Neutrality in Legal Interpretation

Nowadays, it is unfashionable to say that legal rules, particularly rules of interpretation, should be “neutral.” Quite the opposite: now it is more fashionable to say that results in cases depend on the “politics” of a court on a particular day. Against this modern trend, not so long ago, it was Herbert Wechsler in his famous article “Towards Neutral Principles of Constitutional Law” who first advanced the idea of neutral principles. He wrote that, because courts must not act as a “naked power organ,” they must be “entirely principled” (Wechsler, at 19). They are principled when they rest their decisions “on reasons with respect to all the issues in the cases, reasons that in their generality and their neutrality transcend any immediate result that is involved” (Wechsler, at 19). The goal of these so-called “neutral principles” was to avoid “ad hoc evaluation” which Wechsler called “the deepest problem of our constitutionalism” (Wechsler, at 12). While Wechsler did not put it this way, I think textualism—particularly in statute law—is the closest thing to neutrality we have, and should be defended as such.

Wechsler’s idea of neutral principles, and textualism itself, are subject to much controversy. But, in my view, it is without a doubt that a deep problem in Canadian law remains “ad hoc evaluation,” otherwise known as “results-oriented reasoning.” Some judges are starting to recognize this. In constitutional law, Justices Brown and Rowe in the recent s.15 Fraser case noted that “substantive equality”—while a laudable doctrinal goal—has been ill-defined in the cases, and “has become an open-ended and undisciplined rhetorical device by which courts may privilege, without making explicit, their own policy preferences” (Fraser, at para 146). The same potential problem attends statutory interpretation, where results-oriented reasoning is possible (Entertainment Software Association, at para 76), and administrative law, where Vavilov was concerned with provides a rules-based framework for the application of deference. All of this is positive, because it provides a guide for judges in applying rules, ensuring that the reasoning process is transparent, bound, and fair to the parties.

But, in many ways, neutrality as a principle in our law is under attack. A common adage has become “law=politics,” and this broad, simple statement has elided the nuances that must apply when we speak of interpretation. This is true on both sides of the “political aisle” (a reference I make not out of any desire to do so, but out of necessity). Some who believe in notions of living constitutionalism or unbounded purposivism would tie the meaning of law to whatever a particular political community thinks in the current day, ostensibly because the current day is more enlightened than days past. In some ways this might be true as a factual matter (putting aside questions of legitimacy). But, as we are learning in real time, we have no guarantee that the present will be any more enlightened than the past.  Still others now advance a novel idea of “common good constitutionalism,” under which the meaning of constitutional text—whatever it is—must align with a “robust, substantively conservative approach to constitutional law and interpretation.” The goal is a “substantive moral constitutionalism…not enslaved to the original meaning of the Constitution.” These views have something in common: they purport to view the interpretation of law as a means to an end, reading in to legal texts contentious, political values that may or may not be actually reflected in the laws themselves.

The attack on neutrality from these camps—that span the spectrum—follow a familiar path, at least implicitly. They reason from an end. In other words, the argument assumes that some end is coextensive with moral justice, whatever that is. It assumes that the end is a good thing. It then says that the law should encompass that end because it is good.

Legal interpretation should not work this way. Laws, whether statutes or Constitutions, embody certain value choices and purposes. They have an internal meaning, quite apart from what other people want a particular law to mean. In this way, it is true that law is a purposive activity, in that law does pursue some end. But, as is well known, law is not co-extensive with justice, nor is it helpful to the interpretation of laws to say they pursue the “common good” or some other bromide. Even if one could come to some stable definition of such terms (a tall task indeed) that could guide the task of legal interpretation, it isn’t clear that all of the goals associated with some external philosophy are co-extensive with the law as adopted.   Laws do pursue purposes, but they do not do so at all costs—they often pursue limited or specific goals that are evident only when one reads the text (see the debate in West Fraser between the opinions of McLachlin CJC and Côté J on this point). This is why purpose is usually best sourced in text, not in some external philosophy.

If we accept that law is indeed a purposive endeavour, and that the words used by legislatures and drafters are the means by which purposes are enacted, then textualism is a defensible way of discovering those purposes. Textualism is simply the idea that we must read text to discover all that it fairly encompasses. Textualism is really a family of tools that we can use to discover that text. There are the linguistic canons—ejusdem generis, and the like—that are generally based on the way humans tend to speak in ordinary terms. There are contextual canons, such as the rule that statutes must be interpreted holistically. There are substantive canons of construction (which I will get to later). And there are other tools, like purpose, which can guide textualist interpretation so long as it is sourced properly. Unlike other theories of “interpretation,” these tools are designed to find the meaning of the law from within, rather than imposing some meaning on it without.

I can think of at least three (and probably more) objections to the point I am making here. First, one might say that textualism and its family of tools are not themselves neutral. For example, some of the substantive canons of construction might be said to be imbued with presuppositions about the ways laws must be interpreted. For example, there is the rule that statutes altering the common law require a clear statement in order to do so.  This is not a value-neutral tool, it could be said, because it makes it difficult for statutes to override what one might call a generally “conservative” common law. I do see the merit of this argument, which is why I (and some other textualists) may wish to assign a lesser role to substantive canons. Indeed, since I believe in legislative sovereignty, the legislature should be able to change the common law without a clear statement. Of course, these canons could be justified on other grounds that I do not have space to explore here. For example, they could be justified as a matter of precedent, or as a matter of “stabilizing” the law.

Second, one might trot out the familiar canard that textualism as a general matter leads to “conservative” outcomes. To put this argument in its most favourable light, one might say that textualism leads to cramped interpretations of statutes, robbing them of their majestic generalities that could serve to achieve certain political aims. It’s worth noting three responses to this position. First, the “cramped interpretation” argument tends to conflate strict constructionism and textualism. Indeed, textualism may sometimes lead to “broad” interpretation of statutes if text and purpose, working synthetically, lead to that conclusion. A great recent example is the Bostock decision from the United States Supreme Court, which I wrote about here. There, textualism led to a result that was actually more protective of certain rights.  Second, the use of political labels to describe legal doctrines is a pernicious trend that must come to an end. Even if these labels were actually stable in meaning, and not themselves tools of cultural warfare, it is unfair to assume that any one legal theory is always something. I understand the need to box everything, these days, into neat categories. But sometimes, law can mean many different things. And tools used to interpret those laws, as much as possible, should remain apart from the political aims those laws wish to pursue.

Third, it might be said that true neutrality is not of this world. That is, it could be argued that a Solomonic law is impossible, and no matter what, the act of interpretation is a fundamentally human activity that will be imbued with traditionally human biases. I accept this point. Because judges are humans, no system of rules will always remove the human aspect of judging, nor should it. The best we can do is design a system of rules, in mind of the tradeoffs, that limits the pernicious forms of biases and political reasoning that could infect the law. We won’t always get it right, but we should not take the nihilistic view that the entire enterprise of law as something separate from politics is not worth pursuing.

Finally, one might argue that law is inextricably political. It is cooked up in legislatures made up of thoroughly political individuals, with agendas. It is enforced by people who have biases of their own. I also accept this point. But this argument, to me, runs up against two major problems that limit its force. First, while the making of law may be a political activity, that does not mean that the rules we use for interpretation should be. Not at all. In fact, one might say that the rules of interpretation should be used to discover the meaning of the law, whatever political result it encompasses. Second, there is a major is/ought problem here. Just because the making of law is political does not mean we should not be concerned with a system of rules designed to limit biases that might infect the judging process. All people, regardless of ideology, should find this goal laudable.

I close with this. I understand that we live in sclerotic times in which there are passionate political views on many sides. There is a natural tendency to impose those views into law. We lose something when this happens. While perhaps not a sufficient condition for legitimacy, it is central to the Rule of Law that laws be promulgated and interpreted in a fair way. Generality, as Wechsler notes, is one guarantee of fairness. If we give up on generality and neutrality in interpretation, then we must admit that judges are simply political actors, agents of politicians, without any need for independence. It is self-evident that this is undesirable.

Linguistic Nihilism

One common line of attack against textualism—the idea that “the words of a governing text are of paramount concern, and what they convey, in their context, is what the text means (Scalia & Garner, at 56)—is that language is never clear, or put differently, hopelessly vague or ambiguous. Put this way, the task of interpretation based on text is a fool’s game. Inevitably, so the argument goes, courts will need to resort to extraneous purposes, “values,” social science evidence, pre or post-enactment legislative history, or consequential analysis to impose meaning on text that cannot be interpreted.

I cannot agree with this argument. For one, the extraneous sources marshalled by anti-textualists bristle with probative problems, and so are not reliable indicators of legislative meaning themselves. More importantly, an “anything goes” approach to interpretation offers no guidance to judges who must, in tough cases, actually interpret the law in predictable way. In this post, I will explore these arguments. My point is that a sort of linguistic nihilism that characterizes anti-textualist arguments is not conclusive, but merely invites further debate about the relative role of text and other terms.

**

Putting aside frivolous arguments one often hears about textualism (ie: “it supports a conservative agenda” or “it is the plain meaning approach”), one clear criticism of textualism is that interpretation is not self-executing. Jorge Gracia, for example, writes:

…texts are always given in a certain language that obeys rules and whose signs denote and connote more or less established meanings. In addition, the audience cannot help but bring to the text its own cultural, psychological, and conceptual context. Indeed, the understanding of the meaning of a text can be carried out only by bringing something to the text that is not already there…

Gracia, A Theory of Textuality: The Logic and Epistemology, at 28

Sullivan calls this situation the “pervasive indeterminacy of language” (see here, at 206). Put this way, as Sullivan notes, it is impossible to interpret text in its linguistic context:

It is not possible for judges  who interpret a provision of the Criminal Code or the Income Tax Act to wipe out the beliefs, values and expectations that they bring to their reading. They cannot erase their knowledge of law or the subject of legislation. They cannot case aside legal culture, with its respect for common law and evolving constitutional values…Like any other readers, if they want to make sense of a text, judges must rely on the context that they themselves bring to the text (see 208).

