Mulling over Miller

Some thoughts on the UK Supreme Court’s decision in “the case of prorogations”

It’s been a while already, but I would like to say a few things about the UK Supreme Court’s decision that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advice, last moth, that the Queen prorogue the Westminster Parliament for five weeks was unlawful, and that the prorogation is a nullity. The unanimous decision by Lady Hale and Lord Reed, R (Miller) v Prime Minister, [2019] UKSC 41 (Miller (No 2)) breaks new and, in my view, shaky constitutional ground. It is an understandable response to what Lord Sumption has accurately described as Mr. Johnson’s “constitutional vandalism”. But, while understandable, I am not persuaded that it is right.

I should note, of course, that I am no great expert on UK constitutional law. Many people who are have written about Miller (No 2) already, but, due to my recent travels and speaking engagements, I haven’t been able to keep up with the torrent of commentary. Anyway, the principles at stake are similar to those that apply in Canada and New Zealand, and I wanted to produce a record of my own thoughts regarding Lady Hale and Lord Reed’s reasoning. Add salt to taste. I will also add a note on the applicability to this decision to Canada, where of course the ability of a Prime Minister to procure the prorogation of Parliament for political purposes is something that has already been done, and could be attempted in the future.


The substantive issue in Miller (No 2) was whether the Prime Minister’s advice that the Queen prorogue Parliament for a five-week period was unlawful, either because it interfered with the constitutional principles of Parliamentary sovereignty and government accountability to Parliament, or because it had an improper purpose. But as a preliminary matter the Court had to decide whether the matter was justiciable at all. If it found that it was, and that the prorogation was unlawful, it also had to consider the appropriate remedy.

The argument against justiciability was that the substantive issues were subject to political accountability rather than judicial scrutiny and that there were, in any case, no legal criteria by which the lawfulness of advice to prorogue Parliament could be determined. For the judiciary to step into this controversy would offend against the separation of powers. But the Court rejected this contention. The fact that the decision it was asked to review was made by a political actor, had political resonance, and was potentially subject to political accountability did not, without more, mean that courts should refrain from reviewing its legality. As for the separation of powers, it would only be enhanced “by ensuring that the Government does not use the power of prorogation unlawfully with the effect of preventing Parliament from carrying out its proper functions”. [34]

The power to prorogue Parliament is based in the Royal prerogative; that is to say, it is a power of the monarch that is recognized by the common law (rather than having a statutory foundation). The common law also outlines the limits of prerogative powers. Doubts about justiciability, the Court says, can legitimately arise if the dispute concerns the lawfulness of the exercise of a prerogative power within its proper limits. However, there is no question that it is the courts’ role to draw the limits in the first place. The dispute here, the Court says, involves just this sort of line drawing.

How are the limits of a prerogative power to be ascertained? Unlike with a statutory power, there is no text to guide the court. However, the scope of any prerogative power “has to be compatible with common law principles”, including “the fundamental principles of our constitutional law”, [38] which, despite the fact that the UK’s constitution is not codified and consists of “common law, statutes, conventions and practice”, “are enforceable by the courts in the same way as other legal principles”. [39]

Two such principles help circumscribe the scope of the power to prorogue Parliament: Parliamentary sovereignty, and the accountability of government to Parliament. The former means not only “that laws
enacted by the Crown in Parliament are the supreme form of law in our legal system” [41] but also that the executive cannot get int the way of Parliament “exercis[ing] its legislative authority” [42] as it would be in the absence of limits on the power of prorogation. While prospect of unlimited prorogation may be hypothetical and subject to “practical constraints”, [43] its very existence would be incompatible Parliamentary sovereignty, and therefore intolerable. The same goes for the accountability of the Ministry to Parliament,

through such mechanisms as their duty to answer Parliamentary questions and to appear before Parliamentary committees, and through Parliamentary scrutiny of the delegated legislation which ministers make. [46]

This accountability serves to ensure that “citizens are protected from the arbitrary exercise of executive power”, [46] but it too would be undermined by long-term prorogations.

It follows then that, while a short period of prorogation is acceptable as not interfering with Parliament’s legislative power or its scrutiny of the executive, the longer Parliament stands prorogued, the more these principles are put at risk. There is no bright-line limit between what is and what is not lawful. Rather,

a decision to prorogue Parliament (or to advise the monarch to prorogue Parliament) will be unlawful if the prorogation has the effect of frustrating or preventing, without reasonable justification, the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions as a legislature and as the body responsible for the supervision of the executive. [50]

Whether a given prorogation has this effect, and whether, if so, a justification has been provided for it, are questions of fact of “no
greater difficulty than many other questions of fact which are routinely decided by the courts”. [51] The court must decide these questions “with sensitivity to the responsibilities and experience of the Prime Minister, and with a corresponding degree of caution”, [51] but it can and must decide them. In this case, the Court finds that the length of the prorogation will interfere with Parliamentary sovereignty and the accountability of government, and that the justifications advanced on behalf of the Prime Minister are unpersuasive. Its decision on the latter point is influenced by the evidence given by a former Prime Minister, Sir John Major.

The Court must, then, decide on the remedy. The applicant would have been content with a declaration to the effect that the Prime Minister’s advice to prorogue Parliament was unlawful, but the Court goes further. Having rejected the contention that the prorogation is part of “proceedings in Parliament” whose validity the courts are precluded from reviewing by Article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1688, it finds, that the Order in Council signed by the Queen to require the prorogation,

being founded on unlawful advice, was likewise unlawful, null and
of no effect and should be quashed. This led to the actual prorogation, which was as if the Commissioners had walked into Parliament with a blank piece of paper. It too was unlawful, null and of no effect. [69]

The prorogation never happened.


