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.

The True Legacy of Dunsmuir ― Disguised Correctness Review?

Why isn’t judicial review as deferential as courts say it should be?

David Mullan, Queen’s University

With apologies to Van Morrison, [i]n the Days Before Rock ‘N’ Roll[1] (also known as Dunsmuir), Sopinka J[2] asserted (temporarily[3]) that patent unreasonableness review required an initial determination as to whether the tribunal under review had erred. If it had, the next inquiry was whether it had done so in a patently unreasonable manner. This gave rise to the alarming spectre of a lawyer having to try to explain to a disappointed client that, while the court had accepted that the decision-maker had erred, it was not such a bad error as to be awful. More fundamentally, this approach to determining whether to quash a decision was scarcely respectful of the Supreme Court’s more general admonitions of the need for deference when the patent unreasonableness or even the reasonableness standard of review was in play. After all, judges, being who they are, were always going to find it difficult to rule credibly that a decision that was just plain wrong must, nonetheless, in a world of deferential review, still stand.

In my view, there is an equivalent and perhaps more insidious example of this kind of approach in the post-Dunsmuir world of the Twist, a by-product of Rock ‘N’ Roll. This is the recurring phenomenon of reviewing courts (including, perhaps most egregiously, the Supreme Court of Canada) solemnly pronouncing the entitlement of a decision-maker and the decision itself to the benefit of deferential, reasonableness review on questions of law and then conducting that review on what is palpably a correctness standard. I call this “disguised correctness.”[4]

In its purest form, reasonableness review of determinations of law should start with the tribunal’s reasons for decision. The court should focus primarily on those reasons but also, though secondarily, on alternative accounts of the relevant question of law and critiques of the position taken by the tribunal.[5] Within that framework, in the words of Dunsmuir, the court determines whether the challenged ruling “falls within a range of possible, acceptable outcomes which are defensible in respect of the facts and the law.” 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.

What explains this phenomenon? Some might argue that it amounts to intellectual dishonesty and reveals a highly sceptical attitude to the whole notion of deference to the judgment of governmental decision-makers. I believe this is too simplistic an account. Certainly, there are deference sceptics among the judiciary at all levels. That scepticism may be general or situational depending on the nature of the issue and the perceived calibre and qualifications of the relevant decision-maker. In a judicial review regime where correctness is only occasionally the indicated standard, and reasonableness the default across the whole spectrum of decision-makers, it is not surprising that judges might pay only lip service to precedents that require them in virtually every context to be deferential. Putting it another way, with so predominant a standard, it is was almost inevitable that the assessment of reasonableness would become increasingly a highly contextualized inquiry and, in some instances, little or no different from correctness review. This is exemplified by the contention that the intensity of reasonableness review expands or contracts depending on the extent of possibly reasonable answers or outcomes, a position that has at one extreme questions of law to which there is only one correct and therefore only one reasonable answer. It is also reflected in occasional flirtations with United States-style, Chevron review, the first stage of which requires the reviewing court to ask whether the legislature intended there to be only one correct answer to the interpretation of a statutory provision. An affirmative answer to this inquiry pre-empts deference.

More generally, where the terrain is statutory interpretation, judges find it difficult to defer to decision-makers, particularly those who lack legal qualifications. They are so schooled in the modern principles of statutory interpretation as to have an almost overwhelming compulsion at least on occasion to apply those principles in a way that is incompatible with any notion of deference. Indeed, at the policy level, this finds expression in arguments that the presumption of reasonableness review where a decision-maker is interpreting a home or frequently encountered statute should not extend beyond adjudicative bodies. As the principles of Dunsmuir have evolved, has the Supreme Court come to expect too much of deferential, reasonableness review?

