Dunsmuir and the Constitutional Status of the Administrative State

Have the courts built the administrative state into the constitution’s architecture?

Kate Glover, Western University

I presented some of the ideas summarized here at the ‘Re-writing the Canadian Constitution’ Conference at Boston College Law School, Boston, MA, 19-20 October 2017. This piece is part of a larger project that explores the constitutional character of the administrative state, as well as the implications of that character

The contemporary administrative state in the United States is, Gillian E Metzger writes, under siege on political and judicial fronts.[i] The attack is waged in the President’s tweets, in the administration’s policies, in budget cuts, in failures to fill administrative roles, and in Supreme Court decisions. While Metzger’s descriptive account of the state of administrative justice in America does not reflect the current Canadian experience, it still raises a question worth asking in the Canadian context, namely, would there be any legal recourse in the event of a similar “siege” north of the border?

Part of the answer to this question lies in the constitutional status of the administrative state. Does the network of public actors and institutions that make up the administrative state fall within the protective scope of the constitution? Or, more specifically, does this collection of actors and institutions fall under the protective arm of the constitutional amending formula?[ii] If the administrative state is entrenched within the architecture of the constitution, then the answer is yes. And if the answer is yes, action taken to dismantle or undermine the administrative state could be deemed unconstitutional, thwarted by an absence of the multilateral consensus required under the amending formula.

What, then, is the constitutional status of the administrative state?

The law has traditionally told a story about governance in Canada that imagines the administrative state not as constitutionally necessary, but as constitutionally permissible and, ultimately, constitutionally welcome. Administrative decision-makers are, as Justice Abella explains in Rasanen v Rosemount Instruments (1994) 17 OR (3d) 267 (CA), “designed to be less cumbersome, less expensive, less formal and less delayed”. These actors are, she reasoned, “to resolve disputes in their area of specialization more expeditiously and more accessibly, but no less effectively or credibly”. They are, in other words, established and operate in service of access to justice and the rule of law, but can be created – and reformed and dismantled – at the free hand of the legislature, with few constitutional constraints.

But a study of modern public law jurisprudence in Canada reveals an alternative story of governance and public justice that leads to a different conclusion about the constitutional status of the administrative state. In this alternative account, the administrative state – not in all its particulars, but in its essence and function – is a necessary or essential feature of Canada’s constitutional architecture. It follows, as noted above, that the administrative state is entrenched within the constitution and therefore tucked under the protective arm of the amending formula.

* * *

So what is this alternative account and what does Dunsmuir have to do with it?

In short, the alternative story is told by simply noticing three turns in the public law jurisprudence. Each of these turns reflects an expanded appreciation of administrative decision-makers as part of a common justice project, and together, they support the conclusion that the administrative state is now, as a doctrinal matter, constitutionally necessary. Dunsmuir and its progeny, as it turns out, are an important part of the story. They represent the first turn in the jurisprudence that is important for the story. It is in this turn that we see the emergence of the courts’ commitment to a deferential posture when engaged in review of administrative action. Relatively speaking, this posture is new. The early eras of the administrative state witnessed the courts’ active intervention in administrative decision-making. The courts relied on an expansive category of ‘questions of jurisdiction’ to justify intrusions into administrative decision-making.[iii] The message was that administrative actors were inferior decision-makers requiring strict supervision by the judiciary in the service of the rule of law.

Today, judicial resistance to administrative power has been replaced by an attitude of deference to administrative decisions, including deference on questions of law and statutory interpretation. This deferential approach emerged incrementally as the courts grappled with the challenges of relying on reasonableness as a meaningful standard of review.[iv] The commitment to deference was rooted in respect for, in the words of Professor Mullan and invoked by Justices Bastarache and LeBel in Dunsmuir, “the reality that, in many instances, those working day to day in the implementation of frequently complex administrative schemes have or will develop a considerable degree of expertise or field sensitivity to the imperatives and nuances of the legislative regime”.[v] Ultimately, in the post-Dunsmuir world, defence is the norm. While correctness review remains available on some matters, reasonableness is the default standard whenever an administrative decision-maker is interpreting its home statute or statutes that are close to home,[vi] as well as the de facto default standard in a vast number of other contexts.

