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.

L’ordre et le rêve

Le contrôle judiciaire après Dunsmuir

The Hon. Louis LeBel CC

Le texte n’appartient plus à son auteur; ce lieu commun de la critique littéraire s’applique particulièrement bien à l’œuvre judiciaire. Une fois déposé, le jugement s’incorpore dans un patrimoine commun, le droit ou le système juridique d’un état ou d’une communauté politique. Il tombera souvent dans le silence.

Parfois il connaîtra une notoriété, peut-être temporaire. Loué ou critiqué, il aura connu le sort que Voltaire au 18e siècle souhaitait à son œuvre, « que l’on en parle en bien, que l’on en parle en mal, pourvu qu’on en parle! » La lecture des contributions communiquées sur les blogues des professeurs Daly et Sirota confirme que tel a été le sort de l’arrêt Dunsmuir depuis 10 ans.

Cependant, puisque cet arrêt n’appartient plus à ceux qui l’ont rendu, il ne me semblerait pas approprié de m’engager dans une défense et illustration de ses mérites. Toutefois, je n’entends pas, même en ces temps de carême, me vêtir d’un sac de toile, répandre des cendres sur ma tête et commencer d’amères pénitences pour obtenir le pardon de la communauté juridique canadienne.

À l’occasion de ces 10 ans, je préfère partager quelques réflexions sur le contrôle judiciaire tel qu’on le connaît au Canada et sur la conception que l’on s’en fait. Le sujet m’a intéressé, bon gré mal gré, au cours de ma vie professionnelle comme avocat puis comme juge. Je pense d’ailleurs avoir plaidé mon premier dossier de contrôle judiciaire en 1964. Jusqu’à ce que je devienne juge, les affaires de contrôle judiciaire sont demeurées constamment une partie de mon horizon intellectuel. Il m’est arrivé aussi de donner quelques cours sur le sujet.

Puis comme juge à la Cour d’appel du Québec puis à la Cour suprême du Canada, les problèmes de contrôle judiciaire ont constitué une part substantielle de mon activité. Si ma mémoire est fidèle, vers 1996, les affaires de contrôle judiciaire représentaient environ 20 % du rôle civil de la division d’appel de Montréal. Cependant, si j’ai aimé le droit administratif, je n’ai jamais salivé à l’idée de plaider ou d’entendre une affaire de contrôle judiciaire. Je ne me souviens pas d’être parti entendre Dunsmuir en clamant le matin mon bonheur à mon épouse.

J’admets le fait de la popularité et l’abondance des activités de contrôle judiciaire. Je les ai considérées souvent comme des problèmes intéressants de procédure civile et de droit administratif. Elles représentaient une part complexe des tentatives d’aménagement du droit administratif ainsi que l’organisation des rapports entre les composantes d’un état démocratique moderne et des relations entre les groupes de toute nature qui forment la société civile.

J’ai donc vécu comme praticien et comme juge plusieurs systèmes de contrôle judiciaire et l’émergence de paradigmes divers gouvernant ceux-ci. Rien ne fut parfait et l’expérimentation s’est continuée. Après d’autres, j’ai apporté une contribution dont la nature fait elle-même l’objet de commentaires à l’occasion de cet anniversaire.

Il m’est arrivé de percevoir dans le fonctionnement du système de contrôle judiciaire un obstacle de l’accès à la justice ou à son efficacité dans les domaines relevant du droit administratif. Que l’on revienne à la case zéro après 15 ou 20 ans de débats judiciaires ne m’est jamais apparu comme une solution admissible, comme je reconnais volontiers l’avoir dit au cours d’une audience de la Cour Suprême, ainsi que le soulignait Me Gall dans sa contribution. Je demeure aussi inconfortable devant des systèmes qui, superposant des procédures de contrôle judiciaires à des régimes d’appel administratif créent une demi douzaine de paliers de juridiction. En réalité, mon intérêt pour le contrôle judiciaire correspond sans doute à celui du chirurgien devant un cancer du pancréas complexe.

Néanmoins, la question du contrôle judiciaire demeure présente et doit être traitée dans un système juridique comme celui d’un pays comme le Canada. Celui-ci reste soumis à la règle de droit comme la Cour suprême le rappelait dans le Renvoi sur la sécession de Québec[1]. Les structures constitutionnelles mises en place par la Constitution de 1867, notamment quant au rôle des Cours supérieures, rendent la question incontournable. Dans ce contexte, le contrôle judiciaire représente un mécanisme nécessaire pour assurer le respect d’un ordonnancement juridique fondamental. Cependant, il doit s’insérer dans la vie d’un état démocratique moderne dont les fonctions de réglementation sociales et économiques ont connu une forte expansion, bien que celle-ci n’ait jamais fait l’unanimité. Il s’inscrit dans les mécanismes d’un droit public, constitutionnel et administratif qui pénètre profondément toute la vie de la société canadienne.

Cette forme de contrôle de l’activité administrative implique nécessairement des conceptions diverses du rôle des tribunaux supérieurs et des mécanismes de formation du droit dans la société contemporaine. Il soulève aussi des interrogations fondamentales sur la nature du droit et des processus de sa formation de celui-ci, y compris au sujet de la nature et de la mise en œuvre des méthodes d’interprétation.

Des commentaires recueillis sur les blogues des professeurs Daly et Sirota, ressortent deux tendances fondamentales. L’une voit dans le contrôle judiciaire une méthode destinée à assurer l’ordre dans le système juridique canadien particulièrement à l’égard des questions de droit. Pour elle, le contrôle judiciaire, à la limite, ne se distinguerait guère de l’appel. Il laisserait sans doute la décision sur le fait au décideur administratif mais exigerait que la plupart des questions de droit soient réglées selon un test d’exactitude défini par les tribunaux supérieurs. Aussi, de fortes réserves se manifestent à l’égard d’une approche déférente qui permettrait aux tribunaux administratifs de définir leur conception de la conformité aux normes fondamentales comme la Charte canadienne des droits et libertés ou, au Québec, la Charte des droits et liberté de la personne[2].

Au fond, cette première tendance vise à l’unification des règles de droit et de leur mise en œuvre par le choix d’une norme d’intervention fondamentalement similaire à celle de l’appel civil ou pénal.

L’autre tendance découle d’une opinion toujours essentielle dans l’aménagement du système de contrôle judiciaire canadien, celle du juge Dickson, plus tard juge en chef dans l’arrêt Syndicat canadien de la Fonction publique, section locale 963 c. Société des alcools du Nouveau‑Brunswick[3]. Comme le note fort à propos la professeure Valois dans sa contribution à ce groupe d’études, elle étend clairement le droit du contrôle judiciaire au mérite de la décision administrative en la soumettant à une norme de rationalité au lieu de limiter l’intervention du tribunal supérieur à la définition de sa compétence et à l’examen des conditions dans lesquelles la décision a été rendue.

Cependant, cette extension s’accompagnait de la reconnaissance d’une forme de déférence en faveur du décideur administratif, même sur un grand nombre de questions de droit. Elle acceptait qu’il existe des dossiers où les choix interprétatifs de décideur administratif primeraient en dépit de désaccords potentiels avec l’opinion de la cour de contrôle. En ce sens, cette orientation qui s’est retrouvée dans des formes diverses d’aménagement du contrôle judiciaire depuis ce jugement, comporte une reconnaissance implicite qu’un système de droit laisse place à une marge de pluralisme juridique. Le droit n’est pas nécessairement univoque et une des fonctions d’un organisme administratif peut consister dans le développement de ses propres orientations juridiques. Un jugement, l’arrêt Domtar[4] admettait d’ailleurs cette possibilité en rejetant même les inconsistances des décisions d’un tribunal administratif comme justification à elle seule d’un exercice du pouvoir de contrôle judiciaire.

