It’s a Dog!

The majority’s pro-regulatory beliefs help make West Fraser a dog of a decision

In previous posts, I have summarized the Supreme Court’s decision in West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, upholding the validity of a regulation of the British Columbia Workers’ Compensation Board imposing safety-related obligations on owners of forestry workplaces, and the legality of a penalty imposed on such an owner under a statutory provision authorizing penalties against employers who do not comply with regulations, and discussed some of the administrative law issues to which this decision gives rise. As previously noted, however, West Fraser is interesting not just for what it can tell us about the finer points of judicial review, but also for what it implicitly says about the Supreme Court’s relationship to the administrative state.

In its overall orientation as well as in some details, the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice McLachlin with the agreement of five colleagues, is reminiscent of R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15 (further confirmation, perhaps, of the Chief Justice’s likely authorship of that ostensibly per curiam decision). It’s not just that the deferential approach to judicial review is, in practice, in Canada, almost necessarily a pro-regulatory position, though that’s part of the story. It’s also that, on the Chief Justice’s view of statutory interpretation, a statute’s pro-regulatory purpose is to be amplified, while whatever constraints on its pro-regulatory orientation the statute might contain are to be played down. And, most fundamentally, the Chief Justice tells us that regulation is good, and the more of it there is, the better.

As discussed in more detail in my previous posts, the Chief Justice’s approach to both issues in West Fraser is deferential ― or so the Chief Justice says. In reality, I have argued, she engages in disguised correctness review and agrees with the administrative decision-maker. But, in principle at least, it’s the deferential approach that’s binding on future courts. Conceptually, deference might be neutral as between pro- and anti-regulatory outlooks. In the United States, famously, Chevron USA v Natural Resources Defense Council, 467 US 837 (1984), which required a deferential approach to administrative interpretations of legislation, arose out of efforts at deregulation by the Reagan administration. Even so, it seems likely that administrative decisions that reduce the scope or onerousness of regulation are less likely to be challenged, so that in practice a deferential court will be a pro-regulatory court even if it has no particular desire to be one. And, of course, the prospects of serious regulatory roll-back in Canada seem rather remote.

But there is more. Whatever abstract theory might suggest, Canadian deference theorists are unabashedly in the pro-regulatory camp. David Dyzenhaus’s famous chapter on “The Politics of Deference: Judicial Review and Democracy”, from which the Supreme Court in Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190, plucked the phrase “deference as respect”, [48] urged the courts to defer to administrative decision ― because its author thought that administrative regulation was normatively desirable, notably in that it advances the cause of equality. (Professor Dyzenhaus went so far as to argue that non-deferential review of the decisions of human rights tribunals by independent courts was a “setback[] to the constitutional commitment to equality between Canadians”, (297) as if the courts were not ultimately responsible for upholding this constitutional commitment.) But for Professor Dyzenhaus, deference was a one-way ratchet: if, peradventure, “judges find themselves confronted with administrative determinations of law that flow from” deregulatory impulses, “they should not be embarrassed to ask how those determinations advance the cause of equality” (306) ― and  so to intervene if they do not. Much more recently, in her contribution to the “Dunsmuir Decade” symposium, Kate Glover proposed a novel theory according to which judicial deference to administrative decision-makers is now a constitutional requirement. Professor Glover did so in an attempt to prepare the administrative state’s defences against a (purely hypothetical, as she rightly notes) siege by deregulating anti-administrativists. This should, I think, be a warning to anyone who hopes that deferential courts would in fact be neutral as between more regulation or less.

Statutory interpretation, no less than (rhetorical) deference, is marshalled in support of regulatory expansion by the Chief Justice. She stresses that the Workers Compensation Act, the statute at issue, “is meant to promote workplace safety in the broadest sense”, [18] and discounts the more specific purpose statements that seem to suggest that this purpose is not to be pursued by whatever means necessary. Focusing on them is “formalistic” and “inconsistent with a purposive interpretation of the scheme”. [18] (To be honest, I don’t know what “formalistic” is supposed to mean here. But it’s bad, bad, bad.) When it comes to the issue of whether the statute authorized the imposition of penalties seemingly reserved for “employers” on firms that were, in the context of the events in relation to which the penalty was being imposed, “owners” but not “employers”, the Chief Justice once again favours an interpretation “more supportive of the goal of promoting safety and the overall operation of the scheme”. [38] This interpretation, as I argued in my last post, is strained to the point of rendering the statutory language meaningless. However, what mattered to the Chief Justice is that reading the statute to mean what it said “would undermine [its] goals”, while the strained interpretation “would further the goals of the statute and the scheme built upon it”. [40] In short the statutory purpose, understood in the most pro-regulatory way possible, must be given effect ― other purposes and text itself be damned.

