A Cheer for Administrative Law

Administrative law can only do so much to avert injustice―but what it can do still matters

I’d like to come back, however belatedly (sorry!) to an interesting post by Paul Daly at Administrative Law Matters. Professor Daly uses the example of Novak Djokovic’s ultimately unsuccessful challenge to the Australian government’s cancellation of his visa to illustrate “the value of administrative law”. He writes:

Immigration has traditionally been a prerogative of the executive, an island of unregulated discretion in the legal system. But over the last half century or so, courts around the common law world have landed on this island, wielding principles of procedural fairness and substantive reasonableness. Several generations ago, it would have been unthinkable that a Minister would give any reasons — still less 10 pages of reasons! — to support a decision to cancel a visa. Yet because the courts now stand ready to scrutinize executive action, ministers can no longer rely on authority alone to make decisions. They must engage in the reasoned exercise of public power.

Professor Daly acknowledges that “[a]dministrative law is no panacea. Hardly any immigrant has Djokovic’s resources and will receive the Cadillac justice he has been receiving.” That’s true of course. Still, he concludes that Mr Djokovic’s case “is an important reminder of the value of administrative law in pushing ministers and others to justify their exercises of public power in reasoned terms”. This also is true. And one might even add that, in law as elsewhere, those who cannot afford the Cadillac will often benefit from the ability and willingness of others to shell out for one.

Yet despite this I think that Mr Djokovic’s case shows at least as much that administrative law is, at best, only a partial remedy to injustice. Granting the point that it can force officials to “engage in the reasoned exercise of public power” (which is often though not always true), it does comparatively little to ensure that the power is exercised justly, and nothing at all to ensure that its existence is just. The latter of course is not administrative law’s role. But it’s a point that we should not lose sight of if we choose to celebrate administrative law. In a just world, there would be a great deal less administrative law than we need in ours.

In our world, it is indeed an achievement that immigration decisions have to be reasoned and justified. After all, the founding father of Canadian administrative law scholarship evidently lamented the fact that, although the government “regards immigration as a privilege, not as a right, and wants to avoid having to disclose to a court its sources of information about the political colour of immigrants”, courts lack the good sense to see the point: “On the other side of the ideological fence, a court , with the sweating immigrant before it, sometimes sets aside a deportation order on very flimsy grounds, for instance, that it was made on a Sunday”. (John Willis, “Administrative Law in Canada” (1961) 39:2 Can B Rev 251 at 258) It’s good that we’ve moved that ideological fence some way towards decency.

But let’s not kid ourselves. We haven’t moved it very far. As Maria O’Sullivan explains in The Conversation, the reasons that ostensibly motivated the cancellation of Mr Djokovic’s visa were that his ― presumed ― opposition to vaccination against the present plague might encourage similar opposition among Australians and might undermine “social order”. Professor O’Sullivan points out that ministerial explanations were questionable on their own terms. But she also notes that, perhaps more importantly for the future, the precedent set in Mr Djokovic’s case means that people’s ability to come to Australia might be taken away on account of their actual or even perceived views being a hypothetical source of possible trouble in the opinion of a minister. What starts with an arrogant fool of a tennis player won’t stop there. Yet substantive Australian immigration law seems to allow for precisely this result, and administrative law offers no redress.

Redress will come, not any further development of administrative law, but from substantive law being such to prevent this sort of injustice. In this regard, it is telling that Professor Daly sets his reference point to 50 or 60 years ago, when immigration restrictions ― and the government’s willingness to treat immigration as a privilege to be granted or withheld on a political whim ― had become generally accepted. But let’s not stop 50 years ago; let’s go back another century. In 1872, English-speaking countries simply did not restrict immigration, though health measures and quarantines did exist. (Hence let me note: I’d have very little sympathy for Mr Djokovic if he had been barred from Australia due to not being vaccinated. But that’s very much not what has happened.) In North America, immigration controls were the product, first, of anti-Asian racism in the late 19th century, and then of more generalized xenophobia in the first decades of the 20th. On the other side of the pond, as David Cannadine writes in The Victorious Century, the closing of the UK’s borders at the turn of the 20th century was the result of bigotry against the Irish and, especially, of anti-Semitism. Australia too implemented and long held to an overtly racist immigration policy.

Of course, contemporary immigration law does not discriminate as overtly. But the idea that movement across borders is something that can be regulated in the first place comes from that evil and unjust source. And it still means that people can be stopped from doing the same (often stupid) things that we are allowed, even though they are in all particulars bar their failure to have been born in the right place or to the right parents the same as us, for no reason other than that failure. The old-school racism may be gone, but the xenophobia inherent in the idea of immigration restrictions remains. And it is not administrative law that will purge it, but the realisation that the closing of the borders 120, 140 years ago was an injustice, and that it must be ended.

Hence I will only give one cheer for administrative law. Not two, for administrative law is not meant to reform repressive substantive laws, and certainly not three, for it is powerless to mend injustice raised up to the rank of political philosophy. The trouble with cheering too loudly for administrative law is that this risks making us forget these deeper injustices; we might be content with bringing order and reason to what remains, at bottom, a logic of repression.

But my cheer for administrative law ― at least, for robust administrative law, which truly holds the administrative state to its legal and constitutional duties, rather than for the all-too-often diluted version that many administrative lawyers prefer ― will be a loud one. As E.P. Thompson famously said,

We ought to expose the shams and inequities which may be concealed beneath this law. But the rule of law itself, the imposing of effective inhibitions upon power and the defence of the citizen from power’s all-intrusive claims, seems to me to be an unqualified human good. To deny or belittle this good is, in this dangerous century when the resources and pretentions of power continue to enlarge, a desperate error of intellectual abstraction. More than this, it is a self-fulfilling error, which encourages us to give up the struggle against bad laws and class-bound procedures, and to disarm ourselves before power.

Administrative law is an essential component of the Rule of Law, and so of the unqualified human good that Thompson had the wisdom to discern amid what he saw amid great substantive injustice. Hooray for it.

Boilerplate in Decision-Making

Administrative boilerplate is probably legion in government, but of course, this is an empirical question. Nonetheless, I have read enough cases to know that individuals at the foot of administrative power—many times in front-line decision-making— are at least sometimes faced with deciphering reasons that purport to have “considered all the factors.”  Confronted, as well, with a strong presumption that decision-makers considered all of the evidence in the first place (Cepeda-Gutierrez), it is theoretically hard for applicants to move beyond boilerplate.

Besides internal administrative mechanisms that could—but may not—discourage this sort of behaviour, judicial review doctrine in Canada is starting to take notice of it. Here are a few recent cases:

Gill v Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2021 FC 1441

In this case, a visa officer in New Delhi used almost identical language to reject Gill’s application as another visa officer used in another denial out of New Delhi. The Court said [34]: “I note, however, that the use of identical template language to express not just the relevant legal test or framework, but the reasoning applicable to an applicant’s particular case undermines to at least some degree the presumption that the officer has considered and decided each individual case on its merits.”

Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc v Canada (Attorney General), 2021 FCA 157

In this case, the Federal Court of Appeal chastised the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board for, among other things, “conclusory” analysis that purported to consider all the evidence [43]. This was important for the Court: “At best, on this point the Board obfuscated, making it impossible for a reviewing court to know whether the Board has helped itself to a power it does not lawfully have. By obfuscating, the Board has effectively put itself beyond review on this point, asking the Court to sign a blank cheque in its favour. But this Court does not sign blank cheques. Administrators cannot put themselves in a position where they are not accountable.”

Publicover v Canada (Attorney General), 2021 FC 1460

In this case, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans denied a request for a  lobster licence transfer. In her reasons, the Minister stated that she had considered “all the relevant circumstances” [16]. The Court was troubled by this boilerplate, because it did not show that the Minister connected her analysis to the actual law and policy governing the decision [62, 66].

These cases represent a decisive shift from pre-Vavilov caselaw. Gone is Newfoundland Nurses, which permitted courts to take these boilerplate statements and “supplement” them: Nfld Nurses, at para 12. Underlying this doctrinal innovation was an unqualified presumption about administrative decision-making: “To me, it represents a respectful appreciation that a wide range of specialized decision-makers routinely render decisions in their respective spheres of expertise, using concepts and language often unique to their areas and rendering decisions that are often counter-intuitive to a generalist” [13].

In the context of boilerplate, Nfld Nurses makes little sense. This is because boilerplate reasons do not do anything to show expertise or the use of specialized concepts or language. It is merely a “say-so” of the decision-maker. Even on the Dunsmuir standard, it was always hard to say–with a straight face– that this sort of reasoning is “justified, transparent, and intelligible.”

Second, Vavilov’s renewed focus on justification and a “reasons-first” approach will be, I think, a boon for those challenging front-line decision-making. There are necessary caveats: reasons are not always required, and in many administrative contexts (such as high-volume study permit decision-making), “extensive reasons are not required” (see Niyongabo v Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2021 FC 1238 at para 12). But even in these areas, courts could be more willing to subject front-line decision-making to a slightly higher bar in terms of reasoning.

