The Tragedy of Lord Sumption

Thoughts on Lord Sumption’s views on the relationship between law and politics

In my last post, I summarized at length Lord Sumption’s Reith Lectures, delivered earlier this year. As I noted there, Lord Sumption’s views on politics, law, and the relationship between the two are challenging ― especially, but by no means only, to those of us who support judicial review of legislation. Here, I would like to explain why I think there is much truth in what Lord Sumption says, but also to point out the weaknesses and even contradictions in his claims.

By way of reminder, Lord Sumption begins by arguing that the domain of law has been expanding for the last two hundred years, as people have (once again) turned to the state as the provider of physical and economic security and moral certainty. But this expansion has brought with it concerns that the state’s power reaches too far. Representative politics can help mitigate these concerns by generating compromise and accommodation between majorities and minorities. Yet as politics loses its lustre, people turn to law to control the outcomes politics produces. Law promises (and sometimes delivers) principled decision-making, but it does so at the cost of compromise and accommodation and thus, ultimately, legitimacy. The courts end up creating and defining new constraints on politics, and there is little to choose between such constraints being undemocratically imposed in the name of liberalism or of some other ideology. Moreover, in the long run, politics, with its capacity to legitimate limitations on state power provides better security for rights than the law. Yet politics is ailing. Constitutional reform, and especially constitutional entrenchment, will not save it. If democracy is hollowed out, Lord Sumption grimly concludes, we will not notice, “and the fault will be ours”. (V/7; NB: I will use roman numerals to designate the lecture, and arabic ones for the page in the transcript; links to individual transcripts are in the previous post.)


Significant parts of Lord Sumption’s argument run along the lines drawn by Jeremy Waldron, notably in “The Core of the Case against Judicial Review”. The emphasis on the importance of disagreement and the preference for settling disagreement about rights through the political process, in part because it is more egalitarian than adjudication, sound Waldronian. The skepticism about the capacity of judges, or indeed of anyone else, to find out the truth of the matter about moral issues, is Waldronian too. Lord Sumption does not mention Professor Waldron, or indeed any thinker more contemporary that A.V. Dicey, so it’s not quite clear whether how direct Professor Waldron’s influence on him is. However, original or not, these points are important and bear repetition.

Lord Sumption’s critique of the undemocratic character of “dynamic treaties” ― or, I would add, any constitutional documents interpreted as “living instruments” ― builds on these arguments. He focuses on the judicial creation of rights on the basis that “a modern democracy ought to have” (III/3) them ― or, in other words, of what I have been calling “constitutionalism from the cave” ― as qualitatively different from mere application of fixed texts to new facts. Readers will not be surprised to learn that this strikes me as compelling. Lord Sumption’s argument tracks public meaning originalist views, a point to which I will return, but since he does not disclose his influences, I don’t know whether he is at all interested in originalist theory. It is worth noting that, in a later lecture on “Judicial Review and Judicial Supremacy“, Professor Waldron too has focused on living constitutionalism, and specifically the claim that a constitutional court is entitled “to develop new views about (what the court thinks) the constitution ought to have forbidden (though it did not) and to act on these views” (40) as especially problematic.

One additional point on which Lord Sumption echoes that lecture of Professor Waldron is the rejection of comprehensive systems of values as suitable objects for judicial enforcement. Professor Waldron does not want judges to “begin to think of themselves and present themselves as pursuing a coherent program or policy rather just responding to” (27) individual violations of the constitution that happen from time to time. Lord Sumption’s forceful rejection of values systems ― which he equates with one another for this purpose, so that entrenchment and judicial enforcement of a liberal dogma is, in a sense, no different from that of “Islamic political theology or the dictatorship of the proletariat” (IV/4) ― seems to reflect this concern. If asked to take judicial review of legislation as a given, as Professor Waldron does in the “Judicial Supremacy” lecture, Lord Sumption would also urge a piecemeal rather than a systematic approach as the more modest one.


But Lord Sumption’s argument is not simply a reprise of Professor Waldron’s. What makes him interesting, and challenging not just for supporters of judicial review of legislation but also for critics, is that his vision of politics is a gloomy one. Those who have misgivings about judicial review, including Professor Waldron or, to take a couple of Canadian examples, Chief Justice Glenn Joyal of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench in a lecture on “The Charter and Canada’s New Political Culture” and Joanna Baron and Geoffrey Sigalet in a Policy Options post earlier this year, tend to be fairly optimistic about democratic politics. Professor Waldron, especially in “The Core of the Case”, thinks that democratic majorities will protect rights about as well as courts, although in later work he has recognized that some minorities (such as criminal suspects) might end up being routinely shortchanged by the democratic process. He has also forcefully criticized the views of those who equate the Rule of Law with the protection of property and contract rights and, on this basis, are skeptical of social legislation and the welfare state. Chief Justice Joyal, for his part, has extolled “bold” and

“purposeful” governance … expected to include and achieve … the realization of big and bold federal and provincial objectives [and] to assist in the accommodation and brokering of … diverse and conflicting interests underlying the various societal ills and problems. 

Accommodation and compromise are the best outcomes that Lord Sumption sees democratic politics produce. “Bold” and “purposeful” governance? He seems pretty skeptical. It is not just that he sees and laments the decline in the authority of political institutions ― Chief Justice Joyal saw and lamented that too. More interestingly, I take Lord Sumption to raise the possibility that, even when it functions well, democratic politics is dangerous.

Much of Lord Sumption’s first lecture is devoted to establishing this proposition. Pointing out “rising demands of the State as a provider of amenities, as a guarantor of minimum standards of security and as a regulator of economic activity” (I/4), as well the voters’ tendency to be “afraid to let people be guided by their own moral judgments in case they arrive at judgments which we do not agree with”, (I/6) he seems to echo Lord Acton’s prescient warning, in the Lectures on Modern History, about seeing the “[g]overnment [as] the intellectual guide of the nation, the promoter of wealth, the teacher of knowledge, the guardian of morality, the mainspring of the ascending movement of man”, (289) though again he does not refer to Acton or to any other source. Lord Sumption’s concern at the far-reaching and unrealistic expectations that people have of government and government’s tendency to restrict liberty to try to meet these expectations points to an ineradicable flaw of democracy.

What is more, at times, Lord Sumption seems to accept that certain rights are could appropriately be entrenched beyond the reach of democratic politics. He mentions, repeatedly, rights not to have one’s life, liberty, or property interfered with arbitrarily or without the ability to challenge the interference in court, as well as democratic rights. At other times, admittedly, Lord Sumption seems to say that, in the United Kingdom anyway, an entrenched constitution ― even, it might seem, one limited to protecting these rights, would be inappropriate. This contradiction is never fully resolved, although perhaps what Lord Sumption means is that a narrowly drawn constitution protecting these rights is theoretically desirable, but does not offer sufficient benefits to be worth the dislocation that would occur if it were to be enacted in the UK. Be that as it may, Lord Sumption’s nods in the direction of a limited entrenched constitution and his support for a fairly robust version of the principle of legality ― including in cases like R (Unison) v Lord Chancellor [2017] UKSC 51, which others have criticized as impinging on Parliamentary sovereignty ― suggest concern at what democratic institutions, if left unchecked, might do to important rights and constitutional principles.

This is what prompts me to see Lord Sumption’s vision of law and politics as tragic. He doesn’t have much hope for law, and says we must trust in politics, but his “praise of politics”, to borrow the title of his second lecture, is damningly faint. If all goes as well as it might, he says, we’ll keep muddling through, and not oppress too many people while lurching between overbearing optimism and fretful censoriousness. And perhaps, all will not go so well, although we will not even notice.


Is this the best we can do? I do not want to give quite so easily, and so I would like to try to rescue law, and perhaps, in a way, even politics, from Lord Sumption’s critique. This is almost a matter of necessity: after all, Lord Sumption himself thinks that some measure of entrenchment may well be justified, or at least excusable, and between that and his admonition to avoid dislocating established and functioning constitutional orders, those of us living in polities with entrenched constitutions should probably try to make them work before thinking about abolishing them. Moreover, even if we agree with Lord Sumption that entrenching rights is a bad idea, we still need to think about structural features of constitutions, to which Lord Sumption pays almost no attention. (This is another element of his thinking that he shares with Professor Waldron.) And besides, I am as worried as Lord Sumption by the overbearing, illiberal tendencies of contemporary democracy, and less willing to resign myself to them.

