Jiggery-Pokery

The standard of review issues in the Supreme Court’s West Fraser decision

In my previous post, I summarized the Supreme Court’s decision in West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, which upheld the validity of a regulation of the British Columbia Workers’ Compensation Board imposing safety-related obligations on owners of forestry workplaces, and the legality of a fine levied on such an owner under a statutory provision authorizing penalties against employers who do not comply with regulations. The Court was divided on both the approach to and the merits of the first issue, and at least on the merits of the second.

As I noted in that post, there is quite a lot to say about the decision. Others have already commented on it. Shaun Fluker, over at ABlawg, focuses on how West Fraser fits, or doesn’t fit, with the Supreme Court’s precedent on analysing the validity of regulations, while Paul Daly’s Administrative Law Matters post which looks ahead to the Supreme Court’s upcoming reconsideration of Dunsmuir. In this post, I add some observations of my own on the various opinions in West Fraser. In a subsequent one, I will explore what these opinions tell us about the Supreme Court’s relationship with the administrative state.

The first point I would note here is that Chief Justice McLachlin’s opinion for the majority, which purports to apply deferential reasonableness review on the first issue, and even more deferential patent unreasonableness review on the second, is actually an excellent example of disguised correctness review. As the former Justice Joseph Robertson described it here, in one of his contributions to the “Dunsmuir Decade” symposium,

Disguised correctness review means that the reviewing court conducts a de novo analysis of the interpretative issue. Little or no meaningful reference is made to the reasoning of the administrative decision-maker; just the interpretative result.

For his part, David Mullan noted that

In its purest form, reasonableness review of determinations of law should start with the tribunal’s reasons for decision. … Too frequently, however, the starting point is not the tribunal’s reasons but the arguments on the merits of the question of law or statutory interpretation advanced by the parties with the reasons either ignored or mentioned only in passing. Consequently, the professed commitment to deference gets submerged in a thorough-going re-examination of the relevant question of law.

That is exactly what happens in the majority reasons in West Fraser, and not only on the first issue, on which there are no reasons for decision to review ― which, as Justice Côté points out, makes the notion of deferential review problematic in this context ―, but also on the second one. You’d think that, applying a patent unreasonableness standard of review, the majority would pay attention to the decision on whose reasonableness it must pronounce, but no ― the decision itself is summarized in a single paragraph and never quoted. For the rest of her reasons, the Chief Justice refers to it only obliquely.

So perhaps the apparent disagreement about standards of review (on the first issue) is really beside the point. This is all the more so since, in the reasons of two of the three dissenting judges, correctness review does not look very exacting at all. Justice Brown, after waxing eloquent about the importance of the courts ensuring that administrative decision-makers act within the limits of their authority, is content to note that the limits in this case are broad. Justice Rowe, for his part, endorses the Chief Justice’s comments about the breadth of the administrative power as sufficient to dispose of the jurisdictional question, presumably on the correctness standard. Yet surely saying that the powers of administrative decision-maker are broad is not enough to show that its regulation was within these powers. The Chief Justice speaks of “unlimited” powers, as if such a thing were possible under the Rule of Law, and as if Justice Rand’s comments in Roncarelli v Duplessis, [1959] SCR 121, were not among the best known in all Canadian law. Here they are, in case anyone needs reminding of them:

In public regulation of this sort there is no such thing as absolute and untrammelled “discretion” … there is always a perspective within which a statute is intended to operate; and any clear departure from its lines or objects is just as objectionable as fraud or corruption. (140)

Of the four judges who wrote in West Fraser, only Justice Côté took seriously the “perspective within which the statute is intended to operate” and the notion that the administrative tribunal does not have unlimited powers to act within the general area under its supervision. Justice Côté’s colleagues, even those who ostensibly stress the courts’ supervisory role, are content administrative power run wild ― a point to which I return below.

All that said, while I think that Justice Coté is right on the merits of the first issue, both she and her colleagues make important points on the general approach. (The trouble with Justice Brown and Justice Rowe is that they do not really practice what they preach, and fail to ask the hard questions that they rightly suggest the courts ought to be asking of administrative decision-makers.) Justices Côté and Brown are right that the point of judicial review is to ensure that administrative decision-makers exercise those powers delegated to them by statute, and no others. Justice Côté is right to point out that in policing the boundaries of administrative decision-makers’ jurisdiction the courts are upholding the primacy of the legislation enacted by elected legislatures against the self-aggrandizement of the administrative decision-makers. Justices Côté and Rowe are right to call out the vacuousness of the Chief Justice’s appeal to administrative expertise as a justification for deferential review of the validity of regulations. Expertise may be relevant to thinking about the policy merits of a regulation ― and I think that Justice Brown is right that these should be of no concern to the courts, even on a deferential standard (though note that Justice Rowe seems to disagree) ― but contrary to what the Chief Justice suggests the wisdom of the regulation is not at issue in West Fraser.