Third, I think this turn of events marks a tension between the Cepeda-Gutierrez presumption of consideration and the culture of justification endorsed in Vavilov. This tension was pointed out, as I noted above, in Gill. The presumption of consideration makes sense from an efficiency standpoint: after all, legislatures delegate to decision-makers for a reason, and when they do, courts should generally not go on a line-by-line treasure hunt for error. But at the same time, these efficiency concerns should take a decidedly second place: as noted in Alexion, judicial review becomes difficult when there is only boilerplate shedding light on an ultimate decision; this is to say nothing, of course, of the dignitarian reasons why reasoned decision-making is desirable (see, for a recent analysis of these issues, Janina Boughey).

This is all for the best. Boilerplate may work well in a “top-down” culture of decision-making in which those subject to administrative power and courts are in the thrall of purported administrative expertise. No need, on this account, for a decision-maker to show their work; the “just trust us” ethic is what governs. But Vavilov has arguably changed things: gone is the presumption of expertise, and gone should also be the presumptions about reasoning. If expertise exists, it can and should be demonstrated through persuasive and responsive reasons that allow a court to determine the legal basis of a decision.

Fizzy Drink or Fuzzy Thinking?

Questionable arguments in Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule’s critique of anti-administrativism

I have finally started reading Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule’s Law and Leviathan: Redeeming the Administrative State. As it says on the tin, the (very short) book is a defence of the administrative state, and of American administrative law, against criticism by those who ― like me ― would to tear it all, or at least much of it, down. Ostensibly, the book is offered as something of an olive branch, an argument for why those who suspect that the administrative state is inimical to the Rule of Law are mistaken about this, and can, if not embrace powerful government agencies vested with vast discretionary powers, then at least make peace with their existence.

But it gets off to a questionable start in the first chapter, which describes ― and pokes fun at ― anti-administrativist thinking, which Professors Sunstein and Vermeule brand “the New Coke”, ostensibly in reference to Chief Justice Sir Edward Coke, whom anti-administrativists like Philip Hamburger regard as a hero of opposition to executive-branch tyranny but presumably also to one of the biggest flops in the history of marketing. I don’t mind the jab ― it is amusing, although of course the Chief Justice’s name doesn’t sound like that Coke. I do mind that the argument is less forthright than it ought to be.

Professors Sunstein and Vermeule make two main points in their first chapter. One, which is less interesting both to them and surely to most of their non-American readers, is that there is no particularly strong reason to think that the US Constitution’s original meaning outlaws the modern administrative state. The other, in which they are more invested and which will resonate abroad (indeed they assert, in the introduction, that their argument is “promising … for nations all over the world” (18)), is that the administrative state is essential for government to do its rightful work, and that its critics are mistaken to only focus on its alleged dangers for democracy and liberty. This is what interests me here.

One argument I find objectionable has to with the relationship between the administrative state, liberty, and markets, and the relationship of the law, especially the common law, with all three. While anti-administrativists see the administrative state as a threat to be neutralized,

[f]or the theorists and architects of the modern administrative state, private power, exercised through delegation of legal powers and entitlements by the common law and by market ordering, was itself a threat to individual liberty. Hence vigorous government, checking the abuse of corporate and other private power, was deemed just as indispensable to liberty as were constraints on executive abuse. Consider, for example, the question whether the Social Security Administration, the National Labour Relations Board, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Trade Commission are threats to freedom or indispensable to it ― questions on which reasonable people differ. (30)

There are several problems with this. First, the claim that private liberty is just something “delegated by the common law” is, at best, taking sides in a contentious debate. The common law itself did not see things that way. A person is free to do that which the law does not prohibit; he or she does not require the law’s permission.

Second, I think it’s quite fair to say that “vigorous government checking the abuse of … private power” is important. Recall Dicey’s example of Voltaire being “lured off from the table of a Duke, and was thrashed by lackeys in the presence of their noble master” and “unable to obtain either legal or honourable redress”. But to say so is not to answer the questions of what forms of “private power” can legitimately be checked by the state, and how they should be checked. Professors Sunstein and Vermeule want us to assume that refusal to deal is the same thing as a private violence in this regard, and that an administrative agency making law and adjudicating claims that the law it made has been infringed is no different from the police and independent courts enforcing the criminal law. These things don’t follow.

And third, the question Professors Sunstein and Vermeule pose is misleading. Reasonable people really should not differ on whether administrative agencies that can create rules backed by the threat of penal sanctions are a threat to liberty. Of course they are! What reasonable people can differ about is whether, all things considered, the threat is offset by, on the one hand, the good these agencies might do and, on the other, the mechanisms that might be devised for controlling and minimizing it. I think that it’s fair for them to argue that the administrative state does good things and that its critics have an unwisely single-minded worldview (whether or not these arguments ultimately succeed is, of course, a different question). But to deny that the administrative state threatens liberty is to peddle a similarly one-sided set of beliefs.

Professors Sunstein and Vermeule go on to give an example of how private law and private power threaten liberty, so that the administrative state is no more coercive than private ordering which it displaces:

If some people have a lot and other people have only a little, it is … not because of purely voluntary achievements and failures, important as those are. It is also because of what the law chose to recognize, protect, or reward. A homeless person, for example, is deprived of access to shelter by virtue of the law of property, which is emphatically coercive. In these circumstances, the creation of modern agencies … did not impose law or coercion where unregulated freedom previously flourished. They substituted one regulatory system for another. (31)

This, again, is quite misleading, and indeed the example comes close to doing the opposite of what Professors Sunstein and Vermeule intend ― it shows the dangers of the administrative state rather than its benefits. A homeless person is not deprived of shelter by “the law of property”, but by refusals to deal on the part of prospective landlords ― and possibly, at one remove, by prospective employers.

I’ll explain why the difference matters presently, but first, it’s important to see that the “law of property” would just as happily assure a person of a home as deny them one. Indeed, when we consider how attempts to interfere with the law of property have fared, we can see that, if anything, it would much rather provide shelter to everyone, as it were. Attempts to abolish private property in land and housing in the Soviet Union did not eliminate homelessness ― but they did result in a dire shortage of housing, such that multiple families were forced to share “communal apartments” with a handful of others if they were lucky, and with dozens if they were not. (My mother was born in such an “apartment” which her parents shared with seven other families.) Less dramatically and closer to us, administrative interference with property rights by means of zoning and building codes raises the cost of housing and prevents enough of it from being built ― which, of course, helps make people homeless in the first place.

In a competitive marketplace, refusal to deal by a prospective landlord or employer will seldom condemn a person to homelessness. Because landlords and employers compete for tenants and employees as much as the latter compete for apartments and jobs, some will moderate their demands to the point when even people who are not well off and/or have limited skills will find something for them. To be sure, some people will still need help ― temporarily in some cases, permanently in others. But this help can take the form of cash transfers, rather than regulation. But once regulation, often enacted by the administrative state, starts restricting the supply of housing or raising the cost of workers beyond what they can produce, refusals to deal by the artificially depressed number of landlords and employers risk becoming much more dramatic. In short, Professors Sunstein and Vermeule, like many well-intentioned pro-administrativists before them, are presenting as solutions mechanisms that often serve to aggravate problems they purport to solve.

This brings me to the last issue I would like to address. Professors Sunstein and Vermeule quote at length a wonderful passage from “The Federalist No. 41“, by James Madison ― a hero for many originalists and supporters of limited government whom they are eager to enlist as an ally to their cause:

It cannot have escaped those who have attended with candor to the arguments employed against the extensive powers of the government, that the authors of them have very little considered how far these powers were necessary means of attaining a necessary end. They have chosen rather to dwell on the inconveniences which must be unavoidably blended with all political advantages; and on the possible abuses which must be incident to every power or trust, of which a beneficial use can be made. … [C]ool and candid people will at once reflect, that the purest of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them; that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the GREATER, not the PERFECT, good; and that in every political institution, a power to advance the public happiness involves a discretion which may be misapplied and abused. They will see, therefore, that in all cases where power is to be conferred, the point first to be decided is, whether such a power be necessary to the public good; as the next will be, in case of an affirmative decision, to guard as effectually as possible against a perversion of the power to the public detriment.

Professors Sunstein and Vermeule rely on Madison in support of their rejection of “a fallacious mode of reasoning that afflicts the New Coke critics of executive power” ― namely,

selective attention … to the risks of … government action, as opposed to inaction; to the risks arising from the functions of government, as opposed to dysfunctional governments … ; to the risks generated by new powers, as opposed to t he risks arising from old powers that the new powers could be used to counter. (34-35)

This is not altogether unfair: it would indeed be a mistake to only assess government institutions by the potential for abuse of their powers, without asking what good they might be able to do.

But Madison does not stop at this. His affirmative prescription is just as important as his critical point. He says that we must always ask whether a proposed government power “is necessary to the public good”. Put to one side the question of whether the public good is a useful or meaningful metric. (I have just argued that it is not.) It’s Madison’s necessity standard that I want to emphasize. Necessity is a high bar; it is not enough that a proposed power might be advantageous ― it has to be necessary. This is not obviously a prescription for expansive government, let alone for an expansive administrative state. And then, even with necessary powers, Madison says that we must “guard as effectually as possible against a perversion of the power to the public detriment”. This dovetails nicely with his concern for dispersing and checking powers explored in later (and better-known) papers.

