Putting Stare Decisis Together Again

Originalists and living constitutionalists alike have good Rule of Law reasons for being wary of appeals to reinvigorate stare decisis

It is hardly news for those who follow Canadian public law that the Supreme Court tends to have little regard for precedent. Indeed, to the surprise of most people and the chagrin of many, it even freed lower courts to disregard its own precedents, in some circumstances, in Canada (Attorney General) v Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 SCR 1101. For many people, this lack of regard for stare decisis is part of a broader pattern of erosion of the Rule of Law. Dwight Newman and, separately, Brian Bird and Michael Bookman, made this argument in their respective contributions to the collection of essays/special issue of the Supreme Court Law Review on threats to the Rule of Law in Canada edited by Maxime St-Hilaire and Joana Baron in 2019.

The relationship between stare decisis, the Rule of Law, and the desire to do justice in particular cases and to improve the law going forward is not only a source of difficulties in Canada, however. So tomorrow (December 15) at 2PM Eastern, a panel of the Global Summit, an online conference organized by Richard Albert, will try to shed some light on it with participants from the United States (Jeffrey Pojanowski and Marc DeGirolami), and Australia (Lisa Burton Crawford), as well as yours truly. Our chair will be an Italian colleague, Andrea Pin. This should be a lot of fun, and the other participants are all first-magnitude stars. (In case you’re wondering how they let me in ― well, I helped Prof. Pin put it together, so they couldn’t conveniently boot me out!)

The proceedings will, naturally for these plague times, be on Zoom. You can register here ― it’s free! My understanding is that they will be recorded and will, eventually be made available to all. These things tend to take some time though, and are bound to with an event as big as the Global Summit, so I encourage you to watch tomorrow if you can. And, to convince you to give it a go, here is a flavour of own presentation.


Critics of the lack of respect for precedent in Canadian public law tend to argue that enough is enough, and the Supreme Court should go back to a much more robust ― and consistent ― application of stare decisis. My argument is that this is too simple, too idealistic a response. In a perfect world where judges had generally been committed to the Rule of Law, unwavering respect for precedent may well be what an ongoing commitment to the Rule of Law requires. But the world of Canadian public law is far from being perfect in this way. Much of this law suffers from deep Rule of Law problems, some of which I described in my own contribution to the St-Hilaire & Baron volume. As a result, while I share the desire to put stare decisis together again, I argue that this operation will be a delicate one, and must be careful and somewhat selective.

One issue which I’ll address here ― there will be more in my talk (assuming I don’t run out of time, that is!) ― is the concern that respect for precedent may force courts to apply something other than the correct legal rule, be it constitutional, statutory or, arguably, even a common law principle. Lord Sankey, perhaps the chief ― if also most misunderstood ― authority on constitutional interpretation in Canada describes the issue eloquently in the Aeronautics Reference, [1932] AC 54, [1932] 1 DLR 58. Pointing out that “[u]nder our system, decided cases effectively construe the words” of enactments, including constitutional enactments, Lord Sankey highlights

a danger that in the course of this process the terms of the statute may come to be unduly extended and attention may be diverted from what has been enacted to what has been judicially said about the enactment. To borrow an analogy; there may be a range of sixty colours, each of which is so little different from its neighbour that it is difficult to make any distinction between the two, and yet at the one end of the range the colour may be white, and at the other end of the range black. (DLR 64)

Lord Sankey’s concerns in the Aeronautics Reference are those of an originalist avant la lettre: “[t]he process of interpretation as the years go on”, he warned,

ought not to be allowed to dim or to whittle down the provisions of the original contract upon which the federation was founded, nor is it legitimate that any judicial construction … should impose a new and different contract upon the federating bodies.

Some prominent academic originalist voices have echoed this belief, notably Gary Lawson, Randy Barnett, and Amy Coney Barrett (back when she was still in academia). However, they are not alone in worrying about precedent standing in the way of an accurate application of the law. Debra Parkes raises the same concern from a Canadian living constitutionalist perspective: “[t]he entrenchment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 has arguably strengthened the case for overruling earlier decisions that are inconsistent with the evolving interpretation of various Charter rights”. (137) Similarly, the late Joseph Arvay and his co-authors have argued that “it is the role and duty of the [Supreme] Court to provide what it believes to be a correct interpretation of the Charter, even if that involves admitting long-standing and oft-repeated past judicial error”. (69)

Of course, originalists or those who are chiefly concerned with the stability of the law may view the living constitutionalist position as simply empowering judges to legislate their particular preferences from the bench. And, admittedly, some living constitutionalists seem to seek a sort of permanent revolution in constitutional law. Mr Avray and his co-authors wrote that “an examination of the role of stare decisis in Charter litigation reveals some transformative Charter moments lost”, (62; emphasis in the original) suggesting that they might be expecting the courts to change society rather than be its reflection, as living constitutionalism seems to suggest. I personally think that this tension between applying the law, even an ever-evolving law, and transforming it is fatal to living constitutionalism’s claim to be a sustainable approach to constitutional interpretation. But let me put that aside for the purposes of this post (and of my talk tomorrow).

Here, I will take living constitutionalism at its word, as an approach to constitutional interpretation that holds that the law is shaped by the needs and values of society as they stand from time to time. On this view, updating legal doctrine to align it with these needs and values as they happen to stand now is not exercise of will, but simply what the Rule of Law requires. Living constitutionalists saying “this precedent no longer reflects the values of Canadian society and must therefore be discarded” are no different, in their relationship to the Rule of Law, from originalists saying “this precedent is inconsistent with the original public meaning of the constitutional text, and must therefore be discarded”.

Call this, if you will, the horseshoe theory of constitutional stare decisis. Radical originalists and radical living constitutionalists agree, at least at the level of broad principle. In practice, there may still be substantial disagreement between those originalists who, like Prof. Barnett, distinguish constitutional interpretation and construction, and see a role for stare decisis in the latter, and living constitutionalists (and those originalists) for whom all constitutional questions are essentially similar in being determined by the constitution itself. But, that important detail aside, both sides of the horseshoe agree that the constitution’s meaning cannot be superseded by judicial interpretation, and remains directly binding on courts, regardless of what their predecessors may have said about it.

From my own originalist perch, I agree with this view. The Rule of Law concerns about the stability of legal doctrine are serious, of course. But the concern on the other side of the scale is no less based on the Rule of Law. The issue is with what Lon Fuller called “congruence” between the law on the books and the law as it is actually applied. (I wrote about this here.) Law cannot guide behaviour ― and thus play its moral role in providing a secure environment for citizens and establishing a mutually respectful relationship between the citizens and the state ― if it is not applied in accordance with its terms. Officials, including judges, who do not apply the law as it stands are engaged in nothing less than “lawless application of the law”. In my view, lawlessness cannot become the foundation of a Rule-of-Law compliant law; it must be expunged for our legal system to have a claim to the kind of authority that Fuller envisions.


As mentioned, this is only a preview. In my talk ― and, hopefully, in a paper that will come out of it ― I will try to address a couple of other reasons why I think it is a mistake to simply insist that the Supreme Court go back to upholding precedents. The problems with the Rule of Law in Canadian public law run much deeper than a lack of regard for stare decisis, and addressing this issue in isolation will not really resolve them. I hope that you can “come” to the talk, and that we can continue this discussion there!

Mere Liberalism

A response to a common caricature of liberal beliefs

There is a rhetorical trope in contemporary critiques of liberalism and libertarianism, especially those coming from the political right, that holds it for fundamentally flawed because it conceives of individuals as “atomized”, isolated, a- or even anti-social creatures moved by no higher emotion than crass self-interest. We have even hosted one critic who made this argument as a guest on this blog.

A recent post on Law and Liberty, in which Luma Simms “reviews” Ilya Somin’s book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom, encapsulates this argument very neatly. I put “review” in scare quotes because, as Professor Somin points out, it misrepresents his book. But the exact same caricature is used to attack not only Professor Somin’s work, but liberalism and libertarianism more broadly; nor is it used by Mrs. Simms alone. So I think that a general response is warranted.


Mrs. Simms writes, summarizing the worldview that ― according to her ― underpins Professor Somin’s arguments in favour of greater freedom of movement and of personal choice more generally:

Man is a rational being; his actions are based on individual choice, guided only by reason; his judgement must be independent, free of any compulsion (including obligations and constraints that come from family, country, or culture); if he acts with others it is by his choice alone; he must live by his own achievements, for his own happiness and self-interest; he has no moral duty to others. As such, man must have the political freedom to follow his self-interest to achieve his happiness. It is autonomous individualism through and through.

As a summary of the liberal worldview ― and, to repeat, many critics of liberalism use descriptions like this one in just this way ― every one of these statements is grossly exaggerated or outright false.

Man is a rational being

Liberalism ― and for that matter conservatism or socialism ― does presuppose a measure of rationality in human beings. There would be no point in advocating for, say, freedom of speech, the Rule of Law, or democracy if human beings weren’t rational in the sense of thinking, making and carrying out plans, responding to incentives, and seeking to act on their (physical and social) environment in ways calculated to produce consequences.

But liberalism doesn’t require or depend on complete rationality. Liberals and libertarians can acknowledge failures of rationality: Bryan Caplan is no less of a libertarian for having explored at length The Myth of the Rational Voter. Liberals and libertarians can recognize that human beings are emotional, too. Love of freedom is an emotion, and no less than love of God or love of hearth and home.

His actions are based on individual choice, guided only by reason

As I have just noted, liberals and libertarians know that human beings can emotional or irrational. Needless to say they also know that their choices are constrained and their actions are shaped by the circumstances ― familial, economic, cultural, environmental ― in which they find themselves. Perhaps Mrs. Simms means that liberals want, as a normative matter, to create a state of affairs where humans are free to act exactly as they choose; but they do not. On the contrary, liberals respect property rights and the autonomy of individuals, families, and voluntary associations (including businesses, churches, NGOs, etc.), which means that they will uphold private arrangements that may diminish individuals’ choices.

Now, there are difficult questions that liberals and libertarians can struggle with about private choices that radically deny individual autonomy: self-enslavement is perhaps a silly example best left to philosophy seminars, but, say, parents who refuse to provide a minimum of education or healthcare to their children are a grim reality. But of course liberals recognize that interference with the freedom of some to secure some core of autonomy to others is still interference.

