely what happened here. In addition to failing to disclose why the 100% figure was chosen, the CSC failed to consider the vulnerability of the person who had has income reduced. This is directly contrary to Vavilov (see Vavilov, at paras 133 et seq).  The Vavilov majority puts the point eloquently at para 135:

[135]                     Many administrative decision makers are entrusted with an extraordinary degree of power over the lives of ordinary people, including the most vulnerable among us. The corollary to that power is a heightened responsibility on the part of administrative decision makers to ensure that their reasons demonstrate that they have considered the consequences of a decision and that those consequences are justified in light of the facts and law.

The CSC’s conduct in this regard was sorely lacking in terms of the justificatory standard set out in Vavilov—probably more so than Bromby. When a court cannot glean a reasonable justification from the record and reasons—in this case, a generally worded email—the risk increases that the administrative action was arbitrary. The risk increases that, in this particular case, the number of 100% was plucked from the air, without any discernible reason. When we multiply this arbitrariness with the existing vulnerability of prisoners, we have a recipe for administrative disaster.

The point is not that prisoners, because of their vulnerability, must win every judicial review. Doctrine must be applied without fear or favour. But the doctrine includes the consideration of the circumstances of vulnerable persons, and the importance of a decision to those persons, raising the justificatory bar in those cases (see, for this point, Sharif, at para 9). Again, this is not a trump card, but it is an important consideration for administrative decision-makers. It is not something to discard in favour of administrative exigency.

Justification plays a useful role here. It forces the prison, which is by design isolated from the rest of the community, to articulate the reasons for decisions in a way that is understandable to the people within prisons, as well as to the external legal system. Justification is the window by which we can look into the morass of prison decisions, policies, and directives that bear on the actual lives of real people within the carceral state. The tendency in prisons is, likely, to reject these external checks.

That makes those checks all the more important.

Unholy Trinity

Introducing a new article that makes the case against judicial deference to administrative applications of constitutional law

Readers may recall my unhappiness when the Supreme Court decided the companion cases in which the Trinity Western University challenged the denials of accreditation to its proposed law school by the law societies in British Columbia and Ontario, Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293 and Trinity Western University v. Law Society of Upper Canada, 2018 SCC 33, [2018] 2 SCR 453. I argued that “[t]he Supreme Court’s decision and reasoning subvert the Rule of Law and nullify the constitutional protection for religious freedom“.

One salient feature of these cases was the Supreme Court’s (re-)embrace of its earlier decisions in Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395 and Loyola High School v Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 12, [2015] 1 SCR 613, which urged judicial deference to administrative decision-makers who applied (or indeed simply ought to have borne in mind) the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Trinity Western cases emphasize this deference, as well as various other aspects of the Canadian judiciary’s surrender of its interpretive authority over the law, which has now been partially walked back in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65.

At the kind invitation of Matthew Harrington in his capacity as editor of the Journal of Commonwealth Law, I have put my thoughts on this aspect of the Trinity Western cases and generally on the misbegotten idea of judicial deference to administrative applications of constitutional law into article form. The piece, “Unholy Trinity: The Failure of Administrative Constitutionalism in Canada”, is now available from the Journal’s website and my SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The jurisprudence of the Supreme Court of Canada that follows Doré v Barreau du Québec involves administrative decision-makers as key actors in the implementation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Supreme Court emphasizes their expertise in implementing constitutional rights and “Charter values” in the context of the regulatory regimes they are charged with enforcing, and holds that this expertise entitles administrative tribunals to deference when they make decisions that affect the rights the Charter protects or the values that underpin these rights. This article argues that the Supreme Court is wrong to endorse this deferential approach, sometimes described as “administrative constitutionalism”.

