Is Deference Possible Here?

The Supreme Court’s latest administrative law decision shows why disguised correctness is the default standard of review

In Groia v Law Society of Upper Canada, 2018 SCC 27, decided last week, the Supreme Court of Canada once again fractured over the approach to take to the judicial review of an administrative decision ― and, once again, the majority chose correctness review disguised as reasonableness as its methodology. The substantive issue in Groia was whether the Law Society was entitled to discipline a lawyer for advocacy that took “the form of personal attacks, sarcastic outbursts and allegations of professional impropriety, grinding the trial to a near standstill”. [12] I have no articulate views on this, except a general sense that the fewer powers law societies have, and the more circumscribed these powers are, the better. But I do want to comment on the administrative law aspects of the decision.

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As Justice Moldaver, writing for the majority, describes its decision, the Law Society’s

Appeal Panel grappled with the issue of when in-court incivility amounts to professional misconduct under the Law Society’s codes of conduct in force at the relevant time. It reasoned that incivility “capture[s] a range of unprofessional communications” and ultimately settled on a multifactorial, context-specific approach for assessing a lawyer’s behaviour. [36; references omitted]

The Panel then applied this test to Mr. Groia’s case. The issue for the Supreme Court is twofold: first, it must review the approach devised by the Panel; second, the Panel’s application of this approach. However, although all distinguish the two questions they must answer, the majority, Justice Côté, who concurs, and Justices Karakatsanis, Gascon, and Rowe, who jointly dissent, all consider that the Panel’s decision on both must be reviewed on the same standard. The majority and the dissent opt for reasonableness, though they apply it differently. Justice Côté goes for correctness.

As Justice Moldaver notes, the Supreme Court’s earlier decisions “establish that law society misconduct findings and sanctions are reviewed for reasonableness”. [43] This is because both the elaboration of the applicable analytical framework and its application “involve the interpretation of the Law Society’s home statute” ― or, as in this case, rules enacted under this statute ― “and the exercise of discretion”. [45] While the question of “the permissible scope of [lawyers’] in-court behaviour is arguably of central importance to the legal system as a whole”, [51] it is not “outside the Law Society’s expertise”. [51] Indeed, “Law Society disciplinary panels are composed, in part, of other lawyers”. [52] Justice Moldaver also rejects the claim, advanced by a dissenting judge at the Court of Appeal for Ontario and accepted by Justice Côté, that sanctions for lawyers’ behaviour in the courtroom are different in that imposing them risks trenching on judicial independence. In Justice Moldaver’s view, this is simply not so: “a trial judge is free to control the conduct in his or her courtroom irrespective of the degree of deference accorded to a law society’s disciplinary decision by a different court”. [55]

Having established reasonableness as the standard of review, Justice Moldaver considers the arguments advanced against the framework developed by the Panel in detail. I will not describe his reasons, partly because I have little to say on their substance, and partly because this part of them alone runs for almost 60 paragraphs. What matters for my present purposes is this: on each point and sub-point, after reviewing the Panel’s decision in at most a single paragraph, Justice Moldaver gives extensive explanations of what the Panel’s decision means, and why it is appropriate. Though these explanations are occasionally couched in the language of reasonableness, there is no doubt that Justice Moldaver provides his own views on the approach to judging alleged incivility by lawyers, instead of merely ratifying the Panel’s.

As for the application of the framework to Mr. Groia’s conduct, Justice Moldaver concludes that the Panel’s  decision was unreasonable. In Justice Moldaver’s view ― explained over the course of over 30 paragraphs ―, the Panel failed to apply the test it had itself articulated, and to take into account the factors that, on its own stated approach, ought to have mattered. For Justice Moldaver, “there is only one reasonable outcome in this matter: a finding that Mr. Groia did not engage in professional misconduct on account of incivility”. [125] (Now, here’s a question: would it be good if someone could reverse the Supreme Court’s decisions when they don’t follow the Court’s stated approach?)

As already noted, Justice Côté is of the view that the applicable standard of review is correctness, because lawyers’ in-court behaviour must be subject to the ultimate control of the judiciary. She insists that

An inquiry by a law society into a lawyer’s in-court conduct risks intruding on the judge’s function of managing the trial process and his authority to sanction improper behaviour. It does so by casting a shadow over court proceedings — in effect, chilling potential speech and advocacy through the threat of ex post punishment, even where the trial judge offered the lawyer no indication that his or her conduct crossed the line. And it permits an administrative body to second-guess the boundaries of permissible advocacy in a courtroom that is ultimately supervised by an independent and impartial judge. [168]

Justice Côté agrees with Justice Moldaver on the application of the test for misconduct, and thus concurs in the result.

The dissenters, by contrast, agree with Justice Moldaver that the standard of review is reasonableness, and also that the Panel’s approach was reasonable. However, they disagree with the way Justice Moldaver applied this standard, accusing him of

fundamentally misstat[ing] the Appeal Panel’s approach to professional misconduct, and reweigh[ing] the evidence to reach a different result. This is inconsistent with reasonableness review as it substitutes this Court’s judgment for that of the legislature’s chosen decision maker. [177]

The dissent faults Justice Moldaver with being insufficiently deferential to the Panel. “[D]eference”, they write, “recognizes that delegated authorities will have greater expertise in matters under their scope of authority”, [178] and when the applicable standard of review is reasonableness, it “is not optional”. [179] In particular, “deference bars a reviewing court from conducting an exacting criticism of a decision in order to reach the result that the decision was unreasonable”, or from “supplement[ing] the decision maker’s reasoning for the purpose of undermining it”. [180]

