Keeping Out or Stepping In?

When should the courts intervene in internal disputes of voluntary associations?

This is my first post since February. Apologies. Things haven’t been great, and might not improve for some time, but I do hope that, at least starting in July, I will be posting more regularly.

In Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada St. Mary Cathedral v Aga, 2021 SCC 22, the Supreme Court considered the scope of the courts’ power to interfere with the decision-making of an unincorporated private association. The dispute involved a congregation and some of its members, whom its authorities excommunicated, apparently without having given them much of a hearing.

Justice Rowe provides a neat summary of his judgment for the unanimous Court:

[C]ourts can only intervene in the affairs of a voluntary association to vindicate a legal right, such as a right in property or contract. Membership in a voluntary association is not automatically contractual. Even a written constitution does not suffice. Membership is contractual only where the conditions for contract formation are met, including an objective intention to create legal relations. Such an intention is more likely to exist where property or employment are at stake. It is less likely to exist in religious contexts, where individuals may intend for their mutual obligations to be spiritually but not legally binding. A voluntary association will be constituted by a web of contracts among the members only where the conditions for contract formation are met. [49]

The idea that courts will only intervene in the face of an alleged violation of a legal right follows from the Supreme Court’s earlier decision in Highwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Judicial Committee) v Wall, 2018 SCC 26, [2018] 1 SCR 750. The rules of contract formation, including the requirement that parties intend to create legal relations, and not merely socially or spiritually binding ones, are longstanding. Here, they lead Justice Rowe to find that

there is nothing that can be characterized as an objective intention to make an offer on the part of [the congregation or its leadership], and nothing that can be characterized as an objective intention to accept on the part of any of the [excommunicated members], or vice versa. [52]

But a strict application of these rules, combined with (or perhaps resulting in) the position that even a self-proclaimed constitution of the association is not necessarily a binding contract, means that the courts will keep out of the internal disputes of voluntary associations ― especially, but not only, religious ones.


People whose opinion means more than mine have been critical of this. Over at Administrative Law Matters, Paul Daly writes

the sledghammer employed in Aga obliterates any judicial enforcement of any terms in a voluntary association’s “Constitution”, even terms relating to the basic procedures for removing individuals from the organization. When read with WallAga represents a significant judicial retreat. So much for the ‘supervisory’ jurisdiction.

Again, Professor Daly’s opinion on such issues is more important than mine. But here’s a note of doubt.

I’m not sure why we should be sorry about the judicial retreat, if that’s what Aga and Wall are. The Supreme Court is clear that when employment or property (or access to resources necessary to earn a living, as in some earlier cases involving expulsions from communes of coreligionists) are at stake, the courts still should intervene. What they are retreating from are disputes about membership or leadership of voluntary associations. But should they be involved in such disputes?

I would venture ― tentatively ― that it is sensible enough to think that they should not. As Justice Rowe explains

The law concerning the formation of contractual relations embodies practical wisdom. Many informal agreements that people undertake do not result in a contract. There are, for example, mutual undertakings between friends … or between members of a household … In neither of these examples do the parties (reasonably understood) intend to be subject to adjudication as to the performance of their commitments or to the imposition of remedies such as damages or specific performance. [21]-[22] (paragraph break omitted)

These rules aren’t only about practical wisdom though. They’re also about autonomy. As Justice Rowe himself says, they allow people who don’t want the law to step into their relationships to keep it at a distance. Arguably, unincorporated voluntary associations often are places where people exercise this kind of autonomy from the legal system. Not always, to be sure. But at least as a matter of presumption and default position, there is something to be said for Justice Rowe’s (and the Supreme Court’s) approach.

At the very least, this is a matter on which reasonable people might disagree, and on which compromise solutions may be available. Professor Daly notes that provincial legislation in British Columbia and Québec enables courts to intervene in the affairs of voluntary associations, including, in the case of Québec’s Code of Civil Procedure, of “groups not endowed with juridical personality”. Perhaps this is a defensible choice, albeit one less respectful of people’s autonomy. But it’s not necessarily the only defensible choice.

In fact, there is a difference between the Québec and British Columbia statutes to which Professor Daly refers. The latter only applies to “societies” which (as it makes clear) must be deliberately incorporated by their members. If people come together and form a voluntary association without incorporating, the default regime articulated in Aga will still apply. The position in New Zealand is similar: the Judicial Review Procedure Act 2016 defines “statutory power“, which is normally subject to judicial review, as, in relevant part, “a power or right … conferred by or under … the constitution or other instrument of incorporation, rules, or bylaws of any body corporate”. A constitution or bylaws of an unincorporated association do not count.

This may be a sensible distinction to draw: a group that goes to the trouble of formalizing its operations by incorporating, and obtains the benefits of incorporation, they submit to closer scrutiny by the courts. Otherwise, they will mostly be left to their own devices, except where legal relationships such as employment or ownership are involved, or where the association takes on some regulatory or quasi-regulatory role. In New Zealand, Electoral Commission v Cameron [1997] NZCA 301; [1997] 2 NZLR 421, involving the Advertising Standards Complaints Board which, although not incorporated, effectively regulated what advertisements could and could not be distributed by the media is an example.

In fact, Professor Daly’s position may not be all that dissimilar. He asks: “What is the point of setting out procedures, rights and obligations in a document made available to members when those procedures, rights and obligations can be discarded at will?” I’m not sure how strong this objection is in Aga (where the members of the congregation, even seemingly high-ranking ones, seem not to have been aware of the relevant documents for years). But Professor Daly’s point, if I understand correctly, is that choices about the degree of formality with which an association organizes itself are important. That makes intuitive sense. But I’m not sure that the line should be drawn at the creation of a “constitution” rather than at incorporation. The latter may be a more formal, and a more easily identifiable, step, and so perhaps a better marker for the courts to refer to.

Note, by the way, that my argument here is not about religious associations in particular. There are, indeed, good reasons for the secular courts to be especially wary of intervening in their disputes, because they are likely to implicate theological considerations. But this is only a specific application of the broader principle of autonomy that is implicated when the law chooses one approach or another to judicial intervention in the private sphere. Other kinds of associations may also have reasons for wanting to keep their workings informal and outside the state’s reach.


And, to repeat, perhaps they shouldn’t be allowed to do that. Perhaps the more interventionist position chosen by the Québec legislature is the wiser one. As I have already said, my views here are tentative. But I think that a debate about first principles ― about whether it is in fact right for the state to assume the role of a supervisor over the internal doings on voluntary associations ― is worth having. By tilting the default position towards non-interventionism and so putting the onus on legislatures to introduce a different set of rules, the Supreme Court’s decision in Aga may spur something like this debate.

For What It’s Worth

University of Toronto professor Richard Stacey recently released an article in the University of Toronto Law Journal (paywalled, which is truly unfortunate), arguing that (among other things) the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in  Vavilov “affirm[s]” the Supreme Court’s controversial decision in Doré  (340; see also 351). To be specific, Stacey says (340-341):

Read together, and building on a rich body of Canadian case law that came before,  Vavilov and Doré  definitively mark a culture shift way from an outcomes-oriented conception of judicial review toward one that engenders a culture of justification…

…in a culture of justification built on a robust conception of reasonableness, constitutional law and administrative law come together in a unified system of public law.

Stacey also makes a number of other arguments, including: (1) the culture of justification apparently endorsed in the same way in  Vavilov and Doré necessarily and logically excludes correctness review (see pg 349) and (2) so-called “Charter values” act as “justificatory resources” that together bind a unified system of public law, bringing  Vavilov and Doré  together (357 et seq). That is the core of Stacey’s argument: the so-called “unity of public law” thesis draws together a requirement that administrative decisions be justified.

Stacey’s argument is interesting, but ultimately unpersuasive. For one, it treads well-worn territory of “administrative constitutionalism” and “the unity of public law,” theories that—as I will argue—are actually undermined by  Vavilov’s formalism. While  Vavilov does put a focus on justification, Stacey’s article does not deal with the parts of  Vavilov that clearly work against his thesis: the dispatch of expertise as a factor governing the standard of review; and the retention of correctness review based on Rule of Law considerations, among other things. Secondly, Stacey’s article does not engage with key scholarship on this issue post- Vavilov that could both strengthen and undermine his case. Finally, Stacey attaches too much determinacy to Charter values, ethereal things that even their most ardent supporters must agree are relatively indeterminate: perhaps not of this world.

***

Stacey sets out his argument on the first issue (the marriage between Doré  and  Vavilov) boldly: “The foundation of both cases is the same, and both judgments ultimately embrace the same conception of reasonableness” [351]. Stacey cites the Alsaloussi case out of the Federal Court, where the Court relied on  Vavilov in a Doré -type case to give guidance “on what a reasonable decision looks like” [351]. To Stacey, this case—and the theory—reinforces “how the two judgments help to draw administrative and constitutional law together in a single, unified system of law” [352].

As I have outlined previously, I do not see how this is the case, even on the terms of the reasonableness standard. Doré  was positively unclear about what administrators should do when faced with a Charter claim, beyond saying that an administrative decision-maker “balances the Charter values with the statutory objectives” (Doré , at para 55 et seq). The only question for a judicial review court is whether “in assessing the impact of the relevant Charter protection and given the nature of the decision and the statutory and factual contexts, the decision reflects a proportionate balancing of the Charter protections at play” (Doré , at para 57). But, unlike the Oakes test, and unlike  Vavilov’s list of constraints, the Doré -line of cases do not provide any guidance on how courts should conduct the proportionality analysis.  Vavilov provides a far more robust and detailed schema of reasonableness than Doré  does, and so to equate these cases on this front is ultimately unpersuasive. The similarity on the reasonableness front—if it exists—is cosmetic at best.

Stacey also does not address why  Vavilov’s comments on constitutional issues do not demand a correctness standard in the Doré  context. As a reminder, the Court in  Vavilov—while expressly excepting Doré  from the scope of the comments for now (see para 55)—said that “[t]he constitutional authority to act must have determinate, defined and consistent limits, which necessitates the application of the correctness standard” ( Vavilov, at para 56).  As I have said before, this should logically include Charter issues. But Stacey does not address this point, nor does he address important literature attacking administrative constitutionalism as a general theory (see Leonid Sirota’s paper here).

Moreover, Stacey does not address other post- Vavilov commentary that could actually strengthen his point. For example, Paul Daly argues that all issues going to the merits in  Vavilov are, on its own terms, subject to the reasonableness standard. I have my issues with this argument, but I think it is far more persuasive in support of Stacey’s argument than the evidence Stacey actually offers–in part because it takes Vavilov on it’s own terms.

Relatedly, Stacey argues that a joint-reading of  Vavilov and Doré  renders the correctness standard irrelevant (349). Yet this is not convincing to me. As I have argued, and as Professor Daly argues to a similar extent,  Vavilov is not just one thing, easily explained with reference to a catchphrase like “culture of justification.” There are various currents of administrative law thought coursing through the decision.  Vavilov’s comments on the Rule of Law, for example, are relatively formalistic, focusing on the role of the courts as the guardian of the Constitution. On the other hand, other parts of  Vavilov clearly draw from the justificatory school of administrative law thought, championed by scholars like David Dyzenhaus. As I have argued in previous work, these schools of thought can be complementary, but  Vavilov is clearly a product of pragmatic agreement, even if guided by principle to some extent. Professor Stacey does not address this reality when he excludes correctness from the standard of review equation, without as much as addressing the counter-arguments clearly presented in Vavilov. Indeed, if one follows  Vavilov’s formalistic side, correctness review still has a valuable—and formally required—role in Canadian administrative law.

Finally, I should draw attention to Stacey’s argument on Charter values. Much has been written on Charter values, and I need not reprise that literature to make my objection: Stacey’s focus on Charter values as justificatory resources is only useful if the set of justificatory resources is relatively bounded and determinate. While we cannot expect perfect or near-perfect determinacy in law, and moral reasoning with regards to rights-claims is inevitable, this does not logically entail an embrace of Charter values. The problem is that Charter values are endlessly indeterminate—they are not necessarily bounded by the text of the guarantees they are supposed to represent, and some Charter values could conceivably not be found in the text. Enterprising courts and litigants could pitch a value at high level of generality, leading to needlessly subjective moralizing about rights in a way untethered to the doctrine of various constitutional guarantees. Since there is no clear agreement on (1) how to determine what Charter values are relevant; (2) how Charter values are different than Charter rights; and (3) on how administrators are supposed to understand Charter values as distinct from Charter rights, this set of justificatory resources is not at all helpful to courts or litigants.