It does so by examining the Supreme Court’s decisions in the companion cases that upheld the denial of accreditation by the law societies of British Columbia and Ontario to a proposed fundamentalist Christian law school (the Trinity Western Cases). After reviewing both academic defences of “administrative constitutionalism” and Supreme Court’s previous engagement with it, the article shows that the Trinity Western Cases illustrate the failure of “administrative constitutionalism” to live up to the main arguments made by its supporters. This failure is not accidental, but consistent with significant trends in Canadian administrative law. The article then goes on to consider the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov for the future of “administrative constitutionalism” in Canada, arguing that Vavilov undermines the theoretical foundations of “administrative constitutionalism” or, at a minimum, will change the way it is implemented. The article concludes with an argument that, in addition to not delivering on the promises made on its behalf, “administrative constitutionalism” is also contrary to the Rule of Law. “Administrative constitutionalism” is second-rate constitutionalism in practice, and wrong in principle. The sooner it is recognized for the misguided idea that it is and abandoned, the stronger our actual constitution and the rights it protects will be.

The issue of whether, or at least to what extent and on what conditions, courts should continue to defer to administrative applications of the Charter is very much a live one in the aftermath of Vavilov. Lower courts have ask themselves how to apply Doré in light of Vavilov’s guidance on reasonableness review, and my article makes some suggestions which might be useful in this regard. And the Supreme Court itself, having punted on deference in Charter cases for now, will have to revisit the issue, presumably once Doré‘s author and staunch defender, Justice Abella, retires next year. I would like to think that my paper ― and the somewhat less uncompromising one by co-blogger Mark Mancini, which is set to appear in the Dalhousie Law Journal ― can contribute to the arguments that those challenging Doré will make on that occasion. I’ll be happy to speak to anyone making such arguments. Doré must go, and the delusion of “administrative constitutionalism” and the injustice of the Trinity Western cases must go with it.

On Canadian Statutory Interpretation and Recent Trends

I have had the pleasure of reading (for the first time front-to-back) the legal interpretation classic, Reading Law by Justice Scalia and Bryan Garner. For Canadian courts struggling with how to source and use purpose when interpreting statutes, Reading Law provides valuable assistance. It does so by outlining two schools of thought on how to source purpose, schools of thought that are prevalent in Canadian debates and recent decisions over statutory interpretation. On the one hand is purposivism; on the other hand is textualism. While these schools do not actually differ about whether purpose should form part of the interpretive exercise, they do differ about how to actually determine what purpose governs. Canada’s recent statutory interpretation cases point to the textualist direction.

The first school of thought, broadly known as purposivism, is apparently Canada’s leading approach to statutory interpretation.  Purposivism “acknowledges that the meaning of language is imprecise and measures words against contextual, schematic, and purposive considerations” (see Hutchison, here, at 8). Aharon Barak claims that:

[a]ccording to purposive interpretation, the purpose of a text is a normative concept. It is a legal construction that helps the interpreter understand a legal text. The author of the text created the text. The purpose of the text is not part of the text itself. The judge formulates the purpose based on information about the intention of the text’s author (subjective purpose) and the “intention” of the legal system (objective purpose) (Barak, Purposive Interpretation, at 110).

The motivation behind purposivism is a sort of legal realism that queries whether text can ever truly be clear enough to be a dominant force in legal interpretation (see, for a characteristic example of this line of thinking, the opinion of Breyer J in FCC v NextWave Personal Communications Inc, 537 U.S. 293, 311). Purpose is thus a way to deal with latent ambiguities that may naturally arise in text. And importantly, purpose is focused on the “ends” a statute is designed to achieve, perhaps at a high level of abstraction or generality. On a radical purposive account, the goal of interpretation is to effectuate whatever the court determines the purpose(s) to be; text is merely a means to the end of purpose. Put differently, text is derived from purpose under the purposive account.

On the other hand is “textualism.” Textualism receives a bad rap in Canada, but that is probably more due to caricature than a real appraisal of the merits and demerits of the textualist method. Here Scalia & Garner have much to say. While the central feature of textualism is the idea that “if the text…is clear, interpreters should not impeach the text using extrinsic evidence of statutory purpose…” (Manning & Stephenson, Legislation and Regulation, at 94), textualism does not ask a court to “put on blinders that shield the legislative purpose from view” (Scalia & Garner, at 20; see also William Popkin, “An ‘Internal’ Critique of Justice Scalia’s Theory of Statutory Interpretation,” 76 Minn L Rev 1133, 1142 (1992)).  Instead, purpose is “deduced from a close reading of the text” (Scalia & Garner, 20).  Put differently, purpose is derived from text on the textualist account.

