Day Four: Jonathan Maryniuk

 

I am honoured to be asked to provide three of my favourite Supreme Court of Canada dissents.

I enjoyed reading dissents in my free time even before I was even accepted into law school.  Picture me: I am in the lunchroom at one of my summer warehouse jobs in the middle of the night.  Everyone else is watching Family Guy or doing Sudoku.  And then there is me, alone in the corner, reading and revelling in stacks of paper printouts of SCOTUS dissents from the 2000s (read this fascinating piece behind one of them).  Yes, I was a nerd and a sucker for judicial zingers.

We have been recently been living in a bit of a golden era for dissents.  But to remove any recency bias, I have chosen three of the following Supreme Court of Canada dissents from outside this era.

Reference re Remuneration of Judges of the Provincial Court (P.E.I.), [1997] 3 S.C.R. 3 (La Forest J.)

This decision was released just days before Justice La Forest retired.  La Forest’s dissent in this case was a bit of a “mic drop”.

The issue was whether and how s. 11(d) of the Charter protects against a reduction of provincial judge’s salaries because it guarantees those charged with an offence the right to “an independent and impartial tribunal”.

La Forest was, by polite Canadian standards, scathing in addressing the majority’s analysis that the preamble to the 1867 constitution means government cannot interfere with the judiciary.  He called the majority opinion “historical fallacy” (para. 311), “strained” reasoning (para. 322), “made of insubstantial cloth” (para. 313), a “dubious theory of an implicit constitutional structure” (para. 319) and “entirely misapprehends the fundamental nature” of the constitution (para. 318):

The express provisions of the Constitution are not, as the Chief Justice contends, “elaborations of the underlying, unwritten, and organizing principles found in the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867 ”… On the contrary, they are the Constitution.  To assert otherwise is to subvert the democratic foundation of judicial review. (para. 319)

And if that was not enough, La Forest suggested the Court’s majority opinion hurt the legitimacy of the judiciary itself: the legitimacy of the courts are imperiled “when courts attempt to limit the power of legislatures without recourse to express textual authority” (para. 316):

Given that the express provisions dealing with constitutional protection for judicial independence have specifically spelled out their application, it seems strained to extend the ambit of this protection by reference to a general preambular statement. (para. 322)

On the heels of this, La Forest could not agree that the Charter mandates there be an independent judicial compensation commission to deal with judicial compensation.  “Requiring commissions a priori, however, is tantamount to enacting a new constitutional provision to extend the protection provided by s. 11 (d)” (para. 344).

The opposite is true – that the constitution does not mandate a salary commission for judges –  “because it is grounded in reason and common sense” (para. 334).   To La Forest, the majority’s “result represents a triumph of form over substance” since they acknowledged the government may ignore the commission’s recommendations in some circumstances (para. 343).

La Forest was also highly critical of the Court causing waves without a mandate to do so.  The Court should not “venture forth on this uncharted sea” by making a decision with significant ramifications on an issue “where only the briefest of allusion to the issue was made by counsel” (paras. 301, 324).   The Court in 2018 understood this when it alerted the parties it was potentially reconsidering Dunsmuir.

Overall, La Forest’s language and reasoning makes for a highly readable and compelling dissent.  It is unfortunate we could not get a counter-response to this dissent.

Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37 (Abella J./LeBel J.)

Like some others have said, there is a lot to like about Justice Abella and LeBel’s dissenting opinions in this case. Abella wrote separately, and was joined by LeBel, who also wrote separately.

This case upheld the Province of Alberta’s ability to require Hutterites be photographed in order to drive.

Although the tone of Abella’s dissent is relatively demure, there were a few zingers.  Justice Abella took aim at both Chief Justice McLachlin’s majority opinion and the government’s arguments.  Abella said the government’s evidence justifying the infringement wasn’t “anything more than a web of speculation”.

According to Abella, the majority’s “analysis fully flounders” at the proportionately stage of Oakes.  She then offered this devastatingly simple retort:

The fact that Alberta is seemingly unengaged by the impact on identity theft of over 700,000 Albertans being without a driver’s licence, makes it difficult to understand why it feels that the system cannot tolerate 250 or so more exemptions.

In their dissents, Abella and LeBel explicitly recognized the communal and associative nature of religion.  This was something that had been largely absent from freedom of religion jurisprudence.  They rejected the notion that the Hutterites should simply find third party transportation: “This balance cannot be obtained by belittling the impact of the measures on the beliefs and religious practices of the Hutterites and by asking them to rely on taxi drivers and truck rental services to operate their farms and to preserve their way of life” (para. 201, LeBel J.).  The emphasis of community in religion would be later recognized in Loyola, Mounted Police, and (to a degree) TWU.

Justice Abella built off of her dissent in this case in her later dissent in R. v. NS:  “It is unclear to me how a claimant’s ‘strength” of belief…affects the protection a claimant should be afforded under the Charter” (para. 89).  Conversely, Abella appeared to walk back from this in TWU, when she found as part of the majority that exercising a communal right that was a “preferred” practice rather than a “necessary” one means the interference in a right is “limited” (TWU, para. 88).

Abella and LeBel’s dissents expose how easily minority rights can be trampled by tenuous and weak claims by the government that minorities cannot be accommodated.

Dunsmuir v. New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9 (Binnie J.)

While technically a concurrence, Justice Binnie’s opinion in Dunsmuir is really an alternative approach to the majority’s reimagining of the standard of review.  It is an opinion that has simmered with me ever since the rendering of Dunsmuir caused havoc during my administrative law class.

Citing Romeo and Juliet, Binnie called for a “broader reappraisal” of judicial review than replacing administrative law nomenclature the majority called for:  “Judicial review is an idea that has lately become unduly burdened with law office metaphysics.  We are concerned with substance not nomenclature….Every hour of a lawyer’s preparation and court time devoted to unproductive “lawyer’s talk” poses a significant cost to the applicant. (para. 122, 133).  Binnie later managed to incorporate his “law office metaphysics” line in another case.  It is a great phrase.

Binnie, who was directly appointed to the Supreme Court from being a lawyer, identified a compelling problem that the Court’s recent landmark Vavilov decision admitted (para. 21) that Dunsmuir failed to alleviate.  Lawyers cannot predict the standard of review, which may determine the disposition of a case:

Litigants understandably hesitate to go to court to seek redress for a perceived administrative injustice if their lawyers cannot predict with confidence even what standard of review will be applied….A victory before the reviewing court may be overturned on appeal because the wrong “standard of review” was selected.  A small business denied a licence or a professional person who wants to challenge disciplinary action should be able to seek judicial review without betting the store or the house on the outcome . . . .

As a lawyer, my response to this is an enthusiastic “yes!”. Clients review an administrative decision because they feel a decision-maker got it wrong.  It is difficult to explain to them that their success may hinge on “law office metaphysics”.

Lawyers are preoccupied with arguing “standard of review” and not “on the who, what, why and wherefor of the litigant’s complaint on its merits” (para. 154).

Binnie had proposed a more predictable way of choosing the standard of review than the majority.  He said that reasonableness should be presumed (later adopted in Vavilov), absent a statutory right of appeal or pure question of law or jurisdiction.  As a lawyer, the perspective of lawyers/clients and offering predictability is appreciated.

