On the Ontario Bar Association website, Teagan Markin describes and analyzes the recent UAlberta Pro-Life Case, 2020 ABCA 1. I had meant to blog on this decision when it came out, but life intervened, so I thank Markin for reminding me of the case. In the case, Watson JA employs a creative use of the Doré test, similar to how the Ontario Court of Appeal’s approach in Ferrier (which I blogged about here). Both Ferrier and UAlberta Pro-Life “bifurcate” the standard of review, so that the definition or scope of the Charter right at issue is reviewed on a correctness standard, while the right’s application in a proportionality analysis is reviewed on a reasonableness standard.
While I understand the impetus to clarify what the Court calls the “unelaborated language” of Doré (UAlberta Pro-Life, at para 166), I see bifurcation as only a medium-term solution because there are more fundamental issues between Doré and Vavilov. I actually see bifurcation as introducing more problems than it solves. It raises tricky issues about what the scope of a Charter right is versus its application; it is plainly inconsistent with Doré ; and if one takes Vavilov seriously, bifurcation arguably does not go far enough. If constitutional questions are so connected to the Rule of Law that they require consistent answers from the courts, bifurcating the standard of review is at best an intermediate solution to a more serious problem: Doré is simply inconsistent with Vavilov, on its own terms.
In this post, I explore this argument.
The UAlberta Pro-Life Case involved two appeals. The first appeal concerned a 2015 demonstration by the UAlberta Pro-Life group. The Pro-Life group complained to the University that counter-protests erected in response to the pro-life protest “breached the University Code of Student Behaviour” . This first issue, while interesting, is not in my cross-hairs for this post.
The second issue relates to a request by the Pro-Life group for permission to hold another demonstration in early 2016. The University determined that the group would be permitted to hold the event, so long as the group agreed to defray the costs associated with security for the event, estimated to be around $17 500. The Pro-Life group “said the cost was prohibitive and amount to denial of their exercise of freedom of expression” .
On judicial review, the chambers judge, relying on Doré , concluded that the University decision fell within “the range of possible acceptable outcomes”  because even though the costs of security impacted Pro-Life’s freedom of expression, “[t]hat impact had to be balanced against other interests” .
For the Court of Appeal, a number of issues presented themselves, including the thorny issue of whether the Charter applies to universities [148-149]. However, for our purposes, the relevant part of the decision dealing with the standard of review and the articulation of the Doré test are most important. The Court, early in the decision, says the following:
The standard of review as to the definitional scope of a Charter right or the definitional scope of s.32 of the Charter must be correctness. These are transcendent questions of law not resting within the enabling legislation of any specific decision-maker…By comparison, for issues of fact or discretion, the reviewing court is to “tread lightly”.
The Court, later in the decision, went on to explain that since the chambers judge’s error in applying the Doré test (which I will address below) “was erroneous on a Constitutional legal test, it is reviewed for correctness and it is reviewable as incorrect” .
Why is the articulation of a constitutional test a matter for correctness review? The Court couched the answer to this question in Vavilov:
In this respect, the Supreme Court in Vavilov recently referred briefly to Doré and appeared to distinguish review of the “effect” of a judicially reviewable administrative ruling from a specific finding of unconstitutionality of a statute on the basis of Charter inconsistency. The Supreme Court said “correctness” applied to the latter. The Court, however, did not state the standard of review for “effect” cases, and did not erase the above passages from TWU 1 and TWU 2. Significantly, the Court also reinforced at para 53 and elsewhere in their reasons, that correctness review applies to any determination of law linked to respect for the rule of law name ly “questions: constitutional questions, general questions of law of central importance to the legal system as a whole and questions regarding the jurisdictional boundaries between two or more administrative bodies.” I read, therefore, Vavilov as being consistent with the approach taken here .
With the standard of review set out, the Court also looked at the chambers judge’s application of the Doré test. There were two problems with this test, in the Court’s eyes: first, the chambers judge failed to articulate the proper s.1 limit, and second, she failed to properly allocate the proper burden of proof. On the first issue, the Court concluded that “the limitation must, in my view, be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. Although that expression about demonstrable justification does not figure prominently in the cases from Doré onward, it is not erased from the Charter as linguistic frill” . Since the chambers judge failed to ground her analysis in the language of s.1, she “applied a utilitarian approach” that failed to “apply the correct criteria” .
On the second issue of onus, the Court concluded that even under the Doré administrative law approach, “the onus on proving the ‘section 1 limit’ on expression freedom…should be on the state agent” . This suggestion is reminiscent of both McLachlin CJC’s and Rowe J’s opinions in Trinity Western, where they suggested friendly amendments to the Doré framework. But Doré was quite unclear on this point, as a matter of first principle.
Overall, the Court chastised the Doré framework, concluding that “[w]ith respect, Doré was expressed in elastic terms after which incorrect readings of Doré exposed Charter rights and freedoms to an inadequate level of protection” .
Bifurcation is not necessarily a new way to deal with issues of Charter rights. As Professor Daly points out, it is an approach that appears in the Supreme Court’s duty to consult jurisprudence (particularly, look at Rio Tinto and Moldaver J’s opinion in Ktunaxa). Ferrier, as I’ve written about before, is also an example of this approach. One understands the impetus for the Court of Appeal’s reasoning in UAlberta Pro-Life, from both a first-principles perspective and from a Vavilov perspective. From first principles, Doré , to many, has turned out to be a way to disempower Charter rights by reference to untethered “values,” and to let the government off scot-free, escaping the traditional justification it must bear under s.1. Indeed, as noted above, this was the impetus behind McLachlin CJC’s and Rowe J’s opinions in Trinity Western. For the then-Chief Justice, bifurcation seemed on the cards, because “the scope of the guarantee of a Charter right must be given a consistent interpretation regardless of the state actor, and it is the task of courts on judicial review of a decision to ensure this” (Trinity Western, at para 116). For Rowe J, the focus on values could lead to “unpredictable reasoning” (Trinity Western, at para 171) that, one can imagine could lead to under-powered Charter rights.