The anti-administrative case isn’t that the administrative state can do no good. Of course it can, sometimes. It is, first, that the administrative state is often actively harmful ― on balance, even accounting for the good it can do ― such that it cannot be regarded as necessary; and, second, that the structure of administrative institutions is such that they fail to provide effectual guardrails against the perversion of their powers. The rest of Law and Leviathan is meant as a response to this last contention and, if its arguent succeeds, it will address part of the anti-administrativists’ concerns. But it will be less important part, as the order of Madison’s requirements makes clear. Devising protections against the abuse of power can only come after we have established that the power is necessary. And anti-administrativists’ concerns on this first front cannot be assuaged by simply pointing to the good that the administrative state might do ― least of all when, as in the example offered by Professors Sunstein and Vermeule ― the good is an illusion that rests on faulty or misleading claims about the nature and effect of coercion in the administrative state and in the market.

Jurisdiction and the Post-Vavilov Supreme Court: Part I

What does “jurisdiction” mean, anyways?

As I wrote in my newsletter last week, the Supreme Court has an awkward relationship with the concept of “jurisdiction.” There is no more tortuous concept in Canadian administrative law. Vavilov, apparently, was the end to the concept of jurisdiction in Canadian administrative law. Vavilov basically said two things about jurisdiction: (1) it is difficult to identify a jurisdictional question, which sheds doubt on the entire enterprise (Vavilov, at para 66); and (2) as a result, “[w]e would cease to recognize jurisdictional questions as a distinct category attracting correctness review” (Vavilov, at para 65). Taken together, it was a fair assumption that jurisdictional questions, if they existed at all, would not be recognized in the law of judicial review.

Easier said than done. The Supreme Court in two recent cases have gone back to the well and drawn from the waters of jurisdiction. In both Ward and Horrocks, the various opinions continue to draw on jurisdiction as a concept without interrogating it. Underneath this technical issue of administrative law is a broader, conceptual difference on the Court that remains post-Vavilov.

In this post I’ll address what I think “jurisdiction” means post-Vavilov. In a future post I’ll address Horrocks and what it might mean for post-Vavilov administrative law splits on the Court.

***

In Ward, under a heading titled, “Jurisdiction Over Defamation and Discrimination,” the majority discusses the “jurisdiction” of the tribunal in that case [28]. In the same paragraph, the Court chastises the Tribunal for indirectly extending its “limited direct jurisdiction.” In Horrocks, on the other hand, the whole dispute concerned the jurisdictional boundary between a labour arbitrator and a human rights tribunal.

The entire setup of these cases is based around the idea of jurisdiction. In Ward, the term was thrown around rather willy-nilly to describe the statutory authority—the grant of power—given to the Tribunal. In Horrocks, the term was used as contemplated by Vavilov, as a category attracting correctness review. But in both cases, jurisdiction looms large.

Before continuing, it’s important to note the various ways that “jurisdiction” has been used in Canadian administrative law. There are at least 3 different uses of the term:

  1. Jurisdiction as a preliminary question: this category concerns “neat and discrete points of law” that arise, for example, in a decision of a human rights commission to refer a case to a human rights tribunal (Halifax, at para 27). In Halifax, the Court overturned previous precedents and held that such questions are reviewable on a reasonableness standard (Halifax, at para 38).
  2. So-called “true questions of jurisdiction”: these 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” (Dunsmuir, at para 59). An example of such a question was provided in Dunsmuir: “whether the City of Calgary was authorized under the relevant municipal acts to enact bylaws limiting the number of taxi plate licences” (Dunsmuir, at para 59). Note, here, that this question trades on the same idea of “jurisdiction” as the preliminary questions doctrine, but there is a difference: ostensibly, this brand of jurisidictional questions concerns an issue that goes to the merits. Vavilov did away with this concept of jurisdictional question, to the extent that such questions attract correctness review.
  3. “Jurisdictional boundaries between two or more tribunals”: this is the category of review at issue in Horrocks. Vavilov retained this category as attracting correctness review.

What is immediately clear is that “jurisdiction” is a morass.

What sense should we make of this? In my view, Vavilov left the door of “jurisdiction” open a crack. The result, as Paul Daly presciently observed the day after Vavilov was rendered, is that jurisdiction is still around—a “stake through the heart” will be the only thing to kill it. In the meantime, we must make sense of what is left of jurisdiction.  As I noted above, one option is to read Vavilov rather broadly: jurisdiction is dead, and we killed it. But this does not explain (in a satisfying way) what the Court is doing in both Ward and Horrocks. Why mention a concept that is dead?

Instead, I think “jurisdiction” (or, as I shall say, hopefully a better label) remains an important concept in Canadian administrative law. This version of jurisdiction—as used in Ward and Horrocks—is not akin to the concept of jurisdiction known to administrative law history (ie) Anisminic. It is not the “preliminary questions” doctrine put to rest in Halifax. This conception of jurisdiction is basically co-extensive with any number of formulations that describes the authority delegated to an administrative decision-maker. The Supreme Court of the United States describes this as “statutory authority,” which is a good a term as any. This is because, fundamentally, any time an administrative decision-maker acts, it is explicitly or implicitly dealing with the boundaries governing it by statute. Whether this is “jurisdiction,” or “statutory authority” does not matter much. It’s all the same thing.

Now, what is true about jurisdiction is that there are different types of legal questions. Some legal questions could be said to be “preliminary.” An example might be a legal condition precedent to the exercise of another legal power under the same statute.  But the difference that Vavilov introduces is simply about the standard of review, not about the existence or not of jurisdictional questions understood in this sense. In other words, to the extent that Halifax and Vavilov dispatched with various types of jurisdictional questions, they only did so to the extent that it matters for the standard of review. Vavilov tells us that questions of jurisdiction, as they were previously known, are hard to identify: and in that sense, they shouldn’t be treated differently than any other legal questions. So whether the question is “preliminary” or on the merits, it’s a legal question that is assimilated to the Vavilov framework.

Why does any of this matter? There is a clarity reason and a substantive reason. For clarity’s sake, the Court should probably not refer to “jurisdiction” anymore. The concept itself, as it is now used, is simply referring to a type of legal question, not a category of review. The Court should adopt some concept of “statutory authority” to describe all the types of legal questions that arise in a typical judicial review proceeding, including anything that might be considered “jurisdictional.” This has nothing to do with the standard of review: all of the questions will be presumed to be reviewed on reasonableness review. On the substantive side, and as we shall see from Horrocks, there are good reasons to take statutes—and the boundaries they set up—seriously. As Vavilov says, the discarding of jurisdiction as a category of review should not lead to  the arrogation of administrative power.

It Ends Well

Thoughts on the Supreme Court’s narrow but seemingly decisive rejection of a right not to be offended

Last week, the Supreme Court delivered its judgment in Ward v Quebec (Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse), 2021 SCC 43. By a 5-4 majority, it quashed an award of damages a human rights tribunal had granted to Jérémy Gabriel, a child celebrity, whom a well-known comedian, Mike Ward, had cruelly mocked. As Jen Gerson and Matt Gurney put it in The Line’s editorial (possibly paywalled, but you should subscribe!)

Ward … decided to become That Asshole, the edgelord comedian who pointed out that the kid wasn’t very good. In a few stand-up bits, Ward called the child ugly, and noted that the performances were tolerable only because he thought the singer’s condition was terminal. Nice guy. (Paragraph break removed)

The tribunal, and the Québec Court of Appeal found that this amounted to discrimination in the exercise of Mr. Gabriel’s right to “the safeguard of his dignity” under section 4 of Québec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, a.k.a. the Québec Charter. The majority of the Supreme Court resoundingly holds otherwise.

Instead of my usual blow-by-blow summary and comment, I will offer some more condensed thoughts on a few striking aspects of this case. While the most important thing about Ward is what, if anything, it means for the freedom of expression, there are a few other things to mention before I get to that. In this post, I mostly focus on the majority opinion. I will shortly post separately about the dissent.

The Human Face

Because I will argue that the majority decision is correct, and indeed that it was very important that Mr. Gabriel not win this case, I want to start by acknowledging that he has had it very hard. Mr. Ward’s jokes at his expense were cruel. Mr. Gabriel did suffer, greatly ― we are told that he even tried to kill himself at one point. I think we can wonder whether the connection between these things is all that strong. I’m not persuaded by the dissent’s imputation to Mr. Ward of the full responsibility for Mr. Gabriel’s bullying by his classmates. We can also argue that anti-discrimination law ― perhaps any law ― isn’t the solution. But we have to recognize that a person has been in a lot of undeserved pain, and a person who, even before this case, had not had it easy in life.

The Court

As already noted, the Court is narrowly divided. The Chief Justice and Justice Côté write for the majority, with Justices Moldaver, Brown, and Rowe concurring. Justices Abella and Kasirer write for the dissent, joined by Justices Karakatsanis and Martin. For those keeping score at home, this is the exact same alignment as in the recent decision in Toronto (City) v Ontario (Attorney General), 2021 SCC 34. Indeed, even the authorship of the opinions overlaps: in City of Toronto, the Chief Justice wrote with Justice Brown, while Justice Abella wrote for the dissenters.