Binnie also rightly saw what was glaringly missing in the majority’s opinion and what courts have struggled with ever since.  That is, how “reasonableness” review ought to operate and how “court and litigants can plug in the relevant context” into the review (para. 151).  Dunsmuir’s majority opinion is surprisingly scant on this.  Administrative law lawyers have since had a “fun” time extrapolating para. 47 of that opinion.

Binnie fleshed out reasonableness review in a way Dunsmuir’s majority had not.  Although Binnie insisted his approach could be done “without traumatizing the participants” (para. 153), I am not so sure administrative law will ever be trauma-free.

It's That Time of the Year

Announcing the second edition of Double Aspect’s 12 Days of Christmas symposium

Last year, Double Aspect celebrated yuletide by reviving the tradition of festive subversion that used to accompany this once-rowdy season and hosting, for the 12 days of Christmas, a symposium featuring Canadian legal scholars’ least favourite Supreme Court decisions of the last half-century. We had a lot of fun doing it, and so, we believe, did our participants. Most of our readers seem to have enjoyed it too; indeed, one of them wrote a lengthy blog post of his own to say so. But some were not so happy. They thought our little party was a bit too noisy; that court decisions, and the judges themselves, are not to be criticized too harshly, and that we needed to be more positive about our judicial betters.

Be that as it may, Christmas is coming (indeed, it already has arrived here in New Zealand, but Double Aspect still runs on North American time), and so is the second edition of the Double Aspect 12 Days of Christmas Symposium! This time, we’ll throw our critics a bone, in a sense. We will be celebrating (some) judges and their opinions. But we will be celebrating them for having had the courage, and the wisdom, to stand up to their colleagues, and to dissent.

Dissents are fun! Judges have more freedom in writing them, not having to accommodate as many, if any, colleagues, and of course the choice to dissent already reflects a certain independence of mind, a willingness to be, if only for the purposes of this one case, an unconventional thinker and someone who will, very publicly, not go along to get along. But, for the same reason, highlighting dissents also has a serious point for us: they involve criticism, sometimes implicit and sometimes very explicit and quite harsh, of judges and judicial majorities. Criticism by (gasp!) other judges!

Yes, whatever the upholders of the courts’ authority might tell us, judges themselves think that their colleagues are sometimes wrong. Indeed, saying so once in a while is, I would argue, one of the most important jobs appellate judges have. A dissent keeps the majority honest by pointing out what might be the fudges or the weaknesses in its arguments; it charts an alternative course for the law, which the law may yet take in the future; and it alerts the rest of the legal community to the need to reflect on the outcome of the case, because reasonable people can and already do disagree about it. All this is for the good of the law, and all this deserves a little celebration here.

So we are grateful to friends and colleagues who have taken time out of their merrymaking to join ours. In no particular order, we are pleased to welcome:

  • Dwight Newman
  • Kerri Froc
  • Jonathan Maryniuk
  • Bruce Ryder
  • Carissima Mathen
  • Emmett Macfarlane
  • Chantal Bellavance
  • Matthew Harrington
  • Anna Su
  • Howie Kislowicz

And of course Mark and I will be taking part as well. We are also very grateful to Constitutional Forum/Forum Constitutionnel, and to its editor, Patricia Paradis, because they will be publishing the collected contributions as a special issue in the coming months.

We have asked the contributors to list and briefly describe three dissents from Supreme Court judgments in constitutional or administrative law, explaining why they are significant or interesting. Some, I take it, have adopted a rather large and liberal interpretation of the notion of dissent, and perhaps even of that of the Supreme Court, but we are looking forward to celebrating disagreement, critique, and misrule with them, and with you!

Vavilov’s Reasonableness Standard: A Legal Hard-Look Review

In my first post on Vavilov, I celebrated the Court for finally bringing some sense to the Canadian law of judicial review. Particularly, I focused on three issues relevant to determining the standard of review: the banishment of jurisdictional questions, the introduction of statutory rights of appeal as a category of correctness review, and the sidelining of expertise from the task of determining the standard of review. I did not address what I consider the real meat of Vavilov: the application of the new, robust [13], reasonableness standard.

As I will set out here, this is the strength of Vavilov because it creates a real legal standard for deference that does not permit decision-makers to “drift” beyond statutory boundaries. It forces reasoning that is explicitly tied to the enabling statute, rather than extraneous “policy” factors. This is a form of legal “hard-look” review that will not enable decision-makers much room to justify outcomes that are inconsistent with the enabling statute or otherwise do not engage with core interpretive elements. Indeed, the enabling statute is “likely to be the most salient aspect of the legal context relevant to a particular decision” [108]. This overarching theory is employed in what the Court mandates for decision-makers, creating a framework, at least on questions of law, that looks something like this:

  • Decision-makers must render a decision that is consistent with the text, context, and purpose of the statute [120] (a focus on outcome)
  • Decision-makers must engage with the most pertinent aspects of text, context, and purpose, with only limited room for omissions where those omissions are “minor” [122], while writing reasons that justify these interpretive choices [84], showing that a decision-maker was “alive to these essential elements” [120].
  • Courts will no longer cooper up defective interpretations of law by ginning up their own reasons for decision [96].

Overall, these three restraints on administrative excess ensure that the statute—as interpreted by the decision-maker, through reasons—is the starting point for all administrative review. This does not abdicate a court’s function; fundamentally, the court will determine whether the reasons evince an engagement with the statutory context in a way that is justifiable and justified [86].

Take first the requirement that a decision-maker render a decision consistent with the text, context, and purpose of the statute. The focus here has two dimensions that make it ideal for the conduct of judicial review as a matter of appreciating statutory boundaries. First, the “reasons first” [84] methodology of the Court protects against what I call the real legacy of Dunsmuir: disguised correctness review. The evil of disguised correctness review was not that it unduly impacted administrative prerogative; it is that it potentially limited the scope of delegated power set by Parliament. The potential for disguised correctness review is now, at the very least, curtailed. Courts have to start with the reasoning of the decision-maker to determine whether it falls within the scope of the legislation [116]. That scope will sometimes be wide, sometimes be narrow, [110] but the administrative reasons, as they interpret the scope of the legislation, are the starting point.

What is to be avoided on this line of thinking is what Justices Abella and Martin did in the Canada Post decision. There, they largely reasoned from their own view of the statute at play, and used that reasoning to judge the decision-maker’s interpretation of the law. This seems odd, considering Justice Abella’s cries about deference in Vavilov itself. Nonetheless, this approach is not–and should not be–a majority approach.

But this is not the end of the inquiry. Ultimately, a court must review, and it will be the reviewing court’s decision as to whether the administrative decision-maker has made a decision that transgresses the scope of the statute. After all, “[i]t will, of course, be impossible for an administrative decision maker to justify a decision that strays beyond the limits set by the statutory language it is interpreting,” which justification is assessed “in the eyes of the reviewing court” [110]. Here, the court takes a meaningful role in determining whether the decision strayed beyond the scope of the legislation the decision maker is interpreting; the merits of a decision must be consistent with the text, context, and purpose of the provision [120]. Under this framework, then, courts have a meaningful role to play in implicitly determining the boundaries of statutory limits, in order to then determine whether the administrator’s interpretation can be justified by the legal constraints bearing on it. In other words, under Vavilov, the application of legal constraints is still a preserve of the courts.

