**This is the first in a two-blog series of blog posts about re-theorizing administrative law. This first post is about why the traditional justifications for the administrative state and deference to administrative law are wanting. The next post will be about my prescription for a new doctrine of judicial review, based on new theoretical commitments**
By now, it is rote for observers of Canadian administrative law to say that the mechanics of the law of judicial review are in dire need of repair. The Supreme Court at least tentatively agrees; currently under reserve is a series of cases that could lead to renovations in the law. I have written before why I think the Court is unlikely to do anything of substance with these cases. Upon reflection, I am even more convinced that, even if the Court does something, virtually any solution it will come up with will only tinker at the edges of the problems in Canadian administrative law. This is because the whole body of law is in need of re-conceptualization and theoretical re-justification. The Court is unlikely to accomplish that task.
Why do I say this? The fundamental assumptions undergirding Canada’s administrative law have not been calibrated to the political or social realities of the 21st century. Specifically, the reasons marshalled for why we defer to administrative agencies are the same today as they were in the 1940s. This is baffling. The empirical realities of the administrative state, in the current day–connected to our traditional understandings of parliamentary sovereignty and the Rule of Law (not in conflict, as is commonly supposed)–should inform whether or not courts defer to agencies.
For the most part, Canadian administrative law continues to be stuck in the thrall of American Progressivism—by which I mean that school of thought, dominant in the New Deal era, that had at least two heads (as Richard Epstein notes here). First is the idea that power could be delegated to persons in the public service who would always act in good-faith, and be faithful agents for the pursuit of substantive goals associated with the New Deal and small-p progressive, leftist politics. Coupled in this first head was a skepticism surrounding courts, which were perceived as mired in the conservative common law. Second is the idea, championed by people like Woodrow Wilson, and going back even further to Max Weber, that administration was a science; and that the powers of the state could be wielded by experts in an efficient manner for the greater good. This was not only an American invention—in Canada, we had our own band of administrative law Progressives, including John Willis, W.P.M. Kennedy, J.A. Corry, and later on, Harry Arthurs (for a good account, see R. Blake Brown “The Canadian Legal Realists and Administrative Law Scholarship, 1930-1940” (2000) 9 Dalhousie Journal of Legal Studies 36).
If the assumptions supporting this Progressive administrative law were ever true, they are no longer true some 80 years on. Consider first the substantive goals of the administrative state. For W.P.M. Kennedy, administrative agencies were means to achieve important progressive substantive goals. Kennedy said:
New standards must be developed in all fields of human endeavor which will be in harmony with the new social philosophy of the age. Care of the sick, the poor, the aged, and the infirm, elimination of slums, control of industry in the interests of humanity, protection of children, universal education, development of natural resources for the benefit of all mankind, all demand attention.
(“Aspects of Administrative Law in Canada” (1934) 46 Juridicial Review 203 at 221)
John Willis, in his classic article “Administrative Law and the British North America Act,” also wrote that:
The years of depression since 1929 have induced legislatures to pass laws which are right out of line with traditional ways of thought and therefore distasteful both to the those guardians of the past, the lawyers, and to their wealthy clients who have, of course, been adversely affected by these laws.”
Harry Arthurs later wrote, in his attack on judges, that the “inexorable logic of the law” “produced results which seemed contrary to social justice, and sometimes, to common sense.”
But the substantive understanding of the administrative state as a purveyor of social justice is no longer true, and it is unclear if the assumptions ever were. Reading the Kennedy, Willis, and Arthurs quotes, one is surprised at their unbridled faith in government–particularly administrative agencies–to achieve herculean goals. The problems with this sort of thinking are endless. First, to the extent the administrative law Progressives attacked the common law, the criticisms were profoundly ahistorical. The common law was not, as Arthurs suggested “contrary…to common sense.” As Richard Epstein points out (and has over the course of his 50 year career), the common law rules were actually much more subtle and sophisticated than modern Progressives suppose. In areas of contract, tort, and property law, common law rules were used since the time of Roman law as simple rules of thumb for organizing contractual relations and demarcating property boundaries clearly (consider the first possession rule of property law—a simple rule that is actually derived from Roman law). They were used all this time for a reason. While tradition is the bête-noire of modern legal thought, there is at least a reason to think—however naively—that people organized different legal systems across time and geographic boundaries in common ways for a reason. Ignoring these features of the common law seems unfair, even if the common law must be adapted to new realities.
Now, in the 21st century, administrative agencies are armed with the most repressive powers of the state. We are no longer talking about expert labour boards, the darling of Canada’s Progressive administrative law theorists, and the body that dawned Canada’s modern administrative law doctrine. Now, prison wardens make decisions about the rights and interests of prisoners, some of the most vulnerable of us. The prison situation is especially concerning. So-called “administrative segregation” is a matter of judicial review, because it is an administrative decision—an exercise of discretion, which Kennedy supposed would be used to help the “sick, the poor, the aged, and the infirm.” Yet solitary confinement is, by most accounts, one of the most repressive and arbitrary forms of punishment to which one can be subject. All a matter of administrative law and judicial review.
This is why it is surprising to see Progressives continue to be skeptical about the role of courts. Administrative law progressives had and continue to have a rather obsessive focus on A.V. Dicey without realizing that Dicey’s account of administrative law accepted the idea of delegation, but was aimed at attacking a particular sort of “administrative law”—the droit administratif of France. Dicey was simply concerned with how best to control administrative power; the question is not whether delegation should exist, but how best to control it. Yet, so strong was the Progressive faith in government, that Harry Arthurs said that he “took to wondering out loud whether courts had any role to play in any field involving social conflict or controversy.”