The dissenters “consider that Justice Moldaver reformulates” [188] the framework articulated by the Panel. As a result, they disagree with Justice Moldaver’s application of this framework too: “[i]t is not a respectful reading of the … Panel’s reasons to articulate a novel test … then fault the Panel for failing to apply it”. [199] The Panel’s decision is intelligible and defensible, and this is not a case where only one outcome could be reasonable. Indeed, such cases will be anomalies, because

[t]he existence of reasonableness review is, rather, premised on the fact that “certain questions that come before administrative tribunals do not lend themselves to one specific, particular result”. [215, quoting Dunsmuir v New-Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190 at [47]]

The dissent then describes ― at some length, and with limited reference to the Panel’s decision ― what it expects to be the pernicious consequences of the majority’s decision. The majority, the dissent fears, “sends the wrong message to those who look to this Court for guidance”. [227]

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Therein, it seems to me, lies the rub. People look to the Supreme Court for guidance ― not for mere affirmation that an administrative decision-maker’s reasons were good enough and that in any event there is no right answer to the question they addressed. The whole point of having what the Constitution Act, 1867 foreshadows as a “general court of appeal for Canada” is that such an institution can explain what the law is. If such a court does not say what the law is, but only indicates that an administrative decision is within the bounds of what the law will tolerate ― without explaining where these bounds actually are ― then it is not doing its job.

It is no surprise, then, that Justice Moldaver’s reasons show little sign of deference to the Panel. What lawyers across Canada are interested in is what the Supreme Court itself thinks about their standards of conduct ― not in whether it thinks that the opinion of a single provincial disciplinary body on this subject was “within a range of possible, acceptable outcomes which are defensible in respect of the facts and law”. [Dunsmuir, [47]]  Indeed, the dissenters, for all the bitterness with which they chide Justice Moldaver for his failure to defer, and despite their own ostentatious display of deference, cannot help but enter the debate with their own comments about the appropriate standards of civility. If the question the Court is deciding is indeed one of central importance to the legal system, as Justice Moldaver concludes (and the dissent specifically agrees with this part of his reasons), this is entirely comprehensible.

Hence the question that, with apologies to Ronald Dworkin, I ask in this post’s title. Earlier this year, I wondered whether “the Court is growing disenchanted with deference to administrative decision-makers’ decisions on questions of law”, and perhaps even trying to kill off reasonableness review without telling anyone. The cases decided since then only provide more evidence for the proposition that the default standard of review in Canadian administrative law is disguised correctness, not reasonableness as the Supreme Court would have us believe. But perhaps the Supreme Court has a defence of  necessity to the charge of attempted murder. No court in its position could do otherwise.

Yet even if this be so, the Rule of Law issues I raised earlier do not go away. Law should be clear, and the fact of its change, transparent. The law of judicial review applied by the Supreme Court is opaque and hidden. And there is a further issue to think about: is it permissible for an apex court to apply a different law than the one it instructs other courts to apply, just because of its position within the legal system? It is, to say the least, not obvious that this is so ― which presumably is precisely why the Supreme Court engages in so much obfuscation. Once again, I conclude that it would be better ― more transparent, more conducive to the coherence of our legal system ― for the Supreme Court to (openly and publicly) abandon reasonableness review on questions of law in most or in all cases.

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Groia illustrates a couple of additional problems with reasonableness review, as theorized and practised by the Supreme Court. On a theoretical level, it exposes the deficiencies in the Court’s justifications for deference, which I have already discussed at some length. Justice Moldaver explains that, while of central importance, the issue of lawyers’ behaviour is within the expertise of law society adjudicators. Indeed these adjudicators are themselves lawyers! But what, one would like to ask Justice Moldaver, are judges? Aren’t they lawyers too, and aren’t they, in principle (though, granted, not necessarily in practice) more eminent lawyers than those who sit on law society tribunals? As the dissenting opinion in Edmonton (City) v Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Ltd, 2016 SCC 47, [2016] 2 SCR 293, co-written by Justice Brown ― who joined Justice Moldaver’s majority opinion in Groia ―, and joined by Justice Moldaver himself, pointed out, “expertise is a relative concept. It is not absolute.” [84] Sometimes administrative decision-makers are more expert than courts, which might be at least a practical reason for deference ― though not a legal one, as Mark Mancini’s contribution to the Dunsmuir Decade symposium pointed out. But this justification is implausible here.

For their part, the dissenters appeal to a different justification for deference: “reasonableness review is premised” on the existence a multiplicity of possible answers to questions to which it applies. Yet, as I noted in the posted linked to in the previous paragraph, deference is the presumptive standard of review for any question concerning the interpretation of administrative decision-maker’s “home statute”, and

the great variety of statutes setting up administrative tribunals, and indeed of particular provisions within any one of these statutes, makes it unlikely that all of the interpretive questions to which they give rise lack definitive answers. Perhaps the suggestion is that the very legislative choice of setting up administrative tribunals to address these questions means that legislatures think that these questions lack definitive answers, but that too seems implausible.

Indeed, the dissent’s reasoning is circular: reasonableness “is premised” on there being multiple possible answers, and since reasonableness applies, it follows that the question under review must have multiple answers.

The practical concern with reasonableness review that Groia illustrates has to do with the supplementation of an administrative decision-maker’s reasons by a reviewing court. The dissent says that Justice Moldaver is wrong to do this to “undermine” the Panel’s review. Yet one of its author’s, Justice Karakatsanis wrote, and another, Justice Gascon, joined, the majority judgment in Edmonton East, which did not so much supplement as outright made up the administrative decision in order to uphold it. Both of these positions ― no supplementation to undermine, any amount of supplementation to uphold ― seem consistent with the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. But they are quite inconsistent with one another.

