More Charter Values Nonsense

When will this end?

Doré, that bedeviling case that held that administrators must take into account “Charter values” when exercising discretion, continues to trouble lower courts. This is not only true on a theoretical level—I still have yet to hear a convincing explanation of what a Charter value actually is—but on the level of applicability. Courts are struggling with the following question: should Charter values apply in the administrative law context whenever a decision-maker interprets a statute, even if there is no ambiguity or discretion? For reasons that I will explain, this distinction between statutory interpretation and discretion is more of an illusion. In administrative law, discretion exists when statutes are ambiguous. Therefore, if one must have regard to Charter values, it should only be in the context of a pure exercise of discretion, where an administrator has first concluded that a statute is truly ambiguous and therefore an administrator has room to maneuver. Where legislation is clear, decision-makers must apply it, unless there is a direct constitutional challenge to the legislation before the decision-maker, and the decision-maker has the power to consider the challenge under the Martin line of cases. If there is any law to apply—ie if the statute is clear after a review of the canons of interpretation—then Charter values have no place in the analysis.

Let’s start with the basics. The hornbook law answer to the problem says that courts—and by logical extension, inferior tribunals—can only take into account Charter values in cases of genuine statutory ambiguity, where this is discretion at play (see Bell ExpressVu, at para 28). Where legislation is clear, administrators should apply that legislation absent a direct constitutional argument raised by an applicant where the decision-maker has power to decide constitutional questions (Singh, at paras 62-63). And yet, the Supreme Court and other courts have sometimes said otherwise, relying on the line in Doré that decision-makers must always exercise their authority in accordance with Charter values (Doré, at para 35), even in absence of ambiguity. Take R v Clarke, where the Court seemed to suggest that administrative interpretations of law are always subject to a consideration of Charter values, even in absence of ambiguity:

Only in the administrative law context is ambiguity not the divining rod that attracts Charter values. Instead, administrative law decision-makers “must act consistently with the values underlying the grant of discretion, including Charter values” (Doré, at para. 24). The issue in the administrative context therefore, is not whether the statutory language is so ambiguous as to engage Charter values, it is whether the exercise of discretion by the administrative decision-maker unreasonably limits the Charter protections in light of the legislative objective of the statutory scheme.

This approach was followed by the Court of Appeal for Ontario in Taylor-Baptiste, and most recently by the Ontario Superior Court in Ontario Nurses Association. There, the court chastised a tribunal for failing to consider Charter values, even when the Tribunal found that the statute at hand was not ambiguous and where the court did not impugn this legal finding

So we have two lines of cases. One line of cases presents the defensible, hornbook law version of the hierarchy of laws, under which laws apply to all—including administrative decision-makers. The other line of cases permits decision-makers to use Charter values before determining whether the statute is ambiguous using the ordinary tools of interpretation, potentially changing what the legislature meant to say on an ordinary meaning of the text in service to some abstract consistency with a Charter “value.”

The distinction between administrative law discretion and statutory interpretation is really just two different points on a continuum. In the context of administrative law, saying that there is “discretion” and that the statute is “ambiguous” are slightly different ways of getting at the same concept. That concept is the idea that the statute cabins the interpretive movements of the administrator. Sometimes statutes will be written in ambiguous or broad terms, permitting discretion. There, Charter values should be fair game. But otherwise, if there is any law to apply at all, Charter values have no role to play.

It should therefore be obvious that this second line of cases is grossly—and dangerously—mistaken. These cases permit Charter values to enter the fray where the statute is not ambiguous (ie) at the first-order interpretive question stage of the analysis. The basic problem can be divided into two categories: (1) the effect of an administrative decision invoking Charter values on the hierarchy of laws and (2) the pernicious consequences of permitting decision-makers to use Charter values in the context of statutory interpretation.

Consider the first problem. The hierarchy of laws might be regarded as a quaint subtlety in today’s world of law, but it remains the bedrock to the Rule of Law. The idea is simple: absent constitutional objection, legislation binds (for a discussion of the continued relevance of this simple maxim, see Justice Stratas’ opinion in Hillier). A statute that is clear creates no discretion; upon first impression, an administrator interpreting a statute must simply apply the statute after determining its meaning using all the permissible tools of textual interpretation. This is because the legislature is the authoritative writer of laws, and those operating under the statutes the legislature promulgates must apply those statutes.

When there is ambiguity, discretion enters the fray. This is because the legislature has delegated to the decision-maker but has not said with specificity what law the decision-maker must apply. Such a finding of ambiguity should only happen after a consideration of all the normal tools of interpretation. At that point, BellExpressVu is a logical way to view the problem: decision-makers and courts can take account of Charter values, so that statutes in ambiguity are interpreted in pari materia with the Charter. This itself is an important canon of interpretation. Laws should be interpreted as a consistent whole, especially where the legislature has not specified what law to apply.