His judgement must be independent, free of any compulsion (including obligations and constraints that come from family, country, or culture)

I don’t think that any liberal or libertarian believes this. Yes, liberalism values independent judgment; yes, liberalism wants individuals to be free from legal compulsions of their judgment: hence its insistence on freedoms of conscience, thought, opinion, and so on. If this is what Mrs. Simms derides as liberalism’s rejection of “obligations and constraints that come from … country”, there’s something to the charge. If the critics of liberalism want “country” to introduce indoctrination and state ideology, let them say that clearly; better yet, let them spell out what they are going to indoctrinate us in (beyond platitudes about the common good), and give us a chance to decide whether we want to drink their particular kool-aid.

But as for other kinds of duties and compulsions, not only do liberals not reject them ― on the contrary, leading liberal thinkers have specifically insisted that the point of freedom is to have the ability to do one’s duty, as one sees it. Hence Lord Acton’s definition of “liberty”, in The History of Freedom, as “the assurance that every man will be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion” (3). Hence Hayek writing, in The Road to Serfdom, that

[r]esponsibility, not to a superior, but to one’s conscience, the awareness of a duty not exacted by compulsion, the necessity to decide which of the things one values are to be sacrificed to others, and to bear the consequences of one’s own decision, are the very essence of any morals which deserve the name.

Liberals regard obligations to family and friends, to God if one so believes, and even to country and “culture”, whatever that might be, as matters of conscience. The claim they reject such obligations is preposterous calumny. What they reject is the claim of “authority and majorities, custom and opinion” to interfere with an individual’s conscience to impose obligations of this sort when they are not felt.

If he acts with others it is by his choice alone

Again, it’s a bit difficult to say whether this is supposed to represent what liberals believe is the case or what liberals believe ought to be the case. But neither representation is accurate. Liberals neither deny the existence of social ties, such as those of kin, in which individual autonomy is far from complete, nor wish to abolish them. Liberals also do not deny nor, except for anarchist libertarians, wish to rid themselves entirely of collective political action, which is also involuntary as to many individuals who are forced to go along with the decisions of the authorities.

Liberals do want to provide exit opportunities for people who may find themselves bound by social ties that are or become abusive. They also want to limit the ability of majorities to impose on dissidents through the political process. But they want to do these things precisely because they recognize that human beings belong to groups, associations, and communities which they have not freely chosen and because they have no wish to abolish such groups, associations, and communities.

He must live by his own achievements, for his own happiness and self-interest

I don’t know many, if any, flesh-and-blood liberals or even libertarians who believe this. It sounds like a paraphrase of Randian objectivism, but I must confess that I’ve never read Rand, so I don’t know if it’s an accurate representation of her views. What I think I can assert with a good deal of confidence is that these views, if indeed she held them, are not at all representative. There just isn’t anything in classical liberalism or (non-Randian?) libertarianism that says that people must be navel-gazers, hedonists, and egotists.

To be sure, liberals acknowledge the fact that human beings are generally pretty self-interested. They have their altruistic impulses too, but they are often selfish. Liberalism’s response is to try to channel self-interest through institutions that can turn it to the greater good. The market is one such institution, as Adam Smith explained by pointing out, famously, that “[i]t is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”. And liberals try to use politics in this way too: hence Madison’s insistence that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition”.

But, to repeat, none of that precludes or condemns altruism. In trying to channel selfish behaviour for the benefit of society, liberalism certainly does not say that unselfish behaviour should somehow be disapproved of. What liberalism does insist on is that there are limits ― depending on one’s version of liberalism, perhaps very stringent limits ― on the degree to which people can be coerced into acting and living for the sake of others. But liberalism has a better opinion of human nature than those theories that apparently say that human beings will be navel-gazing hedonistic egotists (or, all manner of other unedifying things, as other critics of liberalism claim) unless forced to be virtuous by the government. (Liberalism asks: how is government going to be more virtuous than the governed?)

He has no moral duty to others

I won’t repeat what I’ve already said about Lord Acton’s and Hayek’s championing of freedom as the space in which individuals can understand and discharge their obligations ― not one where they have none. Let me, instead, remind you of the Lockean argument for the state. In a nutshell: individuals have inherent natural rights and a moral duty to respect the rights of others; unfortunately, left to their own devices, they are not very good at complying with this duty even when they earnestly try; an authority that can clarify the scope of individual rights and corresponding duties, and impartially adjudicate allegations of breach is necessary. A concern with moral duty is that at the foundation of liberal politics.

Again, what liberals deny, with greater or lesser vigour depending on their preferred flavour of liberalism or libertarianism, is the claim of the state to create moral duties incumbent on those subjects to their jurisdiction. If they subscribe to the doctrine of natural rights, they will say, with Jefferson, that governments are instituted in order to secure these rights, and that, therefore, the creation of duties not tending to secure natural rights is beyond their just powers. But it does not follow, and liberals do not believe, that moral duties to others cannot arise otherwise than through the state.


Let me make just two additional points. One, which follows directly from the foregoing is that critics of liberalism are often confused, or obfuscating, about its nature: it is a political, not a moral, philosophy; a theory of how political power should be organized, not of how to live a good life. Liberal political institutions (understood broadly, to include things like constitutions, laws, and courts) serve to preserve the space in which individuals ― either alone or in community with others ― seek to live a good life, as they understand it. Some liberal thinkers such as Adam Smith or even, to an extent, Lord Acton, had ideas about the good life. Being a liberal doesn’t mean taking no interest in moral questions. It only means renouncing the imposition of one’s own answers to such questions by force on others whose answers might be quite different.

The second point I’ll make here is that while I have responded to a critique of liberalism coming from the right, this critique would need only minimal adjustments to its language to be embraced by the illiberal left. The view that liberalism is nothing more than a smokescreen for egoism and selfishness is a staple of socialist doctrines going back a century and a half. The criticism of liberalism as denying social ties, and the limitations that community and belonging impose on individuals might seem newer. Indeed, many right-wing critics of liberalism are convinced that it is no different from socialism in this regard. But real-life socialist regimes were actually quite nationalistic themselves. More importantly in 2021, the ascending left considers human beings to be largely shaped by their intersecting identities, and bound by the resulting sums of privilege and oppression. They use a different vocabulary from the one that appeals to the right-wingers, but their message, and their critique of liberalism, is much the same. And, of course, it is wrong for much the same reasons.


Left and right alike criticise liberalism for its commitment to respecting the autonomy of individuals in ordering their own moral universe, based on their understanding of their place in the world and their relationships with family, community, and perhaps God. They think they can do better: give people a purpose in life and a morality which, left alone, they sometimes fail to find. But there is, and can be, no agreement on an all-encompassing morality that is not imposed by force, and as difficult as it may be to find one’s purpose without coercion, it is more difficult still to accept a purpose imposed on us by others. The others, after all, are still our fellows, albeit that an accident of birth, or the privilege of education, or the fortune of an election, or the force of a coup has elevated them to a higher social ― not moral ― station.

Thus the illiberal right and left alike are doomed to failure in their quest for a better world. As Hayek wrote, they have “nothing to put in … place” of the individualist, liberal virtues ― “independence, self-reliance, and the willingness to bear risks, the readiness to back one’s own conviction against a majority, and the willingness to voluntary cooperation with one’s neighbors”. In their place, they can only make a “demand for obedience and the compulsion of the individual to do what is collectively decided to be good”. And because they know that they cannot persuade people to abandon liberalism with such demands, they try to caricature and defame it. Do not believe them.

The Top Statutory Interpretation Cases of 2020

A banner year for interpretation

Introduction

To say that one believes in “purposive interpretation” has been the calling card of Canadian legal scholars for some time. Saying this, as some do, is radically incomplete. That is because competing schools of thought also look to purpose. Textualists, for example, look to the context in which words are used, as well as the purpose evident in those words (Scalia & Garner, at 20). To say that one is a purposivist might as well mean nothing, because everyone—even textualists—“routinely take[] purpose into account…” (Scalia & Garner, at 20).

Far from just being a lazy turn of phrase, though, the routine deployment of the term “purposivism” as a distinct school of thought blocks us from a clearer conversation about what should matter in statutory interpretation. For example, the real division between textualists and others is how purpose is sourced in statutory interpretation: textualists are wary of importing some abstract purpose to subvert a “close reading” of the text (see Scalia & Garner, at 20; see also the opinion of Côté Jin West Fraser), while others might source purpose differently. Saying that one is a “purposivist” also does not answer an important question: which purpose should count more in interpretation, since statutes often pursue multiple purposes at different levels of abstraction? (see, for an example of this, Rafilovich). These are real interpretive questions that are only now receiving any sort of sustained attention in the case law.

I should not hide my priors here. I too think that purpose is a relevant consideration in statutory interpretation, because it assists in the task of reading text to mean all it fairly encompasses. But purpose can be abused: indeed, “[t]he most destructive (and most alluring) feature of purposivism is its manipulability” (Scalia & Garner, 20). Because purposes can be stated in all sorts of ways, it is up to the judge, in many cases, to choose the most appropriate purpose to assist in interpreting the text. Sometimes, purpose can subvert text—which, of course, is problematic if the purpose is not sourced in text (McLachlin CJC’s opinion in West Fraser is a classic example of this).  Put simply: purpose informs text, it does not supplant it (Placer Dome, at para 23).

For that reason, we must come to sound and principled ways of sourcing purpose, rather than simply stating that we look to purpose. It is this theme that defined, in my view, the task for judicial interpreters in 2020. The following three cases are, to my mind, exemplars of dealing with some of these deeper questions in statutory interpretation. Rather than simply reciting the Rizzo & Rizzo formula and taking an “anything goes” approach to interpretation, these cases delve deeper and answer some knotty interpretive questions in a way that furthers a discussion about statutory interpretation in Canada—particularly with reference to the so-called “purposive” approach. Because these cases start a conversation on these issues (and because I happen to agree with the methodology employed by the judges writing the lead opinions in each case), these are the top statutory interpretation cases of 2020, in no particular order:

Michel v Graydon, 2020 SCC 24

In this case, the Supreme Court of Canada dealt with the question whether it is “possible to vary a child support order under the [Family Law Act] after the order has expired, and after the child support beneficiary ceases to be a “child” as defined in the [Family Law Act]” [2]. This seemingly technical question of family law, however, gave rise to all sorts of interpretive problems: the role of social science evidence in statutory interpretation, the problem of unbridled consequential analysis in statutory interpretation, and the problem raised when judges invoke both “liberal” and “purposive interpretation” in the same breath.