As noted above, one can understand why the Supreme Court decided the way it did. Indeed, the reasoning of Lady Hale and Lord Reed has a certain elegance to it, and I think it is fair to say that a constitution in which the power to prorogue Parliament cannot be abused for partisan or political purposes is preferable to one where it can be. It would indeed be shocking if the Prime Minister were to attempt proroguing Parliament for years on end. As Canadians will recall, it is equally shocking when the Prime Minister uses a prorogation to avoid being held to account by Parliament. The question, though, is whether the United Kingdom actually had such a constitution, prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller (No 2).

Canadians, of course, will be interested in what our constitution has to say on this. Let me begin with that. Unlike the United Kingdom’s, Canada’s constitution is partially codified and entrenched. As it happens, this entrenched constitution includes a specific provision that speaks to the possibility of indefinite prorogations: section 5 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides that “[t]here shall be a sitting of Parliament and of each legislature at least once every twelve months”. An attempt to prorogue Parliament, or a legislature, for more than a year would be flatly unconstitutional, and a court ought to be able to recognize this and, pursuant to section 24(1) of the Charter, provide any “such remedy as the court considers appropriate and just in the circumstances”.

But what about abusive attempts to prorogue Parliament for periods of time shorter than a year? In my view, the Charter settles this matter differently than the common law constitution of the United Kingdom. Instead of a standard of justification, as under the latter, the Charter sets out a bright-line rule, and it would be inappropriate for the courts to re-write the constitution that we actually have in order to improve it on a pattern suggested, decades after its enactment, in a jurisdiction whose own constitutional landscape is, on this point, somewhat different from ours. The Supreme Court of Canada rejected an attempt to invoke constitutional principles to add to the Charter’s proscription on retroactive criminal law in British Columbia v Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 SCR 473, and it should follow the same logic in rejecting an attempt to import Miller (No. 2) into Canadian law.

This is not to say that the one-year line drawn by the Charter‘s framers is especially satisfactory. Certainly shorter prorogations can be abusive, as we saw in 2008. Perhaps our constitution could be improved by an amendment to section 5 of the Charter, just as it would in my view be improved by an expanded proscription against retroactive legislation. But of course such an amendment is not for the courts to effect. And, as I will now suggest, it is not obvious that such an amendment ought simply to codify the Miller (No. 2) decision.

Indeed it is not clear that the authors of Miller (No. 2) viewed it as a model for anything else that would follow. At the outset, the insist that the case “arises in circumstances which have never arisen before and are unlikely ever to arise again. It is a ‘one off'”. [1] It is worth pointing out that this is an unusual statement for a court to make, and it should, I think, ring some alarm bells. (Consider another instance where a court said something similar: Bush v Gore, 531 US 98 (2000) where the per curiam majority opinion noted that its “consideration is limited to the present circumstances”. (109))

At the very least, one suspects that, despite its confident assertions about its ability to resolve factual claims about the necessity for a prorogation, the Court probably hopes that it will not have to do so again. And, perhaps even more fundamentally, the Court may well realize that it has not really articulated a principle against which to judge the lawfulness of prorogations so much as asserted the power to do so on a case-by-case basis. The Court gets away with it by shifting the burden of proof onto the Prime Minister, who is asked to justify his request for a prorogation instead of the applicants having to actually show that it was flawed in some legally cognizable way (as opposed to “merely” stinking to high heaven). Mr. Johnson was not prepared to discharge the burden. His successors, presumably, will not make the same mistake.

Seen in this light, Miller (No. 2) looks less as a re-assertion of constitutional principle in the face of a band of governing vandals, and more like a power grab. The vandals, admittedly, are real, so the power grab is for a good cause, but it’s a power grab all the same. This impression is only reinforced by the way in which the Court re-framed the issue from the legitimacy of a particular (albeit disturbing in the extreme) exercise of an undoubted prerogative power (namely, that of proroguing power) to that of the scope the prerogative. The cases on which the Supreme Court purports to rely sought to preserve a space for the exercise of prerogative powers that would not be amenable to judicial review, being too bound up with issues of policy and politics. Miller (No. 2) does not repudiate these cases, but it suggests a way around them: it is enough to say that, correctly understood, the issue concerns the scope of a prerogative power rather than the lawfulness of its exercise within its acknowledged scope.

If the prerogative of dissolution had not been abolished in the UK, this trick could have been applied to engage the courts in reviewing its exercise. (Of course, this prerogative has been preserved in Canada, even in jurisdictions that have adopted purportedly fixed election dates; this is an additional consideration that ought to give pause to Canadian courts urged to import the Miller (No. 2) reasoning here.) The same goes for the prerogative of mercy and the prerogative powers in relation to foreign affairs or war. In fairness to the Supreme Court, I doubt that it really wants to go there. If urged to embark on this sort of review, it can still say that, this time, the issues do not go to the scope of the prerogative. But that only highlights the fact that the reasoning in Miller (No. 2) is results-oriented. A one-off indeed. I don’t think this is the stuff of great constitutional law.

There are at least a couple of additional issues worth addressing about Miller (No. 2), one of which I will make here, and the other in a separate post. The former is that the Supreme Court’s conception of Parliamentary sovereignty is, in my view, something of a departure from how this concept has been understood until now. The orthodox view is that it referred to the supremacy of the law enacted by the existing Parliament over any other law ― common law, regulations, and even statutes enacted by Parliaments past. In recent decades, this view has been somewhat tempered by a growing acceptance Parliaments dictating the “fanner and form” ― but not the content ― of future statutes. Of course Parliamentary sovereignty in this orthodox sense is not at all affected by prorogation. But the Supreme Court expands this principle, by saying that it requires that there be no obstacles, or at least no obstacles created by the executive, in the way of a Parliament that might legislate, as opposed to one that already has.