L’aménagement du contrôle judiciaire dans cette seconde tendance s’est réalisé, comme on le sait, sous des formes très diverses. La construction de l’œuvre se continuera inévitablement. Cependant, elle a reconnu l’existence d’une autonomie partielle des tribunaux administratifs, certainement sur le fait, mais aussi sur le droit au cours de tous les débats sur les méthodes de contrôle judiciaire.

Le débat incessant sur les normes de contrôle judicaire a d’ailleurs occulté en partie le développement du droit administratif comme tel. La focalisation sur les normes de contrôle et les problèmes d’accès à celui-ci a conduit parfois à négliger que le droit administratif se développait au niveau des juridictions inférieures qui régissent largement la vie quotidienne des membres de la société[5]. On oublierait parfois, à lire notamment une partie de la doctrine de droit administratif, que celui-ci ne se limite pas au contrôle judiciaire. Pourtant, l’examen d’une œuvre récente comme la 7e édition du traité de droit administratif du professeur Patrice Garant[6], confirme la diversité et l’ampleur du droit administratif. Cependant, le contrôle judiciaire tend à absorber toute l’attention. Parfois, sa conception exprime le rêve de la formation d’un ordre stable et de règles d’application quasi-automatiques, dispensant de l’exercice d’un jugement prudentiel. Cette approche oublie les exigences de la vie d’une société et l’importance de l’expérimentation juridique. Elle néglige aussi la nature du droit de l’interprétation juridique qui opère parfois comme mécanisme de création et non seulement, comme une technique mécanique de dégagement d’un sens caché d’un texte.

Le droit ne s’accomplit jamais définitivement. Des problèmes continuent à se poser. Je pense, par exemple, à l’intégration des questions d’équité procédurale dans le système de contrôle judiciaire. On peut aussi s’interroger sur la question des limites du système actuel de contrôle judiciaire et de sa capacité de s’adapter aux fonctions administratives autres que celles d’adjudication. Comment fixer les limites de ce contrôle et ses modes d’exercices particulièrement à l’égard de l’application des normes fondamentales par exemple dans le cas des fonctions de décision individuelle et de réglementation de l’administration publique.

L’essence du contrôle judiciaire correspond à des objectifs simples à définir : maintenir un ordre juridique stable sur des questions de droit fondamentales et assurer le respect d’un processus décisionnel rationnel et juste dans l’administration publique. La réalisation de ces objectifs demeure difficile surtout lorsque le contrôle judiciaire est trop souvent employé pour prolonger des débats devant la justice ou obtenir une seconde chance de modifier une décision prise en réalité dans les marges de la raison et de l’équité procédurale.

L’une des beautés du droit se retrouve dans la nécessité de faire appel à l’imagination au-delà des tentatives ou des espoirs de s’endormir dans un cadre formel immuable. Le présent débat sur les normes de contrôle témoigne de cette tentation et de ce défi. Il s’agit d’apprendre à contrôler le contrôle judiciaire.



[1]
Renvoi relatif à la sécession de Québec, [1998] 2 R.C.S. 217.

[2] RLRQ, c. C-12.

[3] S.C.F.P. c. Société des Alcools du N.-B., [1979] 2 R.C.S. 227.

[4] Domtar Inc. c. Québec Commission d’appel en matière de lesion professionnelles, [1993] 2 R.C.S. 786.

[5] Voir: par exemple, P. Noreau, F. Houle, M. Valois, P. Issalys, La justice administrative : entre indépendance et responsabilité – Jalons pour la création d’un régime commun des décideurs administratifs indépendants, Éditions Yvon Blais, Cowansville 2014.

[6] P. Garant, Droit administratif, 7e édition, Éditions Yvon Blais, Cowansville 2018.

The Paradox of Simplicity

Dunsmuir failed to simplify administrative law; the framework that replaces it must account for the administrative state’s complexity

In Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190, the Supreme Court sought to bring clarity and (relative) simplicity to the law of judicial review of administrative decisions, which as it acknowledged with some understatement “ha[d] not been without practical and theoretical difficulties, [or] free of criticism”. [39] But subsequent decisions, digesting, developing, and departing from Dunsmuir, revealed the futility of its promise of simplifying the law of judicial review in Canada. Practical and theoretical difficulties, and criticism, still abound ― at least when it comes to review of administrative decisions on questions of law. The law on this issue, as other contributions to this symposium note, is in a parlous state. The Supreme Court’s decisions fail to provide guidance to litigants and to lower courts. They are difficult to understand, unrealistic, and appear to do something very different from what they say they do. A fundamental re-assessment, of a magnitude at least equal to that of Dunsmuir, seems to be inevitable.

In my view, one reason why Dunsmuir failed to simplify and clarify the law of judicial review once and for all is the weakness and incoherence of the justifications it provided for judicial deference to administrative decisions. In this post, I review these justifications and argue that none of them can account for the broad scope of deference that Dunsmuir and subsequent cases mandate. Any attempt to reformulate the law of judicial review in the future must acknowledge the weakness of the available explanations for deference, and can only require courts to defer to administrative decision-makers in narrow circumstances where such deference would be well and truly justified.

* * *

Dunsmuir proclaimed that “determining the applicable standard of review is accomplished by establishing legislative intent”. [30] If courts were sometimes, or often, to defer to administrative decision-makers’ interpretations of law, that was because legislatures wanted them to do so. “The existence of a privative or preclusive clause”, [52] providing that an administrative decision was not to be interfered with by the judiciary, was the indication par excellence of the enacting legislature’s desire to commit the determination of issues arising out of the operation of a statutory scheme to a tribunal rather than a court.

But Dunsmuir itself and subsequent cases undermined what the simplicity of a hypothetical regime where privative clauses trigger deference ― and their absence, logically, leads to non-deferential review. For one thing, as Dunsmuir acknowledged, to the extent that they purport to oust judicial review completely, privative clauses cannot be given their full effect, because under the constitution “neither Parliament nor any legislature can completely remove the courts’ power to review the actions and decisions of administrative bodies”. [52] But even putting this constitutional limitation to one side, under the Dunsmuir framework a privative clause is not the only signal of deference. Indeed, according to Edmonton (City) v Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Ltd, 2016 SCC 47, [2016] 2 SCR 293, even a provision creating a right of appeal on a question of law, which seems like an explicit indication that a legislature does not want courts to defer to administrative decisions, is not enough to oust a “presumption of deference”, which thus takes on a life of its own, unmoored from legislative intention.

Another reason for judicial deference to administrative decisions, according to Dunsmuir, is that “certain questions that come before administrative tribunals” ― including questions of law ― “do not lend themselves to one specific, particular result”. [47] The multiplicity of possible answers to the questions facing administrative decision-makers combined with the need to “respect … the legislative choices to leave some matters” [49] to their arbitrament to justify deference.

