Looking past Dunsmuir: Beginning Afresh

Imagining stable and generally acceptable administrative law doctrine

The Hon. Justice David W. Stratas,
Federal Court of Appeal

The views expressed in this post are the author’s own and are offered for education and discussion purposes only.


In my first article for the Dunsmuir Decade series, “A Decade of Dunsmuir: Please No More,” I suggested that Dunsmuir should no longer be followed. But what should take its place?

To some extent, I have already explored this: D. Stratas, “The Canadian Law of Judicial Review: A Plea for Doctrinal Coherence and Consistency,” (2016), 42 Queen’s L.J. 27 (available online here).

To create a reliable, stable law of substantive review, we need to: (i) identify settled doctrine and well-accepted principles; (ii) deduce the operational rules from them, and (iii) take into account relevant, widely accepted judicial policies. 

Identification of settled doctrine and well-accepted principles

This step builds the solid and stable foundation upon which one can deduce operational rules to regulate this area of law.

As explained in my first article, operational rules developed in this way have every prospect of widespread acceptance, permanence and consistency of application. On the other hand, operational rules constructed out of judges’ personal views and say-so are not likely to survive the next set of judges on the court.

For too long in this area of law, judges have set out operational rules based on their own personal views of the proper relationship between the judiciary and administrative decision-makers and their own freestanding opinions—not well-settled doctrine and well-accepted principles of a longstanding and durable nature.

As we shall see, the settled doctrine and well-accepted principles that underlay this area of law aren’t just longstanding and durable. They are fundamental constitutional principles as well.  This adds force to the operational rules logically deduced from them. 

Some doctrine and well-accepted principles

Fortunately, settled doctrine and well-accepted principles are not hard to find. Dunsmuir did some of the work for us (at paras. 27-31).

Dunsmuir told us that two principles lie at the heart of judicial review and animate it: legislative supremacy and the rule of law.

The U.K. Supreme Court recently affirmed this same idea: Michalak v General Medical Council, [2017] UKSC 71; and see commentary here.

Legislative supremacy suggests that laws passed by legislators must be obeyed. The rule of law suggests that administrators must comply with certain time-honoured standards concerning decision-making processes and substantive outcomes.

The principles of legislative supremacy and the rule of law sometimes can pull reviewing courts in different directions: in some cases, the former tells us that legislatively created bodies with legislatively bestowed jurisdiction must be left alone to the extent the legislation provides (e.g., where the legislation contains a privative clause), but the latter tells us that courts can interfere if certain decision-making standards are not met. Sometimes these principles work in harmony (e.g., where the legislation allows for a full right of appeal).

There is a corollary of these two principles. The corollary also has constitutional force. Our law has a fundamental ordering, one so well-accepted that if any judges do not accept it, they ought to quit and run for public office instead. The principle? Unless valid constitutional concerns are present, laws passed by the legislators bind all, including judges: Imperial Tobacco. Judge-made law must work within the parameters supplied by legislation and cannot oust legislation: see the general discussion in D. Stratas, “The Canadian Law of Judicial Review: Some Doctrine and Cases” (October 21, 2017 version) at pp. 9-14 and 77.

Another principle also springs from the principle of legislative supremacy. But for clarity it is best identified as a separate principle. Where the legislator has vested decision-making power in an administrator and judicial review lies to a reviewing court, administrators and reviewing courts have two different, exclusive roles. Administrators are the merits-deciders and reviewing courts are the reviewers: see discussion in cases such as Access Copyright  at paras. 17-20; Bernard at paras. 17-19; Gusto TV at para. 11; Robbins at para. 17; Tsleil-Waututh at paras. 85 and 87. Each, bound by law, must stick to its role.

A fourth principle is the nature of the separation of powers. Like legislative supremacy and the rule of law, this too is a constitutional principle: Judges’ Reference; Babcock at para. 54.

How does separation of powers play out? In our system of government, government decisions can be placed on a spectrum.  At one end are legislators and their decisions to make laws. Then there are decisions by others, sometimes legislative in nature, on truly political matters or tough political questions about who gets what privilege or grant; in consideration here are political determinations and the government’s view, sometimes ideological, of what is best for all. A little further over are decisions, sometimes legislative in nature, on broad policy matters. Even a little further over are decisions on broad policy matters where some of the policies are informed by laws on the books. Further over are decisions based on a mix of policy matters, legal considerations such as the interpretation of legislation and the adjudication of rights and legal entitlements. Even further over are matters even more in the realm of fact-finding and legal adjudication, devoid of policy content. And then there are decisions pretty much indistinguishable from the matters courts typically handle, matters firmly in the realm of fact-finding, ascertainment of the law and application of the law to the facts, with a view to settling rights and legal entitlements without regard to policy considerations. And then, finally, at the other end of the spectrum there are courts adjudicating rights and entitlements.