A clarification: what I’ve said above primarily concerns the first issue in Groia, that of the applicable framework. On the second one, the application of that framework, without entering into the substance of the debate between majority and dissent, and subject to my comments regarding the supplementation of reasons, I think that reasonableness is the appropriate standard of review. To me, Justice Côté’s concerns about judicial independence seem misplaced, for the reasons given by Justice Moldaver. Besides, while this case did not turn on a credibility issue, other, similar ones may well do so. How are courts supposed to engage in correctness review on that? It seems to me that the two issues in Groia should have been addressed on different standards of review. But no opinion takes that approach.

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Groia provides further confirmation, if any were yet needed, that the Canadian law (if it may be called law at all) of judicial review of administrative action is in a dire state. Its theoretical foundations, which have long been weak, are being eroded decision by decision; its practical construction is falling apart. Perhaps these concerns are soon bound to be a thing of the past, as the Supreme Court’s coming review of the Dunsmuir framework simplifies what is abstruse, clarifies what is opaque, and cuts through what is impenetrable. Perhaps. But considering the confusion and the acrimony that seem to be the most remarkable features of the Court’s latest administrative law pronouncements, I suggest that you should not hold your breath.

NOTE: As some readers have pointed out, I had initially mixed up Justices Karakatsanis and Côté at one point. Correction made, and apologies!

FURTHER NOTE: It wasn’t just at one point. More corrections made.

Jiggery-Pokery

The standard of review issues in the Supreme Court’s West Fraser decision

In my previous post, I summarized the Supreme Court’s decision in West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, which upheld 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 fine levied on such an owner under a statutory provision authorizing penalties against employers who do not comply with regulations. The Court was divided on both the approach to and the merits of the first issue, and at least on the merits of the second.

As I noted in that post, there is quite a lot to say about the decision. Others have already commented on it. Shaun Fluker, over at ABlawg, focuses on how West Fraser fits, or doesn’t fit, with the Supreme Court’s precedent on analysing the validity of regulations, while Paul Daly’s Administrative Law Matters post which looks ahead to the Supreme Court’s upcoming reconsideration of Dunsmuir. In this post, I add some observations of my own on the various opinions in West Fraser. In a subsequent one, I will explore what these opinions tell us about the Supreme Court’s relationship with the administrative state.

The first point I would note here is that Chief Justice McLachlin’s opinion for the majority, which purports to apply deferential reasonableness review on the first issue, and even more deferential patent unreasonableness review on the second, is actually an excellent example of disguised correctness review. As the former Justice Joseph Robertson described it here, in one of his contributions to the “Dunsmuir Decade” symposium,

Disguised correctness review means that the reviewing court conducts a de novo analysis of the interpretative issue. Little or no meaningful reference is made to the reasoning of the administrative decision-maker; just the interpretative result.

For his part, David Mullan noted that

In its purest form, reasonableness review of determinations of law should start with the tribunal’s reasons for decision. … Too frequently, however, the starting point is not the tribunal’s reasons but the arguments on the merits of the question of law or statutory interpretation advanced by the parties with the reasons either ignored or mentioned only in passing. Consequently, the professed commitment to deference gets submerged in a thorough-going re-examination of the relevant question of law.

That is exactly what happens in the majority reasons in West Fraser, and not only on the first issue, on which there are no reasons for decision to review ― which, as Justice Côté points out, makes the notion of deferential review problematic in this context ―, but also on the second one. You’d think that, applying a patent unreasonableness standard of review, the majority would pay attention to the decision on whose reasonableness it must pronounce, but no ― the decision itself is summarized in a single paragraph and never quoted. For the rest of her reasons, the Chief Justice refers to it only obliquely.

So perhaps the apparent disagreement about standards of review (on the first issue) is really beside the point. This is all the more so since, in the reasons of two of the three dissenting judges, correctness review does not look very exacting at all. Justice Brown, after waxing eloquent about the importance of the courts ensuring that administrative decision-makers act within the limits of their authority, is content to note that the limits in this case are broad. Justice Rowe, for his part, endorses the Chief Justice’s comments about the breadth of the administrative power as sufficient to dispose of the jurisdictional question, presumably on the correctness standard. Yet surely saying that the powers of administrative decision-maker are broad is not enough to show that its regulation was within these powers. The Chief Justice speaks of “unlimited” powers, as if such a thing were possible under the Rule of Law, and as if Justice Rand’s comments in Roncarelli v Duplessis, [1959] SCR 121, were not among the best known in all Canadian law. Here they are, in case anyone needs reminding of them:

In public regulation of this sort there is no such thing as absolute and untrammelled “discretion” … there is always a perspective within which a statute is intended to operate; and any clear departure from its lines or objects is just as objectionable as fraud or corruption. (140)

Of the four judges who wrote in West Fraser, only Justice Côté took seriously the “perspective within which the statute is intended to operate” and the notion that the administrative tribunal does not have unlimited powers to act within the general area under its supervision. Justice Côté’s colleagues, even those who ostensibly stress the courts’ supervisory role, are content administrative power run wild ― a point to which I return below.

All that said, while I think that Justice Coté is right on the merits of the first issue, both she and her colleagues make important points on the general approach. (The trouble with Justice Brown and Justice Rowe is that they do not really practice what they preach, and fail to ask the hard questions that they rightly suggest the courts ought to be asking of administrative decision-makers.) Justices Côté and Brown are right that the point of judicial review is to ensure that administrative decision-makers exercise those powers delegated to them by statute, and no others. Justice Côté is right to point out that in policing the boundaries of administrative decision-makers’ jurisdiction the courts are upholding the primacy of the legislation enacted by elected legislatures against the self-aggrandizement of the administrative decision-makers. Justices Côté and Rowe are right to call out the vacuousness of the Chief Justice’s appeal to administrative expertise as a justification for deferential review of the validity of regulations. Expertise may be relevant to thinking about the policy merits of a regulation ― and I think that Justice Brown is right that these should be of no concern to the courts, even on a deferential standard (though note that Justice Rowe seems to disagree) ― but contrary to what the Chief Justice suggests the wisdom of the regulation is not at issue in West Fraser.