Now, in fairness, to the Chief Justice, she arguably is dealing with a real interpretive difficulty. Probably all, certainly most statutes involve compromises between a number of values or purposes. The Workers Compensation Act promotes workplace safety, of course, but it also accommodates a measure of free enterprise. It could, after all, have imposed  even more invasive regulation that might have done even more for workplace safety ― but the legislature chose to only go so far towards that purpose, because going further might have undermined other purposes that it also valued. Or, to take another example, human rights legislation doubtless aims at achieving equality in society ― but the limits on its scope, for example the fact that it is typically not applicable to personal, non-economic relationships, suggests that it respects a measure of personal liberty ― implicitly anyway. The problem, though, is that if the legislature enacts a provision that specifies the purpose of a statute, it is likely to present  some, perhaps just one, of the values that the statute actually accommodates, as the purpose it seeks to realize, and omit the others. This might be done for political reasons ― it might not look good to tell workers, or voters, “we’re protecting you, but only some, since protecting you more would actually put a bunch of you out of work”. Perhaps more forgivably, this might also be because, relatively to the previous state of the law, the statute does move things in the direction of more protection, so characterizing that as its main purpose is not unfair. But, either way, the legislature is misleading those who read and try to understand the statute ― above all the courts ― by giving them a distorted view of its objectives.

What are the courts to do when the legislature does this? I think they should do what Justice Côté did in West Fraser ― read the whole statute and give effect to its terms, not letting the (one-sided) purpose section override the substantive provisions. By choosing to focus on the purpose indication (and to read it selectively to emphasize its pro-regulatory aspects), the Chief Justice once again implicitly privileges regulation. For the same political reasons I refer to above, it seems likely that the legislatures will systematically overstate the significance of their regulatory purposes, and understate whatever countervailing values might also be animating them. So, a judge who overvalues statutory statements of purpose at the expense  of the text will tend to produce pro-regulatory outcomes even  without setting out to do so. But I doubt that the Chief Justice is such a judge.

In fact, her reasons in West Fraser suggest that the Chief Justice’s basic disposition is in favour of regulation ― the more of it the better. She is comfortable with a legislative mandate to an administrative agency “to enact whatever regulations it deemed necessary to accomplish its goals of workplace health and safety”, [10] going so far as to characterize this as an “unrestricted delegation of power”. [11] Though admittedly it is unlikely that the Chief Justice means this adjective literally, it is remarkable that she appears untroubled by the idea of an unrestricted regulatory mission. Later, when discussing the issue of the penalty, the Chief Justice writes that “[t]he general scheme of the [Workers Compensation Act] is to hold both owners and employers responsible in an overlapping and cooperative way for ensuring worksite safety” [43] by way of justifying holding the ones responsible for violations of obligations the statute only seems to impose on the others. As in the area of what used to be known as division of powers, “cooperation” comes to mean the accumulation of regulatory mandates ― and is seen as a good thing. The Chief Justice’s shows her attitude towards such mandates most clearly when she makes a point of observing that the regulation challenged in West Fraser was adopted

in response to a concern in the province about the growing rate of workplace fatalities in the forestry sector … provid[ing] a clear illustration of why a legislature chooses to delegate regulation-making authority to expert bodies — so that gaps can be addressed efficiently. [20]

It is important that something be done about social problems, and whatever is done about them by regulators ― presumed,  conclusively, to be experts ― must therefore be good. There is only a step, if that, from here to what Sir Humphrey Appleby described as “the politician’s logic”, and what later became known as “the politician’s syllogism“. Something must be done; this is something; therefore this must be done. The Chief Justice has, on the occasion of her already-happened-but-still-impending retirement, and indeed before, been much praised for her statecraft. In West Fraser, she reminds one of The Right Honourable Jim Hacker, MP.