Tying together Stacey’s article is a common claim: “…I see no distinction between administrative and constitutional law in the first place” (357). Of course, this is a common (one might say orthodox) position. And yet it ignores an important function of constitutional law in relation to the administrative state—the Constitution (written and unwritten) is a limitation or constraint on government action (see  Vavilov, at 56). The hierarchy of laws exists for a reason, and under that hierarchy administrative discretion is parasitic on a statutory grant, which itself is subject to Charter scrutiny. There is no real, formal equality between administrative law and constitutional law: the Constitution is supreme, and it shapes and constrains government power. It does not liberate administrative discretion.

All told, Professor Stacey’s article contributes to the growing post- Vavilov literature. Unfortunately, I do not find it convincing.  Nonetheless, the Supreme Court will eventually deal with Doré  post- Vavilov. And until then, my opinion is worth as much as the page it’s written on, for what it’s worth.

Overcoming Justice Abella’s Admin Law Legacy

On the occasion of her retirement, what can we learn from Justice Abella’s administrative law generation?

All good things must come to an end, and such is the case with the careers of our Supreme Court judges. On July 1, 2021, Justice Rosalie Abella will retire. Justice Abella has been a lighting rod—for good and bad reasons—throughout her tenure on the bench. There is no doubt that she, having been a Supreme Court judge since 2004, has left her mark on various areas of Canadian law. Others will analyze Justice Abella’s legacy in those areas.

In this post, I hope to provide an assessment of Justice Abella’s legacy in the world of administrative law. For a generation, Justice Abella (even before she was on the Supreme Court–see her decision in Rasanen) was a leading Canadian administrative law thinker with skills of persuasion. While Justice Abella’s thinking on administrative law was broadly representative of the judicial and academic zeitgeist of the period starting with CUPE , time and experience have shown limitations in this thinking, and the Court has rightly begun to rollback the “innovations” of this period. The problems are two-fold: (1) Justice Abella’s notion of deference is largely based on illusory assumptions about administrative expertise; (2) Justice Abella’s notion of deference makes too much of the position of administrative actors as “partners” in the law-making enterprise, especially on constitutional questions.

I will start by outlining Justice Abella’s general theory of administrative law, as represented in extrajudicial writing and some select opinions. I will then flesh out my criticisms of Justice Abella’s administrative law legacy, showing how and why the Court was justified in Vavilov in resiling from some of the commitments demonstrated by Justice Abella through her opinions and the Court’s pre-Vavilov case law. In short, Justice Abella’s lack of skepticism about government power—particularly administrative power—simply does not register as credible in the 21st century. To develop a doctrine of deference that is attuned to the diffuse nature of administrative power, the Court must continue to overcome the administrative law commitments of Justice Abella’s generation.

***

I have written many times about the dominant mode of administrative law thinking in Canada, culminating in the jurisprudential watershed moment of CUPE. Justice Abella fits neatly in this generational movement. The so-called functionalists (people like Justice Abella, John Willis, Harry Arthurs) were high on administrative power for two overlapping reasons. First, they saw the conservative common law courts stymying administrative decision-making, which was the means used by legislatures to implement social justice policy (see, particularly, the work of Harry Arthurs). Second, they assumed that administrative actors were more expert in the administrations of their statutory schemes than courts (see , again, Arthurs). This was best represented in the Supreme Court’s Dunsmuir decision, when the Court adopted the famous quote from David Mullan, suggesting that deference “recognizes the reality that, in many instances, those working day to day in the implementation of frequently complex administrative schemes have or will develop a considerable degree of expertise or field sensitivity to the imperatives and nuances of the legislative regime”: see Dunsmuir, at para 49.   The net result of these two commitments is an ardent belief that administrators can render decisions, using their own techniques, that make sense of the law—and that courts should respect those decisions. For Justice Abella, then, the “Rule of Law”—which typically justified the subjection of administrative power to the law—is a formalistic legal principle that unnecessarily pits judicial power against administrative exigency. Instead, as Justice Abella says in a co-written piece with Teagan Markin, the law should inculcate a “mutually respectful relationship between the courts and administrative decision-makers” one that prizes the “legitimacy” and “authority” of administrative actors (Abella & Markin, at 272) as a “constitutional participant” (Abella & Markin, at 298).

With these commitments in mind, the Court developed a theory of deference that did just that. In the high-water mark era for epistemic deference, the Court confirmed that expertise was the most important factor influencing the selection of the standard of review (Southam, at para 50). In Dunsmuir, as noted above, respecting the institutional choice to delegate to experts was seen as a valid reason for courts to defer to administrative actors.

Justice Abella’s functionalist mindset was clearly represented in her opinions. Three are relevant. First is her decision in Newfoundland Nurses. That case—which Vavilov implicitly overruled (see Vavilov, at para 96)—permitted courts to “supplement” decisions that were otherwise deficient in their reasons (Nfld Nurses, at para 12). What was required under Nfld Nurses was a “respectful attention to the reasons offered or which could be offered…” (Nfld Nurses, at para 11 citing Dyzenhaus). The upshot of this is that courts could not quash decisions simply on the basis of the quality of the reasons alone (Nfld Nurses, at para 14) because of considerations of specialization and expertise (Nfld Nurses, at para 13). Here, we see the translation of administrative law theory into administrative law doctrine. Because Justice Abella is concerned about the legitimacy of the administrative state and undue judicial interference, she would rather courts partner with administrative decision-makers in supplementing decisions rather than subverting them.

A second example, and perhaps the most important one, is Justice Abella’s opinion for a unanimous court in Doré. Doré is important because it demonstrates the two strands of Justice Abella’s administrative law thought: pluralism and expertise. Doré basically held that when administrative decision-makers make decisions that engage constitutional rights, their decisions are entitled to deference if they represent a proportionate balancing between the relevant Charter right and the statutory objective at play (Doré, at para 57). For Justice Abella, though, Doré was more than just a technical framework. For her, Doré was “deference theory at work” (Abella & Markin, at 299) because it showed, finally, that “administrative bodies have then authority and expertise to interpret apply…legal constraints…” (299). Even on constitutional matters, typically jealously guarded by the judiciary, this was true. Indeed, it was because of the supposed (though unproven) expertise of decision-makers on constitutional questions arising in their ambit that deference was justified (Doré, at para 47).  Here, the various strands of functionalism are in full force, yielding a rather major shift in doctrine: courts must defer to administrators on constitutional matters.

Finally, Abella and Karakatsanis JJ’s opinion in Vavilov is perfectly representative of the sort of administrative law thinking that, as I will note, may be on its way out. In Vavilov, the Court implemented a number of changes to judicial review doctrine in Canada. One of these changes was a downgrading of expertise as a reflexive or presumptive deference factor (see Vavilov, at para 30). Now, there would be no assumption that “expertise” leads to deference—expertise would need to be proven through robust reasons (Vavilov, at para 31).  Additionally, the Court also clarified that in certain circumstances, the Rule of Law—as an apparently standalone, unwritten principle— would dictate that a standard of review of correctness should apply (Vavilov, at para 53 et seq). In these regards, and as I have written in other work, Vavilov  (at least in part) represents a more formalistic template of administrative law theory than what preceded it (796). For Abella and Karakatsanis JJ, this was the problem: to them, Vavilov was a “encomium for correctness and a eulogy for deference” (Vavilov, at para 201). Why? Because gone was expertise as a presumptive reason for deference, with the substitution of a “court-centric conception of the rule of law rooted in Dicey’s 19th century philosophy” (Vavilov, at para 240).

With these three cases taken together, Justice Abella’s views on administrative law can be sketched out. She often demonstrates an abiding trust in administrative decision-makers and their expertise over legal—and even constitutional—matters. This leads to a positioning of the administrative state as a partner in law-making and interpretation. Deference, put this way, is a recognition by a judicial actor of this apparently constitutional role of administrators. While this appears to be Justice Abella’s view on administrative law, it is worth noting that the Court as a whole seemed to largely accept this understanding of the relationship between courts and administrators.

***

Having set out the gist of Justice Abella’s general conception of administrative law, I now wish to show three problems with this understanding. To the extent the Court, in Vavilov, has walked back this understanding of administrative law, it should be celebrated. And while Justice Abella’s Doré opinion remains on the books, there are good reasons to think that it, too, will and should be overturned.

  1. Expertise

The first issue with Justice Abella’s view of administrative law, demonstrated throughout her tenure, is its problematic assumption of expertise. As demonstrated through the Supreme Court’s pre-Vavilov case law, and in Justice Abella’s opinions, “expertise” was a woefully underdeveloped doctrinal concept that carried with it great power. Its invocation—especially in relation to well-established decision-makers like labour boards—ensconced those decision-makers with a juridical and psychological immunity from judicial scrutiny. But the Court never explained what “expertise” meant, how it could be recognized by courts, and why a presumption of expertise (as hardened in Edmonton East) was at all empirically justified.

In fact, many issues with expertise arise that Justice Abella and others never addressed. The first and obvious issue is that “expertise” on legal matters may simply not always exist as an empirical matter. The Vavilov majority recognized this reality when it stated that if expertise is simply assumed in all cases, it cannot be a doctrinal concept that meaningfully assists a court in determining whether a particular decision-maker is actually expert (Vavilov, at para 27 ). But more importantly, the presence of expertise is based on an empirical assumption: administrators, operating within the confines of their legal schemes, can best transfer their policy expertise to the world of interpretation; their expertise can inform their understanding of their own statutory scheme, and as a result, courts should defer. But this is based on a number of unproven assumptions: (1) that particular decision-makers have relevant policy expertise; (2) that relevant policy expertise is easily transferrable to skills required to interpret statutes; (3) that relevant policy expertise will necessarily shed light on what particular legislative terms mean. Without answers to these questions, it is simply speculation to suggest that administrators possess expertise that would assist them in interpreting the law.

The assumption is even stranger when one considers constitutional questions. If courts are to defer to administrative consideration of the Constitution, a few more assumptions need to be added to the mix. It must be assumed that relevant policy expertise=relevant legal expertise=relevant constitutional expertise. While the Constitution is law, it is a sui generis law that contains its own meanings, purposes, and interpretive techniques. Absent some compelling reason to think otherwise, it is mind-boggling to simply assume that line decision-makers will reliably and expertly contribute to the meaning of the Constitution.

Secondly, the obsession with expertise in the case law and in Justice Abella’s opinions fails to recognize the dark side of expertise. The administrative state is gargantuan, and it does not only include benevolent, public-minded people applying their “neutral” expertise in authentic ways. Expertise can also cut the other way: it can lead to a decision-maker taking a myopic view of constitutional values, or otherwise subordinating constitutional or other general legal principles to the narrow exigencies of what is required by administrative “expertise” (see for example, Kerr, at 260).  Interestingly, Kerr writes in the prison context, where there is a professional environment that systematically values control over the exercise of constitutional rights–and where concerns about assumptions of expertise are grave, indeed (see the factum of the Queen’s Prison Law Clinic in Vavilov). A lack of familiarity with constitutional norms, and a professional environment that may not inhere respect for those norms, does not inspire confidence. Indeed, the Doré framework—which places constitutional “values” and statutory objectives on the same playing field, despite the hierarchy of laws—will underpower rights because it fails to accord priority to constitutional rights over administrative objectives (see the dissent of Brown and Cote JJ in TWU, at para 206).

Finally, Justice Abella’s deployment of the “expertise” label may have led her to undervalue the importance of reasoning in determining the legality of administrative decision-makers. Doré is an example of this undervaluing. In Doré, Justice Abella did not provide any detail on the standards to be used in determining whether an administrator’s reasoning met constitutional standards. It was enough  that administrator to “balance” (whatever that means) rights and objectives; indeed, in some cases, the administrator need only be “alive” to the Charter issues (TWU, at para 56). As I will note below, this is an empty theory of deference. It tends towards abdication based on faith in expertise rather than respectful deference. Relying on expertise as a faith-based reason for deference should not exclude the requirement for proper reasoning, as Vavilov confirms.

Now, the fact that administrators may not have expertise may not be fatal for Justice Abella. In her Vavilov opinion with Karakatsanis J, the judges note that internal administrative training could be a fix (see Vavilov, at para 283) rather than authorizing “more incursions into the administrative system by generalist judges who lack the expertise necessary to implement these sensitive mandates (Vavilov, at para 283). This is a nice thought, but it is a bit like allowing the fox to guard the henhouse. There is no reason to assume, without more, that administrators will undergo training sufficient to understand the Constitution, for example. Even if there was, internal training is clearly no substitute for judicial review by generalist judges. It is the very fact that judges are generalist that makes them well-suited to ensure that general legal concerns—like the Constitution—find expression in discrete administrative regimes, with their own internal pressures. And as a matter of law, judicial review must exist. In an ideal world, we would expect administrators to structure their discretion through robust legal training, and we would expect courts to act as a backstop.