I wonder how much the Court has thought this through. There is a tension between this understanding of sovereignty and the few that Parliament can complicate the life of its successors by enacting “manner and form” requirements. There is an even stronger tension between this view and the musings of some judges (Lady Hale among them!) about the possibility that Parliamentary sovereignty isn’t quite absolute, and that there might be some laws that Parliament cannot enact (or rather, that Courts would be justified in not giving effect to some laws). Again, future courts might resolve this tension by saying that the expanded version of Parliamentary sovereignty is a single-purpose idea meant to control the executive and not the other branches of government. But I wonder whether, in trying to stave of off the absolutist claims of the executive, the Supreme Court hasn’t provided intellectual ammunition for similar claims by Parliament.

The other way in which Miller (No. 2) departs from past, and indeed very recent, understandings of how the UK constitution (and other constitutions derived from it) works, which I will not address in detail here, has to do with the distinction between the legal and the political constitution. This distinction was a sharp one, or so we were told told by writers such as A.V. Dicey and courts in cases like Re: Resolution to amend the Constitution, [1981] 1 SCR 753 (Patriation Reference) and R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, [2017] UKSC 5 (Miller (No. 1)). Statutes and common law rules were legal and legally enforceable rules; constitutional conventions, political and not legally enforceable. In Miller (No. 2) the lines between these types of constitutional rules are are blurred. This might not be all bad, but I will defer this to a separate post, which I will try to write in a not-too-distant future.


To repeat yet again, I am not criticizing the reasoning in Miller (No. 2) because I approve of, or even regard as at all defensible morally, the actions of the Prime Minister that led to it. The Supreme Court acted out of genuine and perfectly understandable concern with gross abuse of power, for which it found no redress in the orthodox legal toolkit, and so took unorthodox measures. As H.L.A. Hart wrote long ago, in cases where constitutional fundamentals are at stake, courts can reshape them and so transform our understandings of what law even is; “all that succeeds”, he observed, “is success”. Clearly, the UK Supreme Court has been successful. And perhaps that’s all that history will remember.

But the price of present success is, at best, considerable uncertainty about the future. Will the reasoning in Miller (No. 2) ever be followed, and if so, to what end? Will it serve to involve the courts in review of deeply political decisions about foreign affairs, war, and peace? Will the expansion of the understanding of Parliamentary sovereignty rebound it ways we may yet regret? Again, I wonder how much the Supreme Court ― pressed for time as it was, and apparently hoping to deliver a “one off” decision ― has really pondered all this. We, at any rate, have the leisure ― and the need ― to reflect on what it has done.

A Bad Case

As promised, here are some thoughts on the Memorandum of Fact and Law that the federal government’s lawyers have filed in response to Aniz Alani’s challenge of the Prime Minister’s policy of not appointing Senators. (I had previously canvassed what I thought ― mostly, but not entirely, correctly ― would be the main issues in this case here, and commented on the Federal Court’s decision rejecting the government’s motion to strike here.) Full disclosure, before going any further: I have spoken to Mr. Alani about this case, and made some comments on the draft of his own Memorandum of Fact and Law. Whether this makes me biased, you be the judge.

The government makes four arguments for dismissing Mr. Alani’s challenge. First, it says that he does not deserve to be granted public interest standing to pursue it. Second, the claim is, in its view, non-justiciable, because it requires the court to enforce a constitutional convention. Third, even if justiciable, the issue is not within the jurisdiction of the federal court. And fourth, when it comes to the actual merits, the Prime Minister has “broad discretion” as to the timing as well as the contents of his advice.

Note what’s missing here: an actual claim that s. 32 of the Constitution Act, 1867 doesn’t require the appointment of Senators. It’s blindingly clear that it does, and much of the government’s argument is devoted to directing the Court’s attention away from this simple truth. That said, all truths are not to be told by courts generally, and by the Federal Court of Canada specifically, and the government’s arguments on justiciability and, perhaps especially, jurisdiction are serious, albeit presented in a rather misleading way.

The standing argument is more difficult to take seriously. The test for granting a person public interest standing (i.e. the ability to pursue a claim that has no impact on his or her own legal rights) is explained in the Supreme Court’s decision in Canada (Attorney General) v. Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society, 2012 SCC 45, [2012] 2 S.C.R. 524. There must be a serious justiciable issue ― a point that is treated separately in the government’s submissions (and presumably always will be if it is a live issue in a case, which makes me wonder whether it even should be treated as part of the standing inquiry). The claim must be a reasonable and effective means of getting the issue before the courts. This is normally the most contentious part of the test, but here, the government’s submissions have little to do with the usual inquiry into the existence of alternative ways of getting the issue litigated. They focus, rather, on the other element of the standing test, which asks whether the claimant has a genuine interest in the issue. The government makes much of the the fact that Mr. Alani hadn’t taken an interest in the question of Senate vacancies for any length of time before launching his application. In its submission, this makes him “a ‘busybody’ as the term is defined in the jurisprudence,” [39] a person who doesn’t really care about the issue, and thus undeserving of representing the public interest.

This argument is really beside the point, however. The policy of not appointing Senators is new and unprecedented. Nobody can have demonstrated a long-standing interest in it, because it did not exist, or at least hadn’t been publicly announced, until last winter. Mr. Alani became interested in it as soon as it was possible for anyone to do so. The government’s argument amounts to a suggestion that nobody can bring a public interest court challenge to an unconstitutional government policy for some undefined time after it is put in place, because doing so makes the claimant a “busybody.” This is absurd. As for Mr. Alani himself, right or wrong, he has made a difficult argument very seriously; he has invested a considerable amount of time and effort into it; he doesn’t just come to court with a vague sense of grievance; he has also, I have argued, taken his role as a (self-appointed) representative of the public with more seriousness than most public-interest litigants, or for that matter the government itself, tend to do. In the absence of any other, more effective, vehicle for getting the issue adjudicated, his challenge deserved to be addressed substantively, and not dismissed for lack of standing.

