Bell/NFL: The Second Dunsmuir Redux Case

Two weeks ago, I summarized and analyzed the arguments in Vavilov, one of the Dunsmuir redux cases that will be heard at the Supreme Court in December. I’ll now do the same for the second case, Bell/NFL, which similarly focuses on an important conceptual difficulty in the law of judicial review: the presence and implications of a category of “jurisdictional questions.”

This case concerned an interpretation of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission [CRTC] of its own statute and regulations. The Appellants, Bell and NFL, claim that the interpretation raises a jurisdictional issue; the Respondent government resists this claim, arguing that the concept of jurisdictional questions inviting a different standard of review should be jettisoned. For reasons I’ve explained before, I do not think jurisdiction is a helpful category in the law of judicial review. All administrative law is confined to statute, and so whether an issue is “jurisdictional” or not is simply a function of an enabling statute.

The interpretive difficulty

The interpretive difficulty in Bell/NFL centres around the broadcast of the Super Bowl in Canada. For many years, the Super Bowl had been broadcast in Canada under the “simultaneous substitution regime,” set out in the regulations [Sim Sub Regulations] under the Broadcasting Act. Under the simultaneous substitution regime, a Canadian television station is required (unless the CRTC determines otherwise) to substitute a Canadian feed for a non-Canadian programming service—the result being that Canadians watching the Super Bowl see Canadian commercials whether they watch the Super Bowl on a Canadian or American channel (see Sim Sub Regulations, s.4(1))). The CRTC, under the Sim Sub Regulations, can apply an exception to the simultaneous substitution requirements if the “deletion and substitution are not in the public interest” (s. 4(3)). The CRTC can make this decision under s.18(3) of the Broadcasting Act, which allows it to make any decision “within its jurisdiction” if it is satisfied it is the public interest.

In this case, after consultations, the CRTC decided that the simultaneous substitution of Canadian content would no longer be in the public interest.  The key provision is s.9(1)(h) of the Broadcasting Act, under which the CRTC is entitled to require a licensee to “carry…programming services specified by the Commission.” Under this provision, the CRTC decided that it had jurisdiction under s.9(1)(h) to apply the exception to the simultaneous substitution regime in the public interest.

At the Federal Court of Appeal (a direct statutory appeal), Bell and the NFL argued that the CRTC “only has jurisdiction to make orders and regulations regarding programming services and does not have jurisdiction to single out an individual ‘program’” [15]. While the Broadcasting Act does not define programming services, the appellants argued that other provisions in the statute used the term “programming services” to refer to television channels. So, since the Super Bowl is a single show, the CRTC did not have “jurisdiction” under s.9(1)(h) to make the order it did.

The Federal Court of Appeal decided otherwise. First, the Court concluded that the standard of review is reasonableness, but rejected the “margin of appreciation approach” that the Court adopted in Vavilov [9].  It ultimately decided that the term “programming services” is contextual in nature; it could mean a single “program” (ie) the Super Bowl in certain circumstances [19]. A number of factors supported this conclusion: (1) previous interpretations of the CRTC held that the term was contextual [16]; the Sim Sub Regulations adopted the definition of “programming services” under the Broadcasting Distribution Regulations, which defined a “programming service” to mean a singular program [17]; while the legislative history demonstrated that “programming services” was used in reference to television channels, it was not determinative, and there was no evidence that the legislature intended to exclude a singular program from the term “programming services.” All of this meant that the CRTC’s decision was reasonable.

While there were other issues in this case, this core issue is the one that is most relevant to current debates in administrative law and judicial review.

The Parties’ Submissions on Standard of Review

Bell and NFL filed a factum each before the Supreme Court; Bell’s focused on the standard of review, while the NFL’s focused on the application of the standard of review to the issues in the case.

Bell’s factum reads as an attack on the administrative state. In the opening paragraphs of the factum, Bell notes that s. 9(1)(h) is juxtaposed with s.26(2) of the Broadcasting Act, which gives the power to Cabinet to require the broadcast of “any program.” This, to Bell, was the only provision of the statute that permitted the targeting of an individual program. This made sense—the Cabinet is “a democratically accountable body” [5]. And Bell does not pull punches, calling the CRTC’s exercise of power “Orwellian,” “conferring upon itself the ability to dictate the particular television programs that broadcasters distribute…” [5].

This assault on administrative power informs Bell’s standard of review proposal. To Bell, it is “inconceivable” that Parliament would have wanted the CRTC to have the last word on its own “jurisdiction” on this matter. To prevent this reality, Bell argues that a separate category of “jurisdictional questions” inviting correctness review is required. At risk are three principles: legislative supremacy, the separation of powers, and the rule of law [paras 42, 45, and 63-69]. When the fundamental question concerned “executive accountability to legal authority,” it would undermine the intent of the legislature to allow its creation to run beyond its statutory limits; the separation of powers is at risk if the executive could “decide for itself what powers were delegated to it by the legislature” [47]; and if the CRTC could single out a program when the statute expressly left that task to Parliament, the rule of law is impacted [69].

Without correctness review on “jurisdictional questions,” Bell alleges that we have an administrative state untethered to statute, making law as it goes along. And for Bell, even if the presumption of reasonableness was applicable, other statutory signals rebutted the presumption, including a statutory right of appeal [87-88].