Logically, at the legislative end of the spectrum, one would expect that courts would be reluctant to interfere. And absent constitutional concerns, they can’t on the grounds of justiciability. But go a little further in and we find administrators whose decisions are justiciable but who decide matters in a way that is quite alien to what courts do. Way at the other end, just before we reach the courts, one would expect that administrators such as these could be policed quite closely by courts; they are deciding matters and deciding in a way that is pretty much indistinguishable from what courts do.

Put bluntly, at one end, the matters being decided are not in the ken of the court or in its wheelhouse. And at the other, they most certainly are. This has obvious relevance to the intensity to which courts should review various administrative decisions. 

Deducing operational rules from the doctrine and principles: an introduction

Before deducing operational rules from the doctrine and principles, we must consider what sort of operational rules we ought to have in this area of law.

The consideration of this, below, draws upon a more complicated and vigorous debate in the United States concerning the desirability of rules, standards and principles to regulate subject-matters: those interested in pursuing this further can begin, e.g., here and here, and this is just the tip of a large iceberg.

For our purposes here and to keep things simple, I will posit that operational rules can come in two types: rigid and tangible rules and looser, more conceptual, flexible rules.

An example of the former is the test for an interlocutory stay or injunction: RJR-Macdonald. There, one must satisfy three rigid, tangible requirements.

An example of the latter is the test in negligence for determining whether a defendant has fallen below the standard of care expected of persons in the defendant’s position. To the extent that definition of the concept is required, the definition develops as cases are decided over time and it is discovered through good common law method. This is not an area where judges are shackled by a multi-branch test with rigid, tangible requirements that must be met. In the end, judges know the concept and they are trusted to apply it to the cases before them.

In the area of standard of review—determining the extent to which reviewing courts should interfere with an administrators’ decision—what’s best?

A scheme where there are a set number of categories—say, just two—with tangible rules about when each applies? And no flexibility within the categories to adjust the intensity of review? Just two intensities of review, and no others?

Or a more flexible, conceptual, non-categorical approach, one where we recognize that there is a spectrum of intensities of review that vary according to the context?

In the area of appellate review under Housen, the binary categories of review (correctness or palpable and overriding error) depending on whether the appellate court is dealing with questions of law, mixed fact and law, or pure fact makes sense because the context is relatively static. But the substantive review of administrators’ decisions must be different. A more flexible, conceptual, non-categorical approach makes sense because, as explained in the discussion of the separation of powers, above, the administrative context varies so sharply.

The contributions to the Dunsmuir Decade series suggest that most of our leaders in administrative law support a greater reliance on context for determining the extent to which reviewing courts should interfere with administrators’ decisions. I have found no wholesale endorsements of the presumptions set out in Dunsmuir. In academic papers, three of our most well-regarded and knowledgeable administrative law scholars agree that a more contextual approach is apt: P. Daly, “Struggling Towards Coherence in Canadian Administrative Law? Recent Cases on Standard of Review and Reasonableness”; L. Sossin, “The Complexity of Coherence: Justice LeBel’s Administrative Law” and G. Heckman, “Substantive Review in Appellate Courts Since Dunsmuir” (2010), 47 Osgoode Hall L.J. 751 at 778-79.

Judicial policies

In designing operational rules to govern this area of law, universally-accepted judicial policies about how legal proceedings should unfold—not the just the say-so’s and on-the-spot opinions of a particular constellation of judges at a particular moment about social and political values—should play a role. Where the doctrine and principles suggest a number of possible operational rules, the one that best advances these policies should be chosen.

The sorts of judicial policies I am thinking about are access to justice, judicial economy and minimization of litigation expense, as explained in leading decisions such as Hryniak, Danyluk and Housen.

And related to this are insights gleaned from a greater appreciation of the nature of administrative law and the values that animate it, values that judges in this area of law need to draw upon in exercising their discretions: see P. Daly, “Administrative Law: A Values-Based Approach” in J. Bell et al (eds.), Public Law Adjudication in Common Law Systems: Process and Substance (Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2015); and see how administrative law values were deployed to shape operational rules in Tsleil-Waututh, Wilson (F.C.A.) at para. 30, and Bernard.

In considering judicial policies, care must be taken not to elevate any one consideration too far and create operational rules that no longer reflect settled doctrine and well-accepted principles.

For example, minimization of litigation expense might cause some impulsively to advocate for operational rules that are hard-and-fast and simple to apply; some contributors to the Dunsmuir Decade series seem all too ready to go there, for the sake of simplicity.