How would this work in the context of a concrete case? In Singh, for example, the problem was whether there was discretion for the Refugee Appeal Division (RAD) in interpreting whether to admit new evidence under s.110(4) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Section 110(4) contains explicit conditions for the admissibility of evidence. But an intervener made the argument that “the values protected by s.7 of the Charter must enter the interpretation and application of s.110(4) of the IRPA and even lead to the admissibility of new evidence that does not meet the explicit requirements of this provision” (see para 58). The Court rejected this argument because “an administrative decision-maker’s obligation to enforce Charter values arises only if it is exercising statutory discretion” (Doré, at para 55; Singh, at para 62). Since s.110(4) was not written in an “ambiguous manner,” Charter values could not enter the fray. And this is because of the hierarchy of laws: “[i]t is up to Parliament to amend legislation that has been declared unconstitutional so as to ensure compliance with the fundamental law of the land” (Singh, at para 62).

Doré itself involved a much more discretion-laden case, where the question was whether a lawyer’s conduct violated the sparse terms of a rule of professional conduct which simply required lawyers to act with “objectivity, moderation, and dignity.” Here, there is some ambiguity. This is not a statutory recipe, as s.110(4) is. Rather, it permits some discretion in the administrative decision-maker to decide whether particular conduct violates the rule. As such, Doré is a case where there arguably is ambiguity, in contrast to Singh. That said, were I on the Supreme Court, I would have ultimately held that the statutory text could be interpreted in absence of Charter values.

Other cases will be closer to the line. But what should not be permitted is the use of Charter values in absence of ambiguity, like in the Ontario Nurses Association case. By forcing this sort of analysis, courts enable decision-makers to change the clear meaning of statutes in order to accord with abstract Charter values, even when those values are not clear and the legislation was not written in this manner. The answer in such a case is for someone to raise a direct constitutional challenge to the legislation, either before the decision-maker or before a court. Otherwise, administrative decision-makers have no power to rewrite statutes to conform with Charter values—not necessarily coextensive with the Charter’s text—because to do so permits the decision-maker to co-opt the legislative role.

This leads into the second problem. The use of Charter values in statutory interpretation could lead to mass unpredictability in the application of law. First, this is because Charter values remain undefined. No one can tell whether a Charter value is co-extensive with the text of the Charter or not. No one can tell if there are Charter values that exist in addition to Charter rights. No one can tell the level of abstraction at which Charter values must be stated. While I have previously noted that Charter values are simply being deployed as if they were co-extensive with existing Charter rights, this need not be the case, given the ambiguity in how the Supreme Court has defined Charter values.

And this is the problem. Charter values are potentially so abstract that they provide a wishing-well of material for inexpert administrative decision-makers to mould clear statutory text in favour of their preferred policy outcomes. This is positively dangerous, and the mere possibility of it should be avoided by courts. What’s more, the invocation of Charter values in this way could lead to different findings of “inconsistency” with Charter values across the mass of administrative decision-makers, raising the prospect of palm-tree justice. In other words, it might simply depend on the decision-maker you draw as to whether a statute will be interpreted in accordance with “Charter values”; what such an interpretation would mean for your case; and what “value” would even be invoked in the first place.

Much of constitutional interpretation should exist to prevent such outcomes. Doctrinal rules should be developed to limit the discretion of judges and decision-makers to depart from the hierarchy of laws; or at the very least, rules should mandate that reasoned explanations be given for such departures. This is even more true in the context of the administrative state, where the mass of decision-makers exercising authority is so divergent that it is difficult to control as a matter of law. But the Charter values framework consists of no rules to control these decision-makers. It is simply unprincipled balancing under the guise of law. It is the realm of philosophers rather than lawyers and courts.

Devaluing Section 33

What happens to “Charter values” when a statute invokes the “notwithstanding clause”―and what this might mean for Québec’s Bill 21

Here is a little puzzle I have thought of when reading an intriguing Policy Options post by Grégoire Webber, Eric Mendelsohn, and Robert Leckey. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that the invocation of section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the notorious “notwithstanding clause” by a legislature ― for example, by Québec’s legislature enacting
Bill 21, an anti-religious dress code ― does not prevent the courts from pronouncing the statute to which it applies contrary to the Charter. The “notwithstanding clause” does not insulate the statute from judicial review, but merely means that the statute continues to operate regardless of that review’s outcome. I am tentatively inclined to agree, and may have more to say on this soon. But for now, I want to raise a somewhat different issue.

If Bill said that public servants guilty of wearing religious symbols are to lose their jobs, or that overtly religious persons cannot be hired for the positions to which clause 6 applies, then that rule would be protected by the “notwithstanding clause”, and so would be its straightforward application. But in fact Bill 21 does not itself specify what happens if its prohibition, in clause 6, on “wearing religious symbols” is disregarded. Rather, clause 12 merely provides that “[i]t is incumbent on the person exercising the highest administrative authority” over those to whom that prohibition applies “to take the necessary measures to ensure compliance”. The taking of those necessary measures would presumably be an administrative decision, subject to judicial review. And this is where things get interesting, in the sordid way in which anything having to do with judicial review of administrative decisions is interesting.

