How Much Justice Can You Afford?

The trade-offs involved in designing fair administrative procedures

In the last administrative law class before the extended break into which the present plague forced us (and which is about to come to an end, as we resume teaching ― online), I taught procedural fairness. One of the points I tried to impress on my students is that procedural fairness is (like so much else) a matter of trade-offs. More elaborate procedures meant to ensure that administrative decisions are fair to those whom they affect have benefits ― but they have costs too. The question for those who design the procedures to be followed by a given decision-maker ― legislatures, administrative entities (and their legal advisors!), and eventually courts ― is how to optimize these trade-offs.

This point may bear repeating here. I teach New Zealand law, of course, but the principles and indeed the language of Canadian law of procedural fairness is not very different from those to be found in New Zealand or the United Kingdom. Early Canadian cases on the duty of fairness, notably Nicholson v Haldimand-Norfolk Regional Police Commissioners, [1979] 1 SCR 311, referred to a New Zealand appeal decided by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, Furnell v Whangarei High Schools Board, [1973] AC 660. The leading Canadian case, Baker v  Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), [1999] 2 SCR 817, also draws on UK cases to some extent, rather than treating them as utter heresy, in the way Canadian cases on substantive review, notably Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65, treat cases like Anisminic Ltd v Foreign Compensation Commission, [1969] 2 AC 147.

In these (and other) cases, trade-offs tend not to be discussed explicitly, which is why I think this post is warranted, even though its claims should be, I think, fairly obvious. The language used is, rather, that of justice, fairness, doing the right thing, and general warmth and fuzziness. In Furnell, Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest, for the majority , explained that “natural justice is but fairness writ large and juridically. It has been described as ‘fair play in action’”. (679) The majority in Nicholson adopts this passage, as do a number of other Canadian cases. In Baker, Justice L’Heureux-Dubé writes that

the purpose of the participatory rights contained within the duty of procedural fairness is to ensure that administrative decisions are made using a fair and open procedure, appropriate to the decision being made and its statutory, institutional, and social context, with an opportunity for those affected by the decision to put forward their views and evidence fully and have them considered by the decision-maker. [20]

At the same time, however, there is much talk of flexibility. This should be a hint. If the issue were one sided, we would always want to have more fair play, more open procedures, more opportunities for those affected to put forward their views. There would be no need to modulate the duty of fairness; it would be better to maximize it in every case.

And to be, well, fair, to the courts, their recognition of this issue is sometimes explicit. Justice L’Heureux-Dubé’s reference to the “context” of administrative decisions and may well push to expand, as well as to contract, the duty of fairness in a given case. But other judicial statements are less ambiguous. For example, in Cardinal v Director of Kent Institution, [1985] 2 SCR 643, Justice Le Dain insisted that the requirements of fairness he found applicable

are fully compatible with the concern that the process of prison administration, because of its special nature and exigencies, should not be unduly burdened or obstructed by the imposition of unreasonable or inappropriate procedural requirements. (660)

And, more broadly, in a passage from Pearlberg v Varty, quoted in Nicholson, Lord Pearson pointed out that “if there were too much elaboration of procedural safeguards, nothing could be done simply and quickly and cheaply. Administrative or executive efficiency and economy should not be too readily sacrificed”. Such frankness is not always to be found, however. Besides, frank though it is, Lord Pearson’s statement strikes me as still incomplete.


It is true, of course the elaboration of procedural safeguards comes at the cost of efficiency (not necessarily in its technical sense, but simply as speediness) and economy. But not only to the administration. For one thing, the administration here is only a stand-in for government and, in turn, for the voters who mandate it, however indirectly, and for the taxpayers who fund it. So it is worth pondering the fact that the government staffs, and the taxpayers pick up the bill for, the tribunals or other decision-making agencies, and the courts that engage in judicial review. The government, and again the taxpayers, also pay for lawyers who defend administrative decisions. Government officials who provide process for people are also being paid ― and they are taking time out of their schedules that could presumably be used for something else.