One question that needs to be asked is whether attempts to impose legal constraints on government are necessarily bound to degenerate into living constitutionalist creation of unwarranted constraints by the courts. Lord Sumption seems to think so. He implicitly accepts the living constitutionalist view that constitutional terms such as “due process of law” have no fixed meanings, and that adjudication based on such terms is inevitably going to answer the question not “whether the right exists but whether it ought to exist”. (IV/5) And, to be sure, there is no shortage of living constitutionalists who agree with him, from the hosts of the Stereo Decisis podcast to Supreme Court judges giving constitutional benediction to rights they invent. As I have suggested here,

if constitutional disputes can only be decided by reference to what are political rather than legal considerations, then it is not obvious, as a normative matter, why they should be decided by the courts rather than by political institutions. 

But while Lord Sumption is right about this, I believe he errs in accepting that adjudication of rights issues must devolve into judicial benediction of rights or ― what is equally non-judicial ― dogmatic deference to legislative choices. In many ― I think in most ― cases, an originalist court that seeks to ascertain the public meaning of constitutional texts, and perhaps to engage in good-faith development of constitutional doctrine based on the texts’ original purposes can actually avoid adjudicating primarily on the basis of its normative priors. As William Baude has pointed out, this requires an effort at self-restraint on the court’s part: the court must accept that its first task is to ascertain the meaning of existing law, without rushing to conclude that this meaning is obscure so as to impose its own views on the parties. But I do not think that such an effort is impossible for courts to undertake. Indeed, even that ostensible champion of living constitutionalism, the Supreme Court Canada, already engages in originalist adjudication, admittedly of varying quality, in a non-negligible number of cases, as I have most recently discussed here.

Emphasizing the importance of constrained, originalist constitutional adjudication ― rather than throwing up our hands and conceding that the courts will do what they please with constitutional texts ― is all the more important because it can help resolve not only cases about fundamental rights but also those dealing with structural aspects of constitutions. Lord Sumption says almost nothing about federalism and separation of powers; to me, the way in which he breezes past them in his discussion of the United States is quite disappointing, a rare moment of incuriosity in an otherwise very thoughtful lecture series. Lord Sumption’s preferred understanding of democracy, as “a constitutional mechanism for arriving at collective decisions and accommodating dissent” (III/7) seems to put structural issues front and centre. And given his sharp comments about the pernicious effects of bypassing the usual parliamentary mechanism in favour of a referendum on Brexit, I think he ought at least to give some thought to the question of whether, quite apart from entrenching rights, the decision-making processes of representative democracy may require robust constitutional safeguards against elected officials inclined to sacrifice them for momentary political advantage.

Ultimately, though, I think that Lord Sumption is too quick to reject the desirability of substantive limits on legislation, as well as to ignore the need for structural safeguards. He thinks that it is not a problem that, under the existing UK constitution, “the limits on what Parliament [or legislatures] can do depend on political conventions [that] derive their force from shared political sentiment which would make it politically costly to disregard them”. (V/2) (The situation is the same under the Canadian constitution except with respect to issues on which the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has something to say.) Yet Lord Sumption gives cogent reasons to think that democratic politics often do not make it costly for Parliament to overreach and overregulate; and, on the contrary, that voters will, in the long run, demand too much conformity and control. These concerns echo those already expressed F.A. Hayek’s, in The Road to Serfdom. They are not new. They should be addressed, if possible, with more than vague hopes of compromise.

Indeed, I also think that Lord Sumption oversells compromise. He is right that one cannot expect to always get what one wants in politics, and that unwillingness to give an inch to partisan opponents one believes to be unprincipled at best, if not outright evil, is a real problem. But surely compromise isn’t valuable on any terms. To say so is only to encourage extremist opening bids by people who will expect us to agree to slightly more moderate versions of their still unreasonable demands in the name of accommodation. (The Québec government’s defence of its anti-religious dress code as moderate is a good example of this.) Compromise is important, but it cannot always be justly expected. As Lord Sumption himself recognizes, there are laws that make civilized coexistence or full membership in a democratic community impossible.


Lord Sumption’s Reith lectures are well worth listening to or reading, and reflecting on. They challenge those of us who support judicial review of legislation with an accessible but powerful restatement of the Waldronian case against that constitutional device and affirmation of the importance of democracy. They challenge Waldronians and other supporters of democratic institutions with a frank and not at all optimistic assessment of these institutions’ output. They are not right about everything ― but, insofar as they are wrong, they are wrong in interesting ways. As I said in introducing my summary of the lectures, I think that incoming law students, in particular, would benefit from engaging with Lord Sumption’s ideas. But so would those with more experience of the law. I am sure I have.

The Fault Will Be Ours

Lord Sumption on politics, law, and the meaning and decline of democracy

A couple of months ago, Jonathan Sumption, former barrister extraordinaire, recently-retired UK Supreme Court judge, and well-regarded historian too, delivered the BBC’s Reith Lectures for this year, speaking on Law and the Decline of Politics. Despite my delay in getting to them, I think they are worth writing about. Lord Sumption’s arguments challenge most if not all of us in one way or another. I expect that those used to the North American way of thinking about constitutional law will find them more uncongenial than many lawyers in the United Kingdom or in New Zealand, but Lord Sumption’s views do not neatly fit into any pre-defined category, and will have something that will force just about anyone to reflect. (I particularly recommend the lectures to any students who are about to start studying law; they are quite accessible, but will give you an excellent preview of many of the debates you will confront in the coming years, and expose you to a way of thinking that is not exactly prevalent in North American law schools.)

In a nutshell, Lord Sumption’s argument is that, as he put it in the first lecture, “Law’s Expanding Empire“,

law does not occupy a world of its own. It is part of a larger system of public decision making. The rest is politics. The politics of ministers and legislators of political parties, of media and pressure groups, and of the wider electorate. (2-3)

The question is, how does law relate to this larger system? What is the place of law vis-à-vis politics? Should it, in particular, be used to control political outcomes and bring them into alignment with some set of substantive values? Lord Sumption wants to caution us against the dangers he says lying in wait if we go down this path. But it is not because he takes an especially optimistic view of politics. In this post, I summarize the five lectures. (It will, I am afraid, be quite long.) I will comment separately.


Lord Sumption’s misgivings appear especially strongly in his first lecture. Law, he says, is an alternative to chaos. But just how much law (and how many lawyers) do we need? Lord Sumption observes that

Until the 19th century, most human interactions were governed by custom and convention. The law dealt with a narrow range of human problems. It regulated title to property, it enforced contracts, it protected people’s lives, their persons, their liberty and their property against arbitrary injury, but that was about all. Today, law penetrates every corner of human life. (3)

It need not be that way. The Rule of Law requires limitation of government power and the protection against interference with life, liberty, and property, as well access to the courts to enforce these limits and protections, but it does not necessarily follow that law needs to be pervasive. Rather, this is something that the voters have chosen, in an ongoing fit of general optimism about the prospects of collective action. Democracy “has inevitably led to rising demands of the State as a provider of amenities, as a guarantor of minimum standards of security and as a regulator of economic activity”. (4)

Moreover, after a retreat over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, “a growing moral and social absolutism … looks to law to produce conformity”. Even when there is no real consensus in the community about what how a particular moral issue ought to be treated,

we resort to law to impose uniform solutions in areas where we once contemplated a diversity of judgment and behaviour. We are afraid to let people be guided by their own moral judgments in case they arrive at judgments which we do not agree with. (6)

It is as if moral judgment, which would have been individual in the past, has increasingly been collectivized. In a growing number of cases, moreover, this judgment has been delegated to the judiciary.

At the same time, there has been a push to take judgments about safety and security away from individuals and hand them over to public authorities, under judicial supervision. As more misfortunes appear preventable, the demands are made for them to be prevented; “we are no longer willing to accept the wheel of fortune as an ordinary incident of human existence”. (7) Yet this is achieved only by “restricting the liberty of the public at large in order to deprive them of the opportunity to harm themselves”. (7)

The result of it all, Lord Sumption says, is the comeback of the Hobbesian Leviathan: “[t]he 17th century may have abolished absolute monarchy but the 20th century created absolute democracy in its place”. (8) And unlike when government was an external, antagonistic force, democratic government “is us”. (8) We both fear and repose our fondest hopes in it.