Now, consider the requirement that a decision-maker must engage with the essential elements of statutory interpretation: the text, context, and purpose. Here, another balance is struck. On one hand, a decision-maker is not required to engage the formalistic tools of interpretation, at least in “every case” [119]. I take this to mean that decision-makers will not be required to apply ejusdem generis or noscitur a sociis, or other lawyerly lingo. But, it will be necessary for decision-makers to ensure that they do not miss the most salient aspects of text, context, and purpose—at least in some cases—lest their decisions be unreasonable [122]. Their reasons must evince that they weighed the interpretive tools of text, context, and purpose, determining in a given case which is dominant [120].

Ultimately, this is a good development. Administrative decision-makers do not have to dress up their reasons in legal garb, but if they are to be true participants in the legal system—and if they are truly joint partners in upholding the Rule of Law—their reasons must be cognizable to the rest of the legal system. Reasons that are written exclusively in the vernacular of a particular industry or policy area do no good to others seeking to determine whether the decision is consistent with particular statutory limitations. In this sense, while we cannot expect decision-makers to know semantic canons of interpretation, they must justify their decisions so that they are rendered in the language of the most basic tools of interpretation: text, context, and purpose. This is the language of law, and decision-makers, if they are to truly be partners in the enterprise, must speak it to some degree.

In particular, reasons serve a transmitting function on this account. They are a means to and end: the end of judicial review. Their purpose is ensure that courts can adequately assess whether decision-makers have justified their decisions in relation to statutory limits. In this way, the reasons requirement instantiated in Vavilov is ultimately tied back to the enabling statute, the fundamental basis of all administrative law.

Finally, and connected to the above, the importance of reasons means that courts cannot gin up reasons for decision when they are absent on a particular essential element [96]. Indeed:

Where, even if reasons given by an administrative decision maker for a decision are read with sensitivity to the institutional setting and in light of the record, they contain a fundamental gap or reveal that the decision is based on an unreasonable chain of analysis, it is not ordinarily appropriate for the reviewing court to fashion its own reasons in order to buttress the administrative decision.

Why shouldn’t this be permissible? As Justice Stratas noted pre-Vavilov in Bonnybrook (at para 93):

But faced with a silence whose meaning cannot be understood through legitimate interpretation, who am I to grab the Minister’s pen and “supplement” her reasons? Why should I, as a neutral judge, be conscripted into the service of the Minister and discharge her responsibility to write reasons? Even if I am forced to serve the Minister in that way, who am I to guess what the Minister’s reasoning was, fantasize about what might have entered the Minister’s head or, worse, make my thoughts the Minister’s thoughts? And why should I be forced to cooper up the Minister’s position, one that, for all I know, might have been prompted by inadequate, faulty or non-existent information and analysis?

Bonnybrook’s understanding is basically now the law in Vavilov. When administrative decision-makers are delegated power, they are delegated that power with the understanding that they will make decisions at first instance, not courts. If these administrative decision-makers fail to live up to that delegated mandate, that is no fault of the courts, and so it is not the job of the courts to make the decision for the decision-maker. It is, however, the job of the courts to render the decision unreasonable. This is particularly the case where there is a missing part of the decision on a core interpretive element, under which the result of the decision would be different (Vavilov, at para 122).

All together, what Vavilov has created is a new reasonableness standard that is tightly focused statutory limits, using statutory interpretation as a tool for discerning those limits. Of course, there are other “constraints” on decision-making that matter (see Vavilov, para 106) —but where we are talking about legal interpretation, legal constraints will be the most salient element of the decision-maker’s reasoning. Ultimately, this is a positive step forward, since all administrative law is a function of statutory interpretation and analysis.

Vavilov: A Note on Remedy

 

With all of the discussion of Vavilov’s revised standard of review analysis, one aspect of the decision has gone somewhat unnoticed: the renewed focus on the remedy in judicial review proceedings. I write today to discuss this “development” in the Canadian law of judicial review. While the Court certainly applied existing principles in declining to remit in Vavilov, it also seemed to focus on the weakness of the Registrar of Citizenship’s legal justification as a reason not to remit, relative to the more reasonable interpretation adopted by the Court. In other words, the gap between the Registrar’s interpretation’s and the Court’s was so great that remittal would serve no purpose. This assessment of relative arguments is in addition to the typical remedial analysis,  bolstered by other “public law values” and efficiency principles that might govern the analysis. Here, the principles underlying quashing and remittal as a unified remedy are counter-balanced by the need to ensure that erroneous administrative decisions that may have no chance of rectification on remit are not permitted to stand. This is not a drastic change in principle, but it is, perhaps, a change in emphasis, consistent with Vavilov’s overall focus on legal justification.

Generally in the Canadian law of judicial review, the appropriate remedy is to remit to the decision-maker: see  Delta, at para 31; Vavilov, at para 141. This is perfectly in line with the principles animating the reasonableness standard. Judicial review is not about de novo determinations of law, but about courts policing the boundaries of administrative decision-making to ensure  legality. In this sense, the substantive merits of a decision are made by the decision-maker, as delegated by the legislature: Vavilov, at para 142.

As Vavilov notes, though, this is not always the case.  Mobil Oil (at least in the context of procedural cases), and MiningWatch, (in the context of substantive cases) demonstrate that courts can decline to remit in reference to a “multi-factoral, contextual approach…” animated by principles of deference (see Cristie Ford, Remedies in Canadian Administrative Law: A Roadmap to a Parallel Legal Universe). One such contextual consideration—an important one in legal interpretation—holds that remittal can be declined where a “particular outcome is inevitable and that remitting the case would serve no useful purpose” (Vavilov, at para 142). This is particularly so, for example, where there is only one reasonable outcome to a decision (Vavilov, at para 125; see also LeBon, at para 14 re mandamus; ). Other efficiency elements play a role:

Elements like concern for delay, fairness to the parties, urgency of providing a resolution to the dispute, the nature of the particular regulatory regime, whether the administrative decision maker had a genuine opportunity to weigh in on the issue in question, costs to the parties, and the efficient use of public resources may also influence the exercise of a court’s discretion to remit a matter, just as they may influence the exercise of its discretion to quash a decision that is flawed.

Generally, however, it is “exceptional” to decline a remedy in this way : see David Stratas, “Some Doctrine and Cases” at page 118. Now, however, I am less convinced that will be as exceptional as it once was. This is because in cases of very weak legal interpretation by an administrative decision-maker—even cases where the court decides that the interpretation of the provision as a whole  does not just admit of only one reasonable interpretation—a court is more likely to decline to exercise discretion to remit.

The facts of Vavilov provide support for this. In Vavilov, the Court unanimously concluded that the Registrar of Citizenship’s interpretation of s.3(2)(a) of the Citizenship Act was unreasonable. The majority noted that this was primarily a failure of justification:

As noted above, we would exercise our discretion not to remit the matter to the Registrar for redetermination. Crucial to our decision is the fact that Mr. Vavilov explicitly raised all of these issues before the Registrar and that the Registrar had an opportunity to consider them but failed to do so.  She offered no justification for the interpretation she adopted except for a superficial reading of the provision in question and a comment on part of its legislative history (my emphasis). On the other hand, there is overwhelming support — including in the parliamentary debate, established principles of international law, an established line of jurisprudence and the text of the provision itself — for the conclusion that Parliament did not intend s. 3(2) (a) of the Citizenship Act  to apply to children of individuals who have not been granted diplomatic privileges and immunities.