Of course, by criticizing the Chief Justice’s pro-regulatory views ― and those of the other judges in the West Fraser majority ― I do not mean that judges ought to become the flag-carriers of deregulation. They should be neutral and, within constitutional bounds, give effect to the legislation that Mr. Hacker’s colleagues, in their wisdom, enact. Much of this legislation will delegate considerable regulatory powers to administrative agencies. That’s too bad, so far as I am concerned, but this a policy view, not a constitutional argument. However, judges should not, in the name of doing something, be trying to give the regulators freer rein than legislators intended. In Yes, Prime Minister, just before Sir Humphrey formulates the politician’s syllogism, his mentor, the wily Sir Arnold Robinson, exposes its logic by proposing a different one with the same logical structure: “all cats have four legs; my dog has four legs…” “Therefore,” concludes Sir Humphrey, “my dog is a cat.” Well no. And so West Fraser is a dog of a decision.

 

Jousting over Jurisdiction

A summary of the Supreme Court judges’ competing views on how to assess the validity of delegated legisation

The Supreme Court’s decision in West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, is, as Robert Leckey observed on Twitter, “[o]ne for the judicial-review nerds or junkies”. But it is also much more than that, because it a chilling reminder of what I recently called the Supreme Court’s “pro-regulatory bias“, and its resulting complacency in the face of administrative lawlessness. As I will explain shortly, there are four different opinions in the case, dealing with two different issues. In this post, I mostly review these opinions, quoting from them at some length. This will be quite long, I am afraid, due to the amount of ground to cover and to the importance of getting a sense of the judges’ thinking. I will offer my own comments separately.

The case arose out of a tragic accident. On land owned by West Fraser, a worker employed by an independent contractor “was fatally struck by a rotting tree”. [1] The provincial Workers’ Compensation Board fined West Fraser, for failing to comply with a regulation (that it had itself made in purported exercise of its authority under s 225(1) of the British Columbia Workers Compensation Act to “make regulations [it] considers necessary or advisable in relation to occupational health and safety and occupational environment”) requiring “[t]he owner of a forestry operation” to “ensure that all activities of the forestry operation are both planned and conducted in a manner consistent with this Regulation and with safe work practices acceptable to the Board.” As basis for its power to impose the fine, the Board relied on s 196(1) of the Workers Compensation Act, which authorized it to “impose on an employer an administrative penalty” for, among other things, failure to comply with the relevant regulations.

West Fraser challenged the legality of this fine on two grounds. First, it argued that the regulation with which it was said not to have complied was ultra vires the Board ― that was not authorized by the Workers Compensation Act. On this issue, the Supreme Court split 8-1: the majority upholds the regulation, though Justice Brown takes a very different approach from the majority judgment authored by Chief Justice McLachlin, and Justice Rowe is at best ambivalent; Justice Côté dissents. Second, West Fraser argued that, even if the regulation was valid, it could not be fined for breaching it, since within the meaning of the Workers Compensation Act it was, in relation to the victim, an “owner” (of the workplace), and not an “employer”. On this point (and, therefore, in the result), Justices Brown and Rowe agree with Justice Côté’s dissent.

* * *

For the Chief Justice, the approach to the question whether a regulation was authorized by the statute pursuant to which it was purportedly made is identical to that followed on any other “judicial review of the exercise of delegated administrative powers”, [8] and set out in Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190. Given the Board’s regulatory expertise, the issue is whether the impugned regulation “represents a reasonable exercise of the Board’s delegated regulatory authority”. [10] While “some” ― that would be the Chief Justice’s colleagues who disagree with this approach ― argue that the issue if one of jurisdiction, and thus under Dunsmuir the correctness standard applies, the Chief Justice takes the position that

Where the statute confers a broad power on a board to determine what regulations are necessary or advisable to accomplish the statute’s goals, the question the court must answer is not one of vires in the traditional sense, but whether the regulation at issue represents a reasonable exercise of the delegated power, having regard to those goals. [23]

In this case, the “delegated regulatory authority” is vast: “the Legislature indicated it wanted the Board to enact whatever regulations it deemed necessary to accomplish its goals of workplace health and safety”. [10] This “delegation of power to the Board could not be broader” [10] ― indeed, it is “unrestricted” [11] or, at least, it authorizes “any regulation that may reasonably be construed to be related to workplace health and safety”. [11]

This might be enough to uphold the regulation on the Chief Justice’s approach ― but Justice Côté, as we shall see, forces her to elaborate. The Chief Justice insists that the regulation at issue is both consistent with the purpose and “fits with other provisions of” [14] the Workers Compensation Act. And the Chief Justice invokes “two additional external contextual factors” . [19] For one thing, the impugned regulation was a “response to a concern in the province about the growing rate of workplace fatalities in the forestry sector”, and thus “a clear illustration of why a legislature chooses to delegate regulation-making authority to expert bodies — so that gaps can be addressed efficiently”. [20] For another, the Regulation is a logical extension of the owners’ existing duties. In short, even on a correctness standard, “the Regulation plainly falls within the broad authority granted” to the Board. [23]