But the government and the taxpayers are not the only ones bearing the costs of “the elaboration of procedural safeguards”. So do the affected parties, who are also expending time and resources on process. If you are told that you have a right to be heard and to represented by a lawyer, you’ll want to prepare and to hire a lawyer. That ain’t cheap, in terms of time and money. Each additional opportunity to make submissions, each additional hearing, each additional cross-examination is an invitation to spend more time and money, to say nothing of emotional investment. Administrative decision-making is often said, as for example by the majority in Edmonton (City) v Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Ltd, 2016 SCC 47, [2016] 2 SCR 293, to be “speedier and less expensive” than adjudication in the courts. But there is no law of nature that says that this must be so, and even if administrative tribunals have a relative advantage, this does not mean that they achieve speed and affordability in some absolute sense.

So administrative procedures imposed in the name of fairness have costs, some of them falling on the administration itself, and some on those being administered. Of course they do have benefits too, and these benefits are also distributed in ways that the language of judicial decisions does not always make obvious. Of course, an opportunity to be heard to be given a decision that one can accept as consistent with fair play even if unsatisfactory are very important benefits ― benefits that have to do with the value of human dignity, as Jeremy Waldron points out (primarily in relation to courts, but the point generalizes) in “The Rule of Law and the Importance of Procedure“. These benefits that accrue primarily to the parties affected by administrative decisions.

But other benefits that are expected to be provided by more elaborate administrative procedures will accrue more widely. There are good governance benefits, for example, resulting from insofar as administrative procedures leading to more, or better, information being taken into account by decision-makers, and this, in turn, translating into more rounded and sensible decisions being made, into local knowledge displacing or at least supplementing the preconceptions of bureaucratic planners. There are Rule of Law benefits from the laws are enforced in a non-arbitrary way, by non-biased officials ― at least provided that the laws are minimally decent. There are even democratic benefits, insofar as voters want those laws enacted by legislatures to exist and be enforced in accordance with their terms (a big, and often unwarranted assumption, to be sure).

And so, to repeat, the question for those who are in charge of desigining administrative procedures is how to balance the costs and the benefits. One general point is that, as with much else, the marginal cost of “the elaboration of procedure safeguards” goes up, while the marginal benefit that it produces goes down. Some elementary duty to appraise a person subject to an administrative procedure of what is going on and an opportunity to make written submissions is likely not to be especially onerous on the either the administration or the affected party, while providing a substantial gain (in terms of making the affected party feel better, of leading to more accurate decisions, etc) over a bureaucrat deciding on a whim in his or her office. The gain from moving from a written procedure to an oral hearing with lawyers and cross-examination may well be less, though it might still be significant ― in some cases (for example, when credibility is in issue), while the cost may well be greater. The gain from having an appeal procedure is likely to be less still: if the decision-maker at first instance was competent, most of his or her decisions will be acceptable, even if the appellate process can improve on them somewhat. For any given decision, there is a point where the costs of additional process will outweigh the benefits. The trick is to find this point, or something near enough to it.

One cannot, I suspect, meaningfully generalize much beyond that, and the courts are right to emphasize the case-by-case nature of the inquiry into the duty of fairness. Different kinds of decisions will have different costs and benefits. Some parties are better able to bear their share of the costs than others. Some decisions are so routine that additional procedural safeguards will yield little advantage. Some decisions are preliminary and defects can be rectified at a later stage.

The trouble is, to repeat, that costs and benefits are both spread among different people and groups of people. It may be that adding or withholding process will provide benefits to some while imposing costs on others. How to balance that is not obvious, to put it mildly. No one group involved in designing administrative procedures ― legislatures, the administration itself, and the courts ― may have a very good understanding of the impacts of their decisions, although the courts typically consider themselves experts in the matter.