The government’s argument on justiciability is that Mr. Alani “seeks … judicial enforcement of the Prime Minister’s role in Senate appointments.” [45] Courts, according to orthodox constitutional theory, are not in the business of enforcing constitutional conventions, and thus they should not adjudicate Mr. Alani’s claim. Nor is the Supreme Court’s recognition in Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 S.C.R. 704, of the existence of a “constitutional architecture” enough to make conventions justiciable.

As I have indicated above, I think that the justiciability issue is a serious one, but not exactly for the reasons the government suggests. Indeed, I think that it is somewhat misleading to describe Mr. Alani’s claim as seeking the enforcement of a convention. Convention says that the Governor General appoints Senators on the Prime Minister’s advice, and not on his own initiative. It eliminates the discretion that the text of the Constitution Act, 1867 seems to give to the Governor General. If the Governor General decides to appoint Senators on his own, without waiting for the Prime Minister’s advice, and the Prime Minister tries to block those appointments, that would indeed be an attempt to enforce a convention. What Mr. Alani is asking for is something else. He wants the Prime Minister to be told that he must advise the Governor General ― not the Governor General to be told that he must follow the Prime Minister’s advice. The duty Mr. Alani is asking the court to enforce is not the Governor General’s, but the Prime Minister’s.

This is, admittedly, a novel claim, and it raises two issues: does the duty in question exist at all, and if so, what is its nature? Contrary to the government’s submissions, I think that the notion of constitutional architecture is pertinent here. The architecture of our system of responsible government involves an advice-giving Prime Minister (in some situations, including Senate appointments) and cabinet (in others). When the relevant actors are refusing to give advice to the Governor General, they are undermining this architecture. This is particularly so when the advice in question is necessary for the Governor General to legitimately perform a clear constitutional duty, such as the appointment of Senators. For this reason, I think that it is quite clear that the Prime Minister does indeed have a duty to advise the Governor General to make Senate appointments. And, while this is less clear, I think that taking the notion of constitutional architecture seriously requires us to conclude that this duty is indeed a legal one.

The federal government’s strongest argument, in my view, is the one about the jurisdiction of the Federal Court, which is only empowered to review decisions of bodies acting pursuant to an Act of Parliament or a Crown prerogative. The government contends that the Prime Minister, in his advice-giving capacity, is not such a body. The heart of Mr. Alani’s argument on this point is his submission that

[i]In the case of Senate appointments, the Governor General enjoys the Crown prerogative power to summon and receive advice from the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister, in turn, has jurisdiction to advise “by a prerogative of the Crown.”

The government’s response is that “[t]he advice is simply provided pursuant to a constitutional convention” [75] ― otherwise, it says, the advice would be binding on the Governor General.

I think this is a difficult question. On the one hand, it’s not obvious to me that if the Governor General has the prerogative to summon advisers and receive and advice (as he does), the advice he receives is given “by” that prerogative. On the other, I think the government is wrong to claim that the non-binding nature of the advice shows that it is strictly conventional in nature. Convention that makes the advice binding, but it does not follow from that that the advice itself is given pursuant to a conventional, rather than a legal obligation. Indeed, as I suggest above, I believe that the Prime Minister does have a legal obligation to provide advice on Senate Appointments ― but again, I’m not sure that this is enough to make this advice into one given “by a prerogative of the Crown,” rather than a duty directly imposed by the constitution, over which, as the government argues, the Federal Court would lack jurisdiction (so that Mr. Alani would have to bring a new case in a provincial superior court if he wants the matter adjudicated).

Finally, on the substantive issue in Mr. Alani’s challenge, the government argues that the remedy he seeks, namely a declaration that Senate vacancies must be filled “within a reasonable time” is too vague to be granted, and that there is no constitutional convention limiting the time a Prime Minister can take to recommend an appointment. The matter is one in which the Governor General (and, presumably, the Prime Minister) has a “wide discretion.” [89]

One thing that comes to mind in response is Justice Rand’s famous statement in Roncarelli v. Duplessis, [1959] SCR 121, that “In public regulation of this sort there is no such thing as absolute and untrammelled ‘discretion’, that is that action can be taken on any ground or for any reason that can be suggested to the mind of the administrator.” (140) The context is not quite the same ― we’re not talking about economic regulation or even administrative law, but the warning is apposite. The Governor General does, undoubtedly, have some discretion, perhaps wide discretion, in complying with s. 32 of the Constitution Act, 1867, because a Senate appointment is, or should be, a serious political decision which may reasonably take some time. But this discretion cannot be abused in every which way a Prime Minister thinks expedient.

And, once again, the government’s emphasis on (non-existent) conventions is rather beside the point. The issue here is not that some one vacancy has gone unfilled for too long. It is that the Prime Minister has announced a policy of not filling them at all. If the existence of a constitutional convention cannot overturn clear constitutional text, then surely the non-existence of a convention cannot do so either. Yet that is exactly the government’s contention: no convention specifies how quickly s. 32 must be complied with, therefore s. 32 need not be complied with at all. This too is absurd.

When a court finally reaches the merits of Mr. Alani’s claim, it ought to rule in his favour. The government’s substantive submissions are feeble ― not because its lawyers are bad, but because its case is. But whether the Federal Court is the court that can address the merits of this case is a difficult question, to which I am unable to suggest a definitive answer.