Why are textualists concerned about purposes achieved without reference to the text? First, textualists are concerned about the generality problem (see Max Radin, “Statutory Interpretation,” 43 Harv L Rev 863, 876 (1930)). A court motivated by its own results-oriented reasoning could choose a purpose that is barely represented in text, or is otherwise quite abstract in relation to text. Indeed, at the highest level of generality, every statute could be said to pursue “justice and security” (see Radin). But choosing that purpose could distort the means used by the statute chosen to achieve its ends by “enabling…crabbed interpretations to limiting provisions and unrealistically expansive interpretations to narrow provisions” (Scalia & Garner, at 20). This particular problem also has resonance in administrative interpretations of law, where an expansive purposive interpretation of enabling provisions could actually result in more deference to decision-makers than what the text itself allows.

Second, textualists are concerned with the realities of the legislative process and the fact that legislatures are imperfect. The takeaway from the Legal Process school, which influences purposivism, is that legislatures pursue reasonable purposes reasonably. But textualists understand that legislation, especially in the US, is a result of legislative compromise. While purposes may be clear, text pursues purposes in different ways. In this way, textualists are more concerned with the implementational rather than the ulterior purposes of legislation. Legislation can implement purposes in text in various ways.  A generalized example here is instructive:

For example, a statute providing a specific protection and a discrete remedy for purchasers of goods can be said to have as its purpose “protecting the consumer.” That would not justify expansive consumer-friendly interpretations of provisions that are narrowly drawn (Scalia & Garner, at 57).

What does this dispute between textualists and purposivists have to do with Canada? From a descriptive perspective, it describes perfectly what is happening in Canadian courts right now with regards to purpose. Normatively, Scalia & Garner’s text explains why a textualist-purposive approach is well-justified.

On the descriptive account, the Supreme Court in the past has fallen victim to the “level of generality” problem. West Fraser is a classic example. There, the dispute was whether a British Columbia statute permitted fines to be levied for workplace safety violations against owners of land on which accidents occurred. The relevant provision under which West Fraser was fined was, by its text, only applicable to “employers.” But Chief Justice McLachlin, for the majority, held that the ultimate purpose of the statute was to “promote workplace safety in the broadest sense” (see West Fraser, at para 17). This allowed her to conclude that the particular text of the section under interpretation should be interpreted to cover off West Fraser’s conduct. But here is a classic example of the purposive approach: purpose was used to interpret the text under consideration, rather than the other way around.

Justice Côté in dissent, in my view, had much better of the argument. Her view was that the relevant provision had chosen the means by which to pursue the purpose of workplace safety. The text had chosen “limited means” to pursue that purpose—by limiting fines to employers (see West Fraser, at para 107). This is a classic dispute between ulterior and implementational purposes.

Justice Côté’s view has recently been picked up in recent Supreme Court cases and in cases in the Federal Court of Appeal. I cite two examples here. First is Telus v Wellman, which I wrote about here. There, the dispute was what purpose should be chosen: for the majority, the purpose of the Arbitration Act, as directly reflected in the relevant statutory provisions, was that the Act ensures that parties abide by their agreements. But in dissent, Abella and Karakatsanis JJ would have pitched the purpose of the statute at the level of “access to justice.” Moldaver J in majority rejected the dissent’s characterization, holding that this purpose could “distort the actual words of the statute” (Telus, at para 79). The access to justice purpose was not rooted in statute. Moldaver J, then, could be said to adopt a position closer to Cote J in West Fraser, and closer to the textualist position identified by Scalia & Garner.

Similarly, in Hillier, Justice Stratas rejected the Attorney General’s attempt to cast a statute at the high level of abstraction of “administrative efficiency.” Rather, he concluded that not “every section in the Act is aimed at furthering efficiency” (Hillier, at para 35). Rather, the relevant provision under interpretation “pursues a different, more limited purpose” (Hillier, at para 35). That limited purpose governed, not the abstract purpose chosen by the Attorney General.