But simple, one-size-fits-all approaches are at odds with the broad and varied nature of administrators, their decisions and their mandates. Nor are they rooted in settled doctrine and well-accepted principles and, thus, they lack persuasive force and permanency.

The result? Injustice is seen, judges start to chafe, they construct ad hoc exceptions upon exceptions to address the injustice, the longed-for simplicity is lost and, ultimately the operational rules, lacking persuasive force and permanency, join the graveyard of failed approaches over the last few decades.

We’ve seen this all-too-many times. The approach Dunsmuir replaced was called “pragmatic and functional.” It was replaced because it turned out to be neither pragmatic nor functional. The desire in Dunsmuir was about greater simplicity. So how did that work out?

Rigid, inflexible rules aimed at simplicity can be a siren song leading to disaster. And do not underestimate for a moment the simplicity that can emerge from clearly stated operational rules of a conceptual nature founded on definite, well-understood, longstanding doctrine and principles. 

Some possible deductions

What can be deduced from all of the foregoing?

1. Let’s begin with the idea that legislatively created bodies with legislatively bestowed jurisdiction must be left alone to the extent the legislation provides. Let’s combine this with the idea that laws passed by legislators bind all, even courts.

This suggests that reviewing courts must take note of what legislators have said in their legislation. In short, legislative interpretation must be a key part of the exercise of judicial review. In terms of when a reviewing court may intervene, what did the legislature intend?  (By the way, Dunsmuir said this at paras. 30-31, but Dunsmuir’s presumptions and contextual factors and cases post-Dunsmuir have largely ignored this.)

We interpret legislation—discover its authentic meaning—by examining its text, context and purpose: Rizzo and Rizzo; Bell ExpressVu; Canada Trustco. The focus is on what the legislators—the people with the exclusive right to make laws under ss. 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867—enacted, not what we would like to see enacted. We must do this neutrally and dispassionately without injecting into the analysis our own preconceptions about the extent to which courts should interfere with administrators’ decisions, our opinions about what is best for Canadians or our own musings about what we personally think is sensible and practical: Williams at paras. 41-52; Cheema at paras. 76-80.

This is something courts are very experienced in doing.

Implications can follow. While legislative text may permit a full appeal, this does not mean that a reviewing court may interfere whenever it wants. The legislation, properly interpreted, may suggest that restraint by the reviewing court is in fact warranted.

Where a securities commission makes a decision relying upon a complicated, relatively non-legal, policy-based understanding of the securities industry, did the legislature really intend that courts can interfere with the decision whenever they want to? When the legislation says that an administrator operating in a field that is outside of the ken of the courts can grant a licence when “it is of the opinion that it is in the public interest,” isn’t the legislator really saying that it is for the administrator to decide what is in the public interest with a minimum of interference?

2. Next, the rule of law.

Legislative text can bar an appeal or a review, for example by way of a clause called a “privative clause”. But that does not mean that a reviewing court can never interfere. As explained above, as a matter of legislative interpretation, the legislation, properly interpreted, may suggest that interference by the court in limited circumstances is warranted.

And even if the legislation truly bars appeals in all circumstances, the rule of law allows courts to interfere nonetheless: Crevier; Dunsmuir at para. 31.

But rule of law concerns vary in size and shape. Cases show that the courts’ sensitivity to rule of law concerns is accentuated by decisions that have significant impact on the individual. The more drastic the measure upon an individual, the more likely the court will be vigilant and ensure that the administrator has complied with basic and fundamental substantive and procedural standards of decision-making.

All are subject to law. No one can be a law unto themselves. All must be accountable to the public they serve. Accountability is a particularly important concern for administrators who are emanations of executive government, i.e., part of government as a whole.

Thus, administrators cannot be immunized from meaningful review by reviewing courts nor can they conduct themselves in a way that shields their decisions from review: Crevier, above; and see discussion in Tsleil-Waututh. This has implications for the giving of reasons: administrators must explain themselves sufficiently in order to be accountable to the public and they must say enough to make review possible.

3. In developing and identifying operational rules, courts should respect the third principle—that of the separate roles of the administrator as merits-decider and the reviewing court as reviewer. Operational rules cannot place the reviewing court in the position of merits-decider. This must shape some of our operational rules—e.g., rules concerning the admissibility of evidence in reviewing courts and the role that reviewing courts should play in coming up with reasons that the administrator should have given.

4. Let’s recap some of the above. Legislative interpretation is case specific. As mentioned above, the rule of law assumes greater or lesser prominence depending on the nature of the case. Different types of administrators have different types of decisions. And administrators occupy different positions in the spectrum of administrative decision-makers, at one end completely different from courts and what they do and at the other end virtually the same.