The government, in its submissions, reiterated the focus on a general standard of deference for all administrative decision-makers that it set out in its Vavilov submissions and that I addressed in my previous post. It argues that the category of jurisdictional questions should be eliminated [34], and that the mere fact of delegation creates a presumption of deference [48]. To the government, there should be no search for other implicit signals of legislative intent to rebut this presumption.

Analysis

The Bell/NFL case gives the Supreme Court an opportunity to review its approach to that unicorn of judicial review, “jurisdictional questions.” In a forthcoming paper entitled “Two Myths of Administrative Law,” one of the myths I tackle is the idea of jurisdictional questions. In my view, both Bell and the government get this issue wrong. A category of jurisdictional questions (but not necessarily the concept of “jurisdiction”) is not helpful to the task of determining the standard of review; but neither is an always-applicable presumption of deference, which the government seems to believe necessarily follows from the rejection of the category of jurisdictional questions.

Starting at the beginning, Dunsmuir defined a true question of jurisdiction as one that concerned the decision-maker’s authority to make the inquiry in the first place [59]. This is, to be clear, is a very narrow sort of jurisdiction that can be distinguished from a pre-CUPE notion of jurisdiction. Under pre-CUPE law, every decision of an administrative decision-maker that runs afoul of its statutory boundaries could be considered as beyond its jurisdiction. Dunsmuir rejected this broad notion of jurisdiction.

But the Court has struggled with this conceptually difficult category. In subsequent cases, it has rolled back its application. In Halifax, it did away with the notion of “preliminary” or “entry” jurisdictional questions. In Alberta Teachers, a majority of the Court remarked that the category served little purpose. In CHRC, it reaffirmed the idea that a category of jurisdictional questions is unhelpful. Some spirited dissenters argue that the category is necessary, as Bell argues, to ensure that administrative decision-makers stay within their lawful boundaries (see also dissents in Guerin and CHRC).

I can understand the worry of the Court’s dissenters and Bell about the need to keep the administrative state in check. The real question is if meaningful checks and balances can be applied to a decision-maker by a judicial review court in absence of this category. To my mind, the answer is yes—but not under the current presumption of reasonableness, nor the extended version sought by the government in this litigation.

How is this so? In CHRC, the majority cited the City of Arlington case at the Supreme Court of the United States, per Scalia J. In that decision, a majority of the United States’ apex court rejected the idea that jurisdictional questions deserve a special, more intensive review than other questions of law. At the root of the argument for the category of jurisdictional questions, Scalia J reasons, is a misapprehension of the notion of “jurisdiction” in administrative law. For example, in Canada, s.96 courts have “inherent jurisdiction” that is constitutionally significant. This power to hear and decide cases is fundamentally different from the idea of administrative law jurisdiction—the jurisdiction of s.96 courts is constitutionally entrenched, whereas the jurisdiction of administrative decision-makers is defined by their statutes. This fundamental concept was described by the Court in Ocean Port, at para 23, with respect to independence. Constitutional guarantees of independence do not transfer over to an administrative decision-maker, even if they are requirements in the context of superior courts. While we would jealously guard constitutional independence, independence in the administrative context is completely different—it can be traded away.

The same is true of “jurisdiction.” In administrative law, the idea of “jurisdiction” is purely statutory. The power of a tribunal to hear and decide cases is circumscribed by statute, unlike in the s.96 context; so are the remedies that the decision-maker can grant, and whether a particular claimant can even have standing to challenge a particular decision. Whether the tribunal can act at all on a particular matter is a matter of statute. At the most extreme end, whether we have an administrative state to even review is a matter of statute. In a sense, everything and nothing is jurisdictional (Nolan, at para 33) because a decision-maker has no independent reserve of powers on which to rely outside the statute.

If one supports the idea that the level of deference owed to a decision-maker is a function of statute (which the Supreme Court does), then there is no reason to apply a different standard of review over questions going to the tribunal’s power to hear and decide cases, as opposed to its power, say, to grant a certain remedy. If a tribunal hears a case it is not statutorily empowered to hear, it is as much an affront to legislative supremacy and the rule of law as if the tribunal granted non-pecuniary damages when its enabling statute gave it no authority to do so. Both are instances in which the decision-maker has assumed power it has not been specifically assigned—and at heart, this is Bell’s fundamental concern with the CRTC’s action here. Nothing turns on the label of “jurisdiction.”

While the Court’s invocation of City of Arlington in CHRC supports the government, the Court doesn’t cite City of Arlington for its other, parallel proposition; that it is the job of courts to intensively police the boundaries of the administrative state, no matter the standard of review. For Scalia J, every case turns on the vigorous enforcement of statutory boundaries, not the artificial imposition of a particular category. And this is where Bell’s submissions are preferable to the government’s.  Under the government’s formulation of deference without an investigation of statutory signals, it is possible that a decision-maker could have (essentially) the last word on its statutory boundaries. This is not only problematic when we speak of the decision-maker’s power to hear and decide cases; it is a problem in every permutation of decision-making that could abridge the enabling statute. A judicial review court must review, and in our system of laws, this means determining whether there is any daylight between potentially correct interpretations of statutory language and what the decision-maker did in a particular case.

This case provides an example of how this could work in practice. In any given case, there should be two inquiries: (1) is the decision barred by the text, context, and purpose of the statute? (2) is the process of reasoning sound with respect to these principles of statutory interpretation?