In these cases, the Supreme Court and the Federal Court of Appeal corrects the error in West Fraser. And here is a good point to say why it is that the textualist approach adopted by Moldaver J and Stratas JA is preferable. First, as noted above, a liberal application of the purposive approach could lead to high error costs. By prioritizing ulterior motive over implementational purpose (abstract versus specific purposes), the court could fail to understand how and why a statute achieves a particular goal. In other words, reasoning backwards from purpose (as McLachlin CJ did in West Fraser) could lead to ignoring what the text actually says, and how the text decides to pursue a particular goal. For McLachlin CJ in West Fraser, it was of no moment that the relevant provision only applied to employers. But this was the interpretive dispute at hand. The interpretive approach in West Fraser, in this sense, ignores the import of the text.

Secondly, and pragmatically, choosing more abstract purposes of statutes over more implementational ones does not actually help the interpretive task. To say that the purpose of a statute is “access to justice” will rarely do anything to determine how the text is actually supposed to be interpreted. This is because there are many different ways that a statute can methodologically choose to pursue access to justice. More likely, abstract, ulterior purposes can be used to distort text to achieve policy outcomes the interpreter likes. This is profoundly violative of the Rule of Law.

And finally, as Scalia & Garner note, perhaps the most important interpretive canon is that one which says that “[t]he words of a governing text are of paramount concern, and what they convey, in their context is what the text means” (Scalia & Garner, at 56). This sentiment has been expressed by the Supreme Court of Canada, particularly where text is “clear” (see Celgene, at para 21). It is as old as Justinian’s Digests (“A verbis legis non est recedendum”). A powerful principle of democracy justifies the canon. It is, after all, text which is enacted by our democratic institutions. Purpose should revolve around text, such that the purpose with the most reflection in text should govern. Sourcing text from purpose risks prioritizing an ideal with little democratic pedigree over the specific and finely-wrought means by which the text enacts that purpose.

Overall, and while no Canadian court will probably ever describe itself as textualist, courts in Canada are increasingly looking to text to discern purpose. In my view, this is a salutary development.

ESA II: The Standard of Review and Rogers

In Entertainment Software Association, Stratas JA for the Court set out a number of important comments about statutory interpretation and international law. I dealt with those comments in a previous post. I write again about this case to highlight Stratas JA’s comments on the standard of review. Particularly, Stratas JA was faced with the propriety of the Rogers decision, which held that when an administrative regime contemplates concurrent jurisdiction between a decision-maker and a court, the standard is correctness. While Stratas JA rightly held that the issue should be left for another day, I think there are good reasons to affirm Rogers in light of Vavilov.

Stratas JA started out by noting that “[f]or some reviewing courts, Vavilov wrought a significant change in how reasonableness review should be conducted. But in our Court, at least for the conducting of reasonableness review in a case like this, Vavilov hardly changed anything at all” [23]. This was because one of Vavilov’s innovations (at least at the SCC) was its list of contextual “constraints” that act as indicia of a reasonable decision. For example, and perhaps most importantly, statutory language could be broad or narrow, which would either “liberate or constrain” the decision-maker (Entertainment Software Assoc, at para 24; Vavilov at paras 89, 110). Similarly, other factors (precedent, affect on the individual, etc) could set the context in which reasonableness is defined. In the Federal Court of Appeal, a similarly contextual approach was already known: see particularly the decisions in Farwaha, at para 91; Delios, at paras 26-27). In a way, Vavilov was a full vindication of the Federal Court of Appeal’s approach. No longer, Stratas JA said, would lower courts have to “tip-toe around dicta in Supreme Court decisions like [Edmonton East] and [Wilson].” Despite Abella and Karakatsanis JJ’s (surprising and unexpected, given cases like Saskatchewan Federation of Labour) call to follow stare decisis in relation to these cases, the majority rightly did away with them, leaving them to be read by generations of law students as exotic artifacts of times gone by. And the Federal Court of Appeal’s long-standing approach to these issues, rooted in sound doctrine, was vindicated.

More difficult was the propriety of Rogers. As noted in my previous post, the section of the Copyright Act under interpretation in the case “falls to be interpreted by both the Board and the courts” [14]. Under Rogers, the standard of correctness applied to such cases of concurrent jurisdiction. The question: does Vavilov throw doubt on Rogers?