I’m old enough to remember, as they say, how smugly self-satisfied Canadian commentators were, just a few years ago, at the consensus reigning at our Supreme Court, in contrast to the US one always splitting 5-4. To be sure, two cases do not make a trend, but I think it’s pretty clear that on the Supreme Court as it has recently been constituted there is ― though there are always exceptions ― a somewhat cohesive group consisting of Justices Côté, Brown, and Rowe, and perhaps an even more cohesive group led by Justice Abella, with Justices Karakatsanis, Martin, and Kasirer. The Chief Justice and Justice Moldaver are the swing votes. It remains to be seen how, if at all, Justice Abella’s retirement is changing this, but in the meantime, our Supreme Court has been fractured along lines that can be predicted. This is not necessarily bad. But let’s not be smug.

One odd thing to add is that, whereas in City of Toronto majority and dissent were ― by the standards of the Supreme Court of Canada ― at each other’s throats, here they studiously ignore one another. I’m not sure which is better, but the contrast between cases argued and decided just a month apart, by identical alignments, and with overlapping opinion authorships, is striking.

The Case

One uncomfortable question I have is: should the Supreme Court have taken this case at all? Let me take you straight away almost to the end of the majority judgment, where we learn, for the first time, the following

[I]n light of the Tribunal’s finding that Mr. Ward [translation] “did not choose Jérémy because of his handicap” but rather “because he was a public personality” (Tribunal reasons, at para. 86), it must be concluded that the distinction was not based on a prohibited ground. This conclusion on its own is sufficient to dispose of the appeal. [91]

Everything else that the Court has said and that I’m about to discuss ― that’s just obiter dicta. The tribunal made a basic logical mistake, which, as the majority explains, the Court of Appeal then glossed over. That was, of course, unfortunate. But it’s not the Supreme Court’s role to correct basic logical mistakes by tribunals or even courts of appeal. They’re there to develop the law. And develop the law they do ― in a way that, if the majority is right (and I think it is), was pressing and necessary. But also in a way that, by the majority’s own admission, is beside the point in this case.

I think this raises the issue of the Supreme Court’s role in our constitutional system. Where is the line between developing the law in deciding cases, as we expect them to, and developing the law by making big pronouncements that are unnecessary to decide cases? Should a court refrain from doing the latter, or may it properly seize on the opportunities that present itself to it to provide important guidance to lower courts? I have no firm views on any of this, but I think the questions are worth thinking about. (For some related musings, see here.)

Jurisdiction

Back to the very beginning of the majority’s reasons:

This appeal … invites us … to clarify the scope of the jurisdiction of the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse … and the Human Rights Tribunal … with respect to discrimination claims based on the … Quebec Charter. [1]

Clarify the… what? Yes. That word. The majority uses it several times in the course of its reasons. In particular, it speaks of “the distinction that must be drawn with respect to jurisdiction over, on the one hand, an action in defamation and, on the other, a discrimination claim in the context of the Quebec Charter“. [22]

This is odd. A mere two years ago, in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v. Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65, all of the Ward majority judges signed an opinion that not only eliminated jurisdictional questions as a distinct category of correctness review, but seemed to endorse scepticism at the very “concept of ‘jurisdiction’ in the administrative law context”. [66] Vavilov said that what might previously have been thought of as jurisdictional questions are legal questions like all others, subject to reasonableness review, except when the respective jurisdictions of two administrative bodies must be demarcated.

One recent example of this reasoning is the decision of the Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice in Morningstar v WSIAT, 2021 ONSC 5576, about which I have written here. The Court roundly rejected the argument that, as I summarized it

the jurisdictional boundary between a tribunal and the ordinary courts should be policed in much the same way as, Vavilov said, “the jurisdictional boundaries between two or more administrative bodies”, [63] ― that is, by hav[ing] the court ensure the boundary is drawn correctly.

I thought ― and still think ― that that was a correct application of Vavilov. Ward, though, says that there is indeed a jurisdictional boundary between administrative tribunals and courts. I don’t think this is consistent with Vavilov. Nothing turns on this here because the case gets to the courts by way of statutory appeal rather than judicial review, and ― under Vavilov ― the correctness standard applies to all legal questions in such circumstances. But the tensions inherent in Vavilov, including in its attempt to rid Canadian administrative law of the fundamental concept of the law of judicial review are becoming apparent. (Co-blogger Mark Mancini has made a similar observation in the latest issue of his newsletter.)

Interpretation

One of the things the majority is right about is that Ward is, among other things, a case about interpretation. It requires the courts to make sense of a somewhat peculiar statutory scheme, which protects, among other things, rights to the freedom of expression and to the “safeguard of [one’s] dignity”, says that “the scope of the freedoms and rights, and limits to their exercise, may be fixed by law”, and protects equality in “the exercise and recognition” of these rights, rather than as a general self-standing right. This is not an easy exercise and I won’t go into all the details, but I will make a few comments.

The majority deserves credit for trying to work out an independent meaning for the right to the safeguard of one’s dignity. As it notes, dignity is a very tricky concept ― and the Supreme Court itself has tried to avoid putting too much weight on it in other contexts. But here it is, in the text of the Québec Charter, a statute that binds the courts. It will not to do to simply find violations of dignity when other rights are violated in particularly egregious ways, as Québec courts had done. The Québec Charter makes it a distinct right, and the courts must treat it as such. At the same time, they have to give it defined contours. The majority seeks to do so by stressing the importance of the safeguard of dignity, to which the right is directed:

Unlike, for example, s. 5 [of the Québec Charter], which confers a right to respect for one’s private life, s. 4 does not permit a person to claim respect for their dignity, but only the safeguarding of their dignity, that is, protection from the denial of their worth as a human being. Where a person is stripped of their humanity by being subjected to treatment that debases, subjugates, objectifies, humiliates or degrades them, there is no question that their dignity is violated. In this sense, the right to the safeguard of dignity is a shield against this type of interference that does no less than outrage the conscience of society. [58]

What the majority does is a careful and, I think, pretty convincing reading of the statutory text. Good.

Some things the majority says are not so good. For instance: “the interpretation of this provision must be refocused on its purpose by considering its wording and context”. [55] No, no, no. Interpretation should be focused on text understood in context. Purpose can sometimes help a court understand the words and enrich its understanding of the context, but it should not be the focus of interpretation. And then, there is this:

This Court’s jurisprudence also establishes “that mere differences in terminology do not support a conclusion that there are fundamental differences in the objectives of human rights statutes” … It follows that, as long as this is not contrary to the usual rules of interpretation, symmetry in the interpretation of the various instruments that protect human rights and freedoms is desirable. [68; quoting Quebec (Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse) v Montréal (City), 2000 SCC 27, [2000] 1 SCR 665, [47]]

What are we to make of this? If usual rules interpretation are to prevail, differences in terminology must make a difference, if not to the objectives then to the effects of human rights as of any other statutes. And the idea that differences in wording don’t matter because objectives are key to interpretation is specifically rejected in the majority opinion in Quebec (Attorney General) v 9147-0732 Québec inc, 2020 SCC 32 ― signed onto by the same five judges who are in the majority in Ward (even as it is endorsed by the concurrence).

Between the jurisdiction issue and this, I cannot help but wonder whether their Lordships remember what they said last year. Or are they trying to say that we are supposed not to? This stream of inconsistent pronouncements ― by the same people! ― reveals, at best, a lack of attention to legal doctrine and craft. It is very disappointing.

Freedom of Expression

I finally come to the meat of the case. Here too, I want to praise the majority for getting things fundamentally right, but also to criticize them for saying things along the way that are doubtful or even wrong in themselves, or inconsistent ― without explanation ― with important precedent.

Let me start with a quick note from the “judges are not philosophers” file. The majority’s discussion of the freedom of expression begins with the assertion that it, “[l]ike the right to the safeguard of dignity … flows from the concept of human dignity”. [59] Perhaps. But in the next paragraph the majority quotes Joseph Raz’s claim that “a person’s right to free expression is protected not in order to protect him, but in order to protect a public good, a benefit which respect for the right of free expression brings to all those who live in the society in which it is respected”. [60] These are two quite different views of the foundations and purposes of the freedom of expression ― one deontological, the other utilitarian. Perhaps nothing turns on which of these is correct in this case, but if so, the majority shouldn’t be making these philosophical declarations at all. And I suspect that in some cases the choice might actually make a difference. The majority’s approach is muddled and unhelpful.

Now for some good things. This, especially: “freedom of expression does not truly begin until it gives rise to a duty to tolerate what other people say”. [60] This is the key to so many disputes about freedom of expression. Speech is not harmless. It can hurt. It can propagate falsehoods. It can inflame base passions. But freedom of expression means sometimes having to tolerate such things ― just like freedom of assembly means having to tolerate noisy protests, and freedom of religion means having to tolerate heresy and blasphemy ― even when their cost falls on particular groups or even individuals.

The majority adds that “[l]imits on freedom of expression are justified where, in a given context, there are serious reasons to fear harm that is sufficiently specific and cannot be prevented by the discernment and critical judgment of the audience”. [61] This sets a fairly high bar to limits that will be considered justified. It also acknowledges that the audience has its share of responsibility in appreciating troublesome words. Courts assessing a limit on the freedom of expression should not assume that citizens are, by default, unthinking and gullible playthings for the tellers of tall tales. This is also good and important. Assuming away all critical sense among the citizens would help justify all kinds of restrictions on speech, including, and perhaps especially, in the political arena. It is fundamentally incompatible with the notion of a self-governing, responsible citizenry.