2. Pluralism

A second theme seen throughout Justice Abella’s opinions is a focus on legal pluralism. As noted above, the idea is that administrators should be seen as valid contributors to the meaning of the law and Constitution—and thus, courts should not take a supervisory or command-and-control position vis-à-vis the administrative state.

Now, it should be noted that this theme presents two distinct questions. First is whether administrators should have the power to render binding interpretations of law and the Constitution. This normative point, however interesting, is somewhat moot, in part because of the success of Justice Abella’s administrative law theory over the years. Administrators, as a matter of law, do have the power to render binding interpretations of law & the Constitution, if they are delegated the power to do so (see Martin & Conway). In my view, the ability of administrators to do so is legitimate and legal. On ordinary questions of law, the legislature has validly delegated power to administrators to decide these questions in many cases. This legislative choice must be respected absent constitutional objection. On constitutional questions, the issue is trickier, but I can certainly concede that administrators should be able to render interpretations of constitutional law as a function of their subjection to constitutional norms. In other words, if the Constitution is seen as binding on all state actors (as it should be), then it is inevitable that administrators will need to deal with the Constitution. When they do so, they are determining whether the bounds of the Constitution hem in their decision-making power. This calculation is essential if administrative actors are to be bound by the law and the Constitution.

So far as this goes, the administrative state can contribute to the meaning of law. But not too much should be made of this statement. That is because, as a matter of fact and law, administrators and judges are not on an equal playing field. Judicial review necessarily implies a relationship where one body (the court) has the authority and power to correct and surveil another body (the administrator). As a matter of law, that supervisory jurisdiction must remain (see Crevier), and it may even need to occur at a certain stringency on certain questions. As a result, there can never be a perfect equality between administrators and courts, as Justice Abella suggested.

In this way, Vavilov is a drastic improvement over what preceded it. Vavilov clearly states that administrators can and do contribute to the meaning of law, even if judicial justice does not resemble administrative justice (see Vavilov, at para 92). As far as it goes, this is an accurate descriptive statement that acknowledges the current state of Canadian administrative law. But Vavilov does not counsel abdication to administrative power. It instead insists on stringent reasoning requirements, particularly as regards the law (see Vavilov, at para 108 et seq) with only a small margin for error (Vavilov, at para 122). By doing so, it ensures that courts have standards by which they can assess administrative exercises of power, without unduly trenching on jurisdiction delegated to an actor besides the courts.

What we see here is a difference between deference as rooted in the supervisory role of the courts and deference rooted in some external appreciation of the administrative state. In our constitutional system, it is simply the reality that there must be judicial review. The way courts review administrative action puts them in a supervisory position over delegated power. This hierarchy is inescapable. Courts can–and have–developed doctrines of deference based on notions of legislative supremacy. But that doctrine of deference is quite different than one based on expertise. In the former case, deference is plausibly rooted in a exercise of constitutional power by a coordinate branch of government. Deference is not justified by a court assuming–without more–that a decision-maker could come to a “better” decision than the court. As a side note, all of this makes the last piece of Justice Abella’s administrative law legacy–Doré –vulnerable. As I wrote in this paper, the downgrading of expertise as a reflexive reason for deference and the role of the Rule of Law in anchoring the standard of review (correctness on constitutional questions) at least raise the question of Doré ‘s long-term health.

Justice Abella, in her recent co-authored article, argues that such assertions on the basis of formal constitutional materials provide no answer to her conception of administrative law. She and her co-author note that the Secession Reference, which gave a place of priority to unwritten principles of constitutional interpretation, “acknowledges the political nature of law and embraces the idea that although the government is of course constrained by legality, legality is itself a political question capable of sustaining several answers” (295). To the authors, the Secession Reference ushers in a new era that demonstrates that all institutions can take part in the making of law, lending new legitimacy to the administrative state. So, an argument as I have made on the basis of the Constitution–to the authors–is a non-starter.

Needless to say, I find this retort particularly unconvincing for a number of reasons. First, whether law is “political” or not is besides the point. While law is the product of politics, interpretive pluralism should not be taken as an excuse to simply favour the decision-makers that form the political valence we may prefer. It is the legislature’s political choices–not the court’s–that are relevant in determining the space for deference.

Secondly, Vavilov throws a ton of cold water on Justice Abella’s understanding of the Secession Reference. The Secession Reference endorses the Rule of Law as an unwritten principle of constitutional law that can give rise to substantive obligations. To the Court in its various cases, the Rule of Law is understood in a formal sense, as having to do with the subjection of government power to rules in a system of positive laws (see Secession Reference, at para 71). This is a largely formal understanding of the Rule of Law. As an analogue to this understanding, the Court has held that the Rule of Law and s.96 Constitution Act, 1867 together protect the role of the superior courts in conducting judicial review (see, again, Crevier) and protecting core superior court powers (see MacMillan Bloedel). This formal understanding of the Rule of Law was extended in Vavilov. The Court held that legislatures were not free to set up the administrative state as theu wished: legislatures could only specify the standard of review “within the limits imposed by the Rule of Law” (Vavilov, at para 35).

This understanding of the Rule of Law as an unwritten principle, and its relationship to administrative pluralism, should not be understated. Under this understanding, the Rule of Law protects not only the existence of judicial review, but it prevents legislatures from insulating administrative actors from curial scrutiny at a certain intensity on certain questions. The fact that the Rule of Law and s.96 are understood in this way serve to make a point: it would be unconstitutional, in fact, for legislatures to make administrators perfectly equal to superior courts, in a legal sense. The role of superior courts is protected constitutionally, in part, because of its importance in maintaining the Rule of Law. This invites a hierarchical relationship between courts and administrative decision-makers.

All told, the retirement of Justice Abella will be a landmark moment for the Court in many ways. And given Justice Abella’s popularity in the legal community, I have no doubt her retirement will be appropriately marked. But, as lawyers, the retirement of a prominent judge presents us an opportunity to review the body of her work. In the world of administrative law, Vavilov represents the first major effort to overcome Justice Abella’s persuasive legacy. This is welcome.

No matter what, I wish Justice Abella well on her retirement.

An Oddity in Strom

In October, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal released its much-anticipated decision in Strom. Strom raised a number of important issues: “ “at the intersection between professional regulation, Ms. Strom’s private life, and the s.2(b) Charter guarantee of freedom of expression in the age of social media.”  

Strom was a registered nurse. Her grandfather tragically passed at a long-term care facility. Strom took to Facebook to criticize the care her grandfather received at the facility. The facility’s employees reported the comments to the Saskatchewan Registered Nurses’ Association (SRNA). The SRNA charged Strom with professional misconduct, and the SRNA Discipline Committee found her guilty.

The Court ultimately overturned the Discipline Committee’s decision. For many reasons that I cannot explore here, I think this is the right decision, in law and in principle. But one aspect of the decision is of particular interest to me: the Court’s standard of review discussion as it related to the freedom of expression arguments raised by Strom.

Of course, in such a case, the framework that governs the standard of review analysis is Doré. Doré holds that the standard of review when a court reviews an administrative decision is reasonableness (Doré, at para 7). Doré also introduces a proportionality framework for assessing whether a decision-maker has struck a reasonable balance between the Charter right at hand and the statutory objective. Post-Vavilov, it is at least an open question about whether Doré is still good law. This is because Vavilov reaffirms that, when litigants challenge a law under the Constitution, the standard of review is correctness (Vavilov, at para 56). I, for one, have questioned why it is that different standards of review should apply, especially since the Court in Vavilov recognized that  legislatures cannot “…alter the constitutional limits of executive power by delegating authority to an administrative body” (Vavilov, at para 56).

Enter Strom.  In that case, both parties agreed that the standard of review is correctness on the Charter issue (Strom, at para 133). The Court also agreed, but only because the case came to court via a statutory right of appeal, and under Vavilov, statutory rights of appeal invite the appellate standards of review (correctness on questions of law, palpable and overriding error on questions of fact/mixed fact and law) (see Strom, at para 133). The Court noted, though, the following, at para 133:

It is not necessary to consider the question left unanswered by Vavilov, at paragraph 57; that is, what is the standard of review when the issue of whether an administrative decision has unjustifiably limited Charter rights is raised on judicial review, rather than on appeal?

This, in itself, is not really problematic. Given the fact that, for now, Doré lives another day, it would not be appropriate for an appellate court to apply the correctness standard to Doré-type situations. It is defensible—and proper—to simply classify a constitutional issue as a question of law that falls under the scope of an appeal right. And at the end of the day, it does not matter much for a results perspective, because the standard will be correctness either way.

However, in choosing the correctness standard, the Court then did something that is difficult to understand. It said the following, at para 140:

What, then, is an appellate court’s task when reviewing whether the decision of an administrative body unjustifiably infringed a Charter right? In substance, that task is summarily described in Doré at paragraph 6, despite the fact that the standard of review is correctness. The Court’s task is to determine whether the decision-maker disproportionately limited the Charter right or struck an appropriate balance between the Charter right and statutory objectives.

The Court went on to describe the question raised by the case, at para 166:

The question as to whether it has imposed excessive limits is the proportionality question. Here, it is whether the Discipline Committee advanced its statutory objective in a manner that is proportionate to the impact on Ms. Strom’s right to freedom of expression. One aspect of that question is whether the impact on her freedom of speech in her private life was minimal or serious.

The Court then went on to apply the Doré framework, though made reference to some parts of the Oakes test (see para 153).

This strikes me as an oddity. Let’s take what the Court describes its task to be. When courts apply the correctness standard, courts focus on “the conclusion the court itself would have reached in the administrative decision maker’s place” (Vavilov, at para 15). The proportionality analysis advanced in Doré, however, seems to have deference built-in to it. While Doré notes that the Oakes test and the Doré framework “exercise the same justificatory muscles,” (Doré, at para 5), Doré deference asks courts to give some weight to the statutory objective being advanced by the decision-maker. This was, indeed, a bone of contention for the dissent of Brown and Côté JJ in Trinity Western. But when a court conducts correctness review, at least in theory, the court should not give any weight to what the decision-maker’s reasons are for making

That said, there are no perfect Platonic forms in law. It is true that Oakes itself has developed to contemplate deference in its application. And it is also true that courts, post-Vavilov, have applied what I call “light correctness review” (see Planet Energy, at para 31), where a certain amount of weight is given to the decision-maker’s “…interpretation respecting the words of the Act, the general scheme of the Act and the policy objectives behind the provision.” This could be seen as a sort of Skidmore-like deference, under which courts give non-binding weight to an administrative interpretation.

That said, the inherently deferential idea of Doré review seems inconsistent with a stringent application of the correctness standard. This, to me, is a theoretical oddity, even if its effect is blunted on the edges.

On John Willis and the Pesky Politics of Administrative Law

John Willis was and is considered one of Canada’s most important administrative law academics. As a student of administrative law and the law of judicial review, one cannot skip Willis’ classic works, like his books “The Parliamentary Powers of English Government Departments” and “Canadian Boards at Work”—and his caustic papers, including his attack on the McRuer Report and his famous “Three Approaches to Administrative Law: The Judicial, The Conceptual, and the Functional.” Especially in this latter piece, Willis sets out his comprehensive functional theory of the law of judicial review—that theory holds that courts, with a typically “conservative” orientation, could never understand the difficulties of governments that, post-New Deal, were concerned with social welfare. Accordingly, courts should butt out, in service of the expertise, efficiency, and progressive orientation of administrative decision-makers.

While Willis should obviously be commended and respected as an eminent scholar of administrative law, there is a core problem at the centre of Willis’ thought that should stand as a warning for us in the modern era. Willis fundamentally viewed administrative law as a project of politics. As R. Blake Brown notes in this article, and as Willis himself always argued, the law of judicial review (and administrative law more broadly) was not about legal principles or controls on the administrative state, but was rather designed to limit the interference that legalist, conservative courts could wrought on tribunals pursuing the social good in an expert way. But this sort of thinking runs into two fundamental problems: (1) it ignores the fact that, strategically, administrative power can and has been used to fulfill the policy aims of governments who do not have any designs on social welfare goals—this was a clear blind-spot in Willis’ own work, one that led him to over-trust government; and (2) normatively, as recent Supreme Court and Federal Court of Appeal jurisprudence tells us, there is a meaningful difference between law and politics when it comes to the interpretation and application of laws governing judicial review. Granting deference based on the supposed underlying political motivations of particular decision-makers undermines this separation.