This suggests that the extent to which a court can interfere with an administrative decision must be a qualitative, conceptual assessment that results in a sliding scale.

It follows from the foregoing that the determination of the extent to which reviewing courts should interfere with an administrators’ decision—the intensity of review—is like a dimmer switch, not an on-off switch. Slotting cases into rigid single-standard categories like correctness and reasonableness is inapt.

A few words about a longstanding, uniquely Canadian predilection

For decades now, Canada has dealt with the intensity of review by constructing artificial categories of review and forcing judges to ram their cases into them. We also seem to venerate a superstructure of arcane rules decreeing what goes into what category. Chaos and constant revision is the result.

So we’ve suffered through categorizations into jurisdictional error and non-jurisdictional error, legislative, administrative, quasi-judicial and judicial decisions, categories of correctness, reasonableness and patent unreasonableness and, now, categories of correctness and reasonableness.

Consider for a moment what’s more likely to be true: as a result of Dunsmuir, Canada has found the magic elixir, the idea of two inflexible, single-standard categories of review, and everyone else in the world is silly not to do the same, or Canada is an outlier that stubbornly clings to an idea that everyone else has rejected for good reason?

And what’s the point of all the gymnastics and the spilling of so much ink on whether the standard of review is correctness or reasonableness—and then just doing correctness anyway?

And, with apologies to the majority in Edmonton East, what is wrong with contextual approaches anyway? What I advocate (see below) is not unlike the contextual approach of Baker for determining the level of procedural fairness owed. And Baker has brought relative calm to the law of procedural fairness. A contextual approach can do so here as well. The test for negligence is a contextual approach and no one is calling that law a never-ending construction site; it is reasonably settled in 99.9% of the cases it regulates. Over time, case-by-case, the common law gives a good measure of certainty and predictability.

Some suggested operational rules

From the foregoing, I suggest the following operational rules for this area of law. They are supported by settled doctrine, well-accepted principle and judicial policy. Because of that, if they are adopted, have every chance of widespread acceptance and permanence.

1. The intensity of review must be on a sliding scale that varies according to the terms of the legislation, the breadth of the discretion granted, the prominence of rule of law considerations (including the drastic nature of the decision upon the individual), the nature of the decision-maker and the nature of the decision. Administrators have varying margins of appreciation or ranges of what is acceptable depending on these circumstances.

Avoid rigid tests on this. Let reviewing courts stir all these factors into a pot and decide on the intensity, allowing them to express it in general but still helpful terms. Examples: Farwaha; Boogaard; Mills; Re:Sound; Delios; Abraham; Almon Equipment; Erasmo; Walchuk; Emerson Milling; and see P. Daly, “Struggling Towards Coherence in Canadian Administrative Law? Recent Cases on Standard of Review and Reasonableness” and D. Stratas, “The Canadian Law of Judicial Review: Some Doctrine and Cases” (October 21, 2017 version) at pp. 57-73. Of these, perhaps Boogaard contains the most comprehensive analysis and weighing of factors that can affect the intensity of review.

Indeed, some of these bear a remarkable resemblance to cases in other Westminster jurisdictions whose law is not as chaotic as ours: see, e.g., Wolf v Minister of Immigration, [2004] NZAR 414 (N.Z.H.C.); AI (Somalia) (“the lawfulness of the exercise of powers by a body that is unusually constituted must be judged against its nature and functions, powers and duties and environment in relation to those of other bodies”); Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council v Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, [2015] UKSC 6; R. v. Secretary of State for the Home Department, [2014] UKSC 60. This suggests that the Canadian cases, above, are on to something useful.

And let’s be honest: cases decided under the reasonableness standard do exhibit variable intensities of review. We see fussy review, not-so-fussy review, and correctness review.  This operational rule reflects what judges, cognizant of the relevant factors, are inclined to do anyway.

Under the approach I suggest, the strong, judge-made presumption of reasonableness adopted by the majority in Edmonton East would disappear, with legislative interpretation playing a greater role in the analysis amongst other factors.

Overall, this would result in more correctness review. Legislative regimes where there is no privative clause (often with a full right of appeal) and other legislative indicators of correctness review will often lead to correctness review; on the other hand, the assignment of power to administrators in specialized areas to grant to withhold licences or approvals based on public interest criteria will often lead to a more deferential review. A good discussion of this is here. The dissenters in Edmonton East are far closer to the approach I suggest.

A return to the old, discarded approach of correctness review for “jurisdictional questions,” recently advocated by a minority of the Supreme Court in Guérin, should be rejected for all the good reasons offered both long ago (see N.B. Liquor at p. 233) and recently (Halifax); and see the compelling majority reasons of the U.S. Supreme Court in Arlington.