The second jurisprudential turn of note is witnessed in the expansion of administrative decision-makers’ jurisdiction over constitutional matters. The law has not always granted these actors direct access to, or responsibilities under, the constitution. However, since the later decades of the twentieth century, public law jurisprudence has been loosening the judicial grip on constitutional interpretation. Where do we see this loosening? Martin and Conway are two examples.[vii] Here, we see the Court invoking access to justice, administrative expertise, and constitutional logic to conclude that public officials who are empowered to decide questions of law are also necessarily empowered to answer related constitutional questions and to grant Charter remedies, unless such authority has been clearly revoked. Doré is another example.[viii] There, the Court counselled deference when reviewing decisions of administrative decision-makers that engage Charter values. Again, tracing the increasingly broad and central role of administrative decision-makers in carrying out constitutional analysis and duties seen in Baker, Conway, and Dunsmuir, the Court in Doré held that a deferential approach reflects the “distinct advantage that administrative bodies have in applying the Charter to a specific set of facts and in the context of their enabling legislature”. Clyde River and Chippewas of the Thames First Nation are two final examples.[ix] These cases confirm that the actions of administrative decision-makers can both trigger and fulfill the Crown’s duty to consult Indigenous peoples whose rights and interests are affected by public decisions. In effect, these cases confirm that administrative actors are drawn into treaty relationships, bear the weight of upholding the duties of the honour of the Crown, and share responsibility for pursuing the goal of reconciliation of Indigenous peoples and the Crown. Ultimately, this set of cases suggests that public decision-makers have a direct and close relationship to the constitution, bearing meaningful responsibility in upholding, fulfilling, and applying constitutional obligations and remedies. It is a relationship that would be difficult to reconcile with the notion that the administrative state is not itself central to the architecture of the constitution.

The third and final turn in the jurisprudence is seen in the shrinking limits on administrative powers and jurisdiction under section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867. Section 96 protects the special status and core jurisdiction of the superior courts. In the early decades of the twentieth century, section 96 was interpreted broadly and strictly, precluding the transfer of any judicial power to administrative decision-makers or statutory courts.[x] This protectionist stance was hostile to the creation and expansion of the administrative state, severely limiting the dispute resolution and adjudicative powers that could be delegated to administrative decision-makers and the sectors in which they could be involved. On this model, the courts, and more specifically the superior courts, were at the centre of the legal system and were to be protected against the intrusion or usurping of power by the burgeoning administrative state.

In fairly short order, the interpretation and application of section 96 – and the limits it created for the creation of the administrative state – loosened.[xi] In the latter half of the twentieth century, the courts pivoted to a liberal and generous approach to section 96.[xii] This flexible approach authorized the administrative state to take up novel jurisdictions, with novelty measured against the conceptual categories of the nineteenth century, and to perform adjudicative roles that are either important to policy goals or integrated into a broader institutional setting.[xiii] With this shift, the courts have contributed to the conditions in which the administrative state can be nimble, sprawling, and directly responsive to the diverse social problems it is intended to address. Together with the other two jurisprudential turns chronicled here, this shift contributes to the conclusion that the administrative state can no longer fairly be conceived of as merely permitted. It is, rather, difficult to conceive of Canada’s constitutional architecture without it.

* * * * *

Dunsmuir is a case about the structural dimensions of the constitutional order; questions of standard of review always are.  And so its tenth anniversary is an opportunity to reflect not only on the particulars, but also on where Dunsmuir might fit within the grander constitutional vision. As I’ve argued here, Dunsmuir is part of a vision that sees the administrative state as a central part of the expansive set of institutions on which the country relies in the pursuit of a flourishing public life. Perhaps this shields us somewhat from a siege on the administrative state and perhaps by Dunsmuir’s next anniversary, we’ll know.

[i] Gillian E Metzger, “Foreword: 1930s Redux: The Administrative State Under Siege” (2017) 131:1 Harv L Rev 1.