In an ordinary case, it might be argued that the Registrar should have another kick at the can. After all, the Registrar was delegated power to make decisions under the statute, and could offer a stronger justification for the decision she rendered, or make the decision that is consistent with the text, context, and purpose of the statute. Indeed, the Court noted in Vavilov that it was not pronouncing definitively on the meaning of s.3(2)(a), at least as applied to other facts:

That being said, we would stress that it is not our intention to offer a definitive interpretation of s. 3(2) (a) in all respects, nor to foreclose the possibility that multiple reasonable interpretations of other aspects might be available to administrative decision makers. In short, we do not suggest that there is necessarily “one reasonable interpretation” of the provision as a whole. But we agree with the majority of the Court of Appeal that it was not reasonable for the Registrar to interpret s. 3(2) (a) as applying to children of individuals who have not been granted diplomatic privileges and immunities at the time of the children’s birth.

However, the fact that the Registrar failed to justify her decision in such a drastic way undermines the purposes of remittal. The Court concluded that, in reference to the particular facts at play, there was (a) only one reasonable outcome to the decision as applied to the particular facts and (b) that the Registrar failed to consider the reasoning building blocks to meet that particular decision. In such cases, we are talking primarily about a failure of justification leading to an erroneous decision, and there was no evidence that justification could be offered one way or another on remit. The weakness of the justification, here, was a primary driving factor against remittal.

Other factors in the remedial analysis also seemed to play a role here. It would be inefficient, for example, to remit where the Court itself had determined that on these particular facts, there was only one reasonable interpretation on outcome. But the Court’s focus on justification is also evident: “[c]rucial to our decision is the fact that Mr. Vavilov explicitly raised all of these issues before the Registrar and that the Registrar had an opportunity to consider them but failed to do so” [195]. There would be no point in remitting where the Registrar had not grappled with the key interpretive issues the first time around, especially where the other interpretive factors pointed in the other direction. The gap here was too great to justify a remittal, in light of the other public law values governing remedy.

An interesting counterfactual is whether the Registrar could have offered reasons for her interpretation that engaged with the text, context, and purpose of the statute—in other words, could she have offered proper justification for its decision on the facts? This is an open question, as the Court declined to opine on “all aspects” of s.3(2)(a). But it is at least plausible, in other cases, that there could be two reasonable outcomes of a particular decision, but the decision-maker completely failed to justify one interpretation, such that it is now unavailable as a matter of justification on remit.

Again, this is not a change in remedial principle, but it is a welcome focus on legal justification as an ingredient in the remedial analysis. After all, that is Vavilov’s promise.

Not Good Enough

The Supreme Court re-writes the law of judicial review in Canada, but not nearly well enough.

In a return to its sometime tradition of releasing high-profile decisions in the run-up to Christmas, the Supreme Court yesterday rendered its long-awaited judgment in the Great Administrative Law Do-Over, Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65. Co-blogger Mark Mancini has already written about it, but while his post is very good, I disagree with him, and with the Court’s majority, on a number of fundamental issues. Hence the need for this post. In my view, while well-intentioned and an improvement on the status quo, the majority opinion (jointly authored, ostensibly, by the Chief Justice and Justices Moldaver, Gascon, Brown, Côté, Rowe, and Martin) rests on weak theoretical foundations, and is open to future manipulation by courts that do not share its spirit or find it inconvenient in a given case.


The majority holds that when the courts review decisions made by decision-makers in the executive branch of government and other bodies acting pursuant to authority delegated by statute (for example municipal institutions, professional regulators, etc), there is “a presumption that reasonableness is the applicable standard in all cases. Reviewing courts should derogate from this presumption only where required by a clear indication of legislative intent or by the rule of law.” [10] (The presumption also doesn’t apply for issues having to do with the fairness of the procedure followed by the decision-maker.) The majority explains that “[r]easonableness review … finds its starting point in the principle of judicial restraint and demonstrates a respect for the distinct role of administrative decision makers”, [13] but nevertheless goes on to point to a number of “constraints” on administrative decision-makers that such review must enforce, thus ensuring, in the majority’s view, that they do not exceed the bounds of the authority delegated to them.

The presumption of reasonableness applies to most questions of law that administrative decision-makers must resolve. According to the majority, this is because

[w]here a legislature has created an administrative decision maker for the specific purpose of administering a statutory scheme, it must be presumed that the legislature also intended that decision maker to be able to fulfill its mandate and interpret the law as applicable to all issues that come before it. Where a legislature has not explicitly prescribed that a court is to have a role in reviewing the decisions of that decision maker, it can safely be assumed that the legislature intended the administrative decision maker to function with a minimum of judicial interference. [24]

Conversely, however, a legislature might in fact have “prescribed that a court is to have a role in reviewing” administrative decisions, either by legislating a specific standard of review or by providing a statutory right of appeal from these decisions (rather than relying on the background constitutional requirement that judicial review of administrative decisions be available). In such cases, its prescription is to be obeyed. The standard of review on appeal from an administrative decision is to be the same as on appeal from the decision of a court, which means that, on questions of law, decisions are reviewed for correctness, rather than reasonableness.

The other cases where the correctness standard will be applied are those where it is required by the principle of the Rule of Law, which according to the majority are questions of constitutional validity, “general questions of law of central importance to the legal system as a whole”, and questions of jurisdictional conflict between two administrative decision-makers. The first category remains as it was prior to Vavilov. In particular, the majority pointedly refuses to comment on the implications of its decision for the line of cases originating in Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395, which have urged deference to administrative decisions applying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to particular disputes (as opposed to the validity of legislative provisions). By contrast, the second category expands, because it was previously supposed to limited to cases outside the administrative decision-maker’s expertise. Here and elsewhere, the majority rejects the role of expertise in determining the standard of review. (More on this below.) The majority also holds, however, that the Rule of Law does not require jurisdictional questions to be reviewed on a correctness standard.

With reasonableness thus asserted as the presumptive and dominant standard of review, the majority goes on to explain what it means. In cases where reasons are given by the administrative decision-maker, these become the focus of the analysis, which must be concerned not only with the outcome the decision-maker reached, but also with the reasoning process that led to it. The reasons must be read in context, however (notably “in light of the record” [96]). At this stage, contextual elements excised from the initial standard of review analysis, such as expertise, re-appear. While the majority insists that “reasonableness remains a single standard”, [89] of review, it also seeks to

account[] for the diversity of administrative decision making by recognizing that what is reasonable in a given situation will always depend on the constraints imposed by the legal and factual context of the particular decision under review. These contextual constraints dictate the limits and contours of the space in which the decision maker may act and the types of solutions it may adopt. [90]

In any case, however, the majority emphasizes the importance of the justification for the administrative decision being apparent from the reasons (and perhaps record) that support it. The justification cannot simply be added later, on judicial review.