On the first question, whether the term “programming services” can refer to the Super Bowl is a question of law. That means that a court reviews the text, context, and purpose of the statute—and the “open-textured” language therein—to determine the level of deference owed and whether the substantive result is legal. Here, the text is undefined in the statute, and is reasonably open-textured, meaning it could support more than one option. Sometimes, the tools of statutory interpretation require this result—there may be more than one answer. The context supports the CRTC’s interpretation and the breadth of options; the definition of programming services in the Sim Sub Regulations supports the CRTC’s decision. While I am alive to the concern that the Cabinet may have the power under s.26(2) to specify particular programs, that power seems to be of a different nature—based on the “urgency” of the program specified.  And even though a statutory right of appeal is present in the legislative context, that does not change the legality of the CRTC’s reasoning on the specific interpretive difficulty. Finally, the CRTC’s decision does not run counter to any of the Broadcasting Act’s purposes.

If I had my druthers, this is how we would deal with questions of law. There would be no presumption of “reasonableness.” Any deference is inherent in the language, the context, and the purpose of the statute. Here, the CRTC’s decision is not reasonable, or correct, but legal—it is supported by the tools of statutory interpretation and its process of reasoning is adequate (this point was not central). Nothing more or less.

Jurisdictional metaphysics, while interesting, is the province of lawyers. Bell/NFL provides an opportunity for the Court to get out of the game.

Dealing with Delegation

Thoughts on a proposal for a judicial crackdown on the delegation of law-making powers to the executive

The explosive growth of legislation made by various government departments, boards, and other entities ― rather than enacted by Parliament, as legislation ought to be on the orthodox understanding of separation of powers ― is quite likely the most understudied aspect of contemporary constitutions, in Canada and elsewhere. In “Reassessing the Constitutional Foundation of Delegated Legislation in Canada“, an article that will be published in the Dalhousie Law Journal and is now available on SSRN, Lorne Neudorf sets out to shed light on and proposes means of reining in delegated legislation ― that is, rules made by the executive branch of government pursuant to a legislative authorization, often a very vague one. It is a worthwhile endeavour from which we have much to learn, even though Professor Neudorf’s arguments, and some of his recommendations, strike me as just as problematic, in their own way, as the phenomenon he criticizes.

* * *

This phenomenon’s importance is out of all proportion to the attention it receives. Professor Neudorf notes that “[b]y volume, delegated legislation is made at a rate of nearly 5-to-1 as compared to primary legislation”. (3) Yet the text of the constitution seems to say nothing at all about the executive being able to make law. On the contrary, the Constitution Act, 1867, endows Parliament and provincial legislatures with “exclusive” law-making powers. Still, the courts have recognized that the legislative bodies are able to mandate the executive to make rules having the force of law, and indeed even rules that override the provisions of laws enacted by legislatures. This, Professor Neudorf argues, is a mistake that needs to be reversed.

Professor Neudorf traces the mistake to a misguided introduction into Canadian constitutional law of orthodox, Diceyan, notions of Parliamentary sovereignty. The notion that “Parliament can make or unmake any law whatever” has always been out of place in a federation, where the Dominion Parliament and provincial legislatures were always subject to limits on their powers. In any event, the enactment of “[t]he Charter” in 1982 “cemented the location of Canadian sovereignty in the Constitution as opposed
to a single lawmaking institution”. (9) Judicial decisions emphasizing the plenitude of legislative powers (subject to the constraints imposed by the Constitution Act, 1867)

should be understood as less about transplanting a robust vision of parliamentary sovereignty into Canada and more about the courts prodding along and encouraging the development of new country with a distinct identity. (9)

Yet the leading precedents on the scope of Canadian legislatures’ ability to delegate its legislative powers to the executive, notably In Re Gray, (1918) 57 SCR 150, recognize no obvious limits on delegation. In Gray, Chief Justice Fitzpatrick held that, since no limitation on delegation was expressed in the Constitution Act, 1867, “within reasonable limits at any rate [Parliament] can delegate its powers to the executive government” (157) ― provided that it be able to terminate and resume the powers it temporarily cedes. Professor Neudorf argues that sweeping delegation of the kind at issue in Gray “might not be viewed as reasonable outside the context of an exceptional national security threat”, (16) but the subsequent cases did not elaborate on the constraints that this reasonableness requirement might impose.

Professor Neudorf insists that Gray rests on a “narrow and technical interpretation of the
Constitution”, an “outmoded interpretive approach”, (18) long superseded by “living tree” constitutional interpretation. Applying this approach, the courts ought to

engage with how the Constitution sees Parliament: as a key part of the basic constitutional architecture: possessing democratic, representative and accountable qualities, and the key player in bringing together different constituencies to formulate national policy and resolve pressing questions facing the country as a whole. (23)

Delegation imperils Parliament’s position, envisioned by John A. Macdonald, as the constitutional cornerstone. It hands law-making over to persons and bodies that are not representative and often operate behind the thick veil of cabinet secrecy. Delegation also undermines the Rule of Law (which provides additional reasons to favour transparent lawmaking) and the separation of powers.