As Stratas JA notes, Vavilov is exhaustive in that it addresses “all of the situations in which a reviewing court should derogate from the presumption of reasonableness review” (Vavilov, at para 69; see also Vavilov, at para 143 re “holistic revision”). While the Court left open the possibility for future categories of correctness review to be recognized in future cases (Vavilov, at para 70), Rogers clearly did not fit into the Vavilov correctness categories. This is odd, considering Rogers is of relatively recent vintage and the Court was clearly aware of it as a previously-recognized correctness category. My speculation is that, since Vavilov is clearly a compromise judgment.

That said, in my view, a case for Rogers could be made in light of Vavilov. Though Stratas JA left the merits of this argument for another day, he does point out that an organizing premise of Vavilov is legislative intent; specifically, a respect for the “institutional design choices” made by Parliament in establishing an administrative body (Vavilov, at paras 24, 26, 36, and 46). It is this concept that justifies a presumption of reasonableness review. Similarly, it is this concern that justifies one of the categories rebutting that presumption: statutory rights of appeal on questions of law. A respect for these “institutional design choices” (for example, the act of setting up an administrative actor in the first place, and the act of subjecting that administrative actor to a right of appeal on questions of law) might similarly militate in favour of recognizing concurrent jurisdiction as a category of correctness review (see Entertainment Software Assoc, at para 18).

While I find this argument quite convincing, there are three counter-arguments that should be tackled. First, one might argue that since Vavilov did not recognize Rogers, this should be taken as a sign that Rogers is no longer good law. While the Supreme Court in administrative law does have a history of simply ignoring precedents, no one should presume that this is what the Supreme Court decided implicitly in Vavilov. Remember that Vavilov is comprehensive; the Supreme Court took great pains to clarify its pre-Vavilov precedents. It is more likely that Rogers was not included because of the internal politics of keeping the majority together; not an implicit desire to overrule Rogers.

Second, one might argue that the conceptual basis of Rogers itself no longer exists. Specifically, Rogers says that “By setting up a specialized tribunal to determine certain issues the legislature is presumed to have recognized superior expertise in that body in respect of issues arising under its home statute…”(Rogers, at para 11). Similarly, in cases of concurrent jurisdiction, “…it must be inferred that the legislative intent was not to recognize superior expertise of the Board…” (Rogers, at para 15). On these extracts, expertise seems to be doing some conceptual work. Yet Vavilov dispatches with expertise as a reflexive reason for deference. What result?

While expertise is no longer the lynchpin for deference, Rogers still speaks of “legislative intent.” In this case, the relevant legislative intent has simply shifted. We do not go further and ask what legislative intent Parliament had with respect to expertise; we simply ask what Parliament did when it set up a decision-maker, from an institutional perspective. Under this new theoretical basis, and as noted above, there is at least a case that Rogers can fit in quite nicely.

Finally, one might take a page from Abella and Karakatsanis JJ’s disguised dissent and simply argue that concurrent jurisdiction should not necessarily lead to correctness review (the disguised dissent made this point re rights of appeal at Vavilov, para 249). One could argue that nothing should be gleaned from concurrent jurisdiction as a matter of legislative intent; and the presumption of deference should apply.

But the importance that the Vavilov Court attaches to delegation as a tool belies this argument. For the Court, it is the very act of delegation that invites reasonableness review (Vavilov, at para 30). But when Parliament delegates to a decision-maker but carves out jurisdiction for a court to decide the same or similar matters at first instance, the delegation to the administrative agency cannot be construed as “full.” Accordingly, the presumption of reasonableness should not be characterized as “full” either. The exception for courts to exercise original jurisdiction qualifies the delegation, undermining the conceptual basis for reasonableness review.

This is just a sampling of some of the considerations to take into account regarding Rogers. It will be interesting to see how courts deal with that case in light of Vavilov.