I think, however, that the comments of Justices Côté and Brown raise even bigger questions about judicial review and judicial deference. Justice Côté insists that there is

an important distinction between actions taken by a regulator in an adjudicative capacity and actions taken by a regulator in a legislative capacity — a distinction that is central to the policy concerns that animate judicial review and the traditional standard of review analysis. [57]

Justice Brown agrees that this distinction is important as the law now stands, stressing that, since “[p]ublic power must always be authorized by law … no statutory delegate, in enacting subordinate legislation (that is, in making law), may ever exceed its authority”. [116; emphasis Justice Brown’s] But, in an obiter dictum, he also worries that

in many cases, the distinction between matters of statutory interpretation which implicate truly jurisdictional questions and those going solely to a statutory delegate’s application of its enabling statute will be, at best, elusive. [124]

The Chief Justice’s reasons in effect say that the distinction is elusive, and perhaps non-existent, or at any rate not worth bothering about, in all cases, including this one. In her view, it follows that pretty much all judicial review should be deferential.

But we can share the Chief Justice’s or, more plausibly, Justice Brown’s concern about the elusiveness of the distinction ― we might think that the distinction is often, though probably not always, difficult to draw ― draw from this the opposite conclusion. That is to say, we might think, not that there is basically no such thing as a jurisdictional question, but rather that most questions of law are in a sense jurisdictional and therefore call for correctness review ― because public power must always be authorized by law, and the Rule of Law, therefore, demands no less. This position would, I think, be similar to the approach taken by English (and New Zealand) administrative law after Anisminic v Foreign Compensation Commission, [1969] 2 AC 147 (which Professor Daly recently revisited on Administrative Law Matters). Indeed, Justice Brown’s own reasons suggest that the contrary approach, favoured by the Chief Justice (and perhaps, to a lesser degree, by Justice Brown’s own concluding obiter), leads to a paradox (call it the paradox of deference). If administrative interpretations of law are approached with deference on the basis that they draw upon policy expertise and “field sensitivity”, and if more than one interpretation of a statute is allowed to stand on the basis that they all fall into a range of reasonable outcomes, then isn’t the administrative decision-maker interpreting a statute “making law” just as as surely as if it were “enacting subordinate legislation”? And is it not, then, just as important to ensure that the interpreter “may ever exceed its authority”, because “[t]he rule of law can tolerate no departure from this principle”? [116] Justice Rowe’s view that administrative decision-makers are generally not experts in statutory interpretation ― including but not limited to the category of jurisdictional questions narrowly defined, is the more logical one.

Finally, while others who have written about West Fraser have not discussed the second issue it addressed ― that of the penalty ― I think it is worth addressing at least briefly. The Chief Justice’s analysis on this issue is disturbing. As Justice Côté explains, the legislature carefully wrote the statute to distinguish “employers” and “owners”. The Chief Justice insists that this doesn’t matter because all “owners” are employers too so long as they have employees of their own visiting the worksites that they own, as they are required. As Justice Côté rightly says, this amounts to the re-writing of the legislation. In fact, while Justice Côté is too polite to say so, I think that the Chief Justice’s reasoning on this issue can best be described by borrowing Justice Scalia’s words in King v Burwell, 576 US __ (2015) ― it is “interpretive jiggery-pokery”, as a result of which “[w]ords no longer have meaning”.

Why does a majority of the Supreme Court engage in such unseemly activities? If, unlike me, you believe that the Chief Justice’s opinion is genuinely deferential to the administrative decision, then you should see the fact that this jiggery-pokery takes place in the course of (über-)deferential review ― which is supposed to be all about giving effect to the legislature’s intention ― as an illustration of the paradox of deference described above. Deferring to the administrative decision-maker means allowing it to become a law unto itself, free from the constraints imposed by statute ― and having to scramble to make it look like the administrative decision really does make some kind of sense.

If, however, you agree with me that the Chief Justice is actually engaged in disguised correctness review, things are, if anything, even worse. The Chief Justice is not merely forced, by her preference for deference, to allow the administrative decision-maker to rewrite the statute, but actively complicit in its doing so. As I will explain in the next post, this is what I think is going on. Indeed, in my view the Chief Justice engages in results-oriented, pro-regulatory reasoning throughout her West Fraser opinion. She thinks, no doubt, that she acts wisely and well. “Pure applesauce!”

The Merits of Dunsmuir

Rightly or Wrongly Decided (Then and Today)?

The Honourable Joseph T Robertson QC, formerly of the Federal Court of Appeal and the New Brunswick Court of Appeal

This digital symposium marks the 10th Anniversary of Dunsmuir’s release. Undoubtedly, attention will focus on whether this “transformative” decision has achieved its stated objective of simplifying the law of administrative deference. Regrettably, the Supreme Court’s post-Dunsmuir jurisprudence has generated allegations of doctrinal “incoherence” and “inconsistency”. It is also alleged that the deferential standard of review has had little impact on case outcomes that hinge on the interpretation of enabling legislation. Too often the Court is caught applying the correctness standard under the banner of reasonableness (“disguised correctness review”). While that contention falls within my terms of engagement, the others do not.

The title of this post is obviously disingenuous. The “rightness” or “wrongness” of any Supreme Court decision is largely a matter of personal judgment. Importantly, I fail to qualify as a disinterested observer, having authored Dunsmuir on behalf of the New Brunswick Court of Appeal. That decision was upheld in the result, but for reasons that bear little upon what was argued and decided in the lower court. In the circumstances, I hope to sustain reader interest by advancing the following thesis: there is an arguable case that Dunsmuir would be decided differently today when it comes to the underlying merits. I also address the procedural fairness issue in a way that others have not.