For Brown J, the answer to question in the case was found relatively confined to the legislative text and scheme. Starting from the text of the provision, Brown J concluded that the relevant text of the Family Law Act “creates an avenue for courts to retroactively change any child support order, irrespective of the beneficiary’s dependent status and irrespective of whether the order is extant at the time of the application” [20]. This was because of the placement of the relevant statutory scheme. Among other things, s.152 contained no textual restriction on the courts—for example, s.152(1) “contains no reference to the defined term ‘child’ that might serve to qualify the authority of a court to vary child support” [22]. The scheme of the Family Law Act supported this conclusion [23].

For Brown J, this textual conclusion was basically the end of the story (see also schematic considerations at paras 24, 26, 27). Importantly, though, Brown J’s textual conclusion was supported by a properly-scoped purpose. Brown J identified that one of the dominant features of the Family Law Act—given the statute it replaced—was a desire to “expan[d] on the circumstances under which a court may vary a child support order” [28]. Read in light with the text, the result was clear.

Martin J concurred in the result, but conducted a policy analysis to support her concurrence. In Martin J’s view, child support cases called for (that old standard) of a “fair, large, and liberal construction” [40]. For Martin J, this sort of construction required a “contextual and purposive reading of s.152” that looks to “its wider legislative purposes, societal implications, and actual impacts” [40] in a way that “takes into account the policies and values of contemporary Canadian society” [70]. Martin J concluded that “a jurisdictional bar preventing these cases from being heard not only rests in unsound legal foundations, it is inconsistent with the bedrock principles underlying child support and contributes to systemic inequalities” [40].

I agree with both judges that the text and context in this case supports this reading of s.152. But while both judges agreed on the ultimate result, the method they used to reach the result differs in important ways. While Brown J focuses largely on a contextual reading, Martin J incorporates other information, statistics, and an evaluation of the consequences of the interpretation to the result. As I will note, in this case, these approaches do not lead to dramatically different conclusions, because the tools all pointed to a certain result: text, social science, context, consequences. But where text and such other factors conflict, Martin J’s opinion raise a number of problems, in my view.

There are three comments to make about this case, and why it is important. First, Brown J’s opinion avoids the pitfalls that might be associated with external aids to interpretation.  Specifically, Martin J looked to various social science data related to poverty, family relationships, and marginalization. These are important topics, and in this case, the evidence supported the interpretation that Brown J undertook on the text. But the question arises: what to do when current social science evidence contradicts an analysis undertaken on the text? Put differently, if the text points in one direction, and that direction exacerbates problematic trends in social science evidence, which governs?

It is one thing to suggest that where the text is ambiguous, an interpretation which solves the supposed “mischief” the statute was aimed to solve should be preferred. One could make a case for that argument. But where the text and the evidence are directly contradictory, courts must follow the text because that is what the legislature enacted. This may sometimes lead to interpretations that do not make sense to contemporary society, or are unjust in face of empirical evidence, because the text was enacted at a particular time. But this is simply a function of the task of statutory interpretation, which is to determine what the legislature meant at the time of enactment (as I note below, this itself is a rule of interpretation). It must be remembered that external aids can be used to assist in interpreting the text. They cannot be used to subvert it. Martin J’s approach could lead to that result—though, as I note, the problem does not arise in this case because the text and evidence pointed to the same interpretive result.

Secondly, both opinions could be read as cabining the role of pure policy or consequential analysis in statutory interpretation, which could be an invitation for results-oriented reasoning. It is true that evaluating the competing consequences of interpretive options is a fair part of statutory interpretation (see Sullivan at 212 et seq; see also Atlas Tube, at para 10; Williams, at para 52). But there is a caveat: consequences cannot be used to dispense with the written text. This most arises in the context of the absurdity canon, where absurd interpretations of statutes are to be avoided. However, an overapplication of the absurdity canon can lead to many “false-positives” where consequences are labelled absurd in the judge’s opinion, even if those consequences are arguably a product of the text. This undermines the legislature’s role in specifying certain words. Instead, consequences can only be used to determine which of various “rival interpretations” are most consistent with the text, context, and purpose of the statute (see Williams, at para 10). In this way, consequences are not used to determine which interpretation is just or unjust in an abstract sense, but which interpretations are most consistent with the statute’s text, context, and purpose.

Brown J clearly used this sort of justified consequential analysis in his opinion. In connecting his preferred interpretation to the properly-scoped purpose of s.152(1), it was clear that his interpretation furthered that purpose. This is a proper use of consequences consistent with the text as the dominant driver of purpose.

On the other hand, Martin J’s opinion could be read in two ways: one undesirable, one not. First, it could be read as endorsing a wide-ranging assessment of consequences, at a high level of abstraction (for example, justifying her consequential analysis with reference to the need to abolish systemic inequalities: see paras 40, 70, 101).  This might be a very good thing in the abstract, but not all legislation is designed to achieve such lofty goals. If interpreted in such a way to reach a result the statute does not reach, statutes can be conceived as addressing or solving every societal problem, and therefore as resolving every unjust consequence—and this could lead to overextensions of the text beyond its ordinary meaning (see Max Radin, “Statutory Interpretation” 43 Harv L Rev 863, 876 (1930)).  This reading of Martin J’s opinion is not desirable, for that reason.

Another reading of Martin J’s opinion is that she roots her consequential analysis in the purpose of the statute as she sees it. For example, Martin J notes that her approach interprets s.152 with its “underlying purposes in mind” which includes the best interests of the child [76]. Martin J also notes that her interpretation favours access to justice, under-inclusivity, and socio-economic equality [72]. These factors may or may not be rooted to the statute under consideration.

If Martin J’s opinion is rooted in the recognized purpose of the best interests of the children, one can make the case that her opinion is justified as Brown J’s is. However, if read more broadly, Martin J could fairly be seen as addressing issues or consequences that may not fall within the consideration of the text. In the circumstances, I prefer to read Martin J’s opinion as consonant with Brown J’s. If that is done, there is no warrant to look to consequences that fall outside the purpose of the statute. But note: much will depend, as I note below, on how the purpose of a statutory provision is pitched.

Finally, Brown J’s opinion is tighter than Martin J’s in the sense that it does not raise conflicts between statutory interpretation principles. Martin J’s opinion arguably does so in two ways. First, it is well-known (despite the controversy of this practice in constitutional interpretation) that statutes must generally be interpreted as they would have been the day after the statute was passed (Perka, at 264-5). While there is some nuance on this point (see Sullivan, at 116-117), words cannot change legal meaning over time—but note that broad, open-textured terms can be flexibly applied to new conditions if the words can bear that meaning (see here). The key is that words can only cover off the situations that they can fairly encompass. But the injunction—repeated throughout Martin J’s opinion—that statutes must be interpreted in light of the “policies and values of contemporary Canadian society” [72] at least facially conflicts with the original meaning canon. To Martin J’s defense, she is not the first to say this in the context of family law and child support (see Chartier, at paras 19, 21). But nonetheless, the court cannot have it both ways, and Martin J’s opinion cannot be taken to mean that the legal meaning of texts must be interpreted to always be consistent with contemporary Canadian society.

At best, it might be said that Martin J’s opinion in this respect permits the taking into account of contemporary considerations where the text clearly allows for such considerations, or perhaps where the text is ambiguous and one interpretation would best fit modern circumstances in a practical sense. But these modern circumstances cannot be shoehorned into every interpretation.

Secondly, there is a conflict in Martin J’s opinion, in a theoretical sense, between her invocation of a “fair, large and liberal” interpretation (see paras 58, 71) and her invocation of a “purposive” interpretation  (see para 71). As Karl Llewellyn pointed out long ago, it is not unheard of for tools of interpretation to conflict. But as much as possible, judges should not invite such conflicts, and I fear Martin J did this in her opinion by conflating liberal interpretation with purposive interpretation. As I have written before, these things are not the same—in fact they are opposites. The Interpretation Act does instruct a “large and liberal” interpretation, but only as the objects of a statute permit. The Supreme Court continues to insist on an approach to statutory interpretation that uses text to ground the selection of purpose (see here). As such, text and purpose read synthetically governs—not some judge-made conception of what constitutes a “large and liberal interpretation.” This statement cannot be used to overshoot the purposes of a statute, properly scoped.

Perhaps in this case the purposes permit a large and liberal interpretation, in which case Martin J can use both of these tools interchangeably. As I said, the problem isn’t this case specifically, but what would happen if Martin J’s approach is used in the general run of cases. But it is far from clear that purposive and generous interpretation will always–or even often–lead to similar results. More likely, purpose will limit the ways in which text can be read—it will not liberate the judge to take into account any policy considerations she wishes.

Michel v Graydon raises all sorts of interesting issues. But taking Brown J’s opinion on its own terms, it is a clinic in how to clearly interpret a statute in light of its properly-scoped purpose. While Martin J’s opinion could also be read in this way, it could be read to permit a more free-flowing policy analysis that subverts legislative language. In this sense, Martin J’s opinion should be affixed with a “caution” label.

Entertainment Software Association, 2020 FCA 100

ESA will stand, I think, for some time as the definitive statement in the Federal Courts on how to conduct statutory interpretation, and the role of international law in that endeavour.

In this case, the facts of which I summarized here,  the Copyright Board offered an interpretation of the Copyright Modernization Act that arguably placed extraneous materials ahead of the governing text. Here is what I wrote about the Board’s conduct at the time:

The Board’s chosen materials for the interpretive exercise were stated, according to the Court, at a high level of generality (see paras 53-54). For example, the Board focused on the preamble to the Copyright Modernization Act to divine a rather abstract interpretation that supported its view on international law (paras 53-54). It also invoked government statements, but the Court rightly noted that these statements construed s.2.4(1.1) as a “narrow, limited-purpose provision” [56], not as an all-encompassing provision that permitted the collection of tariffs in both instances. The use of these materials was used by the Board to herald a different, broader interpretation than what the text and context of the provision indicated. 

The Court rebuffed the Board’s effort in this regard. By noting that the provision under interpretation was a “narrow, limited-purpose provision,” the Court rejected attempts by the Board to drive the interpretation higher than the text can bear.  This is a worthy affirmation of the importance of text in the interpretive process, and a warning about the malleability of purposive interpretation.