My ideal world where courts actually pay “respectful” attention to the reasons of decision-makers runs into another reality spawned by the terminology of Dunsmuir and the extension of reasonableness review to all manner of statutory and prerogative decision-makers. Not all decision-makers give reasons for their decisions. Some provide reasons that are cryptic, do not address the issue on which review is being sought, or are simply poor. Enter Dyzenhaus and Dunsmuir. It is not just reasons that must be examined but “outcomes” and also the reasons “which could be offered in support of a decision.” These situations challenge deferential reasonableness review particularly to the extent that they require speculation as to the reasons that might have underpinned the outcome or that could have been advanced had the decision-maker thought about it. Framing the conduct of judicial review (including the evidential and scope of advocacy dilemmas) in such cases within a posture of deference is one of the principal challenges for modern Canadian judicial review.

In the meantime, I urge greater attention to what truly deferential review requires when decision-makers have provided comprehensible reasons. In the words of Hudson Janisch, deference is something that must be earned, not presumed. Where the tribunal’s reasons meet that standard, they should be the starting point for determining whether the decision passes the reasonableness test. While this will not eliminate disguised correctness, it should help.


[1]              Enlightenment (Polydor, 1990), Track 7.

[2]              In Canada (Attorney General) v. Public Service Association of Canada, [1993] 1 SCR 941, at 963-64.

[3]              He subsequently recanted in his concurring judgment in CAIMAW, Local 14 v. Paccar of Canada Ltd., [1989] 2 SCR 983, at 1018.

[4]              One of the earliest, if not the earliest example is Canada (Canadian Human Rights Commission) v.  Canada (Attorney General) (also known as Mowat), 2011 SCC 53, [2011] 3 SCR 471, at paras. 32-64 (per LeBel and Cromwell JJ., delivering the judgment of the Court). Simply inserting “reasonably” and “unreasonably” at various points of the statutory interpretation exercise does not rescue such decisions from this criticism!

[5]              Though the reasons are short, Dunsmuir, at paras. 72-76, provides a good example.

Law in La-La-Land

The post-truth jurisprudence of Canadian administrative law

Last month, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Edmonton (City) v. Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Ltd., 2016 SCC 47, which deals with the evergreen issue of determining the standard on which a court must review the decision of an administrative tribunal. I wasn’t able to comment on this case at the time, because 240 exam papers landed in my office a couple of days thereafter, but I would like to return to it now, because in my view the majority opinion shows quite clearly what a fantastical creature Canadian administrative law has become.

Justice Karakatsanis, writing for the majority, describes the circumstances of the dispute as follows:

Alberta residents may dispute their municipal property assessment before a local assessment review board. When one Edmonton taxpayer did so, the assessment review board decided to increase the assessment the taxpayer had disputed. [1]

The question is whether the board in question had the authority to increase ― or could only decrease or refuse to change ― the assessment disputed before it. The board obviously concluded that it did, but did not explain the decision ― admittedly because the taxpayer did not deny that it had the requisite authority. It is only on a subsequent appeal to the courts that it did so. How, then, must the board’s tacit, unexplained, decision be treated? Is it entitled to judicial deference, or can the courts simply substitute their own view of the matter?

* * *

Defer, says the majority. In the Supreme Court’s administrative law jurisprudence, deference is the presumptive stance, including on questions of law such as the one at issue.

This presumption of deference on judicial review respects the principle of legislative supremacy and the choice made to delegate decision making to a tribunal, rather than the courts. A presumption of deference on judicial review also fosters access to justice to the extent the legislative choice to delegate a matter to a flexible and expert tribunal provides parties with a speedier and less expensive form of decision making. [22]

Only when the question at issue falls within one of a few exceptional categories is the “presumption of deference” rebutted. In the majority’s view, none apply here. In particular, the fact that the legislation involved specifically provides for an appeal from the administrative decision on a question of law, as was the case here, does not matter. The administrative law framework, with its presumption of reasonableness, is to be applied regardless.