Let’s start by reviewing Willis’ functionalism. Willis self-described himself as a “government man,” and “what actually happens man.” By this he meant he was less concerned about the legal principles of a 19th century constitution, but rather was concerned with the making of “effective government” (see “Administrative Law in Retrospect” at 227). Functionalism crafted doctrine to align with the way government operates and the programs government is responsible for implementing. At the time of Willis’ writing, the struggle for government was the implementation of social welfare programs, closely associated with the New Deal. Delegation to administrative tribunals was one of the ways that these programs were implemented. A functional approach, then, would respect the legislative choice to delegate

In my view, deference to administrative tribunals in the functionalist mould was supported by a number of presuppositions about administrative decision-making, but the most important one for our purposes was what I call the “political” presupposition. Deference on the functionalist account was justified because of the apparent political valence of the decision-makers under review and what they were designed to achieve. Says Michael Taggart (at 257), describing the functionalists of the era:

These left-leaning scholars were deeply resentful of what they saw as conservative judges twisting the pliable rules of statutory interpretation to favour the existing order, privileging the rich and the powerful, and defeating the purposes of statutes intended to further the interests of the workers, the homeless, and the least well-off in society.

Deference on functionalist grounds was therefore a reactionary force, one that was a political project designed to fight back against the supposedly conservative orientation of the courts, that used legal principles to stunt the social welfare programs of governments.

Willis himself clearly fell in this category. A social democrat, Willis railed against any sort of thinking that would interfere with the prerogatives of government, undertaking social programs. He viewed government as fundamentally changing in light of the New Deal:

The State had changed its character, had ceased to be soldier and policeman, and was rapidly becoming protector and nurse…Again the right of the community bulk larger than the rights of the individual (See Parliamentary Powers at 13 and 51).

Risk described Willis’ functionalism as such:

Willis’ thinking about law and government can best be summarized by dividing it into three parts. The first is his observations and attitudes about government and its institutions….He perceive the nature and extent of the expansion of government, and its implications for the structure and functions of the legal institutions. He perceived a changing relation between the individual and the community, and how legislative policies were expanding the claims of the community against the individual, and circumscribing common law ideals….He had a great faith in experts, and he believed the courts should give liberal scope to the agencies on review (see Risk, at 545).

The political appreciation of administrative tribunals as representing the needs and wishes of the “community” was a constant thread through Willis’ scholarship advocating for a judicial “hands-off” approach to decision-makers like labour boards.

So, what are the problems with such an approach? To my mind, there are two. First, Willis’ political approach to deference fails on its own terms: it fails, on any complete account, to actually reach an ideal of social justice. This is because deference itself has no political valence, and can be easily used to vindicate decisions of administrators that run counter to social justice. And secondly, on principle, a political approach to deference runs counter to our positive law and to the good reasons for it.

Let’s first tackle the issue of social justice and its connection to doctrines of deference. As I’ve written time and time again, using deference as a means to reward the  decision-makers we like –because we ascribe to them some political ideal—is an unprincipled and politically naïve way to view the law. Let’s start with the latter contention. Willis’ supposition seems to be that courts themselves cannot be trusted to uphold the purposes of ameliorative legislation because of their conservative orientation. But it is not axiomatically true—and in fact, it seems bizarre—to suggest that deference will always serve to advance social welfare principles. It does no such thing.

The development of the administrative state is simple proof of this. When Willis was writing, he made the near-sighted appreciation that deference supported the administrative state as it existed at that time. At that time, observers were mostly concerned with labour tribunals, who were seen as consummate experts in their craft. But Willis either did not predict that deference would and could also have to attach to tribunals he did not appreciate under his social welfare rubric. That is, and I have said before, there are other aspects of the administrative state that do not map so neatly onto any past or modern description of social justice. Prisons, an area of interest for me, come to mind—perhaps the place where administrative discretion, at least prior to the CCRA, was most unbounded. Another example, that of immigration decision-making,  also comes to mind. What, beyond brash politics, justifies treating these tribunals any differently?  If one believes in deference, how can one say that prisons are any less deserving of deference than any other decision-maker?

This does not strike me as a consistent approach based on social justice. Later in Willis’ career, this thought must have occurred to him. That is because, in his “Administrative Law in Retrospect,” Willis addressed the question of a number “fashionable cults” which, to him, were negatively affecting the prerogatives of government:

This is very interesting coming from someone who is committed to social justice. How could it be consistent, if one accepts some political justification for deference based on social justice, for Willis to deny prisoners a right to be heard? Why are prisoners less good, in Willis’ eyes, than unions before a labour board? Willis’ myopic conception of social justice was profoundly underinclusive, even on its own terms.

Another explanation of this oddity is that Willis was not committed to social justice at all. Rather, it is very likely and possible that Willis was indeed a “government man” in the most literal sense of the term. Any action that could offend a government prerogative, in his eyes, was abhorrent. So the “cult of the individual,” and prisoners, all serve to run against government, even if government offends social justice. But this stands inconsistently with the idea of social justice. Social justice, on any cohesive account, is not about empowering government for the sake of government. The problem is that government can act in ways that contradict the theory of social justice

The above point challenges Willis on his own social justice terms, but there is an external, doctrinal reason to be wary of Willis’ approach to deference. It is indeed true that the fight for deference in Canada is overlayed by considerations of politics. After all, the laws delegating power to decision-makers—or laws that work to limit the scope of power for these decision-makers—are passed against the backdrop of a legislature that is a partisan organ. But that is a separate matter altogether from the actual legal justifications for deference, which like the interpretation of statutes, should be a separate concern from politics. Luckily, our law recognizes this fact clearly, and does so for good reasons. Vavilov, for example, does not base deference on any good-faith presumptions about the expertise of decision-makers. Now, the very fact that the legislature delegated power—any power—to any decision-maker is a fact worthy of deference. The tool of delegation as the grounds of deference has the benefit of being agnostic as to how one can judge, politically, particular tribunals. And Vavilov itself (at paras 120-121) cautions against reverse-engineering doctrine to suit a desired outcome. Clearly, Willis’ political approach to doctrine (and the arguably political approach of the common law courts) run afoul of our current law, which erects a clear separation between deference as a doctrine and the political results of a deferential approach. Justice Stratas in the Federal Court of Appeal has made a similar point in the context of statutory interpretation and judicial review: see Williams, at para 48; Cheema, at para 74; and Hillier, at para 33.

While that is the state of the positive law, it is the positive law for a good normative reason. It is orthodox today in the academy that law cannot be meaningfully separated from politics. It is even true that some say that any attempt to do so is necessarily “reactionary” or “conservative.” But this contention does not take account of the different parts of law-making and interpretation, and the very purpose of law itself. As I mentioned above, it is of course true that laws reflect the political consensus of the legislature at the time they are passed. It would be wrong and overbroad to suggest that the making of law is or should be divorced from the political process: indeed, it is the function of our legislatures to make laws that, at least in theory, are undergirded by the support of a majority. However, this is a completely separate act from the interpretation of laws. Laws, in order to be consistent with at least one aspect of the Rule of Law, must be general rather than specific; and when a judge interprets a law, she does so to give the meaning to the text, context, and purpose of the law that is enacted on the page (even purpose, as I discuss here, is usually and ultimately guided by text). The task of interpretation of laws should not be governed by consideration of politics; of what this or that judge thinks of this or that tribunal. Should it be the case that judges grant deference because of their political views, we will go along way towards undermining our separation of powers between courts and legislatures, imperfect as it is in Canada.

Of course, it is impossible to say that politics will never enter the interpretive activity. But that is a different question altogether than how doctrine is constructed. Ideally, the way we theorize deference and interpretation should not be based on political musings; rather, theory should be based on the foundational principles of our legal order, including the choice of a legislature to delegate power and the core interpretive function of the courts. It might be orthodox to suggest otherwise these days, but in my view, the very purpose of law in the law of judicial review is to enforce the limits that legislatures themselves provide—no matter how wide or loose they are—on administrative decision-makers. It should not be the role of the courts, as Justice Stratas so eloquently says in the above-cited decisions, for courts to pick winners and losers based on politics.

Back to Willis. John Willis’ contributions to Canadian administrative law will live for the ages. But his approach to the law of judicial review should not be celebrated wholesale. Willis’ cardinal mistake was falling victim to the game started by the “conservative” common law courts. If it is true that those courts struck administrative decisions because they did not appreciate the social welfare function of those agencies, that runs counter to our governing law and the good reasons for it. But today, Willis is still celebrated; the common law courts are not. I think it is fair and appropriate to draw attention to the blindspots in Willis’ theory: his myopia regarding what he thought was “social justice”; and the specious attempt to import deference based on some political justification.

Vavilov in the Prisons

By now, Vavilov—the case in which the Supreme Court re-jigged Canada’s standard of review framework—has received sustained attention, including from yours truly. Over at Administrative Law Matters, Professor Daly has a running post outlining how Vavilov has been applied in some particular interesting cases. And on SSRN, Jamie Chai Yun Liew has an excellent article on the implications of Vavilov for marginalized persons.  Vavilov has had and will continue to have implications for particular areas of law.

My concern in this post is the way Vavilov is being applied, at least in a few cases, in an important area of administrative decision-making: the carceral state. Indeed, it is not often that prisons are mentioned as distinct areas of administrative decision-making. This is, perhaps, because the administrative state is often identified closely with the “welfare state”—a benevolent set of tribunals and decision-makers maximizing benefits for vulnerable people. This is best represented in the deification of labour tribunals as the quintessential administrative decision-maker: expert, oriented towards the public good, efficient, and cheap.

But the prisons are not some separate and apart actor in terms of administrative law. Prison decision-makers operate on delegated power, just as labour and human rights tribunals do. Prisons have become increasingly bureaucratized over time (see Malcolm Feeley and Edward Rubin’s classic text here), and with that bureaucratization has come the potential for the traditional pitfalls associated with administrative decision-making. Indeed, as I will point out in the context of a particular case, “expertise” in the prison context means something very different—it often means expertise in using punitive measures to “manage” “difficult” prisoners.  Coupled with the intersecting disadvantages of prisoners, and the level of control prison administrators—presumably without legal training—hold over those same prisoners, the risk of unlawful or unconstitutional decisions affecting the statutory or constitutional rights of prisoners multiplies. Indeed, prisons were once referred to as “lawless agencies” for good reason—they form, like immigration decision-makers, an intimate part of the administrative state as we know it.

Hence it is important to study the way in which judicial review doctrine works in the carceral state. Indeed, one would expect that Vavilov’s focus on justification might actually make a difference in the prisons, where decisions have historically been made without the close scrutiny of courts. The following two cases illustrate the divergent ways in which, at least in these two cases, Vavilov is faring against the behemothic carceral state. In one of the cases, the court takes a deferential posture based on “expertise,” arguably undermining the justificatory promise of Vavilov. In the other, the court subjects the prison decision to the scrutiny required by Vavilov’s justificatory standard.

Bromby v Warden of William Head Institution, 2020 BCSC 1119

Bromby is serving an indeterminate life sentence for first-degree murder. He was involuntarily transferred from a minimum security institution to a medium security institution in 2019. He objected to this transfer, “[r]aising concerns about the sufficiency of disclosure” in relation to the transfer [2]. Despite this objection, the transfer was approved by the Warden of the minimum security facility. However, Bromby raised a habeas corpus claim, and was successful on that claim. He was transferred back to the minimum security institution.

However, immediately following this decision, the minimum security facility initiated an “emergency involuntary transfer” based on an increase of his security classification score. The final decision to transfer Bromby from minimum to medium security was eventually made by the warden, and was delivered orally to Bromby—but he was not provided written reasons for this decision  in a timely manner, contrary to the Corrections and Conditional Release Regulations [4]. Bromby argued that “the transfer on an emergency basis was unreasonable as he did not pose a threat to the security of the penitentiary or the safety of the inmates or any other person” [5].

In response to this claim, the Warden trotted out an old standard of prison decision-making: the rather specious appeal to “micromanagement” and “expertise.” As the respondent submitted:

  1.    It is not the role of reviewing courts to micromanage prisons even where they feel that intervention measures other than a transfer might have been taken in addressing inmate behaviour. While the applicant may have preferred for other actions to be taken to attempt to manage his risk, deference is owed to the Warden’s assessment that the applicant was unmanageable within Mission (Minimum) Institution.