But this insistence sits uneasily, to say the least, with the Court’s position in Harper v Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 SCR 827. There, the majority said that

The legislature is not required to provide scientific proof based on concrete evidence of the problem it seeks to address in every case. Where the court is faced with inconclusive or competing social science evidence relating the harm to the legislature’s measures, the court may rely on a reasoned apprehension of that harm. [77]

This is contrast to the Harper dissent’s concern that “[t]here [was] no demonstration that” the limits on “third party” spending at issue were “required to meet the perceived dangers of inequality, an uninformed electorate and the public perception that the system is unfair”. [38] By my lights, Ward‘s insistence on serious reasons to fear specific harm, as well as on audience discernment is much more in tune with the Harper dissent. Because I regard Harper as an abominable decision, I am happy to see Ward go in a different direction. But there is no comment in Ward on how these cases interact. Again, it’s as if the judges don’t remember what the law says, though at least Harper is a much older case that Vavilov and Québec Inc.  

All that said, the substance of the majority’s decision is right and reassuring (or it would be reassuring if more than five judges had signed on). The majority insists that the right to the safeguard of one’s dignity most not be “vague” or given “a scope so broad that it would neutralize freedom of expression”. [80] It stresses the objective nature of the test for whether this right is breached and rejects the modified objective standard of “a reasonable person targeted by the same words”, because “[t]hat approach results in a shift toward protecting a right not to be offended, which has no place in a democratic society”. [82] What matters is neither “the repugnant or offensive nature of the expression [nor] the emotional harm caused”, [82] but the effect of the words on listeners: would “a reasonable person, aware of the relevant context and circumstances, … view the expression … as inciting others to vilify [its targets] or to detest their humanity on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination” [83] and would “a reasonable person would view the expression, considered in its context, as likely to lead to discriminatory treatment of the person targeted”? [84]

All this is the more important since the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Québec Charter is very broad and includes “political convictions”. As I have written here, “even if we accept the need to protect vulnerable minorities from hate speech targeting them, I struggle to see what makes it necessary to extend this protection to members of political parties or movements”. Protecting people from mockery, let alone hurt feelings, based on their political views is incompatible with lively democratic debate. However much we can wish for such debate to usually be civil, I think it’s a mistake to insist that it always must be, and certainly a grave mistake to put government officials in charge of deciding whether it is sufficiently civil on any give occasion.


The insistence on the need for objective assessment and the clear rejection of a right not to be offended will, I hope, be the key takeaway from Ward. For them, we can forgive the majority opinion its many flaws. That there can be no right not to be offended in a society that proclaims its commitment to the freedom of expression and to democracy might have been self-evident ten years ago, but it evidently isn’t anymore. The dissent offers us a glimpse of what a world in which this truth isn’t recognized looks like. I will focus on it in a forthcoming post.

What Does City of Toronto Mean For Administrative Law?

The Supreme Court released its much-anticipated decision today in Toronto (City) v Ontario (Attorney General), 2021 SCC 34. While others will address the nuances of the case, the majority generally puts unwritten constitutional principles into a tiny, little box. It says that because “[u]nwritten principles are…part of the law of our Constitution…” [50], unwritten principles only have two practical functions: (1) they can be used in the interpretation of constitutional provisions [55]; (2) they can be used to “develop structural doctrines unstated in the written Constitution per se, but necessary to the coherence of, and flowing by implication from, its architecure” [56]. In this category, the Court uses the example of the doctrine of paramountcy, the doctrine of full faith and credit, and the remedy of suspended declarations of invalidity.

I applaud the majority opinion for clarifying the role of unwritten constitutional principles. For my part, I think the functions they have outlined for unwritten principles give those principles a meaningful role in the constitutional structure while giving priority to the text. The majority aptly underscores the worry with unwritten principles–they are so abstract and potentially endless–and negates that worry by ensuring the text as a control on the use of these principles. Even better, the majority closes the door on the rather pernicious attempt to read municipalities into s.3 of the Charter [5].

But that is not my concern for today. What does any of this have to do with administrative law?

Post-Vavilov, there was a good argument that unwritten principles–the Rule of Law specifically–could have independent force in limiting state action in some way on the standard of review–put more bluntly, that the Rule of Law could invalidate certain legislative rules governing standard of review. The Court says, for example, that “where the legislature has indicated the applicable standard of review, courts are bound to respect that designation, within the limits imposed by the rule of law” (Vavilov, at para 35). It goes on to outline categories of questions–like constitutional questions–that demand a correctness standard because of “respect for the rule of law” (Vavilov, at para 53). This raised the argument that if a legislature were to prescribe a standard of review of reasonableness on a constitutional question, such a standard would not be given effect to by a court because it transgresseses the “limits imposed by the rule of law.”

On first blush, City of Toronto tends to throw cold water on the argument. Its insistence that unwritten principles cannot invalidate legislation could mean that a court should give effect to a legislated standard of review on constitutional questions. And because there is no express constitutional provision insisting on a correctness standard on certain questions, on a strict reading of the City of Toronto majority opinion, there would be no power to invalidate that law.

This very well may be true, and yet I think there are a few ways to reconcile City of Toronto with Vavilov that leads to the same result that Vavilov seems to suggest–a court not applying (which is strictly, though perhaps not functionally, different from invalidation) a legislated standard of review of reasonableness on constitutional questions. Much of this argument hinges on s.96 of the Constitution Act, 1867.

First, it might be said that the Rule of Law as outlined in Vavilov is a necessary interpretive principle that should be used to understand s.96. That is, we cannot understand s.96–which contemplates federally-appointed superior courts–without understanding the traditional role of these courts to conduct judicial review of administrative action on a certain stringency on certain questions. In City of Toronto, the Court cites s.96-100 as an example of unwritten principles bolstering a constitutional principle, suggesting that “unwritten constitutional principles of judicial independence and the rule have law have aided in the interpretation of [ss.96-100], which have come to safeguard the core jurisdiction of the courts that fall within the scope of those provisions” [55].

I think to call any of the doctrinal innovations that have come to s.96 a result of “interpretation” stretches the term a bit far. On its face, s.96 is just an appointing provision. It may be one thing to interpret what the terms of that appointing provision are, but to construct doctrine on top of the provision–or to make it work in a constitutional structure–seems to be a different judicial function.

Secondly, and I think more persuasively, the Court notes that unwritten principles can develop structural doctrines that flow from constitutional architecture [56]. Again, the Court notes examples of this sort of doctrinal construction: full faith and credit, paramountcy, and even the legal result in the Quebec Secession Reference. As we see, some of these doctrines are quite particular to specific contexts–the Quebec Seccession Reference, for example. Others are more general. The doctrine of full faith and credit in the context of conflict of laws is a major doctrinal innovation that is not found anywhere in a specific constitutional provision. These doctrinal innovations can, in effect, change or invalidate legislation that conflict with them, though they are rooted in the text itself.

Vavilov‘s comments on standard of review best fall into this category. The standard of review framework flows from two unwritten principles themselves: legislative intent (perhaps partially reflected in the principle of “democracy”) and the Rule of Law. The Court conceives of the Rule of Law as generally the rule of courts, in that courts must retain a strong supervisory role over certain questions. It would upset the supervisory role of these courts to outlaw their ability to hold state actors to the strictest constitutional standard. This is but a logical extension of Crevier, which set the stage for an argument about the constitutionally-protected role of the superior courts.

An example and a caveat. First, the majority and dissent clash over MacMillan Bloedel. In that case, the Court arguably invalidated a legislative scheme that granted exclusion jurisdiction to a youth court. The City of Toronto majority says the holding in that case was based on the text of ss.96-101 and 129 of the Constitution Act, 1867 [50]. The dissent, on the other hand, cites para 41 of MacMillan Bloedel to suggest that the basis of the holding was the Rule of Law itself [176]. In my view, MacMillan Bloedel is a bit of both. The Court clearly bases its decision in s.96 (MacMillan Bloedel, at para 47). But it also says that the case is best understood “in a broader constitutional context, considering this jurisprudence along with the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867, the principle of the rule of law, and the central place of superior courts in our system of governance” (MacMillan Bloedel, at para 2). To the extent these principles and s.96 were abridged, the impugned legislative provision was “read down” as “inoperative to deprive the superior court of its jurisdiction to convict the appellant of contempt in this case” (MacMillan Bloedel, at para 43). In MacMillan Bloedel, we have a constitutional text (s.96)–>supported by the Rule of Law (unwritten principle)–>a result that the core of superior court powers were protected in this case. Vavilov falls into this same category. We can see, then, that in some cases a legislative standard of review may be “read down” as a result of the standard of review doctrine spun out from the unwritten principles of legislative intent and the Rule of Law.

The caveat I wish to raise has to do with the Federal Courts. Section 96 does not speak to statutory courts, and in theory, the Federal Courts’ judicial review jurisdiction could be abolished tomorrow unlike the superior courts. All of this, then, would stop at the Federal Courts. But I do not think this is inevitable. Once a statutory court has been made under s.101 of the Constitution Act, 1867, one might make the argument that so long as such a court exists, its powers should be construed as broadly as the powers of a superior court under s.96. But I do not commit to this argument in full, except to say that it makes practical sense to me and would uphold a consistent judicial standard for administrative action across jurisdictions.