While Dunsmuir has generated more than its fair share of commentaries, few have looked to the underlying issues that motivated Mr. Dunsmuir to seek leave of the Supreme Court. Most have forgotten the central issue. The adjudicator was asked to decide whether non-unionized employees of the government were to be treated like unionized employees when it came to termination of employment. Mr. Dunsmuir was a non-unionized employee who had been terminated with severance in lieu of notice. The government consciously chose not to allege cause, as is its prerogative under common law principles.

I pause here to draw attention to what every employment lawyer knows. The underlying issue and fact pattern in Dunsmuir parallel those found in a relatively recent decision: Wilson v Atomic Energy Canada Inc., 2016 SCC 29 (“Wilson”). Better still, the same holds true in regard to Knight v Indian Head School Division No. 19, [1990] 1 SCR 653 (“Knight”) which was central to Dunsmuir’s analysis of whether Mr. Dunsmuir was owed a duty of procedural fairness.

After exhausting the government’s internal grievance procedure, Mr. Dunsmuir filed a third-party grievance that was heard by an adjudicator appointed by the labour board. A preliminary issued was raised with respect to whether, on a discharge with notice/severance, the adjudicator was “authorized” under the enabling legislation to look into the reasons underlying the government’s decision to terminate Mr. Dunsmuir’s employment. The government argued that, under the enabling legislation, it retained the right to terminate with proper notice/severance and, therefore, it was irrelevant whether the government had sufficient grounds for dismissal. In effect, the government argued that only employees who had been discharged for cause could invoke the third-party grievance procedure (save in regard to the amount of notice/severance). In response, Mr. Dunsmuir insisted that the same legislation authorized the adjudicator to look into the true reasons for his dismissal.

The adjudicator ruled that “[a] grieving employee is entitled to an adjudication as to whether a discharge purportedly with notice or with pay in lieu of notice was in fact for cause, either disciplinary or non-disciplinary.” Inexplicably, however, the adjudicator made no finding as to whether the underlying facts supported a dismissal for cause. He simply left us with the understanding that the decision to terminate Mr. Dunsmuir’s employment was not “disciplinary” but related to “work performance” and his “suitability for the positions”.

The adjudicator’s preliminary ruling provided the confidence necessary to pursue the procedural fairness issue. It was framed in terms of whether the duty owed to Mr. Dunsmuir, under the principle established in Knight, had been breached. This argument flowed easily from the facts. Not only was Mr. Dunsmuir a contract employee, he was also an “at-pleasure” appointee of the Lieutenant Governor in Council. As Clerk of the Court of Queen’s Bench, Mr. Dunsmuir easily qualified as a public office holder.

The adjudicator summarily accepted Mr. Dunsmuir’s argument that the government had failed to inform him of the reasons for its dissatisfaction with his work and to provide him with an opportunity to respond and, therefore, the duty had been breached. The adjudicator then declared Mr. Dunsmuir’s discharge void and ordered retroactive reinstatement. Finally, the adjudicator acknowledged the possibility of judicial review before increasing the notice period from four to eight months, but without offering a legal justification for the increase.

In the Supreme Court, the newly minted deferential standard of reasonableness was applied to the adjudicator’s interpretative ruling. Correlatively, the Court was unanimous in declaring his interpretation unreasonable: “The decision of the adjudicator treated the appellant, a non-unionized employee as a unionized employee.” But, as the Court quickly noted, the interpretative ruling was “inconsequential to the overall determination of the grievance.” The adjudicator simply failed to decide whether or not the government had cause for terminating Mr. Dunsmuir’s employment. This meant that the success of Mr. Dunsmuir’s appeal hinged on the application of the procedural fairness duty.

The Supreme Court made no mention of the proper review standard for procedural fairness issues and understandably so. The Court had decided to overturn its earlier ruling in Knight. No longer was Mr. Dunsmuir owed the administrative duty. To borrow directly from Dunsmuir: “where a public employee is employed under a contract of employment, regardless of his or her status as a public office holder, the applicable law governing dismissal is the law of contract, not general principles arising out of the public law.”

Surely no one quibbles with the proposition that Dunsmuir got it “right” on the standard of review issue. And for the record, the notion that the interpretative (preliminary) issue qualified as a “true jurisdictional question” never crossed the mind of anyone and properly so! That said, I acknowledge a movement from within the Court to adopt a single unifying standard of reasonableness for all issues: see Wilson, per Abella J. I also acknowledge a movement from outside the Court to have the deferential standard extended to procedural fairness issues. Paul Daly, C. Bredt and A. Melkov argue in favour while (Justice) John Evans argues for the status quo: with respect to the American debate, see Adrian Vermule v (Judge) Richard Posner.

In the space of five paragraphs, the majority of the Supreme Court concluded the adjudicator’s interpretation of the enabling legislation was “deeply flawed” (paras. 72-76). That opinion was shared by those who wrote concurring opinions. Dunsmuir’s analysis of the interpretative issue has attracted criticism for applying the correctness standard under the banner of reasonableness. Both Matthew Lewans and David Mullan insist that the Dunsmuir Court breached its own directives when applying the reasonableness standard to the adjudicator’s interpretative ruling. And indeed, Professor Mullan made the same observation in regard to the decision of the Court of Appeal. On reflection, he writes with a gentle pen and the criticism of both scholars has merit. However, Dunsmuir is not the only Supreme Court precedent to engage in disguised correctness review. There are close to twenty post-Dunsmuir decisions listed on my scratch pad that warrant the same indictment.

Disguised correctness review means that the reviewing court conducts a de novo analysis of the interpretative issue. Little or no meaningful reference is made to the reasoning of the administrative decision-maker; just the interpretative result. Instead, the reviewing court begins its analysis by turning to the template set out in Elmer Dreidger’s modern principle of statutory interpretation; the one the Supreme Court consistently applies. This leads to an unanswered question: Why does the Court pursue correctness review under the banner of reasonableness? While several plausible explanations are available, Paul Daly offers valuable insights (“The Signal and the Noise in Administrative Law”).