“Correctness review for jurisdictional questions” is an example of the siren song of simplicity I spoke of above, one that leads to unprincipled word games and arbitrariness. Under my suggested approach, matters that the Guérin minority considers to be “jurisdictional” and that the administrator “must get right” are going to be matters of legislative interpretation that admit of few interpretive options, i.e., matters on which there the administrator will have little or no margin of appreciation. The Guérin minority could easily live with the operational rule I propose here; and it would be better and offer more permanence because it is based on settled doctrine and well-accepted principles.

2. Make more tangible and rigorous the assessment whether a decision passes muster under deferential standards of review. Identify specific circumstances that can take a decision outside the range of acceptability and defensibility. The cases cited under point 1, above, all do this. Examples include: disobedience with constraining legislation such as legislative recipes that must be followed (Almon Equipment and Emerson Milling); disobedience with mandatory principles such as procedural fairness, constitutional standards, other fundamental standards such as the need for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and First Nations (Canadian Human Rights Commission); disobedience with court cases that are directly on point and cannot be distinguished on the facts or policy (Abraham; Emerson Milling). For a good approach to deferential review of administrators’ legislative interpretations, see Allen. For more, see D. Stratas, “The Canadian Law of Judicial Review: Some Doctrine and Cases” (October 21, 2017 version) at pp. 57-63.

Certain indicia or badges of reasonableness and unreasonableness can be identified from the case law. These can provide reviewing courts with useful illustrations: Delios at para. 27; Farwaha at para. 100; Re:Sound at paras. 59-61; Boogaard at para. 81; Forest Ethics at para. 69; and for a more complete list of badges, see D. Stratas, “The Canadian Law of Judicial Review: Some Doctrine and Cases” (October 21, 2017 version) at pp. 63-66.  This promotes certainty which facilitates access to justice by fostering predictability of result.

3. End de novo appeals to appellate courts. Judicial economy, access to justice and minimization of expense require this. Absent legal error, first instance reviewing courts deserve deference to their heavily fact-based assessments of the intensity of review. In other words, repeal Agraira and import Housen to govern appellate review.

4. Reviewing courts must stick to their role and not delve in the merits. Their job is to ensure that administrators required by legislators to grapple with a problem have in fact grappled with it. They are not to do the administrator’s job. Therefore, it is no part of the reviewing court’s function to redraft, correct or supplement administrators’ reasons for decision. Neither is it their role to detect error on the administrator’s part and then cooper up the outcome reached by the administrator—an outcome that an administrator might not have reached had it known of its error.

5. A corollary of the relative roles of reviewing courts and administrators is that administrators’ reasons must be sufficient to permit review and to fulfil their obligations of public accountability. A standard similar to that proposed in earlier, lower-court cases on adequacy of administrators’ reasons is designed to meet those objectives and, thus, is more doctrinally sound. Note that these cases sit comfortably with this recent U.K. Supreme Court decision on point.

6. The evidentiary and procedural law of judicial review must reflect the contrasting roles of reviewing courts as reviewers and administrators as merits-deciders. To a large extent, this is happening in the Federal Court of Appeal: see Access Copyright at paras. 17-20, Bernard at paras. 17-19, Gusto TV at para. 11, Robbins at para. 17, Tsleil-Waututh at paras. 85 and 87; and see cases from other jurisdictions referred to in these cases.

7. Judicial economy and efficiency require reviewing courts to take more seriously their remedial discretion. Although a decision is liable to be set aside and sent back for redetermination, that needn’t happen: MiningWatch Canada; Mobil Oil. Circumstances may suggest otherwise. Would any purpose be served in sending the matter back? Realistically speaking, is there only one correct or acceptable result and so there is no point in sending it back? Does chronic or severe maladministration by the administrator mean that the matter should not be sent back but rather should be determined, exceptionally, by the reviewing court? Are there important practical reasons why it should not be sent back? If it is sent back, can the reviewing court, while respectful of the administrator as the merits-decider, still offer guidance by giving fulsome reasons or imposing terms. See generally D. Stratas, “The Canadian Law of Judicial Review: Some Doctrine and Cases” (October 21, 2017 version) at pp. 102-109.

Deduced logically from settled doctrine and well-accepted principle and leavened by contemporary judicial policy, these operational rules will have real staying-power. They give us the best chance of finally ending the tumult and chaos that has afflicted this area of law for decades.

Personal comments

I am one of the last contributors to the Dunsmuir Decade series. On behalf of all of the contributors and on behalf of the administrative law community I would like to offer my personal congratulations and thanks to Professor Daly and Professor Sirota.