[ii] On the protective function of the amending formula, see Sébastien Grammond, “The Protective Function of the Constitutional Amending Formula” (2017) 22:2 Rev Con Stud 171.

[iii] See e.g. Port Arthur Shipbuilding Co. v. Arthurs, [1969] SCR 85; Metropolitan Life Insurance Co v International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 796, [1970] SCR 425.

[iv] CUPE v New Brunswick Liquor Corporation, [1979] 2 SCR 227. See e.g. UES, Local 298 v Bibeault, [1988] 2 SCR 1048; Pezim v British Columbia (Superintendent of Brokers), [1994] 2 SCR 557; Canada (Director of Investigation and Research) v Southam Inc, [1997] 1 SCR 748; Pushpanathan v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), [1998] 1 SCR 982; Dr. Q, supra; Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9.  

 [v] DJ Mullan, “Establishing the Standard of Review: The Struggle for Complexity?” (2004), 17 CHALP 59 at 93, cited in Dunsmuir, ibid at para. 49.

[vi] Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner) v. Alberta Teachers’ Association, 2011 SCC 61.

[vii] Nova Scotia (Workers’ Compensation Board) v Martin, 2003 SCC 54, [2003] 2 SCR 504; Nova Scotia (Workers’ Compensation Board) v Laseur, 2003 SCC 54, [2003] 2 SCR 504; R v Conway, 2010 SCC 22, 1 SCR 765 [Conway].

 [viii] Doré v Barreau du Quebec, 2012 SCC 12.

[ix] Clyde River (Hamlet) v Petroleum Geo-Services Inc, 2017 SCC 40; Chippewas of the Thames First Nation v Enbridge Pipelines Inc, 2017 SCC 41.

[x] See e.g. Toronto Corporation v York Corporation, [1938] AC 415.

[xi] See e.g. Labour Relations Board of Saskatchewan v John East Iron Works Limited, [1949] AC 134.

[xii] Procureur Général de Québec v Barreau de la Province de Québec, [1965] SCR 772; Tomko v Labour Relations Board (Nova Scotia), [1977] SCR 112; The Corporation of the City of Mississauga v The Regional Municipality of Peel et al, [1979] 2 SCR 244; Reference re Residential Tenancies Act 1979 (Ontario), [1981] 1 SCR 714.  Indeed, the case law shows that over the past several decades, on the occasions when administrative decision-makers are challenged on section 96 grounds, the vast majority are unsuccessful. See e.g. R v Morrow, 1999 ABCA 182; Campisi v Ontario, 2017 ONSC 2884; Northstar Lumber v USWA Local 1-424, BCCA; Council of Canadians v Canada (AG), [2006] OJ No 4751 (CA); Air Canada v Canada (Commissaire de la concurrence, [2003] 18 Admin LR (4th) 14 (QCCA); Spellman v Essex (Town), [2002] OMBD No 784; Cameron v Sparks; Teal Cedar Products Ltd v British Columbia (Minister of Forests), 2008 BCSC 239; Pye v Pye, 2006 BCSC 505; Saskatchewan (Workers’ Compensation Board) v Saskatchewan (Board of Inuqiry), [1998] SJ No 503 (Sask Ct QB). Contra: Halme’s Auto Service Ltd v British Columbia (Regional Waste Manager), Decision Nos. 1998-WAS-018(c) & 1998-WAS-031(a) (Environmental Appeal Board).

[xiii] Reference re Residential Tenancies Act 1979 (Ontario), [1981] 1 SCR 714; Reference re Amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act (NS), [1996] 1 SCR 186.