Let’s Hear It

I’ve mentioned Aniz Alani’s challenge to the constitutionality of the Prime Minister’s apparent and admitted policy of not making any Senate appointments before. The federal government moved to strike Mr. Alani’s application for judicial review, arguing that it had no chance of success, and also that the Federal Court had no jurisdiction to hear it. Yesterday, that Court’s Justice Harrington rejected the motion to strike, thus allowing the application to proceed to a hearing on the merits. It is important to keep in mind that this is not a decision on the substance of any of the multiple issues Mr. Alani’s application raises. Indeed, Justice Harrington is very careful to make it clear, throughout his reasons, that these issues are very much open. Still, these reasons might give us some indications of what the eventual merits ruling could look like.

The issues presented by this case can be sorted in four categories. Logically the first is the question of whether the constitutionality of senatorial non-appointments is justiciable at all. Then there is the procedural question of whether Mr. Alani’s application to the Federal Court is the right way to raise it. Justice Harrington mostly considers a variety of sub-questions that can be grouped under these two headings, dealing with procedure first and with justiciability second.

What I have in the preceding paragraph called the procedural question is actually mostly one of jurisdiction. Justice Harrington briefly considers the matter of Mr. Alani’s standing, but does not really go beyond “grant[ing] him standing on a public interest basis to oppose the motion to have his application struck.” [11] He also comments on the question of whether there is a “decision” not to appoint Senators which the Federal Court could review. If there is no decision, Justice Harrington suggests when considering some amendments Mr. Alani proposed making to his application, then the application becomes a pure “reference” on a point of law, which the Federal Courts Act does not authorize an individual to pursue. The Federal Court would, in other words, be without jurisdiction to entertain a challenge not focused on a “decision.” For the purposes of a motion to strike, Justice Harrington is prepared to assume that a “decision” has been made, but he seems somewhat skeptical. This is likely to be a problem for Mr. Alani going forward, as I had already suggested here.

The other jurisdictional question Justice Harrington addresses is also one I had pointed at. Even assuming that the Prime Minister has made a “decision,” within the meaning of the Federal Court Act, not to advise the Governor General to appoint Senators, does this decision fall within the scope of the Federal Court’s review powers? More precisely, the government contended that decisions regarding advice do not fall within the scope of Crown prerogative, and are thus nonrenewable. Justice Harrington does not decide this point, but rather says that there is enough doubt about it to leave it open to a hearing on the merits. (It is worth noting, though, that he does not once mention the concept of “constitutional architecture,” which in my view is Mr. Alani’s best hope of bringing the issue of the Prime Minister’s advice within the legal, as opposed to the purely conventional, realm.)

As for the justiciability issues involved in Mr. Alani’s challenge, they all have to do with the role of constitutional conventions in the appointment of Senators. All agree that there is a convention pursuant to which Senators are appointed by the Governor General on the Prime Minister’s advice. The government has argued that, as conventions are not legal rules or legally enforceable, the whole matter non-justiciable. Justice Harrington suggests that this is not so. He notes that the government has not argued that a convention governs “the timing of the Prime Minister’s recommendations” to the Governor General, and adds that

[c]ertainly, at some stage, senators have to be appointed. If there were to be no quorum, (the quorum being fifteen), Parliament could not function as it is composed of both the House of Commons and the Senate. [17]

Justice Harrington goes on to say that courts can determine whether a convention exists, and that if the government wants to rely on one, it will not only have to establish its existence, but possibly also show that any convention it relies on does not “flaunt[]” the requirements of the Constitution Act, 1867, “that Senate vacancies be filled” “promptly” [18] ― though the existence of such a requirement is also left to be established (presumably by Mr. Alani) at the merits stage of the application. Finally, Justice Harrington suggests that, contrary to the government’s contention, the court could make a declaration even if doing so has the effect of making the government follow a convention.

It is good, I think, that Mr. Alani’s challenge will be considered on the merits. It underlying premise, that the timely appointment of Senators to fill vacancies is a constitutional requirement pursuant to s. 32 of the Constitution Act, 1867, seems to me obviously correct, and since the Prime Minister, as well as one of the men hoping to replace him, are committed (the latter perhaps even more strongly than the former) to disregarding the constitution, it would be good if the courts could call them to order. That said, it is still not clear that the Federal Court is actually authorized to do that. Specifically, it remains to be seen whether the Prime Minster’s course of action can be regarded as a reviewable decision and, if so, whether it is the sort of decision the Federal Court has jurisdiction to review. Courts, unlike Prime Ministers, cannot simply ignore pesky legal rules that might stop them from doing what they think is best.

Please Advise

The Prime Minister is apparently refusing to have any new Senators appointed, until, well, who knows (though one may suspect that it is until the next election. The leader of the official opposition has already declared that he would never appoint any Senators ever. And, as I noted in my first post on this subject, a Vancouver lawyer, Aniz Alani, has asked the Federal Court of Canada to put an end to the Prime Minister’s subversion of section 32 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which provides that “[w]hen a Vacancy happens in the Senate … the Governor General shall by Summons to a fit and qualified Person fill the Vacancy.” Mr. Alani’s suit raises a number of interesting questions. In this post, I address some of them.

Although his notice of application names both the Prime Minister and the Governor General as respondents, Mr. Alani’s challenge is framed as an application for judicial review of the Prime Minister’s “decision … not to advise the Governor General to summon fit and qualified persons to … the Senate.” He seeks declarations to the effect that the Prime Minister must so advise the Governor General, and that his failure to do so is an unconstitutional violation both of the relevant provisions of the Constitution Act, 1867 and of underlying constitutional principles.