The problem here is that there is little reason to think that the sets of questions of law that “do not lend themselves to one specific particular results” and of questions on which deference is required under the Dunsmuir framework (or the Dunsmuir framework as modified by subsequent Supreme Court decisions) are identical. Dunsmuir called for deference “where a tribunal is interpreting its own statute or statutes closely connected to its function, with which it will have particular familiarity” [54] or related common law rules. Yet 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. A legislature may wish to set up an administrative tribunal for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with the existence or not of clear answers to interpretive questions: cost-effectiveness, accessibility, the need to execute a law (and not just adjudicate disputes), even patronage.

Finally, Dunsmuir insisted that courts need to defer to administrative decision-makers out of “respect … for the processes and determinations that draw on particular expertise and experiences”. [49] Since then, as the dissenting opinion in Edmonton East noted, “the notion of ‘expertise’ has become a catch-all trigger for deferential review”, [82] even though “this presumption of expertise has rarely been given much explanation or content in our jurisprudence”. [83] Meanwhile, the majority opinion suggested that expertise was independent of the qualifications or functions of administrative decision-makers. The very existence of a specialized tribunal made it an expert.

Perhaps the popularity of the presumption of expertise is due to the Supreme Court’s realization that the other justifications for deference are unpersuasive. Perhaps it is a convenient means to disclaim responsibility for decisions taken elsewhere (similarly, for instance, to the Supreme Court’s insistence, starting in Canada (Attorney General) v Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 SCR 1101, on deference to first-instance judges’ findings of legislative fact). Other contributors to this symposium challenge the notion of administrative expertise as a foundation for deference in greater detail. Suffice it for me to say that, just like legislative intent and the impossibility of a definitive answer, expertise is often a judicial fiction and thus an unconvincing justification for deference.

All this is not to say that there are no cases in which deferential review on a reasonableness standard would not have been intended by a legislature setting up an administrative tribunal, or in which there is indeed a multiplicity or a range of plausible answers to legal questions, or in which the administrative tribunal is (more) expert (than the reviewing court). My point, rather, is that, at a minimum, these justifications do not support deference across the board when administrative decision-makers are interpreting their “home statutes”, which Dunsmuir, and especially cases like Edmonton East require. Indeed, these justifications can operate at cross-purposes, as when the legislature authorizes appeals on questions of law from the decisions of expert tribunals, or when administrative decisions are insulated by privative clauses from review of their answers to questions which do in fact “lend themselves to a specific result”. The Supreme Court’s jurisprudence suggests that all these conflicts must be resolved in favour of deference, but it does not provide any explanation for why this is the case.

* * *

The Supreme Court, presumably, can see these difficulties as plainly as its critics. They might account for at least some of the frequency with which ostensibly deferential review exhibits no sign of deference at all ― another issue that other contributions to this symposium highlight. The only way forward, in my view, is for the Court to allow its explanations to match its decisions, and abandon the pursuit, or the pretense, of across-the-board deference. If deference is ever appropriate, it can only be justified with reference to the circumstances of particular cases. This is not the place for a full exploration of the circumstances in which courts ought to defer to administrative decision-makers on questions of law, if indeed there be any. I will, however, venture a few observations.

First, it should not be presumed that deference is due to all the decisions of a particular administrative tribunal or type of tribunal, or to tribunals interpreting a type of statute. As the dissent in Edmonton East pointed out, a single tribunal may be called upon to decide different types of issues, some of which implicate its expertise or involve policy considerations, while others do not. In particular, even if deference is appropriate to tribunal decisions fleshing out the meaning of vague terms such as “just”, or “reasonable”, or “in the public interest”, it does not follow that it would be called for when the same tribunals answer questions about, say, the relationship between provisions of a statute (even their “home” statute) or two related statutes. The former type of question calls upon the tribunals’ specialized knowledge of the standards of justice or reasonableness, or the requirements of the public interest in the field they regulate. The latter is concerned with more general legal skills which courts possess no less, and often more, than tribunals.

Further, even when dealing with a type of question answers to which would normally attract deference, administrative decision-makers are sometimes so constrained by judicial precedent that their decision-making is not meaningfully different from that of a trial court striving to apply appellate authority. The decision that led to in Quebec (Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail) v Caron, 2018 SCC 3 is a good example, as the relevant analysis concerned the scope of the jurisprudence of the Québec Court of Appeal. In similar circumstances, a trial court’s conclusions would not be entitled to any deference on appeal. Why should the administrative decision-maker’s? Assertions to the effect that judicial review and appellate review are not identical are not convincing in those cases where the nature of the decision under review is such that they practically are.

Finally, and more substantively, it is important to recall what is at stake in judicial review of administrative decisions. Proponents of deference often think of it as a means of protecting the decisions of an administrative state devoted to economic regulation in the name of social justice, or at least of enlightened technocracy. But there is much more to the administrative state economic than labour boards or arbitrators, whose decisions supply a disproportionate share of material for the Supreme Court’s administrative law decisions. The law of judicial review of administrative action applies also to the review of correctional authorities, professional licensing bodies, immigration officers, human rights tribunals, even universities and municipalities, and much else besides. People’s ability to enjoy their property or to practice their profession, their right to enter into or to remain in Canada, even their liberty (or at least the conditions of their detention, which the Supreme Court recognizes as a liberty interest) can depend on the way in which an official or a body exercising powers (purportedly) delegated by a legislature interpret the law. Is it enough to tell them, as Dunsmuir effectively does, that it is sufficient that the interpretation that causes them to lose these rights or benefits be justified, transparent, and intelligible?

* * *

Dunsmuir sought to simplify Canadian administrative law by setting out a unified analytical framework based on “the structure and characteristics of the system of judicial review as a whole”. [33] As part of this process, it set out a number of justifications that were supposed to support a wide-ranging policy of judicial deference to administrative interpretations of law. Well-intentioned as it was, the attempt did not succeed. The justifications advanced in Dunsmuir cannot justify deference in many cases where the Supreme Court said it is due. The weakness of, and occasional conflicts among, the justifications for deference advanced in Dunsmuir have fostered renewed confusion in the law of judicial review.

It is important that this confusion be eliminated. Canadian administrative law is reaching a point where it can scarcely be called law at all, such is its inability to provide guidance to those who must apply it or predict how it will be applied. Yet ― perhaps paradoxically ― the way to clarity passes not through the application of a single all-encompassing principle, but through greater attention to the circumstances of individual cases. As these circumstances vary, so must the applicable rules. It is Dunsmuir’s attempt to deny or at least avoid this complexity that is responsible for its failure.

Charter Rights and Charter-Lite

How not to resolve the tension between the principles of constitutional and administrative law, and how to actually do it

Audrey Macklin, University of Toronto

The Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Doré signaled the apparent victory of Team Administrative Law over Team Charter: discretionary decisions engaging Charter rights — dubbed ‘Charter values’ for this purpose — would henceforth be decided according to principles of administrative law applicable to discretion rather than constitutional principles applicable to rights infringement. This meant that judges called upon to review exercises of discretion that impaired Charter rights/values would defer to the administrative decision maker’s determination, and only set it aside if it was ‘unreasonable’.  Although Dunsmuir indicated that constitutional issues would attract a stricter standard of review (correctness), Doré subordinated the constitutional dimension of a decision to its discretionary form in order to winnow down one of the few remaining bases for non-deferential review. The reassurance offered by Team Administrative Law was that judicial deference in administrative law is not so different from elements of judicial deference built into the Oakes test. According to the Court,

while a formulaic application of the Oakes test may not be workable in the context of an adjudicated decision, distilling its essence works the same justificatory muscles: balance and proportionality.

