Is Deference Possible Here?

The Supreme Court’s latest administrative law decision shows why disguised correctness is the default standard of review

In Groia v Law Society of Upper Canada, 2018 SCC 27, decided last week, the Supreme Court of Canada once again fractured over the approach to take to the judicial review of an administrative decision ― and, once again, the majority chose correctness review disguised as reasonableness as its methodology. The substantive issue in Groia was whether the Law Society was entitled to discipline a lawyer for advocacy that took “the form of personal attacks, sarcastic outbursts and allegations of professional impropriety, grinding the trial to a near standstill”. [12] I have no articulate views on this, except a general sense that the fewer powers law societies have, and the more circumscribed these powers are, the better. But I do want to comment on the administrative law aspects of the decision.

* * *

As Justice Moldaver, writing for the majority, describes its decision, the Law Society’s

Appeal Panel grappled with the issue of when in-court incivility amounts to professional misconduct under the Law Society’s codes of conduct in force at the relevant time. It reasoned that incivility “capture[s] a range of unprofessional communications” and ultimately settled on a multifactorial, context-specific approach for assessing a lawyer’s behaviour. [36; references omitted]

The Panel then applied this test to Mr. Groia’s case. The issue for the Supreme Court is twofold: first, it must review the approach devised by the Panel; second, the Panel’s application of this approach. However, although all distinguish the two questions they must answer, the majority, Justice Côté, who concurs, and Justices Karakatsanis, Gascon, and Rowe, who jointly dissent, all consider that the Panel’s decision on both must be reviewed on the same standard. The majority and the dissent opt for reasonableness, though they apply it differently. Justice Côté goes for correctness.

As Justice Moldaver notes, the Supreme Court’s earlier decisions “establish that law society misconduct findings and sanctions are reviewed for reasonableness”. [43] This is because both the elaboration of the applicable analytical framework and its application “involve the interpretation of the Law Society’s home statute” ― or, as in this case, rules enacted under this statute ― “and the exercise of discretion”. [45] While the question of “the permissible scope of [lawyers’] in-court behaviour is arguably of central importance to the legal system as a whole”, [51] it is not “outside the Law Society’s expertise”. [51] Indeed, “Law Society disciplinary panels are composed, in part, of other lawyers”. [52] Justice Moldaver also rejects the claim, advanced by a dissenting judge at the Court of Appeal for Ontario and accepted by Justice Côté, that sanctions for lawyers’ behaviour in the courtroom are different in that imposing them risks trenching on judicial independence. In Justice Moldaver’s view, this is simply not so: “a trial judge is free to control the conduct in his or her courtroom irrespective of the degree of deference accorded to a law society’s disciplinary decision by a different court”. [55]

Having established reasonableness as the standard of review, Justice Moldaver considers the arguments advanced against the framework developed by the Panel in detail. I will not describe his reasons, partly because I have little to say on their substance, and partly because this part of them alone runs for almost 60 paragraphs. What matters for my present purposes is this: on each point and sub-point, after reviewing the Panel’s decision in at most a single paragraph, Justice Moldaver gives extensive explanations of what the Panel’s decision means, and why it is appropriate. Though these explanations are occasionally couched in the language of reasonableness, there is no doubt that Justice Moldaver provides his own views on the approach to judging alleged incivility by lawyers, instead of merely ratifying the Panel’s.

As for the application of the framework to Mr. Groia’s conduct, Justice Moldaver concludes that the Panel’s  decision was unreasonable. In Justice Moldaver’s view ― explained over the course of over 30 paragraphs ―, the Panel failed to apply the test it had itself articulated, and to take into account the factors that, on its own stated approach, ought to have mattered. For Justice Moldaver, “there is only one reasonable outcome in this matter: a finding that Mr. Groia did not engage in professional misconduct on account of incivility”. [125] (Now, here’s a question: would it be good if someone could reverse the Supreme Court’s decisions when they don’t follow the Court’s stated approach?)

As already noted, Justice Côté is of the view that the applicable standard of review is correctness, because lawyers’ in-court behaviour must be subject to the ultimate control of the judiciary. She insists that

An inquiry by a law society into a lawyer’s in-court conduct risks intruding on the judge’s function of managing the trial process and his authority to sanction improper behaviour. It does so by casting a shadow over court proceedings — in effect, chilling potential speech and advocacy through the threat of ex post punishment, even where the trial judge offered the lawyer no indication that his or her conduct crossed the line. And it permits an administrative body to second-guess the boundaries of permissible advocacy in a courtroom that is ultimately supervised by an independent and impartial judge. [168]

Justice Côté agrees with Justice Moldaver on the application of the test for misconduct, and thus concurs in the result.

The dissenters, by contrast, agree with Justice Moldaver that the standard of review is reasonableness, and also that the Panel’s approach was reasonable. However, they disagree with the way Justice Moldaver applied this standard, accusing him of

fundamentally misstat[ing] the Appeal Panel’s approach to professional misconduct, and reweigh[ing] the evidence to reach a different result. This is inconsistent with reasonableness review as it substitutes this Court’s judgment for that of the legislature’s chosen decision maker. [177]

The dissent faults Justice Moldaver with being insufficiently deferential to the Panel. “[D]eference”, they write, “recognizes that delegated authorities will have greater expertise in matters under their scope of authority”, [178] and when the applicable standard of review is reasonableness, it “is not optional”. [179] In particular, “deference bars a reviewing court from conducting an exacting criticism of a decision in order to reach the result that the decision was unreasonable”, or from “supplement[ing] the decision maker’s reasoning for the purpose of undermining it”. [180]

The dissenters “consider that Justice Moldaver reformulates” [188] the framework articulated by the Panel. As a result, they disagree with Justice Moldaver’s application of this framework too: “[i]t is not a respectful reading of the … Panel’s reasons to articulate a novel test … then fault the Panel for failing to apply it”. [199] The Panel’s decision is intelligible and defensible, and this is not a case where only one outcome could be reasonable. Indeed, such cases will be anomalies, because

[t]he existence of reasonableness review is, rather, premised on the fact that “certain questions that come before administrative tribunals do not lend themselves to one specific, particular result”. [215, quoting Dunsmuir v New-Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190 at [47]]

The dissent then describes ― at some length, and with limited reference to the Panel’s decision ― what it expects to be the pernicious consequences of the majority’s decision. The majority, the dissent fears, “sends the wrong message to those who look to this Court for guidance”. [227]

* * *

Therein, it seems to me, lies the rub. People look to the Supreme Court for guidance ― not for mere affirmation that an administrative decision-maker’s reasons were good enough and that in any event there is no right answer to the question they addressed. The whole point of having what the Constitution Act, 1867 foreshadows as a “general court of appeal for Canada” is that such an institution can explain what the law is. If such a court does not say what the law is, but only indicates that an administrative decision is within the bounds of what the law will tolerate ― without explaining where these bounds actually are ― then it is not doing its job.

It is no surprise, then, that Justice Moldaver’s reasons show little sign of deference to the Panel. What lawyers across Canada are interested in is what the Supreme Court itself thinks about their standards of conduct ― not in whether it thinks that the opinion of a single provincial disciplinary body on this subject was “within a range of possible, acceptable outcomes which are defensible in respect of the facts and law”. [Dunsmuir, [47]]  Indeed, the dissenters, for all the bitterness with which they chide Justice Moldaver for his failure to defer, and despite their own ostentatious display of deference, cannot help but enter the debate with their own comments about the appropriate standards of civility. If the question the Court is deciding is indeed one of central importance to the legal system, as Justice Moldaver concludes (and the dissent specifically agrees with this part of his reasons), this is entirely comprehensible.

Hence the question that, with apologies to Ronald Dworkin, I ask in this post’s title. Earlier this year, I wondered whether “the Court is growing disenchanted with deference to administrative decision-makers’ decisions on questions of law”, and perhaps even trying to kill off reasonableness review without telling anyone. The cases decided since then only provide more evidence for the proposition that the default standard of review in Canadian administrative law is disguised correctness, not reasonableness as the Supreme Court would have us believe. But perhaps the Supreme Court has a defence of  necessity to the charge of attempted murder. No court in its position could do otherwise.

Yet even if this be so, the Rule of Law issues I raised earlier do not go away. Law should be clear, and the fact of its change, transparent. The law of judicial review applied by the Supreme Court is opaque and hidden. And there is a further issue to think about: is it permissible for an apex court to apply a different law than the one it instructs other courts to apply, just because of its position within the legal system? It is, to say the least, not obvious that this is so ― which presumably is precisely why the Supreme Court engages in so much obfuscation. Once again, I conclude that it would be better ― more transparent, more conducive to the coherence of our legal system ― for the Supreme Court to (openly and publicly) abandon reasonableness review on questions of law in most or in all cases.