The dissenting judges disagree with the Chief Justice’s approach. Justice Côté delivers the most sustained rejoinder. She insists that the question “whether the Board has the authority to adopt a regulation of this nature at all” “is jurisdictional in nature” [56] and so must be reviewed on a correctness standard: “[t]he Board … possesses only the authority that is delegated to it by statute”, [56] and this authority either extends to the making of the Regulation, or it doesn’t. Indeed, since it “is an unelected institution”, it is important to “ensure[] that the Board … does not aggrandize its regulation-making power against the wishes of the province’s elected representatives”. [66] Besides, unlike when it is adjudicating a dispute, an administrative decision-maker determining the scope of its regulatory authority neither possesses expertise superior to that of the judiciary, nor brings to bear policy considerations or factual understanding unavailable to the courts. And anyway, reasonableness review, which is supposed by focused on the administrative decision-maker’s reasons, can hardly be applied to rule-making decisions which the regulators need not explain: “[i]f a court does not know the reasons justifying a decision or an exercise of jurisdiction, how can it afford any deference?” [69] Justice Côté adds that the Chief Justice’s “rationale largely escapes [her]”, and her “basis for applying the reasonableness standard remains largely unexplained”. [70] The Chief Justice, she says, “has offered almost no analysis on a question that will prove to be important in subsequent cases”. [74] These are fighting words by the usually demure standards of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Justice Côté also disagrees with the Chief Justice on the merits. In her view, the impugned Regulation “impermissibly conflates the duties of owners and employers in the context of a statutory scheme that sets out separate and defined obligations for” each. [75] Consistently with the statutory purpose, set out in s 107(2)(e) of the Workers Compensation Act, to share out responsibility for workplace safety “to the extent of each party’s authority and ability”, the employers’ duties have to do with their relationship with the workers; the owners’, with the employers. They are “separate silos of responsibility”, each actor being assigned that part of the overall task of protecting workplace safety that it is “in the best position to assume”. [83] The impugned Regulation forces owners to micro-manage workers, taking up a role which the Workers Compensation Act instead assigns to employers, and is thus inconsistent with the statutory scheme and purpose. Although its powers are broad, the Board cannot do such a thing: “[o]therwise, there would be no functional limit on the Board’s ability to enact regulations … in some way connected to some abstract vision of occupational health and safety”. [87] Regardless of what might have prompted the Board to regulate in the way it did, it lacked the authority to do it.

Justice Brown also insists on correctness review for the validity of the Regulation. The matter, in his view too, is one of jurisdiction, and Dunsmuir requires the courts to provide their own answers to truly jurisdictional questions. Like Justice Côté, Justice Brown faults the Chief Justice for her “inadequate” response that “elide[s]” the issue. [113] For Justice Brown,

a central judicial function is to ensure that statutory delegates such as the Board act only within the bounds of authority granted to them by the legislature. … Public power must always be authorized by law. It follows that no statutory delegate, in enacting subordinate legislation (that is, in making law), may ever exceed its authority. The rule of law can tolerate no departure from this principle. [116; emphasis in the original]

The substantive reasonableness of a regulation, by contrast, is not a matter for the courts. Provided that the regulation was authorized by statute and not made oppressively or in bad faith, the courts should not interfere. All that said, on the merits, Justice Brown concurs with the Chief Justice. In a single sentence, he concludes that the grant of regulatory authority in the Workers Compensation Act “is sufficiently broad to support” [121] the impugned Regulation.

For his part Justice Rowe professes to “concur with [the Chief Justice’s] analysis”, [128] but only with the proviso that it be split into two parts: first a jurisdictional analysis (which presumably is to be approached on a correctness standard, following Dunsmuir); and then “a substantive inquiry into the exercise of the grant of authority” [127] and its consistency with the purpose of the statute. While Justice Rowe is of the view that the Chief Justice undertakes both of these steps, the second, as I indicated above, is largely if not entirely a response to Justice Côté. Justice Rowe’s agreement with the Chief Justice is thus more apparent than real. He also makes a point of hitting out at “one of the myths of expertise that now exist in administrative law”, [129] arguing that “‘working day to day'” to apply a statutory regime “does not” “give [administrative decision-makers] greater insight into statutory interpretation, including the scope of jurisdiction, which is a matter of legal analysis”. [129]

* * *

The second issue, recall, is whether the Board was entitled to fine West Fraser under a statutory provision that authorizes the imposition of penalties on “employers” who do not comply with regulations. Here, there is no overt dispute about the standard of review: the Chief Justice finds, and Justice Côté (with whom Justices Brown and Rowe agree) “assume[s]”, [95] that provincial legislation imposes patent unreasonableness as the applicable standard.