Before getting to the substantive issues this raises, a few words about preliminary matters. An issue that I will only flag, but not address, is that it can be difficult to show that a course of not doing something amounts to a decision not to do it that is amenable to judicial review. Assuming that Mr. Alani can clear that hurdle, he may also need to convince the court to grant him public interest standing, to pursue his challenge, since the non-appointment of Senators does not injure or affect him personally any more than any other citizen. The factors a court will consider in deciding whether to grant public interest standing are the existence of a serious justiciable issue, on which more below, though if the federal courts follow the Québec Court of Appeal’s recent decision in Canada (Procureur général) c. Barreau du Québec, 2014 QCCA 2234, they will not impose a high threshold here at the standing stage; the seriousness of the applicant’s interest; and the existence of alternative ways of getting the matter before the courts, which should not be an issue here.

Once these matters are out of the way, the biggest substantive issue with Mr. Alani’s application is the way in which it involves constitutional conventions. This arguably goes at once to the jurisdiction of the Federal Court under section 18.1 and to the justiciability of his claims under the general principles courts apply in cases where their power to decide a question is uncertain. To repeat, Mr. Alani’s application aims squarely at the behaviour of the Prime Minister, and not that of the Governor General. Yet the text of the Constitution Act, 1867 gives the power and the duty ― the word “shall” in section 32 is dispositive in this regard ― to appoint Senators to the Governor General. Pursuant to a constitutional convention, this power is exercised on the Prime Minister’s advice. But, on the orthodox view, that convention itself is not a legal rule, and there is no legal link between the Prime Minister and the appointment of Senators.

Thus, Mr. Alani may have some difficulty showing that his application raises at least one of the “grounds of review” which give the Federal Court jurisdiction under subsection 18.1(4) of the Federal Courts Act. At least on the orthodox view of a rigid separation between law and convention, the Prime Minister has not “refused to exercise [his] jurisdiction,” “failed to observe a … procedure that it was required by law to observe,” or “acted in any other way that was contrary to law.” The law, on this view has nothing to say about the Prime Minister’s behaviour with respect to the appointment of Senators. For the same reason, the government could argue that the a Prime Minister’s decision to advise or not to advise the Governor General is a purely political one, and therefore lacks a “sufficient legal component” to be justiciable.

The Supreme Court’s opinion in Reference re Senate Reform, 2014 SCC 32, complicates things, however. The Court introduced a notion of “constitutional architecture,” which seems to encompass the relationships between the various institutions of government, such as that between the Senate and the House of Commons. The Court took the position that making the Senate, in effect, elected would alter the constitutional architecture by making it the equal of, rather than the complement to, the House of Commons. Until then, we thought that the reason the Senate (normally) yielded to the House of Commons was a constitutional convention, rather than a legal constitutional norm.

Mr. Alani could invoke this notion of constitutional architecture, which is part of the legal and not only the conventional constitution, to argue that the Prime Minister’s actions ― or rather his inaction ― infringes on the “constitutional architecture” which makes him responsible for ensuring, by giving timely advice as to the identity of “fit and qualified persons,” that the Governor General can discharge his duty under s. 32 of summoning them to the Senate “when a vacancy arises.” Whether the courts would accept this argument remains to be seen. It seems at least plausible to me, but the notion of architecture is too new and too uncertain to make any predictions about the ways in which it might be applied in the future.

But even if Mr. Alani can overcome the difficulty of showing that the Prime Minister’s behaviour actually contravenes a legal rule, he will further need to convince the courts that the remedies he is seeking are appropriate. (Although I cannot develop the argument for this proposition here, I think that the courts’ decisions on justiciability are often dependent on their views of their remedial powers, and not only on the nature of the rules at issue in a case.) Mr. Alani is asking the court to declare that “the Prime Minister … must advise the Governor General to summon a qualified Person to the Senate within a reasonable time after a Vacancy” arises, and that he is acting unconstitutionally by failing to do so. But such a declaration would not be very helpful, because it would not specify what a reasonable time is. Unfortunately, it is probably impossible for a court to be any more specific, given the politically sensitive nature of any Senate appointment, not to mention the absence of any clear time limit in the constitutional text.

Now the Supreme Court has occasionally issued fairly vague declarations or statements of the law, often in the context of references (such as the Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 S.C.R. 217). The one “normal” case where the Court did that, which immediately comes to mind, however, is Canada (Prime Minister) v. Khadr, 2010 SCC 3, [2010] 1 S.C.R. 44, where the Court declared that the Canadian government had acted unconstitutionally, and said, in effect, that it ought to do something about that. But the government’s ― this Prime Minister’s government’s ― response to that decision was arguably perfunctory, and the same might happen in this case. A declaration that the Prime Minister is acting unconstitutionally may well be met with further inaction, and might thus only serve to undermine the courts’ authority. I am not sure that the courts will, or indeed that they should, risk such an outcome.

The constitutional rule set out in section 32 of the Constitution Act, 1867, seems clear enough. But the role of constitutional conventions and concerns about the remedial powers of the courts, not to mention administrative law and standing issues, might still prevent it from being judicially enforceable. This seems problematic from the perspective of the Rule of Law ― but then again, a rule of this sort never intended to be judicially enforced. A Prime Minister’s self-interest in making patronage appointments can normally be counted on to ensure that appointments to the Senate will be relatively expeditious. Unfortunately, when the incentives on which a constitutional scheme implicitly relies break down, the constitution itself becomes dysfunctional ― indeed, we may well speak of a constitutional crisis, albeit not yet an acute one ― and it’s not obvious what can be done about that, or by whom.

Challenging Succession, Round 2

Yesterday, in Teskey v. Canada (Attorney General), 2014 ONCA 612, the Court of Appeal for Ontario rejected a Charter challenge to the Succession to the Throne Act, 2013, a law that purports to “assent[] to” the changes to the rules of royal succession laid out in a British bill (and agreed to by the heads of government of the Commonwealth). This decision upholds the one issued by the Superior Court of Justice last year, about which I wrote here. In my view, like that decision, that of the Court of Appeal may well reach the correct outcome, although its reasoning is deeply flawed. And to the extent that it is correct, it only strengthens a different challenge to the Succession to the Throne Act.