This form of linguistic nihilism is highly attractive. So goes the argument, if texts cannot be interpreted on their own, judges should and must bring their own personal biases and values to the text, as a desirable or inevitable result of the unclear text. And if that’s the case, we should adopt another type of interpretive record—perhaps one that centres what a judge in a particular case thinks the equities ought to be.

**

This argument aside, I find it hard to accept. First, the tools that are inevitably supposed to resolve these ambiguities or vagueness themselves are ambiguous and vague; so it is hard to hold them up as paragons of clarity against hopelessly clear text.

Let’s consider, first, the tools often advanced by non-textualists that are supposed to bring clarity to the interpretive exercise. Purpose is one such tool. In Canadian statutory interpretation, purpose and context must be sourced in every case, even when the text is admittedly clear on first blush (ATCO, at para 48). Put together, text, context, and purpose must be read together harmoniously (Canada Trustco, at para 47). But sometimes, purpose is offered by anti-textualists as an “out” from ambiguity or vagueness in the text itself. The problem is that sourcing purpose is not self-executing either. Purpose can be stated at various levels of abstraction (see here, and in general, Hillier). In other words, purpose can be the most abstract purpose of the statute possible (say, to achieve justice, as Max Radin once said); or it could be the minute details of particular provisions. There can be many purposes in a statute, stated in opposite terms (see Rafilovich for an example of this). Choosing purposes in these cases can be just as difficult as figuring out what words mean. This is especially so because the Supreme Court has never really provided guidance on the interaction between text and purpose, instead simply stating that these things must be read “harmoniously.” What this means in distinct cases is unclear. This is why it is best to source purpose with reference to text itself (see here).

Legislative history also presents well-known problems. One might advance the case that a Minister, when introducing a bill, speaks to the bill and gives his view of the bill’s purpose. Others may say differently. In some cases, legislative history can be probative. But in many cases, legislative history is not useful at all. For one, and this is true in both Canada and the US, we are bound by laws; not by the intentions of draftspeople. What a Minister thinks is enacted in text does not necessarily equate to what is actually enacted (see my post here on the US case of Bostock). There may be many reasons why bills were drafted the way they were in particular cases, but it is not probative to think legislative history (which can be manipulated) should be some cure-all for textual ambiguity or vagueness.

Finally, one might say that it is inevitable and desirable for judges to bring their own personal values and experiences to judging and interpreting statutes. This is a common refrain these days. To some extent, I agree with those who say that such value-based judging is inevitable. Judges are human beings, and are not robots. We cannot expect them to put aside all implicit value judgments in all cases. But one of the purposes of law, and of the rules of interpretation, is to ensure that decisions are reasoned according to a uniform set of rules applicable across the mass of cases. We have to limit idiosyncratic reasoning to the extent we can/ If we give up on defining with clarity such rules—in order to liberate judges and their own personal views—we no longer have a system of interpretation defined by law. Rather, we have a system of consequences, where judges reach the results they like based on the cases in front of them. This might sound like a nice idea to some, but in the long run, it is an unpredictable way to solve legal disputes.

**

If all of the tools of interpretation, including text, are imperfect, what is an interpreter to do? One classic answer to this problem is what I call the “anything goes” approach. Sullivan seems to say that this is what the Supreme Court actually does in its statutory interpretation cases (see here, at 183-184). While I question this orthodox view in light of certain cases, I take Sullivan’s description to be indicative of a normative argument. If the Supreme Court cannot settle on one theory of interpretation, perhaps it is best to settle on multiple theories. Maybe, in some cases, legislative history is extremely probative, and it takes precedence over text. Maybe, in some cases, purpose carries more weight than text. This is a sort of pragmatic approach that allows judges to use the tools of interpretation in response to the facts of particular cases.

This is attractive because it does not put blinders on the interpreter. It also introduces “nuance” and “context” to the interpretation exercise. All of this sounds good. But in reality, I am not sure that the “anything goes” approach, where judges assign weight on various tools in various cases, is all that helpful. I will put aside the normative objections—for example, the idea that text is adopted by the legislature or its delegates and legislative history is not—and instead focus on the pragmatic problems. Good judicial decisions depend on good judicial reasoning. Good judicial reasoning is more likely to occur if it depends less on a particular judge’s writing prowess and more on sourcing that reasoning from precedential and well-practiced rules. But there is no external, universal rule to guide the particular weights that judges should assign to various tools of interpretation, and even further, what factors will guide the assignment of weights. At the same time, some people might argue that rules that are too stringent will stymie the human aspect of judging.

In my view, an answer to this was provided by Justice Stratas in a recent paper co-authored with his clerk, David Williams. The piece offers an interesting and well-reasoned way of ordering tools of interpretation. For Stratas & Williams,  there are certain “green light” “yellow light” and “red light” tools in statutory interpretation. Green light tools include text and context, as well as purpose when it is sourced in text. Yellow light tools are ones that must be used with caution—for example, legislative history and social science evidence. Red light tools are ones that should never be used—for example, personal policy preferences.

I think this is a sound way of viewing the statutory interpretation problem. The text is naturally the starting point, since text is what is adopted by the legislature or its delegates, and is often the best evidence of what the legislature meant. Context is necessary as a pragmatic tool to understand text. Purpose can be probative as well, if sourced in text.

Sometimes, as I mentioned above, legislative history can be helpful. But it  must be used with caution. The same goes with social science evidence, which might be helpful if it illustrates the consequences of different interpretations, and roots those consequences back to internal statutory tools like text or purpose. But again, social science evidence cannot be used to contradict clear text.

Finally, I cannot imagine a world in which a judge’s personal views on what legislation should mean should be at all probative. Hence, it is a red light tool.

In this framework, judges are not asked to, on a case-by-case basis, assign weights to the tools that the judge thinks is most helpful. Instead, the tools are ranked according to their probative value. This setup has the benefit of rigidity, in that it does assign objective weight to the factors before interpretation begins. At the same time, it keeps the door open to using various tools that could deal with textual ambiguity or vagueness.

The point is that textualism cannot be said to be implausible simply because it takes some work to squeeze meaning out of text. The alternatives are not any better. If we can arrange text at the hierarchy of a list of other tools, that may be a solid way forward.

Just Hook It to My Veins

Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s excellent lecture on statutory and constitutional interpretation

Justice Scalia’s 1989 Lecture on “Assorted Canards of Contemporary Legal Analysis” is well known; indeed it has featured in a post by co-blogger Mark Mancini. Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit revisited that lecture last year, and her remarks have been published recently, as “Assorted Canards of Contemporary Legal Analysis: Redux“. They are a short and profitable read, including for Canadian lawyers, to whom almost everything Judge Barrett says is relevant. Judge Barrett’s comments have mostly to do with statutory and constitutional interpretation, but they also touch on the issue of “judicial activism”. And I agree with just about every word.


The main topic Judge Barrett addresses is textualism. She defines it as the approach to interpretation that

insists that judges must construe statutory language consistent with its “ordinary meaning.” The law is comprised of words—and textualists emphasize that words mean what they say, not what a judge thinks that they ought to say. For textualists, statutory language is a hard constraint. Fidelity to the law means fidelity to the text as it is written. (856; footnote omitted)

Judge Barrett contrasts textualism, so understood, with the view that “statutory language isn’t necessarily a hard constraint. … Sometimes, statutory language appears to be in tension with a statute’s overarching goal, and … a judge should go with the goal rather than the text”. (856) Judge Barrett labels this latter approach “purposivism”, but that is perhaps not ideal, since many approaches to interpretation and construction, including ones that respect the primacy and constraint of the text, might properly be described as purposive.

With this in mind, the first three of Judge Barrett’s canards are “textualism is literalism” (856); “[a] dictionary is a textualist’s most important tool” (858); and “[t]extualists always agree”. (859) She notes that

[l]anguage is a social construct made possible by shared linguistic conventions among those who speak the language. It cannot be understood out of context, and literalism strips language of its context. … There is a lot more to understanding language than mechanistically consulting dictionary definitions. (857)

The relevance of context to interpretation is an important reason why textualists (and originalists) don’t always agree. If it were simply a matter of consulting the dictionary and the grammar book,

one could expect every textualist judge to interpret text in exactly the same way. Popping words into a mental machine, after all, does not require judgment. Construing language in context, however, does require judgment. Skilled users of language won’t always agree on what language means in context. Textualist judges agree that the words of a statute constrain—but they may not always agree on what the words mean. (859)

The example of such disagreement that Judge Barrett provides concerns the interpretation of the provisions of the US anti-discrimination statute ostensibly directed at discrimination “because of sex” as applying, or not, to sexual orientation and gender identity. Judge Barrett describes what happened at the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, but a similar disagreement arose when the matter was decided by the Supreme Court in Bostock v Clayton County, 140 S.Ct. 1731 (2020). Mark wrote about it here.