In his second lecture, “In Praise of Politics“, Lord Sumption asks, “how do we control the potentially oppressive power of democratic majorities without undermining democracy itself?” (2) He focuses on the notion of legitimacy, which he defines as “a collective instinct that we owe it to each other to accept the authority of our institutions, even when we don’t like what they are doing”. (2) Any government, but especially a democratic one, must preserve its legitimacy. Democracy does this by accommodating differences between majorities and minorities, and securing compromises that mean that minorities do not become “permanently disaffected groups [with] no common bonds to transcend their differences with the majority”. (2) This can be done through representative government or through law.

Representative institutions, in contrast to winner-take-all direct democracy, exist in part to accommodate the interests and demands of minorities. They make compromise possible. Building on the thought of James Madison and Edmund Burke, Lord Sumption argues that “political elites have their uses. Professional politicians can fairly be expected to bring to their work a more reflective approach, a broader outlook and a lot more information than their electors”. (3) They are also better placed to further national “collective interests which extend over a longer time scale and a wider geographical range than are ever likely to be reflected in the public opinion of the moment”. (3)

Bypassing the processes of representative government, as was done with the Brexit referendum is dangerous. Compromise becomes impossible, as

52 per cent of voters feel entitled to speak for the whole nation and 48 per cent don’t matter at all. … It is the mentality which has created an unwarranted sense of entitlement among the sort of people who denounce those who disagree with them as enemies, traitors, saboteurs, even Nazis. This is the authentic language of totalitarianism. It is the lowest point to which a political community can sink, short of actual violence.

Lord Sumption warns, however, that disengagement from politics calls into question the ability of the political process to generate compromise and legitimacy. Political parties play an important role in securing the accommodation of various interests in policy-making, but as their membership has declined greatly, they are no longer representative of the broader citizenry, and the candidates whom they put forward are increasingly out of touch with the voters. All this “is, in the long
run, likely to lead to a far more partisan and authoritarian style of political leadership”. (5)

Law, the other barrier to oppressive majorities, has become more important as politics has lost its lustre. The politicians’ authority is waning, but the judges’ is undiminished; indeed it is growing:

Judges are intelligent, reflective and articulate people. They are intellectually honest, by and large. They are used to thinking seriously about problems which have no easy answer and contrary to familiar clichés, they know a great deal about the world. The whole judicial process is animated by a combination of abstract reasoning, social observation and ethical value judgment that seems, to many people, to introduce a higher morality into public decision-making. (5)

The judiciary is now more active than it used to be in policing the actions of other public authorities. It does so, in particular, by enforcing the principle of legality, which Lord Sumption suggests should rather be called “the principle of legitimacy”. The principle is appropriately applied to ensure that Parliament faces the consequences of measures that would amount to, notably, “retrospective legislation, oppression of individuals, obstructing access to a [c]ourt, [or] acts contrary to international law”. However, it can be taken further, and made into a barrier to Parliament acting, even advisedly, in ways the courts simply disagree with.

However much we may agree with the outcomes in particular cases, we should be wary of this empowerment of politically unaccountable institutions. It is not the courts’ function to generate compromise, and therefore legitimacy. The law’s strengths are also its weaknesses:

Law is rational. Law is coherent. Law is analytically consistent and rigorous. But in public affairs these are not always virtues. Opacity, inconsistency and fudge maybe intellectually impure, which is why lawyers don’t like them, but they are often inseparable from the kind of compromises that we have to make as a society if we are going to live together in peace. (7)


Lord Sumption’s third lecture, “Human Rights and Wrongs” focuses on what he describes as “an unfriendly meeting” (1) between law and politics. The idea of fundamental rights is not new; in earlier times it was expressed through the concept of natural rights. The trouble with it, however, is that

[t]o say that rights are inherent in our humanity without law is really no more than rhetoric. It doesn’t get us anywhere unless there is some way of identifying which rights are inherent in our humanity and why, and that is essentially a matter of opinion. (2)

Indeed, “[r]ights … are the creation of law which is a product of social organisation and is therefore, necessarily, a matter of political choice”. (2) How is the choice to be made, how are the differences of opinion to be settled? Appealing to democracy is a problem since the point of rights is to protect people from what democratic majorities might do to them. But what else is there? Neither religion nor ideology work in a democratic society.

Still, there is wide agreement that there are some truly fundamental rights: those having to do with due process of law (though Lord Sumption does not use this label), and democratic rights, such as “freedom of thought and expression, assembly and association, and the right to participate in fair and regular elections”. (3)

Legislators can create further rights, including by subscribing to rights-creating treaties. But what Lord Sumption describes as “dynamic treaties”, such as the European Convention Human Rights (ECHR), as it has been interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights (the Strasbourg Court), whose content keeps being developed by supranational institutions after their implementation in law “escape[] parliamentary control”. (3) As Lord Sumption describes the Strasbourg Court’s jurisprudence, it “develops [the ECHR] by a process of extrapolation or analogy so as to reflect its own view of what additional rights a modern democracy ought to have”. (3) This goes beyond “applying an abstract statement of principle to concrete facts” that weren’t originally anticipated, or giving effect to “concepts … such as the notion of inhuman or degrading treatment [that] plainly do evolve over the time with changes in our collective values”. (4) Such developments are “a form of non-consensual legislation”. (4)

Good or bad, this judicial legislation is controversial; in any case, law should not be made judges, disempowering citizens. In particular, questions about the limitation of rights, the purposes for which it can be undertaken, and the degree to which it is necessary, “are all intensely political … . Yet, the [ECHR] reclassifies them as questions of law”, (6) to be settled by the courts rather than the political process.

We can think of democracy, Lord Sumption says, either as “a constitutional mechanism for arriving at collective decisions and accommodating dissent” or as “a system of values”, (7) of substantive requirements that a political system must fulfill. A political system that is democratic in one sense is not necessarily democratic in the other. Lord Sumption worries that “[d]emocracy, in its traditional sense” (that is, the first one) “is extremely vulnerable to the idea that one’s own values are so obviously urgent and right that the means by which one gets them adopted don’t matter”. (7) And he worries that many lawyers are tempted to attribute such urgency to liberal values. For his part, he rejects this view, which he finds

conceptually no different from the claim of communism, fascism, monarchism, Catholicism, Islamism and all the other great isms that have historically claimed a monopoly of legitimate political discourse on the ground that its advocates considered themselves to be obviously right. (7)


Lord Sumption’s fourth lecture, “Rights and the Ideal Constitution” takes on a constitutional system that has implemented a number of substantive, values-based constraints on democratic decision-making: that of the United States. Lord Sumption is skeptical of what he calls the “legal model” of the state, since “in the long run, political constraints on the part of majorities are likely to be a great deal more effective than legal ones”. (2) To be sure, the “legal model” promises constraint “based on a body of principle applied by judges” (3) immune from the sort of pressures and incentives to which politicians are subject. This model is based on mistrust of “elective institutions” and their ability “to form opinions about [rights] with the necessary restraint, intelligence or moral sensibility”. (3)

Against that, Lord Sumption argues, we need to count the value of legitimacy: “‘We, the people,’ is the emotional foundation of democracy in Britain as well as in the United States”. Democratic decision-making is also egalitarian. A constitution that enforces a set of substantive values, be they those of “liberalism, human rights, Islamic political theology or the
dictatorship of the proletariat” (4) is neither egalitarian nor legitimate in the eyes of those who do not share these values. It is, therefore, not the right kind of constitution: “the proper function of a constitution is to determine how we participate in the decision-making processes of the state and not to determine what the outcome should be”. (4) Instead of looking for “the right answers to … moral dilemmas”, a polity should content itself with “a political process in which every citizen can engage whose results, however imperfect, are likely to be acceptable to the widest possible range of interests and opinions”. (4)

Echoing the arguments made in the previous lecture in the context of the ECHR, Lord Sumption reiterates that in deciding rights claims based on vague constitutional language judges are deciding not so much “whether the right exists but whether it ought to exist. Yet, that is surely a question for lawmakers and not judges.” (5) Anyway, “on politically controversial issues, the decisions of judges almost always involve a large element of political value judgment”, and “are not necessarily wiser or morally superior to the judgments of the legislature”. (5) Lord Sumption also reiterates his earlier point that judicial resolution of essentially political disputes does not leave room for compromise and accommodation. By contrast, political compromise may succeed at resolving differences in the community, as it did over abortion in Britain (in contrast to the United States).