The majority suggests that there are two main ways in which an administrative decision can be so flawed as to deserve to be qualified as unreasonable: “a failure of rationality internal to the reasoning process”, or “a decision … in some respect untenable in light of the relevant factual and legal constraints that bear on it”. [101] The first category points to requirements of logic and coherence. The second, to the principle that “[e]lements of the legal and factual contexts of a decision operate as constraints on the decision maker in the exercise of its delegated powers”. [105] These include, but are not limited to,

the governing statutory scheme; other relevant statutory or common law; the principles of statutory interpretation; the evidence before the decision maker and facts of which the decision maker may take notice; the submissions of the parties; the past practices and decisions of the administrative body; and the potential impact of the decision on the individual to whom it applies. [106]

Without fully summarizing the majority’s explanations of these points, I will note that it insists that administrative interpretations of law must not be permitted to “disregard or rewrite the law as enacted by Parliament and the provincial legislatures”. [108] The discretion permitted by these laws might be narrow in some cases and broad in others, but never unlimited: “[r]easonableness review does not allow administrative decision makers to arrogate powers to themselves that they were never intended to have, and an administrative body cannot exercise authority which was not delegated to it”. [109] Moreover, administrative decision-makers, no less than courts, are required to follow the “modern principle of statutory interpretation”, because

[t]hose who draft and enact statutes expect that questions about their meaning will be resolved by an analysis that has regard to the text, context and purpose, regardless of whether the entity tasked with interpreting the law is a court or an administrative decision maker. [118]

At the same time, the majority insists that reasonableness review on questions of law remains deferential; indeed it is no different from review “reviewing questions of fact, discretion or policy”, [115] and one should not expect “administrative decision makers … to apply equitable and common law principles in the same manner as courts in order for their decisions to be reasonable”. [113] Even “questions relating to the scope of a decision maker’s authority may support more than one interpretation”, [110] although this will not always be so.


To repeat, I do not share the widespread view that the majority opinion represents a great achievement for Canadian administrative law. To me, it is a dubious compromise that can and likely will be applied in contradictory ways. Justice Stratas has compared Canadian administrative law to “a never-ending construction site where one crew builds structures and then a later crew tears them down to build anew, seemingly without an overall plan”. (1) The latest structure is built on theoretical sand, and I would not bet on its long-term stability.

Most fundamentally, the majority’s justification for doubling down on the “presumption of reasonableness” that emerged over that last decade is weak. As I explained here, in Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190, the Court had articulated three rationales for deference: legislative intent, the expertise of administrative decision-makers, and the absence of determinable answers to legal questions. The Vavilov majority explicitly repudiates expertise as a justification for judicial deference, and renounces the (always implausible) claim that legal questions always lack determinate answers that courts can discover. It is left with, and doubles down on, legislative intent.

But its understanding of legislative intent is essentially made up. There is no actual evidence that legislatures intend the courts to defer to administrative decision-makers, at least in the absence of privative clauses which often purport to oust judicial review completely, and to which Canadian courts have long refused to give full effect, treating them instead as signals for deference. The majority doesn’t even discuss privative clauses, or any other indications (short of enacting standards of review by statute) that a legislature actually intended the courts to defer, including on questions of law. It just assumes it knows what the legislatures want. Yet legislatures might delegate powers to administrative tribunals for any number of reasons, ranging from a confidence in their technical expertise, to a desire to politicize a particular area of the law, to rank protectionism. It’s far from obvious to me that all of these entail a presumption of deference. Besides, although it commendably chooses to give way to legislative intent in holding that statutory appeals must be treated as, well, appeals, the majority doesn’t quite give up on imposing its own view of statutory language, insisting that section 18.1 of the Federal Courts Act is nothing more than a procedural provision that tells the courts nothing about the standard of review. This perpetuates the misbegotten holding of Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v Khosa, 2009 SCC 12, [2009] 1 SCR 339, which Mark quite understandably listed as one of the worst decisions of the last half-century.

It would be much better to start with non-deferential correctness review as a default, and put the onus on the legislatures to indicate otherwise, ideally by legislation specifically addressing the standard of review or, perhaps, by privative clauses. That’s assuming that such indications are even constitutional, of course. I am yet to be persuaded that this assumption is warranted. I’m not persuaded of the contrary either, but I have my doubts. As I have explained here, Joseph Raz’s analysis of the Rule of Law seems to imply that administrative decision-making must be founded on correct application of stable legal rules by officials and, in order to ensure such correct application, review of their decisions by independent courts. In Vavilov, the majority (rightly, I think) implies that the principle of the Rule of Law can override legislative intent. That’s why constitutional and other centrally important questions trigger correctness review, whatever a legislature’s wishes. But the majority does not give nearly enough consideration to what the Rule of Law requires in the context of judicial review of administrative decisions.

In particular, while pretty much everyone from Justices Abella and Karakatsanis in the concurrence to Mark in his post cheers the abolition of the category of jurisdictional questions, I find it puzzling. Jurisdictional questions are supposed to be hard to identify and therefore a source of unnecessary confusion. Yet the truth is, everyone knows that such questions exist. The Vavilov majority itself mentions “questions relating to the scope of a decision maker’s authority”, [110] which is a plain-language definition of jurisdiction. In the companion case, Bell Canada v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 SCC 66, there was a statutory appeal right “on a question of law or a question of jurisdiction”. The concern really seems to be not so much that questions of jurisdiction are elusive and mysterious, but that, properly understood, this category is much broader than most people are comfortable with. It arguably includes most question of law. But that’s not a reason for pretending such questions don’t exist. If anything, it’s another reason for making correctness the default, if not the sole, standard of review on questions of law. The Rule of Law cannot permit the administrative state to expand its power just because courts shy away from the task of policing its boundaries.

The majority thinks it can address the concerns about the expansion of administrative power to which its embrace of reasonableness review gives rise by providing guidance on what such review requires. And there are genuinely commendable statements there, as Mark has observed. It is good that the majority recognizes, as some recent cases such as West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, [2018] 1 SCR 635 did not, that the powers or discretion of administrative decision-makers cannot be unlimited. It is good that it recognizes, contrary to Dunsmuir, that questions of law can, at least in many cases, be given definitive answers. And it is good that the majority instructs courts to be skeptical of the gaps in administrative decision-makers’ reasons, instead of filling them with “reasons that could be given” in support of their decisions.

I must admit, though, that I am puzzled by the attempt to square this recognition with the insistence on reasonableness review. Back in Dunsmuir, the Supreme Court said

[t]hat Reasonableness is a deferential standard animated by the principle that … certain questions that come before administrative tribunals do not lend themselves to one specific, particular result. Instead, they may give rise to a number of possible, reasonable conclusions. [47]

And of course in Vavilov itself the majority speaks of reasonableness being grounded in judicial restraint, which points to the same understanding of this concept. To me, talk of reasonableness review with only one reasonable outcome is blank prose. But perhaps that’s just an idiosyncratic understanding that I have.

More seriously, in addition to their conceptual problems, I think the reasons of the Vavilov majority contain a number of contradictions that undermine their attempt, if that’s what it is, to confine the excesses of the administrative state. For example, for all its insistence on a “robust” reasonableness review, the majority starts from the position that it is grounded in judicial restraint. Quite apart from my doubts about the usefulness of the term “judicial restraint”, I struggle to see how a standard of review can be robust and restrained at the same time. Or consider the majority’s warning that “[a]dministrative decision makers cannot always be expected to deploy the same array of legal techniques that might be expected of a lawyer or judge” and that “‘[a]dministrative justice’ will not always look like ‘judicial justice'”. [92] This seems to contradict the majority’s acknowledgment, elsewhere in its reasons, that the Rule of Law is undermined when the outcome of a legal dispute depends on the identity of the person resolving it.