. . .

  1.    The Decision was . . . reasonable . . . based on the facts and legal constraints before the Warden. The decision of the Warden, a prison administrator familiar with the complexities of Mission (Minimum) Institution and the security classification of inmates, should be provided with deference to decide that the applicant was presently incapable of management within an open perimeter environment. The thorough explanations provided and thoughtful insight as to the specific interventions that the applicant can work towards in becoming a minimum security inmate reflect the Warden’s significant expertise in identifying and managing offender risk. Accordingly, a high degree of deference is owed to the Warden in his decision.

 

The Court largely accepted this line of thinking:

However, it is the January 2020 Decision that I must assess for reasonableness and determine whether it falls within the range of possible acceptable outcomes which are defensible on the facts and the law. I find that the decision does. That is because the warden is entitled to deference in the decision‑making process. The decision of the warden, a prison administrator familiar with the complexities of Mission Institution and the security classification of inmates, set out the basis for why it was that Mr. Bromby presented as being incapable of management within an open‑perimeter environment [63].

There are two general problems with this line of thinking.

First, I confess that I don’t understand how this line of thinking is at all consistent with Vavilov. Vavilov did away the presumption of expertise for administrative decision-making, instead focusing on “demonstrated expertise” (Vavilov, at para 93). It is true that this demonstrated expertise “may reveal to a reviewing court that an  outcome that might be puzzling or counterintuitive on its face nevertheless accords with the purposes and practical realities of the relevant administrative regime…” (Vavilov, at para 93). This does, fairly, give some latitude for prison decision-makers such as the Warden in this case to apply their knowledge of a particular situation to a dispute. But in this case there is no interrogation of the demonstrated expertise of the Warden. That is, the court does not determine whether the supposed expertise of the Warden was actually demonstrated in the reasons. The fact that, in the court’s view, “[t]he record establishes that the warden turned his mind to all of the relevant considerations…” [65] is not enough to warrant an acceptance of pre-Vavilov law on expertise. This has particular resonance in the prison context, where expertise has often been assumed without demonstration (see Lisa Kerr’s wonderful article here).

I acknowledge that it is genuinely difficult to demonstrate, in the prison context, what actually constitutes “expertise.” Vavilov opens the door to the operational realities of prisons—including issues of security—factoring into a decision. But there is no critical assessment here by the court of how the Warden’s expertise featured into this decision. This seems to be what Vavilov prescribes, and it arguably should factor into any assessment of reasonableness, particularly where the consequences are dire for the individual (Vavilov, at para 133).

Moreover, it is important to recognize that “expertise,” as a general proposition, and especially in the carceral state, can refer to many different things. Simply stating, as the court does in Bromby, that wardens have expertise masks the real question: in what? As Lisa Kerr notes in another outstanding article, at 259, expertise can cut both ways, especially where constitutional rights are at stake. Expertise could be a veneer for stereotyping or discrimination, as I note below.  This is an important normative reason to deny administrative decision-makers a presumption of expertise, which Vavilov explicitly rejects—but which has, based on Bromby, perhaps not filtered down to the carceral state.

Finally, I must acknowledge the old trope about “micromanagement” of prisons, trotted out by the respondent in Bromby. Judicial review is, it is true, not about micromanagement of administrative decision-making. It is about policing the boundaries of statutory schemes designed to cabin administrative activity; it is a traditionally legal and doctrinal activity. As Kerr again aptly acknowledges:

The organization dynamics of prisons tend to resist constitutional constraints, due to the political powerlessness of inmates and the structural isolation of corrections from the community. The status of the inmate is defined in relation to managerial goals, rather than in relation to an externally defined moral norm, and prison managers tend to focus on their vision of scientific management rather than the larger legal order. Amid these institutional tendencies, only the judiciary has the inclination and ability to impose a regular and comprehensive legal framework. The judiciary is a necessary play in prison legality, rather than a necessarily amateur outsider at risk of “micromanagement.” The spirit of habeas corpus, with its strict emphasis on legality and access to justice, so as to challenge deprivations imposed on the physical body, has always had this in mind.

This is fundamentally important. Judicial review is a check against the seductive force of administrative exigency, in which people might be assimilated based on stereotypes or useful organizing tools rather than as individuals. Yet prisons, at the same time, must acknowledge the rights (statutory and constitutional) of prisoners—this is acknowledged in CSC’s enabling legislation.  Ensuring that these rights are upheld is the function of judicial review, which should not be reduced to some afterthought when evaluating the panoply of control mechanisms at the hands of prison decision-makers.

Johnston v Canada (Atorney General), 2020 FC 352

Contrast the previous case with Johnston out of the Federal Court. Johnston involved an inmate at Kent Institution. As a federal inmate, Johnston received payments from Correctional Service Canada “at a modest daily rate” [1]. However, CSC began withholding 100% of Johnston’s modest pay. This is because he had not paid a costs order in favour of the Attorney General. As such, Johnston filed a judicial review of the decision to make the a 100% reduction in his inmate payments.

The Court concluded that, though the relevant statutory scheme gave the CSC the legal authority to make deductions, “it was unreasonable for the CSC to withhold all of the applicant’s income without considering the purpose and principles that govern CSC and without considering the impact the deductions would have on the applicant” [4].

The problem in this case was marred by issues with the record. As the Court noted, the only record of decision was an email chain originating in the CSC. That email chain revealed that there was no “explanation or justification for making deductions from the applicant’s inmate income” apart from the obvious costs order [14]. Specifically, the record did not say “anything about…why the amount of the deduction was set at 100 percent of the applicant’s inmate income” [15].

While Vavilov does note that reasons are not required in every case (Vavilov, at para 77), reflecting well-known law, the case does note that “where reasons are provided but they fail to provide a transparent and intelligible justification…the decision will be unreasonable” (Vavilov, at para 136). This is precisely what happened here. In addition to failing to disclose why the 100% figure was chosen, the CSC failed to consider the vulnerability of the person who had has income reduced. This is directly contrary to Vavilov (see Vavilov, at paras 133 et seq).  The Vavilov majority puts the point eloquently at para 135:

[135]                     Many administrative decision makers are entrusted with an extraordinary degree of power over the lives of ordinary people, including the most vulnerable among us. The corollary to that power is a heightened responsibility on the part of administrative decision makers to ensure that their reasons demonstrate that they have considered the consequences of a decision and that those consequences are justified in light of the facts and law.

The CSC’s conduct in this regard was sorely lacking in terms of the justificatory standard set out in Vavilov—probably more so than Bromby. When a court cannot glean a reasonable justification from the record and reasons—in this case, a generally worded email—the risk increases that the administrative action was arbitrary. The risk increases that, in this particular case, the number of 100% was plucked from the air, without any discernible reason. When we multiply this arbitrariness with the existing vulnerability of prisoners, we have a recipe for administrative disaster.

The point is not that prisoners, because of their vulnerability, must win every judicial review. Doctrine must be applied without fear or favour. But the doctrine includes the consideration of the circumstances of vulnerable persons, and the importance of a decision to those persons, raising the justificatory bar in those cases (see, for this point, Sharif, at para 9). Again, this is not a trump card, but it is an important consideration for administrative decision-makers. It is not something to discard in favour of administrative exigency.

Justification plays a useful role here. It forces the prison, which is by design isolated from the rest of the community, to articulate the reasons for decisions in a way that is understandable to the people within prisons, as well as to the external legal system. Justification is the window by which we can look into the morass of prison decisions, policies, and directives that bear on the actual lives of real people within the carceral state. The tendency in prisons is, likely, to reject these external checks.

That makes those checks all the more important.

The Continued Relevance of “Jurisdiction”

This post is co-written with Leonid Sirota

One of the innovations of Vavilov was its dispatch of so-called “jurisdictional questions” from the standard of review analysis. A long-time feature of Canadian administrative law, jurisdictional questions were said to arise “where the tribunal must explicitly determine whether its statutory grant of power gives it authority to decide a particular matter” (see Vavilov, at para 65; Dunsmuir, at para 59). These questions would attract correctness review. But as the Vavilov majority acknowledged, “…majorities of this Court have questioned the necessity of this category, struggled to articulate its scope and ‘expressed serious reservations about whether such questions can be distinguished as a separate category of questions of law” (Vavilov, at para 65; Alberta Teachers, at para 34).   As a result, the Court decided that it would “cease to recognize jurisdictional questions as a distinct category attracting correctness review” (Vavilov, at para 65), satisfied in the knowledge that the robust reasonableness review it articulated would solve a potential problem of decision-makers arrogating power to themselves they were never intended to have (Vavilov, at para 68; para 109).

We question whether matters are so simple. While the Court purported to rid Canadian administrative law of “jurisdictional questions,” clearly the concept of jurisdiction remains. In this post, we outline the four ways in which it remains relevant in Canadian administrative law, despite its absence from the standard of review analysis. This happens (1) in the course of statutory interpretation under Vavilov itself; (2) in the presence of certain statutory rights of appeal; (3) when drawing the boundaries between the remits of two or more tribunals; and (4) when determining whether a tribunal is empowered to consider Charter questions.

A note before beginning: between us, we view questions of jurisdiction differently. One of us (Mancini) has previously argued that jurisdictional questions should simply attract reasonableness review, since jurisdictional questions are merely a subset of a larger category of questions of law; in his view, there is no meaningful difference between jurisdictional questions and other questions of law, for the purposes of the standard of review (see the reasons of Stratas JA in Access Copyright (2018) at para 75). The other (Sirota) disagrees with this position, and instead believes that questions of jurisdiction must attract a correctness standard of review, and that if this means that most or all questions of law, being jurisdictional in some sense, require correctness review, so much the better. This difference is not material for the purposes of this post. We only mean to argue that the Vavilov judgment should not be read as dispensing with the existence of all questions of jurisdiction, let alone with the concept of jurisdiction writ large. Indeed, jurisdiction still remains an important and relevant concept in distinct areas of Canadian administrative law, an idea recognized in some respects by Vavilov itself.

Statutory interpretation under Vavilov

As noted above, Vavilov ceases to recognize jurisdictional questions as a distinct category attracting correctness review (Vavilov, at para 65). This is not a surprise, as majorities of the Court had previously thrown doubt on both the concept of jurisdiction (see CHRC, at para 38) and the means used to identify jurisdictional questions (McLean, at para 25).

And yet: chassez le naturel, et il revient au galop. When the Court goes on to describe the statutory context within which a particular decision-maker operates as an “obvious and necessary constraint” on administrative power (Vavilov, at para 109),  the Court’s explanation harkens back to the language of jurisdiction. The Court says that

Reasonableness review does not allow administrative decision-makers to arrogate powers to themselves that they were never intended to have, and an administrative body cannot exercise authority which was not delegated to it (Vavilov, at para 109, our emphasis).

What is this if not an invocation of the concept of jurisdiction, albeit in plain English? Whether we frame the issue as one of statutory authority or jurisdiction, the point is the same: administrative decision-makers only have the power that is explicitly or impliedly delegated to them by legislation (or that they hold under the royal prerogative). If they go beyond the scope of the delegation, the decision-makers lose their authority to act. Far from doing away with the concept of jurisdiction, then, the Court embraces it in its articulation of the legal limits of reasonableness review.

Moreover, the Court explains that “[i]f a legislature wishes to precisely circumscribe an administrative decision maker’s power in some respect, it can do so by using precise and narrow language and delineating the power in detail, thereby tightly constraining the decision maker’s ability to interpret the provision” (Vavilov, at para 110). In such cases, “questions relating to the scope of a decision maker’s authority … may support only one” permissible interpretation (Vavilov, at para 110), by contrast with others where the statutory language is more open-ended. While the Court resists the analogy, it is difficult to distinguish single-answer “questions relating to the scope of a decision maker’s authority” from pre-Vavilov questions of jurisdiction. What is new, perhaps, is the implicit recognition that even open-ended grants of authority must have their limits.

This is not something to be worried about―even though, as the Vavilov majority noted, every question regarding an administrative decision-maker’s statutory limits can be conceived as a question of jurisdiction (see Vavilov, at para 66), and is so conceived elsewhere (see Peters v Davison (NZCA) explaining that UK case law, followed in New Zealand, has served to “render redundant any distinction between jurisdictional and non-jurisdictional error of law”). Indeed, the Court is correct in saying that jurisdiction (or statutory authority) is a natural limit on administrative discretion. Although it does not serve as the lynchpin for a distinct category of legal questions for the purposes of standard of review analysis, the concept remains in the articulation of the limits on administrative decisions.