All that said, Lord Sumption cautions that it does not follow “that there are no rights which should be constitutionally protected in a democracy”. (6) Rather, “one must be very careful about which rights one regards as
so fundamental as to be beyond democratic choice”. (6) Again, life, liberty, property, due process, and democratic rights fit the bill. But they will not be enough to protect against the tyranny of the majority. Ultimately, “the Courts cannot parry the broader threat that legislative majorities may act oppressively unless they assume legislative powers for themselves”. (7) If any barrier can do that, it must be found in the political culture, not in the law.


Lord Sumption’s fifth and last lecture, “Shifting the Foundations“, addresses the proposals for introducing the “legal model” of the state to the United Kingdom. Lord Sumption suggests that, although presented as a solution to the ongoing crisis of political institutions, this idea, like all calls for institutional reform in response to crises real or supposed, has little to do with the problems it purports to address. There is something, Lord Sumption says, to the criticisms of the UK’s existing constitutional arrangements, said to be “obscure, old-fashioned, out of step with international practice and giv[ing] far too much power to Parliament”. (3) But there is also something to be said in defense of these arrangements.

Lord Sumption points out that “[t]he godparents of written constitutions have been revolution, invasion, civil war and decolonisation”. (3) Nothing of the sort has happened in the UK in centuries. As a result, there is no blank slate on which to write a new constitution. If this were nevertheless done, the result, even if

an artefact of perfect rationality, a thing of great intellectual beauty … would have no basis in our historical experience, and experience counts for a great deal in human affairs; more than rationality, more even than beauty. Ultimately, the habits, traditions and attitudes of human communities are more powerful than law. (3)

Besides, the flexible political constitution has been able “to adapt to major changes in our national life which would have overwhelmed much more formal arrangements”. (3)

The problem, and not just in the UK but elsewhere, Lord Sumption argues, is not with institutions but a political culture struggling with

long term decline in the membership … of all the major national political parties, falling turnout at elections, widespread contempt for professional politicians, the rise of powerful regional nationalisms offering a more immediate source of legitimacy. (4)

The reason for this malaise, Lord Sumption suggests, is that democracy cannot meet the unrealistic expectations for it that result “from the eternal optimism of mankind, … a misunderstanding of the role of politicians, and … an exaggerated view of their power to effect major change”, as well as “the auction of promises at every general election”. (5) This produces “a sense of impotent frustration [that] undermines public confidence in the whole political process”. (5) Those who are disappointed with the representative institutions (Lord Sumption specifically mentions environmentalists frustrated by inaction on climate change) are prepared to look to a strongman who will “get things done”. A further problem is that “[p]eople expect their representatives, not just to act for them, but to be like them”, yet “all political systems are aristocracies of knowledge. Democracy is only different in that the aristocracies are installed and removable by popular vote”. (5) This exacerbates “[r]esentment of political elites”, (6) which plays a large role in current politics.

For Lord Sumption, constitutional change is not the answer to these difficulties, although he is interested in electoral reform “if it boosted public engagement with politics and enabled them, once more, to accommodate differences of interest and opinion across our population”. (7) An entrenched constitution subject to judicial interpretation, by contrast, “will simply produce a partial shift of power from an elective and removable aristocracy of knowledge to a core of professional judges which is just as remote, less representative and neither elective nor removable”. (6)

Lord Sumption ends on a dark note:

we will not recognise the end of democracy when it comes, if it does. Advanced democracies are not overthrown, there are no tanks on the street, no sudden catastrophes, no brash dictators or braying mobs, instead, their institutions are imperceptibly drained of everything that once made them democratic. The labels will still be there, but they will no longer describe the contents, the facade will still stand, but there will be nothing behind it, the rhetoric of democracy will be unchanged, but it will be meaningless – and the fault will be ours. (7)


As noted above, there is much to reflect on here. I am not suggesting that everything Lord Sumption says is right; indeed, it cannot be, because his arguments are not altogether consistent with one another. I will set out some reflections on Lord Sumption’s views in my next post. For now, suffice it to say that, if we are to avoid the dark future whose possibility Lord Sumption asks us to confront, we need to think seriously about the issues he cogently outlines.

More Charter Values Nonsense

When will this end?

Doré, that bedeviling case that held that administrators must take into account “Charter values” when exercising discretion, continues to trouble lower courts. This is not only true on a theoretical level—I still have yet to hear a convincing explanation of what a Charter value actually is—but on the level of applicability. Courts are struggling with the following question: should Charter values apply in the administrative law context whenever a decision-maker interprets a statute, even if there is no ambiguity or discretion? For reasons that I will explain, this distinction between statutory interpretation and discretion is more of an illusion. In administrative law, discretion exists when statutes are ambiguous. Therefore, if one must have regard to Charter values, it should only be in the context of a pure exercise of discretion, where an administrator has first concluded that a statute is truly ambiguous and therefore an administrator has room to maneuver. Where legislation is clear, decision-makers must apply it, unless there is a direct constitutional challenge to the legislation before the decision-maker, and the decision-maker has the power to consider the challenge under the Martin line of cases. If there is any law to apply—ie if the statute is clear after a review of the canons of interpretation—then Charter values have no place in the analysis.

Let’s start with the basics. The hornbook law answer to the problem says that courts—and by logical extension, inferior tribunals—can only take into account Charter values in cases of genuine statutory ambiguity, where this is discretion at play (see Bell ExpressVu, at para 28). Where legislation is clear, administrators should apply that legislation absent a direct constitutional argument raised by an applicant where the decision-maker has power to decide constitutional questions (Singh, at paras 62-63). And yet, the Supreme Court and other courts have sometimes said otherwise, relying on the line in Doré that decision-makers must always exercise their authority in accordance with Charter values (Doré, at para 35), even in absence of ambiguity. Take R v Clarke, where the Court seemed to suggest that administrative interpretations of law are always subject to a consideration of Charter values, even in absence of ambiguity:

Only in the administrative law context is ambiguity not the divining rod that attracts Charter values. Instead, administrative law decision-makers “must act consistently with the values underlying the grant of discretion, including Charter values” (Doré, at para. 24). The issue in the administrative context therefore, is not whether the statutory language is so ambiguous as to engage Charter values, it is whether the exercise of discretion by the administrative decision-maker unreasonably limits the Charter protections in light of the legislative objective of the statutory scheme.

This approach was followed by the Court of Appeal for Ontario in Taylor-Baptiste, and most recently by the Ontario Superior Court in Ontario Nurses Association. There, the court chastised a tribunal for failing to consider Charter values, even when the Tribunal found that the statute at hand was not ambiguous and where the court did not impugn this legal finding

So we have two lines of cases. One line of cases presents the defensible, hornbook law version of the hierarchy of laws, under which laws apply to all—including administrative decision-makers. The other line of cases permits decision-makers to use Charter values before determining whether the statute is ambiguous using the ordinary tools of interpretation, potentially changing what the legislature meant to say on an ordinary meaning of the text in service to some abstract consistency with a Charter “value.”

The distinction between administrative law discretion and statutory interpretation is really just two different points on a continuum. In the context of administrative law, saying that there is “discretion” and that the statute is “ambiguous” are slightly different ways of getting at the same concept. That concept is the idea that the statute cabins the interpretive movements of the administrator. Sometimes statutes will be written in ambiguous or broad terms, permitting discretion. There, Charter values should be fair game. But otherwise, if there is any law to apply at all, Charter values have no role to play.

It should therefore be obvious that this second line of cases is grossly—and dangerously—mistaken. These cases permit Charter values to enter the fray where the statute is not ambiguous (ie) at the first-order interpretive question stage of the analysis. The basic problem can be divided into two categories: (1) the effect of an administrative decision invoking Charter values on the hierarchy of laws and (2) the pernicious consequences of permitting decision-makers to use Charter values in the context of statutory interpretation.