Professor Daly observes, for example, that in cases where the issue is perceived as one of public importance, or of significance to the law, the greater the temptation to seek out the correct or preferred answer. There is no precedential significance in cases that say the interpretative result falls within a range of reasonable outcomes. In theory, such cases should never make it through the Court’s screening process. But once the interpretative issue is recast as a question of whether non-unionized employees should receive the same treatment as unionized ones, what judge would not grant leave to appeal? The opportunity to look into power imbalances in the workplace is the kind of stuff that fits nicely within the job description of any court of last resort. [No one who made an appearance in Dunsmuir anticipated the Supreme Court’s move to a single deferential standard of review and with a revised framework for isolating the proper standard; nor did anyone anticipate that Knight would be targeted.]

Additionally, I maintain the Court’s affinity for disguised correctness review most often stems from the failure of administrative decision-makers to offer an interpretative analysis that comports with Dreidger’s template. One has to assume as much, as the Court’s references to the decision-maker’s reasons invariably focus on the interpretative result to the exclusion of anything that might have been penned in support of one interpretation over another. This leads to the inference that the Court is too often presented with an interpretive result but not much in terms of justification. Accordingly, the Court has no practical alternative than to engage in correctness review.

The fact of the matter is that Mr. Dunsmuir never pursued the interpretative issue in terms of whether the legislation only allowed for terminations with cause. It would be unbecoming to engage in “bootstrapping” with respect to the reasons that propelled the Supreme Court to distance itself from the adjudicator’s approach to the interpretative issue (termination for “disguised” cause). In its place, I offer a compromise of sorts. I maintain there is an arguable case that Dunsmuir would be decided differently today.

My thesis rests on one’s acceptance of the premise that the Dunsmuir legislation was ambiguous as to whether all terminations of employment within the civil service must be for cause. As Professor Willis so aptly stated so long ago: “the words are ambiguous enough to induce two people to spend good money in backing two opposing views as to their meaning.” Assuming ambiguity is present and in the absence of compelling evidence that might shine light on the ever-elusive intent of the legislature, then the task of the adjudicator is to settle on an interpretation that it believes is consistent with the legislation’s objectives: see Mclean v British Columbia (Securities Commission), 2013 SCC 67.

Admittedly, any interpretative argument would have to overcome the presumption against legislation that abrogates common law rights such as the right to dismiss with proper notice/severance. That hurdle, however, is not insurmountable. Indeed, Paul Daly argues that administrative decision-makers should not be bound by the interpretative principles that bind the courts, a proposition with which I respectfully disagree. Additionally, he argues that statutory ambiguity should not be the gateway to administrative deference. On that issue we are also in respectful disagreement. Nevertheless, the fact that my real-life hypothetical assumes ambiguity may be sufficient for purposes of deflecting immediate criticism.

In the face of an ambiguity, one would expect the adjudicator’s analysis to embrace a candid consideration of the competing policy arguments in support of competing interpretations. At this point, the adjudicator now has the opportunity to demonstrate the expertise which is otherwise presumed. Surely, it is the expert who is aware of the workplace realities that permeate public sector employment (in New Brunswick) and is able to communicate those realities when explaining why one interpretation should prevail over another. And surely, everyone is entitled to know why the distinction between unionized and non-unionized employees should be dissolved when it comes to termination of employment.

Some will query why any government would want to relinquish its common law right to dismiss with notice in the face of what every employment lawyer knows is an “elevated” threshold for establishing just cause. Arguably, governments must be as fiscally responsible as employers in the private sector. Perhaps the answer lies in the understanding that, as an employer, the Crown owes more to its employees than do private sector employers. Or perhaps it is because of documented abuses surrounding dismissals with notice in the civil service. Surely, these are the kind of questions the labour expert is expected to address (with the assistance of counsel). Unfortunately, that type of analysis is not found in the any of the decisions underlying Dunsmuir (nor for that matter in Wilson).

At this juncture, the legal realist will take over where Paul Daly left off. Cases such as Dunsmuir have nothing to do with deference. The underlying issue is whether the historical power imbalance in the employment relationship is one requiring reform. The rule of law is preserved so long as administrative reform hinges on statutory ambiguity. The non-expert fails to recognize the influence of those who regard the common law as an impediment to achieving justice in the work place and, correlatively, the non-expert fails to recognize that dismissals with notice are unjust dismissals. Of course, this line of reasoning is consistent with that expected of an employee advocate and antagonistic to the majority view expressed in Dunsmuir. Here is what the majority had to say: “In the context of this appeal, it must be emphasized that dismissal with reasonable notice is not unfair per se. An employee’s right to terminate the employment relationship with due notice is simply the counterpart to the employee’s right to quit with notice [para. 105].”

The notion that a dismissal with notice is an unjust dismissal brings into consideration the Court’s post-Dunsmuir decision mentioned earlier. As in Dunsmuir, the issue in Wilson was whether a non-unionized employee could be terminated without cause. Mr. Wilson, an employee of a federally regulated employer, subject to the Canada Labour Code, was dismissed with severance in lieu of notice. Like Mr. Dunsmuir, he sought to grieve the dismissal but his employer objected for the same reason advanced in Dunsmuir. However, the federal legislation differs in wording. Under s. 240(1) of the Code, a person may grieve if she or he believes the dismissal is “unjust”. Relying on earlier arbitral precedents, the adjudicator held that a dismissal with notice/severance is itself an unjust dismissal. A divided Court (5/4) upheld that interpretative result. In short, terminations can only be for cause under the federal legislation. Curiously, the majority opinion did not address Dunsmuir’s observations with respect to dismissals with notice or severance. The minority opinion did!