 

The Continued Relevance of “Jurisdiction”

This post is co-written with Leonid Sirota

One of the innovations of Vavilov was its dispatch of so-called “jurisdictional questions” from the standard of review analysis. A long-time feature of Canadian administrative law, jurisdictional questions were said to arise “where the tribunal must explicitly determine whether its statutory grant of power gives it authority to decide a particular matter” (see Vavilov, at para 65; Dunsmuir, at para 59). These questions would attract correctness review. But as the Vavilov majority acknowledged, “…majorities of this Court have questioned the necessity of this category, struggled to articulate its scope and ‘expressed serious reservations about whether such questions can be distinguished as a separate category of questions of law” (Vavilov, at para 65; Alberta Teachers, at para 34).   As a result, the Court decided that it would “cease to recognize jurisdictional questions as a distinct category attracting correctness review” (Vavilov, at para 65), satisfied in the knowledge that the robust reasonableness review it articulated would solve a potential problem of decision-makers arrogating power to themselves they were never intended to have (Vavilov, at para 68; para 109).

We question whether matters are so simple. While the Court purported to rid Canadian administrative law of “jurisdictional questions,” clearly the concept of jurisdiction remains. In this post, we outline the four ways in which it remains relevant in Canadian administrative law, despite its absence from the standard of review analysis. This happens (1) in the course of statutory interpretation under Vavilov itself; (2) in the presence of certain statutory rights of appeal; (3) when drawing the boundaries between the remits of two or more tribunals; and (4) when determining whether a tribunal is empowered to consider Charter questions.

A note before beginning: between us, we view questions of jurisdiction differently. One of us (Mancini) has previously argued that jurisdictional questions should simply attract reasonableness review, since jurisdictional questions are merely a subset of a larger category of questions of law; in his view, there is no meaningful difference between jurisdictional questions and other questions of law, for the purposes of the standard of review (see the reasons of Stratas JA in Access Copyright (2018) at para 75). The other (Sirota) disagrees with this position, and instead believes that questions of jurisdiction must attract a correctness standard of review, and that if this means that most or all questions of law, being jurisdictional in some sense, require correctness review, so much the better. This difference is not material for the purposes of this post. We only mean to argue that the Vavilov judgment should not be read as dispensing with the existence of all questions of jurisdiction, let alone with the concept of jurisdiction writ large. Indeed, jurisdiction still remains an important and relevant concept in distinct areas of Canadian administrative law, an idea recognized in some respects by Vavilov itself.

Statutory interpretation under Vavilov

As noted above, Vavilov ceases to recognize jurisdictional questions as a distinct category attracting correctness review (Vavilov, at para 65). This is not a surprise, as majorities of the Court had previously thrown doubt on both the concept of jurisdiction (see CHRC, at para 38) and the means used to identify jurisdictional questions (McLean, at para 25).

And yet: chassez le naturel, et il revient au galop. When the Court goes on to describe the statutory context within which a particular decision-maker operates as an “obvious and necessary constraint” on administrative power (Vavilov, at para 109),  the Court’s explanation harkens back to the language of jurisdiction. The Court says that

Reasonableness review does not allow administrative decision-makers to arrogate powers to themselves that they were never intended to have, and an administrative body cannot exercise authority which was not delegated to it (Vavilov, at para 109, our emphasis).

What is this if not an invocation of the concept of jurisdiction, albeit in plain English? Whether we frame the issue as one of statutory authority or jurisdiction, the point is the same: administrative decision-makers only have the power that is explicitly or impliedly delegated to them by legislation (or that they hold under the royal prerogative). If they go beyond the scope of the delegation, the decision-makers lose their authority to act. Far from doing away with the concept of jurisdiction, then, the Court embraces it in its articulation of the legal limits of reasonableness review.

Moreover, the Court explains that “[i]f a legislature wishes to precisely circumscribe an administrative decision maker’s power in some respect, it can do so by using precise and narrow language and delineating the power in detail, thereby tightly constraining the decision maker’s ability to interpret the provision” (Vavilov, at para 110). In such cases, “questions relating to the scope of a decision maker’s authority … may support only one” permissible interpretation (Vavilov, at para 110), by contrast with others where the statutory language is more open-ended. While the Court resists the analogy, it is difficult to distinguish single-answer “questions relating to the scope of a decision maker’s authority” from pre-Vavilov questions of jurisdiction. What is new, perhaps, is the implicit recognition that even open-ended grants of authority must have their limits.