As Justice Karakatsanis notes, this framework acknowledges that “[t]he presumption of reasonableness may be rebutted if the context indicates the legislature intended the standard of review to be correctness” [32]. The dissenting judges would have found that this is the case here, because the board’s expertise lies not in the interpretation of its enabling legislation, which is at issue here, but rather in property valuation, which is not. Justice Karakatsanis is unmoved by this:

Expertise arises from the specialization of functions of administrative tribunals like the Board which have a habitual familiarity with the legislative scheme they administer. … [A]s with judges, expertise is not a matter of the qualifications or experience of any particular tribunal member. Rather, expertise is something that inheres in a tribunal itself as an institution. [33]

Having concluded that she must defer to the board’s decision, Justice Karakatsanis then face the question of how to defer to a decision that is entirely unexplained. After all, as the still-leading (although perhaps increasingly from behind) case on reviewing administrative decisions,  held, “reasonableness ‘is … concerned with the existence of justification, transparency and intelligibility within the decision-making process'” [36; citing Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190 at [47]]. But not to worry: in that same case, the Supreme Court went on to say it is enough to consider the reasons that could have been given for the decision, even though they were not, and to defer to them. This is what Justice Karakatsanis does, for 20 paragraphs. She concludes that board’s decision was reasonable.

* * *

If this is not post-truth jurisprudence, it’s pretty close. The Oxford English Dictionary, which recently chose “post-truth” as its word of the year, says that it describes “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. The Supreme Court’s vision of administrative law might not be the product of appeals to emotion, but there is certainly a great deal of personal belief unburdened by a reckoning with objective facts there.

Start with the claim that the presumption of deference is all about respecting legislative intent to grant decision-making authority to administrative tribunals rather than courts. If the Court really cared about legislative intent, wouldn’t it ask itself what the purpose of providing a statutory right of appeal on questions of law, as the legislature had done in this case, is? The majority does no such thing. It is content to affirm the irrelevance of either the text or the purpose of such provisions and holds that even if the statute says “appeal”, the courts must read “judicial review” and defer. Yet as the dissent cogently points out, the statutory text is pretty clear that the legislature wanted some questions of law (those deemed important enough by a judge) to be resolved by the courts. For all its show of deference to the legislature, the majority only cares about its own views about how administrative law should operate.

Next, consider the claim that the administrative decision-maker’s expertise entitles it to judicial deference. The majority does not discuss the expertise of the board whose decision is at issue here. It does not meaningfully respond to the dissent’s argument that the board has no particular expertise on the question before the Court. It is content to state an airy generality: the very existence of a specialized tribunal is enough to make it an expert. Why? It seems almost as if the Supreme Court is embracing that pop-psychology staple about 10,000 hours of doing something being enough to make one master it. Here’s news for the Court: that’s not true. The dissent’s take on this issue is, once again, more realistic:

an administrative decision maker is not entitled to blanket deference in all matters simply because it is an expert in some matters. An administrative decision maker is entitled to deference on the basis of expertise only if the question before it falls within the scope of its expertise, whether specific or institutional. [83]

As mentioned above, the dissent would have found that the question at issue here was not within the scope of the board’s expertise. The majority, once again, is uninterested in facts or, as the dissent also notes, in legislative intent (which in some case may well be to create a decision-maker without legal expertise), and ignores them the better to apply its beliefs about the proper relationships between courts and administrative decision-makers.

And all that for what? Not to actually defer to the supposedly expert board’s reasoning ― but to make up a reasoning that the board may or may not have come up with on its own, and defer to that. As Paul Daly put it (aptly, it goes without saying),

Karakatsanis J. points to multiple features of the elaborate statutory scheme that might be said to support the alternative interpretation and explains how each of them is nonetheless consistent with the Board’s interpretation (if one can call it that), much of which is supported by reference to a decision made by another body that “formerly” had appellate jurisdiction from the Board [44]. This, frankly, is quite bizarre. Who knows what the Board would have said if these points had been made to it? Indeed, who knows what the Board will say in future cases when these points are made to it? (Paragraph break removed)

It’s as if Justice Karakatsanis were playing chess with herself, and contriving to have one side deliberately lose to the other. This, admittedly, is not a post-truth reasoning. It is outright fiction.