Consider the first problem. The hierarchy of laws might be regarded as a quaint subtlety in today’s world of law, but it remains the bedrock to the Rule of Law. The idea is simple: absent constitutional objection, legislation binds (for a discussion of the continued relevance of this simple maxim, see Justice Stratas’ opinion in Hillier). A statute that is clear creates no discretion; upon first impression, an administrator interpreting a statute must simply apply the statute after determining its meaning using all the permissible tools of textual interpretation. This is because the legislature is the authoritative writer of laws, and those operating under the statutes the legislature promulgates must apply those statutes.

When there is ambiguity, discretion enters the fray. This is because the legislature has delegated to the decision-maker but has not said with specificity what law the decision-maker must apply. Such a finding of ambiguity should only happen after a consideration of all the normal tools of interpretation. At that point, BellExpressVu is a logical way to view the problem: decision-makers and courts can take account of Charter values, so that statutes in ambiguity are interpreted in pari materia with the Charter. This itself is an important canon of interpretation. Laws should be interpreted as a consistent whole, especially where the legislature has not specified what law to apply.

How would this work in the context of a concrete case? In Singh, for example, the problem was whether there was discretion for the Refugee Appeal Division (RAD) in interpreting whether to admit new evidence under s.110(4) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Section 110(4) contains explicit conditions for the admissibility of evidence. But an intervener made the argument that “the values protected by s.7 of the Charter must enter the interpretation and application of s.110(4) of the IRPA and even lead to the admissibility of new evidence that does not meet the explicit requirements of this provision” (see para 58). The Court rejected this argument because “an administrative decision-maker’s obligation to enforce Charter values arises only if it is exercising statutory discretion” (Doré, at para 55; Singh, at para 62). Since s.110(4) was not written in an “ambiguous manner,” Charter values could not enter the fray. And this is because of the hierarchy of laws: “[i]t is up to Parliament to amend legislation that has been declared unconstitutional so as to ensure compliance with the fundamental law of the land” (Singh, at para 62).

Doré itself involved a much more discretion-laden case, where the question was whether a lawyer’s conduct violated the sparse terms of a rule of professional conduct which simply required lawyers to act with “objectivity, moderation, and dignity.” Here, there is some ambiguity. This is not a statutory recipe, as s.110(4) is. Rather, it permits some discretion in the administrative decision-maker to decide whether particular conduct violates the rule. As such, Doré is a case where there arguably is ambiguity, in contrast to Singh. That said, were I on the Supreme Court, I would have ultimately held that the statutory text could be interpreted in absence of Charter values.

Other cases will be closer to the line. But what should not be permitted is the use of Charter values in absence of ambiguity, like in the Ontario Nurses Association case. By forcing this sort of analysis, courts enable decision-makers to change the clear meaning of statutes in order to accord with abstract Charter values, even when those values are not clear and the legislation was not written in this manner. The answer in such a case is for someone to raise a direct constitutional challenge to the legislation, either before the decision-maker or before a court. Otherwise, administrative decision-makers have no power to rewrite statutes to conform with Charter values—not necessarily coextensive with the Charter’s text—because to do so permits the decision-maker to co-opt the legislative role.

This leads into the second problem. The use of Charter values in statutory interpretation could lead to mass unpredictability in the application of law. First, this is because Charter values remain undefined. No one can tell whether a Charter value is co-extensive with the text of the Charter or not. No one can tell if there are Charter values that exist in addition to Charter rights. No one can tell the level of abstraction at which Charter values must be stated. While I have previously noted that Charter values are simply being deployed as if they were co-extensive with existing Charter rights, this need not be the case, given the ambiguity in how the Supreme Court has defined Charter values.

And this is the problem. Charter values are potentially so abstract that they provide a wishing-well of material for inexpert administrative decision-makers to mould clear statutory text in favour of their preferred policy outcomes. This is positively dangerous, and the mere possibility of it should be avoided by courts. What’s more, the invocation of Charter values in this way could lead to different findings of “inconsistency” with Charter values across the mass of administrative decision-makers, raising the prospect of palm-tree justice. In other words, it might simply depend on the decision-maker you draw as to whether a statute will be interpreted in accordance with “Charter values”; what such an interpretation would mean for your case; and what “value” would even be invoked in the first place.

Much of constitutional interpretation should exist to prevent such outcomes. Doctrinal rules should be developed to limit the discretion of judges and decision-makers to depart from the hierarchy of laws; or at the very least, rules should mandate that reasoned explanations be given for such departures. This is even more true in the context of the administrative state, where the mass of decision-makers exercising authority is so divergent that it is difficult to control as a matter of law. But the Charter values framework consists of no rules to control these decision-makers. It is simply unprincipled balancing under the guise of law. It is the realm of philosophers rather than lawyers and courts.

Virtual Insanity: AI and Judicial Review

I am far from an expert on the growing trend in law and life towards “algorithmic justice,” or decision-making by machines. But a report released by the Law Foundation of New Zealand and the University of Otago got me thinking about the use of neural networks, predictive modelling, and other forms of algorithmic learning in the field of administrative law. Specifically, as these complex models and machines develop, there will be an urgent need for administrative law—conceived as a form of control over delegated decision-making—to adapt to its new subjects. The key question is whether new rules governing “machine-learning” administrative law need to be developed, or whether existing rules can be massaged to apply to new contexts. In my view, with some trepidation, I think our existing rules of administrative law developed over centuries can meet the task of regulating the brave new world of algorithmic justice. The New Zealand report raises a number of interesting issues, but I want to moot a few of them to show how our rules of administrative law and judicial review can evolve to the challenge of machine learning.

Consider first the problems of delegation that might occur when considering the use of machines to make decisions. One can imagine two scenarios. In scenario one, Parliament could delegate to a machine in an enabling statute to make decisions, such that those decisions are binding. In scenario two, Parliament could delegate to a human to make decisions, but the human—perhaps due to internal agency rules or guidance documents—might in turn subdelegate to a machine.

Each situation presents important challenges that traditional Canadian doctrines of delegation will need to meet. Take the first scenario. Why would Parliament ever delegate like this? The New Zealand report notes a worrying trend, among experts and non-experts alike: automation bias. Automatic bias occurs when human operators “trust the automated system so much that they ignore other sources of information, including their own systems” [37]. We might imagine a world in the not too distant future where Parliament, as entranced by “experts” as it already is in traditional administrative law, might trust machines more than humans.

For the New Zealand report, the real problem in such scenarios is the “abdication” of decision-making responsibility [40]. For Canadians, this language is familiar—as I noted in a recent blog post, Canada’s only restriction on delegation articulated by the Supreme Court is a prohibition on “abdication” of legislative power. What if a machine is given power to formulate and apply rules? This may constitute the abdication of legislative power because a machine is not responsible to Parliament, and it is worthwhile to ask whether a machine could ever be traditionally responsible—or if a human could be made fully responsible for a neural network, given that it is so difficult to disentangle the factors on which the neural network relies [42]. Rather than delving into this morass, courts might think about adopting an easily administrable rule that is based in the Constitution and the precedents of the Supreme Court: they may need to be more willing to apply a version of the non-abdication rule to the machine context than they would in the human context.

Scenario #2 is trickier. Here, there is no abdication problem at first blush, because the delegation runs from Parliament to a responsible Minister or decision-maker formally answerable in Parliament. But what happens when subdelegation occurs to a machine, and the machine makes the decision for the responsible delegated party? The existing law in this area does not seem to see a problem with this. Take for instance the rule that a decision-maker is permitted to adopt subdelegated investigative reports as the final decision (Sketchley, at para 36 et seq). Here, courts do not apply a more searching standard of review to subdelegated parties versus primary delegations.

But the existing rule presents new challenges in the context of machine learning. In the human context, where an agency head adopts a subdelegated party’s report, the lines of accountability and authority are clear. Courts can scrutinize the subdelegated report as the reasons of the agency. But the same possibility is probably precluded in the machine learning context, at least at first blush. Courts would need to know how and why humans have accepted the “thinking” of an algorithm; or it would otherwise need to understand the modelling underpinning the machine. While these sorts of factors would be apparent in an ideal subdelegated human report, they would not appear at first impression in a decision by a machine–again, especially if the way the machine has made the decision is not easily amenable to scrutiny by a human. In such a context, if humans cannot deduce the basis on which machines made decisions, courts should afford little weight to a machine decision, or otherwise prohibit subdelegation to such machines.