Chicane de cours, bis

La querelle constitutionnelle entre la Cour supérieure et le gouvernement du Québec mérite le sérieux, pas la dérision

Plus d’un mois après qu’on en eut appris l’existence, la requête des  juges de la Cour supérieure visant à faire déclarer inconstitutionnelles les compétences exclusives sur les poursuites civiles de 10 000$ à 85 000$ et sur le contrôle judiciaire de certains tribunaux administratifs assignées par le législateur québécois à la Cour du Québec commence à faire parler d’elle. La fin de semaine dernière, Yves Boisvert y est allé d’une chronique vitupératrice dans La Presse et Robert Dutrisac, d’un éditorial un peu plus sobre, mais tout aussi indigné et un peu parano de surcroît, dans Le Devoir. Au-delà des erreurs juridiques qu’elles contiennent, ces élucubrations sont surtout remarquables par le peu de cas qu’elles font de la constitution et leur empressement à blâmer une seule partie dans une dispute où l’autre mérite tout autant, sinon davantage, comme je l’expliquais déjà lorsque les procédures ont été amorcées, d’être condamnée.

M. Boisvert compare la requête des juges de la Cour supérieure à celle du « gars qui a réclamé 67 millions à son nettoyeur pour avoir perdu son pantalon ». Il reconnaît pourtant ― au 17e paragraphe sur les 24 que compte son chef-d’oeuvre ― que « [t]echniquement, l’argument est sérieux ». Cependant, il n’en a cure, de ces détails techniques. Que la Cour supérieure, censément tribunal de droit commun, se trouve presque sans dossiers civils dans plusieurs régions du Québec n’est qu’un « “problème” » ― avec des guillemets. Que l’enjeu soit « discuté depuis des années par des experts et par des juges » (c’est au moins une décennie, comme je l’indiquais dans mon premier billet sur le sujet), c’est apparemment sans importance. Tout ça ne serait qu’ « [u]ne façon comme une autre de célébrer le 150e anniversaire de la Constitution », voire même de « ramener à 1867 » notre système judiciaire. Et que le gouvernement du Québec ait été au courant de tout ça, pressé par les juges d’éviter une confrontation inconvenante dans leur propre cour, et n’ait pas pris éviter l’apparence de conflit en renvoyant la cause devant la Cour d’appel est bien normal, puisqu’il ne saurait être question de « faciliter ce débat oiseux ».

M. Dutrisac, lui, écrit que le « Québec […] détient la compétence exclusive de l’administration de la justice », et que puisque « la Cour du Québec […] en mène plus large que les autres cours provinciales[,] en matière de justice, le Québec est en quelque sorte une société distincte ». Il soutient que la requête des juges serait un « coup de force » visant à « remettre le Québec à sa place en matière de justice, dans un esprit de soumission constitutionnelle ».

Autant M. Boisvert que M. Dutrisac s’insurgent face à la décision des juges de lancer ces procédures alors que le système de justice s’ajuste encore aux exigences en matière de délais édictées par la Cour suprême dans l’arrêt R c Jordan, 2016 CSC 27, [2016] 1 RCS 631. Cependant, leurs arguments à l’effet que tout le débat sur la limites de la compétence de la Cour du Québec serait « oiseux » sinon une sinistre tentative d’éradiquer la différence québécoise en matière de justice s’appliquerait tout autant en l’absence de ces ajustements. Il est vrai que, si les juges de la Cour supérieure ont gain de cause, d’importants changements devront être faits au système de justice. Or, ces changements auraient dérangé peu importe quand il aurait fallu les faire, et plus on attend, plus ils seront dérangeants le moment venu.

Car, comme M. Boisvert finit bien par l’admettre, l’argument des juges est sérieux. La constitution, n’en déplaise aux journalistes, n’est pas qu’un détail technique ou une curiosité intellectuelle. C’est encore moins un instrument de « soumission » pour le Québec. Le respect de la constitution c’est la condition même de légitimité de l’État québécois, comme de l’État canadien, bien sûr, ou de n’importe quel autre. Quand l’État déclare, par sa conduite (y compris sa législation) ou les paroles ou le silence de ses représentants, que le respect de la constitution l’indiffère, il y renonce, du moins en partie. Et il lance un avertissement à ses citoyens : hier, ce n’était que le partage des compétences en matière du système judiciaire que l’État québécois négligeait ; aujourd’hui, c’est aussi l’indépendance de la magistrature, à laquelle il a le devoir de contribuer, et qu’il aurait dû préserver en renvoyant cette question du partage des compétences à la Cour d’appel ; qu’est-ce que ce sera demain? En reconnaissant ses obligations constitutionnelles, l’État ne fait pas preuve de soumission (envers qui, au juste, M. Dutrisac?), mais bien de respect envers ceux et celles qu’il est censé servir ; ou, si tant est qu’il s’agit de soumission, c’est de cette soumission que les juristes médiévaux imposaient déjà aux rois d’Angleterre, en disant que Rex non debet esse sub homine, sed sub Deo et lege ― le Roi ne doit point être le sujet d’un autre homme, mais de Dieu et de la loi.