* * *

Groia illustrates a couple of additional problems with reasonableness review, as theorized and practised by the Supreme Court. On a theoretical level, it exposes the deficiencies in the Court’s justifications for deference, which I have already discussed at some length. Justice Moldaver explains that, while of central importance, the issue of lawyers’ behaviour is within the expertise of law society adjudicators. Indeed these adjudicators are themselves lawyers! But what, one would like to ask Justice Moldaver, are judges? Aren’t they lawyers too, and aren’t they, in principle (though, granted, not necessarily in practice) more eminent lawyers than those who sit on law society tribunals? As the dissenting opinion in Edmonton (City) v Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Ltd, 2016 SCC 47, [2016] 2 SCR 293, co-written by Justice Brown ― who joined Justice Moldaver’s majority opinion in Groia ―, and joined by Justice Moldaver himself, pointed out, “expertise is a relative concept. It is not absolute.” [84] Sometimes administrative decision-makers are more expert than courts, which might be at least a practical reason for deference ― though not a legal one, as Mark Mancini’s contribution to the Dunsmuir Decade symposium pointed out. But this justification is implausible here.

For their part, the dissenters appeal to a different justification for deference: “reasonableness review is premised” on the existence a multiplicity of possible answers to questions to which it applies. Yet, as I noted in the posted linked to in the previous paragraph, deference is the presumptive standard of review for any question concerning the interpretation of administrative decision-maker’s “home statute”, and

the great variety of statutes setting up administrative tribunals, and indeed of particular provisions within any one of these statutes, makes it unlikely that all of the interpretive questions to which they give rise lack definitive answers. Perhaps the suggestion is that the very legislative choice of setting up administrative tribunals to address these questions means that legislatures think that these questions lack definitive answers, but that too seems implausible.

Indeed, the dissent’s reasoning is circular: reasonableness “is premised” on there being multiple possible answers, and since reasonableness applies, it follows that the question under review must have multiple answers.

The practical concern with reasonableness review that Groia illustrates has to do with the supplementation of an administrative decision-maker’s reasons by a reviewing court. The dissent says that Justice Moldaver is wrong to do this to “undermine” the Panel’s review. Yet one of its author’s, Justice Karakatsanis wrote, and another, Justice Gascon, joined, the majority judgment in Edmonton East, which did not so much supplement as outright made up the administrative decision in order to uphold it. Both of these positions ― no supplementation to undermine, any amount of supplementation to uphold ― seem consistent with the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. But they are quite inconsistent with one another.

A clarification: what I’ve said above primarily concerns the first issue in Groia, that of the applicable framework. On the second one, the application of that framework, without entering into the substance of the debate between majority and dissent, and subject to my comments regarding the supplementation of reasons, I think that reasonableness is the appropriate standard of review. To me, Justice Côté’s concerns about judicial independence seem misplaced, for the reasons given by Justice Moldaver. Besides, while this case did not turn on a credibility issue, other, similar ones may well do so. How are courts supposed to engage in correctness review on that? It seems to me that the two issues in Groia should have been addressed on different standards of review. But no opinion takes that approach.

* * *

Groia provides further confirmation, if any were yet needed, that the Canadian law (if it may be called law at all) of judicial review of administrative action is in a dire state. Its theoretical foundations, which have long been weak, are being eroded decision by decision; its practical construction is falling apart. Perhaps these concerns are soon bound to be a thing of the past, as the Supreme Court’s coming review of the Dunsmuir framework simplifies what is abstruse, clarifies what is opaque, and cuts through what is impenetrable. Perhaps. But considering the confusion and the acrimony that seem to be the most remarkable features of the Court’s latest administrative law pronouncements, I suggest that you should not hold your breath.

NOTE: As some readers have pointed out, I had initially mixed up Justices Karakatsanis and Côté at one point. Correction made, and apologies!

FURTHER NOTE: It wasn’t just at one point. More corrections made.

Jiggery-Pokery

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

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

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

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

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

For his part, David Mullan noted that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jousting over Jurisdiction

A summary of the Supreme Court judges’ competing views on how to assess the validity of delegated legisation

The Supreme Court’s decision in West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, is, as Robert Leckey observed on Twitter, “[o]ne for the judicial-review nerds or junkies”. But it is also much more than that, because it a chilling reminder of what I recently called the Supreme Court’s “pro-regulatory bias“, and its resulting complacency in the face of administrative lawlessness. As I will explain shortly, there are four different opinions in the case, dealing with two different issues. In this post, I mostly review these opinions, quoting from them at some length. This will be quite long, I am afraid, due to the amount of ground to cover and to the importance of getting a sense of the judges’ thinking. I will offer my own comments separately.

The case arose out of a tragic accident. On land owned by West Fraser, a worker employed by an independent contractor “was fatally struck by a rotting tree”. [1] The provincial Workers’ Compensation Board fined West Fraser, for failing to comply with a regulation (that it had itself made in purported exercise of its authority under s 225(1) of the British Columbia Workers Compensation Act to “make regulations [it] considers necessary or advisable in relation to occupational health and safety and occupational environment”) requiring “[t]he owner of a forestry operation” to “ensure that all activities of the forestry operation are both planned and conducted in a manner consistent with this Regulation and with safe work practices acceptable to the Board.” As basis for its power to impose the fine, the Board relied on s 196(1) of the Workers Compensation Act, which authorized it to “impose on an employer an administrative penalty” for, among other things, failure to comply with the relevant regulations.

West Fraser challenged the legality of this fine on two grounds. First, it argued that the regulation with which it was said not to have complied was ultra vires the Board ― that was not authorized by the Workers Compensation Act. On this issue, the Supreme Court split 8-1: the majority upholds the regulation, though Justice Brown takes a very different approach from the majority judgment authored by Chief Justice McLachlin, and Justice Rowe is at best ambivalent; Justice Côté dissents. Second, West Fraser argued that, even if the regulation was valid, it could not be fined for breaching it, since within the meaning of the Workers Compensation Act it was, in relation to the victim, an “owner” (of the workplace), and not an “employer”. On this point (and, therefore, in the result), Justices Brown and Rowe agree with Justice Côté’s dissent.

* * *

For the Chief Justice, the approach to the question whether a regulation was authorized by the statute pursuant to which it was purportedly made is identical to that followed on any other “judicial review of the exercise of delegated administrative powers”, [8] and set out in Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190. Given the Board’s regulatory expertise, the issue is whether the impugned regulation “represents a reasonable exercise of the Board’s delegated regulatory authority”. [10] While “some” ― that would be the Chief Justice’s colleagues who disagree with this approach ― argue that the issue if one of jurisdiction, and thus under Dunsmuir the correctness standard applies, the Chief Justice takes the position that

Where the statute confers a broad power on a board to determine what regulations are necessary or advisable to accomplish the statute’s goals, the question the court must answer is not one of vires in the traditional sense, but whether the regulation at issue represents a reasonable exercise of the delegated power, having regard to those goals. [23]

In this case, the “delegated regulatory authority” is vast: “the Legislature indicated it wanted the Board to enact whatever regulations it deemed necessary to accomplish its goals of workplace health and safety”. [10] This “delegation of power to the Board could not be broader” [10] ― indeed, it is “unrestricted” [11] or, at least, it authorizes “any regulation that may reasonably be construed to be related to workplace health and safety”. [11]

This might be enough to uphold the regulation on the Chief Justice’s approach ― but Justice Côté, as we shall see, forces her to elaborate. The Chief Justice insists that the regulation at issue is both consistent with the purpose and “fits with other provisions of” [14] the Workers Compensation Act. And the Chief Justice invokes “two additional external contextual factors” . [19] For one thing, the impugned regulation was a “response to a concern in the province about the growing rate of workplace fatalities in the forestry sector”, and thus “a clear illustration of why a legislature chooses to delegate regulation-making authority to expert bodies — so that gaps can be addressed efficiently”. [20] For another, the Regulation is a logical extension of the owners’ existing duties. In short, even on a correctness standard, “the Regulation plainly falls within the broad authority granted” to the Board. [23]

The dissenting judges disagree with the Chief Justice’s approach. Justice Côté delivers the most sustained rejoinder. She insists that the question “whether the Board has the authority to adopt a regulation of this nature at all” “is jurisdictional in nature” [56] and so must be reviewed on a correctness standard: “[t]he Board … possesses only the authority that is delegated to it by statute”, [56] and this authority either extends to the making of the Regulation, or it doesn’t. Indeed, since it “is an unelected institution”, it is important to “ensure[] that the Board … does not aggrandize its regulation-making power against the wishes of the province’s elected representatives”. [66] Besides, unlike when it is adjudicating a dispute, an administrative decision-maker determining the scope of its regulatory authority neither possesses expertise superior to that of the judiciary, nor brings to bear policy considerations or factual understanding unavailable to the courts. And anyway, reasonableness review, which is supposed by focused on the administrative decision-maker’s reasons, can hardly be applied to rule-making decisions which the regulators need not explain: “[i]f a court does not know the reasons justifying a decision or an exercise of jurisdiction, how can it afford any deference?” [69] Justice Côté adds that the Chief Justice’s “rationale largely escapes [her]”, and her “basis for applying the reasonableness standard remains largely unexplained”. [70] The Chief Justice, she says, “has offered almost no analysis on a question that will prove to be important in subsequent cases”. [74] These are fighting words by the usually demure standards of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Justice Côté also disagrees with the Chief Justice on the merits. In her view, the impugned Regulation “impermissibly conflates the duties of owners and employers in the context of a statutory scheme that sets out separate and defined obligations for” each. [75] Consistently with the statutory purpose, set out in s 107(2)(e) of the Workers Compensation Act, to share out responsibility for workplace safety “to the extent of each party’s authority and ability”, the employers’ duties have to do with their relationship with the workers; the owners’, with the employers. They are “separate silos of responsibility”, each actor being assigned that part of the overall task of protecting workplace safety that it is “in the best position to assume”. [83] The impugned Regulation forces owners to micro-manage workers, taking up a role which the Workers Compensation Act instead assigns to employers, and is thus inconsistent with the statutory scheme and purpose. Although its powers are broad, the Board cannot do such a thing: “[o]therwise, there would be no functional limit on the Board’s ability to enact regulations … in some way connected to some abstract vision of occupational health and safety”. [87] Regardless of what might have prompted the Board to regulate in the way it did, it lacked the authority to do it.