This might appear as a drastic response to the potentially boundless potential of machines. But much like expertise as a reason for deference, courts should only countenance the existence of machine decision-making to the extent that it is compatible with fundamental premises of the legal system, like the rule of law. While one could have different conceptions of the rule of law, most would concede that the ability of parties to seek judicial review is one of its fundamental elements (see, on this note, Crevier). Where a court cannot conduct judicial review, and administrative decisions are immunized from review, the decisiomn is not subject to judicial review through the ordinary channels. Courts already worry about this in the context of deficient administrative records on judicial review (see Tsleil-Waututh, at paras 50-51). The same concern is present where humans, for reasons of lack of expertise or technological impediments, cannot look behind the veil of the machine in a way that is cognizable to a court.

In situations where it is possible to deconstruct an algorithm, courts should, as an element of reasonableness review, insist that humans present the modelling to courts in a way that courts can understand. Just like when courts might be asked to review economic analysis and modelling, they should insist that experts  be able to deduce from complex formulae what the machine is actually doing and how it made its decision. Subjecting machines to the ordinary world of judicial review is important as a matter of the rule of law.

Of course, all these thoughts are extremely tentative, and subject to change as I learn more. But it seems to me that courts will need to, at the very least, adjust existing rules of judicial review to suit the modern world of machine decision-making. Importantly, we need not move machines out of the realm of normal judicial review. The rule of law says that all are subject to the law, regardless of status. Even experts—machines or humans—are subject to this fundamental tenet.

Concurring Opinion

Does the Charter’s “notwithstanding clause” exclude judicial review of legislation? Not quite!

Earlier this month, Grégoire Webber, Eric Mendelsohn, and Robert Leckey published an interesting challenge to what they termed “[t]he faulty received wisdom around the notwithstanding clause” over at Policy Options. Professor Webber, Mr. Mendelsohn, and Dean Leckey argue that the invocation of section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the notorious “notwithstanding clause”, by a legislature that enacts a statute does not fully insulate that statute against judicial review. Only the consequences of such review, not its availability, are affected. A court can still declare a statute protected by the “notwithstanding clause” to be contrary to the Charter ― albeit that the statute will continue to apply. This is an intriguing argument, and I think that it is correct.

Section 33(2) of the Charter provides that “[a]n Act or a provision of an Act in respect of which a declaration made under this section is in effect shall have such operation as it would have but for the provision of this Charter referred to in the declaration.” Professor Webber, Mr. Mendelsohn, and Dean Leckey point out that “The word ‘override'”, often used to describe section 33, “appears nowhere and there is no mention of ‘judicial review’. Rather, the text of section 33 focuses on shielding a law’s ‘operation’.” It excludes the application section 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982, which would normally render a provision or statute inconsistent with the Charter “of not force or effect to the extent of the inconsistency”. But this does not prevent a court from declaring that an inconsistency exists in the first place.

I agree, and would add a further textual point. Section 33(1) authorizes the enactment of legislation that will “operate notwithstanding a provision included in section 2 or sections 7 to 15 of this Charter”. One provision that is not subject to section 33 is section 24, the Charter‘s internal remedial provision. Pursuant to section 24(1),

[a]nyone whose rights or freedoms, as guaranteed by this Charter, have been infringed or denied may apply to a court of competent jurisdiction to obtain such remedy as the court considers appropriate and just in the circumstances.

Normally, if one’s rights are infringed by legislation, the “remedy that is appropriate and just in the circumstances” is a declaration of invalidity pursuant to section 52(1). The invocation of section 33 of the Charter changes “the circumstances”, however, so that ― for as long as it applies ― it is no longer constitutionally “appropriate” for a court to issue a remedy that affects the “operation” of the statute protected by the “notwithstanding clause”. But it would be wrong to make the leap from that incontrovertible truth to the much broader ― and textually unsupported ― proposition that no judicial remedy is “appropriate … in the circumstances” that include an operating “notwithstanding clause”. Rather, a court faced with a challenge to a statute protected by the “notwithstanding clause” must still strive to issue a “just” remedy within the constraints of section 33; that is to say, a remedy that addresses the violation of claimant’s rights (if any) without purporting to affect the operation of the statute.

As Professor Webber, Mr. Mendelsohn, and Dean Leckey suggest, a bare declaration of inconsistency, which does not purport to render the inconsistent statute “of no force or effect”, would seem to be a remedy that is (however minimally) just, and constitutionally appropriate in circumstances that include an operating “notwithstanding clause”. As they note, the New Zealand Supreme Court recently came to a similar conclusion in Attorney-General v Taylor, [2018] NZSC 104. In Taylor (about which I wrote here), the majority held that a declaration of inconsistency was an appropriate remedy that can serve to vindicate the rights affirmed by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 within the constraints imposed by section 4 of that Act, which prevents the courts from invalidating or refusing to apply inconsistent legislation. Even when no particular consequence flows from the declaration, it is still of value to the claimant, and granting it is in keeping with the courts’ role of saying what the law is.

This point is particularly apposite in the Canadian context, since the Charter ― even when section 33 is invoked ― is part of what section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982 describes as “the supreme law of Canada”. As Professor Webber, Mr. Mendelsohn, and Dean Leckey point out, the courts have always stressed their responsibility for setting out the meaning of this law (well, always except when they follow Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395). This is so even in cases where, for one reason or another, the courts consider that their remedial powers do not reach as far as their power to articulate the law. Professor Webber, Mr. Mendelsohn, and Dean Leckey mention Canada (Prime Minister) v Khadr, 2010 SCC 3, [2010] 1 SCR 44, which is one such case; Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217 is another well-known example. The Canadian constitutional framework, even more than the New Zealand’s, is different from the Australian one, where the High Court held, in Momcilovic v The Queen, [2011] HCA 34, that the making of bare declarations of inconsistency was not a judicial function or even incidental to a judicial function, and so not something that the courts could constitutionally be asked to do.

Another point worth taking away from Taylor is that declarations of inconsistency should not be regarded as addressed to the legislature. Rather, they are vehicles by which the courts point out that the legislature has abused its powers, and the courts are prevented to do more about that fact than simply acknowledge it. The courts should not be thinking in terms of a dialogue with the legislature; it doesn’t matter whether the legislature is of a mind to take the courts’ judgment seriously. Professor Webber, Mr. Mendelsohn, and Dean Leckey suggest that ,”[i]nformed by the reasoned, evidence-based judgment of an impartial, independent court, the government might amend its policy or decide to allow section 33’s protection to lapse”. I suspect that this is a too optimistic ― certainly the New Zealand Parliament appears to be in no mind to remedy the inconsistency with the Bill of Rights Act identified in Taylor (which concerned the disenfranchisement of prisoners serving short sentences). But this doesn’t matter. It is the courts’ duty to say what the law ― and a fortiori the supreme law ― is, Parliamentary indifference be damned.

Professor Webber, Mr. Mendelsohn, and Dean Leckey’s argument that the invocation of section 33 of the Charter does not exclude judicial review, but only limits the consequences that can result from such review is novel, but I think that it is correct. They are right that, by its terms and within its constitutional context, “[s]ection 33 secures a law’s operation; it does not open a Charter black hole”. Given the Canadian provinces’ newfound penchant for relying on section 33, which I fear is only the start of a sinister trend, we may well soon find out what the courts will make of their idea.

Devaluing Section 33

What happens to “Charter values” when a statute invokes the “notwithstanding clause”―and what this might mean for Québec’s Bill 21

Here is a little puzzle I have thought of when reading an intriguing Policy Options post by Grégoire Webber, Eric Mendelsohn, and Robert Leckey. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that the invocation of section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the notorious “notwithstanding clause” by a legislature ― for example, by Québec’s legislature enacting
Bill 21, an anti-religious dress code ― does not prevent the courts from pronouncing the statute to which it applies contrary to the Charter. The “notwithstanding clause” does not insulate the statute from judicial review, but merely means that the statute continues to operate regardless of that review’s outcome. I am tentatively inclined to agree, and may have more to say on this soon. But for now, I want to raise a somewhat different issue.