* * *

As you can probably guess, I do not like any of it one bit. Perhaps this is not a very educated feeling. I have not thought about administrative law as much as prof. Daly, for instance, or many others. (I do have plans to get more serious about it, but it’s a medium- or even a long-term project.) I hope, however, that there may be some value in even an uneducated person stating the view that the emperor has no clothes, and that his proceeding any further in this state is offensive to public decency. What is more difficult for an uneducated mind is to say what dress the emperor ought to put on. Prof. Daly argues

that the only way to move the law forward within the existing framework without starting again from scratch is to apply reasonableness review across the board, with the important caveat … that the range of reasonable outcomes will be narrower in cases featuring an appeal clause.

I cannot comment on this suggestion, beyond saying that I am, in my uneducated state, extremely uneasy with deferential review of administrative decisions on questions of law. I will say, though, that I’m not at all sure that starting again from scratch is not the right thing to do, or even the only possible thing to do.

Keeping Time, Time, Time

The Supreme Court changes the meaning of the right to be tried within a reasonable time

A couple of weeks ago, the Supreme Court issued a very important, and fairly radical, decision on the “right … to be tried within a reasonable time,” which paragraph 11(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants to “any person charged with an offence.” In R. v. Jordan, 2016 SCC 27, a divided Court overturned precedent and introduced presumptive caps on the amount of time that can elapse before a trial no longer takes place “within a reasonable time.” This decision raises significant questions about the judicial role, especially in the face of inaction by other branches of government.

Mr. Jordan, along with a number of others, had been charged with multiple drug offences. His trial concluded a little over four years later, two months of which he spent in prison, and the rest under restrictive bail conditions. The trial judge found that while Mr. Jordan was responsible for four months of that delay, the prosecution was responsible for two more, while the rest ― more than two and a half years ― “was attributable to institutional delay” [15]. However neither the trial judge nor the Court of Appeal accepted Mr. Jordan’s argument that the delay was an infringement of his rights under par. 11(b) of the Charter.  This was notably so because Mr. Jordan was facing other charges and serving a separate sentence, with conditions more or less equivalent to those of his bail, while waiting for his trial, meaning that his liberty would have been restricted even without the delay in this case.

* * *

The majority opinion, co-written by Justices Moldaver, Karakatsanis, and Brown, with whom Justices Abella and Côté concur, treats Mr. Jordan’s case as symptomatic of “a culture of delay and complacency towards it” [29]. The existing rules for the application of par. 11(b), which involved assessing the reasonableness of the delay in a given case in light of its length, causes, and impact on the accused are too complicated and vague, causing “its application [to be] highly unpredictable” [32] and subjective. A focus on the prejudice the delay causes to the accused misses some of the less tangible harms delay produces, not least those to the administration of justice as a whole, and devalues the right to a speedy trial. Finally, the existing rules are “designed not to prevent delay, but only to redress (or not redress) it” [35]. The “culture of delay” must change,

[a]nd, along with other participants in the justice system, this Court has a role to play in changing [it] and facilitating a more efficient criminal justice system, thereby protecting the right to trial within a reasonable time. [45]

The way in which the majority wants to play that role is by changing the applicable rules. As mentioned at the outset, the majority opinion introduces

ceiling[s] beyond which delay is presumptively unreasonable. The presumptive ceiling is set at 18 months for cases going to trial in the provincial court, and at 30 months for cases going to trial in the superior court (or cases going to trial in the provincial court after a preliminary inquiry), [46]

excluding any delay for caused or waived by the defence. The Crown can still show that exceptional circumstances outside of its control have arisen and that they explain ― and excuse ― a case taking longer than these timeframes, but unless it does so, a stay of proceedings will be the automatic consequence of such delay. Meanwhile, an accused will be able to show that delay below these ceilings is unconstitutionally unreasonable, but to do so they will need to demonstrate not only that the delay is “markedly” greater than reasonable, but also that they diligently sought to have the case heard sooner. (This test is reminiscent of that which Justice Moldaver applied in the Court’s recent decision in R. v. Vassel, 2016 SCC 26.)