Though this judicial review is conducted within the administrative framework, there is nonetheless conceptual harmony between a reasonableness review and the Oakes framework, since both contemplate giving a ‘margin of appreciation’, or deference, to administrative and legislative bodies in balancing Charter values against broader objectives.[1]

I dispute the Court’s attempt to plot administrative and constitutional review on the same axis. First, the replacement of Charter ‘right’ or ‘freedom’ with Charter ‘value’ obscures the recognition of rights and freedoms in play.  Secondly, the methodology proposed in Doré purports to marry a simplified proportionality analysis with Dunsmuir’s deferential reasonableness review. In my view, this jurisprudential mash-up respects neither the primacy nor priority of Charter rights and produces instead a Charter-lite approach to review of discretion. Curial deference toward the outcomes it produces exacerbates the dilution of rights protection. It also creates negative incentives for governance and the rule of law by making the executive less accountable for Charter breaches committed via discretion than by operation of a legal norm.

For present purposes, I will highlight the second and third defect of Doré, the proportionality analysis. The normative primacy of Charter rights means that a proportionality analysis in the context of rights adjudication is not neutral as between rights and freedoms protected by the Charter and other interests, entitlements or ‘values’.  To denominate an interest as a right is to recognize its distinctive importance. A Charter right intrinsically ‘weighs’ more (by virtue of being a right) than something called an interest, value or entitlement[2].   Doré’s re-labelling of Charter right as Charter ‘value’ obscures this implication of rights recognition.  More significantly,  the simplified proportionality analysis commended by the Court simply requires decision makers to identify the Charter ‘value’ in play and then ‘balance’ it against competing objectives. In effect, it suppresses the normative primacy of a Charter right. This demotion is not rescued by remedial italics. Exhorting decision makers to engage in what Abella J. called  ‘a robust proportionality analysis consistent with administrative law principles’ does not assist, precisely because it does not reckon with the relevant administrative law principles.

The standard of review in Doré is reasonableness.  A failure to accord sufficient importance to a Charter right (or value) is a question of weight, and the Court’s statement of administrative law principles for over fifteen years have emphatically insisted that deferential review of discretion precludes reweighing the factors relevant to the exercise of discretion. Doré does not depart from this admonition against re-weighing. So if an administrative decision maker undervalues the importance of protecting Charter values/rights against fulfillment of the statutory objectives that are the daily preoccupation of that decision maker, deferential review will have nothing to say. (That is, if the court actually defers; claiming to apply a standard of reasonableness while actually reviewing on a standard of correctness can avoid unpalatable outcomes but only at the cost of introducing other pathologies.)

A Charter right, once established, also asserts normative priority. A rights bearing individual need not justify the exercise of a Charter right; rather, the state must justify infringing it, and the state’s burden is a heavy one.  These requirements flow from the intrinsic weightiness of rights. The stages of the test are designed to ensure that limiting a right serves important objectives, actually advances those objectives, and limits the right no more than required to achieve the objective. Only after clearing each of those hurdles does one arrive at the ultimate balancing of the last step, in which the failure to accord sufficient weight to the Charter right may yet yield the conclusion that the government has not discharged its burden.

The confounding feature of discretion, of course, is that it presupposes that the person has no right to a particular outcome (indeed, the outcome may, in this technical sense, be a ‘privilege’), but insofar as the Charter is implicated in the decision, the individual should be regarded as a rights bearer.

While Doré does instruct decision makers to assess the necessity of limiting the Charter protection in order to achieve statutory objectives, the Court provides no practical advice about how to do that. On its face, it encourages a mere balancing of the Charter as one factor among others. Perhaps the Court in Doré intends to convey the normative primacy and priority of the Charter and all that is entailed when it enjoins decision-makers to ‘remain conscious of the fundamental importance of Charter values in the analysis’[3].   If so, it should say so more explicitly, because it would be subverting its own problematic jurisprudence on re-weighing.

Another entry point into the disjuncture between administrative and constitutional review is the judicial posture toward ministerial decisions. It exposes a fundamental tension between the democratic impulse that underwrites deference and the counter-majoritarian dimension of constitutional rights adjudication. Judges are entrusted with adjudicating the Charter not only because of their legal expertise, but also because of their independence from government. Some Charter cases engage questions of redistribution that resist straightforward classification as state infringement of individual right, but many Charter challenges do conform to type. The judiciary’s real and perceived detachment from the legislature and the executive matters to the legitimacy of rights adjudication when government actors are alleged to have breached the constitutional rights of individuals subject to their authority. Yet, standard of review jurisprudence currently justifies deference by reference to democratic delegation.  Quasi-judicial tribunals who enjoy a measure of relative independence enjoy no more or less deference than front line bureaucrats and possibly less than ministers of the crown. The independence of the administrative decision maker from government does not matter to deference.

But in Charter litigation, proximity to the political branch of government pulls in the opposite direction – decisions by elected officials (legislators) are distrusted precisely because they might be inclined to trade off individual rights for political gain through appealing to majoritarian interests. In other words, democratic legitimacy, political acumen and access to expert staff may incline courts to display particular deference to Ministers in judicial review of discretion, but this translates awkwardly into a rationale for deference where the Charter is at issue. The fact that an administrative decision maker is also high-ranking elected official is not a reason to defer to the balance he or she strikes between protection of individual rights and advancement of other public objectives (statutory or otherwise). It may even be a reason not to defer.

The foregoing does not suggest that decision makers with authority to interpret law should not consider the Charter when exercising discretion.  Their valuable ‘field expertise’ may enhance the fact finding process, the elaboration of the statutory scheme  and the richness of the evidentiary foundation. Some individual decision makers may also produce legally sophisticated and cogent Charter analyses. Many will not, either for lack of ability, time, resources or independence, or some combination thereof. There is simply no basis for a presumption that a decision maker’s ‘field expertise’, which may contribute constructively to some aspects of a Charter analysis, equips the decision maker to manage all aspects of a Charter analysis. On judicial review, judges should certainly pay respectful attention to the reasons given by decision makers exercising Charter-impacting discretion. Sometimes the reasons may be persuasive, and a judge should be as open to benefiting from a rigorous and compelling set of reasons in the same way he or she is open to persuasion from high quality submissions by counsel, analyses by law clerks, or opinions of fellow judges.

In other words, the arguments in favour of Charter jurisdiction do not explain why deference is owed to their Charter outcomes. Nor do arguments about why courts should defer to the exercise of discretion on non-Charter matters automatically extend to those aspects of discretion that implicate the Charter. Yet Doré commits both of these errors.  The slippage is exacerbated by the fact that Court in Doré equips administrative decision makers with a Charter-lite methodology that is approximate, vague and incomplete, starting with its problematic invocation of Charter values, to its account of proportionality.

Lower courts and various Supreme Court judges have already revealed diffidence toward Doré, either by subjecting it to critique or effectively ignoring it. Going forward, I propose that a constructive approach to review of discretion engaging Charter rights should contain the following elements: First, a Charter right is a Charter right, regardless of whether it is infringed by operation of law or discretion; conclusory labelling it a ‘value’ obscures rather than clarifies.