The Chief Justice finds that to read “employer” as extending to an owner is not patently unreasonable. To be sure, the alternative opinion is “plausible”, [37] but there are also arguments in support of the “broader” view, “one more supportive of the goal of promoting safety and the overall operation of the scheme”. [38] Since West Fraser “employed persons to carry out the duties imposed by” the Regulation, [38] ― and indeed it had, to being a corporation ― it was an “employer” as well as an “owner”. Moreover, “[t]he general scheme of the [Workers Compensation] Act is to hold both owners and employers responsible in an overlapping and cooperative way for ensuring worksite safety”. [43] Since West Fraser “had sufficient knowledge and control over the worksite in question to render it responsible for the safety of the worksite”, [47] penalizing for the safety shortcomings was reasonable.

Justice Côté sees things differently. Patent unreasonableness is a deferential standard of review, “but there are some interpretations of law that are so far beyond the pale that they cannot be permitted to stand”. [107] The statute carefully distinguishes the roles of owners and employers, and it is impossible to read a provision that only applies to one of these roles as applying to the other too. Although the same entity may play both roles in a given situation, the penalty applicable to the breach of obligations associated with one is not applicable to the breach of those associate with the other. When the legislature wanted to speak more broadly, it used the word “person” rather than the specific terms “owner” or “employer”; the Chief Justice’s “reasoning in this case effectively rewrites” [102] the Workers Compensation Act, undoing legislative choices to uphold “an unbounded interpretation” [104] by the administrative decision-maker. It is not enough, Justice Côté adds, to point to the general purpose of the statute to uphold this interpretation:

The legislature may have intended to pursue that purpose, but it did so through limited means … To hold that any interpretation that the Tribunal views as advancing the goal of health and safety can survive patent unreasonableness scrutiny would render judicial review meaningless. [107]

* * *

There is a lot to chew on here, and I will mostly do so in two upcoming posts. In the first one, I will focus on the substance of the case ― the various views on the proper approach to determining the validity of a regulation, the validity of the Regulation in this case, and the reasonableness or otherwise of the fine imposed by the regulator. (Spoiler alert: to, I suspect, nobody’s surprise, I mostly agree with Justice Côté.) In the second post, I will take a step back, and discuss the broader issues having to do with the relationship between the Supreme Court and the administrative state.

Despotism, Revisited

Thoughts upon belatedly reading an (anti-)administrative law classic

I have, rather belatedly, read an (anti-)administrative law classic, The New Despotism by Lord Hewart’s  ― an attack on the power of what would come to be called the administrative state published in 1929 by the then-Lord Chief Justice of England. The book made quite an impression when it was published, prompting the government to set up an inquiry, and even has its own Wikipedia page. However, I don’t think The New Despotism is often discussed in Canada these days. (A quick HeinOnline search shows no more than occasional citations in the past decade; and, what little that’s worth, I hadn’t heard about it until I sat in on my colleague Vernon Rive’s administrative law lectures.) So perhaps some comments here may be of interest, if only to my fellow dabblers, despite the book’s antiquity.

In a nutshell, Lord Hewart was alarmed by the expansion of unreviewable legislative and adjudicative powers delegated by Parliament to officials within the executive branch. While he is almost certainly skeptical of the administrative state generally, Lord Hewart mostly suspends this skepticism and focuses his attacks not on the exercise of power by administrative decision-makers as such, but on the fact that, all too often, administrative power is exercised more or less secretly, without the persons affected by it being able to make submissions to decision-makers, or without decision-makers having to take these submissions into account, or to explain how they reached the conclusions they did. He criticizes legislation empowering administrators to override statutes, or to interpret and apply them without any judicial oversight. Such legislation, he insists, creates a system that is not, properly speaking, one of “administrative law”, such as it exists in Europe (Lord Hewart doesn’t share A.V. Dicey’s notorious disdain for continental administrative law), but one of “administrative lawlessness”.

