In the first post of this series, I set out to explain the concept of pragmatism in statutory interpretation, as explained by Ruth Sullivan. My contention was that Rizzo, arguably Canada’s seminal statutory interpretation judgment, is a pragmatic judgment. Relatedly, I argued. that a purely pragmatic approach to statutory interpretation, while providing interpreters with maximum flexibility, also fails in two potential ways: (1) it permits judges to assign weights to interpretive tools that may run counter to the point of statutory intepretation: to discern what this particular text means; and (2) it could lead to methodological unpredicability–a problem that I will outline in Part III of this series.
In this post, I will address why Rizzo is a fundamentally pragmatic judgment. It is pragmatic because it leaves open the possibility, particularly in the use of purpose, for text to be supplanted if other interpretive tools point in another direction. In other words, it does not make a claim that some interpretive tools are more appropriate than others in the abstract. In the pragmatic approach, it is up to the judge to assign the weights; rather than the methodological doctrine guiding this selection, the judges themselves have unbridled discretion to mould statutory interpretation methods to the case in front of them, based on factual contexts, contemporary values, or otherwise. As I will note in Part III, this sounds good in theory—but in practice is less than desirable.
Rizzo was a garden-variety statutory interpretation case, and I need not go deep into the facts to show what is at stake. Basically, the key question was whether employees of a now-bankrupt company could claim termination and severance payments after bankruptcy . The key problem was whether the relevant legislation permitted the benefits to accrue to the employees, even though their employment was terminated by bankruptcy rather than by normal means. The relevant provisions of the Bankruptcy Act and the Employment Standards Act, on a plain reading, seemed to prevent the employees from claiming these benefits if their employment was terminated by way of bankruptcy .
The Supreme Court chastised the Court of Appeal for falling into this plain meaning trap. To the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal “…did not pay attention to the scheme of the ESA, its object or the intention of the legislature; nor was the context of the words in issue appropriately recognized” . The Supreme Court endorsed this now-famous passage as the proper method of interpretation in Canada:
21 Although much has been written about the interpretation of legislation (see, e.g., Ruth Sullivan, Statutory Interpretation (1997); Ruth Sullivan, Driedger on the Construction of Statutes (3rd ed. 1994) (hereinafter “Construction of Statutes”); Pierre-André Côté, The Interpretation of Legislation in Canada (2nd ed. 1991)), Elmer Driedger in Construction of Statutes (2nd ed. 1983) best encapsulates the approach upon which I prefer to rely. He recognizes that statutory interpretation cannot be founded on the wording of the legislation alone. At p. 87 he states:
Today there is only one principle or approach, namely, the words of an Act are to be read in their entire context and in their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the Act, the object of the Act, and the intention of Parliament.
Using this approach, the Court reasoned that the provisions in questions needed to be interpreted with their objects in mind—specifically, the relevant provisions were designed to “protect employees” . For example, section 40 of the Employment Standards Act, one of the provisions in question, “requires employers to give their employees reasonable notice of termination based upon length of service” . Such a notice period (with termination pay where the employer does not adhere to the notice period), is designed to “provide employees with an opportunity to take preparatory measures and seek alternative employment” . Ditto for the provisions governing severance pay .
The Court also relied on a number of other interpretive factors to reach the conclusion that the severance and termination pay provisions governed even in cases of bankruptcy. Two are important here. First, the Court relied on the absurdity canon: where possible, interpretations of statutes that lead to “absurd results” should be avoided. Particularly, the Court, endorsing Sullivan, notes that “…a label of absurdity can be attached to interpretations which defeat the purpose of a statute or render some aspect of it pointless or futile…” . In this case, the fact that an employee could be terminated a day before the bankruptcy—and receive benefits—and another employee could be terminated after bankruptcy—and not receive benefits—was an absurdity that ran counter to the purpose of the statute to provide a cushion for terminated employees . The Court also focused on legislative history, which it acknowledged can play a “limited role in the interpretation of legislation” .
All of this to say, Rizzo is, to my mind, a pragmatic judgment for statutory interpretation. This is because, when it endorses the classic Driedger formula at paragraph 21, it does not venture further to show which of the interpretive tools it relies on are to be given the most weight in interpretation; and accordingly, Rizzo could lead to courts assigning weights to interpretive tools that could distort the process of interpretation. For example, the Rizzo Court does not say—as later Supreme Court cases do—that purpose cannot supplant text in interpretation (Placer Dome, at para 23). In other words, when courts source purpose, text is given more weight in interpretation because it is the anchor for purpose (see, for example, the Court’s analysis in Telus v Wellman, at paras 79, 82-83). This can be seen as the Court saying that text is assigned the most weight in interpretation, and that purpose is parasitic on text. When sourced in this way, then, there is no reason to assume that there will ever be a conflict between purpose and text, because purpose is merely one way to understand text. But Rizzo does not say this, instead suggesting that in some cases, purpose can supplant text.
This is the product of pragmatism. Taken on its own, Rizzo’s endorsement of Driedger permits “…each judge [to take advantage] of the full range of interpretive resources available….and deploys those resources appropriately given the particularities of the case” (see here). The possibility for highly abstract purposes to, in appropriate cases, subvert text is a function of the failure of Rizzo to assign clear weights to the interpretive tools in a way that reflects Canada’s fundamental constitutional principles, including the task of courts to discover what the text of statutes mean. I should note, though, that this is not a bug of pragmatism to its adherents; rather, it is a feature. The pragmatists conclude that text should have no special role in interpretation if other factors push against giving effect to text. As I will point out in my next post, this liberates judges to an unacceptable extent when measured in relation to the basic task of interpretation.