Secondly, a Charter right weighs more than other interests, and the graver the impact of the violation, the more it weighs. Thirdly, the independence of the decision maker from political influence matters. Proximity between the decision-maker and the legislator provides no reason to defer to a balancing of individual Charter rights against majoritarian interests.

Fourthly, where no or inadequate reasons are provided for the exercise of discretion that infringes a Charter right, curial deference neither requires nor authorizes retrofitting reasons to support the result reached by the administrative decision-maker.

Finally, the extent to which the discretion in structured and guided through constitutionally valid legislation, regulation or ‘soft law’ matters. Where the exercise of discretion will routinely and predictably limit Charter rights (e.g. in civil or criminal commitment, parole, immigration detention, child apprehension, extradition, etc.), legislators can and should stipulate the purposes for which the discretion is granted, and identify the factors relevant to the exercise of discretion.  If these provisions withstand an ordinary Charter challenge (including the Oakes test), then the individual exercise of discretion within those demarcated constitutional boundaries should benefit from greater deference than exercises of broad, general and unstructured discretion.  Legislators and administrative agencies should be encouraged to structure discretion.  It advances the rule of law goal of publicity. But if the legislator declines to structure the discretion, courts should not reward opacity by undertaking to generate the best optimal justification for the outcome, just as they should not reward the absence of [adequate] reasons by generating better ones.[4]

Whether these considerations travel under the rubric of reasonableness, correctness, proportionality or Oakes, or some other label matters less than that they receive proper and explicit attention. After Multani, David Mullan correctly (and reasonably) concluded that there is ‘room for deference to the discretionary judgments of statutory authorities exercising powers that have the potential to affect Charter  rights and  freedoms’, but in order to prevent devaluation of those rights and freedoms ‘there should be recognition  that the framework within which deference operates will often, perhaps invariably need  to be different than in the case of judicial  review of administrative action that does not affect Charter rights and  freedoms’.[5] Justice McLachlin (as she then was) correctly observed that many more people have their rights determined by administrative decision makers than by courts. The quality of Charter protection they receive should not depend on who makes the determination.



[1]
Doré, at paras. 56, 57.

[2] Lord Bingham recognized this in the UK context: R (Daly) v. Secretary of State for the Home Department, [2001] UKHL 26.

[3] Doré, at para 54.

[4] Ideally, this should incentivize legislators to be more transparent in structuring and defining the scope of discretion in legislation.  For a thoughtful elaboration of this idea, see Paul Daly, “Prescribing Greater Protection for Rights: Administrative Law and Section 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms” (2014) 65 Supreme Court Law Review (2d) 247.

[5] “Administrative Tribunals and.Judicial Review of Charter Issues After Multani” (2006–07) 21 N.J.C.L. 127 at 149.

Doré’s Demise?

What do the Supreme Court’s latest decisions mean for judicial review of administrative decisions that implicate the Charter?

In my last post, I wrote about the religious freedom issues addressed in the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Ktunaxa Nation v British Columbia (Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations), 2017 SCC 54, which concerned the constitutionality of a ministerial decision to allow development on land considered sacred by an Aboriginal nation. I want to return to Ktunaxa, this time to address a different issue that has, so far as I know, attracted relatively little attention: that of the standard of review of the Minister’s decision. On this point, the majority opinion (by the Chief Justice and Justice Rowe) and the concurrence (by Justice Moldaver) illustrate the ongoing failure of the Rule of Law in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence.

Let’s start with a bit of history. In Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395, Justice Abella, for writing for the unanimous Supreme Court, articulated a framework “for reviewing discretionary administrative decisions that implicate Charter values”. [34] Such review would be deferential, conducted on a reasonableness standard, much like judicial review of most other legal issues, in recognition of administrative decision-makers’ expertise. This approach has been heavily criticized, not least by Paul Daly and Maxime St-Hilaire, but the Court has never overtly resiled from it. However, the application of Doré has been uneven, to say the least.

In Loyola High School v Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 12, [2015] 1 SCR 613, the majority opinion, written by Justice Abella, applied the Doré framework. However, as both Paul Daly and yours truly have suggested, there is little to choose between the way it does so and a more traditional proportionality analysis. Meanwhile, a partial concurrence by the Chief Justice and Justice Moldaver eschewed the Doré approach altogether. Just days later, in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16, [2015] 2 SCR 3, a majority of the Supreme Court took yet another approach, holding that the relationship between the freedom of religion, religious neutrality, and prayer by government officials was a question of central importance to the legal system and therefore reviewable on a correctness standard. Justice Gascon, writing for the majority, did offer an explanation for why this case was different, though one that Paul Daly criticized as confused and confusing. Justice Abella was also unimpressed; she concurred, but would have reviewed the decision of Québec’s Human Rights Tribunal on a reasonableness standard. Neither she nor Justice Gascon even mentioned Doré.

Back, now, to Ktunaxa. Again, the majority opinion does not so much as mention Doré. What is more, it does not even raise, never mind address, the issue of the standard of review. After describing the background and the history of the case, and outlining the Ktunaxa’s religious freedom claim, it proceeds to discuss the Charter right to freedom of religion and to address and reject the claim, without referring, much less deferring, to the Minister’s decision at all. It is worth noting that the Supreme Court’s next decision, Association of Justice Counsel v. Canada (Attorney General), 2017 SCC 55, is the same in this regard. One of the issues raised there was whether a policy requiring government lawyers to be available, several weeks a year, to handle urgent matters outside of regular working hours was an infringement of their right to liberty under section 7 of the Charter. A labour arbitrator said that it was, but the Court (unanimous on this point) easily rejected that view, again without addressing either the question of the standard of review or the administrative decision-maker’s reasoning (though the majority did discuss it at length on the other issue in the case, which concerned the interpretation of a collective agreement).

Justice Moldaver’s concurrence in Ktunaxa is also worth mentioning here. He too starts out with his own discussion of the scope of religious freedom under the Charter, criticizes the majority’s view on it, and insists that the Minister’s decision was a prima facie infringement of that right. And then, Justice Moldaver turns to… the Doré framework (citing the majority opinion in Loyola for the proposition that it is “the applicable framework for assessing whether the Minister reasonably exercised his statutory discretion in accordance with the … Charter“. [136] Justice Moldaver explains why he thinks the Minister considered the Ktunaxa’s religious rights, and why his decision proportionately balanced these rights with the applicable statutory objective, paying fairly close attention to the minister’s reasoning.

So what is going on? Prof. Daly seems to think that not much is, but I’m not so sure. Without telling anyone, the Supreme Court might have killed off, or at least curtailed, Doré. Ktunaxa and Justice Counsel seem to suggest that, at least at the stage of defining the scope of a Charter right, Doré is not the applicable framework, and indeed no deference, or even attention, is due to an administrative decision-maker’s reasoning. Now, I’m no fan of Doré, and would be glad to know it’s dead and buried ― but if the Supreme Court has decided to get rid of it, that seems like a pretty big deal, and it should have told us. As things stand, for all we know, the Court might re-embrace Doré in the next case and pretend that Ktunaxa and Justice Counsel never happened, just as in those cases it seems to pretend that Doré, or at least Saguenay, never happened.