Je mentionnais plus haut les erreurs juridiques de MM. Boisvert et Dutrisac. Elles sont plutôt flagrantes ― et diamétralement opposées. Le premier dit que « [l]a Constitution de 1867 réserve au fédéral le pouvoir de créer les cours de droit commun »; le second, que le « Québec […] détient la compétence exclusive de l’administration de la justice ». Les deux ont tort. Le fédéral ne crée pas les tribunaux de droit commun, même s’il nomme leurs juges. Toutefois, la compétences des provinces en matière d’administration de la justice, même si elle est décrite comme exclusive à l’article 92(14) de la Loi constitutionnelle de 1867, est limitée par ce pouvoir de nomination du fédéral, et par les restrictions supplémentaires que la jurisprudence a dérivées de ce pouvoir. Ce schéma constitutionnel est (délibérément) complexe, mais il est troublant que l’on veuille dénigrer les efforts visant à le préserver sans même en comprendre le fonctionnement.

Pour sa part, M. Dutrisac exagère aussi le caractère unique du Québec en matière de la compétence de la cour provinciale. Comme je le mentionnais dans mon premier billet, cette compétence va jusqu’au seuil de 50 000$ en Alberta. C’est certes moins qu’au Québec, mais l’ordre de grandeur est le même, et démontre bien que le Québec est, ici encore, moins « distinct » du reste du pays que les nationalistes ne le prétendent, et que la requête des juges de la Cour supérieure n’est pas une attaque contre la spécificité québécoise, mais soulève au contraire des questions d’un vif intérêt pour le pays tout entier.

Et c’est pourquoi je reviens à ma suggestion, formulée le mois dernier, que le gouvernement fédéral devrait intervenir dans le débat en formulant un renvoi à la Cour suprême pour le trancher. L’enjeu est d’importance nationale, sa résolution ne nécessite pas l’établissement d’une trame factuelle, et le fédéral aussi a une responsabilité de préserver les apparences d’impartialité de la magistrature. Puisque le gouvernement du Québec ne veut pas faire sa part, et que même les journalistes québécois semblent disposés à louer son attitude et à ne condamner que les juges, le fédéral, qui peut agir, doit le faire.

Clash of Courts

Senior Superior Court judges are suing Québec over its provincial court’s jurisdiction; other provinces will be affected if they succeed

I don’t think the story has received much attention outside of Québec yet, but it’s not because it doesn’t deserve to be noticed: as La Presse reports, the Chief Justice, Senior Associate Chief Justice, and Associate Chief Justice of Québec’s Superior Court are suing the provincial government, arguing that much of the civil jurisdiction of the Court of Québec is unconstitutional. More specifically, they are seeking declarations that Québec could not, consistently with section 96 of the Constitution Act, 1867, grant its provincial court exclusive jurisdiction to hear cases where the amount at issue is more than $10 000 or any powers of judicial review over provincial administrative tribunals, because these powers are reserved for federally-appointed judges.

Currently, the upper limit of the Court of Québec’s jurisdiction in civil matters is set at $85 000. Should the Superior Court judges prevail, their court’s workload is bound to increase very substantially, though I haven’t yet seen any clear data on this point. But repercussions  will be felt well beyond Québec’s borders. British Columbia has set the upper limit on its provincial court’s jurisdiction in civil disputes at $35 000; Alberta, at $50 000. The principles on which the applicants rely apply across Canada, of course, and the boundaries between the jurisdictions of superior and provincial courts would need to be re-drawn in several provinces, if not quite to the same extent as in Québec.