I think, however, that the comments of Justices Côté and Brown raise even bigger questions about judicial review and judicial deference. Justice Côté insists that there is

an important distinction between actions taken by a regulator in an adjudicative capacity and actions taken by a regulator in a legislative capacity — a distinction that is central to the policy concerns that animate judicial review and the traditional standard of review analysis. [57]

Justice Brown agrees that this distinction is important as the law now stands, stressing that, since “[p]ublic power must always be authorized by law … no statutory delegate, in enacting subordinate legislation (that is, in making law), may ever exceed its authority”. [116; emphasis Justice Brown’s] But, in an obiter dictum, he also worries that

in many cases, the distinction between matters of statutory interpretation which implicate truly jurisdictional questions and those going solely to a statutory delegate’s application of its enabling statute will be, at best, elusive. [124]

The Chief Justice’s reasons in effect say that the distinction is elusive, and perhaps non-existent, or at any rate not worth bothering about, in all cases, including this one. In her view, it follows that pretty much all judicial review should be deferential.

But we can share the Chief Justice’s or, more plausibly, Justice Brown’s concern about the elusiveness of the distinction ― we might think that the distinction is often, though probably not always, difficult to draw ― draw from this the opposite conclusion. That is to say, we might think, not that there is basically no such thing as a jurisdictional question, but rather that most questions of law are in a sense jurisdictional and therefore call for correctness review ― because public power must always be authorized by law, and the Rule of Law, therefore, demands no less. This position would, I think, be similar to the approach taken by English (and New Zealand) administrative law after Anisminic v Foreign Compensation Commission, [1969] 2 AC 147 (which Professor Daly recently revisited on Administrative Law Matters). Indeed, Justice Brown’s own reasons suggest that the contrary approach, favoured by the Chief Justice (and perhaps, to a lesser degree, by Justice Brown’s own concluding obiter), leads to a paradox (call it the paradox of deference). If administrative interpretations of law are approached with deference on the basis that they draw upon policy expertise and “field sensitivity”, and if more than one interpretation of a statute is allowed to stand on the basis that they all fall into a range of reasonable outcomes, then isn’t the administrative decision-maker interpreting a statute “making law” just as as surely as if it were “enacting subordinate legislation”? And is it not, then, just as important to ensure that the interpreter “may ever exceed its authority”, because “[t]he rule of law can tolerate no departure from this principle”? [116] Justice Rowe’s view that administrative decision-makers are generally not experts in statutory interpretation ― including but not limited to the category of jurisdictional questions narrowly defined, is the more logical one.

Finally, while others who have written about West Fraser have not discussed the second issue it addressed ― that of the penalty ― I think it is worth addressing at least briefly. The Chief Justice’s analysis on this issue is disturbing. As Justice Côté explains, the legislature carefully wrote the statute to distinguish “employers” and “owners”. The Chief Justice insists that this doesn’t matter because all “owners” are employers too so long as they have employees of their own visiting the worksites that they own, as they are required. As Justice Côté rightly says, this amounts to the re-writing of the legislation. In fact, while Justice Côté is too polite to say so, I think that the Chief Justice’s reasoning on this issue can best be described by borrowing Justice Scalia’s words in King v Burwell, 576 US __ (2015) ― it is “interpretive jiggery-pokery”, as a result of which “[w]ords no longer have meaning”.

Why does a majority of the Supreme Court engage in such unseemly activities? If, unlike me, you believe that the Chief Justice’s opinion is genuinely deferential to the administrative decision, then you should see the fact that this jiggery-pokery takes place in the course of (über-)deferential review ― which is supposed to be all about giving effect to the legislature’s intention ― as an illustration of the paradox of deference described above. Deferring to the administrative decision-maker means allowing it to become a law unto itself, free from the constraints imposed by statute ― and having to scramble to make it look like the administrative decision really does make some kind of sense.

If, however, you agree with me that the Chief Justice is actually engaged in disguised correctness review, things are, if anything, even worse. The Chief Justice is not merely forced, by her preference for deference, to allow the administrative decision-maker to rewrite the statute, but actively complicit in its doing so. As I will explain in the next post, this is what I think is going on. Indeed, in my view the Chief Justice engages in results-oriented, pro-regulatory reasoning throughout her West Fraser opinion. She thinks, no doubt, that she acts wisely and well. “Pure applesauce!”