I congratulate them both for organizing and carrying out this Dunsmuir Decade series. Collectively, the articles are most illuminating. They have assisted the Bar, academia and the judiciary in understanding the latest issues in the law of substantive review of administrators’ decisions. We are all better for this.

Their blogs, Administrative Law Matters and Double Aspect, are such a service to the legal community. They keep us acquainted with important and interesting developments in administrative law and more generally in public law. To get such prompt insights on the latest legal developments from two cutting-edge experts is a real privilege. Even when we disagree with them, they cause us to reflect, question our preconceived notions, and think about what is correct. Because of the generous work of Professor Daly and Professor Sirota, often many of us end up in a better place in our own work.

Congratulations and thanks!

Squaring the Public Law Circle

Canadian administrative lawyers keep trying to reconcile parliamentary sovereignty and the Rule of Law; they shouldn’t bother

Ancient Greeks wondered whether it was possible to construct a square of the same area as a given circle using only a compass and a ruler ― to square the circle. The problem occupied some great minds of that age and of the subsequent ones, even Napoleon apparently. It took well over two millennia until it was shown to be impossible to solve. Public law has its own quadrature problem, posed by A.V. Dicey (the first edition of whose Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution came out just a couple of years after the demonstration of the impossibility of squaring the circle): it consists in fitting together, albeit by means of verbal rather than geometrical contortionism, parliamentary sovereignty and the Rule of Law.

Dicey and many others since him have mostly been preoccupied by this problem in the context of fundamental individual rights, and their protection from a legislature unconstrained by a supreme law constitution. Canada eventually abandoned this attempt ― or rather cut back on it significantly, since some rights, such as that to property, remain unprotected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But, to an extent that Dicey did not imagine and that is arguably without parallel in the rest of the Commonwealth, we have re-deployed our intellectual energies merely to a different application of the same problem, this one in administrative law. We are struggling to reconcile parliamentary sovereignty, which suggests giving effect to legislative attempts to insulate administrative decision-makers from judicial review, and the Rule of Law, which, as Dicey himself suggested, requires courts of justice to apply the law. We are not succeeding.

It is not for lack of trying. The majority opinion in the supposedly still-leading case on judicial review of administrative action,  Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190, recognized that

[j]udicial review seeks to address an underlying tension between the rule of law and the foundational democratic principle, which finds an expression in the initiatives of Parliament and legislatures to create various administrative bodies and endow them with broad powers. [27]

Dunsmuir and the subsequent cases that have fucked up beyond all recognition refined the framework that it laid down attempted to resolve this tension and to make sure that, as a Russian saying has it, the wolves are sated, and the sheep unharmed. Scholarly commentary has worked, I think, in the same direction.

The most recent example is a thoughtful post on ABlawg by Martin Olszynski. Professor Olszynski seeks to recover what he sees as Dunsmuir’s promise of reconciling parliamentary sovereignty and the Rule of Law. He proposes to achieve this by making

two inter-related changes to the Dunsmuir framework … The first change would be to reverse the presumption of reasonableness on questions of law to a presumption of correctness, which can then be rebutted for the large majority of such questions through the presence of a privative clause (this approach would be similar to that proposed by Justice Deschamps in Dunsmuir). The second related change would be to abandon the overly broad and fundamentally contradictory concept of “expertise” as a basis for deference and to replace it with the potential for democratic accountability, which ultimately is the basis for legislative supremacy.

Although the judiciary has the “training, independence, and impartiality” to claim “the upper hand in the interpretation of the law”, it ought to yield this upper hand to  legislative statements that call for deference to administrative decision-makers. Legislatures “must be respected – because they are democratically elected and accountable”. Provided they make themselves sufficiently clear by enacting “privative clauses” (provisions that typically seek to out judicial review of administrative decisions or to strictly limit it), legislatures can be made to answer for any decision to remove legal interpretation from the purview of the courts. When the legislation includes a privative clause, a reviewing court should, therefore, defer, but not otherwise ― and especially on the pretense that an administrative decision-maker is an expert by virtue of its very existence.

I agree with Professor Olszynski’s criticism of the role that the idea of administrative expertise has come to play in Canadian administrative law (which I have not fully summarized ― you really should read it). Last year I wondered here whether “the Supreme Court is embracing that pop-psychology staple about 10,000 hours of doing something being enough to make one master it”, and I elaborate on my worries about “expertise” in a paper I recently presented at the TransJus Institute of the University of Barcelona. I also agree that courts should not be shrinking violets when it comes to legal interpretation. It’s their job, and it’s the think that they’re supposed to be good at. If legislatures decide to scrap some of the administrative bodies they have set up (a guy can dream, right?), the courts will have to apply the legislation these bodies are now responsible for. They ought to be able to do that.