The remarkable thing is that, while it is fashionable to describe The New Despotism (insofar as it is referred to at all) as a “tirade” delivered by an apologist for the nightwatchman-state dark ages, his critique has been largely accepted ― including by the latter-day defenders of the administrative state ― and incorporated into modern administrative law. Whatever our views on the Canadian (and American) practice of deference to administrative interpretations of statutes, even those who defend this practice accept that some judicial oversight over administrative decision-makers is constitutionally essential. And they, like their critics, would share Lord Hewart’s indignation at decision-making processes in which anonymous officials may act without receiving evidence or submissions from affected parties, whom they need not appraise of their concerns, and are not required to give reasons. He might not be kindly remembered, but in a very real sense, Lord Hewart won the battle of ideas. Pro- or anti-administrativists, we largely agree with him, and indeed among ourselves. The outstanding disagreements are of course significant, but not nearly as significant as the general assent to the subjection of administrative decision-making to judicial review in matters both procedural and substantive.

Interestingly, however, this consensus was not implemented in the manner Lord Hewart envisioned. It is largely reflected in the development of the common law, and not so much in changes to legislative practice which he urged. Some legislative changes have occurred. In particular, there are better, though I suspect still deficient, mechanisms for Parliamentary review of regulations, which Lord Hewart called for. But legislatures have not ceased purporting to delegate vast and unreviewable powers to the executive. What has changed is that the courts came to take a much more skeptical approach to such legislation, and seldom give it its full effect. This, I think, is not surprising. Lord Hewart thought that, to eradicate administrative lawlessness, “what is necessary is simply
a particular state of public opinion”, for which to “be brought into existence what is necessary is simply a knowledge of the facts”. (148) This seems almost touchingly naïve ― almost, because, as a former politician himself, Lord Hewart ought to have known better. It is implausible that public opinion can be drawn to, let alone firmly focused on, issues that are bound to strike non-lawyers as purely technical matters. This is something worth pondering as we reflect on the relative legitimacy of judicially-articulated and legislated rules, whether generally or specifically in the context of administrative law.

Let me now go back to the disagreement between those who favour judicial deference to administrative decision-makers and those who resist it. That Lord Hewart would surely have been in the latter camp will not persuade anyone who is not, given his reputation as an arch-anti-administrativist. But there is another jurist, whose name carries more authority in Canada than Lord Hewart’s, whom I am happy to claim for non-deferential camp (to which I belong): none other than Lord Sankey, of the “living tree” fame. In an extra-judicial speech, delivered just months before the opinion in Edwards v Canada (Attorney General), [1930] AC 124, a.k.a. the Persons Case, and quoted by Lord Hewart, Lord Sankey emphasized the importance of the Rule of Law, and of the courts as its enforcers:

Amid the cross-currents and shifting sands of public life the Law is like a great rock upon which a man may set his feet and be safe, while the inevitable inequalities of private life are not so dangerous in a country where every citizen knows that in the Law Courts, at any rate, he can get justice. (151)

And then, describing the threats to the courts’ role in upholding the Rule of Law, Lord Sankey pointed to

what has been described as a growing tendency to transfer decisions on points of law or fact from the Law Courts to the Minister of some Government department. (151)

And as for Lord Hewart himself, he did have an answer to at least one objection to judicial oversight of the administrative state that the defenders of deference still trot out from time to time: that allowing unobstructed judicial review of administrative decisions will lead to too much costly litigation. (For instance, in Edmonton (City) v Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Ltd, 2016 SCC 47, [2016] 2 SCR 293, Justice Karakatsanis’ majority opinion claimed that “[a] presumption of deference on judicial review … provides parties with a speedier and less expensive form of decision making”. [22]) Lord Hewart responded to this concern by pointing out that

what is desired is not that there should be endless litigation but rather that litigation should be rendered as a rule unnecessary by the diffused and conscious knowledge that, in case of need, recourse might be had to an impartial public tribunal, governed by precedent, and itself liable to review. (155)

The point is one that goes to the very nature of the Rule of Law:

Nobody outside Bedlam supposes that the reason why Courts of law exist in a civilized community is that the founders of the State have believed happiness to consist in the greatest possible amount of litigation among the greatest possible number of citizens. The real triumph of Courts of law is when the universal knowledge of their existence, and universal faith in their justice, reduce to a minimum the number of those who are willing so to behave as to expose themselves to their jurisdiction. (155)

Just last year, the UK Supreme Court adopted essentially this reasoning in R (Unison) v Lord Chancellor [2017] UKSC 51, in the course of explaining the importance of access to adjudication ― perhaps ironically, in that case, adjudication in administrative tribunals, albeit ones functioning quite differently from those decried by Lord Hewart. Arch-anti-administrativist he may have been, but Lord Hewart was a more intelligent, and is a more relevant, jurist than those who dismiss him might realize. If you are interested in administrative law and haven’t read The New Despotism, you probably should read it.