The appellant, who represented himself (as he had done at first instance), argued that the continued exclusion of Catholics from the line of succession, which the Succession to Throne Act does nothing to address, infringes the equality rights guaranteed by the Charter. But, like the Superior Court, the Court of Appeal concludes that the case

does not raise justiciable issues and that Mr. Teskey lack[s] standing to bring the application. The rules of succession are a part of the fabric of the constitution of Canada and incorporated into it and therefore cannot be trumped or amended by the Charter, and Mr. Teskey does not have any personal interest in the issue raised (other than being a member of the Roman Catholic faith) and does not meet the test for public interest standing.

I agree with the Court on the matter of standing. Even under the relaxed public interest standing test, a claimant’s capacity to develop his argument in a manner that will be helpful to the court is a relevant consideration, and it’s not clear that Mr. Teskey had such a capacity; nor is it clear, as the Court says, what his interest in the issue is.

However, there are several problems with the Court’s reasoning. One is that, assuming that the Succession to the Throne Act is not subject to the Charter because succession rules “are incorporated into [the Constitution] and therefore cannot be trumped” by it, this is not a matter of “justiciability.” As I explain in my post on the decision at first instance,

[j]usticiability is a slippery concept, but it has to do with a court’s ability to answer the sort of question at issue in a case. The question here is the constitutionality of an Act of Parliament ― something the courts deal with all the time. Even if the Charter does not apply to that Act of Parliament, that does not mean that its constitutionality could not be called into question in a judicial proceeding, albeit on a different basis.

An issue that does go to justiciability, at least in a broad sense, is whether the Court can address a constitutional challenge to a statute which has not even been proclaimed into force. I’m not aware of any such case, and I have serious doubts about a court’s power to entertain such a challenge ― but here, the Court of Appeal does not even raise this question.

And then, there is the matter of the grounds for the Court’s assertion that the rules of succession are a part of the Constitution. The Court doesn’t explain why this is so ― yet these rules are certainly not an explicit part of any enactment which s. 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982 lists as being part of the Constitution.

The Court’s assertion is, however, probably correct because, I wrote last year, the “office of the Queen” entrenched by par. 41(a) of the Constitution Act, 1982, “arguably includes the rules on who can come to hold that office from time to time, at least in a case where, like with the monarchy, these rules are, arguably again, its defining characteristic.” Since then, the Supreme Court has held, in L’affaire Nadon, that the “composition” of the Supreme Court (entrenched by a different paragraph of s. 41) includes the eligibility criteria for judges, a conclusion which I think suggests (although probably does not require) that the phrase “the office of the Queen” should also be interpreted to include eligibility criteria.

But if the rules of succession to the throne are indeed “a part of the fabric of the constitution of Canada and incorporated into it and therefore cannot be trumped or amended by the Charter,” it follows that, a fortiori, they cannot be amended by an ordinary act of parliament, such as the Succession to the Throne Act. If they are part of the constitution, they must be changed by a constitutional amendment. If I am right that they are part of the constitution by virtue of par. 41(a) of the Constitution Act, 1982, this amendment requires the unanimous consent of the provinces. I take it that Mr. Teskey did not make this argument, and that the Court could therefore not consider it, but it is at the heart of a challenge launched by a group of constitutional law professors in Québec. Like the Superior Court before it, the Court of Appeal has given that challenge additional ammunition. When it is finally heard ― not before next summer, apparently ― it will become clear that, just like with its Senate reform project, and the appointment of Justice Nadon, the federal government chose to take a shortcut to avoid formal constitutional amendment ― and has ended up violating the constitution.

Not So Great Expectations

Whatever his other merits and demerits, Conrad Black has made some noticeable contributions to the development of the law of justiciability in Canada. The latest came this week, in the form of a judgment of the Federal Court of Canada, in Black v. Advisory Council for the Order of Canada, 2012 FC 1234.

The first had come in Black v. Canada (Prime Minister), (2001) 54 OR (3d) 215  (ON CA), in which Mr. Black, as he then was, tried to challenge the advice that Jean Chrétien, then Prime Minister of Canada, give to the Queen regarding Mr. Black’s possible appointment to a peerage in the United Kingdom. The Court of Appeal for Ontario held that the matter was not justiciable.

Now, decade, a peerage, and a couple of criminal convictions later, Lord Black is trying to dissuade the Advisory Council for the Order of Canada from recommending the termination of his appointment to the Order due to his criminal convictions in the United States. Having notified Lord Black that it was considering making such a recommendation to the Governor General (who makes all the final decisions regarding the appointment to and termination from the Order), the Council invited him to make submissions on the matter, in writing. Lord Black, however, demanded an oral hearing, arguing that it was necessary to let him explain why his convictions were unjust, and thus not grounds for terminating his appointment. The Council refused, and Lord Black applied for judicial review of the refusal.

The first question facing Justice de Montigny was whether the application for judicial review was premature. Normally, a court will not review an interlocutory decision of an administrative tribunal―such as whether to allow a person to make written or oral submissions. These decisions can be reviewed as part of the review of the tribunal’s final decision. However, this case is exceptional: the Council’s final recommendation is not a “decision” at all, and so is not subject to review for that reason, while the Governor General’s eventual decision to withdraw an honour such as an appointment to the Order of Canada is discretionary and probably non-reviewable, so that there is no juncture at which the Council’s decision not to give Lord Black the opportunity to make oral submissions could be reviewed. The time to review it is now or never.