But I am skeptical of Professor Olszynski’s suggestion that the presumption that questions of law must be addressed by courts should, in the name of democratic accountability, by rebutted by privative clauses. Indeed, I think that the idea of democratic accountability is not readily applicable in this context. Professor Olszynski argues that accountability works by pointing to his own criticism of the application of a privative clause in an environmental law case, and contrasting it with the fact “that few labour or employment lawyers would argue against privative clauses in that context”. With respect, the possibility of academic criticism does not make for democratic accountability; nor does acceptance by a relevant expert community (if indeed “labour and employment lawyers” are the relevant expert community in relation to labour law ― what about economists, for instance?) make for democratic legitimacy. How many voters have ever heard of privative clauses, never mind being able to articulate any thoughts on their desirability? To believe that legislatures can, let alone will, be held accountable for eliminating the courts’ role in legal interpretation unwisely, or even abusively, requires more optimism than I could ever muster.

I am inclined to think ― though my thoughts on administrative law are still tentative ― that in determining the standard of review we should not attempt to reconcile the Rule of Law and legislative supremacy. The reconciliation is never meant to be real in any case. The Rule of Law is, ultimately, the dominant value, because even those who claim that they want to respect legislative will refuse to give effect even to the clearest privative clauses. To take a statutory provision that says “no judicial review” to mean “deferential judicial review” is not to accede to the legislature’s desires, but to impose one’s own principles ― including the principle of the Rule of Law ― on it.

And there is nothing wrong with this. The Rule of Law, as the Justice Rand observed ― in the context of a lawless exercise of administrative power ― in Roncarelli v Duplessis, [1959] SCR 121 at 142, is “a fundamental postulate of our con­stitutional structure”. It is a constitutional principle that can, as the Supreme Court recognized in Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217, result in “substantive limitations upon government action” ― including, relevantly to us here, in government action aiming at reducing the courts’ powers of judicial review. By contrast, as the Secession Reference also recognized, democracy ― whether direct democracy, which was at issue in that opinion, or representative democracy, and whether accountable or otherwise ― must be confined by constitutional limitations. The Court wrote “that with the adoption of the Charter, the Canadian system of government was transformed to a significant extent from a system of Parliamentary supremacy to one of constitutional supremacy”. [72] But that’s not quite right. The Charter imposed additional restrictions on legislatures, but it did not “transform” the constitutional system, which was already one of “constitutional supremacy” under the Constitution Act, 1867.

To the extent that it is required by the Rule of Law principle, judicial review of administrative action, including correctness review on questions of law, is a constitutional requirement. This extent is the question that Canadian administrative lawyers and judges should be addressing. Virtually everyone, I think, agrees that the Rule of Law requires correctness review in at least some cases. My own inclination is to say that it requires correctness review often, and perhaps always. I might be wrong about that, but if I am, this is because I misunderstand the Rule of Law, not because I fail to account for Parliamentary sovereignty and to give effect to (modified versions of) privative clauses. There is simply no need to bring parliamentary sovereignty into the standard of review equation, thereby making it unsolvable. Unlike in mathematics, the impossibility of squaring the public law circle cannot be conclusively demonstrated (though even in mathematics the demonstration apparently did not stop enthusiasts from trying). But the futility of well over a century’s worth of attempts should, I submit, be a warning to us all.

Chekhov’s Gun

Why Dwight Newman’s defence of the Charter’s notwithstanding clause is unpersuasive

Anton Chekhov liked to say that “one must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off”. And conversely, once the rifle is part of the set, then go off it must. But must this theatrical directive apply to constitutional law? Some evidently think so―at least when it comes to the “notwithstanding clause” of the Canadian  Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Dwight Newman in a National Post op-ed, and Gerard Kennedy in a post for Advocates for the Rule of Law, are the latest of those who have ventured this opinion in the wake of Saskatchewan’s decision to invoke the “notwithstanding clause” to continue funding the education of non-Catholics at Catholic “separate” schools, despite a court finding that this is unconstitutional. Their arguments are no more persuasive than those I considered in my previous post on this topic.

Professor Newman notes that “[t]he notwithstanding clause was a vital part of the constitutional negotiations that led to the Charter being adopted in 1982. Without it, some provinces were unwilling to come on board.” In his view, “[t]hose who argue that the notwithstanding clause is somehow illegitimate actually bear the onus of explaining how the rest of the Charter would be legitimate without it”. But the fact that the existence of a legal power was a necessary part of a constitutional compromise does not justify the use of such a power. The federal power of disallowance over provincial legislation was a necessary part of the compromise that made Confederation possible, yet using it now would violate a firm constitutional convention. Does Professor Newman think that opposing the use of this power involves thinking that sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867 are illegitimate too?