Judge Barrett then turns to another issue, this one concerned specifically with constitutional interpretation: should the constitution be interpreted differently from other legal texts? The idea that it should ― for which Chief Justice Marshall’s well-known admonition in McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316 (1819) that “we must never forget, that it is a constitution we are expounding” (407) is often taken to stand ― is Judge Barrett’s fourth canard. For her, “the Constitution is, at its base, democratically enacted written law. Our approach to interpreting it should be the same as it is with all written law.” (862) To be sure, the Constitution contains “expansive phrasing and broad delegations of congressional and executive authority to address unforeseen circumstances”. (862; footnote omitted) (One might do an interesting comparison of the US and Canadian constitutions on this point: as a very superficial impression, I am tempted to say that the delegations of legislative power are more precise in the Constitution Act, 1867, but those of executive power are even more vague.) But while constitutional language differs from that of an ordinary statute, the ways in which it should be interpreted do not: “[t]he text itself remains a legal document, subject to the ordinary tools of interpretation”. (862) Indeed, as Justice Scalia already argued, this the only reason for having installing courts as authoritative interpreters of the Constitution: were it not an ordinary law, why would we allow ordinary lawyers to have anything to do with it?

In particular, the principle that “the meaning of the law is fixed when it is written”, which is “a largely, though not entirely, uncontroversial proposition when it comes to statutory interpretation”, (863) applies to the Constitution too. This principle is indeed recognized, in statutory interpretation, even by the Supreme Court of Canada: R v DLW, 2016 SCC 22, [2016] 1 SCR 402 is a recent example. In the constitutional realm, however, our Supreme Court buys into the canard denounced by Judge Barrett ― or at least says it does. (Reality is often different.) As Judge Barrett explains, “as with statutes, the law [of the Constitution] can mean no more or less than that communicated by the language in which it is written” (864) ― and what that language communicates must of course be understood with reference to what it meant when it was communicated, not what it would come to means at some future date.

Judge Barrett makes an additional point which requires some clarification in the Canadian context, so far as statutes are concerned. It concerns the importance of compromise to the drafting of legal texts. For Judge Barrett, since laws reflect arrangements reached by representatives of competing or even conflicting interests, their interpreters should seek to give effect to these agreements and compromises, notably through “reading the text of the statute at the level of specificity and generality at which it was written, even if the result is awkward”, (863) and even when it might seem in tension with the statute’s purpose. The Canadian caveat is that our statutes are, at least to some extent, less the product of compromise than those of the US Congress. Especially, but not only, when they are enacted by Parliaments and legislatures where the executive has a majority, they reflect the executive’s policy, and are primarily drafted by officials executing this policy. But one should not make too much of this. As I pointed out here, statutes ― including in Canada ― often reflect compromises between a variety of purposes and values, even if these compromises are the product of a cabinet’s disucssions or even of a single politician’s sense of what is right and/or feasible. It follows that statutes should indeed be read carefully, with text rather than any one among these purposes being the interpretive touchstone. And as for constitutional interpretation, Judge Barrett’s point applies with full force. It was nowhere better expressed than by Lord Sankey in the  Aeronautics Reference, [1932] AC 54, [1932] 1 DLR 58:

Inasmuch as the [Constitution Act, 1867] embodies a compromise under which the original Provinces agreed to federate, it is important to keep in mind that the preservation of the rights of minorities was a condition on which such minorities entered into the federation, and the foundation upon which the whole structure was subsequently erected. The process of interpretation as the years go on ought not to be allowed to dim or to whittle down the provisions of the original contract upon which the federation was founded, nor is it legitimate that any judicial construction of the provisions of ss. 91 and 92 should impose a new and different contract upon the federating bodies. (DLR, 65)

After briefly passing on the idea that “judicial activism is a meaningful term” (865) ― she notes that, actually, “there is no agreed-upon definition of what it means to be an activist” (865) ― Judge Barrett turns to the view that a legislature’s failure to overrule a judicial decision interpreting an enactment can be taken as assent to the interpretation. For one thing, since the meaning of a statute is fixed at the time of its enactment, “what a later Congress” ― or Parliament or legislature ― “thinks is irrelevant”. (867; footnote omitted) But further, “even if we did care, there is no way to reliably count on congressional silence as a source of information”. (868) Silence might just mean that the legislature is unaware of the decision, or it might mean that the legislature finds intervention inexpedient, or not enough of a priority, though desirable in the abstract. Judge Barrett does not quote Sir Humphrey Appleby, but she reminds us that we ought not to mistake lethargy for strategy. Judge Barrett also refers to the bicameralism-and-presentment legislative procedures of the US Constitution, but that discussion is probably less relevant to Canadian readers.

Indeed I am not sure how salient this issue of acquiescence-by-silence is in Canada, as a practical matter. I don’t seem to recall decisions invoking this argument, but I may well be missing some. Judge Barrett’s attention to it is still interesting to me, however, because it is one of the possible justifications for the persistence of adjudicative (or as Bentham would have us say “judge-made”) law (not only in statutory interpretation but also in common law fields) in democratic polities.

In that context, I think that Judge Barrett is right that we cannot draw any concrete inferences from legislative silence. My favourite example of this is the issue of the admissibility of evidence obtained in “Mr. Big” operations, where suspects are made to believe that confessing to a crime is the way to join a powerful and profitable criminal entreprise. Such evidence was largely admissible until the Supreme Court’s decision in  R v Hart, 2014 SCC 52, [2014] 2 SCR 544, which made it presumptively inadmissible, except when tight safeguards are complied with. This was a major change, framed in almost explicitly legislative language. Yet Parliament ― with, at the time, a majority ostensibly focused on law-and-order issues ― did not intervene in response to the Supreme Court’s decision, just as it had not intervened before it. Does this mean Parliament agreed with the law as it stood before Hart, and changed its mind as a result of Justice Moldaver’s reasons? Probably not. What does its silence mean, then? Who knows. As Judge Barrett suggests, this does not really matter.


I wouldn’t have much to write about, I suppose, if I always agreed with the courts. I should be more grateful than I tend to be to judge who make wrongheaded decisions ― they may be messing up the law and people’s lives, but they are helping my career. Still, at the risk of depriving myself of future material, I call upon Judge Barrett’s Canadian colleagues to read her remarks and to take them on board. They are smart and show a real commitment to the Rule of Law. And, on a more selfish note, it really is nice to agree with a judge for a change.

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On Canadian Statutory Interpretation and Recent Trends

I have had the pleasure of reading (for the first time front-to-back) the legal interpretation classic, Reading Law by Justice Scalia and Bryan Garner. For Canadian courts struggling with how to source and use purpose when interpreting statutes, Reading Law provides valuable assistance. It does so by outlining two schools of thought on how to source purpose, schools of thought that are prevalent in Canadian debates and recent decisions over statutory interpretation. On the one hand is purposivism; on the other hand is textualism. While these schools do not actually differ about whether purpose should form part of the interpretive exercise, they do differ about how to actually determine what purpose governs. Canada’s recent statutory interpretation cases point to the textualist direction.

The first school of thought, broadly known as purposivism, is apparently Canada’s leading approach to statutory interpretation.  Purposivism “acknowledges that the meaning of language is imprecise and measures words against contextual, schematic, and purposive considerations” (see Hutchison, here, at 8). Aharon Barak claims that:

[a]ccording to purposive interpretation, the purpose of a text is a normative concept. It is a legal construction that helps the interpreter understand a legal text. The author of the text created the text. The purpose of the text is not part of the text itself. The judge formulates the purpose based on information about the intention of the text’s author (subjective purpose) and the “intention” of the legal system (objective purpose) (Barak, Purposive Interpretation, at 110).

The motivation behind purposivism is a sort of legal realism that queries whether text can ever truly be clear enough to be a dominant force in legal interpretation (see, for a characteristic example of this line of thinking, the opinion of Breyer J in FCC v NextWave Personal Communications Inc, 537 U.S. 293, 311). Purpose is thus a way to deal with latent ambiguities that may naturally arise in text. And importantly, purpose is focused on the “ends” a statute is designed to achieve, perhaps at a high level of abstraction or generality. On a radical purposive account, the goal of interpretation is to effectuate whatever the court determines the purpose(s) to be; text is merely a means to the end of purpose. Put differently, text is derived from purpose under the purposive account.

On the other hand is “textualism.” Textualism receives a bad rap in Canada, but that is probably more due to caricature than a real appraisal of the merits and demerits of the textualist method. Here Scalia & Garner have much to say. While the central feature of textualism is the idea that “if the text…is clear, interpreters should not impeach the text using extrinsic evidence of statutory purpose…” (Manning & Stephenson, Legislation and Regulation, at 94), textualism does not ask a court to “put on blinders that shield the legislative purpose from view” (Scalia & Garner, at 20; see also William Popkin, “An ‘Internal’ Critique of Justice Scalia’s Theory of Statutory Interpretation,” 76 Minn L Rev 1133, 1142 (1992)).  Instead, purpose is “deduced from a close reading of the text” (Scalia & Garner, 20).  Put differently, purpose is derived from text on the textualist account.

Why are textualists concerned about purposes achieved without reference to the text? First, textualists are concerned about the generality problem (see Max Radin, “Statutory Interpretation,” 43 Harv L Rev 863, 876 (1930)). A court motivated by its own results-oriented reasoning could choose a purpose that is barely represented in text, or is otherwise quite abstract in relation to text. Indeed, at the highest level of generality, every statute could be said to pursue “justice and security” (see Radin). But choosing that purpose could distort the means used by the statute chosen to achieve its ends by “enabling…crabbed interpretations to limiting provisions and unrealistically expansive interpretations to narrow provisions” (Scalia & Garner, at 20). This particular problem also has resonance in administrative interpretations of law, where an expansive purposive interpretation of enabling provisions could actually result in more deference to decision-makers than what the text itself allows.

Second, textualists are concerned with the realities of the legislative process and the fact that legislatures are imperfect. The takeaway from the Legal Process school, which influences purposivism, is that legislatures pursue reasonable purposes reasonably. But textualists understand that legislation, especially in the US, is a result of legislative compromise. While purposes may be clear, text pursues purposes in different ways. In this way, textualists are more concerned with the implementational rather than the ulterior purposes of legislation. Legislation can implement purposes in text in various ways.  A generalized example here is instructive:

For example, a statute providing a specific protection and a discrete remedy for purchasers of goods can be said to have as its purpose “protecting the consumer.” That would not justify expansive consumer-friendly interpretations of provisions that are narrowly drawn (Scalia & Garner, at 57).