Justice Brown also insists on correctness review for the validity of the Regulation. The matter, in his view too, is one of jurisdiction, and Dunsmuir requires the courts to provide their own answers to truly jurisdictional questions. Like Justice Côté, Justice Brown faults the Chief Justice for her “inadequate” response that “elide[s]” the issue. [113] For Justice Brown,

a central judicial function is to ensure that statutory delegates such as the Board act only within the bounds of authority granted to them by the legislature. … Public power must always be authorized by law. It follows that no statutory delegate, in enacting subordinate legislation (that is, in making law), may ever exceed its authority. The rule of law can tolerate no departure from this principle. [116; emphasis in the original]

The substantive reasonableness of a regulation, by contrast, is not a matter for the courts. Provided that the regulation was authorized by statute and not made oppressively or in bad faith, the courts should not interfere. All that said, on the merits, Justice Brown concurs with the Chief Justice. In a single sentence, he concludes that the grant of regulatory authority in the Workers Compensation Act “is sufficiently broad to support” [121] the impugned Regulation.

For his part Justice Rowe professes to “concur with [the Chief Justice’s] analysis”, [128] but only with the proviso that it be split into two parts: first a jurisdictional analysis (which presumably is to be approached on a correctness standard, following Dunsmuir); and then “a substantive inquiry into the exercise of the grant of authority” [127] and its consistency with the purpose of the statute. While Justice Rowe is of the view that the Chief Justice undertakes both of these steps, the second, as I indicated above, is largely if not entirely a response to Justice Côté. Justice Rowe’s agreement with the Chief Justice is thus more apparent than real. He also makes a point of hitting out at “one of the myths of expertise that now exist in administrative law”, [129] arguing that “‘working day to day'” to apply a statutory regime “does not” “give [administrative decision-makers] greater insight into statutory interpretation, including the scope of jurisdiction, which is a matter of legal analysis”. [129]

* * *

The second issue, recall, is whether the Board was entitled to fine West Fraser under a statutory provision that authorizes the imposition of penalties on “employers” who do not comply with regulations. Here, there is no overt dispute about the standard of review: the Chief Justice finds, and Justice Côté (with whom Justices Brown and Rowe agree) “assume[s]”, [95] that provincial legislation imposes patent unreasonableness as the applicable standard.

The Chief Justice finds that to read “employer” as extending to an owner is not patently unreasonable. To be sure, the alternative opinion is “plausible”, [37] but there are also arguments in support of the “broader” view, “one more supportive of the goal of promoting safety and the overall operation of the scheme”. [38] Since West Fraser “employed persons to carry out the duties imposed by” the Regulation, [38] ― and indeed it had, to being a corporation ― it was an “employer” as well as an “owner”. Moreover, “[t]he general scheme of the [Workers Compensation] Act is to hold both owners and employers responsible in an overlapping and cooperative way for ensuring worksite safety”. [43] Since West Fraser “had sufficient knowledge and control over the worksite in question to render it responsible for the safety of the worksite”, [47] penalizing for the safety shortcomings was reasonable.

Justice Côté sees things differently. Patent unreasonableness is a deferential standard of review, “but there are some interpretations of law that are so far beyond the pale that they cannot be permitted to stand”. [107] The statute carefully distinguishes the roles of owners and employers, and it is impossible to read a provision that only applies to one of these roles as applying to the other too. Although the same entity may play both roles in a given situation, the penalty applicable to the breach of obligations associated with one is not applicable to the breach of those associate with the other. When the legislature wanted to speak more broadly, it used the word “person” rather than the specific terms “owner” or “employer”; the Chief Justice’s “reasoning in this case effectively rewrites” [102] the Workers Compensation Act, undoing legislative choices to uphold “an unbounded interpretation” [104] by the administrative decision-maker. It is not enough, Justice Côté adds, to point to the general purpose of the statute to uphold this interpretation:

The legislature may have intended to pursue that purpose, but it did so through limited means … To hold that any interpretation that the Tribunal views as advancing the goal of health and safety can survive patent unreasonableness scrutiny would render judicial review meaningless. [107]

* * *

There is a lot to chew on here, and I will mostly do so in two upcoming posts. In the first one, I will focus on the substance of the case ― the various views on the proper approach to determining the validity of a regulation, the validity of the Regulation in this case, and the reasonableness or otherwise of the fine imposed by the regulator. (Spoiler alert: to, I suspect, nobody’s surprise, I mostly agree with Justice Côté.) In the second post, I will take a step back, and discuss the broader issues having to do with the relationship between the Supreme Court and the administrative state.

Dunsmuir 10 Years Later

The context, aims, and aftermath of Dunsmuir

The Hon. Michel Bastarache CC QC

At the outset, I should express my gratitude to Professors Daly and Sirota for the invitation to contribute to this remarkable project, including such a superb array of leading lawyers, scholars, and judges. I have encountered the challenges of administrative law for most of my professional life in various capacities, but the sheer diversity of diagnoses and prescriptions, from such a wide range of contributors with such disparate views and organizing premises, has been eye-opening. By my count, there have been calls to revive the patent unreasonableness standard and to eliminate standards of review entirely; calls to greatly expand and tightly limit deference; calls to jettison presumptive categories and calls for more categorization; calls for greater attention to theory and more steely-eyed pragmatism; calls to hew more closely to Dunsmuir and to cast it aside more or less entirely; and much else besides that.

Depending on how you look at it, Dunsmuir is a decision so poor that all can agree went wrong in every conceivable direction, even if they agree on nothing else; or it may be that by synthesizing previous decisions and providing useful guideposts, it managed to secure some modest measure of progress. That ultimate reckoning is a task I will leave to others. I can only say that the contributors have been imaginative, original, astute and perceptive, and reading them all together provides invaluable insight into the subject, for which I am personally grateful and from which I think others can benefit greatly.

Obviously, I have my own views on Dunsmuir and the cases that followed it, and will share a few of them. But my focus in this response is not to defend Dunsmuir from its many critics, but to hopefully provide some insight into what we were trying to achieve, the thinking that went into it, how the unique role of a Supreme Court judge manifested itself in the decision. I intend this not as an apologia, although it may seem that way sometimes; rather, I hope that a better idea of our processes and thinking might help inform and provide some context around the many insights contained in the contributions, and be of some value to students of administrative law, of which I remain myself. I offer these observations in that spirit.

Institutional Constraints

I will begin with the paradox within which Supreme Court judges operate: that we are at once enormously powerful and tightly constrained. Acting at the apex of a system of laws, and guarded by judicial independence, there are few options categorically off the table, at least in terms of developing the common law, of which administrative law is one part. At the same time, we are subject to a broad range of effective constraints, including those imposed by precedent, the autonomy of colleagues, the cases that come before us, and the arguments as framed and argued by the parties. The degree to which a judge feels constrained by any of these factors will vary depending on the judge and the case; I can only speak of my own views, and the extent to which these considerations informed my contribution to Dunsmuir.

From my perspective, it is rarely possible for judges, even Supreme Court judges, to rewrite the law from scratch, however much we may like to do so. We are neither scholars at liberty to develop innovative solutions entirely anew, nor a law reform commission. And while we have the luxury of time that many judges in trial courts do not, we still need to decide a good many cases each year. We do not have the opportunity to focus exclusively on a particular problem or agonize over a judgment for too long, nor can we address an area of law in every conceivable respect in a single judgment. As our individual records might indicate, we are only too human.

Moreover, to the extent we can provide solutions to particular problems, we must not only attempt to find solutions that are conceptually sound, but also practically workable. We realize that it is not helpful to create overly abstract standards, however theoretically pleasing, that judges cannot apply and litigants cannot understand. Especially in an endeavour as diverse as administrative law, which touches on so many aspects of the modern state, the importance of ensuring our judgments are practical and accessible is not to be underestimated.