Parenthetically, the majority in Wilson is also guilty of disguised correctness review and understandably so. The adjudicator based its decision on the earlier arbitral jurisprudence that favoured Mr. Wilson’s interpretation. As a result, there were no reasons upon which to measure the interpretative result. Further, no attempt was made to look for reasons that might lie elsewhere in the arbitral jurisprudence as happened in Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner) v Alberta Teachers’ Association, 2011 SCC 61.

If Dunsmuir were to be re-litigated, Wilson is the one case that might reasonably impact on the outcome. Admittedly, the statutory scheme in Wilson differs in material respects from the Dunsmuir scheme, and in particular with respect to the history of the legislation and, correlatively, the evidence of Parliamentary intent. In short, Wilson serves as both a shield and a sword. As a shield, it counters a view expressed in Dunsmuir that a dismissal with notice is not “unfair” or “unjust”. In summary, there is an arguable case that Dunsmuir would be decided differently on the interpretative issue.

I turn now to the procedural fairness issue which had been abandoned in the Court of Appeal but resurrected for the benefit of the Supreme Court. Having regard to the Court’s subsequent decision in Canada (Attorney General) v Mavi, 2011 SCC 30, it appears Dunsmuir’s ruling is still good law. Hopefully, supporters of Knight will acknowledge an arguable case with respect to the incompatibility of administrative and contract law principles, having due regard to the significance of the good faith doctrine, as discussed in Dunsmuir, and more recently in the Court’s now lead decision of Bhasin v Hrynew, 2014 SCC 71. I also assume commentators will draw a distinction between express and implied employment contracts.

Personally, I believe that Dunsmuir got it right when it came to overruling the impact of Knight on employees who are subject to a written contract and who are also public office holders. But I am also convinced that even if Knight were still good law, Mr. Dunsmuir could not have succeeded. The adjudicator applied the “wrong” standard. In Knight the Court held: “The content of the duty of fairness would be minimal where dismissal is at pleasure.” In fact, the adjudicator in Dunsmuir imposed an “elevated” duty. As will be explained, the elevated one too closely resembles the one applied at common law for determining sufficient or just cause in those instances where the employment is terminated because of a failure to meet work performance expectations (“incompetence). But first, I offer a rudimentary understanding of the law surrounding Knight.

At common law, at-pleasure appointees could be terminated without notice, without cause and without ever knowing why the employer terminated the appointment. The duty of procedural fairness was intended to ensure that the reasons for termination were communicated to the appointee and, in turn, the appointee had the opportunity to address those reasons before the termination took effect. In theory, the appointee would have a chance to address misinformation that might reasonably influence the decision to terminate. This is administrative law’s equivalent of the last chance doctrine.

In Knight, the director of education for the school board had entered into a three-year contract of employment that provided for the possibility of a renewal for an additional three years. However, the contract also provided for termination by ether party upon the giving of three months’ notice. The parties began negotiations for a renewal but the school board was only prepared to renew for a year due to employment issues that had arisen over the preceding years. With no agreement in sight, the school board decided to terminate the contract with timely notice. Mr. Knight’s first argument was that under the Education Act he could only be dismissed for cause! As that interpretative argument failed, the Court focused on whether Mr. Knight’s employment attracted a public law duty of fairness.

The majority (4/3) of the Knight Court so found, but went on to hold there had been no breach. As an at-pleasure appointee, Mr. Knight was well aware of the reasons why his contract was not renewed. Further, he was given the opportunity to speak at the board meeting where the motion to terminate the contract on notice was passed. In brief, the minimal standard had been met. I now turn to an abbreviated recitation of Dunsmuir’s facts, as told by the Supreme Court.

Mr. Dunsmuir’s employment relationship was “not perfect”. The probationary period was extended twice to the maximum of 12 months. He was reprimanded on three occasions during his two years with the government. Two of the reprimands are relevant to the procedural fairness issue. The second reprimand led to a one-day suspension and to notice of work performance issues, including complaints from unnamed staff, lawyers and members of the public. The third reprimand embraced three alleged incidents relating to his job performance and contained a warning that a failure to improve would result in further disciplinary action up to and including dismissal. This was followed by a few meetings the Regional Director to discuss court backlogs and organizational problems in response to undocumented complaints lodged by staff. A further meeting was scheduled to deal with work-related issues but cancelled because of the decision to terminate Mr. Dunsmuir’s tenure with the government.

Now recall that Mr. Dunsmuir had argued that the government had breached its duty of procedural fairness by failing to inform him of the reasons for its dissatisfaction with his work and to provide him with an opportunity to respond. Recall also that the adjudicator summarily accepted that submission. With great respect, that is not a “minimal” threshold or standard. In fact, it is too closely aligned to the common law standard applied in cases where the termination of employment is for cause based on the employee’s inability to perform (“incompetence”). In such cases the employer must establish progressive discipline: sufficient calls for improvement and a warning that failure may result in dismissal.

Succinctly stated, the adjudicator in Dunsmuir effectively adopted the common law standard for establishing just cause as the administrative standard for establishing a breach of the procedural fairness duty. Importantly, the common law standard is incompatible with the minimal standard adopted in Knight! Finally, even if one were to apply the Knight standard, can one reasonably conclude that Mr. Dunsmuir had no knowledge of his employer’s concerns over his performance and no notice of possible termination of employment? Personally, I think Binnie J’s concurring reasons in Dunsmuir capture the essence of the case. The adjudicator had “stretched the law too far in coming to [Mr. Dunsmuir’s] rescue.” But of course I am not a disinterested observer!

The True Legacy of Dunsmuir ― Disguised Correctness Review?

Why isn’t judicial review as deferential as courts say it should be?