Therefore, Professor Neudorf proposes a number of ways of curtailing the use of delegation. To begin with,

courts should adopt a stricter interpretation of statutory provisions that delegate lawmaking power and strengthen the rigour of the vires review of regulations to overcome the current weaknesses that allow for the delegation of broad powers
through generic words and exceptionally wide latitude for the exercise of delegated power. (30)

If Parliament wants to delegate broad legislative powers, courts ought to make it say so very clearly ― especially if these powers are meant to be exercised retroactively, punitively, or in a manner that is at odds with the Charter. Courts should also drop their deference to the executive’s interpretation of its authority to enact delegated legislation. Nothing less than constitutional principle compels this change of approach, which “will better safeguard Parliament’s constitutional role and give effect to the principle of legality and the rule of law”. (32) But sometimes, the courts should go further still:

when generic words are used in enabling legislation, which are incapable of intelligent qualification by the text, context or purpose of the statute, the court should hold the grant of authority invalid on the basis that it is impermissibly vague. (33)

Indeed, the grant of authority ought to be “narrower than the general purposes of the legislation, with some specificity for the kinds of regulations contemplated”. (33)

Professor Neudorf’s other set of proposals concerns the process by which regulations are reviewed in Parliament. He calls on Parliament to take its inspiration from the review systems that exist in the United Kingdom (which Professor Neudorf describes in some detail), and look into both the delegation provisions of bills as they are enacted, and the already existing regulations that may be flawed or ineffective. But here too, Professor Neudorf envisions a role for the judiciary:

If needed, a court may issue a declaration of the constitutional obligation as the impetus for Parliament to take the necessary action. In an extreme case where the scrutiny system is totally ineffective, the court may seek to enforce this constitutional obligation by holding inadequately scrutinized regulations as legally ineffective. (40)

Professor Neudorf concludes that, while the delegation of some legislative powers is desirable and necessary, and particular bodies (such as the legislatures of territories) can be quite different from the ordinary executive delegates, reform ― and judicial intervention to implement it ― is constitutionally justified and necessary.

* * *

I have mixed feelings about Professor Neudorf’s article. It addresses a real problem that deserves much more attention than it usually receives. I agree to a large extent both with the values underlying Professor Neudorf argument (notably, the empowerment of legislative institutions and the limitation of the power of the unaccountable executive) and with his specific proposals, as I shall explain. But, as noted at the outset, I think that the way in which Professor Neudorf makes his case, and indeed some aspects of his proposals, which follow from his approach to constitutional law, are deeply problematic.

Let me begin with the bad, to finish on a more positive note. Professor Neudorf’s general approach is an excellent illustration of what I recently described as “constitutionalism from the cave“:

On this view, the Canadian constitution … is not so much a law that courts must apply as a sort of shadow in Plato’s cave, a vague reflection of true constitutional ideals that the judges must discover and explain to us cavemen. The constitution’s text is not in any meaningful way binding on the courts; it is only an inadequate approximation, one whose imperfections judges can and ought to circumvent in an unceasing quest to get a clearer view of the ideal constitution.

Professor Neudorf refuses to attach any real consequence to the constitutional text’s apparent silence on the question of delegation; on the contrary, he chides the Gray court for having done so, declaring this an “outmoded” way of doing constitutional law. Professor Neudorf argues that, regardless of what the text says or doesn’t say, the courts should implement the ideal conception of Parliament and of its place in a democratically accountable system of government. As I explained, this amounts to a license for the courts to re-write the constitution, in defiance of its own provisions, which quite clearly do not contemplate its amendment by the judiciary.

The fact that I am sympathetic to the policy objectives that this re-writing would be designed to achieve is irrelevant; it’s illegitimate all the same. Professor Neudorf’s appeal to the so-called “Persons Case”, Edwards v. Attorney-General for Canada, [1930] AC 124, [1930] 1 DLR 98 (PC), to prove otherwise ― to show that good courts re-write constitutions to suit their policy preferences ― fails resoundingly. He faults the Supreme Court in that case for having been “disinterested [sic] in the question of the desirability of women Senators” (18) and believing that “giving meaning to the Constitution was a simple and neutral exercise in statutory interpretation”. (19) Yet Lord Sankey, whose opinion for the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council Professor Neudorf extols, similarly insisted the case did not involve “any question as to the rights of women”. (DLR 107) Lord Sankey’s opinion, as, for example, I have argued here, is a master class in statutory interpretation techniques ― not a policy judgment about the desirability of women Senators. And Professor Neudorf’s invocation of the wishes of John A. Macdonald ― odd in an article otherwise extolling living constitutionalism, but of a piece with the strategic (mis)use of original intent originalism by Canadian legal academics that co-blogger Mark Mancini described here ― is no more convincing. Macdonald was interested in the federal division of powers, not the question of delegation.

In short, I don’t think that Professor Neudorf succeeds in justifying the role he sees for the judiciary in implementing his more far-reaching proposals. A more robust judicial review of the vires of delegated legislation, including by the application of the principle of legality (which prevents the executive from trespassing on constitutional and common law rights with clear authorization by the legislature) only requires the courts to abandon their absurdly deferential, pro-regulatory posture. But it is much more difficult to make the case for the courts’ power to nullify vague delegations. (I don’t know whether this is impossible, but that’s a discussion for another time.) Professor Neudorf appeals to the doctrine developed under the Charter for determining whether a limitation of a constitutional right is “prescribed by law”. This is not satisfactory, because the courts have tended to treat even vague laws as sufficiently clear, and even more so because the Charter‘s requirements simply do not apply unless one of the rights it protects is at stake. And as for the idea that courts can order Parliament how to structure its review of regulations ― suffice it to say that it creates much greater separation of powers problems than it is likely to solve, and undermines the very autonomy and authority of Parliament as a democratic decision-making body that Professor Neudorf seeks to restore.