Perhaps most importantly, Supreme Court judges do not operate alone. We operate within a framework defined by our predecessors, by the need to obtain consensus with our contemporary colleagues, and by the knowledge that there will be subsequent judges who will soon take the reins.

Therefore, in a case like Dunsmuir, we must not only attempt to provide guidance to lower courts, but also create a workable framework that is consistent with and synthesizes the wisdom of generations of judges who came before us. To borrow from Ronald Dworkin’s terminology, we must attempt to both “justify” the system of judicial review by placing it in its best light, and make sure our solution “fits” reasonably well with our past and current practices. We can move the law, but incrementally ― we cannot knock everything down and start from scratch, however much that may be our personal preference.

And when we attempt to move the law, we must do so in a way that satisfies at least four of our colleagues. I recall experiencing this difficulty early in my Supreme Court career, when I first tried to obtain support for a less daring change in Pushpanathan. Of course, it is always possible for a Supreme Court judge to set out his or her own personal vision of the perfect solution, but that is not always the way you make real progress. (I should not be taken to be diminishing the value of a strong and principled, if lonely, judgment; my Dunsmuir co-author’s concurring reasons in CUPE, of course, identified many of the concerns that led to Dunsmuir itself.)

The difficulty, of course, is seeking to reconcile considerations that may pull in different directions in the context of a particular case that needs to be decided. An innate sense of justice and view of a theoretically sound approach to a particular issue pulls one way; the equally firmly held views of colleagues may pull in another; the gravitational force of precedent may pull in a third; and the concern with ensuring not only conceptual coherence but practical workability may pull another way still. In this reality, compromise is unavoidable.

I will confess I often found managing this task challenging, as I think most Supreme Court judges do. And it was especially challenging in a case like Dunsmuir, involving an attempt not only to craft reasons that will have some lasting impact, but which touched on such an enormous range of circumstances. As difficult and controversial as many issues that reach the Supreme Court can be, they often only affect a small subset of the population or a narrow area of the law; changes to judicial review of the scale contemplated in Dunsmuir affect a good part of the Supreme Court’s docket, hundreds if not thousands of lower court decisions every year, and at least at the margins, the day-to-day interactions between members of the public and government.

In this institutional setting, you realize your limitations pretty quickly, and do your best to work within them. I turn now to our attempt to manage this reality in Dunsmuir, and the problems we were trying to solve.

Our Objective in Dunsmuir

When Justice Lebel and I wrote the decision in Dunsmuir, we were not naïve enough to think it would be the last word on judicial review. We were not trying to resolve all of the insuperable theoretical disagreements or irreconcilable precedents in this vast legal universe, which often go to the heart of public law theory and modern governance. We were ambitious, but not that ambitious.

Instead, we were trying to bring as large a reform as we could to deal with what we saw as immediate and, we hoped, manageable problems. Those problems have been described many times, but I will say a word on some of the considerations that motivated us to think that we should try to do more than simply resolve the case before us.

First, from a practical perspective, we recognized that judges would routinely spend as much or more time addressing which of the three standards of review properly applied as they did on the legality of decisions under review. As Justice Binnie observed in his concurring reasons in Dunsmuir, the courts had become “unduly burdened with law office metaphysics” (at para 122). While there were paradigmatic cases where the standard of review would be clear, such as labour arbitrators interpreting a collective agreement, the proliferation of administrative actors and bodies and the variety of issues that may come before them often made it difficult to determine what standard should be applied. We hoped to make that process easier, at least some of the time.

Second, the distinction between reviewing for ‘reasonableness’ and ‘patent reasonableness’, in our view, had no principled foundation. As mentioned in Dunsmuir, we considered that “it would be unpalatable to require parties to accept an irrational decision simply because, on a deferential standard, the irrationality of the decision is not clear enough”, and that it was “inconsistent with the rule of law to retain an irrational decision” (at para 42).

The primary difficulty, of course, was to determine when deference should be applied. One of our goals was to try to eliminate the need to undertake a full pragmatic and functional approach in every case. To that end, we attempted to provide principled and workable “guideposts”, while recognizing that we cannot provide more certainty than that.

We did not think that we could eliminate the pragmatic and functional factors entirely, however, simply because we realized the sheer breadth and diversity of the administrative state, and the ability of governments to come up with new and inventive ways of enforcing laws, delivering services, and carrying out social policies. Thus, if the standard of review had not been clearly identified in the past in relation to the particular body and type of decision, the court would still be able to consult the newly renamed standard of review factors.

It is true that the factors were not new, and did not lead to a clear or undisputable result in every case, but we saw no reason to abandon them. We believed, like many of our colleagues before us, that the standard of review factors – the presence of a privative clause, the purpose of the tribunal or other decision maker, the nature of the question at issue and the expertise of the tribunal – were the type of considerations that properly informed the question of how our courts should determine the appropriate degree of deference. Given the nature of the case itself, our analysis was prepared with adjudicative tribunals in mind; more attention would be paid to other actors in the administrative state in another context. But our hope at the time was that new decisions could fill that void, and that the retention of the standard of review factors gave the courts the tools to do so.

Having eliminated the patent unreasonableness standard, we were left with an obvious problem: what does “reasonableness” mean? One struggles to think of a concept as integral to so many areas of the law, and as stubbornly resistant to definition, as the idea of “reasonableness”. We recognized that we were unable to resolve that quandary in a way that could apply with precision to all of the varied circumstances that the courts would face, and therefore made no attempt to do so. What we did try to do was, again, to provide some guidelines or touchstones that fit with our understanding of the term as it had been applied in this context.

With our focus being on adjudicative tribunals, we were particularly concerned with their reasoning and decision making processes, to ensure that they demonstrate justification, transparency and intelligibility. But in our view, that did not exhaust the court’s supervisory task; we believed that one also must consider the outcome, and ensure that it was defensible in respect of the facts and the law. In this way, we attempted to reconcile and provide at least some structure to the types of decisions that the courts had, throughout modern history, determined were ‘unreasonable’. Our hope was that with the two flexible foundations for reasonableness review in hand, that subsequent cases would have the tools they needed to reach justice in individual cases, and develop the law accordingly.

Our objective in Dunsmuir was to create a framework for greater clarity moving forward, which both justified the use of judicial review, fit it into the framework of the cases that came before, and provided at least some workable guidance moving forward to be filled in and supplemented by future decisions. This provides a convenient segue into my next and final topic: the post-Dunsmuir cases.

Post-Dunsmuir

As just mentioned, our hope in Dunsmuir was to make some progress in both simplifying the standard of review analysis, and providing some workable guideposts and grounding for judicial review moving forward. It was an attempt to take stock of all the disparate and idiosyncratic decisions over the previous decades, and to synthesize it into a workable model. The success of such a project depends not only on the (always limited) abilities and foresight of authors, but also on the existence of other judges who agree with the project, both in terms of the foundational principles set out in Dunsmuir, and their application in particular cases.

Needless to say, such a consensus has been hard to achieve. I mentioned earlier that there have been cases decided since Dunsmuir that I would have decided differently, sometimes quite drastically. I will give a few examples.

In my view, in order for the Dunsmuir understanding of reasonableness to apply, there must be reasons and a rationale behind a decision. Unfortunately, this was set aside in Newfoundland and Labrador Nurses, and in Bernard v Canada (Attorney General) (2014) SCC 13. I also believe that legislative intent is still relevant, with the privative clause providing a strong suggestion that deference applies (see Dunsmuir, at para 52), and a right of appeal indicating otherwise. That is why, in my view, it is not acceptable to collapse appeal and judicial review, contrary to what was held in Mouvement laïque québécois v Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16. Professor Daly mentions that the leave requirement for an appeal and the differentiation between questions of law and questions of fact reveal an intention to have the question addressed by the courts. I agree.

In the Sageunay case, the court found that the presumption of deference had been rebutted; but I do not think there is or should be a legal presumption. The presumption of deference came from Alberta Teachers. As I understand Dunsmuir ― a necessary qualification, because I know my co-author signed on to the reasons in Alberta Teachers! ― we insisted on a contextual approach with general guideposts, which is inconsistent with a presumption of deference across the board. We simply said that, generally, reasonableness would apply in some circumstances (at para 54). We certainly did not say that correctness would no longer apply except in the case of four categories of decisions; the so-called correctness categories were examples of cases where correctness was obviously required. Beyond those categories, context would determine when correctness would be applied, and expertise would play a key role in those determinations. I might add that we did not say that expertise would be presumed, as some subsequent cases have held; in my opinion, deference had to be earned and justified in the context (at para 49). Deference is imperative for “processes and determinations that draw on particular expertise and experiences”, but not for all questions of law, merely because the question is raised by a decision-maker’s home statute. As Justice Slatter of the Alberta Court of Appeal put it, “these signposts were never intended to be hard and fast categories, and the standard of review analysis remains sensitive to the statutory and factual context.” Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Limited v. Edmonton (City) 2015 ABCA 85 at para 23.

It also seems to me that some of the decisions that followed Dunsmuir were not based on a consistent principled approach, whether it be that in Dunsmuir or another; it seems clear to me that, in at least some cases, the Court wanted to expedite affairs that had dragged on for too long, and in the process, lost sight of the need for consistency (see Bernard, Canadian Human Rights Commission).