What is more, all come to the design process with their own biases that make them overestimate certain costs or benefits. Legislatures are probably concerned to save money (at least all things being equal; sometimes, they have other interests in mind, as becomes apparent from considering the extraordinarily elaborate procedural scheme for teach discipline that was at issue in Furnell). Administrators probably want to save their time and effort. Both may underappreciate the benefits of procedural safeguards, both to affected parties and to society at large. Meanwhile, courts, insofar as they act at the behest of parties dissatisfied with individual decisions and bound to argue that the procedures followed were insufficiently elaborate may lose sight of the costs ― not only to the administration but also to other affected parties, who are not before them ― of additional procedure. Last but not least, it’s worth keeping in mind that lawyers, collectively, tend to benefit from more process. We are also trained to explain to people why more process is a good thing. And it often is! But we are not entirely disinterested when we say so.


The language of fair play and participation ― important though these things are ― should not lull us into losing sight of the unpleasant realities of administrative procedures. More is not always better. There are costs, and trade-offs. We must ― and can do no more than ― try to find the best balance, case by case, statutory scheme by statutory scheme, and labouring under all the severe limitations to which institutional design generally is subject. We cannot have have it all ― affordability and impartiality, expeditiousness and participation. The New Yorker’s cartoonist J.B. Handelsman, though he probably had a somewhat different issue in mind, put it well.

Freedom and Institutions

The who study the question of religious freedom often wonder why it should benefit and protect not only individual believers, but also religious institutions. Application of religious freedom to institutions such as the Catholic Church―institutions which, needless to say, are not often themselves models of internal liberalism, equality, or democracy―generates a good deal of criticism. Among other things, the critics point out that religious institutions seem unique in benefiting from a right which, like other rights, normally attaches to individuals. Indeed, many people―and particularly the non-religious, the agnostics and the atheists―do not exercise their beliefs through institutions. They only claim religious freedom (which, it is generally agreed, includes the freedom not to hold any religious belief) for themselves, not for any institutions. Why should believers be different?

But this story from the BBC suggests that they might not be different. It tells of an “atheist church” gathering in London, singing, sermons, and all. As the BBC reports,

The audience – overwhelmingly young, white and middle class – appear excited to be part of something new and speak of the void they felt on a Sunday morning when they decided to abandon their Christian faith.

Now I, for one, find it somewhat perplexing. As Leo Tolstoy supposedly said when invited to join a temperance society, “there’s no need to get together in order not to drink. If you get together, you might as well raise a glass to the occasion.” But never mind. Many people strongly prefer to live their beliefs through institutions―whatever these beliefs are, even if they are non-beliefs. Institutions are an inextricable part of the belief. Attack the institution, and you risk destroying the belief. Claims that we can respect religious freedom without making room for religious institutions―or, it would seem, that we could respect the freedom of non-believers without making room for institutions of irreligion, whatever shape they might take in the years to come―are at best misguided, and hypocritical at worst.

Besides, it is not really true that religious belief is unique among rights in being bound up with institutions. Just as freedom of religion has its churches, freedom of expression has its press (sometimes expressly acknowledged in constitutional texts, as in the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution), and, as Yale’s Dean Robert Post argues, its universities (as I explain here). So too the individual right to an impartial trial is connected with institutional protections for courts. And there are probably other examples too. Once you start thinking about it, religious freedom is neither as exceptional nor as exceptionable as some would have us think.

But institutions, however indispensable for freedom, can also stifle it. Universities, according to Dean Post, must be free to penalize professors and students who do not play by the generally accepted rules of the academic game; churches can impose penance and excommunicate their heretics. This is fine―this is part of these institutions’ freedom, which in turn is an inextricable part of how individuals exercise their own freedom―so long as there are alternatives. So long as an excommunicated heretic is free to found his own church, and to criticize the one that rejected him; so long as the mad scientist is free to pursue and publish his work outside the official ivory tower, there is no justification for interfering with the institutions which, internally, rely on authority more than on freedom. But there is a standing danger of such institutions growing so powerful as to capture the state and rely on its coercive machinery to forbid the expression of views disagreeable to them. That danger―the danger of the marketplace of ideas being ruled by state-backed monopolies―is what we must guard against.