Behind the embrace of constitutionalism from the cave is a belief, which I think is not only misguided but also counterproductive, that supreme constitutional law must have an answer to any and all constitutional concerns. Professor Neudorf is quite right to characterize the rise of delegated legislation as a constitutional issue. But it simply does not follow that it is an issue that the courts must be able to fully address. As the experience of polities such as the United Kingdom (which Professor Neudorf cites as a model!) and New Zealand reminds us, it is possible to think intelligently about the constitution that is not supreme law at all. Indeed, these polities often pay much closer attention to the governance aspects of their constitutions than does Canada. Instead of calling on the courts to twist and stretch our supreme constitutional law, undermining their own commitment to the Rule of Law and indeed their credibility as impartial constitutional arbiters in the process, we should emulate these polities’ commitment to getting the constitution right as a matter of ordinary law and political process.

Professor Neudorf’s recommendations will, mostly, be very helpful in this regard. Greater judicial vigilance in reviewing the legality of the executive’s exercise of its delegated legislative powers is essential ― and it need not rest on dubious appeals to living tree interpretation. The principle of the Rule of Law, as developed by Canadian courts at least as far back as in Roncarelli v Duplessis, [1959] SCR 121, means that the executive’s authority, even if delegated by the legislature in ostensibly, indeed ostentatiously, broad terms, cannot be unlimited, and that the courts are not only authorized, but required to ensure that the executive doesn’t overstep the bounds of this delegation. Professor Neudorf is right to be concerned that Canadian courts are in serious danger of abdicating this responsibility. Recent decisions which he does not mention, notably West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, and Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, provide further demonstration of this point, as I argued here and here. The Supreme Court appears to see no issue what it described in West Fraser as “broad and unrestricted delegation of power”. This needs to change.

Professor Neudorf is also right to call for the development of Parliamentary procedures for the review of regulations. I wonder if the smaller number of parliamentarians in Canada in comparison with the UK might be an obstacle to copying the British system of three Select Committees devoted to the study of subordinate legislation (and the problem would, of course, be even more pressing in much smaller and unicameral provincial legislatures), but even if the UK system cannot be perfectly emulated in Canada, it seems to offer a source of inspiration if not a model for imitation.

* * *

To repeat, it is a mistake to think that judicially enforceable supreme  law must have a solution to every constitutional problem. Yet the problem Professor Neudorf identifies is real. Precisely because supreme law may be unable to help us, it is important to get ordinary law and legislative process right. Judicial review and parliamentary procedure might be less glamorous than what Canadians usually think of as constitutional law. Yet Professor Neudorf’s article should be taken as a reminder that these are properly constitutional preoccupations, and that Canadian constitutional lawyers ought to devote more of their energies to them than to the development of exotic theories about what the ideal Canadian constitution would look like.

Vavilov: Doing the Administrative State’s Dirty Work

Over the next few weeks, I will be taking some time in this space to summarize the submissions in the upcoming Dunsmuir review: the cases of Vavilov and Bell/NFL. Today I will focus on Vavilov, and the proposals offered by both the Appellant (the Government of Canada) and the Respondent (Vavilov) for the standard of review of administrative action. As I’ll explain, on balance, the Respondent’s formulation is most consistent with the fundamental function of judicial review.

I should note at the outset that I am the Vice-President of the Advocates for the Rule of Law group, which is intervening at the Court in the Vavilov and Bell/NFL appeals. My comments below should be read as only my view on the merits of the parties’ submissions.

Facts

In many ways, Vavilov is a perfect case to test the merits of Dunsmuir. It is a case of pure legislative interpretation. Under the Citizenship Act, persons generally born on Canadian soil receive Canadian citizenship (under the principle of jus soli embedded in s.3(1)(a) of the Citizenship Act). There are, however, exceptions contained in s.3(2)(a), (b), and (c) of the Citizenship Act:

(2) Paragraph (1)(a) does not apply to a person if, at the time of his birth, neither of his parents was a citizen or lawfully admitted to Canada for permanent residence and either of his parents was

(a) a diplomatic or consular officer or other representative or employee in Canada of a foreign government;

(b) an employee in the service of a person referred to in paragraph (a); or

(c) an officer or employee in Canada of a specialized agency of the United Nations or an officer or employee in Canada of any other international organization to whom there are granted, by or under any Act of Parliament, diplomatic privileges and immunities certified by the Minister of Foreign Affairs to be equivalent to those granted to a person or persons referred to in paragraph (a).

The Vavilov case turns on s.3(2). Vavilov was born in Canada to Russian parents who were spies for the Russian government. The parents lived in Canada under assumed identities. But for Vavilov, he was always Canadian. He did not have any suspicion that his parents were covert agents.

In 2010, while living in the US with his family, the FBI arrested his parents. This was the first time that Vavilov was made aware of his parents’ identities. Subsequently, the Registrar of Citizenship cancelled Vavilov’s citizenship, on the conclusion that s.3(2) of the Citizenship Act applies. To the Registrar, since Vavilov’s parents were not citizens or lawfully admitted to Canada, and because they were “employees of a foreign government” under s.3(2)(a), Vavilov was not entitled to citizenship.

The Federal Court of Appeal disagreed with the Registrar’s conclusion. On the standard of review, the Court noted that this is a case where the margin of appreciation was exceedingly narrow for the Registrar, for three reasons: (1) the interests of the individual affected were elevated in this case; (2) the Supreme Court had conducted searching review of immigration matters in its recent cases and; (3) the reasons were inadequate.