Indeed, I think there have been too many decisions that have cut against what we were trying to achieve in Dunsmuir, or at least have proceeded on an understanding of administrative law to which I do not personally subscribe. I did not expect the court to give leave soon after Dunsmuir to so many applicants; I thought it would give lower courts time to experiment so that future necessary changes could be better identified. I personally regret that the court tried to adjust the Dunsmuir approach so soon, and that it made decisions that were, in my view, inconsistent with Dunsmuir, while purporting to apply it. In my view, this created unnecessary confusion.

Suffice to say that there have been many decisions made since Dunsmuir that I would not have personally made. Differences of opinion are to be expected. I respect that. To a certain extent, this reflects the complexity of the subject, the wide variety of cases that may come before the Court, and the difficulty of creating a comprehensive solution that will suit every judge and work for every case in a field such as this. Whether the more significant departures reflect the limits and errors of the authors of Dunsmuir, a misapplication of it by subsequent judges, or a deeper disagreement with the project itself, I cannot say. The reality is that I cannot force others to follow the understanding of Dunsmuir that I would want them to follow, much less to resolve its unanswered questions and unavoidable ambiguities as I would want them resolved. And while that can be frustrating at times, it might ultimately be for the best.

That is because our common law system of judging depends on forging a consensus that persists over time, and proceeds on the assumption that the wisdom of judges collectively, acting incrementally, are better than a single judge dictating law for all time. While each individual judge is fallible and each judgment is flawed in the eyes of some, we must have faith in the collective abilities of the judiciary to work through and get us ever closer to where we should be. Like democracy as a system of government, I believe this widely dispersed, common law system is the worst possible process for judicial law making, except for all the others.

It is for this reason that while some might regret that our decision in Dunsmuir was incomplete or left important questions unanswered, I do not. I understand those who express this regret but can only say that it is not possible to produce such comprehensive and definitive answers to such monumental questions. All that we could do, in our short time on the Court, is to attempt to provide a theoretically sound and practical framework for the application of judicial review, and then to try to apply those principles in subsequent cases, to the best of our ability. I will leave it to others to judge our success in that project – the reviews appear to be mixed – and to the courts to do all that they can to improve upon that project moving forward. I have faith that they will do so to the best of their ability, as we attempted to do with ours.

The Paradox of Simplicity

Dunsmuir failed to simplify administrative law; the framework that replaces it must account for the administrative state’s complexity

In Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190, the Supreme Court sought to bring clarity and (relative) simplicity to the law of judicial review of administrative decisions, which as it acknowledged with some understatement “ha[d] not been without practical and theoretical difficulties, [or] free of criticism”. [39] But subsequent decisions, digesting, developing, and departing from Dunsmuir, revealed the futility of its promise of simplifying the law of judicial review in Canada. Practical and theoretical difficulties, and criticism, still abound ― at least when it comes to review of administrative decisions on questions of law. The law on this issue, as other contributions to this symposium note, is in a parlous state. The Supreme Court’s decisions fail to provide guidance to litigants and to lower courts. They are difficult to understand, unrealistic, and appear to do something very different from what they say they do. A fundamental re-assessment, of a magnitude at least equal to that of Dunsmuir, seems to be inevitable.

In my view, one reason why Dunsmuir failed to simplify and clarify the law of judicial review once and for all is the weakness and incoherence of the justifications it provided for judicial deference to administrative decisions. In this post, I review these justifications and argue that none of them can account for the broad scope of deference that Dunsmuir and subsequent cases mandate. Any attempt to reformulate the law of judicial review in the future must acknowledge the weakness of the available explanations for deference, and can only require courts to defer to administrative decision-makers in narrow circumstances where such deference would be well and truly justified.

* * *

Dunsmuir proclaimed that “determining the applicable standard of review is accomplished by establishing legislative intent”. [30] If courts were sometimes, or often, to defer to administrative decision-makers’ interpretations of law, that was because legislatures wanted them to do so. “The existence of a privative or preclusive clause”, [52] providing that an administrative decision was not to be interfered with by the judiciary, was the indication par excellence of the enacting legislature’s desire to commit the determination of issues arising out of the operation of a statutory scheme to a tribunal rather than a court.

But Dunsmuir itself and subsequent cases undermined what the simplicity of a hypothetical regime where privative clauses trigger deference ― and their absence, logically, leads to non-deferential review. For one thing, as Dunsmuir acknowledged, to the extent that they purport to oust judicial review completely, privative clauses cannot be given their full effect, because under the constitution “neither Parliament nor any legislature can completely remove the courts’ power to review the actions and decisions of administrative bodies”. [52] But even putting this constitutional limitation to one side, under the Dunsmuir framework a privative clause is not the only signal of deference. Indeed, according to Edmonton (City) v Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Ltd, 2016 SCC 47, [2016] 2 SCR 293, even a provision creating a right of appeal on a question of law, which seems like an explicit indication that a legislature does not want courts to defer to administrative decisions, is not enough to oust a “presumption of deference”, which thus takes on a life of its own, unmoored from legislative intention.

Another reason for judicial deference to administrative decisions, according to Dunsmuir, is that “certain questions that come before administrative tribunals” ― including questions of law ― “do not lend themselves to one specific, particular result”. [47] The multiplicity of possible answers to the questions facing administrative decision-makers combined with the need to “respect … the legislative choices to leave some matters” [49] to their arbitrament to justify deference.

The problem here is that there is little reason to think that the sets of questions of law that “do not lend themselves to one specific particular results” and of questions on which deference is required under the Dunsmuir framework (or the Dunsmuir framework as modified by subsequent Supreme Court decisions) are identical. Dunsmuir called for deference “where a tribunal is interpreting its own statute or statutes closely connected to its function, with which it will have particular familiarity” [54] or related common law rules. Yet the great variety of statutes setting up administrative tribunals, and indeed of particular provisions within any one of these statutes, makes it unlikely that all of the interpretive questions to which they give rise lack definitive answers. Perhaps the suggestion is that the very legislative choice of setting up administrative tribunals to address these questions means that legislatures think that these questions lack definitive answers, but that too seems implausible. A legislature may wish to set up an administrative tribunal for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with the existence or not of clear answers to interpretive questions: cost-effectiveness, accessibility, the need to execute a law (and not just adjudicate disputes), even patronage.

Finally, Dunsmuir insisted that courts need to defer to administrative decision-makers out of “respect … for the processes and determinations that draw on particular expertise and experiences”. [49] Since then, as the dissenting opinion in Edmonton East noted, “the notion of ‘expertise’ has become a catch-all trigger for deferential review”, [82] even though “this presumption of expertise has rarely been given much explanation or content in our jurisprudence”. [83] Meanwhile, the majority opinion suggested that expertise was independent of the qualifications or functions of administrative decision-makers. The very existence of a specialized tribunal made it an expert.

Perhaps the popularity of the presumption of expertise is due to the Supreme Court’s realization that the other justifications for deference are unpersuasive. Perhaps it is a convenient means to disclaim responsibility for decisions taken elsewhere (similarly, for instance, to the Supreme Court’s insistence, starting in Canada (Attorney General) v Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 SCR 1101, on deference to first-instance judges’ findings of legislative fact). Other contributors to this symposium challenge the notion of administrative expertise as a foundation for deference in greater detail. Suffice it for me to say that, just like legislative intent and the impossibility of a definitive answer, expertise is often a judicial fiction and thus an unconvincing justification for deference.

All this is not to say that there are no cases in which deferential review on a reasonableness standard would not have been intended by a legislature setting up an administrative tribunal, or in which there is indeed a multiplicity or a range of plausible answers to legal questions, or in which the administrative tribunal is (more) expert (than the reviewing court). My point, rather, is that, at a minimum, these justifications do not support deference across the board when administrative decision-makers are interpreting their “home statutes”, which Dunsmuir, and especially cases like Edmonton East require. Indeed, these justifications can operate at cross-purposes, as when the legislature authorizes appeals on questions of law from the decisions of expert tribunals, or when administrative decisions are insulated by privative clauses from review of their answers to questions which do in fact “lend themselves to a specific result”. The Supreme Court’s jurisprudence suggests that all these conflicts must be resolved in favour of deference, but it does not provide any explanation for why this is the case.

* * *

The Supreme Court, presumably, can see these difficulties as plainly as its critics. They might account for at least some of the frequency with which ostensibly deferential review exhibits no sign of deference at all ― another issue that other contributions to this symposium highlight. The only way forward, in my view, is for the Court to allow its explanations to match its decisions, and abandon the pursuit, or the pretense, of across-the-board deference. If deference is ever appropriate, it can only be justified with reference to the circumstances of particular cases. This is not the place for a full exploration of the circumstances in which courts ought to defer to administrative decision-makers on questions of law, if indeed there be any. I will, however, venture a few observations.