If Bill said that public servants guilty of wearing religious symbols are to lose their jobs, or that overtly religious persons cannot be hired for the positions to which clause 6 applies, then that rule would be protected by the “notwithstanding clause”, and so would be its straightforward application. But in fact Bill 21 does not itself specify what happens if its prohibition, in clause 6, on “wearing religious symbols” is disregarded. Rather, clause 12 merely provides that “[i]t is incumbent on the person exercising the highest administrative authority” over those to whom that prohibition applies “to take the necessary measures to ensure compliance”. The taking of those necessary measures would presumably be an administrative decision, subject to judicial review. And this is where things get interesting, in the sordid way in which anything having to do with judicial review of administrative decisions is interesting.

In a sane system of judicial review of constitutionally suspect administrative decisions ― like the one set out in Slaight Communications v Davidson, [1989] 1 SCR 1038 ― a decision to discipline, and eventually to dismiss, a public servant for breaching the prohibition on wearing religious symbols would, I think, have to be valid, so long of course as Bill 21 is protected by the “notwithstanding clause”. Such a decision is impliedly authorized by the statute, so to challenge its constitutionality one would need to challenge the statute itself, and the “notwithstanding clause” means that, whatever other consequences that challenge may have, the statute continues to operate.

But we no longer have a sane system of judicial review of administrative decisions that raise Charter issues. (I should make clear that I have grave misgivings about Slaight‘s correctness on the merits; it is only its approach to judicial review that I approve of.) What we have, instead, is the approach first set out in Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395, under which the issue is not whether an administrative decision is authorized by a statute interpreted so as to comply with the Charter, but whether it gives as full an effect to “Charter values” in light of the statute’s objectives. How the “notwithstanding clause” fits into this scheme is not at clear.

The question is, does the application of the “notwithstanding clause” to a statute suspend the application of “Charter values” to decisions authorized by that statute? And the answer to that question is by no means obvious. Doré itself, of course, is silent on the matter, as are its successors Loyola High School v Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 12, [2015] 1 SCR 613 and Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293. So too is the text of section 33 of the Charter, which speaks of legislation “hav[ing] such operation as it would have but for the provision of th[e] Charter” (emphasis mine) in respect of which section 33 is invoked. The Charter says nothing about “values”.

Are these values the same as Charter rights, in which case they might be ousted along with the “provisions” muted by the invocation of the “notwithstanding clause”? The cases at least suggest otherwise. In particular, in Loyola, the majority spoke of “Charter protections” as a category encompassing “values and rights” [35; emphasis mine], suggesting that values and rights are different. It added that “Charter values [are] those values that underpin each right and give it meaning”. [36] And so, one might at least make a serious argument to the effect that the values remain intact regardless of the temporary inapplicability of the Charter‘s provisions (and rights), and that Doré‘s injunction that “administrative decisions are always required to consider fundamental values” [35; emphasis in the original] remains in full force, notwithstanding the “notwithstanding clause”.

The reluctance of the framers of Bill 21 to spell out, in the legislation itself, the unpalatable consequences they presumably intend, combined with the perverseness of the administrative law doctrines endorsed by the Supreme Court, may thus result in the nullification of one of the bill’s most significant features ― its attempt to exclude judicial scrutiny. I hope that no one doubts my distaste for Bill 21. I have denounced its illiberalism here, arguing that Quebeckers ― and the rest of us ― need to stop fearing “the way in which others might use their liberty if we do not preemptively coerce them”. And I have myself defended what some might think of as a workaround designed to challenge the constitutionality of Bill 21 despite its invocation of the “notwithstanding clause”. And, more broadly, I have long argued that the “notwithstanding clause” would be best left untouched. But I cannot say I find the idea of relying on “Charter values” to subvert the invocation of the “notwithstanding clause”, even one as distasteful as Bill 21’s, especially satisfactory either. The whole concept of “Charter values” is a figment of the judicial imagination, and it usually serves, no matter the protestations of the TWU majority, to water down constitutional rights and to subvert the authority of the supreme law more broadly.

One should note, also, that even if the argument that Charter values continue to apply despite the “notwithstanding clause” is successful, there would remain the issue of weighing these values against statutory objectives. I will not say much about this here, beyond observing that there is glaring conflict between the ostensible aims of Bill 21 as a whole, stated in its clause 4, which are “(1) the separation of State and religions; (2) the religious neutrality of the State; (3) the equality of all citizens; and (4) freedom of conscience and freedom of religion”, and its real aims, and in particular, the aim of the ban of wearing religious symbols. I am not sure how a court would deal with this, but here again the reluctance of the framers of of Bill 21 to forthrightly admit that they are trying to simply purge Québec’s officialdom of overtly religious individuals may well open a space for judicial subversion.

It may yet be, then, that the story of Bill 21 will turn out to have something that will look, from the standpoint of the protection of individual rights, more or less like a happy ending. But we should not let ourselves be deceived. Two wrongs do not make a right. One can hardly make up for the Québec legislature’s unwillingness to be bound by constitutional law by exploiting similar unwillingness on the part of the Supreme Court. And maybe, just maybe, the court would in fact recoil before the prospect of following the implications of the Doré line of cases all the way to the nullification of section 33 of the Charter. Who knows ― they might even seize the opportunity for getting rid of Doré and restoring some sanity to the Canadian law of judicial review.

To be honest, I’m not sure which outcome is more desirable. On the one hand, I want to see Bill 21 undone. On the other, although the Québec legislature would have no cause for complaint if it is tripped up by its own cowardice, those of us who care about the Rule of Law could not happy by its further subversion, even if we like the immediate results. But then again, I have the luxury of worrying about the Rule of Law from a distance. Those personally affected by Bill 21 may feel differently about this.

The New Administrative Law

Part I of a two-part series: why we need to reconceptualize the administrative state and our reasons for deference.

**This is the first in a two-blog series of blog posts about re-theorizing administrative law. This first post is about why the traditional justifications for the administrative state and deference to administrative law are wanting. The next post will be about my prescription for a new doctrine of judicial review, based on new theoretical commitments**

By now, it is rote for observers of Canadian administrative law to say that the mechanics of the law of judicial review are in dire need of repair. The Supreme Court at least tentatively agrees; currently under reserve is a series of cases that could lead to renovations in the law. I have written before why I think the Court is unlikely to do anything of substance with these cases. Upon reflection, I am even more convinced that, even if the Court does something, virtually any solution it will come up with will only tinker at the edges of the problems in Canadian administrative law. This is because the whole body of law is in need of re-conceptualization and theoretical re-justification. The Court is unlikely to accomplish that task.

Why do I say this? The fundamental assumptions undergirding Canada’s administrative law have not been calibrated to the political or social realities of the 21st century. Specifically, the reasons marshalled for why we defer to administrative agencies are the same today as they were in the 1940s. This is baffling. The empirical realities of the administrative state, in the current day–connected to our traditional understandings of parliamentary sovereignty and the Rule of Law (not in conflict, as is commonly supposed)–should inform whether or not courts defer to agencies.

For the most part, Canadian administrative law continues to be stuck in the thrall of American Progressivism—by which I mean that school of thought, dominant in the New Deal era, that had at least two heads (as Richard Epstein notes here). First is the idea that power could be delegated to persons in the public service who would always act in good-faith, and be faithful agents for the pursuit of substantive goals associated with the New Deal and small-p progressive, leftist politics. Coupled in this first head was a skepticism surrounding courts, which were perceived as mired in the conservative common law. Second is the idea, championed by people like Woodrow Wilson, and going back even further to Max Weber, that administration was a science; and that the powers of the state could be wielded by experts in an efficient manner for the greater good. This was not only an American invention—in Canada, we had our own band of administrative law Progressives, including John Willis, W.P.M. Kennedy, J.A. Corry, and later on, Harry Arthurs (for a good account, see R. Blake Brown “The Canadian Legal Realists and Administrative Law Scholarship, 1930-1940” (2000) 9 Dalhousie Journal of Legal Studies 36).

If the assumptions supporting this Progressive administrative law were ever true, they are no longer true some 80 years on. Consider first the substantive goals of the administrative state. For W.P.M. Kennedy, administrative agencies were means to achieve important progressive substantive goals. Kennedy said:

New standards must be developed in all fields of human endeavor which will be in harmony with the new social philosophy of the age. Care of the sick, the poor, the aged, and the infirm, elimination of slums, control of industry in the interests of humanity, protection of children, universal education, development of natural resources for the benefit of all mankind, all demand attention.