Statutory Rights of Appeal and Privative Clauses

Under Vavilov, different standards of review apply on statutory appeals and on judicial review. On appeal, when a case involves a question of law, the standard will be correctness; when a case involves a question of fact or mixed fact and law, the standard will be palpable and overriding error. On judicial review, by contrast, most questions of law, as well as questions of fact and policy, attract reasonableness review.

Hence the scope of statutory rights of appeal, and thus whether a given issue can be appealed or must be judicially reviewed, may be decisive for the outcome of a case. This scope can be circumscribed; one common way in which this is done is by limiting the right of appeal to “questions of law and jurisdiction” as, for example, in the Broadcasting Act provision at issue in Vavilov’s companion case, Bell/NFL.

How are such provisions to be interpreted? Vavilov could be read in one of two ways on this score. First, one could read Vavilov to suggest that when a legislature provides an appeal on a question of law or jurisdiction, jurisdiction means the same thing as “law.” This appears to be what the Court did in Bell, when it did not mention the difference in legislative language between questions of law or jurisdiction. Secondly, one could read Vavilov as retaining the concept of jurisdiction, but simply concluding that for standard of review purposes, the distinction between law and jurisdiction does not matter. This retains the concept of jurisdictional questions.

But what if the appeal right only extends to questions of jurisdiction, not to non-jurisdictional questions of law?  (See, for a version of this in Quebec, Mancini’s article on the subject). If this happens, there are three options. If Vavilov is read as saying that the concept of jurisdiction has no distinct meaning, courts can safely ignore the privative clause and simply consider the right of appeal as either extending to questions of law, or perhaps as covering a null set of cases. We find either of these solutions to be undesirable. If a legislature uses the term “jurisdiction” in a right of appeal, in contrast to the term “law” in a privative clause, the legislature’s use of that term must be given effect: this is simply an application of the presumption against tautology, endorsed in Vavilov itself (see para 45). If the legislature uses the term jurisdiction in a statutory right of appeal, it must mean something over and above a question of law, however much courts and scholars might disagree with its implicit determination that there exist non-jurisdictional questions of law.

This means that courts, in determining whether a particular matter falls within such a right of appeal, must come to its own determination about whether the subject matter is “jurisdictional.” Jurisdiction, then, continues to rear its head in these scenarios.

Jurisdictional Boundaries Between Two or More Administrative Bodies

The Vavilov majority retained, as a category of question attracting correctness review, the determination of “jurisdictional boundaries between two or more administrative bodies” (Vavilov, at para 53).  This happens when it is unclear which body must resolve a given issue, and one body attempts to address a matter that may be considered to fall within a comprehensive legislative regime administered by another.

The Court says that “[a]dministrative decisions are rarely contested on this basis” (Vavilov, at para 64). This observation is true, but the category is not without controversy. In fact, the Court will hear a case, Horrocks, which considers the demarcation of the respective spheres of authority of human rights tribunals and labour arbitrators, and the governing test for determining which actor should assume jurisdiction in a particular case (see Weber, Figliola). In these cases, the Court uses “jurisdiction” in its standard sense: as the power to hear and decide certain matters. If a tribunal proceeds erroneously on this score, it would incorrectly assume jurisdiction.

It might seem puzzling that Vavilov retained this category of review while purporting to rid Canadian administrative law of other “jurisdictional questions.” And yet, what choice did the Court have? As it pointed out, litigants (and indeed tribunals themselves) need to know which administrative body is tasked with resolving a given question.

Jurisdiction to Consider Charter Questions

The question of whether a decision-maker can consider the Charter is also a question of jurisdiction in the classic sense. It is noteworthy that the term “jurisdiction” appears 89 times in the Supreme Court’s reasons in Martin, which set out to re-appraise the rules governing whether a decision-maker has the authority to consider Charter issues. This is a preliminary question that must be asked before dealing with the merits of a particular constitutional challenge. The Court in Martin concluded that where there is jurisdiction to decide questions of law, there is also jurisdiction to consider the Charter (see Martin, at para 36). For the Martin Court, jurisdiction is defined as “the power to decide” (Martin, at para 36). It will be a “jurisdictional question,” therefore, whether a decision-maker has power to determine how the Charter applies to a matter on which it is required to rule. When a court reviews a decision-maker’s conclusion on this front, the court will owe the decision-maker no deference (see Martin, at para 31).  In this manner, the concept of jurisdiction will continue to inform whether a decision-maker has power to decide a Charter matter, and such questions will function much the same way as they did pre-Vavilov.

This isn’t to say that this category of review is justified from a perspective of first principles or precedent. The Constitution is always a limitation on government action, whether that action is legislative or administrative. That is, legislatures should not be able to “delegate out” of the Constitution by empowering an administrative actor. While it is true that administrative decision-makers are creatures of statute, constitutional constraints circumscribe statutory grants of authority whether they are mentioned or not. Indeed, the better view is that a legislature cannot preclude a decision-maker from considering the Constitution even by saying so. And from the perspective of precedent, Martin is difficult to reconcile with Doré, which held that “…administrative decisions are always required to consider fundamental values” (Doré, at para 35). While we both consider Doré to be unjustified in every other respect, this aspect of Doré―at least if for the extra-constitutional “values” we substitute the more appropriate “law”―is supported by the fundamental idea that the Constitution is supreme in the hierarchy of laws: s.52 of the Constitution Act, 1982 (see also Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v Tennant, 2018 FCA 132).

Normative Implications

In our view, the holding in Vavilov on jurisdictional questions must be considered quite limited. The Court must not be taken as saying that “jurisdictional questions” do not exist as a conceptual matter. Nor is the Court saying that, in other contexts, courts must defer on questions that can be identified as jurisdictional.

Rather, the situation is much more nuanced. Jurisdiction remains a relevant principle in Canadian administrative law, in at least four areas where courts will be called upon to delineate the scope of the authority of particular decision-makers, whether in the ordinary process of statutory interpretation, in demarcating jurisdictional lines, construing statutory rights of appeal, and in relation to Charter questions. Courts will need to return to a stable definition of jurisdiction. It will do no good to suggest that “jurisdictional questions” have been banned from the world of Canadian administrative law. Horrocks is an example: there, the Court will need to decide whether its test for determining which particular body has jurisdiction is adequate.

In our view, this narrow reading of Vavilov is normatively desirable. Jurisdiction is not the will-o’-the-wisp some make it out to be. Scholars obsessed with the “bad old days” of pre-CUPE administrative law always speak of jurisdiction as if it is some major impediment to administrative decision-making. But that is only so if administrators must, contrary to basic constitutional principles requiring all public power to be constrained by law, be allowed to roam free of legal fetters. Such claims by the defenders of the administrative state are an admission against interest, and quite an unnecessary one. Administrative decision-makers function just fine in jurisdictions where their jurisdiction and, indeed, the correctness of their legal interpretations are fully policed by the courts.

It is true that judges of a particular era were pre-disposed to view administrative power with skepticism. But they had good reason: the rise of administrative power was not an inevitability or a phenomenon that was totally consistent with fundamental constitutional principles. Jurisdiction—the idea that a law (typically statute but sometimes the common law) that exists outside the administrator’s subjective preferences and is subject to judicial interpretation determines whether the administrator can hear or decide a matter—is merely a constitutionally required limit on administrative power (see Vavilov, at para 109). No amount of tinkering with standards of review can change this. Courts trying to flee from constitutional principles will find that they cannot outrun them. They must reckon with this reality and devote their energy to working out how these principles are to be applied, rather than to futile escapades.

 

 

Doré Revisited: A Response to Professor Daly

Over on Administrative Law Matters, Professor Paul Daly argues that Doré  actually “emerges strengthened” from Vavilov. Professor Daly’s post responds to my own paper (The Conceptual Gap Between Doré and Vavilov) and post, where I argue the opposite. In this post, I would like to respond critically to Professor Daly’s interesting and provocative arguments. I first recap my position on the matter. Then, I review Professor Daly’s arguments, and respond in turn. In whole, I remain convinced that Doré is inconsistent with Vavilov. Specifically, I disagree with Professor Daly that the presumption of reasonableness applies to Charter issues arising in the scope of administrative jurisdiction. Moreover, I disagree that Vavilov’s articulation of reasonableness review is functionally similar to Doré’s. As it turns out, these disagreements matter for the continued propriety of Doré post-Vavilov.

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As I wrote in both my paper and post on the matter, there are key tensions between Vavilov and Doré  that deserve some attention.

These tensions arise with respect to both selecting and applying the standard of review. On the selection front, Doré  reasonableness is based on a functionalist idea, where the expertise of decision-makers in deciding constitutional matters is presumed (see Doré , at para 46). This justified the selection of a reasonableness standard of review when an administrative decision is challenged as unconstitutional—even though a correctness standard applies when a statute under which an administrator may operate is challenged (see Vavilov, at para 57).   However, Vavilov resiled from this presumptive stance on ordinary questions of law, instead rooting the presumption of reasonableness review on the fact of delegation, not expertise (see Vavilov, at para 30). This, to my mind, illustrates an inconsistency: why would a court presume expertise on constitutional matters, but not on ordinary legal interpretation (the stuff of Vavilov)?

On the application front, I argued that Vavilov probably introduced stricter reasonableness review than the sort of reasonableness review envisioned in Doré and later represented in its progeny (for example, TWU). This is because there are aspects of Vavilov that are more formalist: for example, the focus on the statute as the “most salient aspect” of the legal context relevant to judicial review (Vavilov, at para 108). Transposed into the Doré  context, this might mean that decision-makers should focus on the existing constitutional text instead of abstract values. I also admitted in my paper that Vavilov isn’t just one thing—there is a focus on developing a “culture of justification” in administrative decision-making (see Vavilov, at para 2; The Conceptual Gap, at 13-14). But even this is inconsistent with Doré , which said very little about the sorts of reasons required in a constitutional context; in fact, no guidance was given in Doré  at all, except to say that decision-makers should balance “the Charter values with the statutory objectives” (Doré , at para 55). Contrast this with Vavilov’s detailed approach to reasons-giving, and we see not only an inconsistency, but a schism.

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Not so fast, says Professor Daly. For him, when it comes to both selecting and applying the standard of review, there are no great tensions between Vavilov and Doré.  Indeed, for Professor Daly, “…Doré  emerges strengthened from Vavilov, not weakened.” This is because “…the excision of expertise from the process of selecting the standard of review means that the presumption of reasonableness review certainly applies to Charter issues.” Vavilov indeed does draw a distinction between “merits” review, under which reasonableness presumptively applies, and issues of procedural fairness (see Vavilov, at para 23). If this is the case, expertise no longer matters one way or another to determining the standard of review. Professor Daly further argues that the exercise of discretion implicating constitutional matters is different than pure challenges to statutes under the Charter. In the latter case, uniformity is required, on Vavilov’s own terms. But in the former case: “…answers can legitimately vary as between different regulatory regimes: for example, what is a proportionate restraint on freedom of expression in the workplace may not be proportionate in a municipal election campaign…”

When it comes to applying the standard of review, Professor Daly notes that “[t]here is nothing formalist about the detailed articulation of reasonableness in Part III of Vavilov” (though he goes on to concede that “[s]ome components of Vavilovian reasonableness review can fairly be described as formalist or Diceyan”). He concludes that “[a]dministrative decision-makers can continue to contribute to our collective understanding of the Charter in its application to particular regulatory settings.”

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While I will note areas of agreement, I must strenuously disagree with much of what Professor Daly says about Doré in light of Vavilov, when it comes to selecting the standard of review. The core disagreement between our positions lies in how far each of us would extend the presumption of reasonableness. For Professor Daly, the presumption applies to Doré -type issues. But for me, the presumption of reasonableness outlined in Vavilov must necessarily exclude Doré -type issues. This is for two reasons. First, the presumption, rooted in legislative intent, cannot apply to Charter issues—the legislature cannot intend anything with respect to the depth of scrutiny used by a reviewing court on constitutional matters. Second, the standard of review applied to Charter issues should not depend on the context in which these issues are raised: either way, the Constitution is a fundamental constraint on government actors, requiring uniform interpretation by the courts.