On the merits, the Court concluded that the words “…employee in Canada of a foreign government” must be read ejusdem generis with the words preceding it. According to the Court, the common theme underpinning the s.3(2)(a) category was the concept of diplomatic privileges and immunities. Section 3(2)(a) was designed to apply only “to those employees who benefit from diplomatic privileges and immunities” [45]. This conclusion was supported by the context of the provision. Sections 3(2) (c), for example, referred to privileges and immunities granted to persons referred to in s.3(2)(a), indicating a legislative intention that persons in s.3(2)(a) are only those with privileges and immunities. International law also supported this conclusion—the Citizenship Act “borrows many of the same phrases that the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations uses in the context of diplomatic immunity” [74]. Under the Vienna Convention, certain employees of a foreign government have immunity, specifically persons connected with the diplomatic mission. Persons not associated with the diplomatic staff are outside of the Convention, and to the extent that Convention is adopted into Canadian law, Vavilov’s parents were therefore outside the Citizenship Act exception to jus soli citizenship [58].

For our purposes, the Federal Court of Appeal’s concerns also extended to the process of reasoning by the Registrar. The Court noted that “[O]n the central statutory interpretation issue before us, the Registrar said nothing” [38]. The Registrar, as is common in administrative law, apparently relied on a report prepared by an analyst. But that report “contains only one brief paragraph on the statutory interpretation issue, and a very limited one at that” [39]. The Court was concerned that the decision was immunized from review, because it could not be sure that the central statutory interpretation issue was even considered.

The Government’s Submissions

With the facts of the case in the backdrop, the Government began its submissions by outlining its proposal for revisions to the standard of review framework set out in Dunsmuir. The government set out its proposal clearly in the first paragraph of its factum:

The standard of review should be deferential, subject only to limited exceptions where the foundational democratic principle and the rule of law make it clear that the courts must have the final word.

The motivation behind this proposal is the mere fact that the legislature granted authority to an administrative body [49]. To the government, delegation=deference.

So, we have a rule (rather than a presumption) of deference for even more matters than Dunsmuir and its progeny prescribed. Notably, no longer do we have the correctness categories of true jurisdictional questions or the category of questions of central importance to the legal system and beyond the expertise of the decision-maker.  This general category of deference applies not only to the result reached by the decision-maker but its process of reasoning. For the government, administrative decision-makers under the ambit of government should not be expected to undertake the type of statutory interpretation analysis that courts undertake [4]. And, the decision-makers should not be expected to make explicit findings on matters of statutory interpretation [60].

The only exceptions to this general rule of deference are constitutional questions (where a law is challenged before a decision-maker on constitutional grounds) and on issues of procedural fairness.

On the merits, the government argues that there was a cogent basis for the Registrar’s decision. The government highlighted that in previous versions of the Citizenship Act, there was a requirement embedded in the citizenship exception that representatives or employees of foreign governments have official accreditation, or any connection to a diplomatic mission [84]. That requirement no longer exists, and the Registrar pointed this out, concluding that the wording in s.3(2)(a) was meant to encompass additional individuals beyond just those with immunities and privileges. Since the decision-maker canvassed this legislative change, some case law bearing on the problem, and other factors, the government argues that this is a sufficient basis to uphold the legality of the decision on its deferential standard.

It appears, for the government, that this alone is enough on its prescribed intensity of review. The government argues that if there are “additional relevant interpretive factors which the administrative decision-maker did not consider, a court may examine such factors in order to discover whether the administrative decision-maker’s interpretation can be sustained” [89]. These “additional relevant interpretive factors” are the text, context, and purpose of the statute that the Registrar was tasked with interpreting. On an interpretation of these factors, the government argues that the decision is legal.

Vavilov’s Submissions

The Respondent’s proposed standard of review framework is from a different world than the government’s. He proposes a two-part framework. First, so-called “discretionary decisions” are reviewed for reasonableness. Second, questions of law are reviewed on a correctness standard. On this second prong, the Respondent concedes that the view of the decision-makers on the “purpose and policy of its own statutes will continue to deserve respect” [59]. However, courts will still have to review the administrative decision-makers’ view of its enabling statute, independently.

The Respondent also, instructively, responds to the government’s proposed standard of review framework. He first notes that while deference to administrative decision-makers presumes trust on the part of these decision-makers, “It is worth recalling that some of the most regretted episodes in Canadian history were the work of federal statutory decision-makers exercising delegated authority” [33]. And, the Respondent also notes that the government’s submission was basically an attempt to insulate its statutory decision-makers from review. Under the government’s formulation, for example, expertise is also always presumed—“no matter how limited the statutory discretion that Parliament gave to the decision-maker or how insubstantial their real expertise” [53]. Particularly on this front, the Respondent notes that the Registrar under cross-examination said that she was “not a lawyer” and therefore did not know the legal “significance” of words in the provision [102].

On the merits, the Respondent argues that the Federal Court of Appeal’s interpretation was right, particularly noting that the Registrar/analyst interpretation did not address the legislative context of s.3(2), particularly s.3(2)(c).

Analysis

In my view, the Respondent accurately describes the implications of the government’s view. Particularly, the Respondent’s proposal is better than the government’s on a number of fronts if we view the matter from the basis of the fundamental function of judicial review—quite aside from any constitutional mandate for superior courts to police the boundaries of the administrative state.