At any rate, I think City of Toronto–despite its strong language on unwritten principles–can be reconciled with Vavilov. And at the end of the day, the result may be the same: legislation that undermines an unwritten principle may not be “given effect” according to a doctrinal innovation, even if the legislation is not “invalidated” in a strict sense. This is the best way to undertstand Vavilov‘s standard of review framework.

On Law and Music

What is the relationship, if any, between law and music?

As a musician myself, I notice many commonalities between law and music. As a jazz musician, improvisation is what I spend a lot of time thinking about. To improvise over a tune, it helps to know the notes in the tune, the chords underneath it, and the structure of the song. Artists can break these rules, and perhaps the best music comes when the rules are broken. But to break the rules, the cardinal idea of music—it has to sound good—cannot be lost. In other words, an artist has to implicitly justify her departure from the structure of the tune with the most convincing reasoning of all—the fact that the music, nonetheless, still sounds good.

It is only a small jump to move to the world of interpretation. Many have written about the aesthetics of law. In a similar vein, in a delightful article, Jerome Frank analyzes the relationship between legal interpretation and music. I preface this by saying that Frank was a noted legal realist, and I am no legal realist. Nonetheless, the intersection he explores between music and interpretation is, at the very least, interesting. For Frank, the relationship between a composer and a performer is quite similar to the relationship between a legislature and a judicial interpreter. The composer is the legislature, and it “cannot help itself” [1264]: interpretation of whatever is intended (or written, depending on one’s view of the idea of “intent”) must fall to the court—much like a piece of music, composed by someone perhaps generations ago, must fall to a performer.

Once the performer  receives the item to be interpreted, three considerations become important. First, the entire point of a performance is to perform: the performer must give due respect to the composer, because he was the one who made the song that the audience will enjoy. Sometimes in music—particularly jazz—you hear a performer that is ostensibly playing a tune but it is something completely different: he says he is playing “Autumn Leaves,” but he is improvising—almost too much—on the original tune. Sometimes this is good, but many times it isn’t, if only because the composer was the one who made the song (in this case, there is a time for soloing, but it’s important to “play the head,” as it were: “Autumn Leaves” is just fine as it is). As a general rule, I think this tracks to legislation, where the interpreter should do his best to remain true, within reason, to the law.  But, as a second consideration, there will always be an inevitable slippage between what the composer wanted (or even what the composer wrote) and what the performer does. The performer may make an inadvertent error, doing violence to the intention of the author. The composer may herself make a musical error, in which case the performer is left in the position of correcting it or leaving it as is. Finally, the interpreter may make a deliberate choice to change the composer’s creation. A jazz musician can do everything from “bending” the notes, to changing the rhythm, to even “going outside” the chord structure, creating dissonance where none was intended. The “free jazz” school, for example,  “developed in the 1960s as a rejection of conventional musical structures: things like melody, harmony, and chord progressions.”  While the free jazz school in many senses merges the role of composer and performer, creator and interpreter, it demonstrates the extreme end of the spectrum—musicians (and interpreters) can make choices given the structure of the music they are asked to perform.

As a musician, I focus much of the time on bebop, hard bop, and other “straight-ahead” styles—perhaps this explains my preference for textualism as a general interpretive method. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the choices interpreters and performers make can sometimes make the composer’s or legislature’s creation make more sense—or sound better. And if that is the goal, then  sometimes the interpreter and performer will need to make on-the-spot decisions about how a cacophony of words (or notes) should be put together into a convincing performance. As Frank notes, interpretation is a human activity, and human creativity can make sense of what, on its own, may not make sense. Law is not always coherent, because humans are not always coherent. Yet interpreters, taking a step back, can sometimes (within the context of the interpretive rules) make sense of the law.

Frank’s piece underscores the balance that must be struck in interpretation between fidelity to legislative wishes and the “human” element of interpretation that must make sense of what is in front of a court. On one hand, slavish devotion to the law can lead to absurdity; and for that reason, we have an “escape valve” available for those cases, among others (like scrivener’s error). But in most cases, there is something important about remaining relatively true to the composer’s wishes. The composer created the music for a reason. The performer is being asked to perform it. For the performer to turn the tune upside down is a drastic choice that, at least in some sense, undermines the relationship between composer and musician.

Cannonball Adderley - IMDb
Cannonball Adderley

What does this musical story tell us about interpretive methodology? Methodology cannot perfectly guarantee correspondence between law creation and law interpretation. What is important, though, is that courts make a choice to commit themselves to rules in advance: just like performers (minus the free jazz folks) commit themselves to chords, notes, rules of rhythm, etc. The choice to commit oneself to a “structured and deliberate methodology” as Justice Malcolm Rowe and Michael Collins said in a recent paper, is immensely important. It prevents rank instrumentalism by an interpreter, where a result is chosen and then justified after the fact. A structured and deliberate methodology, as Rowe and Collins note, does not tie an interpreter’s hands, just like chords and notes do not tie a performer’s; but it does structure the choices an interpreter or musician can make, for the benefit of the listeners who  generally do not want to hear dissonance all night. As above, an interpreter who breaks these rules—say, to solve an absurdity—does so because the methodology permits it. He can justify his departure under the rules, much like a musician can justify a departure from notes and chords as justified according to the reality of what sounds good to an audience. The point, as Rowe and Collins say, is that the methodology forces an implicit justification.

The analogy between music and law is imperfect, in part because different musical styles ask different things of performers. A classical musician is likely to be closer to a composer’s wishes than a jazz musician is, and this is in part defined by the rules of the particular style. Nonetheless, the relationship between composers and performers does track to legislative activity. And it shows us how, in many aspects of life outside of law, rules are important even if imperfect.

Right Is Wrong

What an ordinary case can tell us about the problems of Canadian administrative law

Last month, I wrote here about a decision the Federal Court of Appeal (Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc v Canada (Attorney General), 2021 FCA 157) which, although a good and faithful application of Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65, actually highlighted its conceptual defects. This is another post in the same vein, focusing on the choice of the standard of review in Morningstar v WSIAT, 2021 ONSC 5576 to point out (yet again) that the Vavilov approach to jurisdiction makes no sense. I then also point to a different issue that Morningstar usefully highlights with arguments for the administrative state based on access to justice. If you are tired of my fire-breathing neo-Diceyanism, you can skip to the latter discussion.

As co-blogger Mark Mancini explains in his invaluable Sunday Evening Administrative Review newsletter (subscribe!), the applicant in Morningstar tried to argue that correctness review should apply to a decision of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal to the effect that she was not entitled to bring a civil lawsuit against a former employer and should have pursued administrative remedies instead. The idea was that the jurisdictional boundary between a tribunal and the ordinary courts should be policed in much the same way as, Vavilov said, “the jurisdictional boundaries between two or more administrative bodies”, [63] ― that is, by have the court ensure the boundary is drawn correctly. But courts are not “administrative bodies” in the sense the Vavilov majority meant this phrase, and the Divisional Court makes short work of this argument. As Mark suggests, while the reasons it gives are very questionable, the conclusion is clearly correct.


But it shouldn’t be! Ms. Morningstar’s argument was, in Mark’s words, “doomed to failure” under Vavilov, but as a matter of principle it is actually exactly right. The Vavilov majority explains, sensibly, that

the rule of law cannot tolerate conflicting orders and proceedings where they result in a true operational conflict between two administrative bodies, pulling a party in two different and incompatible directions … Members of the public must know where to turn in order to resolve a dispute. … [T]he application of the correctness standard in these cases safeguards predictability, finality and certainty in the law of administrative decision making. [64]

That’s right so far as it goes. But what exactly changes if we replace the phrase “two administrative bodies” in the first sentence with “two adjudicative bodies”, so as to encompass the courts? Are the Rule of Law’s demands for predictability, finality, and certainty suddenly less stringent because a court is involved? Need members of the public not know where to turn in order to resolve a dispute? The Rule of Law applies in exactly the same way to jurisdictional conflicts between courts and tribunals as between tribunals, and should require correctness review in both situations.

It might be objected that this argument ignores the privative clause in the statute at issue in Morningstar. Section 31 of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, 1997 provides that the Tribunal “has exclusive jurisdiction to determine”, among other things, “whether, because of this Act, the right to commence an action is taken away”, and further that “[a] decision of the … Tribunal under this section is final and is not open to question or review in a court”. The true and tart response is: who cares? In Morningstar, the Divisional Court not only questioned and reviewed, but actually quashed the Tribunal’s decision on the question of whether, because of the Act, the applicant’s right to commence an action is taken away.

This isn’t a mistake, of course. Courts already ignore privative clauses, and rightly so. Vavilov explains why. As I pointed out here, it

embraces the Rule of Law principle … clearly and, crucially, as a constraint on the legislative power. According to the Vavilov majority,

Where a court reviews the merits of an administrative decision … the standard of review it applies must reflect the legislature’s intent with respect to the role of the reviewing court, except where giving effect to that intent is precluded by the rule of law. [23; emphasis added]

The majority goes on to specify that “[t]he starting point for the analysis is a presumption that the legislature intended the standard of review to be reasonableness”, [23] but “respect for the rule of law requires courts to apply the standard of correctness for certain types of legal questions”, [53] legislative intent notwithstanding.

If a statute attempted to make anything less than correctness the standard of review for jurisdictional boundaries between two administrative tribunals, Vavilov says that it should be ignored, because the Rule of Law, with its demands of predictability, finality, and certainty, requires it. A privative clause that attempts to exclude altogether review of decisions on the jurisdictional boundary between a tribunal and the ordinary courts should similarly be ignored.