Let’s begin with the first argument by reviewing the conceptual basis for the presumption of reasonableness. As the Court notes in Vavilov, the presumption of reasonableness review is based on the “very fact that the legislature has chosen to delegate authority…” (Vavilov, at para 30). In other words, “[t]he presumption of reasonableness review…is intended to give effect to the legislature’s choice to leave certain matters with administrative decision makers rather than the courts” (Vavilov, at para 33). Legislative intent guides the presumption of reasonableness review, at least on ordinary questions of law. The fiction being deployed here is that the legislature intended deference when it delegated authority to an administrative decision-maker.

While it might be defensible to suggest that a legislature intends deference when it delegates (though such a suggestion itself requires a leap of logic that some might find implausible), it is another thing altogether to impute to the legislature an intent to defer on constitutional matters. This is because  legislatures cannot meaningfully alter the depth of constitutional scrutiny afforded its own enactments by courts. Such alteration would strike at the core of powers exercised by judicial review court. Specifically, the Supreme Court has held that legislatures do not have the ability to “limit judicial review of constitutionality” (see Amax Potash Ltd Etc v The Government of Saskatchewan, [1977] 2 SCR 576, which was rendered in the context of a division of powers case, but with comments equally applicable to Charter issues). Vavilov alludes to this limitation more specifically. It says that legislatures can only specify the standard of review “within the limits imposed by the rule of law” (Vavilov, at para 35). The Rule of Law includes “constitutional questions” which include challenges to statutes on division of powers and Charter grounds. On these questions, correctness rules the day, and the legislature’s intent is of no moment.

Is the same true for exercises of administrative discretion implicating the Charter? It should be, because the legislature cannot do indirectly what it cannot do directly. The legislature should not be able to escape the full scrutiny of the courts under the Constitution simply by delegating. An adjunct to this principle was set out in Eldridge, at para 42, in the context of Charter applicability. There, La Forest J, relying on his decision in McKinney, noted that legislatures should not be able to evade Charter responsibility by simply delegating power. While this decision was rendered in terms of Charter applicability, the same principle applies to questions of standard of review. The level of scrutiny applied by the Court should not differ depending on whether the legislature decides to delegate. Put differently, courts should not impute to the legislature an intent to alter the status quo ante of correctness review simply through the act of delegation.

Put this way, if we cannot speak of a legislative intent to defer on constitutional matters regarding statutes, the same is true on matters arising in administrative jurisdiction. Applying the Vavilov presumption to these questions would mean that we can implicitly conclude that the legislature intended deference on these constitutional matters. But for the reasons above, if we apply the same rules to administrative discretion implicating the Charter, then we cannot speak of a legislative intent on these matters either. Put simply: the legislature is constitutionally incapable of possessing an intent when it comes to the standard of review courts apply on constitutional questions, no matter the context in which the questions arise.

This leaves an important question: if the Vavilov presumption does not apply to Dore-type issues, where do these issues fit in the Vavilov framework? In my view, Doré -type questions involve the Rule of Law, warranting correctness review, as described in Vavilov. While Professor Daly notes that challenges to administrative discretion may admit of more than one answer, one must remember that we are speaking of the Constitution’s protections, not of the ability of administrators to have more lee-way in the context of their regulatory regimes. These issues are still constitutional questions that require a uniform interpretation by the courts, even if the issues arise in challenges to administrative discretion. In fact, the power of judicial review exercised in constitutional and administrative contexts derives from the same source. As Justice Beetz noted in Syndicat des employes de production du Quebec:

              Furthermore, I do not see why different rules would be applied in this regard depending on whether it concerns judicial review of an administrative or quasi-judicial jurisdiction, or judicial review of legislative authority over constitutional matters. When the courts of law have to rule on the validity of a statute, so far as I know they do not ask whether Parliament or the legislature has expressly or by implication given ss. 91  and 92  of the Constitution Act, 1867  an interpretation which is not patently unreasonable. Why would they act differently in the case of judicial review of the jurisdiction of administrative tribunals? The power of review of the courts of law has the same historic basis in both cases, and in both cases it relates to the same principles, the supremacy of the Constitution or of the law, of which the courts are the guardians (at 443-444).

Putting aside the old administrative law language of “jurisdiction” and the fact that we currently accept reasonableness review on the merits, there is an overall point here the bears repeating: even if a constitutional issue arises in administrative proceedings, it is the same power of judicial review that is exercised by a court when it reviews statutes for their constitutionality. The role of the courts should be the same in each context: as guardians of the Constitution, courts must render uniform interpretations of the Charter, even in cases of administrative discretion.

Relatedly, there is also an important perspective to consider here: that of the holder of the right. How does one explain to her that her right means something different because an administrator made the decision? How does a Court conclude that the Constitution’s meaning could potentially be different—not for reasons of text, precedent, or structure—but because the procedural trappings of a case happen, fortuitously, to be different? Administrative exigency is no excuse—or at least, not a good one—to limit one’s Charter rights.  (see, for more on the arbitrariness of Doré, Evan Fox-Decent and Alexander Pless, “The Charter and Administrative Law: Cross-Fertilization or Inconstancy?” in Lorne Sossin & Colleen Flood, eds, Administrative Law in Context (Toronto: Emond Montgomery, 2012) at 431).

Professor Daly might respond that the Constitution could mean different things in regulatory contexts.  But this point seems to view the matter from the wrong perspective. The question is not what makes the most sense for administrators given the different contexts that they render decisions. The question, instead, is whether there is some principled reason, besides administrative exigency, for a lower standard of scrutiny to be deployed when reviewing administrative decisions under the Charter. As I’ve written before, doctrine should not “require the weakening of constitutional norms to suit the prerogative of administrative decision-making.”

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With my remaining space, I’d like to turn to the issue of applying the reasonableness standard. Here, I agree with much of what Professor Daly says. As he notes, and as I argue in my paper, there are tensions in Vavilov’s articulation of reasonableness review (see the Conceptual Gap, at 15). I acknowledge, specifically, that aspects of Vavilov reasonableness may have a Diceyan quality to them, while other parts of Vavilov are more designed to encourage space for decision-makers to justify their decisions to the public (Vavilov, at para 14). Other aspects of Vavilov are not formalist at all—for example, the recognition that administrative justice need not look like judicial justice (Vavilov, at para 92). On this, I think there is agreement.

But this does not change the fact that there are aspects of Vavilovian review that are decidedly formalist, and which conflict with Doré on its own terms. Recall that the governing statutory scheme will be the most salient aspect of the legal context relevant to judicial review (Vavilov, at para 108), with the principles of statutory interpretation acting as necessary constraints on decision-makers. As noted above, if we transposed this requirement into the constitutional context, we would expect the Constitution—specifically, its text—to be even more fundamental than statutes, to the extent that decision-makers must always consider the Charter within their scope of discretion (Doré , at para 35; Slaight Communications, at 1077-1078). As I note in my paper:

Recall that Vavilov, in the context of legislative interpretation by administrators, asked decision-makers to focus on a number of “constraints” that would determine whether a particular decision is reasonable or not. Some of these constraints are particularly relevant to the constitutional context. For example, in the context of assessing the reasonableness of a decisionmaker’s constitutional conclusions, Vavilov’s focus on the “governing statutory scheme” could easily simply be rebranded as the governing constitutional text; precedent, in both contexts, would be relevant; and the principles of statutory interpretation emphasized in Vavilov could become the principles of constitutional interpretation in the Doré context. Additionally, the Court could impose explicit reasoning requirements on all of these constraints; where they are in play, decision-makers should reason in relation to them, just as the Court asked decision-makers to reason respecting the Vavilov constraints (The Conceptual Gap, at 26).

And more specifically, the exercise of discretion under the Charter still requires justification. This was not alluded to in Doré, and yet Vavilov centres the entire edifice of reasonableness review on this principle. Justification, for example, requires the consideration of “…the perspective of the individual or party over whom authority is being exercised” (Vavilov, at para 133). Where rights and interests are stake, one must assume that the standard must be something more than being “alive” to the Charter issues at stake, as the majority concluded in TWU. While I acknowledge that TWU was a law society case, where reasons take on a different character, I must note the dissent’s point of view in TWU. Arguably, the dissent’s comment is more in line with what Vavilov requires:

While the Benchers may not have had a duty to provide formal reasons…the rationale for deference under Doré —expertise in applying the Charter to a specific set of facts…–requires more engagement and consideration from an administrative decision-maker than simply being “alive to the issues,” whatever that may mean… (TWU, at para 294).

In sum, I continue to believe, despite Professor Daly’s strong arguments, that Doré  is vulnerable to attack after Vavilov. While I would be prepared to make arguments that attack Doré  head-on, there is value in comparing Vavilov to Doré. Far from emerging strengthened, I continue to hold the view that Doré requires assimilation to the Vavilov framework. But I part ways with Professor Daly on precisely how this is done.

The Life and Times of Patent Unreasonableness

Post-Vavilov, can a legislature freely specify the standard of review? The answer seems obvious. Legislation overrides the common law, so as the Vavilov majority states, “…where the legislature has indicated the applicable standard of review, courts are bound to respect that designation, within the limits imposed by the rule of law” (Vavilov, at para 35).

In most cases, this clear language of the Court will be dispositive. Clearly, where the legislature specifies a standard of review (as opposed to a ground of review—see Khosa), it must be given effect. However, there are niche issues to consider. For example, what about standards of review that have defined statutory or common law meanings? Such a term, for example, is the patent unreasonableness standard, a standard of review that typified the “pragmatic and functional” era in administrative law, and that was put to bed in Dunsmuir. Patent unreasonableness still has some play in the BC Administrative Tribunals Act and in the Ontario Human Rights Code (s.45.8) in relation to decisions by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. How affected is the patent unreasonableness standard by Vavilov?

In this post, I want to explore the status of patent unreasonableness post-Vavilov. First, I want to suggest that patent unreasonableness, as a statutory standard of review, is a distinct standard that should be respected post-Vavilov as an instantiation of legislative intent, absent constitutional constraints. I then turn to ask whether such constraints are present, either because of Vavilov or otherwise. As I will note, there are constitutional issues with patent unreasonableness on questions of law that can be framed in various ways. I conclude by noting that patent unreasonableness may be an unconstitutional standard of review.

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Patent unreasonableness, as a standard of review, originally had a common law meaning, as set out in CUPE v New Brunswick (see Dunsmuir, at para 35). In addition to the standards of review of reasonableness simpliciter and correctness, patent unreasonableness was the most deferential standard of review. Patent unreasonableness refers to the “immediacy” or “obviousness” of the defect in a decision-maker’s decision (see Southam, at para 57; Dunsmuir, at para 37). In order for a decision to be found patently unreasonable, the decision must be immediate and obvious (this reminds me of the old ground of an “error on the face of the record). This is the distinguishing factor between the previous distinction between “reasonableness simpliciter” and “patent unreasonableness.”

In Dunsmuir, of course, the Court did away with this distinction, deciding that patent unreasonableness was no longer an available standard of review. The Court reasoned (1) that the distinction between patent unreasonableness and reasonableness was largely illusory (Dunsmuir, at para 41) and (2) that patent unreasonableness might require a a court to accept a decision that is irrational, simply because the error isn’t clear enough—this presents Rule of Law issues (see Dunsmuir, at para 42).

That said, patent unreasonableness as a statutory standard of review remains in some contexts. The BC Administrative Tribunals Act, for example, prescribes a standard of patent unreasonableness where the statute contains a privative clause (section 58(1)). In Ontario, the Human Rights Code, as noted above, prescribes a standard of patent unreasonableness—though the Ontario courts have interpreted this provision as only requiring reasonableness review, in light of Dunsmuir (see Shaw v Phipps ONCA, at para 10). The Supreme Court has held that the standard of patent unreasonableness in this context has a distinct meaning, “but the content of the expression, and the precise degree of deference it commands in the diverse circumstances of a large provincial administration, will necessarily continue to be calibrated according to general principles of administrative law” (Khosa, at para 19).

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The first issue with patent unreasonableness raises the question of how far the common law analysis set out in Vavilov can go to alter the standard of patent unreasonableness, given the comments in Khosa. BC courts have split on the issue. As I have blogged about before, in College of New Caledonia, the Court concluded that “Vavilov has not changed the law with respect to the meaning of patent unreasonableness under [the BC ATA]” (College of New Caledonia, at para 33). Meanwhile, in Guevara v Louie, the BCSC concluded that Vavilov’s comments on the reasonableness standard “also apply to a review of reasons on the standard of patent unreasonableness” because common law jurisprudence may impact what constitutes a patently unreasonable decision (Guevara v Louie, at para 48).