First, most of Canadian administrative law doctrine is premised around the idea that the administrative state is a collection of virtuous experts creating good public policy and fairly adjudicating disputes. But the Respondent points out that this is far from the case. In fact, the state’s statutory creations have been perhaps the greatest purveyor of discriminatory treatment in the history of Canadian society. Far from being “flexible and expert,” (Edmonton East, at para 22) sometimes administrative decision-makers have been unfair, discriminatory, and even racist: particularly, the examples cited by the Respondent of the deportation of Japanese Canadians and the experience of Aboriginal peoples with residential schools are apposite. This is not to say that government agencies today have designs to discrimination. But it does mean that government agencies can make irrational decisions—particularly ones that are inconsistent with enabling law or the facts and record before it.

So, contrary to current scripture, it is not unreasonable that some would question the lawfulness of state action at the outset. And this is where the idea of a going-in rule of deference loses its force. The government wishes to create a system where state action is presumably lawful; where the mere fact of delegation speaks to the degree of deference owed by courts to a decision-maker. But on simple logical terms, a decision of a government to delegate to a satellite decision-maker says nothing about the degree of deference owed to that decision-maker by courts. Governments delegate to administrative decision-makers for a whole host of reasons: (1) the legislature does not want to spend the time setting up a complex regulatory scheme ex ante; (2) the legislature doesn’t care about the intricacies of the particular issue at hand, and wants someone else to deal with them; (3) the government legitimately feels that it does not have expertise in a particular matter; (4) the government does not want to make politically-charged decisions and wants to foist the political heat on someone else. More reasons abound. But the very fact of delegation says nothing about how courts should view that delegation, given that the reasons motivating delegation are so variable.

Quite the opposite from the traditional story, the potential for legislatures to shirk responsibility for important matters may invite scrutiny by courts. Delegation creates a form of distance between legislatures and decision-makers that makes it difficult for courts to conduct review. The idea is that a law passed by the legislature sets a standard—and decision-makers, relying on their own practices or ideas of what is right, and the informational asymmetry that they enjoy, can “drift” from the text of the law by which they are bound. This principal-agent problem invites, rather than counsels against, the scrutiny of courts.

On this front, the government’s standard of review proposal makes it more difficult for courts to determine whether a decision-maker is acting lawfully. Perhaps the most pernicious of the proposals is the idea that courts should presume deference on implied interpretations of law. One of the most common rationales for deference, put forward by the government above, is the idea that Parliament’s decision to vest power in an administrative decision-maker in the first place is legally significant. Even if we accept this logically deficient rationale, deferring to “implied” interpretations of law raises the prospect that the court is deferring to nothing. This is because it will be difficult for courts to determine whether the interpretive difficulty faced by the decision-maker was even addressed, let alone in a substantive way, if there is only an “implied determination.” Not to mention, of course, that if Parliament delegated to a decision-maker the power to make a decision, we should expect that a decision be made, not merely “implied.”

This is even more so where there are multiple analytical paths to a particular result. It may be easy in some cases for courts to draw a direct line to a particular analytical path from a result—in such cases, it may be easy to say what sort of interpretation is “implied” (putting aside the objection that it is the job of the decision-maker to positively pronounce on the matters it has been entrusted with by the legislature). But in most cases, if it is truly the case (as most argue) that statutes can fairly bear more than one meaning, then the reasoning employed to get to a certain result is quite important on judicial review. Where the decision-maker has multiple options, and has failed to pronounce on its reasoning, the court is left in the unenviable position of having to guess. In all cases, the quality of the reasoning adopted by the decision-maker—whether it addressed the text, context, and purpose of the statute, which cabins its discretion (McLean, at para 38)—is key. For the government to claim that these are mere “additional interpretive factors” is simply incorrect when it is the quality of the reasoning that determines whether a particular interpretation is lawful.

Vavilov shows why the government’s proposal is so flawed on both of these fronts. Even though we always presume expertise by decision-makers, the decision-maker in Vavilov basically admitted that she had no idea about the central interpretive difficulty in the case. She said she did not understand the terms of legal significance. The result she reached evinced this lack of understanding; she failed to take account of the whole of s.3(2) of the Citizenship Act and barely pronounced on the key interpretive difficulties. Yet, the text, context, and purpose of statutes are key to determining the range of reasonable outcomes available to the decision-maker. So, it is not true to say hers was a decision that fell within a range of reasonable outcomes, as Justice Gleason at the Federal Court of Appeal did in dissent. Quite the contrary, her decision was flawed precisely because her reasoning was flawed and wanting. It was unclear whether she took a proper analytical path to her decision. And yet, the government asks courts, on a hope and a prayer, to defer to this sort of reasoning merely because it is implied.

As Justice Stratas said in Bonnybrook, it is not the job of courts on judicial review to impersonate the decision-maker and fill in the gaps in deficient decisions. Yet the government’s proposal asks courts to do just that. Putting aside the constitutional objections to this posture, it fundamentally misconceives what courts are supposed to do on judicial review. Judicial review is designed to ensure decision-makers act rationally and according to law.

Courts cannot be conscripted into service by the administrative state to do its dirty work.

 

 

Anglin: Administrative Lawmaking

How administrators could make law in the dark of night.

In Anglin v Chief Electoral Officer, 2018 ABCA 296, the Alberta Court of Appeal dealt with a hidden issue in administrative law: to what extent are administrative decision-makers required to follow guidelines specifically contemplated by legislation?