Moreover, there is an intermediate possibility, suggested by Justice Moldaver’s concurrence in Ktunaxa ― though of course we have no idea what the majority of the Court thinks about it, since it does not comment on this, or indeed any other, aspect of Justice Moldaver’s reasons. Perhaps, while the definition of Charter rights, as opposed to the justifiability of infringements under section 1, is a matter for the courts, while the justifiability of infringements is still to be reviewed by applying the Doré framework, perhaps as modified, if modified it was, in Loyola. This is not a crazy approach (which isn’t to say that I like even this diluted version of Doré). One could argue that the scope of Charter rights is necessarily a question of central importance to the legal system on which administrative decision-makers, even otherwise expert ones like labour arbitrators, are not in a privileged position vis-à-vis the courts, while whether a particular restriction to a right is permissible is an issue that is both less important and more bound up with a particular decision-maker’s expertise.

Crazy or not, I don’t think this approach is what Doré stands for. As I read it, Doré meant to move away from the two-stage Charter review with prima facie infringement and justification, in favour of a less structured, more global assessment. This is presumably why Justice Abella persistently spoke of Charter “values” instead of rights. Besides, at least one of the cases that Justice Abella invoked as supporting the proposition that discretionary administrative decisions engaging these “values” had to be reviewed on a reasonableness standard was a section 7 case, and in such cases the important questions typically (although, as we now know, not quite always) have to do with the definition of the right, not with its limitation under section 1. There just isn’t any indication in Doré that Justice Abella or her colleagues meant to confine it to the more limited role that it plays in Justice Moldaver’s Ktunaxa concurrence.

At the very least, then, the Supreme Court may have substantially modified Doré. Perhaps it has decided not to follow it anymore. But, to repeat, the Court has not told us so. This is problematic. Indeed, I think the Court is guilty of a serious Rule of Law failure. The Rule of Law requires law to be stable ― though not unchanging, to be sure ― yet the law on the standard of review of administrative decisions involving the Charter has now changed at least three, maybe four (depending on how to count Loyola) times in less than six years. The Rule of Law also requires, I think, that the fact of legal change be transparent (this is a function of the generally recognized requirement that law must be public). This is not always easy to ensure in the case of law being articulated and re-articulated by courts in the process of adjudication, but at least when a court knows that it is disregarding a relevant precedent or changing its approach to a type of case, it ought to be able to say so. The Supreme Court did so in Saguenay ― but not in Ktunaxa and Justice Counsel.

Or, look at this another way. In Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190, the Supreme Court famously spoke of the importance of “the existence of justification, transparency and intelligibility within the decision-making process”. [47] That was by way of defining the notion of reasonableness in administrative law (itself a requirement of the Rule of Law), but you’d think that the courts should at least be held to as high a standard as administrative tribunals. Well, I’d say that it’s not easy to see much by way of justification, transparency, or intelligibility within the process by which the Supreme Court determines the standard of review of administrative decisions involving the Charter these days.

One last point. Justice Stratas links the doctrinal uncertainty that bedevils Canadian administrative law with turnover on the Supreme Court. I’m sure that this is a part of the story ― but Ktunaxa suggests that it is only a part. It’s not just that judges retire and are replaced by others who don’t agree with them. They don’t even stick to one approach while they are on the Court. Justice Abella wrote Doré and defended deferential review in Saguenay, but she signed on to the majority opinion arguably ignoring it in Ktunaxa. Justice Moldaver co-wrote the partial concurrence in Loyola that effectively rejected Doré, but in Ktunaxa he enthusiastically applied it, albeit not in full. (To be sure, there is something to be said for a judge who accepts having been outvoted on a particular issue and falls in line with the majority. But given the overall uncertainty of the law in this area, it might not be the best place to demonstrate one’s team spirit.) Given this individual inconstancy, it is no surprise that the Supreme Court as a whole is lurching from one approach to another without anything to stop it.

Given the lack of clarity from the Supreme Court about what exactly it was doing to standard of review analysis in Ktunaxa and Justice Counsel, we will have to wait to find out whether these case are just aberrations or the start of a new trend. It is at least possible, however, that they mean that Doré is, in whole or in part, no longer good law. I’d offer three cheers for that result, but must instead lament the lack of clarity and transparency with which it has ― unless it has not ― been reached.

Which Principles? What Politicization?

A response to Maxime St-Hilaire’s appeal to principle over politics at the Supreme Court of Canada

In a blog post over at Advocates for the Rule of Law (and in a previous version at À qui de droit), my friend and sometime guest Maxime St-Hilaire argues that

The greatest challenge facing the Supreme Court of Canada is the risk of its politicization, understood … as a form of adjudicative practice that is not governed by legal rules, legal principles, or other legal norms and that does not restrict itself to deciding justiciable questions.

Whether or not “politicization” is the best possible label for this sort of adjudication, and whether or not it is the greatest challenge facing the Supreme Court ― both plausible but debatable propositions ― I agree that the danger Prof. St-Hilaire identifies is a serious one. It is a challenge, moreover, not only for the Court, or even the judiciary as a whole, but for the legal profession, which is too readily supportive of adjudication that does not abide by the requirements of the Rule of Law.

However, precisely because this is a very serious issue, it is important to be careful in circumscribing it ― not to accuse the Supreme Court of being “political” or disregarding the Rule of Law when it is not. And here, I part company with Prof. St-Hilaire to some extent. Some of the specific instances of politicization that he identifies are indeed examples of the Court failing to act judicially or to uphold the law. Others, in my view, are not.

I agree with Prof. St-Hilaire’s criticism of the Supreme Court’s theoretical embrace of living constitutionalism in theory ― and its practical embrace of interpretive eclecticism with few if any principles to constrain cherry-picking interpretive approaches. If, in other jurisdictions, there is such a thing as a “law of interpretation” (to borrow the title of a recent article by William Baude and Stephen E Sachs), constitutional interpretation in Canada seems to be largely lawless, as most recently highlighted by Benjamin Oliphant. Indeed, I would go further than Prof. St-Hilaire (if I understand him correctly), and argue that judges ought to be originalists in order to uphold the principles of the Rule of Law and constitutionalism, because, as Jeffrey Pojanowski argues,

if one does not seek to identify and treat the original law of the constitution as binding, one imperils the moral benefits constitutionalism exists to offer the polity. We are back to square one, adrift in a sea of competing, unentrenched norms.

I share Prof. St-Hilaire’s unease at the Supreme Court’s often unprincipled practice of suspending declarations of invalidity of legislation. While I once argued that this device had some redeeming virtues, the Court’s failure to articulate and apply coherent principles for deploying it nullifies these virtues. As things currently stand, the Court’s approach to suspended declarations of unconstitutionality is yet another manifestation of the sort of uncabined discretion that is antithetical to the Rule of Law.

I also agree with Prof. St-Hilaire that the Supreme Court’s approach to review of allegedly unconstitutional administrative decisions under the framework set out in Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395 is a “denial of constitutional justice”. (That said, it is worth noting that the Court’s application of this framework is a mess, and it might matter less than the Court itself suggests ― though is a Rule of Law problem in its own right.) And I agree with Prof. St-Hilaire’s criticisms of the Court’s approach to s 15 of the Canadian Charter (including because it is flatly inconsistent with its original meaning, as Justice Binnie, among others, openly recognized).