In my view, Dicey was not the unrealistic one here. The Progressives, with their unbridled faith in the power of the state, put all of their eggs in a basket with no bottom. They ignored the experience and thinking of many of those who came before. Consider the wise thoughts of James Madison and many of the US framers, who were so skeptical of government action that they took pains to divide and separate the functions of government; government was necessary, because men are not angels, but it had to be limited and controlled. Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, expressed a similar moral skepticism about perfect, good-faith government agents:
By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the publick good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it (456).
This is not to say that government is either a force for good or evil; such characterizations are far too simplistic. I only aim to say that there is a strong moral tradition of skepticism that the Progressives simply did away with, without an understanding of the nature of delegated power: it can be used in either political direction. It is profoundly disturbing to suggest that courts should not have a role to play in policing the boundaries of the arms of the state concerned with prisons, for example.
The substantive goals did not stand alone. For Progressives, the chosen means for accomplishing these ends were the “alphabet soup” agencies of the New Deal. Indeed, John Willis famously wrote that administrative law must be viewed as a “functional” matter: “Three Approaches to Administrative Law: The Judicial, the Conceptual, and the Functional” (1935) 1 UTLJ 53). For Willis, this was true on two levels. Administrative law had to be studied as a functional matter. That is, we had to know what happened in the administrative state to actually understand administrative law. This is undoubtedly true. But Willis went further, arguing that “Expertise, avoidance of delay, reduction of expense—these are the basic reasons for the modern practice of giving the power of decision in many areas to deciding authorities other than courts.” Adding to that list was a desire for independence for these decision-makers (see Brown, at 50).
So, there are three functional reasons for deference at play here: (1) expertise (2) efficiency and (3) independence. I can only touch on these briefly, but they do not stand up to scrutiny as reasons for an across the board presumption of deference.
I have written before about expertise. The question is not whether expertise exists in the administrative state. Clearly, it does, whether intrinsically or through the development of “field expertise.” The question is whether expertise inheres in an agency as an “institution,” as the Supreme Court suggests in Edmonton East, such that we should defer as a matter of course. On questions of law, it is far from true that we should be confident to impose a rule (rather than a standard) assuming that agencies have this sort of expertise. Consider the case of Vavilov, currently under reserve at the Supreme Court. The analyst report, which formed the decision of the Registrar of Citizenship in that case, said the following (as excerpted in the Parkdale Legal Services brief):
[The analyst] confirmed that she was not a lawyer, had never gone to law school, and perhaps taken one course in administrative law as part of her degree in political science. She also confirmed that she was a junior analyst, had not relied on any internal policy guidelines or any other documentation…and had found nothing in her search of archives…
This statement does not inspire confidence in the expertise of a decision-maker. And this is not just reserved to the Vavilov case. Parkdale Legal Services outlines a number of other decisions, in the immigration context, where a decision-maker evinced a lack of expertise. It is completely unrealistic to transform this thin reed into a strong-form doctrinal presumption.
On the question of efficiency, this is perhaps one of the areas where the administrative state has failed most. At the Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada’s largest tribunal, the wait time for a refugee hearing, for example, was two years long as of November 2018. At the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, delay appears to be the watchword, due to alleged partisan interference in the appointments process. I could go on. But delay, and lack of resources, hobbles the ability of administrative justice to be a system of justice at all—even relative to courts.
And, what’s more, access to the administrative state—like the administrative state itself—is sometimes a matter of government generosity. Consider the recent cuts to legal aid in Ontario. Former Justice John Evans of the Federal Court of Appeal recently wrote an article in the Globe and Mail, focused on the fact that cuts to legal aid will hamper the ability of refugees to have a fair shot at justice. How can a system that causes such rash injustice be labelled an “efficient” system of administrative justice? If litigants do not have equal access to the system, is administrative justice at all a serious alternative to the courts?
And on independence, the story is no better. The Supreme Court of Canada itself has held, in Ocean Port, that administrative decision-makers are simply creatures of statute, controlled by the executive. Governments of all stripes have treated them as such. Consider the case in Saskatchewan, where an incoming government fired all the members of the labour board. Or, consider the recent delays in appointments to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, which in turn impact the independence and functionality of the Tribunal.
Of course, a few examples does not a theory make, but it should be cause for one to at least reconsider the foundational assumptions of administrative deference. My point here is not to say that the administrative state must be abolished because its organizing premises are frayed. It is instead to point out that if courts are to defer to administrative decision-makers, there should be good and existent reasons for deference. And, I need not prove that all of the traditional justifications for administrative power are no longer true. Even if they are only untrue by half, there is a need to reconceptualize what substantive and pragmatic justifications undergird the system of administrative law.
The problem, as I will explore in my second post, is that these policy reasons for deference have been transformed by courts into legal reasons for deference, without a concern for whether Parliament has actually, itself, done so. These reasons do not even have the benefit of being empirically true in every case, and yet they are treated as such when the SCC uses them to justify a strong presumption of deference.
The Supreme Court, in the upcoming trilogy, is institutionally unable to deal with theoretical problems of this magnitude. In reality, lawyers, judges of courts the country over, academics, and politicians should be the ones rethinking how our administrative state operates. We need a new theory of judicial deference.