Perhaps most fundamentally, the insistence that administrative decision-makers cannot “arrogate powers to themselves that they were never intended to have” [109] is not easily reconciled with the refusal to impose correctness review on jurisdictional questions. The majority holds that, subject to a requirement of justification, “a decision maker’s interpretation of its statutory grant of authority is generally entitled to deference”. [109] To my mind, this means that the administrative state is still the arbiter of its own authority, whenever a legislature fails to use sufficiently precise language ― or where a court thinks that a legislature has so failed.

Much will depend, then, on which strand of the somewhat schizophrenic majority opinion future judges decide to implement when they follow Vavilov. This is, I suppose, the price to pay for cobbling together a seven-judge majority (and getting all seven to not only agree but also sign on to this majority’s reasons), but I’m not sure that the result was worth it.


No doubt, Vavilov is an improvement over the status quo ante. Some of the wildest excesses of judicial deference to the administrative state, for example the refusal to give effect to statutory appeal provisions and the practice of making up reasons not actually given by administrative decision-makers the better to defer to them have been condemned. Some of the theoretical problems of the previous jurisprudence, notably its reliance on a fictional account of administrative expertise, have been overcome.

At the same time, the future is still difficult to predict. For one thing, Vavilov leaves some questions unanswered. For example, its guidance on questions of central importance, a seemingly expanded category of correctness review, doesn’t amount to much more than “you know it when you see it”. Perhaps more importantly, there is contradictory language in the majority opinion that can be pressed in the service of more or less deferential review, and it remains to be seen what future courts will do with it.

And, fundamentally, Vavilov is still unsatisfactory because, like the pre-existing administrative law jurisprudence, it is built on foundations that mix a fictional account of legislative intent with a tendency to favour, if not as much as before, the power of the administrative state at the expense of the judiciary. The responsibility of the courts, which are independent and whose sole commitment is supposed to be to law, not policy-making, to say what the law is is an essential safeguard for freedom and the Rule of Law. By perpetuating judicial abdication, covered up as “restraint” and deference”, in the face of the administrative state, Vavilov fails to live up to the judiciary’s constitutional role.

Canada Post: Vavilov’s First Day in the Sun

Vavilov didn’t have to wait long to have its first day in the sun. In Canada Post Corp v Canadian Union of Postal Workers, 2019 SCC 67 (a 7-2 opinion, Abella and Martin JJ dissenting), the Court had its first crack at applying the revised standard of review framework set out in Vavilov. In my view, the Court did an admirable job in Canada Post, showing that at least when it comes to garden-variety administrative law cases, Vavilov is a durable precedent. The devil will be in the details: especially where reasons are non-existent.

In this post, I review the facts of Canada Post and the analysis of the majority and the dissent. Then I demonstrate why the majority had the better of the argument here, particularly on applying the reasonableness standard in statutory interpretation cases.

Facts and Opinions

Canada Post concerned a decision of the Occupational Health and Safety Tribunal of Canada (OHSTC). A union representative at the Burlington mail depot filed a complaint with Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, alleging that Canada Post was not abiding by its obligations under the Canada Labour Code [CLC]. The complainant claimed that Canada Post was failing these obligations because it was only inspecting—for health and safety—the Burlington depot itself, and not “letter carrier routes and locations where mail is delivered” [4]. This had obvious practical impacts, because “letter carriers travel 72 linear kilometres delivering mail to 8.7 million points of call” [4].

Following the complaint, an officer conducted an investigation and found that Canada Post failed to comply with s.125(1)(z.12) of the CLC, which provides that “the employer must ensure that every part of the workplace is inspected once a year” [5]. Canada Post appealed to the OHSTC, which rendered the decision under review. The decision-maker, an Appeals Officer, held that the CLC section only applied to the “parts of the work place over which the employer had control…” which did not include the mail routes and places where mail was delivered [5] The Appeal Officer looked to the text of the relevant section, the definition of “workplace” in the relevant part of the CLC, and the “remedial purpose of health and safety legislation” [17]. He ultimately concluded that since health and safety inspections were designed to “permit the identification of hazards and the opportunity to fix them or have them fixed,” control over the workplace was a necessary condition [19].

The Federal Court affirmed. The Federal Court of Appeal would have affirmed the original officer’s decision.

At the Supreme Court, Rowe J wrote for the majority. He first outlined that the decision would be assessed under the Vavilov framework, even though the result under the Dunsmuir framework would have been the same [24]. After quickly determining the standard of review of reasonableness under the Vavilov framework [27], Rowe J turned to applying the standard. He noted that Vavilov instantiated a “reasons first” [27] approach to review, and so first set out some comments about reasons under the Vavilov framework. Here, he noted that the administrative decision-maker’s reasons were “exemplary,” but that what is required of decision-makers in a given case will depend on the context [30]. Both outcome and reasons matter: a decision must be justifiable in outcome and justified by reasons [28]. He noted that, while Vavilov defined reasonableness as generally mandating two things, (1) an internally coherent set of reasons (2) justified by legal and factual constraints, this analysis is not necessarily germane to every case [34] (see Vavilov, at para 101, 106).

Rowe J first concluded that the decision was internally consistent [35], before turning to the Appeal Officer’s interpretation of s.125(1)(z.12). Rowe J first outlined that, in reviewing a delegate’s legal decision, “a reviewing court should not conduct a de novo interpretation…” by adopting a “yardstick” and measuring a decision up against that yardstick [40]. A “reasons first” approach “requires the reviewing court to start with how the decision maker arrived at their interpretation, and determine whether it was defensible in light of the interpretative constraints imposed by law” [41]. This still requires a decision-maker to be alive to the essential elements of statutory interpretation: text, context, and purpose (Vavilov, at para 120).

Here, the Court first looked to the text of the section. The Appeals Officer concluded that the definition of “workplace” in the CLC, must be interpreted “broadly to account for all areas in which an employee may be engaged in work” [46]. Section 125(1) applies in respect of a workplace [45]. It provides that:

125 (1) Without restricting the generality of section 124, every employer shall, in respect of every work place controlled by the employer and, in respect of every work activity carried out by an employee in a work place that is not controlled by the employer, to the extent that the employer controls the activity,

The core interpretive difficulty was whether this paragraph should be read disjunctively or conjunctively; meaning, do the obligations apply to situations where employers control the workplace, do they apply where they don’t, or do they apply to both situations? The Union made the latter argument, but the Appeals Officer concluded that certain of the listed obligations “apply only where the employer has control over the work place…” [49], whereas others applied when the employer controlled the activity but not the workplace [50]. The statutory context ultimately supported this view [50-53].

Turning to purpose, Rowe J focused on the specific purpose animating Part II of the CLC, under which the core interpretive difficulty arose: that purpose was designed to “prevent accidents and injury to health arising out of, linked with or occurring in the course of employment to which this Part applies…” [54]. The Appeals Officer concluded that a condition precedent to the fulfillment of this purpose, and the specific obligation in the relevant section, was control over the workplace, so that hazards could actually be identify [55]. Practically, it would be difficult for Canada Post to ameliorate hazards in areas it did not control. This practical reasoning was endorsed in Vavilov as an indicium of reasonableness (see Vavilov, at para 93).

Finally, the Court concluded that the evidence and arguments were taken seriously by the Appeal Officer [63].

In dissent, Abella and Martin JJ would have held that the relevant section applies to both activities where control is not present and areas controlled by Canada Post. This reading was supported by the text of the provision and a more general legislative purpose contained in s.124: “Every employer shall ensure the health and safety at work of every person employed by the employer is protected.” The dissent claimed that the Appeal Officer’s reasoning was “deeply flawed” [100, citing Dunsmuir at para 72), because it “read out the words and purposes of the safety inspection duty…” [101].