First, it should not be presumed that deference is due to all the decisions of a particular administrative tribunal or type of tribunal, or to tribunals interpreting a type of statute. As the dissent in Edmonton East pointed out, a single tribunal may be called upon to decide different types of issues, some of which implicate its expertise or involve policy considerations, while others do not. In particular, even if deference is appropriate to tribunal decisions fleshing out the meaning of vague terms such as “just”, or “reasonable”, or “in the public interest”, it does not follow that it would be called for when the same tribunals answer questions about, say, the relationship between provisions of a statute (even their “home” statute) or two related statutes. The former type of question calls upon the tribunals’ specialized knowledge of the standards of justice or reasonableness, or the requirements of the public interest in the field they regulate. The latter is concerned with more general legal skills which courts possess no less, and often more, than tribunals.

Further, even when dealing with a type of question answers to which would normally attract deference, administrative decision-makers are sometimes so constrained by judicial precedent that their decision-making is not meaningfully different from that of a trial court striving to apply appellate authority. The decision that led to in Quebec (Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail) v Caron, 2018 SCC 3 is a good example, as the relevant analysis concerned the scope of the jurisprudence of the Québec Court of Appeal. In similar circumstances, a trial court’s conclusions would not be entitled to any deference on appeal. Why should the administrative decision-maker’s? Assertions to the effect that judicial review and appellate review are not identical are not convincing in those cases where the nature of the decision under review is such that they practically are.

Finally, and more substantively, it is important to recall what is at stake in judicial review of administrative decisions. Proponents of deference often think of it as a means of protecting the decisions of an administrative state devoted to economic regulation in the name of social justice, or at least of enlightened technocracy. But there is much more to the administrative state economic than labour boards or arbitrators, whose decisions supply a disproportionate share of material for the Supreme Court’s administrative law decisions. The law of judicial review of administrative action applies also to the review of correctional authorities, professional licensing bodies, immigration officers, human rights tribunals, even universities and municipalities, and much else besides. People’s ability to enjoy their property or to practice their profession, their right to enter into or to remain in Canada, even their liberty (or at least the conditions of their detention, which the Supreme Court recognizes as a liberty interest) can depend on the way in which an official or a body exercising powers (purportedly) delegated by a legislature interpret the law. Is it enough to tell them, as Dunsmuir effectively does, that it is sufficient that the interpretation that causes them to lose these rights or benefits be justified, transparent, and intelligible?

* * *

Dunsmuir sought to simplify Canadian administrative law by setting out a unified analytical framework based on “the structure and characteristics of the system of judicial review as a whole”. [33] As part of this process, it set out a number of justifications that were supposed to support a wide-ranging policy of judicial deference to administrative interpretations of law. Well-intentioned as it was, the attempt did not succeed. The justifications advanced in Dunsmuir cannot justify deference in many cases where the Supreme Court said it is due. The weakness of, and occasional conflicts among, the justifications for deference advanced in Dunsmuir have fostered renewed confusion in the law of judicial review.

It is important that this confusion be eliminated. Canadian administrative law is reaching a point where it can scarcely be called law at all, such is its inability to provide guidance to those who must apply it or predict how it will be applied. Yet ― perhaps paradoxically ― the way to clarity passes not through the application of a single all-encompassing principle, but through greater attention to the circumstances of individual cases. As these circumstances vary, so must the applicable rules. It is Dunsmuir’s attempt to deny or at least avoid this complexity that is responsible for its failure.

The Merits of Dunsmuir

Rightly or Wrongly Decided (Then and Today)?

The Honourable Joseph T Robertson QC, formerly of the Federal Court of Appeal and the New Brunswick Court of Appeal

This digital symposium marks the 10th Anniversary of Dunsmuir’s release. Undoubtedly, attention will focus on whether this “transformative” decision has achieved its stated objective of simplifying the law of administrative deference. Regrettably, the Supreme Court’s post-Dunsmuir jurisprudence has generated allegations of doctrinal “incoherence” and “inconsistency”. It is also alleged that the deferential standard of review has had little impact on case outcomes that hinge on the interpretation of enabling legislation. Too often the Court is caught applying the correctness standard under the banner of reasonableness (“disguised correctness review”). While that contention falls within my terms of engagement, the others do not.

The title of this post is obviously disingenuous. The “rightness” or “wrongness” of any Supreme Court decision is largely a matter of personal judgment. Importantly, I fail to qualify as a disinterested observer, having authored Dunsmuir on behalf of the New Brunswick Court of Appeal. That decision was upheld in the result, but for reasons that bear little upon what was argued and decided in the lower court. In the circumstances, I hope to sustain reader interest by advancing the following thesis: there is an arguable case that Dunsmuir would be decided differently today when it comes to the underlying merits. I also address the procedural fairness issue in a way that others have not.

While Dunsmuir has generated more than its fair share of commentaries, few have looked to the underlying issues that motivated Mr. Dunsmuir to seek leave of the Supreme Court. Most have forgotten the central issue. The adjudicator was asked to decide whether non-unionized employees of the government were to be treated like unionized employees when it came to termination of employment. Mr. Dunsmuir was a non-unionized employee who had been terminated with severance in lieu of notice. The government consciously chose not to allege cause, as is its prerogative under common law principles.

I pause here to draw attention to what every employment lawyer knows. The underlying issue and fact pattern in Dunsmuir parallel those found in a relatively recent decision: Wilson v Atomic Energy Canada Inc., 2016 SCC 29 (“Wilson”). Better still, the same holds true in regard to Knight v Indian Head School Division No. 19, [1990] 1 SCR 653 (“Knight”) which was central to Dunsmuir’s analysis of whether Mr. Dunsmuir was owed a duty of procedural fairness.

After exhausting the government’s internal grievance procedure, Mr. Dunsmuir filed a third-party grievance that was heard by an adjudicator appointed by the labour board. A preliminary issued was raised with respect to whether, on a discharge with notice/severance, the adjudicator was “authorized” under the enabling legislation to look into the reasons underlying the government’s decision to terminate Mr. Dunsmuir’s employment. The government argued that, under the enabling legislation, it retained the right to terminate with proper notice/severance and, therefore, it was irrelevant whether the government had sufficient grounds for dismissal. In effect, the government argued that only employees who had been discharged for cause could invoke the third-party grievance procedure (save in regard to the amount of notice/severance). In response, Mr. Dunsmuir insisted that the same legislation authorized the adjudicator to look into the true reasons for his dismissal.

The adjudicator ruled that “[a] grieving employee is entitled to an adjudication as to whether a discharge purportedly with notice or with pay in lieu of notice was in fact for cause, either disciplinary or non-disciplinary.” Inexplicably, however, the adjudicator made no finding as to whether the underlying facts supported a dismissal for cause. He simply left us with the understanding that the decision to terminate Mr. Dunsmuir’s employment was not “disciplinary” but related to “work performance” and his “suitability for the positions”.

The adjudicator’s preliminary ruling provided the confidence necessary to pursue the procedural fairness issue. It was framed in terms of whether the duty owed to Mr. Dunsmuir, under the principle established in Knight, had been breached. This argument flowed easily from the facts. Not only was Mr. Dunsmuir a contract employee, he was also an “at-pleasure” appointee of the Lieutenant Governor in Council. As Clerk of the Court of Queen’s Bench, Mr. Dunsmuir easily qualified as a public office holder.

The adjudicator summarily accepted Mr. Dunsmuir’s argument that the government had failed to inform him of the reasons for its dissatisfaction with his work and to provide him with an opportunity to respond and, therefore, the duty had been breached. The adjudicator then declared Mr. Dunsmuir’s discharge void and ordered retroactive reinstatement. Finally, the adjudicator acknowledged the possibility of judicial review before increasing the notice period from four to eight months, but without offering a legal justification for the increase.

In the Supreme Court, the newly minted deferential standard of reasonableness was applied to the adjudicator’s interpretative ruling. Correlatively, the Court was unanimous in declaring his interpretation unreasonable: “The decision of the adjudicator treated the appellant, a non-unionized employee as a unionized employee.” But, as the Court quickly noted, the interpretative ruling was “inconsequential to the overall determination of the grievance.” The adjudicator simply failed to decide whether or not the government had cause for terminating Mr. Dunsmuir’s employment. This meant that the success of Mr. Dunsmuir’s appeal hinged on the application of the procedural fairness duty.

The Supreme Court made no mention of the proper review standard for procedural fairness issues and understandably so. The Court had decided to overturn its earlier ruling in Knight. No longer was Mr. Dunsmuir owed the administrative duty. To borrow directly from Dunsmuir: “where a public employee is employed under a contract of employment, regardless of his or her status as a public office holder, the applicable law governing dismissal is the law of contract, not general principles arising out of the public law.”

Surely no one quibbles with the proposition that Dunsmuir got it “right” on the standard of review issue. And for the record, the notion that the interpretative (preliminary) issue qualified as a “true jurisdictional question” never crossed the mind of anyone and properly so! That said, I acknowledge a movement from within the Court to adopt a single unifying standard of reasonableness for all issues: see Wilson, per Abella J. I also acknowledge a movement from outside the Court to have the deferential standard extended to procedural fairness issues. Paul Daly, C. Bredt and A. Melkov argue in favour while (Justice) John Evans argues for the status quo: with respect to the American debate, see Adrian Vermule v (Judge) Richard Posner.