In Anglin, the Chief Electoral Officer of Alberta imposed a $250 fine for breaching the Election Act. Anglin had typographical problems: “the sponsorship information on his election signs was printed in a font size smaller than that required by the Guidelines established under the Act, and was not sufficiently legible.” Anglin argued that the guidelines established by the Chief Electoral Officer do not constitute law and cannot form part of the governing statute, and as such a breach of the guidelines is not a contravention. To Anglin, there was no legal authority to impose an administrative penalty for breach of the Act [3].

The legislative context was dispositive to the Court. Under s.134 of the Election Act, candidates must ensure that ads comply with certain requirements “…in accordance with the guidelines of the Chief Electoral Officer” (s.134(2)). Under s. 134(3), the Chief Electoral Officer is required to “establish guidelines respecting the requirements referred to in (2)” which deals with sponsorship information. The specific guidelines adopted in this case prescribed a legibility requirement along with a minimum font size.

Based on this “clear” language [9], the Court concluded that the statute itself incorporates the Chief Electoral Officer’s guidelines, and that the legislature “has the power to delegate and the guidelines, like other forms of subordinate or delegated legislation are all forms of law.” This delegation, to the Court, “is incidental to legislative sovereignty.”

The Court’s reasoning raises significant problems from a democratic perspective, even though it is likely consistent with governing authority; my problem is with that governing authority itself. The making of guidelines and soft law, taken too far and unrestricted by legislatures or courts, can do an end-run around the democratic channels of adopting law, susceptible as those channels are to citizen input.

We have a few rules, insufficient as they are, to control this risk. For example, a decision-maker cannot bind herself to non-binding guidelines to the exclusion of governing law; this would be a “fettering of discretion” (see Thamotharem, at para 62).  Despite express statutory authority to issue guidelines, those guidelines may not “have the same legal effects that statutory rules can have. In particular, guidelines cannot lay down a mandatory rule from which members have no meaningful degree of discretion to deviate, regardless of the facts of the particular case before them” (Thamotharem, at para 66). At the same time, for example, guidelines issued by the Human Rights Commission have been held to have the full force of law, even if they are formulated solely by the Commission (see Bell, at para 56).

The image of a spectrum is helpful here. As noted in Thamotharem, we could have guidelines that are issued without any statutory authority whatsoever—these guidelines are still, in the traditional account, useful for guiding the administrator’s decision and providing a foundation for reviewing its legality. At the other end, we could have guidelines that are adopted according to specific delegated authority, and which must be followed as if they were law; the Anglin case is a good example. In the middle, we could have a broad legislative authorization that allows an agency to simply issue guidelines without any indication as to whether they must be followed or not.

From a fundamental democratic perspective, all forms of guidelines issued in any of these ways are trouble for different reasons. If the guidelines in the first case are applied as if they were law, we have a classic fettering problem. If the guidelines in the third case are applied as if they were law, the people subject to the guidelines have no say over binding law to which they are subject. Perhaps one could argue that these democratic issues could be excused because (1) the legislature has the undisputed authority, short of constitutional constraints, to prescribe the level of procedure required for internal agency workings and (2) perhaps this is the price of a more efficient government. But the problem remains.

One might say that the Anglin case, from a democratic perspective, is not problematic at all; after all, here the legislature has said itself what is supposed to happen. But in reality, the situation is more serious. In every case, the legislature has approved the Chief Electoral Commissioner’s making of guidelines, and his power to apply them as if they were law formulated and adopted by the legislature. And from a public administration perspective, this is completely understandable. Why would the legislature want to expend the cost of conducting a deep dive into the font sizes required on a sign? This is, on the traditional account, clearly a matter for “expert” administrators.

But if we view the problem from first principles, the legislature has in effect delegated the actual power of making the law to the Chief Electoral Officer. And if we accept that such guidelines are “hard law,” then we must accept that the law could be passed in the dark of night, because administrative agencies control how and when these guidelines (read: laws) are adopted. The answer that the legislature authorized the delegation puts form before substance. The question is whether the legislature should be able to delegate the power to the Chief Electoral Officer in the first place, given that this law will not be adopted in the ordinary course of the normal legislative process.

The context of font sizes is a bad example for this argument because it is relatively unimportant. But if we allow this form of delegation writ large, extremely broad delegations of law-making authority would be permitted. A statute could simply have one line, saying “The Administrator of [whatever agency] is entitled to make Guidelines which have the force of law.” Because there is no restriction on the power to make laws in substance, these guidelines would bind as if they were law under the current authority.

The US has some experience with this phenomenon, with its nondelegation doctrine. In practice, United States courts rarely interfere with broad delegations. But at least they have a doctrine—that a delegation must be accompanied by an “intelligible principle” to guide agencies. Here, there is no such controlling doctrine.

A restriction on Anglin-type delegations would actually likely attack very few delegations and interfere minimally with good government. The delegation problem does not arise as strongly—(ie) as a strict form of delegation in substance—in a case where the legislature authorizes the agency to make guidelines to structure its discretion. Without knowing for sure, I’d imagine this is a more common form of delegation. But where the legislature simply allows an administrator to make law itself, this seems to be a bridge too far.

 

Statutory Interpretation in Canada from the “Stratasphere”

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

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

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

 

Sunstein and Vermeule on Fuller: A View from Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Things I Dislike About Administrative Law

A perspective from a skeptic

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

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

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

  1. Selecting the standard of review

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Expertise

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

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

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

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

  1. Jurisdictional Questions

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

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

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

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

  1. Charter Values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The Supreme Court’s reasons doctrine

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

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

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

  1. Deference to implied interpretations of law

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

  1. The standard of appellate review

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

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

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