Precedent and Democracy

“Long-standing” precedent is generally regarded as more authoritative than one of recent vintage. But there is reason to question that assumption, too. The more ancient a rule, the more likely it is that the reasons that made it sensible or good (whatever one’s criteria for the goodness of legal rules!) at the time it crystallized or was laid down no longer hold true. In the extreme case, we are left with the situation that Oliver Wendell Holmes famously decried in “The Path of the Law,” 10 Harv. L. Rev. 457 (1897):

[i]t is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that so it was laid down in the time of Henry IV. It is still more revolting if the grounds upon which it was laid down have vanished long since, and the rule simply persists from blind imitation of the past.

So which sort of precedent deserves greater deference ― old or new? One consideration that tends to be missing from the debates about the authoritativeness of precedent ― even though it is a popular argument in the broader debate about the authoritativeness and legitimacy of “judge-made” (or, to borrow a less loaded term from Lon Fuller, “adjudicative”) law ― is legislative acquiescence.

It is often said that adjudicative law is democratically legitimate because, even though the courts in whose decisions it is set out are not in a meaningful sense democratic, legislatures could change the rules of adjudicative law that they do not like. Their failure to act is regarded as a sign of consent to the rules set out by courts, a democratic confirmation, albeit a tacit one, of the suitability of these rules for the community. Now, the acquiescence thesis does not strike me as entirely plausible, because the mass of case law is such that legislatures seem to me not very likely to be aware of all of its developments, still less to have the opportunity to respond to them in a timely fashion. But there is at least some truth to it, even if not enough to make it the conclusive argument for the legitimacy of adjudicative law its many proponents think it.

If we accept the acquiescence thesis, it would seem that long-standing precedents do have more authority than recent ones. The older a precedent, the more plausible the claim that the legislature has acquiesced to it.  The longer a precedent has been around, and especially the more subsequent judicial decisions have relied on it (admittedly, not necessarily a perfectly correlated fact), the more likely it seems that the legislature will become aware of it. People who stand to be affected by it and who are unhappy about the situation will, presumably, at least try to interest the legislature in their plight. And, given enough time, the legislature might respond.

But now, consider a somewhat stronger version of the acquiescence thesis. This stronger version holds that legislatures do not merely acquiesce to the rules of adjudicative law, but actually, albeit again implicitly, delegate rule-making responsibilities to courts, in more or less the same way  as they delegate such responsibilities to the executive branch of government. Again, I do not find this an entirely persuasive claim; I’m not sure that legislative silence on a certain point can really be taken as an invitation for the courts to deal with it rather than a merely lack of attention or even a deliberate decision not to regulate. Still, again, the delegation thesis is at least sometimes true. Legislatures do enact very general, even vague, statutes which they expect the courts to elaborate into more detailed regulatory schemes. And perhaps legislatures have in fact a more general expectation that if a problem arises with the law, the courts will deal with it ― it is hard to tell.

But if, or to the extent, that the delegation thesis is true, the courts should be quite proactive in responding to changing social conditions. They should then also be more suspicious of, rather than more deferential to, older precedents. The reasons that justified the precedent may have disappeared with the changes in society, the growth of our knowledge (scientific, economic, etc.), or even the development of other areas of the law.

Note, by the way, that the acquiescence and the delegation thesis are actually very close. The latter is only a mildly stronger version of the former. Indeed the delegation thesis depends on the acquiescence thesis for whatever normative validity it might have. If the legislature is not actually in a position to review and either consent to or revise adjudicative law, then it seems quite wrong for it to delegate legislative power to courts. (Though it might still be wrong for it do it even if the acquiescence thesis holds ― a point for a separate post, perhaps.) The difference between acquiescence and delegation seems to be only a matter of perspective: does the legislature consider the work of courts beforehand or retrospectively? In fact, to the extent the legislature does consider adjudicative law at all, it seems plausible that it does both, looking at what courts have done on an issue in the past and at what they might do in the future.

And yet, when it comes to the effect of time on authority of a precedent, the acquiescence and the delegation thesis seem to suggest opposite conclusions. I am not sure what to make of all this.

Less Than Meets the Eye?

