Squaring the Public Law Circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Splitting a Baby

There came a Catholic school and a minister of education unto the Supreme Court, and stood before it. And the school said, “Oh my Lords and my Ladies, I am a private Catholic school, and am delivered of a programme for teaching a class on Ethics and Religious Culture through the prism of my Catholic faith. And when I besought the minister for leave to do so, he would not let me, though my programme be equivalent to the one he requires.” And the minister said, “Nay, but thy programme is no wise equivalent to the required one, for that programme is secular and objective, and thine religious.” Thus they spoke before the Court. Then the Court said (having deliberated a year, and with three of the seven judges present disagreeing), “Fetch me a sword.” And they brought a sword (a metaphorical one) before the Court. And the Court said, in Loyola High School v. Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 12: “Divide the programme in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other.”

More specifically, the majority (consisting of Justice Abella, who wrote the judgment, and Justices Lebel, Cromwell, and Karakatsanis) holds that while Loyola cannot be forced to teach its students about Catholicism from the rigorously secular and neutral perspective favoured by the minister, it can be required to teach the “ethics” element of the class from such a perspective. (Loyola itself does not object to adopting this posture for teaching students about other religions.) The majority orders the Minister to reconsider the denial of an exemption necessary for Loyola to teach the class according to its own programme rather than the one imposed by the Minister in light of its reasons.

This case was widely expected to produce a clear statement about the nature and extent of the religious rights of organizations under the Charter, since Loyola is a (non-profit) corporation. However, Justice Abella’s reasons seem to punt on that question, invoking instead “the religious freedom of the members of the Loyola community who seek to offer and wish to receive a Catholic education.” [32] Loyola was entitled to seek judicial review of the Minister’s decision, and in doing so to argue that the Minister failed to respect the rights of others.

Because the case arose by way of judicial review of an administrative decision, Justice Abella takes the approach developed in Doré v. Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 S.C.R. 395, according to which the administrative decision must reflect a reasonable balancing of “the Charter protections — values and rights — at stake in their decisions with the relevant statutory mandate” [Loyola, 35]. But reasonableness, here, “requires proportionality” [38] and, indeed, is the exact counterpart of the (last two stages of) the “Oakes test” applied to determine the constitutionality of statutes.

Applying this framework, Justice Abella begins by pointing out that the statutory scheme under which the Minister operates makes provision for exemptions which must be granted to programmes “equivalent” to those designed by the government. This possibility would be meaningless, she observes, if “equivalent” were understood as “identical.” Besides, “[t]he exemption exists in a regulatory scheme that anticipates and sanctions the existence of private denominational schools,” [54] and, therefore,

a reasonable interpretation of the process for granting exemptions from the mandatory curriculum would leave at least some room for the religious character of those schools. [54]

In effectively requiring Loyola to teach the entire class, including the parts dealing with the Catholic religion itself, from a secular and neutral perspective, the Minister failed to make allowance for its denominational character. That decision

amounts to requiring a Catholic institution to speak about Catholicism in terms defined by the state rather than by its own understanding of Catholicism. [63]

Justice Abella finds that it would be possible to let the school teach its pupils about Catholicism in accordance with its own understanding of its faith without compromising the ministerial objectives for the Ethics and Religious Culture class. The Minister’s decision is, to that extent, unreasonable, because it not restrict religious rights as little as possible.

By contrast, Justice Abella finds that so long as Loyola is allowed to teach the Catholic religion and ethics from the Catholic perspective, it can be required to teach the remainder of the “ethics” part of the course “objectively.” While this may be “a delicate exercise” in the context of a denominational school, and “Loyola must be allowed some flexibility as it navigates these difficult moments,” [73] the requirement that it do so is not an infringement of anyone’s religious freedom, and does not compromise the school’s religious identity. Indeed, the requirement of objectivity is very important, lest

other religions … be seen not as differently legitimate belief systems, but as worthy of respect only to the extent that they aligned with the tenets of Catholicism. [75]

It is all about “how the discussion is framed” ― Catholicism’s “own ethical framework” must be a “significant participant rather than [a] hegemonic tutor.” [76]

The concurrence (a judgment by the Chief Justice and Justice Moldaver, with the agreement of Justice Rothstein) disagrees on with the majority about this, arguing that the teaching of ethics is inextricably linked to that of religions and, in particular, that the teaching of ethics generally cannot be neatly separated from the teaching of the Catholic perspective on ethics, as the majority’s conclusion would require. An attempt do so “poses serious practical difficulties and represents a significant infringement on how Loyola transmits an understanding of the Catholic faith.” [156]