What does this dispute between textualists and purposivists have to do with Canada? From a descriptive perspective, it describes perfectly what is happening in Canadian courts right now with regards to purpose. Normatively, Scalia & Garner’s text explains why a textualist-purposive approach is well-justified.

On the descriptive account, the Supreme Court in the past has fallen victim to the “level of generality” problem. West Fraser is a classic example. There, the dispute was whether a British Columbia statute permitted fines to be levied for workplace safety violations against owners of land on which accidents occurred. The relevant provision under which West Fraser was fined was, by its text, only applicable to “employers.” But Chief Justice McLachlin, for the majority, held that the ultimate purpose of the statute was to “promote workplace safety in the broadest sense” (see West Fraser, at para 17). This allowed her to conclude that the particular text of the section under interpretation should be interpreted to cover off West Fraser’s conduct. But here is a classic example of the purposive approach: purpose was used to interpret the text under consideration, rather than the other way around.

Justice Côté in dissent, in my view, had much better of the argument. Her view was that the relevant provision had chosen the means by which to pursue the purpose of workplace safety. The text had chosen “limited means” to pursue that purpose—by limiting fines to employers (see West Fraser, at para 107). This is a classic dispute between ulterior and implementational purposes.

Justice Côté’s view has recently been picked up in recent Supreme Court cases and in cases in the Federal Court of Appeal. I cite two examples here. First is Telus v Wellman, which I wrote about here. There, the dispute was what purpose should be chosen: for the majority, the purpose of the Arbitration Act, as directly reflected in the relevant statutory provisions, was that the Act ensures that parties abide by their agreements. But in dissent, Abella and Karakatsanis JJ would have pitched the purpose of the statute at the level of “access to justice.” Moldaver J in majority rejected the dissent’s characterization, holding that this purpose could “distort the actual words of the statute” (Telus, at para 79). The access to justice purpose was not rooted in statute. Moldaver J, then, could be said to adopt a position closer to Cote J in West Fraser, and closer to the textualist position identified by Scalia & Garner.

Similarly, in Hillier, Justice Stratas rejected the Attorney General’s attempt to cast a statute at the high level of abstraction of “administrative efficiency.” Rather, he concluded that not “every section in the Act is aimed at furthering efficiency” (Hillier, at para 35). Rather, the relevant provision under interpretation “pursues a different, more limited purpose” (Hillier, at para 35). That limited purpose governed, not the abstract purpose chosen by the Attorney General.

In these cases, the Supreme Court and the Federal Court of Appeal corrects the error in West Fraser. And here is a good point to say why it is that the textualist approach adopted by Moldaver J and Stratas JA is preferable. First, as noted above, a liberal application of the purposive approach could lead to high error costs. By prioritizing ulterior motive over implementational purpose (abstract versus specific purposes), the court could fail to understand how and why a statute achieves a particular goal. In other words, reasoning backwards from purpose (as McLachlin CJ did in West Fraser) could lead to ignoring what the text actually says, and how the text decides to pursue a particular goal. For McLachlin CJ in West Fraser, it was of no moment that the relevant provision only applied to employers. But this was the interpretive dispute at hand. The interpretive approach in West Fraser, in this sense, ignores the import of the text.

Secondly, and pragmatically, choosing more abstract purposes of statutes over more implementational ones does not actually help the interpretive task. To say that the purpose of a statute is “access to justice” will rarely do anything to determine how the text is actually supposed to be interpreted. This is because there are many different ways that a statute can methodologically choose to pursue access to justice. More likely, abstract, ulterior purposes can be used to distort text to achieve policy outcomes the interpreter likes. This is profoundly violative of the Rule of Law.

And finally, as Scalia & Garner note, perhaps the most important interpretive canon is that one which says that “[t]he words of a governing text are of paramount concern, and what they convey, in their context is what the text means” (Scalia & Garner, at 56). This sentiment has been expressed by the Supreme Court of Canada, particularly where text is “clear” (see Celgene, at para 21). It is as old as Justinian’s Digests (“A verbis legis non est recedendum”). A powerful principle of democracy justifies the canon. It is, after all, text which is enacted by our democratic institutions. Purpose should revolve around text, such that the purpose with the most reflection in text should govern. Sourcing text from purpose risks prioritizing an ideal with little democratic pedigree over the specific and finely-wrought means by which the text enacts that purpose.

Overall, and while no Canadian court will probably ever describe itself as textualist, courts in Canada are increasingly looking to text to discern purpose. In my view, this is a salutary development.

Entertainment Assoc, 2020 FCA 100: A New Canadian Textualism

In Entertainment Software Assoc v Society of Composers, 2020 FCA 100, Stratas JA (for the Court) made a number of interesting comments about statutory interpretation in the administrative state and the role of international law in the interpretive activity. In this post, I review these comments, and agree with them wholeheartedly. This case is an important add-on to a growing list of cases in the Federal Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court (Williams, Cheema, Hillier, Placer Dome, Telus v Wellman, Rafilovich) that advocate a certain form of text-based purposivism, which rejects abstract purposes and extraneous principles of international law in favour of specific text. As I will note, these cases all indicate a trend: a promising move towards statutory interpretation approaches that are governed by text, not the policy preferences of administrators or the wishes of unelected judges. While the courts most certainly would not put it in these terms, this is a new, reborn form of textualism in Canadian law that incorporates purpose but makes it a servant to text. In this sense, it is most certainly not the plain-meaning rule, but also not pure purposivism.

I note that there are important aspects of this decision that I will address in a later post, including on the standard of review analysis.

Facts

SOCAN administers the right to “communicate” musical works on behalf of copyright owners [1]. It filed with the Copyright Board proposed tariffs for the communication to the public of works through an online music service. After SOCAN filed its proposed tariffs, the Copyright Act was amended to include the so-called “making available provision.” This provision defines “communication of a work…to the public” as including “making it available to the public by telecommunication in a way that allows a member of the public to have access to it from a place and time individually chosen by that member of the public” [3] (s.2.4(1.1) of the Copyright Act). The question: does the making available of a work on an online server for later downloading constitute “an event for which a tariff was payable”? [4]

A Supreme Court case was on point. In 2012 SCC 34, the Court held that the “transmission over the Internet of a musical work that results in a download of that work is not a communication by telecommunication” [5], meaning that SOCAN could not collect royalties . The argument the Board was faced was that the introduction of s.2.4(1.1) made the Supreme Court’s decision “irrelevant” [6]. The Board agreed [8], concluding that s.2.4(1.1) of the Copyright Act is a deeming provision that makes the making available of a work on a server an act that is a communication to the public, and is therefore an act that triggers a tariff entitlement. The Board’s conclusion meant that it split the process into two separate tariff triggering events: (1) “the making available” and (2) a subsequent download or transmission on the Internet. In support of its reasoning, the Board concluded that the contrary position would “not comply with Canada’s international obligations” as set out in Article 8 of the WIPO Copyright Treaty (the Treaty) [9].

Statutory Interpretation

The Board’s interpretation attempted to transgress the limits on its discretion by references to international law and abstract, imputed legislative purposes. The new Canadian textualism, as espoused by Stratas JA, rejects this approach.

Let’s start at the highest level of abstraction. The rules of statutory interpretation particular to administrative decision-makers must be read in harmony with the Supreme Court’s (and Federal Court of Appeal’s) statutory interpretation precedents, particularly recent precedents. Those precedents prize two things as part of the new Canadian textualism. First, as Stratas JA held in this case, results-oriented reasoning is prohibited: see Williams, at para 48; Cheema, at para 74; Hillier, at para 33; and Vavilov at paras 120-121 re “reverse-engineering” a desired outcome. Interpretation must be conducted according to text, context, and purpose, and extraneous policy or substantive considerations should not enter the analysis. Second, and importantly, courts cannot let purpose suffocate the text, no matter how nice the purposes sound. That is, purposes cannot be stated at such a high level of abstraction that the purpose expands the meaning of the text beyond its natural meaning (see Wilson (FCA), at para 86, rev’d not on this point: “…we cannot drive Parliament’s language….higher than what genuine interpretation—an examination of text, context, and purpose—can bear”; see also Cheema, at paras 74-75).

Examples of this abound. In Hillier, at para 36, the Court rejected abstract purposes of “administrative efficiency, adjudicative economy, and conservation of scarce administrative resources.” Instead, the provision in question was limited to a purpose more reflected in the legislative text (Hillier, at para 35). Lest one think this is just a predilection of the Federal Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court endorsed this approach in Telus v Wellman, where the Court said the following, at para 83:

Hence, while there can be no doubt as to the important of promoting access to justice…this objective cannot, absent express direction from the legislature, be permitted to overwhelm the other important objectives pursued by the Arbitration Act.

In that case, the Court chose purposes actually reflected in the text of the Arbitration Act (another Supreme Court case, Rafilovich, holds the same thing, as I wrote about here). And these cases are consistent with older Supreme Court cases, which constrain purpose: see Placer Dome, at para 23: purpose cannot be used to “supplant” clear language.

Put together, the text, context, and purpose of legislative provisions must be dealt with authentically, but purpose should be constrained to “fit” the scope of the legislative text. This is a simple application of the rule that “Most often the purpose of legislation is established simply by reading the words of the legislation” (see Sullivan, Statutory Interpretation, at 193). Under these precedents, text is inferred from purpose; purpose is not a free-standing licence to override text. This is an important corrective to a potential use of the purposive approach that does away with legislative text, in support of some realist approach to statutory interpretation.