But the Vavilov majority could not bring itself to take that approach, because it would be fatal to the entire conceit of deferential review on questions of law which the Supreme Court embraced in CUPE, Local 963 v New Brunswick Liquor Corporation, [1979] 2 SCR 227, and on various forms of which it has doubled down ever since. As Justice Brown wrote in West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia(Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, [2018] 1 SCR 635, “in many cases, the distinction between matters of statutory interpretation which implicate truly jurisdictional questions and those going solely to a statutory delegate’s application of its enabling statute will be, at best, elusive”. [124] When an administrative decision-maker is resolving questions of law, notably when it is interpreting the legislation granting it its powers, it is always engaged in the drawing of the boundary between its jurisdiction and that of the courts. To admit ― as one ought to ― that the Rule of Law requires these questions to be resolved by courts would cause the entire structure of Canadian administrative law to come crashing down. And so, to preserve it, Vavilov asks the courts to pretend that things that are actually entirely alike from a Rule of Law perspective are somehow mysteriously different. It is, as I said in the post linked to at the start, an instance of post-truth jurisprudence.


Now to my other point. In a couple of ways, Morningstar reminds me of the Supreme Court’s decision in Canada (Attorney General) v TeleZone Inc, 2010 SCC 62, [2010] 3 SCR 585. The issue there was whether a litigant who sought private law damages as compensation for an allegedly unlawful act of the federal Crown had, before bringing a civil claim in a provincial superior court, to pursue an application for judicial review in the Federal Court to establish the unlawfulness. It was, in other words, a conflict between remedial regimes potentially open to alleged victims of government wrongdoing. The Federal Court of Appeal had held that such victims had to seek judicial review first; the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that they did not. The Supreme Court agreed with the latter. It noted that following the Federal Court of Appeal’s approach “would relegate the provincial superior courts in such matters to a subordinate and contingent jurisdiction”. [4] It added too that the case was “fundamentally about access to justice. People who claim to be injured by government action should have whatever redress the legal system permits through procedures that minimize unnecessary cost and complexity.” [18]  

Morningstar, like TeleZone involves a conflict between two possible venues for redress, albeit of a private wrong rather than one resulting from government action. Employees who think they have been wronged in the course or during the breakdown of their employment relationship might seek compensation from the administrative regime supervised by the Tribunal or sue the employer in the civil courts. The substantive question in Morningstar was which of these regimes was the appropriate one on the facts. The courts should be able to resolve this conflict without deferring to the views of the venue administering one of these regimes, just as the Supreme Court did not defer to the Federal Court of Appeal in TeleZone. And, to be sure, there is a difference: the Superior Court that would be one of these conflicting jurisdictions would also be the court resolving the jurisdictional conflict. (The Divisional Court is a division of the Superior Court.) But that’s how our system is set up, and it’s not a reason for deferring to the other jurisdiction involved.

But the deeper and perhaps more important similarity between TeleZone ― and, specifically, the approach the Supreme Court rejected in TeleZone ― and Morningstar has to do with the functioning of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act. Its section 31 directs employees and employers to apply to the Tribunal for a ruling on whether they are can go to court, before they can actually litigate their claims ― much like the Federal Court of Appeal in TeleZone said those who consider suing the Crown for damages must first go to the Federal Court and seek judicial review. Former employees might then find themselves in the Divisional Court (and perhaps further in the Court of Appeal) for a judicial review, before they can start litigating the merits of their dispute, if it is one that can be litigated in the Superior Court.

To repeat, in TeleZone, the Supreme Court held that the conflict between competing remedial regimes should be resolved in such a way as to maximize access to justice and minimize cost and complexity. Specifically, this meant that litigants should be able to avoid a pointless journey through the Federal Courts before launching their claims in the Superior Courts. The Workplace Safety and Insurance Act might as well have been designed to do the exact opposite ― maximize cost and complexity and undermine access to justice. Of course, that’s not what the legislature was trying to do. It wanted to preserve the jurisdiction of the Tribunal. The legislature might even say, “hey, it’s not our fault that the Tribunal’s decisions can be judicially reviewed ― we said they can’t”. But the legislature acts against a background of constitutional principles, which have long included the availability of judicial review. It knew that its privative clause is constitutionally meaningless. And still it went ahead and created this nonsensical arrangement, instead of simply allowing the jurisdiction of the Tribunal to be raised, perhaps by way of a motion for summary judgment, in any litigation in the Superior Court.

The creation of administrative mechanisms such as the Tribunal ― and their partial insulation from judicial review by the application of deferential standards of review ― is often said to promote access to justice. Perhaps it might do so in the abstract. If a dispute stays within the confines of an administrative tribunal, it will usually be handled more cheaply than in the courts. But, at the very least, such arguments for the expansion of the administrative state must take into account the reality that multiplying jurisdictions means multiplying conflicts both among them and, even more often, between them and the courts. And the resolution of these conflicts is neither cost-free nor something that can be simply wished away. It’s a reminder that, in public law as elsewhere in heaven and earth, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.


Morningstar is, in a sense, a rather uninteresting case, at least in the part that I have addressed here. A first-instance judicial review court applies a clear instruction from the Supreme Court and, despite some loose language in its reasons gets it right. But it is still revealing. In Canadian administrative law, courts that do things right, or roughly right, so far as their duty to apply precedent is concerned, are still doing things wrong if we judge them by first principles. This is not a good place for the law to be.

Does This Kat(z) Have Nine Lives?

In Katz, the Supreme Court set out the approach to judicial review of regulations. The Katz approach is (or, maybe, was) a carve-out from the general law of judicial review. As Professor Daly notes, it grants a “hyperdeferential” margin of appreciation to those that promulgate regulations. The Katz approach, based on previous cases, simply asked whether regulations are “irrelevant” “extraneous” or “completely unrelated” to the statutory scheme (Katz, at para 28), with the challenger bearing the onus.

Whether Katz has survived Vavilov is an open question. Vavilov purported to be a “comprehensive approach” to the determination of the standard of review (Vavilov, at para 17) for administrative action. On its face, that means that Vavilov‘s formula for determining the standard of review should apply to all instances of judicial review of administrative action—including judicial review of not only adjudicative acts, but “legislative” acts, as well. This would be a change, though: pre-Vavilov, there was (at least in theory) no judicial review for the “reasonableness” of legislative acts, and such decisions could not be set aside for errors other than jurisdictional ones. Specifically, Katz incorporates the old adage that judicial review does not entitle a court to review the merits of the legislative act, its “political, economic, or social…” context, or even whether it actually is rationally connected to its objective (see Katz, at para 28; Thorne’s Hardware, at 112-113).

Enter the recent decision of the Federal Court of Appeal (per Stratas JA) in Portnov. There are many issues in the case, but one concerned the propriety of Katz post-Vavilov. For the Court, Stratas JA suggests an easy answer to this question: “Thus, in conducting reasonableness review, I shall not apply Katz. I shall follow Vavilov” [28]. Stratas JA offers a number of reasons for this conclusion:

  1. The Katz approach (and its predecessors) were organized around the fundamental concept of “jurisdiction,” a “vestige” which Vavilov “eradicated” [22];
  2. Oddly, in the pre-Vavilov era, the Supreme Court sometimes simply reviewed regulations for their reasonableness under cases like Catalyst and Green [24].
  3. Vavilov is “intended to be sweeping and comprehensive” [25], and if there is a question as to whether Vavilov applies to an issue not addressed in that case, courts should ask how Vavilov’s general framework applies [25].
  4. Katz is a rule that “applies across-the-board to all regulations,” that “sits uneasily with Vavilov which adopts a contextual approach to reasonableness review” [27].

I think Portnov is right on the money.

Katz is problematic, in my view, because it (1) undermines the coherence of Vavilov’s simplicity; and (2) undermines the virtue of the contextual approach to reasonableness in Vavilov.

First, Vavilov was an attempt to finally address Binnie J’s comments in Dunsmuir, which encouraged a standard of review framework that “…get[s] the parties away from arguing about the tests and back to arguing about the substantive merits of their case” (Dunsmuir, at para 145). Part of this was the introduction of a presumption of reasonableness for most cases of judicial review. As I have written before, I have issues with this broad-based presumption (I do not buy the assumption that delegation necessarily implies deference) but it has one virtue: it may be wrong, but it is strong—it simplifies matters a great deal. That presumption, and the associated correctness exceptions, are largely principled. They are based on the core constitutional concepts of legislative sovereignty (choice to delegate) and the Rule of Law (guaranteeing judicial review of certain stringency on certain questions). A carve-out for regulations, with an ultra-deferential approach, simply complicates the conduct of judicial review for no principled reason. This is because whether an administrator is exercising adjudicative power or legislative power, it is delegated power all the same. And from the perspective of simplicity (with due regard for countervailing considerations) Vavilov‘s general principles for determining the standard of review should be determinative in all instances of judicial review of administrative action.