This is not something to be worried about―even though, as the Vavilov majority noted, every question regarding an administrative decision-maker’s statutory limits can be conceived as a question of jurisdiction (see Vavilov, at para 66), and is so conceived elsewhere (see Peters v Davison (NZCA) explaining that UK case law, followed in New Zealand, has served to “render redundant any distinction between jurisdictional and non-jurisdictional error of law”). Indeed, the Court is correct in saying that jurisdiction (or statutory authority) is a natural limit on administrative discretion. Although it does not serve as the lynchpin for a distinct category of legal questions for the purposes of standard of review analysis, the concept remains in the articulation of the limits on administrative decisions.

Statutory Rights of Appeal and Privative Clauses

Under Vavilov, different standards of review apply on statutory appeals and on judicial review. On appeal, when a case involves a question of law, the standard will be correctness; when a case involves a question of fact or mixed fact and law, the standard will be palpable and overriding error. On judicial review, by contrast, most questions of law, as well as questions of fact and policy, attract reasonableness review.

Hence the scope of statutory rights of appeal, and thus whether a given issue can be appealed or must be judicially reviewed, may be decisive for the outcome of a case. This scope can be circumscribed; one common way in which this is done is by limiting the right of appeal to “questions of law and jurisdiction” as, for example, in the Broadcasting Act provision at issue in Vavilov’s companion case, Bell/NFL.

How are such provisions to be interpreted? Vavilov could be read in one of two ways on this score. First, one could read Vavilov to suggest that when a legislature provides an appeal on a question of law or jurisdiction, jurisdiction means the same thing as “law.” This appears to be what the Court did in Bell, when it did not mention the difference in legislative language between questions of law or jurisdiction. Secondly, one could read Vavilov as retaining the concept of jurisdiction, but simply concluding that for standard of review purposes, the distinction between law and jurisdiction does not matter. This retains the concept of jurisdictional questions.

But what if the appeal right only extends to questions of jurisdiction, not to non-jurisdictional questions of law?  (See, for a version of this in Quebec, Mancini’s article on the subject). If this happens, there are three options. If Vavilov is read as saying that the concept of jurisdiction has no distinct meaning, courts can safely ignore the privative clause and simply consider the right of appeal as either extending to questions of law, or perhaps as covering a null set of cases. We find either of these solutions to be undesirable. If a legislature uses the term “jurisdiction” in a right of appeal, in contrast to the term “law” in a privative clause, the legislature’s use of that term must be given effect: this is simply an application of the presumption against tautology, endorsed in Vavilov itself (see para 45). If the legislature uses the term jurisdiction in a statutory right of appeal, it must mean something over and above a question of law, however much courts and scholars might disagree with its implicit determination that there exist non-jurisdictional questions of law.

This means that courts, in determining whether a particular matter falls within such a right of appeal, must come to its own determination about whether the subject matter is “jurisdictional.” Jurisdiction, then, continues to rear its head in these scenarios.

Jurisdictional Boundaries Between Two or More Administrative Bodies

The Vavilov majority retained, as a category of question attracting correctness review, the determination of “jurisdictional boundaries between two or more administrative bodies” (Vavilov, at para 53).  This happens when it is unclear which body must resolve a given issue, and one body attempts to address a matter that may be considered to fall within a comprehensive legislative regime administered by another.

The Court says that “[a]dministrative decisions are rarely contested on this basis” (Vavilov, at para 64). This observation is true, but the category is not without controversy. In fact, the Court will hear a case, Horrocks, which considers the demarcation of the respective spheres of authority of human rights tribunals and labour arbitrators, and the governing test for determining which actor should assume jurisdiction in a particular case (see Weber, Figliola). In these cases, the Court uses “jurisdiction” in its standard sense: as the power to hear and decide certain matters. If a tribunal proceeds erroneously on this score, it would incorrectly assume jurisdiction.

It might seem puzzling that Vavilov retained this category of review while purporting to rid Canadian administrative law of other “jurisdictional questions.” And yet, what choice did the Court have? As it pointed out, litigants (and indeed tribunals themselves) need to know which administrative body is tasked with resolving a given question.