Why is this opinion so important? It makes a now oft-repeated point that purposive interpretation is not conducted “at large.” That is, it matters how judges state the purposes they hope to use in the interpretive task. As the Supreme Court noted in Telus v Wellman, courts cannot use abstract purposes to “distort the actual words of the statute” (see Telus, at para 79). This counts as an endorsement of the traditional separation of powers, under which “…the responsibility for setting policy in a parliamentary democracy rests with the legislature, not the courts” [79].

ESA is important because it implements what the Supreme Court has now repeated in Telus, Rafilovich, and other cases. It is now clear law that purposes cannot be used to subvert text; that text is the starting point in legislative interpretation, and that in sourcing purpose, text confines the scope of the exercise. In my view, ESA (expertly written by Justice Stratas) makes the clearest case yet for a sort of text-driven purposivism in the context of Canadian statutory interpretation.

Canada v Kattenburg, 2020 FCA 164

One underlying theme of much of what I have written thus far is a worry about results-oriented reasoning in statutory interpretation. To some, this might not be a risk at all. Or it might be a desirable feature: after all, if all law should simply be an adjunct of politics, then the policy preferences of judges are fair game. Of course, I readily admit that no legal system can reduce the risk of subjective policy-driven interpretation to 0; nor should it. But the Rule of Law, at its most basic, means that the law governs everyone—including judges. Part of the law judges must apply are the rules of statutory interpretation. Those rules are designed not to vindicate what the “just” result is in the abstract, what is “just” at international law (except where international law and domestic legislation meet in defined ways), or even what is “just” to the judge at equity or common law–except, of course, when statutes implicate common law rules. Statutory interpretation is a task that requires determining what the legislature thought was just to enact. As such, the rules of interpretation are guided towards that goal, and are necessarily designed to limit or exclude the preferences of judges or others, even if we reach that goal only imperfectly.

This important theoretical point was made in relation to the ascertainment of legislative purpose and international law in Kattenburg by Stratas JA. In Kattenburg, the underlying substantive issue was simple and narrow, as I wrote in my post on the case:

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

However, on the intervention motions in Kattenburg, Stratas JA noted that some intervenors ttempted to further bootstrap the record with “hyperlinks to find reports, opinions, news articles and informal articles to buttress their claims about the content of international law and the illegality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank” (Kattenburg, at para 32). Stratas JA rejected such efforts.

Stratas JA’s rejection of these intervenors, and his strong words in denouncing them, raised the ire of some on law twitter. But anything worth doing won’t be easy, and Stratas JA said what needed to be said, particular when he noted that, with respect to the intervenors “[s]o much of their loose policy talk, untethered to proven facts and settled doctrine, can seep into reasons for judgment, leading to inaccuracies with real-life consequences” (Kattenburg, at para 44). 

 There’s no denying Stratas JA is pointing to an important methodological problem that is deserving of our attention. One way that purposes can be misstated, or used to subvert clear text, is by advancing broad understandings of international law to expand the purpose. As I’ve noted before, it is true that “international law can…be relevant to the interpretation of Canadian law where it is incorporated in domestic law explicitly, or where there is some ambiguity” (see here). But in many cases, international law will simply not be relevant to the interpretation of legislative texts, or the ascertainment of legislative purposes.

The attempt in Kattenburg to cast the legislative purpose to encompass some statement—any statement—on the legality of Israel’s conduct in the Middle East is a classic end-run around legislative text. While some of the intervenors may have wanted the Court to interpret the legislation in a particular way to encompass substantive policy goals encompassed in international law not only runs afoul of fundamental principle—international law only enters the task in defined, narrow ways—but it is contrary to precedent (see Vavilov, at para 121 and the litany of Federal Court of Appeal and Supreme Court cases on this point). Such efforts should be rejected.

Conclusion

In many ways, the three cases I have chosen as important for interpretation in 2020 are all representative of a broader theme of which lawyers should be aware. That is, there is much more happening behind the curtains in Canadian statutory interpretation than might appear at first blush. “Purposive interpretation” is not the end of the story. What matters is how we source purpose, the sources we assess to assist the interpretive task, and the role of text in grounding the interpretive process. These cases all come to defensible conclusions on these questions. The insights of these cases can be distilled into a few key propositions:

  1. Purpose must be sourced in relation to the relevant text under consideration. In this way, we are interpreting text as the legislature enacted it, and we are not using purpose to subvert that authentic reading of the text.
  2. There are reasons to be worried about consequential analysis, to the extent it could permit an expansion of legislative purposes beyond text.
  3. There are reasons to be worried about international law, to the extent it could permit the expansion of legislative purposes beyond text.

All for the better.

A Happy New Year for interpretive nerds!

Would That I Could Love You

My mixed feelings about Sir John A. Macdonald

Sir John A. Macdonald has been much attacked of late; despising him is a reliable signal of progressive virtue, and a symptom of a broader pattern of contempt for people and institutions that have created the most prosperous, freest, and most egalitarian societies the world has ever known. The Faculty of Law at Queen’s has decided to remove Macdonald’s name from its building; his statues have been vandalised or removed; and so on.

For my part, I have been sufficiently provoked by all this to finally, and belatedly, read the late Richard Gwyn’s biography of the man. I have now finished the first volume, which runs from Macdonald’s birth in 1815 to Confederation. Having gone into it with a great deal of sympathy for Macdonald, I come out with very mixed feelings ― but not for the reasons that motivate his progressive critics. What diminishes Macdonald in my eyes is his nationalism ― and, if anything, I wonder that it does not raise his stature in theirs.

Before I explain myself, I should say something about the book itself. Mostly this: you should read it, if you haven’t yet. It’s a breezy read despite being fairly long. It is serious but no less engaging for that, and written with both sympathy for its subject and honesty about his flaws ― and I say this despite not being fully persuaded by Gwyn’s assessment of Macdonald. From a constitutional history perspective, the discussion of Confederation feels a little thin, but this is unfair reproach to level at a book meant for a general audience, and really doesn’t take away from Gwyn’s achievement.


Gwyn’s thesis regarding Macdonald (at least Macdonald as a politician and up to Confederation) is that, other than the enjoyment of the political game and of the power that it brought him thanks to his supreme ability at it, Macdonald’s motivation was above all to preserve Canada as a non-American, and if possible as a British, political community. He sought, first, to make the Province of Canada work, and then to build a strong, centralized federation as a means to prevent what seemed to many ― in Canada itself, but also in the United States and even in Britain ― like the inevitable annexation of the British North American colonies to the American republic.

Loyalty to Britain and opposition to America was both Macdonald’s inner spring and his go-to rhetorical trope. One of the book’s chapters is named “Canada’s First Anti-American”. Macdonald seized on opponents’ flirtations with annexationism or simply on hesitations and accused them of treason. He did not have a very definite view of what his Canada ― first the province, then the Dominion ― ought to be like; he was (to his credit!) no religious zealot or bigot, and ideologically he insisted on leading a broad, perhaps even a shapeless, party, which he cheerfully persuaded erstwhile opponents to join. But on Canada’s distinctiveness, he was unflinching and ruthless.

Gwyn further makes the case, and he makes it convincingly, that Macdonald’s political talents were absolutely necessary to pull it all off. Of course we cannot know how an alternative history without him would have turned out. But it seems fair to take the widespread belief of politicians and journalists of the time that Canada must in due course ― and sooner rather than later ― become American as indicative of something. Macdonald wasn’t alone in making sure that this did not happen, but, as Gwyn argues, the others ― Cartier, Brown, Galt, McGee, Tupper ― wouldn’t have done it without him. Confederation happened when he accepted that it ought to, and it happened because he put his boundless skill and energy into it. And it seems plausible, quite likely even, that had it not happened then, annexation to the United States would indeed have been inevitable.

For this reason, at the risk of concern-trolling, I would suggest that those who are all about pulling down Macdonald’s statues wherever they can still find them may want to reconsider. Much as they are keen to condemn Canada, the one polity they like still less is the United States. On the specific issue of the treatment of Aboriginal peoples, which most exercises them, shameful though Canada’s record is, would things have been better if the prairies, and then the rest of Canada, had become part of America? And of course on any number of other issues also, the Canadian left has long seen the border as demarcating, if not the good, then at least the tolerable from the evil. That border is Macdonald’s doing. It is the monument to him that they neither can nor, in their brightest nightmares, would want to pull down.


But my own reaction to Gwyn’s argument is not so enthusiastic. Something is missing from it: namely, any clear sense of why Macdonald’s anti-Americanism is something for us to admire. Macdonald himslef was moved, so far as I can tell from Gwyn’s book, by little more than a small-c conservative sensibility and consequent gut reactions. Macdonald believed in Britsh institutions and distrusted, perhaps even despised, American ones, but Gwyn insists that he did not know America well, and was not interested in understanding it. He was horrified by the Civil War, but his absolute rejection of an American future for Canada long pre-dated that conflict. He wasn’t actively rejecting American expansionism (except as it affected Canada), or slavery, or acting on some other grand moral belief. He was a nationalist, driven not by principle but by identity.

The closest Gwyn’s Macdonald comes to articulating a rational argument for his nationalism is his criticism of the US Constitution. As Alastair Gillespie details in his essay on Macdonald for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (at 29), he equated American presidential system with despotism, and American federalism with anarchy. The president, he said, was unconstrained by his cabinet, while the States were sovereign and the federal government too weak, which he claimed was a cause of the Civil War. These complaints fit poorly together, and Macdonald’s interpretation of the Civil War’s causes is puzzling. I struggle to see what additional federal powers would have prevented the slave States’ rebellion, and it’s not clear that Macdonald ever explained this. I am inclined to think that he either misunderstood the American system (even the pre-1868 American system), or perhaps even gave a tendentious account of it the better to justify his own vision of highly centralized federalism.

To me, Macdonald’s nationalism, as described by Gwyn, is thoroughly unattractive. Like all nationalism, it is essentially negative, fueled by ignorance and incomprehension, which results in distrust and perhaps even contempt. Nationalism, as Macdonald’s fondness for rhetoric of treason shows, also provides easy means for rhetorical escalation, and for divisiveness under the banner of unity. Other forms of identity politics provide similar examples of intolerance in the name of diversity and inclusion.

Now, Macdonald was no ignoramus and no bigot. Quite the contrary! He was intelligent and well read, not only in history, politics, and law, but in literature too; he got on well with Catholics ― far too well for some of his more bigoted critics ―, and with French and Irish Canadians. He helped create a country where some of these differences could eventually be all but forgotten, while other, more enduring ones, have been peacefully accommodated. This is no accident: the accommodation and eventual diminishment of sectional, linguistic, and religious differences was both a motivation for and a consequence of the structure of government the Fathers of Confederation designed. But this is the tragedy of nationalism: it causes otherwise intelligent and open-minded people to act in thoughtless and petty ways. This is also, of course, the tragedy of other forms of identity politics, including those fashionable in progressive circles.