The majority justified its decision by asserting that

[a] presumptive ceiling is required in order to give meaningful direction to the state on its constitutional obligations and to those who play an important role in ensuring that the trial concludes within a reasonable time: court administration, the police, Crown prosecutors, accused persons and their counsel, and judges. [50]

In the majority’s view, its approach is simpler than the existing rules, and eliminates the undue focus on prejudice to the accused. The majority acknowledges that even the ceilings it imposes are “a long time to wait for justice,” but insists that they “reflect[] the realities we currently face,” [57] ― as reflected, it seems, in “a qualitative review of nearly every reported s. 11(b) appellate decision from the past 10 years, and many decisions from trial courts” [106] ― while cautioning that the Court “may have to revisit these numbers and the considerations that inform them in the future.” [57] Ultimately, the majority hopes that its approach “will help facilitate a much-needed shift in culture,” [112] including

by reminding legislators and ministers that unreasonable delay in bringing accused persons to trial is not merely contrary to the public interest: it is constitutionally impermissible, and will be treated as such. [117]

In its conclusion, the majority adds that “[g]overnment will also need to consider whether the criminal justice system (and any initiatives aimed at reducing delay) is adequately resourced.” [140]

Applying its approach (including a transitional framework for cases already in the system prior to its ruling) to the facts of Mr. Jordan’s case, the majority finds that the delays that afflicted it were unreasonable. In the process, it castigates the Crown for not having had a plan for bringing the matter to trial expeditiously, and for doing “too little, too late” when it became aware of the problem.

* * *

The Chief Justice and Justices Cromwell, Wagner, and Gascon do not disagree with this conclusion. They too are of the view that the delay in this case was unreasonable. However, Justice Cromwell’s concurring opinion is sharply critical of the majority’s approach to par. 11(b), which it calls “both unwarranted and unwise.” [254] While it accepts that some revisions to the current framework are in order, it rejects the imposition of fixed ceilings on acceptable delays.

Drew Yewchuk summarizes the concurrence’s approach and exposes some difficulties with it in a post at ABlawg. Here I will briefly sum up Justice Cromwell’s critique of the majority opinion. Justice Cromwell argues that the majority’s approach will not be as simple to apply as the majority hopes, because “[t]he complexity inherent in determining unreasonable delay has been moved into deciding whether to ‘rebut’ the presumption that a delay is unreasonable if it exceeds the ceiling in particular cases.” [254]

As a matter of principle, the reasonableness of pre-trial delay “cannot be captured by a number; the ceilings substitute a right for ‘trial under the ceiling[s]’ … for the constitutional right to be tried within a reasonable time.” [147] Indeed,

The proposed judicially created “ceilings” largely uncouple the right to be tried within a reasonable time from the concept of reasonableness which is the core of the right. The bedrock constitutional requirement of reasonableness in each particular case is replaced with a fixed ceiling and is thus converted into a requirement to comply with a judicially legislated metric. This is inconsistent with the purpose of the right, which after all, is to guarantee trial within a reasonable time. Reducing “reasonableness” to a judicially created ceiling, which applies regardless of context, does not achieve this purpose. [263]

No foreign jurisdiction imposes numerical guidelines for speedy trials either. As for the majority’s approach to cases where trial is completed with the 18- or 30-month limit, it is “a judicially created diminishment of a constitutional right, and one for which there is no justification.” [264]

Each case must be decided separately, based on its own circumstances ― including, to some (limited) extent the prejudice to the accused, as well as society’s interest in the prosecution. The creation of definite ceilings is a legislative task, and it should be accomplished, if at all, by legislation. Besides, there is no evidence to support the majority’s approach, and it was neither put forward by any of the parties nor “the subject of adversarial debate.” [147] Nor was the majority’s assessment of the jurisprudence subject to scrutiny by the parties. The impact of its decision is unknown, but “[f]or the vast majority of cases, the ceilings are so high that they risk being meaningless,” thus “feed[ing] … rather than eliminat[ing]” [276] the culture of delay that the majority is concerned about, while for a small but significant minority, the ceilings risk proving too rigid, leading to stays being entered in the most important prosecutions.  