Now on to some of my disagreements with Prof. St-Hilaire. Some of them we have already canvassed at some length. I remain of the view (previously expressed here) that judges can, in appropriate cases, criticize the legitimacy of their colleagues’ adjudicative techniques. Indeed, I am puzzled by prof. St-Hilaire’s insistence on the contrary. Can a judge who agrees with his critique of the Supreme Court not say so? I also remain of the view, that courts can, subject to usual rules on justiciability, pronounce on constitutional conventions, which are not essentially different from legal rules. I most recently expressed and explained this view in a post here criticizing the UK Supreme Court’s decision in R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, [2017] UKSC 5, and in this short article for a special issue of the Supreme Court Law Review.

New, to this space at least, is my disagreement with Prof. St-Hilaire on the scope of the doctrine of res judicata and the force of stare decisis. Prof. St-Hilaire accuses the Supreme Court of “conflating the two principles”, and of playing fast and loose with both. In his view, stare decisis is about “the general/indirect jurisprudential authority of judicial reasons”, while res judicata concerns “the particular/direct authority of judicial decisions per se, and taken separately”. When the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the criminalisation of assisted suicide in Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General), [1993] 3 SCR 519, that rendered the matter res judicata, and should have prevented the courts, including the Supreme Court itself, from revisiting the matter, as they eventually did in Carter v Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 SCR 331. More broadly, the Supreme Court has been too cavalier with precedent, in particular in the area of labour law.

I agree with Prof. St-Hilaire that the Supreme Court has in some cases ― especially those concerning the purported constitutional rights of labour unions ― disregarded precedent without any compelling reason to do so. For reasons best explained, I think, by Jeremy Waldron, a fairly robust version of stare decisis is an important component of the Rule of Law. However, in my view, prof. St-Hilaire takes this point much too far. For my part, I am content to accept the Supreme Court’s explanation in Canada (Attorney General) v Confédération des syndicats nationaux, 2014 SCC 49, [2014] 2 SCR 477 that “res judicata … require[s] that the dispute be between the same parties”, as well as on the same issue, while stare decisis is the broader ― and more flexible ― principle that applies “when the issue is the same and that the questions it raises have already been answered by a higher court whose judgment has the authority of res judicata“. [25] This is not merely a terminological dispute. The point is that courts should be able to reverse their own decisions, albeit with the greatest circumspection.

Without fully defending my views, I would argue that the criteria set out in Canada (Attorney General) v Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 SCR 1101 are a sound guideline, provided that they are rigorously applied (which they were not in the labour union cases). Precedent, the Court held,

may be revisited if new legal issues are raised as a consequence of significant developments in the law, or if there is a change in the circumstances or evidence that fundamentally shifts the parameters of the debate. [42]

I think this is right, because while the stability of the law, its diachronic coherence, is very important, the law’s consistency at any given time point, its ability to remain a “seamless web”, or synchronic coherence, is important too, and also a requirement of the Rule of Law. These two dimensions of legal coherence are in tension, and sometimes in conflict, and I think it is a mistake to say, as I take it Prof. St-Hilaire does, that diachronic coherence must always prevail. Perhaps more controversially, I am inclined to think that there is also a case to be made for the proposition that the Rule of Law can accommodate, if it does not positively require, departures from precedent that serve to make the law make sense in light of changed circumstances and evidence. The ideas of non-arbitrariness and congruence between the law on the books and its real-world application at least point in that direction, though the argument would be worth developing in more detail.

I will end where Prof. St-Hilaire begins: with judicial appointments. (Of course, the process of appointment is not part of adjudication. But it makes sense to consider it in a discussion of the danger of the politicization of the Supreme Court, even though it doesn’t fit within Prof. St-Hilaire’s definition of that term.) Prof. St-Hilaire criticizes the inclusion of “parliamentary consultation” in the appointment process, and I agree with him to that extent. However, I do not share the main thrust of his comments, which is that we need to move “from more political criteria to increasingly professional criteria in the selection of” Supreme Court judges. Political control over judicial appointments is an important check on the power of the courts, as well as an indispensable means to inject some much needed ideological diversity into the judiciary. The current judiciary and legal profession are too homogeneous ― in their thinking, not (only) their skin colour ― for a “professional” appointments process to produce a judiciary that does not all believe the same pieties (including pieties about living constitutionalism and other things that Prof. St-Hilaire criticizes!). That said, since politicians should have the responsibility for judicial appointments, it is also politicians who should be held accountable for them. As Adam Dodek has suggested, the Justice Minister who should appear before Parliament to explain the government’s choice of Supreme Court judges ― but not (and here, I take it, I part company with prof. Dodek) the new judges themselves.

I share Prof. St-Hilaire’s view that “the Supreme Court must choose principle over politicization”. I am looking forward to the Runnymede Society’s forthcoming conference at which this call will no doubt be much reiterated ― including by yours truly. That said, though it reflects a nice sentiment, an appeal to principle over politics does not tell us very much. It leaves open both the question of what principles one should adopt, and of counts as objectionable politicization rather than mere good faith error. Prof. St-Hilaire and I disagree about that to some extent, as I have endeavoured to show. The debate must, and will, continue, and we should have no illusions about settling it with high-minded slogans.

Polyphony

How different constitutional orders respond to attempts at denying citizens access to adjudication

The UK Supreme Court recently delivered a judgment that will, I think, be of interest to those Canadian readers who have not yet heard of it. That is because the case, R (Unison) v Lord Chancellor [2017] UKSC 51, arises out of circumstances that are fundamentally similar to those of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v. British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31. Trial Lawyers, which I summarized here, concerned a challenged to the fees that litigants had to pay for each day they argued their cases in the (trial) Supreme Court of British Columbia. Unison involved fees imposed on litigants who took their cases to tribunals charged with the resolution of employment law disputes. But the ways in which the courts addressed the legal issues highlights the differences both between the respective constitutional frameworks of Canada and the UK, and between the courts’ understandings of their roles within these frameworks.

In Trial Lawyers the majority addressed the constitutionality of hearing fees, concluding that, if they are set so high as to prevent people accessing superior courts, they would contravene section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which had previously been held to protect the “core” jurisdiction of the courts to which it refers. While the Chief Justice’s opinion, for the majority, also addressed the principle of the Rule of Law, it invoked this principle only as additional support for its conclusions ― Justice Rothstein’s accusations to the contrary notwithstanding. Only Justice Cromwell, in his concurrence, proposed deciding the case on administrative law grounds, and would have held that since the hearing fees were imposed by delegated legislate made pursuant to a statute that preserved the common law right of access to courts, they could not validly interfere with this right. Yet interfere with it they did, and they were therefore invalid for that reason.

By contrast, Unison was decided on administrative law grounds ― and the principle of the Rule of Law was central to the UK Supreme Court’s reasoning. Having concluded that, as a matter of empirical fact (on which more below), the fees at issue deter substantial numbers of people from pursuing their claims, the Court asked itself whether “the text of” the statute pursuant to which the fees were imposed by the executive, “but also the constitutional principles which underlie the text, and the principles of statutory interpretation which give effect to those principles”  [65] provided authority for setting the fees at their  current level. The relevant principles included, in particular, “the constitutional right of access to justice: that is to say, access to the courts (and tribunals …)”, [65] which in turn is an aspect of the Rule of Law. They also included the idea that rights granted by a statute cannot be nullified by delegated  legislation purportedly authorized by a different statute.

The Court began with what Mark Elliott, on his excellent Public Law for Everyone blog, described as

a primer — albeit a very powerful one — on what the rule of law means … . Indeed, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Court felt it necessary to drive home some very fundamental propositions — ones that should not really need to be driven home — because the Government’s position indicated ignorance of or contempt for them.