In a sane system of judicial review of constitutionally suspect administrative decisions ― like the one set out in Slaight Communications v Davidson, [1989] 1 SCR 1038 ― a decision to discipline, and eventually to dismiss, a public servant for breaching the prohibition on wearing religious symbols would, I think, have to be valid, so long of course as Bill 21 is protected by the “notwithstanding clause”. Such a decision is impliedly authorized by the statute, so to challenge its constitutionality one would need to challenge the statute itself, and the “notwithstanding clause” means that, whatever other consequences that challenge may have, the statute continues to operate.

But we no longer have a sane system of judicial review of administrative decisions that raise Charter issues. (I should make clear that I have grave misgivings about Slaight‘s correctness on the merits; it is only its approach to judicial review that I approve of.) What we have, instead, is the approach first set out in Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395, under which the issue is not whether an administrative decision is authorized by a statute interpreted so as to comply with the Charter, but whether it gives as full an effect to “Charter values” in light of the statute’s objectives. How the “notwithstanding clause” fits into this scheme is not at clear.

The question is, does the application of the “notwithstanding clause” to a statute suspend the application of “Charter values” to decisions authorized by that statute? And the answer to that question is by no means obvious. Doré itself, of course, is silent on the matter, as are its successors Loyola High School v Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 12, [2015] 1 SCR 613 and Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293. So too is the text of section 33 of the Charter, which speaks of legislation “hav[ing] such operation as it would have but for the provision of th[e] Charter” (emphasis mine) in respect of which section 33 is invoked. The Charter says nothing about “values”.

Are these values the same as Charter rights, in which case they might be ousted along with the “provisions” muted by the invocation of the “notwithstanding clause”? The cases at least suggest otherwise. In particular, in Loyola, the majority spoke of “Charter protections” as a category encompassing “values and rights” [35; emphasis mine], suggesting that values and rights are different. It added that “Charter values [are] those values that underpin each right and give it meaning”. [36] And so, one might at least make a serious argument to the effect that the values remain intact regardless of the temporary inapplicability of the Charter‘s provisions (and rights), and that Doré‘s injunction that “administrative decisions are always required to consider fundamental values” [35; emphasis in the original] remains in full force, notwithstanding the “notwithstanding clause”.

The reluctance of the framers of Bill 21 to spell out, in the legislation itself, the unpalatable consequences they presumably intend, combined with the perverseness of the administrative law doctrines endorsed by the Supreme Court, may thus result in the nullification of one of the bill’s most significant features ― its attempt to exclude judicial scrutiny. I hope that no one doubts my distaste for Bill 21. I have denounced its illiberalism here, arguing that Quebeckers ― and the rest of us ― need to stop fearing “the way in which others might use their liberty if we do not preemptively coerce them”. And I have myself defended what some might think of as a workaround designed to challenge the constitutionality of Bill 21 despite its invocation of the “notwithstanding clause”. And, more broadly, I have long argued that the “notwithstanding clause” would be best left untouched. But I cannot say I find the idea of relying on “Charter values” to subvert the invocation of the “notwithstanding clause”, even one as distasteful as Bill 21’s, especially satisfactory either. The whole concept of “Charter values” is a figment of the judicial imagination, and it usually serves, no matter the protestations of the TWU majority, to water down constitutional rights and to subvert the authority of the supreme law more broadly.

One should note, also, that even if the argument that Charter values continue to apply despite the “notwithstanding clause” is successful, there would remain the issue of weighing these values against statutory objectives. I will not say much about this here, beyond observing that there is glaring conflict between the ostensible aims of Bill 21 as a whole, stated in its clause 4, which are “(1) the separation of State and religions; (2) the religious neutrality of the State; (3) the equality of all citizens; and (4) freedom of conscience and freedom of religion”, and its real aims, and in particular, the aim of the ban of wearing religious symbols. I am not sure how a court would deal with this, but here again the reluctance of the framers of of Bill 21 to forthrightly admit that they are trying to simply purge Québec’s officialdom of overtly religious individuals may well open a space for judicial subversion.

It may yet be, then, that the story of Bill 21 will turn out to have something that will look, from the standpoint of the protection of individual rights, more or less like a happy ending. But we should not let ourselves be deceived. Two wrongs do not make a right. One can hardly make up for the Québec legislature’s unwillingness to be bound by constitutional law by exploiting similar unwillingness on the part of the Supreme Court. And maybe, just maybe, the court would in fact recoil before the prospect of following the implications of the Doré line of cases all the way to the nullification of section 33 of the Charter. Who knows ― they might even seize the opportunity for getting rid of Doré and restoring some sanity to the Canadian law of judicial review.

To be honest, I’m not sure which outcome is more desirable. On the one hand, I want to see Bill 21 undone. On the other, although the Québec legislature would have no cause for complaint if it is tripped up by its own cowardice, those of us who care about the Rule of Law could not happy by its further subversion, even if we like the immediate results. But then again, I have the luxury of worrying about the Rule of Law from a distance. Those personally affected by Bill 21 may feel differently about this.