Though I am sure that much more will be said about this dispute as it develops, my initial impression is that the Superior Court judges have a strong case. Although it says nothing of the sort, section 96 has long been understood to stand for the proposition that the courts to which it refers, including Québec’s Superior Court, have a protected “core” of jurisdiction. This core jurisdiction ― that which they exclusively had at the time of Confederation ― cannot be taken away from them or transferred to other courts (which is to say the Federal Court or provincial courts created pursuant to section 92(14) of the Constitution Act, 1867, such as the Court of Québec). As the Superior Court judges’ application shows, in Québec, the exclusive jurisdiction of (what at Confederation became) section 96 courts started at $100, which, adjusted for inflation, is said to be less than $10 000. (The application does not go into any detail as to exactly how this inflation adjustment proceeds ― the exercise is bound to be an inexact one over 150 years ― but let’s assume that the figures given are at least roughly correct.) As Québec expanded the jurisdiction of its provincial court over the last 50 years (for the most part, when it was governed by the Parti québécois), it took more and more out of the former exclusive jurisdiction of the Superior Court, impinging ever more on what the Supreme Court, in Trial Lawyers Association of British Columbia v British Columbia (Attorney General), 2014 SCC 59, [2014] 3 SCR 31, described as its “historic task … to resolve disputes between individuals and decide questions of private and public law”. [32]

Indeed, the Superior Court judges’ argument is not new. Frédéric Bachand, then a professor at McGill and now himself a Superior Court judge, mentioned it in my civil procedure classes ― 10 years ago. And, while I’m not sure about this, I doubt that the point was a novel one even then. Prof. Bachand, as he then was, also pointed out that no litigant had a good reason to raise the issue, and he was right about that too ― but the wonders of public interest standing, which the Superior Court judges very plausibly claim, mean that the matter will have to be addressed regardless.

Just how it will be addressed is still a troubling question. The prospect of Québec’s Superior Court adjudicating, even in the first instance, a claim about its own jurisdiction brought by its three most senior judges is unsettling. The judges’ Application details their fruitless attempts to get the provincial government interested in the matter. For a while now, they have pushed for the issue to be referred to the Court of Appeal. A reference would indeed have been the preferable procedural vehicle, both to avoid casting the Superior Court in the unseemly position of being judge in its own cause, and also because the questions to be addressed are not of such a nature as to require a trial to be held, while appeals all the way to the Supreme Court are certain in any event. I’m not sure exactly why the Québec government has so far refused to take this course. Perhaps it was daring the judges to sue in their own court, and hoping that they would not compromise themselves in this way. But now that, rightly or wrongly, its dare has been taken, there is nothing to be gained from continued obstinacy.

Indeed, I wonder if the federal government would not do well to intervene and refer the issues directly to the Supreme Court, should Québec’s obstinacy continue. While federal references on the constitutionality of provincial legislation are uncommon, Québec itself has no compunctions about referring questions regarding the constitutionality of federal policies to the courts. And of course the issue of the respective jurisdictions of superior and provincial courts directly concerns the federal government, which would have to pick up a substantial tab for the salaries of additional section 96 appointees if Québec’s Superior Court judges are successful. Even more importantly though, because these judges are appointed and paid by the federal government, I think it has a direct interest in helping them maintain their continued impartiality and good standing, and arguably a duty to do so (a political duty, of course, not a legal one).

Whatever exactly happens, one has to hope that it happens quickly. An important question has been raised, with strong arguments to support the proposition that the way the court  systems of several provinces are organized is unconstitutional. This question deserves to be answered, but having it litigated by senior judges in their own court is surely not the right way to go about it. Yet if the judges are looking bad, the provincial government that seemingly dared  them to do it is even worse. It is not taking its constitutional responsibility for the administration of justice ― on which it purports to rely to justify its allegedly unconstitutional legislation ― seriously at all. It is high time for it to come to its senses ― and perhaps for the federal government to intervene if it refuses to do so.