While Vavilov does not reference these precedents (including Telus or Rafilovich), it does invoke the traditional requirement that administrative decision-makers must deal with the text, context, and purpose of legislation (Vavilov, at para 120, 121) with only limited opportunity for error (Vavilov, at para 122). In dealing with the text, context, and purpose, the Supreme Court’s precedents mean that text will often be the dominant consideration. Vavilov endorses this idea, at para 120: where the tools of interpretation lead to a clear answer, that interpreted text will govern. Under this approach, administrative decision-makers are governed by statute, limited by the boundaries on their authority. They cannot transgress these boundaries, and cannot use tools of interpretation that do so.

In the Entertainment Assoc case, the Board seemed to attempt to transgress the boundaries of its authority. The Board’s chosen materials for the interpretive exercise were stated, according to the Court, at a high level of generality (see paras 53-54). For example, the Board focused on the preamble to the Copyright Modernization Act to divine a rather abstract interpretation that supported its view on international law (paras 53-54). It also invoked government statements, but the Court rightly noted that these statements construed s.2.4(1.1) as a “narrow, limited-purpose provision” [56], not as an all-encompassing provision that permitted the collection of tariffs in both instances. The use of these materials was used by the Board to herald a different, broader interpretation than what the text and context of the provision indicated. This is the problem that Telus v Wellman and Rafilovich guard against.

What is the upshot of all this? Entertainment Assoc is justified from first principles and with regards to precedent. On first principles, it restrains the role of purpose and extraneous considerations, which might not be derived from text. On precedent, it is supported by Telus v Wellman and Rafilovich, and is clearly consistent with other Federal Court of Appeal precedents. Slowly, but surely, we are reaching a sensible approach to statutory interpretation.

International Law

The Board spent the majority of its time focusing its interpretation on the Treaty. Indeed, according to the Court, the Board spent scant time on the actual interpretation of the governing statute, instead taking a particular article of the Treaty, interpreting it, and then making “subsection s.2.4(1.1) conform with that interpretation” [70]. Specifically, the Board used article 8 of the Treaty to “provide protection for the act of making a work available by telecommunication even where there was no transmission to the public” [70].

This approach, as the Court notes [75-88], is profoundly violative of the hierarchy of laws (see, for more on the hierarchy, Tennant). Section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982 is clear: the Constitution is the supreme law of Canada. As the Court eloquently notes, under that Constitution, a division of powers exists which grants exclusive law-making rights to the provinces and the federal government. Of course, so long as powers are not abdicated, they can be delegated to domestic administrative decision-makers. Under this framework, the Constitution binds legislative actors, but within constitutional limits, the legislature is sovereign. This is basic, but as we shall see, easily forgotten stuff.

International law made by “unelected functionaries abroad who draft and settle upon international instruments” should not subvert the hierarchy of laws [79]. The only way that international law treaties can actually become a part of our law is through the process of domestic adoption of international law in a proper legislative instrument [80]. Parliament can adopt international law in whole in or in part; can change the content of international law as it is adopted in domestic legislation; or otherwise choose not to adopt international law in domestic legislation. In this way, Parliament remains sovereign because it controls the international law it adopts. This is the status quo ante, and should not be dispatched with simply because one party, academic, or lawyer likes the substantive content of particular international law instruments.

International law instruments, as the Court notes, can affect the interpretive activity in distinct but narrow ways. Of course, “[s]ometimes the text of a legislative provision explicitly adopts the international instrument wholesale” [82]. Here, international law must form the basis of the interpretation. In other situations, it might be clear that legislation, under the ordinary techniques of interpretation is “clear enough,” such that international law cannot form a part of the interpretive activity. The importance of this conclusion is that if legislative text is clear, it should oust an extraneous international law instrument, due to the hierarchy of laws described above. If legislation is unclear, and international law “may have influenced its purpose or context” [83], international law could enter the interpretive task. The clearness of the legislative text, on first principles, should be the anchor that governs whether international law properly enters the interpretive task because, again, the legislature must proactively legislate into existence international law instruments under orthodox principles (see Sullivan, Statutory Interpretation, at 314, which contemplates an initial assessment of ambiguity: “If a legislative provision is considered unambiguous, it must be applied as written even though it may be inconsistent with international law.”

The Supreme Court’s “presumption of conformity” with international law could be marshalled to support the subversion of the hierarchy of laws, and to give international law a foothold in legislative text, even where the text is clear (see Gib van Ert’s piece here). So goes the argument, legislative sovereignty can be maintained by requiring that legislatures pro-actively and clearly oust international law; in this way, no ambiguity is required, and international law enters the interpretive activity in an all-encompassing way. This is the reverse from what the Court in Entertainment Assoc held, where international law can enter the interpretive activity if it has been clearly incorporated, or if the domestic law is otherwise ambiguous and international law is relevant. Under the argument advanced by van Ert and others, the international law presumption, then, is the tail wagging the domestic legislation dog.

From first principles, this understanding of the presumption of conformity is inconsistent with fundamental, orthodox legal principles. International law should be assimilated to domestic law, not the other way around. We usually don’t speak of legislation as being a “negative-option” in which Parliament must proactively and explicitly legislate away court-created presumptions linked to laws made elsewhere. Of course, it is true that Parliament often legislates against the backdrop of the common law, as developed by courts and led by the Supreme Court in appropriate cases. But in these cases, Parliament is in the driver’s seat, and there is no doubt that Parliament can oust the common law, probably by necessarily implication, a lesser standard than what the presumption of conformity requires: see Hillier, at para 37-38, and also generally how the Federal Court of Appeal prizes legislative action over judge-made rules. The common law rules made by judges are different than a presumption linked to the content of law made by another actor in another state, that purports to bind legislative actors in Canada who hold exclusive law-making power. Expecting this positive law to be supreme over domestic law, so that Parliament must do away with it, turns the international law instrument into the driving force of interpretation. This is quite different than the common law, which is domestic law, and which can be ousted by necessary implication.

Presumptions have a specific and technical meaning in law. Contrary to the Supreme Court’s recent treatment of presumptions (for example, its presumption of reasonableness pre-Vavilov), presumptions are not irrebuttable tools that can be used to subvert duly-enacted legislation out of service to some court-created concept. As the Court notes, the Supreme Court’s presumption “does not permit those interpreting domestic legislation to leap to the conclusion, without analysis, that its authentic meaning is the same as some international law” [91]; see also Hillier, at para 38 “…judge-made rules do not empower judicial and administrative decision-makers to ignore or bend the authentic meaning of legislation discovered through the accepted approach to interpretation.” It goes without saying, then, those who favour international law cannot use it as a way to subvert the authentic meaning of text, even if it is text that these proponents of international law would rather not have. Trite as it is, the remedy for this problem is to vote, not to consult the grand poohbahs of international law.

What Does All of This Mean?

There is a unified theme to all of Entertainment Assoc that indicates new directions in law in this country. As noted above, there is a growing list of cases in the Federal Courts and the Supreme Court that, on matters of statutory interpretation, favours clear legislative text over abstract purposes; and in this case, extraneous international law. We all know that text, context, and purpose are the ordinary tools of interpretation; and that this approach is seen by many (including in older cases of the Supreme Court: see West Fraser) to eschew an approach focused on text. What we are seeing in these cases is an attempt to recalibrate the worst excesses of a purposive or contextual approach: the perhaps irresistible temptation for administrators to use purpose or extraneous tools to oust legislative text in order to expand the boundaries of jurisdiction. Down the years, this sort of approach could slur the meaning of the words adopted by the legislature.

Fundamentally, what drives this tendency is a pernicious form of legal realism that has little confidence in the meaning of words. Of course, sometimes the worst ideas have a kernel of truth in them: sometimes it takes work to extract meaning from legislative language. It is not a self-executing task, to be sure. But the answer is not to rely on extraneous policy preferences or results-oriented reasoning, which a liberal use of broad purposes can invite.

It is no answer to this trend to simply state that the new approach in the Federal Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court is the ghost of “plain-meaning” “Diceyanism” or “formalism.” As I have written before:

In statutory interpretation, a belief that text in its context will generally contain answers is dismissed as a belief in “the plain meaning rule,” mere “textualism”–notwithstanding the important distinction between these two methods. In constitutional law, a focus on constitutional text is “originalism.” None of these are arguments, but they have since infiltrated the orthodoxy of the academy.

Indeed, if I read these cases correctly, formalism is a good thing. It means that we are sticking to the form in which laws must be promulgated and interpreted. If courts believe in the legislative work product, they will spend more time authentically applying the proper tools of interpretation to discern the meaning of the relevant text. Under this approach, legislative text is the driver of interpretation, and most of the time, an authentic application of the tools of interpretation can lead to the meaning of the words enacted by the legislature.

It is important to note that this new Canadian textualism is still Canadian in the sense that purpose forms a part of the interpretive exercise. None of the cases cited throughout this post say otherwise. However, purpose must be reflected in text, not created out of whole-cloth. That is the new Canadian textualism.

While it is too soon to state what the result of this new movement will be, it is notable that the cases are piling up in favour of a certain approach. This is not a coincidence. It indicates that the Supreme Court, and the Federal Court of Appeal, have moved beyond the mere invocation of “text, context, and purpose” in favour of the text actually adopted by the legislature. These cases clarify that the purposive approach is not a licence for policy reasoning above and beyond what the text says. As Justice Stratas notes in Hillier, at para 33: “Those we elect and, within legislative limits, their delegatees…alone may take their free standing policy preferences and make them bind by passing legislation.”

Under this approach, doubt is thrown on abstract policy preferences, purposes with no reference in legislation, international law instruments not clearly incorporated in legislation, and other ways of subverting legislative text. Good riddance.