On its way to this conclusion, the concurrence also takes a very different approach from the majority. For one thing, it squarely addresses the issue of institutional religious freedom, suggesting that corporations are entitled to assert this right “if (1) it is constituted primarily for religious purposes, and (2) its operation accords with these religious purposes.” [100] And for another, the concurrence does not even pretend to apply Doré and its deferential standard of review, saying that

[t]he Charter requirement that limits on rights be reasonable and demonstrably justified may be expressed in different ways in different contexts, but the basic constitutional requirement remains the same. [113]

On this last point, I agree with the concurrence. The pretense of deference under Doré is useless if there really is no difference between “reasonableness” and “proportionality” as the majority suggests. Actually, I think that, contrary to what the majority suggests, there ought to be a difference. While it is true that the Supreme Court has often relaxed the Oakes test, allowing the government to infringe rights not by the “least restrictive means” possible but by one of a spectrum of “reasonable alternatives,” it has also repeatedly suggested that such a relaxation is not appropriate in all circumstances. And in cases where there is a real difference between “reasonableness” and proportionality” ― deferring to a government’s interpretation of Charter rights intended to constrain it is outright pernicious.

What I like less about the concurrence reasons is the way in which it limits the scope of organizations’ rights to religious freedom and, specifically, the requirement it proposes that only those organizations “constituted primarily for religious purposes” be entitled to assert this right. The concurrence does not explain why other organizations, including for-profit ones, should not be allowed to do so, at least if they can show that “their operation accords with” religious principles. The question was not before the Court in this case, and there was no need to answer it at all.

Whether the majority was right to evade the issue of the religious rights of even primarily religious organizations, I am not sure. Admittedly it is difficult to imagine situations where such an organization would not be able to assert the claims of at least some of the members of its “community,” as Loyola was in this case, so perhaps it is, indeed, unnecessary to answer that theoretically vexing question. But there is something to be said for theoretical clarity, at least on matters well and truly before the Court.

As for the outcome, I also agree with the concurrence. I find the majority’s belief that Loyola can plausibly separate the religious teaching of Catholic ethics and the “neutral” teaching of other ethics difficult to countenance. I am also perplexed by the majority’s professed concern at the “risk” that Loyola’s students won’t see other religions as “differently legitimate.” Of course they won’t. Religions are not politically correct. They don’t talk about people being “differently spiritually abled.” They talk of prophets, believers, and heretics. If you cannot accept that, you cannot accept religious freedom at all. Still, it could have been worse.

Perhaps it will yet be. The majority, and indeed the concurrence, repeatedly emphasize the fact that Québec’s legislation specifically provides for exemptions for classes “equivalent” to those required by the government, and that the government’s stated objectives for the Ethics and Religious Culture course can be achieved by classes taught, in whole or in part, from a religious perspective. But what if the provision for exemption is removed, or the objectives re-written ― a bit like Parliament criminalized (half of) prostitution after the Court seemed to make its legality a key factor in its analysis in Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 S.C.R. 1101, where it struck down the prostitution-related provisions of the Criminal Code. As it happens, the King James Bible describes the women who came to seek the judgment of Solomon as “harlots.” I do not mean to suggest anything of the sort about either Loyola or the Minister of education, but this case might have an eerie air of Bedford about it.

All in all, then a rather unsatisfactory decision, and not a very well argued one. The majority’s reasons, in particular, are full of equivocation. Not only is the outcome a dubious compromise, but almost every step of the analysis is a fudge. Do organizations have religious liberty rights of their own? We’ll tell you later. The applicable test is “reasonableness,” but it’s no different from “proportionality.” Exemptions must be granted, but perhaps only if the law allows for exemptions in the first place. Schools must be allowed flexibility in structuring their classes, but here’s how to do it. The problem with splitting so many babies in half is that one risks looking more like Herod than Solomon.

UPDATE: Over at Administrative Law Matters, Paul Daly weighs in, mostly on Loyola‘s treatment of the relationship between constitutional and administrative law. Speaking of Justice Abella’s “application of the reasonableness standard, it is difficult to discern how it is more deferential than, or analytically distinct from, proportionality.” It is indeed. Shauna Van Praagh also makes some important observations in the Globe, although I’m skeptical about her proposal to “make the Loyola judgment part of the ERC curriculum in all its variations.” The judgment, for the reasons I set out above, does not strike me as a pedagogical model.

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.