You might be wondering where rejecting nationalism ― Macdonald’s nationalism of all things, a civic-minded version of the doctrine and the sentiment that begat Confederation ― leaves me. Does it mean, for instance, that I must recant all the good I have said of Confederation and of the Constitution Act, 1867?

I don’t think so. I approach this question from an individualist position, expressed as well as anywhere else in Thoreau’s defence of civil disobedience: “Government is at best but an expedient”, he wrote, and “most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient”. The American government, the one Macdonald looked down upon without ever having seen it very clearly,

what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? … It is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves. But it is not the less necessary for this; for the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have.  

But of course the Canadian government, whether that of the Province of Canada or the one set up in 1867, is not much different. It too is at best an expedient, and often not even that. It too is a tradition ― much older now than it, or even its American counterpart, was back then ― and a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves, and a piece of din-making machinery. There is nothing about it to be revered.

Now, thinking this does not prevent me thinking that, as governments go, the one contrived by the Fathers of Confederation under Macdonald’s leadership is more expedient than most, and while that is a low bar to clear, it is a real, and meaningful, accomplishment. We can, and should, measure existing institutions against the requirements of our principles, to see how they can be improved. But we can, and should, also measure existing institutions against plausible alternatives. By the first measure ― the one on which the left tends to focus, and of which the right often loses sight ― Canada certainly falls short in important ways. By the second ― which is of more interest to the right, and which the left tends to ignore ― Canada does well enough.

Confederation, moreover, was a real improvement over the system it predated on both measures. It got closer to at least some ideals, by implementing a meaningful federal system and thus advancing the principle of subsidiarity, and was about as good a system as, realistically, one might have conceived of given the facts on the ground and the state of minds in 1860s Canada. As Gwyn makes clear, its achievement was by no means a given; indeed it is quite remarkable. I have no hesitation in admiring it, and the fact that Macdonald’s motivations, and those of the other Fathers of Confederation for that matter, do not strike me as admirable has nothing to do with it. The intent of their creators is not a useful metric by which to assess institutions.


When it comes to individuals, though, motivations and intentions are more appropriately part of what we should base our judgments on. So of course are deeds and consequences. My own judgment on Macdonald ― based on the first part of Gwyn’s biography and of course on my perspective as a constitutional lawyer ― is thus very ambivalent. He helped create institutions that, on the whole, I admire, although they are not without their flaws. But he acted for reasons that are, from my perspective, quite unadmirable.

Indeed, I’m left with the impression that Macdonald, for all his political talent, for all his ability to achieve the seemingly impossible feat of confederation, was rather less wise than I would have liked him to have been. Whatever may be the case in other disciplines, I think it is very true that, in history, he who increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. Gwyn tells of an opposition MP rather pathetically telling Macdonald “I love you so! Would that I could trust you!” My feelings are the reverse. From my ― very different ― vantage point, I trust Macdonald, or at least I trust his accomplishment. Would that I could love him!

Still Wrong, Just a Little Less So

The Québec Court of Appeal errs in thinking the Charter prevents the imposition of, in effect, life imprisonment without parole

This post is co-written with Maxime St-Hiliaire

What punishment is just for someone who takes the lives of many other human beings? And what punishment for such a person is constitutional? In Bissonnette v R, 2020 QCCA 1585 answers the latter question, and its answer is at odds with the answer to the former. In an unattributed unanimous opinion, the Court holds that a provision of the Criminal Code that allowed―but did not require―sentencing judges to stack minimum parole ineligibility periods imposed for multiple counts of first-degree murder is unconstitutional. The Court finds that the very possibility of such stacking is cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and a deprivation of liberty and security of the person contrary to the principles of fundamental justice prohibited by section 7 of the Charter.

The sentencing judge in R v Bissonnette, 2019 QCCS 354 thought that the ordinary sentence of life imprisonment without parole eligibility for 25 years would not have been adequate. However, he also found the stacking of multiple 25-year periods constitutionally objectionable, and took it upon himself to rewrite the Criminal Code so as to give himself the discretion to fashion what he took to be the appropriate sentence of life imprisonment without parole for a 40-year period. The Crown appealed the finding of unconstitutionality, while Mr. Bissonnette appealed the sentencing judge’s remedy (which the Crown defended as an alternative).


The Court of Appeal first considers whether the stacking of parole ineligibility periods amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. In its view, the fact that such stacking is not required and can be ordered at a judge’s discretion does not remedy its constitutional defects: “notwithstanding the existence of a discretionary power by which the judge can refrain from imposing a cruel and unusual sentence, the provision is invalid simply because it authorizes a judge to impose such a sentence”. [79] It clarifies, however, that a discretionary sentence that will be cruel and unusual in some cases ought to be upheld if it will nevertheless be proportionate in others. Thus “the question to be resolved is this: are there situations in which it would not be cruel and unusual to impose minimum parole ineligibility periods of 50, 75, 100, 125, 150, indeed 1,000, years?” [89]

The Court takes the position that there are no such situations. Indeed, in its view, the idea is simply irrational. For one thing, “the number of victims to be used as a basis for a judge to stack periods of ineligibility is a legislative choice that is difficult to reconcile with the sentencing criteria in place in Canada”. [91] The possibility of a court “imposing a parole ineligibility period that highly exceeds the life expectancy of any human being” [92] is particularly disturbing. For the Court of Appeal, “[a] court must not make an order that can never be carried out”, because this “brings the administration of justice into disrepute” and amounts to “senselessness” that “is, in and of itself, cruel and unusual punishment … degrading because of its absurdity”. [93] Indeed, even a sentence of life imprisonment without parole “is at least tied to the lifetime of a human being, while ineligibility periods totalling 100 years and more have nothing in common with the duration of a human life”. [95]

But the problem the Court sees with stacked parole ineligibility periods, even just two, is more than just irrationality. It also has to do with the possibility that a rehabilitated offender would be denied the opportunity to apply for parole:

An inmate rehabilitated after 25 years and not eligible to apply for parole before a second 25-year period would, in all cases, be subject to cruel and unusual treatment. The excessive length of the unnecessarily prolonged incarceration would be grossly disproportionate. … [107]

For the Court of Appeal, “preventing a reformed accused from having genuine access to the parole application process” [111] is in itself a fatal constitutional flaw, compounded by the fact that the sentencing “judge is not in a position, barring speculation, to genuinely know the likelihood that the accused will be rehabilitated in 25 years. He is in an even worse position, if that is possible, when dealing with a period of 50 years.” [110] This flaw cannot be justified under section 1 of the Charter.

The Court then turns to section 7 of the Charter. It notes that sentencing judge’s findings that not only are stacked parole ineligibility periods a deprivation of liberty, but also that “an actual irreducible sentence of imprisonment for life” [117] produce psychological impacts that amount to a deprivation of the prisoners’ security of the person are not challenged. The issue is whether these deprivations accord with principles of fundamental justice.

The Court of Appeal does not follow the judge below in accepting the protection of human dignity as a principle of fundamental justice and finding that it too has been breached. For it, two such principles are at play: the prohibitions on overbreadth and gross disproportionality. Both are assessed relative to the objective of the impugned legislation. The purpose of allowing sentencing judges to stack parole ineligibility periods for multiple murders is to “(1) protect society from the most incorrigible killers, and (2) restore the balance between the rights of victims and those of multiple murderers and acknowledge the value of ‘every life lost’”. [135]

The Court finds that the possibility of stacking parole ineligibility periods is overbroad “because it applies to all multiple murderers, regardless of the specific circumstances of each case”, [139] and not “only to psychopaths, organized crime hitmen or incorrigible murderers”. [140] Some might be sentenced to extended parole ineligibility without being unusually dangerous. The rule thus produces effects not rationally connected to its ostensible objectives, and so is overbroad. Nor is the stacking of parole ineligibility periods rationally connected to acknowledging every victim, since in any case a person so sentenced is likely or bound to die before all of the consecutive periods have elapsed. Such sentencing is also grossly disproportionate to its stated objectives. The overbreadth and gross disproportionality cannot be justified in a free and democratic society.

The last question for the Court is that of the remedy. Unlike the judge below, it holds that it must simply declare the possibility of stacking ineligibility periods invalid, “without being rewritten by the courts”. [186] It is clear that Parliament considered and rejected the solution adopted by the sentencing judge ― granting judges discretion as to the duration of parole ineligibility beyond the usual 25 years for a first-degree murder. It would not be appropriate for courts to impose it anyway.


In our view, the Court of Appeal’s judgment is less troubling than that of the Superior Court, which we criticized here. In particular, it is important to note that the Court takes the correct approach to the question of the remedy ― assuming, of course, that its conclusion of unconstitutionality is also correct. But it is not. The Court of Appeal’s reasoning on the issue of constitutionality misapprehends the inquiry and consequently falls into doctrinal error, as well as moral myopia.

Indeed, its most fundamental flaw is one that it ascribes to the legislation it pronounces unconstitutional: a refusal to engage with the circumstances and deserts of the individual accused. The very first sentence of the Court’s reasons proclaims that

[t]his judgment is not about the horror of Alexandre Bissonnette’s actions on January 29, 2017, nor even about the impact of his crimes on an entire community and on society in general; it is, rather, first and foremost, about the constitutionality of a provision of the Criminal Code. [1]

The Court subsequently adds that “[t]he analysis of the provision’s constitutionality must be carried out independently of the appellant’s case, notwithstanding the horror of his actions”. [54] The Court no doubt means this as a reminder that even the worst wrongdoers have rights under the Charter, which must be not be overlooked by focusing on their wrongdoing alone. That is true, so far as it goes. But there is a reason why Canadian courts normally assess the constitutionality of legislation on the facts of particular cases rather than in the abstract. This case, which is, pace the Court of Appeal, about the sentencing of man who murdered six worshippers at a mosque in Québec City and injured 19 others, ought to have been a reminder of that fact. 