* * *

There are many questions to be asked about this case. They concern the constitutionality of the majority’s decision, the soundness of its approach as a matter of policy, its choice to implement this approach by judicial fiat, and the process it has followed in doing so. Since this post is already very long, I will only briefly address the first one here, and put off the other three to a separate discussion, which I hope will follow… in a reasonable time.

What I mean by the constitutionality of the majority’s decision is its consistency with the Charter’s text. The concurrence effectively argues that the constitutional text requires treating reasonableness as a standard and prohibits translating it into a bright-line rule. (Notice, though, that Justice Cromwell doesn’t quite put the point in this way: he says that the majority’s approach is inconsistent with “purpose of the right” ― consistently with the Supreme Court’s tendency to treat constitutional text as secondary, at best, to the “purposes” it is deemed to implement.) The majority, it seems to me does not make much of an effort to address this argument.

I am not sure who is right, to be honest. The idea of reasonableness does indeed normally refer to a standard, not a rule. But ― precisely for that reason ― the constitutional text that entrenches this standard calls for judicial elaboration or, as modern originalists would say, construction. In other words, the constitutional text itself does not give answers to the questions that arise in the course of adjudication. It must be supplemented by judicially-developed doctrines. The question is whether the courts can make numerical rules part of their doctrines. (And it really is only part; the majority is probably right to say that the concurrence somewhat overstates the degree to which the test a numerical one.) Or is it simply inconsistent with the meaning “reasonableness”? Again, I am not sure, but I do not think that the matter is as clear as the concurrence suggests. The fact that reasonableness requirements have not been construed in this way so far, in Canada or abroad, is significant, but hardly dispositive. It really is too bad that the majority does not address this issue.

In my view, however, the concurrence is pretty clearly right that the majority’s approach to cases that fall below its ceilings is a departure from constitution text. The text provides a right “to be tried within a reasonable time” ― not a right “to be tried within a time that is not markedly unreasonable provided that one has been diligent.” Presumably the majority introduce these additional requirements in order to incentivize defence counsel to contribute to the cultural change which it seeks. But while understandable, this motivation cannot justify an obvious inconsistency with the constitutional text.

That said, the issues of whether there can and ought to be a “ceiling” above which the burden of proof shifts to the Crown, and just what ought to happen below that ceiling, are distinct. It may be that the majority is right about the first even if it is wrong about the second.

All right. That’s quite unreasonable already ― for now.

A Heap of Trouble

It’s just one decision, and in all likelihood a legally correct one at that ― and yet, precisely because it is likely correct, it illustrates any number of things that are wrong in Canadian law: Thibault c. Da Costa, 2014 QCCA 2437. The case arose out of disciplinary proceedings instituted by the syndic of the Chambre de la sécurité financière, a self-regulation body for Québec’s financial advisers, against the respondent, who at the time was one of its members. The disciplinary committee of the Chambre, which heard them in the first instance, found that the respondent had “swindled” [15; translation mine here and throughout] eight of his clients, and convicted him on 27 counts, imposing fines.

The issue was that the amount of the fines on some of these counts was greater than the maximum authorized by law at the time the respondent committed his offences ― but between the time he committed them and the time the Committee issued its decision, both the minimum and the maximum fines authorized had been substantially increased. The Court of Québec, on appeal, reduced the amounts, concluding that the Committee had applied the new rules retroactively. The syndic appealed and, in a decision written by Justice Thibault, the Court of Appeal restored the Committee’s decision.

The first issue for the Court was the standard of review. Justice Thibault concluded that “although the question at issue concerns a general principle of law,” [26] namely the applicability of a non-retroactivity, as a principle of statutory interpretation, to the amounts of fines which can be imposed by the Committee, the Committee’s decision was entitled to deference. The matter concerned the interpretation of the statute the Committee is entrusted with applying, and “is also related to the efficiency of discipline of the members of the Chambre.” [27]