As part of this “primer”, the Court emphasized that

Courts exist in order to ensure that the laws made by Parliament, and the common law created by the courts themselves, are applied and enforced. … In order for the courts to perform that role, people must in principle have unimpeded access to them. Without such access, laws are liable to become a dead letter, the work done by Parliament may be rendered nugatory, and the democratic election of Members of Parliament may become a meaningless charade. That is why the courts do not merely provide a public service like any other. [65]

In the course of adjudicating disputes, courts both ascertain important legal principles and provides the assurance that “[p]eople and businesses … will be able to enforce their rights if they have to do so, and … that if they fail to meet their obligations, there is likely to be a remedy against them.” [71] For this assurance to be effective, “people and businesses” must be able to take their disputes to courts or tribunals, if need be.

Given the importance of access to courts and tribunals, “any hindrance or impediment by the executive requires clear authorisation by Parliament”, [78] and the authorization will only be taken to extend so far as the achievement of its purposes requires. As Parliament did not clear empower the executive to levy fees that would prevent litigants from accessing tribunals, and as the fees at issue had precisely that effect, they must be held not to have been authorized by the statute under whose purported authority they were imposed. In addition, they “must be regarded as rendering … nugatory” [104] the rights which the tribunals are supposed to enforce, thought in the Court’s view this point this point overlapped with the Rule of Law one.

It is tempting for people used to constitutional frameworks where legislation can be invalidated for inconsistency with the supreme law to look down on a decision based on administrative law grounds, which can be overridden by legislation. Indeed, even prof. Elliott writes that “for all that the case represents a striking and robust reaffirmation of fundamental constitutional principles, it also hints at — or least raises questions about — the limits of those principles” ― within the UK constitutional context, that is. After all, if the UK executive insists on collecting prohibitive tribunal fees, it can (try to) get Parliament to enact them into statute, or explicitly allow fees to be set at levels that will result in impeded access. If the UK Parliament does either of these things, there can probably be no challenge to its decision within the UK’s internal legal order, subject to courts taking up the occasional musings of some judges about limits to Parliamentary sovereignty ― an unlikely, and at least arguably an undesirable prospect. (Prof. Elliott, mixing metaphors somewhat, describes as a “nuclear option”, and says that “we will cross this bridge if we ever come to it, while fervently hoping that we never do”.) It is better, we might be tempted to say, for courts to have at their disposal the more powerful weapons that an entrenched constitution, like that of Canada, can provide.

But, while there is a good deal of truth to this view, it is not the whole truth. Prof. Elliott suggests that

in some constitutional orders … administrative orders incompatible with the right of access to justice would be unlawful — because the constitution would withhold the authority to legislate in breach of such a fundamental right.

But things might not be so simple. Prof. Elliott does not say what “constitutional orders” he has in mind, but at least in the Canadian constitutional order, it is by no means clear that the constitution withholds the right to legislate in breach of the right of access to justice. In commenting on Trial Lawyers here, I said that not only does the reasoning of the majority opinion in Trial Lawyers “rest on shaky foundations” whose weaknesses are brutally exposed by Justice Rothstein’s dissent, but they “leave some important questions” ― questions about the limits of the constitutional principles that it applies ― “unanswered”. In particular, it is very doubtful that the right of access to superior courts constiutionalized in Trial Lawyers extends to provincial court and to administrative tribunals  (which is to say, to the sort of decision-maker at issue in Unison!), to which section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867, on which that decision ostensibly rests, does not apply.

The legitimacy of judicial interventions to uphold fundamental constitutional principles can be questioned not only in constitutional systems that acknowledge Parliamentary sovereignty, but also in those that allow for judicial review of legislation ― if not in principle, then in (almost) any given case. The best answer to such questions is, of course, the existence of a clear constitutional provision in which the intervention at issue  can fairly be rested. In the absence of such constitutional authority, judges are apt to grasp at textual straws, and, at the risk of also mixing metaphors, we know that a house built of straw can easily be blown away. In short, the existence of an entrenched constitution does not always make for very solid decision-making.

Indeed, Unison has at least one substantial advantage over Trial Lawyers. Its discussion of the Rule of Law principle is relatively extensive and forthright. The UK Supreme Court makes no apologies about the Rule of Law being central to its decision. The majority opinion in Trial Lawyers, however, approached the Rule of Law somewhat gingerly, and insisted that it is not the main basis for its decision ― though this was not enough to mollify Justice Rothstein, who claimed that

[i]n using an unwritten principle to support expanding the ambit of s. 96 to such an extent the majority subverts the structure of the Constitution and jeopardizes the primacy of the written text. [93]

For my own part, I have argued here that Trial Lawyers should, and could, have been decided on the basis of the Rule of Law principle ― though my argument was a version of the “no making rights nugatory” one that the Unison Court only briefly addressed. Perhaps the Supreme Court of Canada did not address it only because it was not put it by the parties. (The cases on which it rests in the Canadian context are not well known, I suspect.) Perhaps it would have found this argument unconvincing in any event. But I suspect that the Trial Lawyers majority would have hesitated to enlist this argument even if it were convinced by it, due to the sort of concern to which Justice Rothstein appealed (unpersuasively in my view). As Jeremy Waldron observed in “The Core of the Case against Judicial Review”, constitutional adjudication under an entrenched text is liable to pay more attention to the text than to fundamental principle. In my view, this is not always a bad thing ― but it is, admittedly, not always a good one either.

Before concluding, let me note another point of contrast between Trial Lawyers and Unison: their respective treatment of empirical data. The majority opinion in Trial Lawyers is a fairly abstract one, in the sense that its focus is very much on the legal issues. It only briefly alludes to the personal circumstances of the original plaintiff in the case, pointing out that she was “not an ‘impoverished’ person in the ordinary sense of the word” (which made her ineligible for an exemption from the fees at issue). In Unison, meanwhile, statistics and data-based hypothetical scenarios intended to expose the effect of the fees at issue take up an important place in the judgment. The Court reviewed in considerable detail the nature of the disputes to which the fees at issue applied, with the aim of showing that most of them involved parties of limited means seeking to recover small amounts (or, in some cases, to obtain non-pecuniary remedies), as well as the financial effects of these fees on economically vulnerable litigants. The Court linked the precipitous drop in the number of disputes heard to the deterrent effect of excessive, and rarely recoverable, fees, providing the factual underpinning for its legal reasoning. Later on, it also discussed the fees’ failure to raise much revenue, concluding that “it is clear that the fees were not set at the optimal price: the price elasticity of demand was greatly underestimated”. [100] In that way, Unison is similar to cases that are part of what I have been discussing here, using Kerri Froc’s label, as the  “empirical turn” in Canadian constitutional law ― while Trial Lawyers was not.

Despite originating in fairly similar circumstances, then, Trial Lawyers and Unison are quite different decisions. Each has its own logic and responds to its own concerns. But it is also true that they are both parts in delivering a unified message: that of the common law courts’ endorsement, sometimes ringing and sometimes more muted, of the value of access by the citizens to the adjudication of rights claims. Beyond the differences of strictly legal issues and methods, there is a single theme: that, as a matter of political morality, a state that purports to respect and even to create rights must not prevent citizens from asserting them.