This is an issue of doctrine, but Stratas JA also provides good substantive reasons for not applying Katz. The contextual approach to reasonableness introduced by Vavilov, too, has its flaws: context can sometimes lead to uncertainty. But if context is adequately described by markers of unreasonableness (say, the “constraints” offered in Vavilov), the uncertainty is limited. Applying those constraints to the context of legislative instruments is perfectly justifiable. It may be, as in Catalyst or Green, that Vavilovian reasonableness is quite relaxed when dealing with certain legislative instruments. In other cases it may be more stringent. The constraints offered in Vavilov take account of the legislative context in a way that, at least to some extent, tracks the words and language used by the legislature to delegate power. With a fine-tuned approach like this, there is no need for a presumptive rule that puts a thumb on the scales for those that promulgate regulations based on any functional reasons.

Some judges of the Supreme Court have indicated an interest in preserving the coherence of Vavilov based on its general principles. In Wastech, for example, Brown and Rowe JJ filed a concurring opinion that would have applied Vavilov to the context of a commercial arbitration. They would have applied a correctness standard of review based on Vavilov’s holding on rights of appeal. These judges said this in Wastech:

[120]                     Factors that justify deference to the arbitrator, notably respect for the parties’ decision in favour of alternative dispute resolution and selection of an appropriate decision‑maker, are not relevant to this interpretive exercise. What matters are the words chosen by the legislature, and giving effect to the intention incorporated within those words. Thus, where a statute provides for an “appeal” from an arbitration award, the standards in Housen apply. To this extent, Vavilov has displaced the reasoning in Sattva and Teal Cedar.Concluding otherwise would undermine the coherence of Vavilov and the principles expressed therein.

I think this is the right approach. Vavilov’s general principles have much to say about many forms of decision-making. And, luckily for us, the fact that these principles have something to say makes judicial review much simpler for the parties and courts. No need for special rules any longer, and so I hope this Kat(z) is out of lives.

For more on this issue, see the following resources:

Paul Daly

John Mark Keyes

The Disuse of Knowledge in the Administrative State

Regulation is not the right tool for intelligently dealing with complexity

Advocates for the administrative state typically promote it on the basis of its great usefulness in contemporary society. Without the expertise that administrators bring to their work, they say, we could not deal with the complexity of the world around us. Although, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65, this is no longer part of the rationale for deference to administrative decision-makers in Canadian law, this view is still widely held by administrative theorists in North America. Indeed it is part of the pro-administrativist critique of Vavilov, for example in a post by Mary Liston over at Administrative Law Matters. But this view is fundamentally wrong, even backwards.

A passage from Matthew Lewans’ book Administrative Law and Judicial Deference captures this traditional view nicely. Compared to the past,

we must tackle a broader array of complex social issues―human rights, immigration, national security, climate change, economic policy, occupational health and safety, public access to health care and education, etc―about which there is deep disagreement. And we cannot hope to address these issues intelligently without harnessing the experience, expertise, and efficiency the modern administrative state provides. (187)

Other pro-administrativists, if they have not themselves written such things, would I think wholeheartedly agree with them. To the extent that I specifically criticize Professor Lewans’ argument, below, it is only in a representative capacity.

One thing to note about this passage, and its innumerable equivalents elsewhere, is that it is not supported by any detailed arguments or evidence. The hopelessness of intelligently dealing with the issues that consume contemporary politics without “harnessing the experience, expertise, and efficiency” of the bureaucracy is simply asserted by writers and taken on faith by readers. But I think we need to query these claims before accepting them, and not because I have watched too much Yes, Minister to have much faith in the experience and expertise, let alone the efficiency, of the administrative state.

More fundamentally, the state ― and especially the administrative state ― often is not merely lousy at addressing complexity intelligently, but actively opposed to doing so. The reason for this is that its laws and regulations, to say nothing of its discretionary rulings, serve to eradicate rather than harness the information needed for intelligent behaviour in a complex world. They give both the rulers who wield them and the citizens who clamour for them the illusion of purposive action and control, while actually preventing the operation of the mechanisms that serve to communicate information about the world much more effectively than laws and regulations ever can: prices and markets.

As F.A. Hayek famously pointed out in “The Use of Knowledge in Society“, there is an enormous amount of information that even the best experts armed with the boundless powers of the modern administrative state cannot acquire: information about the circumstances, needs, and desires of individuals and organizations. This information is unlike the scientific, technical knowledge that experts might be able to centralize in the hands of the bureaucracy. In particular, this local knowledge changes much too quickly to be communicated and assimilated by an authority. As Hayek explains, “the economic problem of society” ― that is, the question of how to use the resources available to us most effectively ― “is mainly one of rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place”. From this,

it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them. We cannot expect that this problem will be solved by first communicating all this knowledge to a central board which, after integrating all knowledge, issues its orders. 

I would add also that, even if a “central board” could acquire information as fast as individuals and businesses, it could not make new rules to reflect this information fast enough, or consistently with the requirements of the Rule of Law, which include the relative stability of the legal framework.

But how do individuals acquire knowledge which, Hayek insists, even a sophisticated bureaucracy cannot gets its hands on? The answer is, through market prices, which reflect aggregate data about the relative scarcity of goods and services available in a given time and place: “Fundamentally, in a system in which the knowledge of the relevant facts is dispersed among many people” ― which is to say, in any society in which there many people, and especially in complex modern societies to which pro-administrativsts such as Professor Lewans refer, “prices can act to coördinate the separate actions of different people in the same way as subjective values help the individual to coördinate the parts of his plan”.

Hayek gives the example of how, if something people need to produce other things other people need becomes more scarce, such as its price goes up

without an order being issued, without more than perhaps a handful of people knowing the cause, tens of thousands of people whose identity could not be ascertained by months of investigation, are made to use the material or its products more sparingly; i.e., they move in the right direction. 

The right direction, that is, from society’s perspective ― the direction of the society’s overall resources being used more effectively where they are most needed. Hayek pointedly describes the functioning of the price mechanism, its ability to economically and quickly communicate information no bureaucracy could gather “by months of investigation” as a “marvel”. He is right.

But, to repeat, the state all too often prevents this marvel from happening. The state outlaws market transactions, and so prevents the communication of information through market prices, left, right, and centre, and interferes with those transactions it doesn’t outlaw. Ronald Reagan summed up the state’s ― and the statists’ ― thinking: “If it Moves, Tax it. If it Keeps Moving, Regulate it. And if it Stops Moving, Subsidize it.” This is not all the state does, of course. The state, if it functions well, also enables markets by keeping peace, protecting property rights, and enforcing contracts. They state may supplement markets by correcting genuine market failures, though these are rather fewer and further between than statists tend to assume. But there’s no denying that much of what the state does, and especially much of what pro-administrativists ― be they on the political left (as most of them have long tended to be) or on the right (as the followers of Adrian Vermeule and other common good will-to-power conservatives, about whom co-blogger Mark Mancini has written here) consists in overriding, displacing, and even criminalizing markets, and so destroying rather than harnessing information. The state not only is stupid; it makes us less intelligent too.

The administrative state, specifically, is especially guilty of this. To quote Professor Lewans once more ― and again, in a representative capacity ―

There are good reasons why legislatures invest administrative officials with decision-making authority. While a legislative assembly might be able to forge sufficient consensus on broadly worded objectives as a platform for  future action, it might reasonably conclude that interpretive disputes regarding those objectives outstrip the capacity of the legislative process. (199)

To be clear, “interpretive disputes” here are disputes about the specification of these “broad objectives”, as well as the means through which the objectives, so defined, are expected to be achieved. What Professor Lewans is saying is that delegation of power to the administration vastly increases the state’s overall ability to regulate ― that is to say, to override, displace, and criminalize markets. Legislatures might never achieve consensus on the detail of a regulation, and so wouldn’t enact any since they need at least a bare-bones consensus to enact law. But thanks to the dark wonders of delegation, the need for consensus is dispensed with, or at least reduced, and more regulation can be enacted. And of course the administrative state is simply bigger than a legislature, so it has more person-hours to expend on producing ever more regulation. The legislative process ― at least, proper legislative process, not what all too often passes for it ― is also time-consuming, while one of the supposed virtues of the administrative state is its flexibility. Faster regulatory change, while it cannot actually be effective enough to substitute or account for the information transmitted through the price system, is more disruptive to markets.

If we actually want to address the issues that confront complex contemporary societies intelligently, the administrative state is not our friend. More often than not, it serves to reinforce the state’s ability, to say nothing of its resolve, to prevent individuals and businesses from acting intelligently in the face of complexity by eliminating or falsifying the information they need to do so. At best, the administrative state then tries to provide a simulacrum of an intelligent response ― as, for example, we ask bureaucrats to puzzle out who may come to our countries to work based on what they, from their cubicles, deem to be market needs, instead of simply opening the borders and letting employers and potential workers make their own arrangements.

Why, then, are people ― and more and more people, too, as the emergence of right-wing pro-administrativsim shows ― so convinced that the administrative state is necessary? Some, alas, are not especially interested in social problems being solved effectively. They even make a virtue of inefficient institutions, slower economic growth, and more coercion. Such feelings may be especially widespread among the common good will-to-power crowd. But more people, I suspect, simply misunderstand the situation. As Hayek pointed out,

those who clamor for “conscious direction” … cannot believe that anything which has evolved without design (and even without our understanding it) should solve problems which we should not be able to solve consciously.

They think that central direction, which only the state, and specifically the administrative state, can provide is necessary. They are mistaken, and in a way that is the sadder because they unwittingly demand the exact opposite of what they actually hope for.