Here’s the first problem this case illustrates. In 1610, in Dr. Bonham’s Case, Chief Justice Coke was troubled by a professional disciplinary body empowered to be accuser and judge in cases of alleged malpractice. In 2015, few Canadian lawyers are so troubled (and why would they be, since their own professional bodies benefit from the same privilege?), and instead we choose to defer to such bodies’ decisions. But I, for one, find this disturbing. There might be a case for deference, perhaps even on questions of law, to impartial administrative adjudicators ― labour arbitrators come to mind. But the Supreme Court’s one-size-fits-all approach to deference makes no distinction between their decisions and those of disciplinary bodies which violate Chief Justice Coke’s injunction that nemo debet esse judex in propria causa. (In fairness, pursuant to the Chambre’s enabling statute, the Committee is presided by a lawyer who is independent of the Chambre, and who in turn appoints lawyers one of whom must preside every panel of the Committee. However, if I understand the statute correctly the two other member of the panels are chosen from among the Chambre’s members.)

Then again, in this case at least, none of this really matters. Si vous chassez le naturel, il revient au galop. After concluding that reasonableness is the applicable standard of review, and in contrast to her brief reasons on the amounts of fines imposed, Justice Thibault exhibits no sign not only of deferring to, but even of considering the Committee’s decision on the issue of retroactivity. Perhaps because there really isn’t much to defer to ― all that the Committee had to say on this subject was that it “consider[ed] the increase of fines … to be effective immediately.”

Turning to the substantive question of whether the committee could, in fact, apply the increased fines to acts committed before the increase, following a rather abstruse discussion of the distinction between retroactivity and retrospectivity, which I will not summarize (for those interested, Karim Renno, has posted the relevant excerpts over at À bon droit; those looking for a theoretical perspective can do worse than starting with Jeremy Waldron’s article called “Retroactive Law: How Dodgy Was Duynhoven“), Justice Thibault concludes that a sanction can be increased “retrospectively,” i.e. after the facts to which it is applied have occurred, so long as its purpose is not punishment but the protection of the public. Having examined the relevant precedents, Justice Thibault finds that the fines that can be assessed by the Committee, like most other sanctions imposed by disciplinary bodies, are indeed concerned with protecting the public, and do not carry the “true penal consequences” that would make them into punishments. The fact that these fines are based, in part, on the prejudice caused does not overcome the overall protective purpose of the Chambre’s enabling statute:

The more the actions committed are prejudicial to the public, the more the sanction must be important in order to guarantee its deterrent effect on the individual subject to the fine or on the other members of the profession. [38]

The fine thus aims at both specific and general deterrence, but it is not punitive ― on preventive and disciplinary.

Once again, Justice Thibault’s conclusion makes perfect sense in light of the precedents she cites (some of which found that fines of up to a million dollars per offence were not punishment, and thus could be imposed retrospectively) ― and that’s precisely the problem. Does it really make sense to say that a fine is not a punishment? A prohibition on exercising a profession in the future might be described as preventive more than punitive, though I’m not even sure about that, but a fine? At least a part of the trouble here might be, as in the standard of review issue, that courts too easily accept the specious claims professional organizations, and governments which choose to delegate their regulatory powers to them, make about their role. But there is something else going on as well.

Canadian courts are, in my view, much too comfortable with retroactive application of the law. Although retroactivity might be a good thing in a few cases, one of which I described here, it is generally disturbing. Applying a different law than that which was in force at the time the actions to which is being applied were committed is unfair. It undermines the law’s role as a guide to behaviour, and may end up, as prof. Waldron explains in the above-mentioned article, discrediting the law as a whole. Yet Canadian courts tend to turn a blind eye to these concerns. The Supreme Court, for instance, has allowed legislatures to make a tort out of commercial behaviour that was perfectly lawful when it occurred. In comparison, mere “retrospectivity,” a change to the extent of the sanction attached to an action after that action is committed, as was done here, seems pretty innocent.

This is probably a trite thing to say, but the law should be mindful of the context in which it operates, of the realities to which it applies, and of the consequences which it dictates. When it doesn’t, it risks ending up in a heap of trouble. The Court of Appeal’s ruling ― legally correct, but oblivious to the real nature of the body whose decision it reviews and of the sanction which it upholds ― illustrates this sad truth.