I have recently responded here, in some detail, to Andrew Coyne’s article claiming, in essence, that some of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions were not mere wrong, but altogether unreasonable, and therefore “activist.” Over the Policy Options blog, I briefly take on Gordon’s Gibson’s attack on the Supreme Court’s alleged activism, which I think is quite gratuitous, and nowhere near as interesting as Mr. Coyne’s. Jamais deux sans trois, they say. So here’s a response to another example of this genre ― an op-ed by Brian Lee Crowley, originally published behind an impenetrable paywall by the Globe, but now conveniently available on the website of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
Mr. Crowley argues that the Supreme Court’s recent decisions ― he refers to those on “the right to strike, assisted suicide, national securities regulators, Senate reform or who is entitled to sit on the Court” ― are responsible for an “insidious corruption of purpose of the law, the legal profession and the courts.” Behind some (unnecessarily, in my view) combative rhetoric, his argument is quite interesting. It can, I think, be summarized as follows:
1. “One of the most basic purposes of the law” is to generate stable expectations about people’s entitlement and liabilities;
2. The courts’ application of (and, more broadly, the legal profession’s and academia’s thinking about) the Charter, however, has produced a jurisprudence that is unstable and disrupts instead of fostering expectations;
3. More, and worse, it has produced a mindset that does not care for stability, and on the contrary finds virtue in “turning the law into an instrument of social change” ― not just in constitutional cases but across the board, including, for example, in contract law.
The first point is a staple of the Rule of Law discourse, and few lawyers will disagree with it. The following two, however, are overstated, in my opinion. There is something to them but rather less than Mr. Crowley claims.
It is true, for instance, that the Supreme Court’s Charter jurisprudence is not a paragon of stability. The Court’s high-profile decisions on prostitution, labour rights, and assisted suicide were reversals of earlier precedents. That said, some context is in order. The previous decisions on prostitution and assisted suicide dated from the first decade of Charter jurisprudence. Neither the Court itself nor the litigants had yet had the time to work out the way to argue and decide such cases. The relevant legal principles were in their infancy; the factual records which proved crucial to the more recent decisions were not available. Criticizing reversals of such early decisions is not altogether fair. The labour law cases are a different matter, because they reversed much more recent decisions, and there was no evidentiary record to justify their reversal either.
The other cases which Mr. Crowley alludes to, by contrast, simply aren’t reversals of existing precedent. L’Affaire Nadon was a case of first impression. The Senate Reference, as I have argued, for example, here, fits in a consistent pattern of the Supreme Court’s rejection of unilateral constitutional reform, as does Reference re Securities Act, 2011 SCC 66,  3 SCR 837. The latter case also builds, straightforwardly in my view, on a long line of cases interpreting the federal “trade and commerce” power narrowly. If anything, the way to criticize it is by saying that the Court was wrong to apply these precedents in a changed economy. (I don’t think it was, but that at least would be a strong critique.) Indeed, at first glance, it seems rather strange that Mr. Crowley has listed these decisions as examples of the Supreme Court’s destabilizing legal expectations ― though I think there is an explanation, to which I will shortly come.
Before doing so, let me address Mr. Crowley’s third claim, which is that the Charter has had a broader destabilizing influence. Indeed, it is worth noting that none of the cases I discuss in the previous paragraph was based on the Charter. To the extent that they did in fact generate instability, they would arguably be examples of that influence ― but I don’t think they are very convincing examples. Mr. Crowley’s main concern, though, seems to be with private law. He is, for instance, visibly annoyed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Bhasin v. Hrynew, 2014 SCC 71, which incorporated a general duty of good faith into the Canadian common law of contract.
The difficulty with Mr. Crowley’s argument here is that even the good old common law fields of tort and contract were never quite as immutable and predictable as he makes them out to be. I will give just one example here:
Faced with this abuse of power – by the strong against the weak – by the use of the small print of the conditions – the judges did what they could to put a curb upon it. They still had before them the idol, “freedom of contract.” They still knelt down and worshipped it, but they concealed under their cloaks a secret weapon. They used it to stab the idol in the back. This weapon was called “the true construction of the contract.” They used it with great skill and ingenuity. They used it so as to depart from the natural meaning of the words of the exemption clause and to put upon them a strained and unnatural construction. In case after case, they said that the words were not strong enough to give the big concern exemption from liability; or that in the circumstances the big concern was not entitled to rely on the exemption clause.
Lord Denning, to whose unmistakable pen these words belong (in George Mitchell (Chesterhall) Ltd. v. Finney Lock Seeds Ltd.  Q.B. 284 (C.A.)), is the judge who, for many generations of law students throughout the Commonwealth, arguably was the incarnation of the common law itself. He also drove lawyers mad with his jurisprudential innovations, even prompting a distraught student to write an open letter to the Times asking him to please not change the law any more before her bar exam (an incident which he gleefully recounts here). And, needless to say, he plied his trade in a blissfully, or sadly, Charter-free legal system.
For all that, it is not impossible that the Charter has contributed to a professional mindset that questions the old adage that it is more important for matters to be settled than to be settled right. It may well have made the legal profession into a less conservative and more activist group. But I don’t think that Mr. Crowley has demonstrated this. Such a demonstration would require rigorous comparison and attempts to isolate the influences of a single constitutional document from those of broader, and independent, cultural trends. It would be a difficult task.
Even if it could be accomplished, would Mr. Crowley’s normative claim ― that the use of law to bring about social change, to settle matters “right” even at the risk of upsetting expectations, is a form of “corruption” ― be justified? The claim is reminiscent of F.A. Hayek’s views in Law, Legislation and Liberty, according to which “the only public good with which [a common law judge] can be concerned is the observance of those rules that the individuals can reasonably count on” (vol. 1, Rules and Order, p. 87). Yet Hayek acknowledged that “law arising out of the endeavour to articulate rules of conduct … may not develop in very undesirable directions” (88). In such cases, he thought that the best remedy was a legislative intervention. Like Mr. Crowley, he was not keen on judicial overturning of precedents, arguing that “[t]he judge is not performing his function if he disappoints reasonable expectations created by earlier decisions,” (88) even if misguided ones.
The problem with this approach is that legislatures aren’t always ready to intervene to correct undesirable developments in the law. What I recently described here as “democratic process failures” ― “persistent inabilit[ies] of that process to produce laws that majorities would agree with and find desirable” ― are a real problem, and possibly an even more pressing one in the realm of private law, which just doesn’t attract the attention of legislators a great deal, than with salient constitutional issues. And so it is not obvious to me that judges should not sometimes intervene and change the law, even at the risk of upsetting established expectations. After all, legislative intervention disrupts expectations as much as judicial intervention does.
And then, there is another problem too, which neither Hayek nor Mr. Crowley really address: expectations are sometimes not as stable as they seem to believe. Quite apart from legal change, social change happens, and settled law can, instead of conforming to, and confirming, social expectations, come into conflict with them. This, I suspect, is what accounts for Mr. Crowley’s inclusion of l’Affaire Nadon, the Senate Reference, and the Securities one in his list of expectation-upsetting cases. They did not, I have argued, upset any reasonable legal expectations. But they may have upset the expectations actually held by a large number of people ― without reference to the law.
It is fine to say that the law must uphold expectations ― it usually must, and it is usually clear enough what must be done in order to achieve this. But not always. A good theory of law must account for the occasional difficulties of this task. It must account, in a realistic way, for the need to correct the mistakes made in this process. And it must account for the possibility of social expectations diverging, sometimes quite quickly, from legally settled ones (which is arguably what happened with assisted suicide). Mr. Crowley’s argument is interesting, but it probably expects too much from the law.