Last week, the BC Court of Appeal issued what seems to me an important decision upholding the constitutionality of a treaty between the Nisga’a Nation, British Columbia, and Canada, and legislation implementing the treaty. The appellants in Sga’nism Sim’augit (Chief Mountain) v. Canada (Attorney General), 2013 BCCA 49, argued that the treaty and the legislation effected an irrevocable delegation of legislative powers to the Nisga’a government, effectively creating a third order of government, contrary to the constitution, which recognizes only two, Canada and the provinces.

As the Court describes it,

the Treaty has four basic components: first, a grant of 2,000 km² of land in fee simple to the Nisga’a Nation in substitution for Aboriginal title; second, the definition of hunting, fishing and trapping rights in Nisga’a lands extending beyond the land granted in fee simple; third, financial compensation to the Nisga’a Nation in consideration of the settlement of their historic claims; and fourth, the establishment of a Nisga’a government, with legislative powers in respect of defined subject matters, in accordance with a Nisga’a Constitution. (Par. 13)

And the treaty provides that the legislation enacted by the Nisga’a in some specified areas will prevail over inconsistent federal and provincial legislation. In other areas, it’s the other way around.

By its own terms, the treaty confirms and confers rights that come within the scope of s. 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, and which thus enjoy constitutional protection. The appellants argued that this made the treaty and the legislation implementing it irrevocable, and the delegation of powers from Parliament and the BC legislature to the Nisga’a government permanent. That, they said, was a violation of the constitutional principles limiting delegation, pursuant to which a delegation of legislative power must be revocable, and the delegate must remain subordinate to the delegating legislative body. It also set up an legislative body not contemplated by the constitution, to which Parliament and the legislature have abdicated some of their legislative powers, in contravention of another constitutional principle.

The Court rejected these claims, holding that the treaty did not have the far-reaching effect ascribed to it by the appellants. Its grants of power could always be revoked, despite s. 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, because the rights that it protects can be limited or infringed, so long as the infringement is justified (in a manner very similar to the justification of infringements of Charter rights under s. 1 of the Charter):

 In the result, government retains the right to pass legislation or take action that infringes the s. 35 rights recognized by the Treaty.  If government were to do so, the Nisga’a Government would be entitled to challenge the validity of the legislation or government action.  In the face of that challenge, government would be required to justify the infringement of the Treaty right …  If government were successful, the infringement would be upheld.  … [N]othing in the Treaty prevents matters from unfolding in this way. (Par. 78)

For the same reason, says the Court, the abdication argument must fail. Since Parliament and the legislature can infringe the treaty, provided the infringement is justified, they can in theory legislate over the matters on which the treaty purports to make Nisga’a law supreme. In addition,

the model of government established by the Treaty recognizes concurrent jurisdiction supplemented with prevailing-law rules.  This model necessarily contemplates the possibility of conflicts or inconsistencies between Nisga’a laws and federal or provincial law.  The Treaty defines what occurs in the event of conflict or inconsistency, balancing Nisga’a, federal and provincial interests.  The Treaty does not confer exclusive law-making powers on the Nisga’a Government.   (Par. 86)

(The appellants also made a number of other arguments, but they were long shots, and the Court made rather short work of them.)

This decision seems somewhat similar to the fixed election date case, Conacher v. Canada (Prime Minister), 2010 FCA 131, in which the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal held that the impugned provisions were, in effect, meaningless, in order to avoid holding that they were unconstitutional. Yet there is also a difference, in that the Court acknowledges that the treaty has at least some effect: it entrenches the delegation of legislative power to the Nisga’a in all cases where an infringement on that delegation cannot be justified.

So I don’t think that, even on the Court’s approach, it is fair to say that the delegation of legislative power in no way removes the Nisga’a government from the position of subordination to Parliament and the provincial legislature. And, of course, this approach seems rather disingenuous. Surely, the point of the treaty is to make sure that there will be no infringements of the rights that it confirms. The Court says there is less to the treaty than meets the eye, but makes itself guilty of Nelsonian blindness in order to come to that conclusion.

It seems to me that the better way to proceed would have been to engage with the difficult issue of whether the limits on delegation and abdication apply to delegations of legislative powers to First Nations. There were some arguments to the effect that First Nations have an inherent right to self-government that was enough to justify the treaty, but the Court chose not to answer them, thinking that this was not necessary and, therefore, not prudent. It tried to choose the safe solution, but in my view, it is at best an inelegant, and at worst a seriously flawed one.