In the Supreme Court’s first explication of section 12 of the Charter in R v Smith, [1987] 1 SCR 1045, Justice Lamer (as he then was) wrote that

[i]n assessing whether a sentence is grossly disproportionate, the court must first consider the gravity of the offence, the personal characteristics of the offender and the particular circumstances of the case in order to determine what range of sentences would have been appropriate to punish, rehabilitate or deter this particular offender or to protect the public from this particular offender. … Section 12 ensures that individual offenders receive punishments that are appropriate, or at least not grossly disproportionate, to their particular circumstances. (1073)

In other words, contrary to the Court of Appeal’s approach, the offence and the offender ― including “the horror of his actions” are the primary consideration in assessing an alleged infringement of section 12. The Supreme Court has followed this approach more recently too, including in R v Boudreault, 2018 SCC 58, [2018] 3 SCR 599. The Court of Appeal neglects “to determine what range of sentences would have been appropriate to punish, rehabilitate or deter this particular offender”, and this failure warps its subsequent analysis.

In particular, the Court of Appeal is single-mindedly focused on the issue of rehabilitation as the overriding consideration in deciding whether stacked parole ineligibility periods can ever be a constitutionally acceptable punishment. But, focusing on the facts before it, the Court ought to have remembered that ― as Justice Lamer suggested in Smith ― rehabilitation is not necessarily the primary factor in deciding on a fit sentence. Sometimes, the need to punish will dominate. This is not a crass desire for vengeance, but a recognition that different circumstances ― different offenses and different offenders ― call for different responses on the part of society.

A comparison with the sentencing judgment of the New Zealand High Court in the case of the Christchurch mosque shooter, R v Tarrant [2020] NZHC 2192, is relevant. As one of us (Sirota) has explained here, in that case Justice Mander found that

no minimum period of imprisonment would be sufficient to satisfy the legitimate need to hold [the shooter] to account for the harm [he] ha[d] done to the community. Nor [would] minimum term of imprisonment would be sufficient to denounce [his] crimes. [179]

Ironically, the Court of Appeal refers to the Christchurch shooting, noting in a footnote that “the Christchurch massacre (51 victims) could have resulted in a period of 1,275 years” of parole ineligibility. For the Court this is self-evidently absurd. But for the judge who actually sentenced its perpetrator only a sentence of life imprisonment without parole would have sufficed.

This illustrates the fact the Court of Appeal has no regard to deserts of the man before it ― in violation of another cardinal principle of sentencing, that of the indivudalization of the sentence. It is also confused about the significance of the fact that a sentencing judge retains the discretion as to whether to sentence a given offender to a stacked period of parole ineligibility, at one point suggesting that this discretion is of no significance. Like it or not, Parliament enacted a law that allows individualized, if rough, justice. The Court of Appeal, by contrast, reasons entirely in the abstract.

Now, Parliament’s response to the prospect of vicious mass murder is, in our view, rather clunky. It would have been more straightforward, indeed more honest, to make sentences of life imprisonment without parole available, just as the New Zealand Parliament has done, instead of simply stacking non-eligibility periods until they quickly reach the same point. But the Court of Appeal does not really argue ― it merely asserts ― that the absurdity of extended ineligibility periods is inherently cruel. The person sentenced to such a punishment will understand what it means. And as for the claim that stacked parole ineligibility periods, because they cannot be served in full, discredit the administration of justice, it is simply beside the point. Section 12 of the Charter is concerned with justice to the offender, not the courts’ opinion of themselves.

As for the Court of Appeal’s reasoning on section 7 of the Charter, it also suffers from the Court’s failure to account for the discretionary nature of the stacking of parole ineligibility periods permitted ― not required! ― by the Criminal Code. The Court says that in some cases a stacked sentence can be imposed on multiple murderers who are not among the worst of the worst, and so not the sort of offender to deal with whom the stacking was permitted. But if indeed such a sentence is inappropriate ― and it is worth noting yet again that, as this very case highlights, the categories of the incorrigible are not closed, and are not limited to “psychopaths” and “organized crime hitmen” ― the sentencing in the particular case can be overturned on appeal. It seems that the Court of Appeal, like the judge below, simply does not trust to the discernment of other judges.      


Like the Court of Appeal and the Superior Court, and like the New Zealand High Court, we believe that sentencing ― even for terrorist mass murderers ― must not be an exercise in raw vengeance. It is a good thing that Parliament’s authority to direct sentencing is constitutionally constrained. It is all too true that Parliament can sometimes demand punishment incommensurate to crime, especially when it seeks to curtail the sentencing judges’ ability to assess the actions and culpability of the offender in a pursuit of a law that will be equally harsh to all.

But nor can sentencing lose sight of the actions for which the sentence is being imposed. It would be a perverse constitution that required this, and fortunately the Charter is not so perverse. The principles consistently set out by the Supreme Court make clear both that the primary responsibility for sentencing policy is Parliament’s, and that applying constitutional constraints on Parliament must only serve to prevent abuses ― not to become an exercise in abstract, and ultimately soulless, humanitarianism. We hope that the Supreme Court will step in and reassert these principles once more in this case.

An Oddity in Strom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constitutional Law Ruins Everything. A (sort of) response to Mancini’s “Neutrality in Legal Interpretation.”

This post is by Andrew Bernstein.

No! I am not an academic nor was meant to be.
Am a mere practitioner, one that will do
To settle a dispute, argue an appeal or two
When advising clients, the law’s my tool.
Deferential, if it helps me sway the court
Argumentative, and (aspirationally) meticulous.
Case-building is my professional sport
Trying my hand at theory’s ridiculous!
But I’ll dip a toe into this pool.

(With apologies to T.S. Eliot and anyone who appreciates poetry)

Also, this is a blog post, so no footnotes or citations. Sorry!

As a lawyer whose most enduring interest for the last 30 years has been Canada’s constitutional arrangements, it gives me great pains to confess to you that I have concluded that constitutional law ruins everything. Or, perhaps put more judiciously, the kinds of debates that we have about constitutional interpretation are not especially instructive in dealing with other types of legal questions, such as statutory or common-law interpretation. There are many reasons for this, but the central one, in my view, has to do with the fact that while reasonable people may disagree on the outcome of a statutory interpretation, or a question of common law, those people will largely agree on the method of conducting those analyses. In constitutional interpretation, we don’t have consensus on “how” so it’s no wonder that the outcomes can be so radically different.

What are we really asking courts to do when we ask them to resolve a dispute? There are no doubt some high-minded theoretical answers to this (“do justice between the parties,” “ensure that capitalism is never threatened,” “enforce institutional sexism, racism, ageism, ableism and homophobia”) but from a practitioner’s perspective, the answer is actually straightforward: sort out the facts and apply a set of legal rules to those facts. Overwhelmingly those rules come from a variety of legal instruments, such as statutes, regulations, by-laws, and other “outputs” of political institutions such as Parliament, legislatures or municipal councils. If these institutions they don’t like the judicial interpretation of what they have passed, they can change the instrument accordingly. Moreover, these institutions are democratically elected, so if citizens do not agree with the laws that get made, they can replace them at the next election. Although this “feedback loop” suffers from many inefficiencies and obstacles in practice, it is essential to maintaining the concept of self-government by majority rule. What this means is that courts know what they are supposed to be doing when they interpret statutes: they look for legislative intention, as expressed by the words of the document. While courts are entitled to employ whatever clues they might be able to find in things like the legislative history, they appreciate that those clues must be used judiciously, as one speech by one MP does not a legislative intention make. And courts appreciate that the words of the document ultimately govern – although compliance is less than perfect, courts generally understand that they are not to circumvent the meaning of legislation with some kind of analysis based on the instrument’s supposed “purpose.”

While it is frequently accepted that the objective of statutory interpretation is to discern legislative intent, the question of why we would want to do so is not frequently interrogated. After all, while it may make eminent sense to give effect to a law that was passed a week ago, why would a self-governing people want to be governed by legislation that was passed by a legislature that is no longer in session? Perhaps by a different political party? The answer is partially pragmatic (it would be awfully cumbersome to have to re-enact every law each time a legislature was dissolved) but the real reason is the existence of the democratic feedback loop. Statutory interpretation operates on the presumption that, if no legislature has repealed or amended the statute, the people (as represented by the legislature) are content with it as it stands. In fact, this is the reason why no legislature can bind a future one to things like supermajority requirements. Because it is the people’s current intention – and not their past intention – that governs.

Constitutional law is designed to be immune to the democratic feedback loop. At least some aspects of the constitution are specifically intended to limit democratic institutions. The essence of that aspect of constitutionalism is the protection of vulnerable and/or minority groups from the potential for ill-treatment by the majority. Sometimes these protections take the role of institutional structures (such as federalism, regional representation in central institutions, and, according to some, a separation of powers) and other times they are specific guarantees of rights that specifically limit government action: freedom of expression, equality, or even “life, liberty and security of the person.” Cumulatively, this constitutional architecture is supposed to create a balance between self-government and limited government, ensuring that Canadians can govern ourselves, while not permitting the majority to oppress minorities.

This sounds great in theory, but immediately creates a dilemma: who gets to decide on the limits of “limited government?” Someone has to, and (if the constitution is going to be effective at curbing democratic excess) it has to be a different “someone” than the majoritarian institutions that actually do the governing. And although there are different models around the world, in Canada (like our American neighbours), we entrust that job to the Courts. This is not an uncontroversial decision, for a number of reasons. First, it is not clear that courts are institutionally well-suited to the job, with their adversarial model of fact-finding and decision-making. Second, courts are presided over by judges, who are just (as Justice Stratas recently said) lawyers who have received a judicial commission. There is no reason to think they are especially well suited to weighing the interests that a complex society needs to achieve an ideal balance between, for example, liberty and security, or equality and religious freedom. Third, judges are famously unrepresentative: they are whiter, richer, more male, more Christian, older and more conservative than the population. Nowhere is this more apparent than the apex of judicial decision-making, the Supreme Court of Canada, which got its first female judge in the 1980s and has never had an indigenous or any type of non-white judge or a judge from the LGBTQ community. Eighty five of Canada’s ninety Supreme Court judges have been Christian, the other 5 have been Jewish. No Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, or even (admitted) atheists . Nevertheless, these 9 judges get to make significant decisions that have a major impact on social policy. Since the Charter was enacted, the Supreme Court has had a major role in liberalizing access to abortion, permitting medical assistance in dying, liberalizing prostitution laws, freeing access to cannabis, prohibiting the death penalty, enhancing public employees’ right to strike, and many other social policy decisions that were different from the democratic choices made by legislatures. In Canada, most decisions to strike down legislation have tilted towards the liberal side of the political spectrum, but there have also been decisions (most infamously, relating to private health care in Quebec) that tilt more towards the conservative side. This is not inherent to the process of adjudicating rights: the United States Supreme Court has grown increasingly conservative in the last 20 years, striking down liberal legislation relating to campaign finance, voting rights, and only yesterday striking down pandemic limitations on gatherings in houses of worship.