If, that is, it is the sort of decision that can be reviewed by courts at all―if it is justiciable. The decision to grant an honour is certainly not. It is made in the exercise of the royal prerogative over honours―a discretion belonging to the monarch (though in most cases exercised on the advice of others political actors, such as the Prime Minister or the Cabinet). That in itself does not make it non-justiciable. The question is rather whether it is purely discretionary and political, or concerns rights or legitimate expectations. The grant of an honour does not. It is inherently subjective and motivated by moral and political considerations rather than legal ones; it is a matter of discretion, not right or entitlement. And, says Justice de Montigny, so is the decision to withdraw an honour. Lord Black could have no expectation of remaining an Officer of the Order of Canada forever; indeed, the Order has an explicit policy stating that the Council will review the membership of those who have been found guilty of a criminal offence. However, the policy also lays down a specific procedure for such a review. And that, says Justice de Montigny, is what makes this case justiciable. Lord Black could have no legitimate expectations as to the substance of the review of his membership, but he could have such an expectation about the procedure that would be followed. (This is also the difference between this case and the 2001 one: there, there was no predetermined procedure for the Prime Minister to follow.)

The trouble for Lord Black is that the review procedure prescribed by the Council’s policy affords the person concerned an opportunity to make written, but not oral submissions. An oral hearing is possible, but not required. Therefore there can be no legitimate expectation that one will be held. Nor is there anything wrong with that, says Justice de Montigny, either as a general matter, or in Lord Black’s specific case. Generally speaking, a hearing is not required to make an administrative procedure fair, even one that can have very grave consequences, such as a person’s deportation from Canada. Hearings are generally required only in proceedings where credibility is at stake. Lord Black claimed that this was his case because what is really at issue is his innocence of the misdeeds of which he was found guilty by American courts. Not so, says Justice de Montigny. His reasons on this point are a little confusing, because he says both that the Council cannot second-guess the decisions of the U.S. Courts and that

if, as [Lord Black] submits, he was treated unfairly in the American justice system, there is nothing preventing him from making that argument in writing.  …  He has provided the Council with a copy of his book on the subject of his convictions which runs to more than 500 pages.

In any event, the fairness of the U.S. criminal proceedings does not depend on Lord Black’s credibility.

In the end, then, Lord Black was no luckier than 11 years ago. But maybe he can console himself with the fact that this time, his claim was, at least, found to be justiciable.

Operation Dismantle at the Olympics

Citizens concerned that the deployment of a weapons system in their place of residence will expose them to an increased risk of a devastating attack turn to the courts to try to block the deployment. They fail. To a Canadian constitutional law junkie, that’s the short story of Operation Dismantle v. The Queen, [1985] 1 S.C.R. 441. But that is also the story, on which the BBC reports, of a group of London residents who tried to challenge the decision by the British defence ministry to install a missile system on the roof of their apartment building as part of the security deployment for the upcoming Olympics. The High Court rejected their claim yesterday in Harrow Community Support Ltd v The Secretary of State for Defence, [2012] EWHC 1921 (Admin). But although the two cases can, I think, be fairly summarized in much the same way, there are substantial differences in the courts’ reasoning.

Operation Dismantle was an attempt by a coalition of civil society groups to block the testing of American cruise missiles in Canada on the ground that it increased the likelihood of nuclear war and thereby contravened Canadians’ right to the security of the person, protected by section 7 of the Charter. The Supreme Court had “no doubt that the executive branch of the Canadian government is duty bound to act in accordance with the dictates of the Charter” (455) – and that the judiciary could verify compliance with this duty even of a cabinet decision having to do with foreign policy (459).

However, the Court held “that the causal link between the actions of the Canadian government [in allowing the missile test to go forward], and the alleged violation of appellants’ rights under the Charter is simply too uncertain, speculative and hypothetical to sustain a cause of action” (447). Chief Justice Dickson insisted that judicial “remedial action will not be justified where the link between the action and the future harm alleged is not capable of proof” (456). The problem for the appellants was that given the inherent uncertainty of international relations, “it is simply not possible for a court, even with the best available evidence, to do more than speculate upon” (454) the consequences of the decision to allow missile tests. And as subsequent decisions of the Supreme Court show, the same can be true of other governmental decisions in the realm of foreign policy. Thus the actual consequences of the Supreme Court’s holding that “disputes of a political or foreign policy nature may be properly cognizable by the courts” (459) are rather less far-reaching than they might first seem to be. A sweeping assertion of judicial power is combined with a very cautious approach to its exercise.

The decision of the High Court might seem to be, in a sense, the opposite. Justice Cave-Haddon professes extreme caution, asserting that “[m]ilitary operational deployments for reasons of national security are matters for which the Government is answerable to Parliament and not – absent bad faith or acting outside the limits of the discretion – the Courts” (par. 27). And yet he makes – on the strength of a fairly scanty record quickly put together for an application heard on an expedited basis – detailed findings of fact, including a finding regarding degree to which the installation of the missile system makes the claimants’ apartment block more likely to be a terrorist target. Unfortunately for claimants, this degree is, in the judge’s view, nil. The claimants lose, but – purportedly – on the merits, rather than because their claim is inherently incapable of prof.

The reason for my skepticism as to whether this really is a decision on the merits is that the judge appears to have accepted with no reservations the government’s testimony, and in particular that of the general responsible for the military’s Olympics security deployment. Now it is not clear whether, or how seriously, the claimants challenged that evidence. But what seems clear enough is that much of it was opinion (about the missiles’ necessity, safety, etc.), not fact capable of proof in court. And even if we treat such testimony as expert evidence, what chance would the claimants have had to challenge it even if they had tried? A high-ranked military officer is, after all, presumably the best expert on such questions, and a court would be naturally inclined to defer to him.

Perhaps it is better simply to admit, as our Supreme Court did in Operation Dismantle, that the allegations of claimants in such cases are not capable of proof. Or to hold, as both the English High Court and our Supreme Court ostensibly did not,  that such cases are, quite simply, not justiciable.