Generally, I am of the view that patent unreasonableness as a standard, if prescribed by the relevant legislature, must remain as distinct as possible. This is because the selection of patent unreasonableness—either as defined by the legislature explicitly or by the common law, as incorporated by legislation—is a distinct choice by the legislature that should be respect. The legislature clearly could not have intended that patent unreasonableness would be modified by Vavilov. So, as much as possible—in order to respect legislative choice—patent unreasonableness should be considered a distinct legislative standard.

Of course, this does not rule out the influence of the common law. In the BC ATA, patent unreasonableness is largely defined by grounds that resemble abuse of discretion—here, the common law cannot play much of a role, because patent unreasonableness has been defined clearly by the legislature. But in the Ontario Human Rights Code, patent unreasonableness is not defined. Here, the common law definition of patent unreasonableness—as it existed at the time of enactment—can supplement the legislative term. In such cases, the benchmark for patent unreasonableness may draw limited inspiration from Vavilov. But to say that Vavilov turns patent unreasonableness into a wholly different standard is a different matter altogether; one that, to my mind, disrespects the legislative choice to enact a more deferential standard of review. To my mind, College of New Caledonia gets this basically correct.

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If patent unreasonableness is a distinctive standard, then the question becomes: is it a constitutional standard of review on questions of law? To be sure, issues regarding the constitutionality of various standards of review are not often explored in Canadian administrative law. In Quebec, however, the constitutionality of the Court of Quebec applying deferential standards of review is an issue that will be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada soon. This indicates that the constitutionality of particular standards—especially those prescribed in legislation—might be an important issue going forward. In my view, there are two such potential constitutional issues with the patent unreasonableness standard. First, the Rule of Law—as conceived in Vavilov—could be a fetter on the legislature’s choice to prescribe a patent unreasonableness standard of review. Second, s.96 could itself found a challenge to the patent unreasonableness standard. In whole, I find this latter challenge more convincing.

First, Vavilov’s comments on the Rule of Law present a challenge to the imposition of a patent unreasonableness standard on questions of law. Recall that, in Dunsmuir, the Court (in a throwaway line, mind you) reasoned that patent unreasonableness presents rule of law issues, because it could shelter otherwise illegal decisions from review. Indeed, as noted above, the Ontario courts have taken these concerns to heart. They have read the “patent unreasonableness” standard in the Human Rights Code as merely demanding “reasonableness” review (see Intercounty Tennis Association, at para 45). In Intercounty Tennis Association, the Court relied on Vavilov’s Rule of Law comments (at para 43, saying that the legislature’s standard of review choice must be respected “within the limits imposed by the rule of law”) to reach this conclusion:

[44] As set out above, returning to an era where “patent unreasonableness” is given a meaning beyond “reasonableness” does raise rule of law concerns – namely, the fact that an irrational decision is allowed to stand because its irrationality is not “clear” or “obvious” enough.

I am sympathetic to these Rule of Law concerns. But there is a preliminary question that must first be answered: does the Rule of Law have substantive force, such that it can bind the choice of legislatures within its limits?

Of course, the Court has previously held that the Rule of Law cannot be used to attack the content of legislation (Imperial Tobacco, at para 59). But as Leonid Sirota notes, there might be valid reasons to distinguish Imperial Tobacco. And at the very least, Vavilov’s comments on the Rule of Law, particularly the comment that legislatures can specify the standard of review within the limits imposed by the Rule of Law, seem to suggest that the Rule of Law, as a principle, will set the boundaries for the standards the legislation can choose.

The other way to view the issue is that Vavilov merely spoke to the common law standard of review analysis. That is, the Rule of Law, within the common law analysis, can impact the court’s choice of a standard of review. But once the legislature legislates, the common law analysis—including the comments on the Rule of Law—cease to apply.

I must admit that, at first, I was drawn by this common law angle. But how does one square the Court’s comments, then, about the limits imposed by the Rule of Law? I can’t seem to reconcile these comments, to be frank. They seem to suggest that the Rule of Law will impose limits on the legislature’s selection of the relevant standard of review. Given that this is likely the case, it would seem to suggest that the Rule of Law does have substantive content, contrary to Imperial Tobacco.

I think a preferable interpretation, rather than relying on a potentially limitless unwritten constitutional principle, is one rooted in s.96 of the Constitution Act, 1867. That is, s.96 has developed such that the role of the superior courts in policing the boundaries of administrative action is constitutionally guaranteed, especially on questions of law: see Crevier. Patent unreasonableness, as a statutory standard, is one that impacts this supervisory function of the superior courts—it requires a court, having identified an error, to measure whether it is “obvious” enough to warrant intervention. This means that certain errors—even material ones—will be allowed to stand . In Quebec, this issue is currently being litigated with respect to the Court of Quebec and the potential requirement of “double deference’”—which has the effect of sheltering illegal decisions from review. This clearly impacts the reviewing function of the Court. In this respect, patent unreasonableness could be unconstitutional because it requires courts to simply ignore errors that otherwise arise.

In light of this conclusion, the question then arises: what do courts do with this when faced with a ptent unreasonableness standard? One could imagine two scenarios. First, one can take the Ontario court’s position, which is to say, a position rooted in constitutional avoidance: read patent unreasonableness to simply mean something else. Another option is to simply strike the legislation prescribing patent unreasonableness, either pursuant to the Rule of Law or under s.96. I think constitutional avoidance in this context is not a sound idea, because as I said earlier, patent unreasonableness can have a distinct meaning if set out in statute (like the BC ATA) and otherwise draws inspiration from the common law definition of patent unreasonableness. This takes “avoidance” too far—avoidance is typically only feasible when a term is ambiguous and there are two plausible meanings one could take of the view. But here, patent unreasonableness is, to my mind, not necessarily ambiguous—though its contours may be hazy.

In my view, we must deal with any constitutional problem faced by patent unreasonableness head on. In my view–and holding my tongue as much as possible in light of the Quebec case on deference–the patent unreasonableness standard has the potential to shelter material errors of administrative actors from judicial scrutiny. This, on an understanding of s.96, is unconstitutional.

Put differently, I think the best way to approach the patent unreasonableness standard, post-Vavilov, is to simply conclude that it is unconstitutional because it minimizes and restricts the reviewing role of the courts. I do not expect anyone to actually pick up this argument—but I think it is a fair point to make in light of that standard. Overall, though, the question of patent unreasonableness will continue to grip courts in jurisdictions where the standard is relevant. This post is designed to provide a toolbox of arguments as litigants and courts deal with this question.

The Nero Post: Two Niche Issues in Judicial Review Post-Vavilov

Lest I be accused of fiddling while Rome burns, I wish to note that I approach a pandemic as a time in which we must, subject to social distancing and isolation, proceed as normal as much as possible. Indeed, it is this sense of normalcy that should characterize what we do as much as possible. Because eventually, we will return to a sense of normal; and once we do so, we need to be equipped to handle the new world in which we will experience. Surely, life will be different. But we must be ready to tackle those challenges, and so we can’t close the door on the world. Life must, to the extent possible, go on.

In that spirit, I write today’s post, tackling two niche issues in the law of judicial review, post-Vavilov: the scope of the correctness categories, particularly the “general questions” category, and the effect of Vavilov on the BC Administrative Tribunals Act.

Let’s start first with the general questions category. As a reminder, Vavilov amended this category, a hold-over from Dunsmuir, to exclude considerations of expertise (Vavilov, at para 61). Now, the category reads as “general questions of law of central importance to the legal system as a whole.” If a question falls in this category, it will be subject to correctness review by the reviewing court. The logic behind this category is that certain questions transcend particular administrative regimes and require consistent answers from the reviewing court (Vavilov, at para 59). But the Court, in Vavilov, cautioned against an expansion of this category: questions that merely address issues of wider public concern do not fall in this category, and the simple fact that a question might be “important” in an abstract sense does not satisfy the category. In short, this category is not a “broad catch-all category for correctness review” (Vavilov, at para 61). Indeed, of all the questions so far recognized by the Supreme Court as falling into this category, all have had constitutional dimensions transcending the boundaries of a particular statutory scheme (see Justice David Stratas’ work, here, at pg 37).

Post-Vavilov, courts have largely heeded the call to interpret this category narrowly. For example, in Bank of Montreal v Li, the Federal Court of Appeal held that the issue of waiver of statutory entitlements was not an issue of general importance. The Court held that there was “no constitutional dimension to the question of whether an employee can contract out of a specific provision of a statute” and that the answer to the question posed “will not have legal implications for a wide variety of other statutes” (Li, at para 28). The Court again cautioned that this category is narrowly construed.

Similarly, in Beach Place Ventures, the BCSC also rejected the invitation to label a question as a general question of central importance. The controversy in that case involved whether certain complainants were “employees” under the Employment Standards Act [ESA]. The Court rejected the invitation to characterize this question as one of general importance. While the Court agreed that “what constitutes ‘employment’ is an important societal question,” the employee determination is one cabined by “statutory provisions rather than left to general principles of law” (Beach Ventures, at para 33). Put differently, the employee determination is one that is particular to the ESA, and the fact that the legislature chose to vest this question in the ESA was determinative for the Court.

But there has been at least one case where general questions were recognized. Take College of Physicians and Surgeons v SJO, where the issue was the production of documents in the context of a professional conduct investigation. The subject of the complaint raised an issue of privilege. The Court held that correctness should apply to this question, because “the way the disclosure and production issue has been raised here impacts in a broad way on the operation of the professional regulatory system” (SJO, at para 10).

Overall, I would say that the ground has largely stayed the same post-Vavilov on this ground of questions. Of the three cases cited above, two have recognized that this category is not a broad way to invite the application of the correctness standard. The only case that has recognized such a question, SJO, largely does so on solid ground: indeed, the Supreme Court has already noted that solicitor client privilege is a general question of central importance (see University of Calgary, at para 20). While SJO did not involve solicitor client privilege, it is only a hop, skip, and a jump from solicitor client privilege to other forms of privilege, even those not currently recognized at law. Indeed, the form of privilege asserted by the subject of the investigation in SJO was not recognized at law, but could impact other claims of privilege across the professional regulatory system. This, as I see it, is at least facially supported by existing Supreme Court precedent.

Overall, though, there has been little movement on this ground. And I think this is for the best. The central questions category is one that preserves the Rule of Law, but if it is used liberally, it could eat away at duly-delegated authority over certain questions. In this sense, I see the warning in Beach Place Ventures as apposite: a liberal application of the central questions category arrogates greater power to the courts to overturn decisions that, at least facially, have been delegated to administrative decision-makers. In the ordinary course, the scope of power delegated to a decision-maker, discernible through the ordinary rules of interpretation, should dictate the space available to a decision-maker—the level of deference (see Vavilov, at para 90 for a similar approach in which statutes, among other things, constrain a decision-maker). The ready imposition of an artificial correctness category risks upsetting this ordinary task. While this category should obviously exist, it must be left for questions with truly transcendental impact.

The second issue: the impact of Vavilov on the BC ATA. So far, there are duelling cases out of the BCSC that deal with this issue. In College of New Caledonia, the Court concluded that “Vavilov has not changed the law with respect to the meaning of patent unreasonableness under [the BC ATA]” (College of New Caledonia, at para 33). Meanwhile, in Guevara v Louie, the BCSC concluded that Vavilov’s comments on the reasonableness standard “also apply to a review of reasons on the standard of patent unreasonableness” because common law jurisprudence may impact what constitutes a patently unreasonable decision (Guevara v Louie, at para 48).

Of course, this is a classic problem: what role does the common law play in elucidating statutory guarantees? The Guevara Court cited to Khosa, at para 19, where the Court did say that patent unreasonableness in BC will be interpreted in light of general common law principles of administrative law. But this passage, in my view, should not be taken so far. While patent unreasonableness may receive limited inspiration from common law principles, it is also a distinct standard of review that differs from reasonableness as defined by the Supreme Court. Its distinctiveness comes from the fact that it is a statutory standard of review. As recently confirmed in Vavilov, legislated standards of review such as the patent unreasonableness standard should be given effect (Vavilov, at paras 35-36). This is simply a function of the hierarchy of laws; statutes (explicitly or by necessary implication) trump the common law. The common law cannot override the statutory standard, and I fear that is what happened in Guevara, and what a liberal application of Khosa would entail (just another reason to disfavour Khosa).

Overall, these two niche issues in judicial review will continue to be fleshed out in lower courts. For now, sit back, quarantine, and stay strong.