See the following posts on the new Canadian textualism:

“Clear Enough”

Romancing the Law

The “Return” of “Textualism” at the SCC [?]

Rafilovich: A Textualist (or Quasi-Textualist) Turn?

Chevron on 2

The illogic of the Supreme Court of Canada’s approach to deference to administrative interpretations of law

Readers with some salsa experience will probably know that, while most of the world dances it “on 1”, in New York it is danced “on 2”. The steps and moves are more or less the same, but the sequence is different. Another dance that can be varied in this way, as we learn from the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65, is the notorious Chevron two-step. As with salsa, one can prefer one style or the other. But, for what it’s worth, I find Vavilov’s “on 2” version of Chevron to be rather offbeat.


In Chevron USA Inc v Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc, 467 US 837 (1984), the US Supeme Court explained how courts were to review administrative decision-makers’ interpretations of what in Canada are sometimes called their “home statutes”:

When a court reviews an agency’s construction of the statute which it administers, it is confronted with two questions. First, always, is the question whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue. If the intent of Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter; for the court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress. If, however, the court determines Congress has not directly addressed the precise question at issue, the court does not simply impose its own construction on the statute, as would be necessary in the absence of an administrative interpretation. Rather, if the statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue, the question for the court is whether the agency’s answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute. (842-43; footnotes omitted)

The first step, in other words, is to determine whether the statute is so vague or ambiguous as to require an exercise of interpretive discretion by the administrative decision-maker. The second step, taken if―and only if―the statute does call for such an exercise of discretion, is to review the administrative interpretation for reasonableness, and defer to it if it is not unreasonable.

There are some exceptions to this two-step analysis. For one thing, under United States v Mead Corp, 533 US 218 (2001), courts ask whether the administrative agency was meant to conclusively determine questions of law in the first place. This is sometimes known as “Chevron step zero”. For another, following FDA v Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp, 529 US 120 (2000), certain questions are seen as too important for their determination to have been delegated to administrative agencies implicitly; nothing short of explicit Congressional command will trigger deference. But, at least where the administrative decision-maker is seen as authorized to make legal determinations, Chevron dictates ― for now anyway ― the normal approach.

Or, if you prefer seeing and hearing instead of reading, here’s how NYU students explained it a few years ago:


Now, compare this to the Vavilov framework. It begins with a fairly close equivalent to “Chevron step zero”. In cases where the legislature wanted the courts, and not administrative tribunals, to decide legal questions, whether by explicitly providing for correctness review or by creating an appeal from from the tribunal to a court, the courts must not defer. Nor will there be deference on (some) constitutional questions and “general questions of law that are ‘of central importance to the legal system as a whole'” [58, quoting Dunsmuir v. New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190 [62]]. This is somewhat analogous to the “important questions” exception in the United States, although Canadian “questions of central importance” may well be different from the American “important questions”. (I don’t think, for instance, that under Vavilov it is enough for a question to be “of deep economic and political significance [and] central to [a] statutory scheme”: King v Burwell (2015) (internal quotation omitted).)

But then, Chevron‘s two main steps are reversed. Subject to the legislative assignment and central questions exceptions applying, Vavilov says courts are to defer to administrative interpretations of law:

Where a legislature has created an administrative decision maker for the specific purpose of administering a statutory scheme, it must be presumed that the legislature also intended that decision maker to be able to fulfill its mandate and interpret the law as applicable to all issues that come before it. Where a legislature has not explicitly prescribed that a court is to have a role in reviewing the decisions of that decision maker, it can safely be assumed that the legislature intended the administrative decision maker to function with a minimum of judicial interference. [24]

This is, more or less, Chevron‘s step two. At this stage, no factor other than the existence of the administrative decision-maker, the absence of a legislative indication that courts must nevertheless be involved, and the non-centrality of the question at issue are relevant.

But then, Vavilov seems to suggest that, once it embarks on reasonableness review, the court needs to examine the statute at issue more closely ― to engage what co-blogger Mark Mancini has described as a “legal ‘hard look’ review”, including to determine whether there is actually the sort of ambiguity that, under Chevron, justifies deference to the administrative interpretation. Vavilov stresses that “while an administrative body may have considerable discretion in making a particular decision, that decision must ultimately comply ‘with the rationale and purview of the statutory scheme under which it is adopted'” [108, quoting Catalyst Paper Corp v North Cowichan (District), 2012 SCC 2, [2012] 1 SCR 5, [15]] and, further, “with any more specific constraints imposed by the governing legislative scheme”. [108] Crucially, Vavilov insists that

If a legislature wishes to precisely circumscribe an administrative decision maker’s power in some respect, it can do so by using precise and narrow language and delineating the power in detail, thereby tightly constraining the decision maker’s ability to interpret the provision. Conversely, where the legislature chooses to use broad, open-ended or highly qualitative language … it clearly contemplates that the decision maker is to have greater flexibility in interpreting the meaning of such language. … [C]ertain questions relating to the scope of a decision maker’s authority may support more than one interpretation, while other questions may support only one, depending upon the text by which the statutory grant of authority is made. [110]

This, by my lights, is Chevron‘s step one. In some cases, the Supreme Court says, the legislature leaves the administrative decision-maker with the latitude to choose among competing possible interpretations. But not always. To quote Chevron again, “[i]f the intent of [the legislature] is clear, that is the end of the matter; for the court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of [the legislature]”.

I should note that this might not be the only way to read Vavilov. Paul Daly, for example, is quite skeptical of “intrusive reasonableness review” that would occur if courts take too seriously the admonition about there being, sometimes, only one interpretation of administrative decision-maker’s grant of authority. But, as Mark shows, this is certainly a plausible, and at least arguably the better reading of Vavilov. I may return to the debate between these readings in a future post. For now, I will assume that the one outlined above is at least a real possibility.


As already mentioned, this reversal of the “Chevron two-step” makes no sense to me. I find it odd to say that reviewing courts must start from the position that “respect for [the] institutional design choices made by the legislature” in setting up administrative tribunals “requires a reviewing court to adopt a posture of restraint on review”, [24] but then insist that respect for legislative choices also requires the courts to be vigilant in case these choices leave only one permissible interpretation. The view, endorsed in Dunsmuir, that deferential judicial review reflects the inherent vagueness of legal language, was empirically wrong (and indeed implausible, as I argued here), but coherent. The recognition in Vavilov that statutory language is sometimes precise and can have a definitive meaning is welcome, but it is logically incompatible with an insistence on deference and judicial restraint.

If the Vavilov court had wanted to limit deference to cases of genuine interpretive uncertainty, it ought to have followed Chevron in clearly asking courts, first, to identify such cases, and then, and only then, to defer. That, of course, runs the risk of deference being relatively rare ― a risk highlighted by Justice Scalia in a lecture on “Judicial Deference to Administrative Interpretations of Law“:

One who finds more often (as I do) that the meaning of a statute is apparent from its text and from its relationship with other laws, thereby finds less often that the triggering requirement for Chevron deference exists. It is thus relatively rare that Chevron will require me to accept an interpretation which, though reasonable, I would not personally adopt. (521; emphasis in the original)

Conversely, if the Vavilov court was serious about deference-across-the-board being required as a matter of respect for legislative choice, it should have doubled down on the earlier view that statutory language inherently fails to determine legal disputes. This, in my view, would have been madness, but there would have been method in’t.

The trouble is that, as I said in my original comment on Vavilov, the majority opinion is a fudge. Collectively, the seven judges who signed it probably could not agree on what it was that they wanted, other than a compromise, and so did not want anything in particular. And so we get a judgment that, in a space of three short sentences, requires judicial review to embody “the principle of judicial restraint” while being “robust”, [13] and insists on deference while stressing that there may well be only one reasonable opinion to defer to.


Different people, and different legal cultures, will find their own ways to dance to the same tune of judicial resignation before the administrative state. Perhaps we should regard their different solutions as mere curiosities, objects of wonder but not judgment. But I don’t find this new Canadian hit, Chevron on 2, especially elegant or exciting. Not that I am a devotee of the on 1 original; but its steps at least come in a logical sequence. The on 2 version demands, as it were, that judges step forward and backward at the same time, and, with all due respect to the Canadian judiciary, I am not sure that it ― or, anyone else, for that matter ― is quite capable of such intricate footwork. Toes will be crushed, and partners disappointed if not injured, before someone realizes that the music needs, at long last, to stop.

Not Good Enough

The Supreme Court re-writes the law of judicial review in Canada, but not nearly well enough.

In a return to its sometime tradition of releasing high-profile decisions in the run-up to Christmas, the Supreme Court yesterday rendered its long-awaited judgment in the Great Administrative Law Do-Over, Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65. Co-blogger Mark Mancini has already written about it, but while his post is very good, I disagree with him, and with the Court’s majority, on a number of fundamental issues. Hence the need for this post. In my view, while well-intentioned and an improvement on the status quo, the majority opinion (jointly authored, ostensibly, by the Chief Justice and Justices Moldaver, Gascon, Brown, Côté, Rowe, and Martin) rests on weak theoretical foundations, and is open to future manipulation by courts that do not share its spirit or find it inconvenient in a given case.


The majority holds that when the courts review decisions made by decision-makers in the executive branch of government and other bodies acting pursuant to authority delegated by statute (for example municipal institutions, professional regulators, etc), there is “a presumption that reasonableness is the applicable standard in all cases. Reviewing courts should derogate from this presumption only where required by a clear indication of legislative intent or by the rule of law.” [10] (The presumption also doesn’t apply for issues having to do with the fairness of the procedure followed by the decision-maker.) The majority explains that “[r]easonableness review … finds its starting point in the principle of judicial restraint and demonstrates a respect for the distinct role of administrative decision makers”, [13] but nevertheless goes on to point to a number of “constraints” on administrative decision-makers that such review must enforce, thus ensuring, in the majority’s view, that they do not exceed the bounds of the authority delegated to them.