The combination of anti-democratic process and anti-democratic outcomes that constitutional adjudication creates has been subject of concern and criticism since judicial review was created in Marbury v. Madison. This, in turn, has led to the development of theories that are designed to constrain judicial decision-making. While some of this may be results-oriented, at its core, the goal of all “court-constraining theories” of constitutional interpretation is to give constitutional decision-making a touchstone by which decisions can be evaluated. Readers of this blog will no doubt be familiar with these theories, such as textualism, or public-meaning originalism, which stand in contrast to what is sometimes referred to as “living tree constitutionalism” or (in Leonid’s catchy turn of phrase “constitutionalism from the cave”). While I will undoubtedly not do them justice, the “touchstone theories” posit that the meaning of constitutional rights are more-or-less fixed (although may need to be applied in novel situations) and it’s the job of the courts to find and apply those fixed meanings, while “living tree constitutionalism” allows the meaning of these rights to evolve over time, and it’s the job of the courts to decide when and how to permit that evolution to take place.

To use an over-simplified example, imagine a constitutional guarantee of “equality,” which (it is agreed) was understood to mean “equality of opportunity” at the time it was enacted. And imagine that 40 years later, it is established that the historical and systemic disadvantages suffered by certain groups means that merely providing equal opportunity proves insufficient to providing those groups with a fair outcome. Touchstone constitutionalists could suggest that although what constitutes “equality of opportunity” may have to change to meet changing social circumstances, but does not permit courts to go further and use the constitutional guarantee of “equality” to impose equality of outcomes. Living tree constitutionalists could posit that the guarantee of equality was intended to ensure that people do not suffer disadvantage because of their immutable characteristics, and if we now recognize that this can only be done by providing equality of outcome, then this is what courts should do.

What’s important to appreciate is that our protagonists on both sides are not disagreeing just on the outcome. They are disagreeing on the fundamental nature of the exercise. Touchstone constitutionalists believes that the courts’ job is essentially to be the “seeker” in a game of hide and seek, while the living tree constitutionalists believe that the courts are playing Jenga, carefully removing blocks from the bottom and building the tower ever higher, with its ultimate height limited only by how far they can reach.

Who is right and who is wrong in this debate? No one and everyone. In fact, as I read Mark’s post to which I am (ostensibly) responding, I understand his plea to be not that touchstones – regardless of how old they may be – are normatively a fantastic way to adjudicate modern problems but rather that the alternative to touchstones is anarchy (or Kritarchy), and that has to be worse. Similarly, critics of touchstone constitutionalism are concerned about being forever bound by the past, without providing a particularly good explanation of what could or should reasonably replace it without ultimately resorting to the idea that we have to trust our judges to make good decision. This of course, begs the question “if we are relying on someone’s judgment, why is it the judges and not the people’s through their democratically elected representatives?”

What am I saying? I’m saying that the “touchstone vs. tree” debate is actually a normative question, that people like to dress up as one that has an objectively ascertainable answer. But in truth, where you stand on this will really depend on your own personal value system, as informed by your own experiences. If you value predictability and stability, and/or the idea of judges making decisions about what is right, fair or socially appropriate is offensive to you, you may be inclined towards touchstone constitutionalism. If you value substantive outcomes, and see the judicial role as guaranteeing and enforcing rights as they evolve, you will be inclined towards the living tree. Of course, this is to some degree all a false dichotomy. There are many places available between either end of this spectrum and everyone ultimately ends up tends towards one of the more central positions. For example, it is difficult to find anyone who seriously doubts the correctness of Brown v. Board of Education, even though there’s at least an argument that certain touchstones informing the meaning of equal protection in the United States’ 14th amendment contemplated segregation. On the other hand, no matter how alive one’s tree might be, respect for a system of precedent is necessary if you are going to continue to call what you are doing “law” as opposed to policymaking by an unaccountable institution that has only faint markings of democratic accountability.

So why does constitutional law ruin everything? As I see it, is that this unresolvable dilemma in constitutional law has a tendency to bring its enormous baggage to other areas, and leave it there. But it’s not clear that these oversized duffles filled with decades of counter-majoritarian sentiment are really going to assist what I would consider to be the very different exercise of statutory interpretation (I’m well aware of the argument that the constitution is just an uber-statute and should be interpreted accordingly, but that’s really just an argument for touchstone constitutionalism so I will conveniently ignore it). Why? Because unlike in constitutional interpretation, we have broad consensus on how to go about the exercise of statutory interpretation entails: it entails trying to determine what the legislature intended by the text that it enacted. And although this exercise can be difficult at times, and reasonable (and unreasonable) people can often disagree, they are disagreeing on the outcome and not the process. No one truly suggests that the courts should play Jenga when interpreting statutes; they are always the seeker in a game of hide-and-seek, using well-understood tools and rules. Of late, we have been describing those as “text, context and purpose” but long before that catch phrase existed, we had the lawyer’s toolbox of logic, common sense, experience, and approximately 400 years of common-law jurisprudence on canons of statutory construction (well-defended by Leonid in his recent post). It’s true that these rules are convoluted and it’s not always straightforward to apply them. Some judges and courts give more weight to (for example) the purpose of statute and the presumption against absurdity, while others might be more interested in the intricacies of grammatical structure. But these are matters of emphasis, and the degree of variation relatively modest. In fact, there is a pretty strong consensus, at least among Canadian courts, about how the exercise of statutory interpretation ought to be conducted, and, in the main, it is done with amazing regularity.

OK so we have covered the constitution (where there is no agreement on the game, much less the rules) and statutes (where everyone is singing from the same hymnbook). What remains is common law, and it is probably the strangest of all these creatures because it is, by necessity, hide-and-seek but what you are looking for is Jenga blocks. There is, of course, an important touchstone courts and judges look to: precedent. But if you stretch far back enough, the touchstone itself has no touchstone other than “what judges think is best.” In many ways, it’s “law from the cave” but the cave is extremely old, dark, and you probably can’t see the exit, so you are stuck inside unless or until the legislature “rescues” you and replaces the common law rules. This leads to a fascinating problem: because it’s based on precedent, common law derives its authority from consistency. But because it’s judge-made, judges feel relatively free to remake it in appropriate circumstances. In many ways, it’s the worst of both theoretical worlds: it is bound by (some may say stuck in) the past and also readily changeable by judges. But somehow it works anyway, and with much fewer lamentations from the theorists who worry about either of these things (excluding, of course, administrative law, which by unwritten constitutional principle must be comprehensively re-written every ten years to keep a group of frustrated practitioners on their toes).

So in short, I endorse Mark’s sentiment that we need neutral principles in adjudication. But I disagree that they are in short supply. We have neutral principles in statutory interpretation, and they work as well as any system that is administered by a few hundred people across the country possibly could. We have essentially one neutral governing principle in common law analysis, which is “mostly follow precedent.” So what we are really talking about is constitutional law, where the debate between the touchstone cops and the living tree arborists is essentially unresolvable because when you scrape to the bottom it asks “what do you value in a legal system” and it’s no surprise that there isn’t universal agreement on this. But there is a strong consensus on how to engage in interpretation outside the constitutional context, and we should not let the constitutional disagreements obscure that.

In other words, constitutional law ruins everything. But I told you that at the beginning.

Declarations of Unconstitutionality as Judgments In Rem: A Response to Professor Daly

This post is written by Marc-Antoine Gervais, and a larger paper on the subject will appear in the McGill Law Journal (vol. 66).

Canada’s model of judicial review of legislation is unusual. On the one hand, it is “diffuse” in that all courts of law (and many administrative tribunals) may decide constitutional questions. On the other hand, declaratory judgments of unconstitutionality issued by superior courts under s. 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982 “establish the general invalidity of a legislative provision for all future cases.”[1] As Professor Daly’s comment on R v. Sullivan reveals, there is still much uncertainty regarding the true nature and scope of s. 52 declarations rendered by provincial superior courts.

Professor Daly contends that “[t]he effect of a declaration of unconstitutionality, just as with a declaration of invalidity of a regulation, is that it no longer exists.” He further suggests that “res judicata has no application here […]: the matter has been decided but not because the requirements of res judicata are met, rather because a declaration with erga omnes force has been issued by a superior court.” With respect, it is submitted that the judiciary cannot literally invalidate or nullify laws, and that the general or erga omnes effect of s. 52 declarations may instead be explained by the doctrine of res judicata.

Courts cannot literally invalidate laws

Judges and commentators commonly assert that superior courts “strike down”, “nullify”, or “invalidate” unconstitutional laws.[2] These statements, however, should not be interpreted literally. Nothing in the Constitution of Canada empowers courts to exercise such a “negative act of legislation”, as Kelsen described it.[3] In fact, the power to annul laws has only been vested in the Queen in Council, although it has fallen into desuetude.[4]

Unconstitutional laws are “of no force or effect” by virtue of s. 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Courts merely declare, but cannot render laws invalid, as Justice Gonthier stressed in Martin: “the invalidity of a legislative provision inconsistent with the Charter does not arise from the fact of its being declared unconstitutional by a court, but from the operation of s. 52(1).”[5] Authoring a powerful dissent espoused in subsequent Supreme Court jurisprudence,[6] Justice McLachlin, as she was then, left no doubt as to the judicial nature of declarations of unconstitutionality in Cooper:

It is common to speak of courts or tribunals “striking down” or invalidating laws […].  This view of the Charter is, with respect, inaccurate.  The Charter confers no power on judges or tribunals to strike down laws. The Constitution Act, 1982, however, provides that all laws are invalid to the extent that they are inconsistent with the Charter.  Laws are struck down not by judicial fiat, but by operation of the Charter and s. 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982.[7]

Justice La Forest’s opinion in Kourtessis further confirms that declaratory judgments are no different in constitutional matters: “the declaration [of unconstitutionality] by its nature merely states the law without changing anything” — that is, it does not literally extinguish the provision deemed unconstitutional.[8] Proponents of the judicial nullification theory will have a hard time justifying the application by the Supreme Court of Canada of provisions that had been declared unconstitutional in prior cases.[9]

Res judicata and the general effect of s. 52 declarations of unconstitutionality

How, then, can a declaration of unconstitutionality generate erga omnes effects? The Supreme Court of Canada gave a hint in Ravndahl by describing s. 52 declarations as “in rem remed[ies]”.[10] A judgment in rem determines the legal status of a person or a thing independently from the context; it has erga omnes effects because it is “binding not only upon the parties but as against the whole world.”[11] The in rem determination is protected by the doctrine of res judicata, which estops anyone from challenging that legal status in other procedures.