Analysis

In my view, the majority had the better of the argument here, mostly because the majority’s analysis is consistent with what the Supreme Court has recently said about statutory interpretation and because it is consistent with the principled deferential posture set out in Vavilov. The dissent makes a fundamental statutory interpretation mistake while arguably unreasonably parsing the Appeal Officer’s decision.

First, I would be remiss if I did not mention the determination of the standard of review. That analysis was undertaken by the majority in one paragraph. This is astounding for Canadian administrative law. Finally, it appears that we have accomplished Binnie J’s admonition in Dunsmuir that we move to merits quickly rather than focusing on determining the standard of review. In Canada Post, the emphasis is rightly where it should be: dealing with the statutory interpretation and the merits, particularly the reasons offered for the decision.

And on that score, there is much to analyze. Most importantly, and first, is the Court’s approach to the reasons of the Appeals Officer. The Court does what it says in this decision: it focuses on the reasons for decision, without parsing them, without creating its own yardstick, and without engaging in disguised correctness review. By focusing first on the coherence of the Appeals Officer’s reasoning, and then moving to legal constraints, the Vavilov framework guides and structures the application of the standard of review—and it did so here, in Canada Post.

Canada Post also demonstrates how Vavilov strikes the correct balance in ensuring that courts do not engage in disguised correctness review. Prior to Vavilov, the Court often engaged in disguised correctness review, sometimes not even mentioning the standard of review at all. But the reasons first methodology focuses the inquiry on what the decision-maker actually said, protecting against disguised correctness review. Instead of the court crafting its own interpretation, and disregarding the administrative reasons, it is for the decision-maker to demonstrate how she engaged with the “interpretive constraints” imposed by law; text, context, and purpose. Those constraints are real and binding as a matter of structuring administrative discretion, but the onus is properly on the delegated decision-maker to abide by them. Reasons are properly the gateway to deference, and its scope.

Here, the Appeal Officer’s reasons engaged with the text, context, and purpose. As the Court noted, the text could be conjunctively or disjunctively read: but the Appeal Officer’s reasoning, when taken in light of the purpose, was consistent with this reading. This meant that the Appeals Officer had some room to maneuver under the standard of review. Given the possible interpretive options, the Appeals Officer was owed deference.

But the dissent seemed to take a more activist approach that is profoundly inconsistent with Vavilov. The dissent instead came to its own interpretation of the relevant statute, and imposed that yardstick on the decision-maker. It did not take a reasons first approach; rather, it first determined the statutory meaning and then analyzed the Appeals Officer’s reasoning in light of that meaning. Instead, to be consistent with Vavilov, the dissent should have structured its analysis by first analyzing the reasons of the decision-maker, and then determining whether they engaged with the text, context, and purpose, which sets the range of interpretive options open to the decision-maker. This is not an approach that should find majority support.

On the merits, another issue cropped up in terms of statutory interpretation: how courts deal with purpose. This has been a common theme at the Supreme Court this year: see Telus v Wellman and Rafilovich. In particular, what divided the majority and dissent in Canada Post was the selection of the purpose that drove the analysis. For the majority, the obligations contained in s.125(1) fulfilled the broader purpose in Part II of the CLC, but the focus was on s.125 and what was required to fulfill those obligations: namely, control. For the dissent, it would have focused on s.124 as a general organizing purpose, and set s.125 as a particular instantiation of that purpose (see para 77).

The majority’s approach is more consistent with the Supreme Court’s recent statutory interpretation precedents, particularly Rafilovich. Rafilovich deals with what I call the horizontal frequency problem in statutory interpretation: where multiple purposes are stated across the statutory context at the same level of abstraction. Rafilovich basically held that courts should choose the purpose most local to the dispute at hand, not other purposes that may have more bearing on other sections of the statute. In essence, this may come to an assessment of weight; which purpose is more relevant?

This approach—choosing the most local purpose—is consistent with the task on judicial review to discover legislative intent and meaning in language. As I noted in reference to Rafilovich:

Applying this sort of thinking to Rafilovich, Justice Martin is clearly in the right. In this case, the most local purposes to the dispute at hand were the purposes speaking of access to justice and the presumption of innocence, assuming these purposes were identified correctly. Why must these purposes be prioritized over the general purpose? Because of the principle of democracy. The use of different language to express Parliament’s law in the legal fees provisions should lead to different interpretive outcomes. By this, I mean that ensuring crimes does not pay may be an overall purpose of the proceeds of crime provision, but Parliament clearly used different language and a different approach in the legal fees provisions. This different approach must, consequently, reflect different legislative purposes, as the legislative history in the case outlines (see para 39 et seq—though I cringe at the reliance on legislative history writ large). The court must give “purpose and meaning to each provision” (at para 20).

In my view, Vavilov does not change any of this, and is arguably actually consistent with Rafilovich by focusing on the ordinary principles of interpretation. In reference to Canada Post, then, the most local purpose to the interpretive difficulty is s.125(1), and its particular obligations. Section 124, taken too far by the dissent, could be read to impose an obligation on employers no matter whether they control the workplace or not. But section 125(1), properly interpreted in its context, would only apply some of the obligations to situations of control. This best effectuates the general purpose of Part II of the CLC and s.125 because of the practical reasoning employed by the Appeals Officer. If s.124 was taken to its literal extent, it would mean Canada Post has an obligation to conduct inspections on all sorts of routes and mail delivery locations. This would undermine the general safety purpose—as the Court noted “[a]n interpretation which imposed on the employer a duty it could not fulfil would do nothing to further the aim of protecting accidents and injury” [59]. This is simply an application of absurdity avoidance; but taking s,124 at its word could conceivably lead to this absurdity.

Conclusion

All in all, Vavilov’s first day in the sun was a good one. While there will be more battles to come, and potentially more ambiguities, for now we must celebrate. Those in the administrative law community do not often get to do so.

Vavilov: A Step Forward

**This post originally appeared on Advocates for the Rule of Law**

Today, the Supreme Court of Canada released its decisions in Vavilov and Bell/NFL. I have previously summarized the facts of these cases and analyzed them here (Vavilov) and here (Bell/NFL).

Overall, today’s decisions (a 7-2 decision, Abella and Karakatsanis JJ concurring in result) are a net positive for the law of judicial review in Canada. The Court has done a service to the many individuals who face administrative power on a daily basis—the real winners of a clear, predictable, and conceptually sound approach. To be honest, I count myself surprised and pleased, which are odd emotions to carry when it comes to the Supreme Court’s administrative law jurisprudence. But on at least three issues, today’s decision is conceptually sound when it comes to selecting the standard of review: statutory rights of appeal, jurisdictional questions and legislative interpretation generally, and expertise. I first describe the new approach before moving to analyze these areas.