In the space of five paragraphs, the majority of the Supreme Court concluded the adjudicator’s interpretation of the enabling legislation was “deeply flawed” (paras. 72-76). That opinion was shared by those who wrote concurring opinions. Dunsmuir’s analysis of the interpretative issue has attracted criticism for applying the correctness standard under the banner of reasonableness. Both Matthew Lewans and David Mullan insist that the Dunsmuir Court breached its own directives when applying the reasonableness standard to the adjudicator’s interpretative ruling. And indeed, Professor Mullan made the same observation in regard to the decision of the Court of Appeal. On reflection, he writes with a gentle pen and the criticism of both scholars has merit. However, Dunsmuir is not the only Supreme Court precedent to engage in disguised correctness review. There are close to twenty post-Dunsmuir decisions listed on my scratch pad that warrant the same indictment.

Disguised correctness review means that the reviewing court conducts a de novo analysis of the interpretative issue. Little or no meaningful reference is made to the reasoning of the administrative decision-maker; just the interpretative result. Instead, the reviewing court begins its analysis by turning to the template set out in Elmer Dreidger’s modern principle of statutory interpretation; the one the Supreme Court consistently applies. This leads to an unanswered question: Why does the Court pursue correctness review under the banner of reasonableness? While several plausible explanations are available, Paul Daly offers valuable insights (“The Signal and the Noise in Administrative Law”).

Professor Daly observes, for example, that in cases where the issue is perceived as one of public importance, or of significance to the law, the greater the temptation to seek out the correct or preferred answer. There is no precedential significance in cases that say the interpretative result falls within a range of reasonable outcomes. In theory, such cases should never make it through the Court’s screening process. But once the interpretative issue is recast as a question of whether non-unionized employees should receive the same treatment as unionized ones, what judge would not grant leave to appeal? The opportunity to look into power imbalances in the workplace is the kind of stuff that fits nicely within the job description of any court of last resort. [No one who made an appearance in Dunsmuir anticipated the Supreme Court’s move to a single deferential standard of review and with a revised framework for isolating the proper standard; nor did anyone anticipate that Knight would be targeted.]

Additionally, I maintain the Court’s affinity for disguised correctness review most often stems from the failure of administrative decision-makers to offer an interpretative analysis that comports with Dreidger’s template. One has to assume as much, as the Court’s references to the decision-maker’s reasons invariably focus on the interpretative result to the exclusion of anything that might have been penned in support of one interpretation over another. This leads to the inference that the Court is too often presented with an interpretive result but not much in terms of justification. Accordingly, the Court has no practical alternative than to engage in correctness review.

The fact of the matter is that Mr. Dunsmuir never pursued the interpretative issue in terms of whether the legislation only allowed for terminations with cause. It would be unbecoming to engage in “bootstrapping” with respect to the reasons that propelled the Supreme Court to distance itself from the adjudicator’s approach to the interpretative issue (termination for “disguised” cause). In its place, I offer a compromise of sorts. I maintain there is an arguable case that Dunsmuir would be decided differently today.

My thesis rests on one’s acceptance of the premise that the Dunsmuir legislation was ambiguous as to whether all terminations of employment within the civil service must be for cause. As Professor Willis so aptly stated so long ago: “the words are ambiguous enough to induce two people to spend good money in backing two opposing views as to their meaning.” Assuming ambiguity is present and in the absence of compelling evidence that might shine light on the ever-elusive intent of the legislature, then the task of the adjudicator is to settle on an interpretation that it believes is consistent with the legislation’s objectives: see Mclean v British Columbia (Securities Commission), 2013 SCC 67.

Admittedly, any interpretative argument would have to overcome the presumption against legislation that abrogates common law rights such as the right to dismiss with proper notice/severance. That hurdle, however, is not insurmountable. Indeed, Paul Daly argues that administrative decision-makers should not be bound by the interpretative principles that bind the courts, a proposition with which I respectfully disagree. Additionally, he argues that statutory ambiguity should not be the gateway to administrative deference. On that issue we are also in respectful disagreement. Nevertheless, the fact that my real-life hypothetical assumes ambiguity may be sufficient for purposes of deflecting immediate criticism.

In the face of an ambiguity, one would expect the adjudicator’s analysis to embrace a candid consideration of the competing policy arguments in support of competing interpretations. At this point, the adjudicator now has the opportunity to demonstrate the expertise which is otherwise presumed. Surely, it is the expert who is aware of the workplace realities that permeate public sector employment (in New Brunswick) and is able to communicate those realities when explaining why one interpretation should prevail over another. And surely, everyone is entitled to know why the distinction between unionized and non-unionized employees should be dissolved when it comes to termination of employment.

Some will query why any government would want to relinquish its common law right to dismiss with notice in the face of what every employment lawyer knows is an “elevated” threshold for establishing just cause. Arguably, governments must be as fiscally responsible as employers in the private sector. Perhaps the answer lies in the understanding that, as an employer, the Crown owes more to its employees than do private sector employers. Or perhaps it is because of documented abuses surrounding dismissals with notice in the civil service. Surely, these are the kind of questions the labour expert is expected to address (with the assistance of counsel). Unfortunately, that type of analysis is not found in the any of the decisions underlying Dunsmuir (nor for that matter in Wilson).

At this juncture, the legal realist will take over where Paul Daly left off. Cases such as Dunsmuir have nothing to do with deference. The underlying issue is whether the historical power imbalance in the employment relationship is one requiring reform. The rule of law is preserved so long as administrative reform hinges on statutory ambiguity. The non-expert fails to recognize the influence of those who regard the common law as an impediment to achieving justice in the work place and, correlatively, the non-expert fails to recognize that dismissals with notice are unjust dismissals. Of course, this line of reasoning is consistent with that expected of an employee advocate and antagonistic to the majority view expressed in Dunsmuir. Here is what the majority had to say: “In the context of this appeal, it must be emphasized that dismissal with reasonable notice is not unfair per se. An employee’s right to terminate the employment relationship with due notice is simply the counterpart to the employee’s right to quit with notice [para. 105].”

The notion that a dismissal with notice is an unjust dismissal brings into consideration the Court’s post-Dunsmuir decision mentioned earlier. As in Dunsmuir, the issue in Wilson was whether a non-unionized employee could be terminated without cause. Mr. Wilson, an employee of a federally regulated employer, subject to the Canada Labour Code, was dismissed with severance in lieu of notice. Like Mr. Dunsmuir, he sought to grieve the dismissal but his employer objected for the same reason advanced in Dunsmuir. However, the federal legislation differs in wording. Under s. 240(1) of the Code, a person may grieve if she or he believes the dismissal is “unjust”. Relying on earlier arbitral precedents, the adjudicator held that a dismissal with notice/severance is itself an unjust dismissal. A divided Court (5/4) upheld that interpretative result. In short, terminations can only be for cause under the federal legislation. Curiously, the majority opinion did not address Dunsmuir’s observations with respect to dismissals with notice or severance. The minority opinion did!

Parenthetically, the majority in Wilson is also guilty of disguised correctness review and understandably so. The adjudicator based its decision on the earlier arbitral jurisprudence that favoured Mr. Wilson’s interpretation. As a result, there were no reasons upon which to measure the interpretative result. Further, no attempt was made to look for reasons that might lie elsewhere in the arbitral jurisprudence as happened in Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner) v Alberta Teachers’ Association, 2011 SCC 61.

If Dunsmuir were to be re-litigated, Wilson is the one case that might reasonably impact on the outcome. Admittedly, the statutory scheme in Wilson differs in material respects from the Dunsmuir scheme, and in particular with respect to the history of the legislation and, correlatively, the evidence of Parliamentary intent. In short, Wilson serves as both a shield and a sword. As a shield, it counters a view expressed in Dunsmuir that a dismissal with notice is not “unfair” or “unjust”. In summary, there is an arguable case that Dunsmuir would be decided differently on the interpretative issue.

I turn now to the procedural fairness issue which had been abandoned in the Court of Appeal but resurrected for the benefit of the Supreme Court. Having regard to the Court’s subsequent decision in Canada (Attorney General) v Mavi, 2011 SCC 30, it appears Dunsmuir’s ruling is still good law. Hopefully, supporters of Knight will acknowledge an arguable case with respect to the incompatibility of administrative and contract law principles, having due regard to the significance of the good faith doctrine, as discussed in Dunsmuir, and more recently in the Court’s now lead decision of Bhasin v Hrynew, 2014 SCC 71. I also assume commentators will draw a distinction between express and implied employment contracts.