David Mullan, Queen’s University

With apologies to Van Morrison, [i]n the Days Before Rock ‘N’ Roll[1] (also known as Dunsmuir), Sopinka J[2] asserted (temporarily[3]) that patent unreasonableness review required an initial determination as to whether the tribunal under review had erred. If it had, the next inquiry was whether it had done so in a patently unreasonable manner. This gave rise to the alarming spectre of a lawyer having to try to explain to a disappointed client that, while the court had accepted that the decision-maker had erred, it was not such a bad error as to be awful. More fundamentally, this approach to determining whether to quash a decision was scarcely respectful of the Supreme Court’s more general admonitions of the need for deference when the patent unreasonableness or even the reasonableness standard of review was in play. After all, judges, being who they are, were always going to find it difficult to rule credibly that a decision that was just plain wrong must, nonetheless, in a world of deferential review, still stand.

In my view, there is an equivalent and perhaps more insidious example of this kind of approach in the post-Dunsmuir world of the Twist, a by-product of Rock ‘N’ Roll. This is the recurring phenomenon of reviewing courts (including, perhaps most egregiously, the Supreme Court of Canada) solemnly pronouncing the entitlement of a decision-maker and the decision itself to the benefit of deferential, reasonableness review on questions of law and then conducting that review on what is palpably a correctness standard. I call this “disguised correctness.”[4]

In its purest form, reasonableness review of determinations of law should start with the tribunal’s reasons for decision. The court should focus primarily on those reasons but also, though secondarily, on alternative accounts of the relevant question of law and critiques of the position taken by the tribunal.[5] Within that framework, in the words of Dunsmuir, the court determines whether the challenged ruling “falls within a range of possible, acceptable outcomes which are defensible in respect of the facts and the law.” Too frequently, however, the starting point is not the tribunal’s reasons but the arguments on the merits of the question of law or statutory interpretation advanced by the parties with the reasons either ignored or mentioned only in passing. Consequently, the professed commitment to deference gets submerged in a thorough-going re-examination of the relevant question of law.

What explains this phenomenon? Some might argue that it amounts to intellectual dishonesty and reveals a highly sceptical attitude to the whole notion of deference to the judgment of governmental decision-makers. I believe this is too simplistic an account. Certainly, there are deference sceptics among the judiciary at all levels. That scepticism may be general or situational depending on the nature of the issue and the perceived calibre and qualifications of the relevant decision-maker. In a judicial review regime where correctness is only occasionally the indicated standard, and reasonableness the default across the whole spectrum of decision-makers, it is not surprising that judges might pay only lip service to precedents that require them in virtually every context to be deferential. Putting it another way, with so predominant a standard, it is was almost inevitable that the assessment of reasonableness would become increasingly a highly contextualized inquiry and, in some instances, little or no different from correctness review. This is exemplified by the contention that the intensity of reasonableness review expands or contracts depending on the extent of possibly reasonable answers or outcomes, a position that has at one extreme questions of law to which there is only one correct and therefore only one reasonable answer. It is also reflected in occasional flirtations with United States-style, Chevron review, the first stage of which requires the reviewing court to ask whether the legislature intended there to be only one correct answer to the interpretation of a statutory provision. An affirmative answer to this inquiry pre-empts deference.

More generally, where the terrain is statutory interpretation, judges find it difficult to defer to decision-makers, particularly those who lack legal qualifications. They are so schooled in the modern principles of statutory interpretation as to have an almost overwhelming compulsion at least on occasion to apply those principles in a way that is incompatible with any notion of deference. Indeed, at the policy level, this finds expression in arguments that the presumption of reasonableness review where a decision-maker is interpreting a home or frequently encountered statute should not extend beyond adjudicative bodies. As the principles of Dunsmuir have evolved, has the Supreme Court come to expect too much of deferential, reasonableness review?

My ideal world where courts actually pay “respectful” attention to the reasons of decision-makers runs into another reality spawned by the terminology of Dunsmuir and the extension of reasonableness review to all manner of statutory and prerogative decision-makers. Not all decision-makers give reasons for their decisions. Some provide reasons that are cryptic, do not address the issue on which review is being sought, or are simply poor. Enter Dyzenhaus and Dunsmuir. It is not just reasons that must be examined but “outcomes” and also the reasons “which could be offered in support of a decision.” These situations challenge deferential reasonableness review particularly to the extent that they require speculation as to the reasons that might have underpinned the outcome or that could have been advanced had the decision-maker thought about it. Framing the conduct of judicial review (including the evidential and scope of advocacy dilemmas) in such cases within a posture of deference is one of the principal challenges for modern Canadian judicial review.

In the meantime, I urge greater attention to what truly deferential review requires when decision-makers have provided comprehensible reasons. In the words of Hudson Janisch, deference is something that must be earned, not presumed. Where the tribunal’s reasons meet that standard, they should be the starting point for determining whether the decision passes the reasonableness test. While this will not eliminate disguised correctness, it should help.


[1]              Enlightenment (Polydor, 1990), Track 7.

[2]              In Canada (Attorney General) v. Public Service Association of Canada, [1993] 1 SCR 941, at 963-64.

[3]              He subsequently recanted in his concurring judgment in CAIMAW, Local 14 v. Paccar of Canada Ltd., [1989] 2 SCR 983, at 1018.

[4]              One of the earliest, if not the earliest example is Canada (Canadian Human Rights Commission) v.  Canada (Attorney General) (also known as Mowat), 2011 SCC 53, [2011] 3 SCR 471, at paras. 32-64 (per LeBel and Cromwell JJ., delivering the judgment of the Court). Simply inserting “reasonably” and “unreasonably” at various points of the statutory interpretation exercise does not rescue such decisions from this criticism!

[5]              Though the reasons are short, Dunsmuir, at paras. 72-76, provides a good example.