The presumption of reasonableness applies to most questions of law that administrative decision-makers must resolve. According to the majority, this is because

[w]here a legislature has created an administrative decision maker for the specific purpose of administering a statutory scheme, it must be presumed that the legislature also intended that decision maker to be able to fulfill its mandate and interpret the law as applicable to all issues that come before it. Where a legislature has not explicitly prescribed that a court is to have a role in reviewing the decisions of that decision maker, it can safely be assumed that the legislature intended the administrative decision maker to function with a minimum of judicial interference. [24]

Conversely, however, a legislature might in fact have “prescribed that a court is to have a role in reviewing” administrative decisions, either by legislating a specific standard of review or by providing a statutory right of appeal from these decisions (rather than relying on the background constitutional requirement that judicial review of administrative decisions be available). In such cases, its prescription is to be obeyed. The standard of review on appeal from an administrative decision is to be the same as on appeal from the decision of a court, which means that, on questions of law, decisions are reviewed for correctness, rather than reasonableness.

The other cases where the correctness standard will be applied are those where it is required by the principle of the Rule of Law, which according to the majority are questions of constitutional validity, “general questions of law of central importance to the legal system as a whole”, and questions of jurisdictional conflict between two administrative decision-makers. The first category remains as it was prior to Vavilov. In particular, the majority pointedly refuses to comment on the implications of its decision for the line of cases originating in Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395, which have urged deference to administrative decisions applying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to particular disputes (as opposed to the validity of legislative provisions). By contrast, the second category expands, because it was previously supposed to limited to cases outside the administrative decision-maker’s expertise. Here and elsewhere, the majority rejects the role of expertise in determining the standard of review. (More on this below.) The majority also holds, however, that the Rule of Law does not require jurisdictional questions to be reviewed on a correctness standard.

With reasonableness thus asserted as the presumptive and dominant standard of review, the majority goes on to explain what it means. In cases where reasons are given by the administrative decision-maker, these become the focus of the analysis, which must be concerned not only with the outcome the decision-maker reached, but also with the reasoning process that led to it. The reasons must be read in context, however (notably “in light of the record” [96]). At this stage, contextual elements excised from the initial standard of review analysis, such as expertise, re-appear. While the majority insists that “reasonableness remains a single standard”, [89] of review, it also seeks to

account[] for the diversity of administrative decision making by recognizing that what is reasonable in a given situation will always depend on the constraints imposed by the legal and factual context of the particular decision under review. These contextual constraints dictate the limits and contours of the space in which the decision maker may act and the types of solutions it may adopt. [90]

In any case, however, the majority emphasizes the importance of the justification for the administrative decision being apparent from the reasons (and perhaps record) that support it. The justification cannot simply be added later, on judicial review.

The majority suggests that there are two main ways in which an administrative decision can be so flawed as to deserve to be qualified as unreasonable: “a failure of rationality internal to the reasoning process”, or “a decision … in some respect untenable in light of the relevant factual and legal constraints that bear on it”. [101] The first category points to requirements of logic and coherence. The second, to the principle that “[e]lements of the legal and factual contexts of a decision operate as constraints on the decision maker in the exercise of its delegated powers”. [105] These include, but are not limited to,

the governing statutory scheme; other relevant statutory or common law; the principles of statutory interpretation; the evidence before the decision maker and facts of which the decision maker may take notice; the submissions of the parties; the past practices and decisions of the administrative body; and the potential impact of the decision on the individual to whom it applies. [106]

Without fully summarizing the majority’s explanations of these points, I will note that it insists that administrative interpretations of law must not be permitted to “disregard or rewrite the law as enacted by Parliament and the provincial legislatures”. [108] The discretion permitted by these laws might be narrow in some cases and broad in others, but never unlimited: “[r]easonableness review does not allow administrative decision makers to arrogate powers to themselves that they were never intended to have, and an administrative body cannot exercise authority which was not delegated to it”. [109] Moreover, administrative decision-makers, no less than courts, are required to follow the “modern principle of statutory interpretation”, because

[t]hose who draft and enact statutes expect that questions about their meaning will be resolved by an analysis that has regard to the text, context and purpose, regardless of whether the entity tasked with interpreting the law is a court or an administrative decision maker. [118]

At the same time, the majority insists that reasonableness review on questions of law remains deferential; indeed it is no different from review “reviewing questions of fact, discretion or policy”, [115] and one should not expect “administrative decision makers … to apply equitable and common law principles in the same manner as courts in order for their decisions to be reasonable”. [113] Even “questions relating to the scope of a decision maker’s authority may support more than one interpretation”, [110] although this will not always be so.


To repeat, I do not share the widespread view that the majority opinion represents a great achievement for Canadian administrative law. To me, it is a dubious compromise that can and likely will be applied in contradictory ways. Justice Stratas has compared Canadian administrative law to “a never-ending construction site where one crew builds structures and then a later crew tears them down to build anew, seemingly without an overall plan”. (1) The latest structure is built on theoretical sand, and I would not bet on its long-term stability.

Most fundamentally, the majority’s justification for doubling down on the “presumption of reasonableness” that emerged over that last decade is weak. As I explained here, in Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, [2008] 1 SCR 190, the Court had articulated three rationales for deference: legislative intent, the expertise of administrative decision-makers, and the absence of determinable answers to legal questions. The Vavilov majority explicitly repudiates expertise as a justification for judicial deference, and renounces the (always implausible) claim that legal questions always lack determinate answers that courts can discover. It is left with, and doubles down on, legislative intent.

But its understanding of legislative intent is essentially made up. There is no actual evidence that legislatures intend the courts to defer to administrative decision-makers, at least in the absence of privative clauses which often purport to oust judicial review completely, and to which Canadian courts have long refused to give full effect, treating them instead as signals for deference. The majority doesn’t even discuss privative clauses, or any other indications (short of enacting standards of review by statute) that a legislature actually intended the courts to defer, including on questions of law. It just assumes it knows what the legislatures want. Yet legislatures might delegate powers to administrative tribunals for any number of reasons, ranging from a confidence in their technical expertise, to a desire to politicize a particular area of the law, to rank protectionism. It’s far from obvious to me that all of these entail a presumption of deference. Besides, although it commendably chooses to give way to legislative intent in holding that statutory appeals must be treated as, well, appeals, the majority doesn’t quite give up on imposing its own view of statutory language, insisting that section 18.1 of the Federal Courts Act is nothing more than a procedural provision that tells the courts nothing about the standard of review. This perpetuates the misbegotten holding of Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v Khosa, 2009 SCC 12, [2009] 1 SCR 339, which Mark quite understandably listed as one of the worst decisions of the last half-century.

It would be much better to start with non-deferential correctness review as a default, and put the onus on the legislatures to indicate otherwise, ideally by legislation specifically addressing the standard of review or, perhaps, by privative clauses. That’s assuming that such indications are even constitutional, of course. I am yet to be persuaded that this assumption is warranted. I’m not persuaded of the contrary either, but I have my doubts. As I have explained here, Joseph Raz’s analysis of the Rule of Law seems to imply that administrative decision-making must be founded on correct application of stable legal rules by officials and, in order to ensure such correct application, review of their decisions by independent courts. In Vavilov, the majority (rightly, I think) implies that the principle of the Rule of Law can override legislative intent. That’s why constitutional and other centrally important questions trigger correctness review, whatever a legislature’s wishes. But the majority does not give nearly enough consideration to what the Rule of Law requires in the context of judicial review of administrative decisions.

In particular, while pretty much everyone from Justices Abella and Karakatsanis in the concurrence to Mark in his post cheers the abolition of the category of jurisdictional questions, I find it puzzling. Jurisdictional questions are supposed to be hard to identify and therefore a source of unnecessary confusion. Yet the truth is, everyone knows that such questions exist. The Vavilov majority itself mentions “questions relating to the scope of a decision maker’s authority”, [110] which is a plain-language definition of jurisdiction. In the companion case, Bell Canada v Canada (Attorney General), 2019 SCC 66, there was a statutory appeal right “on a question of law or a question of jurisdiction”. The concern really seems to be not so much that questions of jurisdiction are elusive and mysterious, but that, properly understood, this category is much broader than most people are comfortable with. It arguably includes most question of law. But that’s not a reason for pretending such questions don’t exist. If anything, it’s another reason for making correctness the default, if not the sole, standard of review on questions of law. The Rule of Law cannot permit the administrative state to expand its power just because courts shy away from the task of policing its boundaries.

The majority thinks it can address the concerns about the expansion of administrative power to which its embrace of reasonableness review gives rise by providing guidance on what such review requires. And there are genuinely commendable statements there, as Mark has observed. It is good that the majority recognizes, as some recent cases such as West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, [2018] 1 SCR 635 did not, that the powers or discretion of administrative decision-makers cannot be unlimited. It is good that it recognizes, contrary to Dunsmuir, that questions of law can, at least in many cases, be given definitive answers. And it is good that the majority instructs courts to be skeptical of the gaps in administrative decision-makers’ reasons, instead of filling them with “reasons that could be given” in support of their decisions.

I must admit, though, that I am puzzled by the attempt to square this recognition with the insistence on reasonableness review. Back in Dunsmuir, the Supreme Court said

[t]hat Reasonableness is a deferential standard animated by the principle that … certain questions that come before administrative tribunals do not lend themselves to one specific, particular result. Instead, they may give rise to a number of possible, reasonable conclusions. [47]

And of course in Vavilov itself the majority speaks of reasonableness being grounded in judicial restraint, which points to the same understanding of this concept. To me, talk of reasonableness review with only one reasonable outcome is blank prose. But perhaps that’s just an idiosyncratic understanding that I have.