Personally, I believe that Dunsmuir got it right when it came to overruling the impact of Knight on employees who are subject to a written contract and who are also public office holders. But I am also convinced that even if Knight were still good law, Mr. Dunsmuir could not have succeeded. The adjudicator applied the “wrong” standard. In Knight the Court held: “The content of the duty of fairness would be minimal where dismissal is at pleasure.” In fact, the adjudicator in Dunsmuir imposed an “elevated” duty. As will be explained, the elevated one too closely resembles the one applied at common law for determining sufficient or just cause in those instances where the employment is terminated because of a failure to meet work performance expectations (“incompetence). But first, I offer a rudimentary understanding of the law surrounding Knight.

At common law, at-pleasure appointees could be terminated without notice, without cause and without ever knowing why the employer terminated the appointment. The duty of procedural fairness was intended to ensure that the reasons for termination were communicated to the appointee and, in turn, the appointee had the opportunity to address those reasons before the termination took effect. In theory, the appointee would have a chance to address misinformation that might reasonably influence the decision to terminate. This is administrative law’s equivalent of the last chance doctrine.

In Knight, the director of education for the school board had entered into a three-year contract of employment that provided for the possibility of a renewal for an additional three years. However, the contract also provided for termination by ether party upon the giving of three months’ notice. The parties began negotiations for a renewal but the school board was only prepared to renew for a year due to employment issues that had arisen over the preceding years. With no agreement in sight, the school board decided to terminate the contract with timely notice. Mr. Knight’s first argument was that under the Education Act he could only be dismissed for cause! As that interpretative argument failed, the Court focused on whether Mr. Knight’s employment attracted a public law duty of fairness.

The majority (4/3) of the Knight Court so found, but went on to hold there had been no breach. As an at-pleasure appointee, Mr. Knight was well aware of the reasons why his contract was not renewed. Further, he was given the opportunity to speak at the board meeting where the motion to terminate the contract on notice was passed. In brief, the minimal standard had been met. I now turn to an abbreviated recitation of Dunsmuir’s facts, as told by the Supreme Court.

Mr. Dunsmuir’s employment relationship was “not perfect”. The probationary period was extended twice to the maximum of 12 months. He was reprimanded on three occasions during his two years with the government. Two of the reprimands are relevant to the procedural fairness issue. The second reprimand led to a one-day suspension and to notice of work performance issues, including complaints from unnamed staff, lawyers and members of the public. The third reprimand embraced three alleged incidents relating to his job performance and contained a warning that a failure to improve would result in further disciplinary action up to and including dismissal. This was followed by a few meetings the Regional Director to discuss court backlogs and organizational problems in response to undocumented complaints lodged by staff. A further meeting was scheduled to deal with work-related issues but cancelled because of the decision to terminate Mr. Dunsmuir’s tenure with the government.

Now recall that Mr. Dunsmuir had argued that the government had breached its duty of procedural fairness by failing to inform him of the reasons for its dissatisfaction with his work and to provide him with an opportunity to respond. Recall also that the adjudicator summarily accepted that submission. With great respect, that is not a “minimal” threshold or standard. In fact, it is too closely aligned to the common law standard applied in cases where the termination of employment is for cause based on the employee’s inability to perform (“incompetence”). In such cases the employer must establish progressive discipline: sufficient calls for improvement and a warning that failure may result in dismissal.

Succinctly stated, the adjudicator in Dunsmuir effectively adopted the common law standard for establishing just cause as the administrative standard for establishing a breach of the procedural fairness duty. Importantly, the common law standard is incompatible with the minimal standard adopted in Knight! Finally, even if one were to apply the Knight standard, can one reasonably conclude that Mr. Dunsmuir had no knowledge of his employer’s concerns over his performance and no notice of possible termination of employment? Personally, I think Binnie J’s concurring reasons in Dunsmuir capture the essence of the case. The adjudicator had “stretched the law too far in coming to [Mr. Dunsmuir’s] rescue.” But of course I am not a disinterested observer!

The Return of Correctness in Judicial Review

A rebellion against deference is taking place is Alberta, but how just is its cause?

Shaun Fluker, University of Calgary

My initial reaction to Dunsmuir was Much Ado About Nothing. Grand statements by the Supreme Court that the decision would recalibrate substantive judicial review had many scurrying to decipher its ramifications for administrative law, but I could not figure out what all the fuss was about. For me, Dunsmuir (or at least the majority judgment) was little more than an acknowledgement by the Court of shifts that were already well underway in the jurisprudence by 2008 and thus it was hardly a landmark decision in Canadian administrative law. A decade of Dunsmuir has shown that I underestimated the Court’s recalibration intentions, but I remain convinced that Dunsmuir does not belong alongside the heavyweights of Roncarelli v Duplessis, [1959] SCR 121, Nicholson v Haldimand-Norfolk Regional Police Commissioners, [1979] 1 SCR 311, and Baker v Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), [1999] 2 SCR 817. These landmarks engage with the separation of powers and grapple with how the principle of legality informs executive and administrative decision-making. Dunsmuir falls well short of this mark.

Dunsmuir stands today as authority for a presumption of judicial deference to statutory decision-makers. This presumption was most forcefully articulated in Dunsmuir by Justice Binnie in his concurring opinion (at para 146). The presumption subsequently gained more traction with the Court in Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner) v Alberta Teachers’ Association2011 SCC 61, where Justice Rothstein wrote that the principle of judicial deference reinforced with Dunsmuir had evolved into a presumption that the standard of review is the deferential reasonableness where a statutory tribunal applies and interprets its home statute (at para 39). The Court more recently endorsed the strength of this presumption in Edmonton (City) v Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Ltd2016 SCC 47. The obvious problem with this presumption is its potential reach: Just about every statutory decision in some way applies or interprets a home statute.

Context matters in administrative law, and is not so easily dismissed. The bare assertion of a presumption of deference risks overlooking the context or subtle wrinkles that arise in the exercise of statutory power. Even at the current height of its reign, the presumption of deference still faces regular challenges from those seeking a return to a more contextual review of statutory authority. Madam Justice Deschamps wrote a series of concurring opinions in Dunsmuir (at paras 158-173) Alberta Teachers’ Association (at paras 78-89) and  Smith v Alliance Pipeline2011 SCC 7 (at paras 78-111) taking issue with the bare assertion of deference because it pays too little attention to nuances such as the precise nature of the question or the demonstrated expertise of the statutory decision-maker to determine a legal question. More recently in their Capilano dissent, Justices Côté and Brown cautioned that grounding tribunal expertise merely in its institutional setting risks making the presumption of deference irrefutable (at para 85): “Courts must not infer from the mere creation of an administrative tribunal that it necessarily possesses greater relative expertise in all matters it decides, especially on questions of law.”

Correctness is making a comeback, and the rebellion seems to have started in the rogue Province of Alberta. The Alberta Court of Appeal began its reasoning in Capilano, 2015 ABCA 85 with a shot across the bow (at para 11): “The day may come when it is possible to write a judgment like this without a lengthy discussion of the standard of review. Today is not that day.” The Court of Appeal made short work of deference in its 2015 Capilano decision and surprisingly pointed to the presence of a statutory right of appeal to the courts as a new exception to the presumption of deference (at para 24), all of which led me to ask “Where are we going on standard of review in Alberta?” The Alberta Court of Appeal has since not been shy about its mission to curb the presumption. In Stewart v Elk Valley Coal Corporation, 2015 ABCA 225 the Court of Appeal drew upon the legal realism of Oliver Wendell Holmes (at para 48) and played its Constitution card (at para 54) to trump the legislative branch and assert correctness review over the interpretation by a human rights tribunal of a provision in its home legislation. More recently in Garneau Community League v Edmonton (City), 2017 ABCA 374 the Alberta Court of Appeal doubled down on correctness review for a statutory tribunal interpreting its home statute where the legislature provides for a right of appeal to the Court on questions of law and, even after being reversed by the Supreme Court in the Capilano proceedings, boldly asserts the concept of deference has been reduced to mere rhetoric (at paras 93, 94).

Unfortunately for the rebellion, it has chosen a very unprincipled foundation upon which to confront the Supreme Court and construct its case for the return of correctness in judicial review. The terrain of statutory right of appeal provisions is largely devoid of principle, both in terms of why a legislature chooses to provide for a statutory right of appeal or how the courts exercise their discretion to grant leave to appeal under these provisions. The same type of tribunal in various provinces can be subject to a right of appeal in one jurisdiction but not another; sometimes an appeal lies only with leave of the court and sometimes not. Alberta courts, in particular, are also all over the map in how they determine whether a question of law emanating from a statutory decision is of sufficient importance to warrant appellate review under a statutory right of appeal. See Seeking leave to appeal a statutory tribunal decision: What principles apply? and A closer look at leave to appeal requirements under the Municipal Government Act (Alberta).

However, there is a new hope lurking about the jurisprudence: One which could bring peace to substantive judicial review. It requires a return to a more robust contextual approach, but also calls for a meaningful restatement of the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of modern government. A coherent framework for substantive judicial review must also be constructed from an intelligible and transparent methodology for identifying those questions of law which are of real significance to a community or society as a whole – not just to the legal system – and for which superior courts get the last word. The decision which embarks down this path will mark the return of correctness in judicial review.