The basic takeaway from Vavilov and Bell/NFL is that the standard of review will presumptively be reasonableness across the board [16-17], but the situations in which the presumption will be rebutted take on greater importance than the pre-Vavilov Bell/NFL cases. Start with the presumption of reasonableness. It remains; this is not much of a change from existing jurisprudence, given the entrenchment of that particular rule in pre-Vavilov and Bell/NFL cases: see Edmonton East and CHRC. What is somewhat new are the circumstances in which the presumption will be rebutted. First, because the standard of review analysis is based in the common law, the legislature is free to explicitly legislate the standard of review [17]. But also—and significantly, as I will point out—now statutory rights of appeal will rebut the presumption of reasonableness and attract correctness review on questions of law (under the typical appellate standards of review) [17, 36 et seq]. Finally, where the rule of law requires correctness review—as in constitutional questions, general questions of law of central importance, and boundaries between two or more administrative bodies—the standard will be correctness [17]. Gone is the search for “context” [17], and importantly, gone is that much maligned category of jurisdictional questions [67].

Now, turning to the significant parts of this decision. The first area is statutory rights of appeal. Statutory rights of appeal have previously been considered a big nothingburger from the Supreme Court: see Dr. Q, Saguenay. As I wrote here, this state of affairs was completely unjustified. This is because rights of appeal are implied signals that a legislature intended the judicial review court to interfere with the administrative decision as it would in a normal appeal. This is contrasted with an application for judicial review, where common law standards apply. All of this is a function of the relationship between statutory and common law—statutes override the common law, and so statutory rights of appeal should override the common law standard of presumptive deference. The Court has now recognized this fact, offering the additional reason that the word “appeal” when used in legislation must be interpreted across different statutory contexts consistently [44]. This is a step in the right direction: it corrects the relationship between statute and common law that went awry in the Dr. Q line of cases.

Second, take the issue of jurisdictional questions. In the Dunsmuir era, jurisdictional questions were questions “where the tribunal must explicitly determine whether its statutory grant of power gives it authority to decide a particular matter” (Dunsmuir, at para 59). These questions were to attract correctness review (Dunsmuir, at para 50). No more. The Court has wisely done away this category of correctness review [67]. The Court noted the following:

The arguments that support maintaining this category — in particular the concern that a delegated decision maker should not be free to determine the scope of its own authority — can be addressed adequately by applying the framework for conducting reasonableness review that we describe below. Reasonableness review is both robust and responsive to context. A proper application of the reasonableness standard will enable courts to fulfill their constitutional duty to ensure that administrative bodies have acted within the scope of their lawful authority without having to conduct a preliminary assessment regarding whether a particular interpretation raises a “truly” or “narrowly” jurisdictional issue and without having to apply the correctness standard [67].

This is the approach adopted in the US: City of Arlington. And it is the approach I articulated in my paper, Two Myths of Administrative Law. It is a sound approach. All administrative actors are empowered and created by statute. In turn, the relationship between courts and administrative actors is also regulated by the degree of deference that the legislature prescribes. This is true on all questions that might come before a court—including cases that raise so-called “jurisdictional issues.” In other words, even assuming one can identify a jurisdictional question—a feat the Supreme Court has rarely been able to accomplish—there is no warrant to impose a less deferential standard if the legislature has signalled that it prefers a more deferential one on these questions. As Stratas JA pointed out in Access Copyright, a jurisdictional question “is really a question of legislative interpretation” (Access Copyright, at para 57). Here, again, the Court takes seriously the statutory basis of all administrative law, choosing to do away with a category of question that might undermine that basis.

In relation to questions of legislative interpretation, the Court does an admirable job. In applying the standard of reasonableness, the Court recognizes, first, that all administrative actors are creatures of statute [108]. This means that there is no constitutional aspect to the administrative state–decision-makers can only exercise powers delegated to them. The Court goes on to recognize that the degree of deference owed is primarily–but not totally–a function of statutory interpretation [110]. The Court notes that:

Whether an interpretation is justified will depend on the context, including the language chosen by the legislature in describing the limits and contours of the decision maker’s authority. If a legislature wishes to precisely circumscribe an administrative decision maker’s power in some respect, it can do so by using precise and narrow language and delineating the power in detail, thereby tightly constraining the decision maker’s ability to interpret the provision. Conversely, where the legislature chooses to use broad, open-ended or highly qualitative language — for example, “in the public interest” — it clearly contemplates that the decision maker is to have greater flexibility in interpreting the meaning of such language. Other language will fall in the middle of this spectrum. All of this is to say that certain questions relating to the scope of a decision maker’s authority may support more than one interpretation, while other questions may support only one, depending upon the text by which the statutory grant of authority is made.

This is a justified approach, given that all administrative actors are creatures of statute. Determining the scope of deference owed need not depend on metaphysical categories like “jurisdictional questions.” It is simply a function of determining the scope of power afforded to a decision-maker using the ordinary principles of interpretation [117]. This is a wise move that is conceptually sound and will bring greater clarity to the law.

Finally, I want to say something about the idea of expertise, which divided the majority and the concurrence in Vavilov. As I have written before, expertise is an inherently difficult idea in administrative law. The Court has taken an extreme position on expertise, holding in Edmonton East that expertise inheres in a tribunal as an “institution” (Edmonton East, para 33). But expertise is not necessarily a legal reason for deference—for example, a legislature could delegate to an inexpert tribunal just as easily as it can delegate to an expert one. The presumption of deference—based as it is on expertise—is therefore overbroad and unjustified.

The Court tacitly recognizes this in Vavilov. It notes that expertise is no longer a free-standing reason to justify deference in determining the standard of review [31]. This is partially because “if administrative decision makers are understood to possess specialized expertise on all questions that come before them, the concept of expertise ceases to assist a reviewing court in attempting to distinguish questions for which applying the reasonableness standard is appropriate from those for which it is not” [28]. And this is basically right. We cannot simply assume expertise.

The concurrence takes significant issue with this, and more generally the majority’s reasons. To the concurrence, the majority “ignores the specialized expertise of administrative decision-makers” [230]; “affords no weight to the institutional advantage of specialization and expertise that administrative decision-makers possess in resolving questions of law” [236]; and empowers reviewing courts to “freely revisit legal questions on matters squarely within the expertise of administrative decision-makers…” [251].

The death cries for expertise are unconvincing. As the majority noted, there may be situations in which decision-makers are inexpert. But courts cannot conduct a case-by-case analysis of expertise in each case. So, the best way to deal with expertise is to simply do away with it as a legal reason for deference, as far as selecting the standard of review. As the majority notes, expertise could play a role in the application of the reasonableness standard, especially in the process of reasons giving [93].

I want to briefly deal with one issue raised by the concurrence: the issue of the Rule of Law. The dissent says that “[t]he majority’s approach to the rule of law, however, flows from a court-centric conception of the rule of law rooted in Dicey’s 19th century philosophy” [240]. But this attack misses the mark. Judicial review, the cornerstone of these appeals, is fundamentally about courts reviewing administrative decision-making under the Rule of Law; it is about policing the boundaries of delegated power to ensure its legality (Wall, at para 13). This necessarily implies a hierarchical relationship between courts and decision-makers. It is the preserve of courts to ensure that administrative decision-makers follow statutory rules. The Court recognizes this in its analysis of jurisdictional questions, endorsing Scalia J in Arlington [68]. This is especially so when dealing with the Constitution, as the judiciary is the guardian of the Constitution. Correctness review in those circumstances protects the court’s role in ensuring that individuals are protected against administrative power. The Court has now recognized this, at least implicitly, as an organizing principle of administrative law.

Overall, as I mentioned above, this is a good decision all around. And more could be said about it, especially on the application of the reasonableness standard and the role of reasons. But I think that, for now, administrative law watchers in Canada can breathe a sigh of relief.