(“Aspects of Administrative Law in Canada” (1934) 46 Juridicial Review 203 at 221)

John Willis, in his classic article “Administrative Law and the British North America Act,” also wrote that:

The years of depression since 1929 have induced legislatures to pass laws which are right out of line with traditional ways of thought and therefore distasteful both to the those guardians of the past, the lawyers, and to their wealthy clients who have, of course, been adversely affected by these laws.”

Harry Arthurs later wrote, in his attack on judges, that the “inexorable logic of the law” “produced results which seemed contrary to social justice, and sometimes, to common sense.”

But the substantive understanding of the administrative state as a purveyor of social justice is no longer true, and it is unclear if the assumptions ever were. Reading the Kennedy, Willis, and Arthurs quotes, one is surprised at their unbridled faith in government–particularly administrative agencies–to achieve herculean goals. The problems with this sort of thinking are endless. First, to the extent the administrative law Progressives attacked the common law, the criticisms were profoundly ahistorical. The common law was not, as Arthurs suggested “contrary…to common sense.” As Richard Epstein points out (and has over the course of his 50 year career), the common law rules were actually much more subtle and sophisticated than modern Progressives suppose. In areas of contract, tort, and property law, common law rules were used since the time of Roman law as simple rules of thumb for organizing contractual relations and demarcating property boundaries clearly (consider the first possession rule of property law—a simple rule that is actually derived from Roman law). They were used all this time for a reason. While tradition is the bête-noire of modern legal thought, there is at least a reason to think—however naively—that people organized different legal systems across time and geographic boundaries in common ways for a reason. Ignoring these features of the common law seems unfair, even if the common law must be adapted to new realities.

Now, in the 21st century, administrative agencies are armed with the most repressive powers of the state. We are no longer talking about expert labour boards, the darling of Canada’s Progressive administrative law theorists, and the body that dawned Canada’s modern administrative law doctrine. Now, prison wardens make decisions about the rights and interests of prisoners, some of the most vulnerable of us. The prison situation is especially concerning. So-called “administrative segregation” is a matter of judicial review, because it is an administrative decision—an exercise of discretion, which Kennedy supposed would be used to help the “sick, the poor, the aged, and the infirm.” Yet solitary confinement is, by most accounts, one of the most repressive and arbitrary forms of punishment to which one can be subject. All a matter of administrative law and judicial review.

This is why it is surprising to see Progressives continue to be skeptical about the role of courts. Administrative law progressives had and continue to have a rather obsessive focus on A.V. Dicey without realizing that Dicey’s account of administrative law accepted the idea of delegation, but was aimed at attacking a particular sort of “administrative law”—the droit administratif of France. Dicey was simply concerned with how best to control administrative power; the question is not whether delegation should exist, but how best to control it. Yet, so strong was the Progressive faith in government, that Harry Arthurs said that he “took to wondering out loud whether courts had any role to play in any field involving social conflict or controversy.”

In my view, Dicey was not the unrealistic one here. The Progressives, with their unbridled faith in the power of the state, put all of their eggs in a basket with no bottom. They ignored the experience and thinking of many of those who came before. Consider the wise thoughts of James Madison and many of the US framers, who were so skeptical of government action that they took pains to divide and separate the functions of government; government was necessary, because men are not angels, but it had to be limited and controlled. Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, expressed a similar moral skepticism about perfect, good-faith government agents:

By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the publick good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it (456).

This is not to say that government is either a force for good or evil; such characterizations are far too simplistic. I only aim to say that there is a strong moral tradition of skepticism that the Progressives simply did away with, without an understanding of the nature of delegated power: it can be used in either political direction. It is profoundly disturbing to suggest that courts should not have a role to play in policing the boundaries of the arms of the state concerned with prisons, for example.

The substantive goals did not stand alone. For Progressives, the chosen means for accomplishing these ends were the “alphabet soup” agencies of the New Deal. Indeed, John Willis famously wrote that administrative law must be viewed as a “functional” matter: “Three Approaches to Administrative Law: The Judicial, the Conceptual, and the Functional” (1935) 1 UTLJ 53). For Willis, this was true on two levels. Administrative law had to be studied as a functional matter. That is, we had to know what happened in the administrative state to actually understand administrative law. This is undoubtedly true. But Willis went further, arguing that “Expertise, avoidance of delay, reduction of expense—these are the basic reasons for the modern practice of giving the power of decision in many areas to deciding authorities other than courts.” Adding to that list was a desire for independence for these decision-makers (see Brown, at 50).

So, there are three functional reasons for deference at play here: (1) expertise (2) efficiency and (3) independence. I can only touch on these briefly, but they do not stand up to scrutiny as reasons for an across the board presumption of deference.

I have written before about expertise. The question is not whether expertise exists in the administrative state. Clearly, it does, whether intrinsically or through the development of “field expertise.” The question is whether expertise inheres in an agency as an “institution,” as the Supreme Court suggests in Edmonton East, such that we should defer as a matter of course. On questions of law, it is far from true that we should be confident to impose a rule (rather than a standard) assuming that agencies have this sort of expertise. Consider the case of Vavilov, currently under reserve at the Supreme Court. The analyst report, which formed the decision of the Registrar of Citizenship in that case, said the following (as excerpted in the Parkdale Legal Services brief):

[The analyst] confirmed that she was not a lawyer, had never gone to law school, and perhaps taken one course in administrative law as part of her degree in political science. She also confirmed that she was a junior analyst, had not relied on any internal policy guidelines or any other documentation…and had found nothing in her search of archives…

This statement does not inspire confidence in the expertise of a decision-maker. And this is not just reserved to the Vavilov case. Parkdale Legal Services outlines a number of other decisions, in the immigration context, where a decision-maker evinced a lack of expertise. It is completely unrealistic to transform this thin reed into a strong-form doctrinal presumption.

On the question of efficiency, this is perhaps one of the areas where the administrative state has failed most. At the Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada’s largest tribunal, the wait time for a refugee hearing, for example, was two years long as of November 2018. At the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, delay appears to be the watchword, due to alleged partisan interference in the appointments process. I could go on. But delay, and lack of resources, hobbles the ability of administrative justice to be a system of justice at all—even relative to courts.

And, what’s more, access to the administrative state—like the administrative state itself—is sometimes a matter of government generosity. Consider the recent cuts to legal aid in Ontario. Former Justice John Evans of the Federal Court of Appeal recently wrote an article in the Globe and Mail, focused on the fact that cuts to legal aid will hamper the ability of refugees to have a fair shot at justice. How can a system that causes such rash injustice be labelled an “efficient” system of administrative justice? If litigants do not have equal access to the system, is administrative justice at all a serious alternative to the courts?

And on independence, the story is no better. The Supreme Court of Canada itself has held, in Ocean Port, that administrative decision-makers are simply creatures of statute, controlled by the executive. Governments of all stripes have treated them as such. Consider the case in Saskatchewan, where an incoming government fired all the members of the labour board. Or, consider the recent delays in appointments to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, which in turn impact the independence and functionality of the Tribunal.

Of course, a few examples does not a theory make, but it should be cause for one to at least reconsider the foundational assumptions of administrative deference. My point here is not to say that the administrative state must be abolished because its organizing premises are frayed. It is instead to point out that if courts are to defer to administrative decision-makers, there should be good and existent reasons for deference. And, I need not prove that all of the traditional justifications for administrative power are no longer true. Even if they are only untrue by half, there is a need to reconceptualize what substantive and pragmatic justifications undergird the system of administrative law.

The problem, as I will explore in my second post, is that these policy reasons for deference have been transformed by courts into legal reasons for deference, without a concern for whether Parliament has actually, itself, done so. These reasons do not even have the benefit of being empirically true in every case, and yet they are treated as such when the SCC uses them to justify a strong presumption of deference.

The Supreme Court, in the upcoming trilogy, is institutionally unable to deal with theoretical problems of this magnitude. In reality, lawyers, judges of courts the country over, academics, and politicians should be the ones rethinking how our administrative state operates. We need a new theory of judicial deference.