Professor Newman adds wants to bolster the propriety of using the “notwithstanding clause” by pointing out that “[i]t tracked a similar clause in the 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights … and was an important clause in bringing together different constitutional traditions”. Yet although they are worded similarly, section 33 of the Charter and section 2 of the Canadian Bill of Rights have very different functions. The Charter‘s notwithstanding clause makes it possible to deny some of its provisions the status of Supreme Law that they would otherwise have by virtue of subsection 52(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982. By contrast, the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Bill of Rights serves to protect it against implied repeal by subsequent legislation, and thus to elevate what would otherwise be an ordinary statute to what has been described as “quasi-constitutional” status. Though they can both be described as reconciling the protection of individual rights with Parliamentary sovereignty, the two notwithstanding clauses are thus motivated by opposite concerns. That of the Canadian Bill of Rights is rights-protecting; the Charter‘s is legislation-protecting.

Professor Newman makes some substantive criticisms of the court decision Saskatchewan wishes to override. I hope that I will be able to return to them later on. Suffice it to say that I am still of the view, expressed here, that the decision on the issue of religious freedom was quite obviously correct. Professor Newman also claims that those who criticize Saskatchewan’s use of the notwithstanding clause “miss the realities of governing”―notably the need to prevent the uncertainty about the eventual application of the court decision, indeed the “chaos” that would result from its application. Of course, uncertainty is not eliminated, but merely postponed by invoking the notwithstanding clause, which has to be renewed every five years. More importantly though, as I have already explained, the government has a way to avoid creating “chaos” while complying with the constitution. It only needs to fund all non-public schools equally, without discrimination in favour of Catholic ones.

More importantly still, the “realities of governing” objection, and the concern about uncertainty, could be applied to any number of Charter decisions. Uncertainty has followed the Supreme Court’s decisions declaring unconstitutional the blanket ban on assisted suicide and extreme trial delays, for instance, to name only two. If uncertainty, or public concern, is enough to set aside a judicial decision about rights, then we should drop the pretense of having a judicially enforced Charter of Rights, and go back to the good pre-1982 days of Parliamentary sovereignty. Mr. Kennedy is perhaps more forthright about this, arguing that anyone “who seeks to have a court expand”―or simply declare―”the meaning of Charter rights must be prepared to have the scope of those rights subsequently narrowed by the legislature”.

This is really the heart of the debate. Do we want a judicially enforced constitution, or should we go back to Parliamentary sovereignty? I’m not saying, by the way, that turning the clock back to 1982 would be some sort of catastrophe. Canada was a free country in 1982―albeit a free country where the Lord’s Day Act was good, unassailable law. New Zealand, which does not have rights protections enforceable against Parliament, is a free country, freer than Canada in some ways, though not in others. I think that abandoning judicially enforced rights would be a step backwards, which is why I am so critical of those who want to do it, but it would not be a step into the abyss.

But even though it would not be a crazy thing to do, giving up on judicial enforcement of constitutionally guaranteed rights would involve a substantial change to our constitutional arrangements. Professor Newman claims that those opposed to the use of the “notwithstanding clause” “may be wedded to a different vision of Canada—one oriented only to individualistic rights”. But in truth, however exactly we count them, uses of the “notwithstanding clause” have been a marginal phenomenon for 29 years, ever since Québec gave in to nationalist protests to prevent the use of English in advertising. Professor Newman’s individualistic dystopia is actually our reality. It is he and his fellows, not Andrew Coyne or I, who are “wedded to a different vision of Canada” from that in which we live.

Ostensibly, Professor Newman and Mr. Kennedy might not see themselves as advocating a complete de facto reversal of the 1982 constitutional settlement as it has been implemented by political actors as well as courts over 35 years. They might think that they are only defending occasional uses of the notwithstanding clause in response to particularly problematic judicial decisions. But as I’ve explained before, I do not think there is a tertium quid, some sort of happy Canadian middle ground between Parliamentary sovereignty and judicial enforcement of constitutional rights. If the norm against using the notwithstanding clause disappears, then it will be used proactively, profusely, and promiscuously. Like the Saskatchewan government now, others will use it whenever they think their policy ends justify the means, without paying attention to the rights the constitution is supposed to protect.

As Chekhov knew, placing a loaded rifle on the stage creates an unstable situation. A good dramatist will resolve the instability with a bang―and probably some casualties. But constitutional actors are not comedians. Even if they are put in a position where a loaded gun is within their reach, their responsibility is not to fire it, but to keep it safe if they cannot unload it, and to instruct those who follow them to do likewise. As for constitutional critics, they should not be cheering for the most theatrical resolution. They might enjoy a drama, but when the shots are fired, they are likely to be aimed at the audience.