Usually, judgments have inter partes effects because they only bind the parties to the litigation. However, in public law, it has been accepted for a long time that some types of determinations — such as declarations of nullity of regulations — are binding in rem.[12] In fact, the first constitutional law judgment in rem dates back to the famous 1637 Ship Money case, in which the court held that the tax levied by King Charles I was legal despite Parliament’s opposition.[13] Shortly thereafter, another litigant was estopped from challenging the same tax on the basis that the determination on the legality of the tax was no longer up for debate, even by non-parties to the Ship Money case.[14]

In modern Canadian constitutional law, the doctrine of judgment in rem may explain the general effect of s. 52 declarations issued by superior courts, as the apex court suggested in Ravndahl. Nonetheless, some difficulties remain. What is the territorial scope of declarations of unconstitutionality concerning federal legislation? In principle, judgments in rem bind the whole world, but this position is inapposite in the constitutional law context. Mark Mancini convincingly argues that it cannot be reconciled with the principle of federalism:

It would be an affront to the principled federalism balance established by the Constitution Act, 1867 to argue that section 52 declarations should extend throughout the country when issued by one judge in a province. The fact that there may be different findings between one province and another is a feature, not a bug, of the federalist system.

Moreover, a nationwide declaration of unconstitutionality issued by a single provincial superior court would have the very unfortunate effect of circumventing constitutional notice requirements to the attorneys general of other provinces.[15] It is thus submitted that judgments in rem should not run across provincial lines in constitutional matters until the Supreme Court — the only national court in Canada[16] — decides the issue.

In practice, superior courts have refused to automatically give effect to s. 52 declarations pronounced in other provinces.[17] In most cases, constitutional decisions are consistent throughout the country, but not always.[18] For example, the mandatory minimum sentence under s. 153 of the Criminal Code was declared unconstitutional by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal,[19] but subsequently upheld by the Court of Appeal of Alberta.[20] The Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the application for leave to appeal the Alberta decision.

Not the final word on the constitutional matter

The doctrine of res judicata is flexible in common law, and it should not bar the reopening of a constitutional debate under certain exceptional circumstances.[21] Indeed, when the preconditions to the operation of the estoppel are established, the court possesses a discretionary power to refuse to apply it.[22]

Inconsistent superior court pronouncements on the constitutionality of a law in different provinces engender untenable jurisprudential uncertainty. In such circumstances, the controversy should be allowed to make its way to the Supreme Court of Canada, thereby allowing the “percolation” of diverse lower-court perspectives.[23] It must be stressed that this discretion to refuse the application of the estoppelshould only be exercised in order to foster the integrity and coherence of constitutional law, one of the central goals of the doctrine.[24]

Res judicata is thus distinct from, but operates in tandem with, stare decisis. Within a province, a mere disagreement with the underlying reasoning is not a sufficient ground for a court of appeal to neuter the estoppel barring the parties to challenge a judgment of unconstitutionality in rem issued by a superior in a prior case. Nonetheless, if the court elects to allow relitigation of the constitutional question, stare decisis applies as usual — either in its horizontal or vertical form, depending on the context.

Since courts cannot annul or invalidate legislation, it follows that the law once declared unconstitutional remains capable of “reviving” in the future, unless it is repealed. For example, the minimum sentence under s. 153 of the Criminal Code would “revive” in Nova Scotia if the Supreme Court of Canada holds that the provision passes constitutional muster in a subsequent case. The apex court has repudiated multiple declarations of unconstitutionality issued in earlier decisions,[25] and it would be inappropriate to blindly follow such controverted s. 52 declarations. Canadian[26] and American[27] courts have rightly “revived” laws once declared unconstitutional. Res judicata should not prevent the judiciary from revisiting declarations of unconstitutionality that rest on precarious legal grounds.

In the final analysis, courts cannot literally “strike down” laws or “remove [them] from [their] proper place among statutes.”[28] Rather, declarations of unconstitutionality are in rem determinations that generally establish the judicial ineffectiveness of provisions within the court’s territorial jurisdiction, subject to rare exceptions. The main qualification to the general binding effect of s. 52 declarations is that res judicata should not be applied where the estoppel entrenches inconsistencies in the judicial interpretation and application of the Constitution. The rule of law depends on it.


[1]        Nova Scotia (Workers’ Compensation Board) v Martin, 2003 SCC 54 at para 31 [Martin].

[2]        See Schachter v Canada, [1992] 2 SCR 679 at 715; Ontario (Attorney General) v G, 2020 SCC 38 at paras 114, 237; Vancouver (City) v Ward, 2010 SCC 27 at 1.

[3]        Hans Kelsen, “Judicial Review of Legislation: A Comparative Study of the Austrian and the American Constitution” (1942) 4:2 J Politics 183 at 187.

[4]        The Constitution Act, 1867 (UK), 30 & 31 Victoria, c 3, s 56.

[5]        Martin, supra note 1 at para 28. See also R v Ferguson, 2008 SCC 6 at 35.

[6]        See ibid at para 29; Paul v British Columbia (Forest Appeals Commission), 2003 SCC 55 at para 36; R v Conway, 2010 SCC 22 at paras 20, 64–82.

[7]        Cooper v Canada (Human Rights Commission), [1996] 3 SCR 854 at para 83.

[8]        Kourtessis v MNR, [1993] 2 SCR 53 at 86.

[9]        See R v Malmo‑Levine, 2003 SCC 74 and R v Loewen, 2011 SCC 21. The marijuana prohibition under s 4 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act had been declared unconstitutional by the Ontario Court of Appeal in R v Parker (2000), 49 OR (3d) 481), and the government adopted a new regulation to solve the constitutional lacuna. However, no legislative amendment was made. See also R v J-LJ, 2000 SCC 51 and R v Lamy, 2002 SCC 25. The Quebec Court of Appeal had declared s 159 of the Criminal Code unconstitutional in R c Roy, supra note 17, but its constitutionality was not challenged in both Supreme Court cases.

[10]      Ravndahl v Saskatchewan, 2009 SCC 7at para 27.

[11]      See Barry L Strayer, The Canadian Constitution and the Courts, 3rd ed (Toronto: Butterworths, 1988) at 193.

[12]      See Dilworth et al v Bala (Town) et al, [1955] SCR 284 at 289 [Dilworth]; Corporation du Village de Deschênes v Loveys, [1936] SCR 351; Emms v The Queen et al, [1979] 2 SCR 1148 at 1158–62 [Emms];

[13]      Rex v Hampden (1637), 3 How St Tr 826.

[14]      Lord Say’s Case (1638), Cro Car 524.

[15]      See Strayer, supra note 11 at 193–95.

[16]      See TA Cromwell, “Aspects of Constitutional Judicial Review in Canada” (1995) 46:5 SCL Rev 1027 at 1042.

[17]      See R v Pete (1998), 119 BCAC 161 (BC CA); Reference re Same-Sex Marriage, 2004 SCC 79 at 70; R v EJB, 2018 ABCA 239 at paras 72–75; Parent c Guimond, 2016 QCCA 159 at paras 11–18; R c Roy, [1998] RJQ 1043 (Qc CA); R v Scofield, 2019 BCCA 3 at paras 75–89; R v Boutilier, 2016 BCCA 24 at para 45 (Nielsen J); R v Graham and Parks, 2003 BCPC 369 at paras 12–16; R v Nicholls, 2003 BCPC 132 at 74–76.

[18]      See infra notes 19–20; s 151(a) of the Criminal Code was deemed constitutional in British Columbia twice in 2015 and 2017, but declared unconstitutional in multiple other provinces. In 2019, the Court of Appeal for British Columbia eliminated this inconsistency by overruling prior cases in the province and declaring the provision unconstitutional. See R v Scofield, 2019 BCCA 3 at paras 11–12, 75–88.

[19]      See R v Hood, 2018 NSCA 18.

[20]      See R v EJB, supra note 17 (leave to appeal dismissed).

[21]      See Emms, supra note 12; Dilworth, supra note 12 at 289–90.

[22]      See Danyluk v Ainsworth Technologies Inc, 2001 SCC 44 at para 33.

[23]      See Han-Ru Zhou, “Erga Omnes or Inter Partes? The Legal Effects of Federal Courts’ Constitutional Judments” (2019) 97 R du B Can 276 at 296–98.

[24]      See R v Mahalingan, 2008 SCC 63 at 38.

[25]      See eg R v Turpin, [1989] 1 SCR 1296 at 1333–34; Libman v Quebec (Attorney General), [1997] 3 SCR 569 at paras 55, 79.

[26]      See Saltspring Island Water Preservation Society v Rockliffe, [1993] 4 WWR 601 (BCCA).

[27]      See Legal Tender Cases (1870), 79 US (12 Wall) 457, in which the US Supreme Court upheld a law that it had declared unconstitutional two years earlier in Hepburn v Griswold (1868), 75 US (8 Wall) 603. See also West Coast Hotel Co v Parrish (1937), 300 US 379, rejecting Adkins v Children’s Hosp (1923). The law’s validity was later confirmed in Jawish v Morlet (1952), 86 A2d 96 at p 97 (DC Mun Ct App). See also Pait v Ford Motor Co (1987), 500 So 2d 743 (Fla Dist Ct App); Pullum v Cincinnati, Inc (1985), 476 So 2d 657 (Fla Sup Ct) at pp 659–60; State ex rel Gillespie v County of Bay (1933), 112 Fla 687 at p 722 (Fla Sup Ct); Pierce v Pierce (1874), 46 Ind 86 at p 95.

[28]      Allison v Corker (1902), 67 NJL 596 at p 601.

Guest Post: Marc-Antoine Gervais

It is my pleasure to announce a guest post today by Marc-Antoine Gervais, on the subject of declarations of invalidity as in rem judgments. The post is a response to Paul Daly’s recent post on declarations of invalidity in the aftermath of the Sullivan decision.

Marc-Antoine has a larger paper coming out in the McGill Law Journal on this subject (vol 66).