Jurisdiction to Consider Charter Questions

The question of whether a decision-maker can consider the Charter is also a question of jurisdiction in the classic sense. It is noteworthy that the term “jurisdiction” appears 89 times in the Supreme Court’s reasons in Martin, which set out to re-appraise the rules governing whether a decision-maker has the authority to consider Charter issues. This is a preliminary question that must be asked before dealing with the merits of a particular constitutional challenge. The Court in Martin concluded that where there is jurisdiction to decide questions of law, there is also jurisdiction to consider the Charter (see Martin, at para 36). For the Martin Court, jurisdiction is defined as “the power to decide” (Martin, at para 36). It will be a “jurisdictional question,” therefore, whether a decision-maker has power to determine how the Charter applies to a matter on which it is required to rule. When a court reviews a decision-maker’s conclusion on this front, the court will owe the decision-maker no deference (see Martin, at para 31).  In this manner, the concept of jurisdiction will continue to inform whether a decision-maker has power to decide a Charter matter, and such questions will function much the same way as they did pre-Vavilov.

This isn’t to say that this category of review is justified from a perspective of first principles or precedent. The Constitution is always a limitation on government action, whether that action is legislative or administrative. That is, legislatures should not be able to “delegate out” of the Constitution by empowering an administrative actor. While it is true that administrative decision-makers are creatures of statute, constitutional constraints circumscribe statutory grants of authority whether they are mentioned or not. Indeed, the better view is that a legislature cannot preclude a decision-maker from considering the Constitution even by saying so. And from the perspective of precedent, Martin is difficult to reconcile with Doré, which held that “…administrative decisions are always required to consider fundamental values” (Doré, at para 35). While we both consider Doré to be unjustified in every other respect, this aspect of Doré―at least if for the extra-constitutional “values” we substitute the more appropriate “law”―is supported by the fundamental idea that the Constitution is supreme in the hierarchy of laws: s.52 of the Constitution Act, 1982 (see also Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v Tennant, 2018 FCA 132).

Normative Implications

In our view, the holding in Vavilov on jurisdictional questions must be considered quite limited. The Court must not be taken as saying that “jurisdictional questions” do not exist as a conceptual matter. Nor is the Court saying that, in other contexts, courts must defer on questions that can be identified as jurisdictional.

Rather, the situation is much more nuanced. Jurisdiction remains a relevant principle in Canadian administrative law, in at least four areas where courts will be called upon to delineate the scope of the authority of particular decision-makers, whether in the ordinary process of statutory interpretation, in demarcating jurisdictional lines, construing statutory rights of appeal, and in relation to Charter questions. Courts will need to return to a stable definition of jurisdiction. It will do no good to suggest that “jurisdictional questions” have been banned from the world of Canadian administrative law. Horrocks is an example: there, the Court will need to decide whether its test for determining which particular body has jurisdiction is adequate.

In our view, this narrow reading of Vavilov is normatively desirable. Jurisdiction is not the will-o’-the-wisp some make it out to be. Scholars obsessed with the “bad old days” of pre-CUPE administrative law always speak of jurisdiction as if it is some major impediment to administrative decision-making. But that is only so if administrators must, contrary to basic constitutional principles requiring all public power to be constrained by law, be allowed to roam free of legal fetters. Such claims by the defenders of the administrative state are an admission against interest, and quite an unnecessary one. Administrative decision-makers function just fine in jurisdictions where their jurisdiction and, indeed, the correctness of their legal interpretations are fully policed by the courts.

It is true that judges of a particular era were pre-disposed to view administrative power with skepticism. But they had good reason: the rise of administrative power was not an inevitability or a phenomenon that was totally consistent with fundamental constitutional principles. Jurisdiction—the idea that a law (typically statute but sometimes the common law) that exists outside the administrator’s subjective preferences and is subject to judicial interpretation determines whether the administrator can hear or decide a matter—is merely a constitutionally required limit on administrative power (see Vavilov, at para 109). No amount of tinkering with standards of review can change this. Courts trying to flee from constitutional principles will find that they cannot outrun them. They must reckon with this reality and devote their energy to working out how these principles are to be applied, rather than to futile escapades.