As the then-Chief Justice seems to understand, reasonableness does not help the situation. It means that the initial scope of a right might be given inconsistent (but reasonable) interpretations by different decision-makers. These inconsistent interpretations could be given even more power by sloppy “values-based” reasoning that divorces Charter analysis from the actual text of Charter rights. Bifurcation solves this problem. It forces courts to give a consistent interpretation, through correctness review, on issues of the scope of Charter rights. Conceivably, such decisions transcend the scope of particular statutory objectives and contexts, and go to the force of Charter rights in the abstract. Correctness review, then, adequately guards the consistent application of the scope of particular Charter rights in different statutory contexts.
But Vavilov, as I have written before, could also support this sort of bifurcation based on the principle of consistency. Recall that while Vavilov did not squarely address the Doré framework (see Vavilov, at para 57), it did expand on what the Rule of Law requires in the context of selecting the relevant standard of review. Sometimes, to the Court, “respect for the rule of law requires courts to apply the standard of correctness for certain types of legal questions…” (Vavilov, at para 53). This is particularly so with constitutional questions, where
[t]he application of the correctness standard…respects the unique role of the judiciary in interpreting the Constitution and ensures that courts are able to provide the last word on questions for which the rule of law requires consistency and for which a final and determinate answer is necessary (Vavilov, at para 53).
The scope of Charter rights, as the then-Chief Justice noted in Trinity Western, requires consistency. Correctness review on the scope/definition of Charter rights would accomplish that goal, at least in theory.
But bifurcation presents two problems: both from the Doré perspective and from the perspective of Vavilov. Like it or not (and I don’t) Doré is a binding precedent of the Supreme Court. As Markin argues in her post, Doré —and most recently, Trinity Western—were largely silent on this sort of bifurcation of the standard of review. While it has been recognized that the Doré test requires two distinct steps (1) “whether the administrative decision engages the Charter by limiting Charter protections” and (2) proportionate balancing (see Trinity Western, at para 58), the Court in both Doré and Trinity Western only said that the standard of reasonableness applies to decisions taken by decision-makers that impact Charter rights (see Trinity Western at paras 56-57; Doré , at para 56-57). It did not mention bifurcation as a proper approach. Indeed, Doré was an attempt to comprehensively address this standard of review issue—indeed, it arose, because of the Court’s appraisal of a “completely revised” relationship between the Charter and administrative law (Doré , at para 30). One would have expected such a comprehensive approach to mention bifurcation if it indeed was a doctrinal solution that the Court could endorse.
This, of course, does not mean that Doré is on solid ground. Indeed, much of Vavilov can be read as a way to undermine Doré , as I wrote about here. And on this front, one could make a convincing argument that bifurcation simply does not go far enough in light of Vavilov. Vavilov says that issues involving the Constitution should be reviewed on a correctness standard. Again, it is because these questions require consistency from the courts, as courts are in the unique position of being guardians of the Constitution (see Hunter v Southam, at 155: “ Ell v Alberta, at para 23; United States v ; Kourtessis v MNR, at 90). Based on this idea, one could convincingly argue that the proportionality analysis—not just the issue of the scope of Charter rights—should also be reviewed on a correctness standard.
This is true for a few reasons. First, Doré was premised on a functional idea of expertise as a reason for deference. The idea was that, in the context of statutes under which administrative decision-makers receive power, administrative decision-makers are best suited to be able to balance the Charter values at play in light of the statutory objectives (see Doré , at paras 35, 46). Vavilov resiles from expertise as a reason for applying the reasonableness standard reflexively (Vavilov, at para 31). Now, expertise is a reason for deference, but only after reasonableness has been selected for other reasons going to legislative intent (Vavilov, at para 31). There is no warrant to impose a different standard when it comes to constitutional questions, even those that arise in statutory contexts with which decision-makers may be familiar. That is, if we do not presume expertise on run-of-the-mill, humdrum legal questions, then why should we presume it in the context of constitutional questions? My uneducated guess is that most decision-makers do not have expertise on constitutional matters, even if they arise in the context of familiar statutes. And if expertise is no longer a reason for reflexive deference, then the rug is pulled out from Doré as a matter of first-principles. Now, courts should not lessen the robustness of review based on questions of expertise. Vavilov, then, lowers the importance of functional reasons for deference.
Second, proportionality still counts as a “constitutional question” that should be subject to Vavilov’s comments about the Rule of Law. One might argue that there is a difference in kind between the scope of Charter rights and their application/balancing in the proportionality context. For one, the scope of a Charter right is a pure question of law, and application considerations are probably questions of mixed fact and law, to which we might owe deference. But there is no reason to think this strict division will hold all the time. In the first place, I am skeptical of the ability of courts to reliably decide what is an issue of “scope” and what is an issue of “application.” Indeed, constitutional challenges as against statutes largely depend on their facts—this is borne out if one looks at cases like Bedford and Carter. And yet, in statuory contexts, we apply a correctness standard (see Vavilov, at para 57). We might lessen the force of a correctness standard in respect of particular facts—ie the margin of appreciation—but that margin is not always applicable. Neither it should be in the Doré context.
All of this to say, the UAlberta Pro-Life Case is a good illustration of the ways in which courts are trying to navigate Doré post-Vavilov. As noted above, I understand the impetus behind bifurcation as a medium-term way to bridge the gap between Doré and Vavilov. But I still see fundamental strains between Doré and Vavilov that bifurcation cannot solve.