More seriously, in addition to their conceptual problems, I think the reasons of the Vavilov majority contain a number of contradictions that undermine their attempt, if that’s what it is, to confine the excesses of the administrative state. For example, for all its insistence on a “robust” reasonableness review, the majority starts from the position that it is grounded in judicial restraint. Quite apart from my doubts about the usefulness of the term “judicial restraint”, I struggle to see how a standard of review can be robust and restrained at the same time. Or consider the majority’s warning that “[a]dministrative decision makers cannot always be expected to deploy the same array of legal techniques that might be expected of a lawyer or judge” and that “‘[a]dministrative justice’ will not always look like ‘judicial justice'”. [92] This seems to contradict the majority’s acknowledgment, elsewhere in its reasons, that the Rule of Law is undermined when the outcome of a legal dispute depends on the identity of the person resolving it.

Perhaps most fundamentally, the insistence that administrative decision-makers cannot “arrogate powers to themselves that they were never intended to have” [109] is not easily reconciled with the refusal to impose correctness review on jurisdictional questions. The majority holds that, subject to a requirement of justification, “a decision maker’s interpretation of its statutory grant of authority is generally entitled to deference”. [109] To my mind, this means that the administrative state is still the arbiter of its own authority, whenever a legislature fails to use sufficiently precise language ― or where a court thinks that a legislature has so failed.

Much will depend, then, on which strand of the somewhat schizophrenic majority opinion future judges decide to implement when they follow Vavilov. This is, I suppose, the price to pay for cobbling together a seven-judge majority (and getting all seven to not only agree but also sign on to this majority’s reasons), but I’m not sure that the result was worth it.


No doubt, Vavilov is an improvement over the status quo ante. Some of the wildest excesses of judicial deference to the administrative state, for example the refusal to give effect to statutory appeal provisions and the practice of making up reasons not actually given by administrative decision-makers the better to defer to them have been condemned. Some of the theoretical problems of the previous jurisprudence, notably its reliance on a fictional account of administrative expertise, have been overcome.

At the same time, the future is still difficult to predict. For one thing, Vavilov leaves some questions unanswered. For example, its guidance on questions of central importance, a seemingly expanded category of correctness review, doesn’t amount to much more than “you know it when you see it”. Perhaps more importantly, there is contradictory language in the majority opinion that can be pressed in the service of more or less deferential review, and it remains to be seen what future courts will do with it.

And, fundamentally, Vavilov is still unsatisfactory because, like the pre-existing administrative law jurisprudence, it is built on foundations that mix a fictional account of legislative intent with a tendency to favour, if not as much as before, the power of the administrative state at the expense of the judiciary. The responsibility of the courts, which are independent and whose sole commitment is supposed to be to law, not policy-making, to say what the law is is an essential safeguard for freedom and the Rule of Law. By perpetuating judicial abdication, covered up as “restraint” and deference”, in the face of the administrative state, Vavilov fails to live up to the judiciary’s constitutional role.

Rafilovich: A Textualist (or Quasi-Textualist) Turn?

Since Telus v Wellman, the Supreme Court of Canada has moved towards a sort of “textually constrained” purposivism in statutory interpretation cases. To my mind, textually constrained purposivism involves two parts: (1) a focus on the text over abstract purposes in determining the meaning of text and (2) if there are conflicting purposes at the same level of abstraction, choosing the purpose most local to particular provisions, rather than abstract purposes of statutes. Telus v Wellman involved (1). The Supreme Court’s recent opinion, R v Rafilovich, addressed (2). It teaches that courts should not look to abstract, overall purposes of a statute in place of more particular, local purposes. The latter purposes actually shed light on the text at issue, rather than using abstract (perhaps unenacted) purposes to divine text.

In this comment, I briefly address the setup of Rafilovich. Then I address why Rafilovich demonstrates a sort of textually constrained purposivism, threading together Telus v Wellman and Rafilovich.

Setup

Rafilovich involved the proceeds of crime provisions of the Criminal Code and the provisions in the Criminal Code for the return of seized property for the purposes of legal fees. The issue was whether property that was returned to the accused to pay for “reasonable legal fees” could later be subject to a fine by the Crown, if the property was not available for forfeiture (because it was already spent). Martin J wrote the opinion for the majority, in which she outlined the process by which these two sets of provisions worked (para 22 et seq):

  • The accused is charged with a “designated offence,” under s.462.3(1) of the Criminal Code.
  • Property is seized under Criminal Code provisions that allow the state to take property from an accused on the basis of reasonable and probable grounds that the property may eventually be proven to be proceeds of crime.
  • The accused makes an application for the return of the seized property for the purpose of paying for reasonable legal fees (s.462.34(4) to (6) of the Criminal Code). Seized property can only be returned “if the judge is satisfied that the applicant has no other assets or means available” to pay for legal expenses (s.462.34(4)(c)(ii)).
  • The onus shifts to the Crown to prove that certain property meets the statutory definition of proceeds of crime. Only property determined to be “proceeds of crime” is subject to forfeiture or a fine in lieu of forfeiture.
  • If the property which=proceeds of crime is no longer available for forfeiture, the judge may order a fine instead of forfeiture (s.462.37(3) and (4)).

Martin J then outlined the purposes of the proceeds of crime provisions, including the “return for the purposes of legal fees” provisions. The overall purpose of the proceeds of crime section of the Criminal Code is to ensure that “ ‘crime does not pay’ and to deter offenders by depriving them of their ill-gotten gains” (at para 2). But this overall purpose did not run through, at full force, all provisions of the section. Martin J outlined purposes particular to the legal fees provisions, including (1) ensuring access to counsel and (2) upholding the presumption of innocence (at para 53). To Martin J, these particular provisions must be “balanced with the primary objective of the proceeds of crime regime” (ibid). Permitting the Crown to take a fine amounting to the cost of legal fees spent during the course of the proceedings would run counter to these two objectives.

Moldaver J, in dissent, took a different view of the statute. He would have prioritized the “crime does not pay” overall purpose of the statute: “…I am of the view that the statutory regime’s primary objective of ensuring that crime does not pay need not and should not be sacrificed on the altar of the ‘secondary purposes’ relied on by my colleague” (at para 92). Moldaver J went to pains to note that all of the primary and secondary purposes of the statute could be achieved by prioritizing the primary purpose (ibid).

Analysis

In my view, Martin J’s majority opinion gives effect to explicit text in the Criminal Code that sets out “safety valve” provisions from the general proceeds of crime provisions governing reasonable legal expenses. These provisions, setting out different text, must emanate from a different purpose. In other words, these provisions on a plain reading have little to do with ensuring crime does not pay. For that reason, the provisions must reflect a different purpose than the overall one. Giving effect to Parliamentary meaning in language means recognizing this different purpose.

The starting point for this argument is a description of the general problems that plague Canadian statutory interpretation. As I wrote in my piece “Statutory Interpretation from the Stratasphere,” there are two basic problems in statutory interpretation: vertical abstraction and horizontal frequency. Vertical abstraction is the problem of, in one particular statutory provision, choosing the appropriate level of abstraction for the purpose which governs in relation to particular text. Horizontal frequency involves choosing the purpose most local to the dispute/legislative provision at hand among purposes at the same level of abstraction. Telus v Wellman involved the former issue, but Rafilovich involves the latter: do we choose the “primary” purpose of “crime does not pay” to resolve the dispute, or the more local purposes of access to justice and the presumption of innocence?

The Federal Court of Appeal has already dealt with this problem in the context of the Williams case, in which Justice Stratas sensibly isolated the horizontal frequency issue. As I wrote in “Statutory Interpretation from the Stratasphere”:

Williams shows a way to properly select the purpose. In that case, Justice Stratas identified the different purposes bearing on the interpretive difficulty; under s.3, the Act was aimed at “keeping track of cross-border flows” of currency, which fulfills larger public safety concerns. However, under s.13, the Act was directed at concerns of privacy. Those concerns were manifested in specific statutory text aimed at this “very limited” function.

There is a duelling tension between these statutory provisions, but Justice Stratas resolved the issue by focusing on the statutory purpose which bore most heavily on discovering the meaning of the statute. It would do no good to discovering the meaning of the provision at issue in Williams to frame the purpose at the level of public safety and end the matter. Instead, Justice Stratas sensibly isolated the purpose bearing on the problem by referencing specific statutory text supporting that purpose.

Applying this sort of thinking to Rafilovich, Justice Martin is clearly in the right. In this case, the most local purposes to the dispute at hand were the purposes speaking of access to justice and the presumption of innocence, assuming these purposes were identified correctly. Why must these purposes be prioritized over the general purpose? Because of the principle of democracy. The use of different language to express Parliament’s law in the legal fees provisions should lead to different interpretive outcomes. By this, I mean that ensuring crimes does not pay may be an overall purpose of the proceeds of crime provision, but Parliament clearly used different language and a different approach in the legal fees provisions. This different approach must, consequently, reflect different legislative purposes, as the legislative history in the case outlines (see para 39 et seq—though I cringe at the reliance on legislative history writ large). The court must give “purpose and meaning to each provision” (at para 20).

Moreover, ensuring crime does not pay is an odd purposive fit for the language under interpretation here. The availability of a fine for money spent on legal fees hinges on the fact that the money spent on legal fees is no longer available—it was spent. One could hardly say that an accused is benefitting from crime because of the mere fact that he paid for his legal defense with fees that, at the time of their spending, have not been shown to be proceeds of crime definitively. Furthermore, as Martin J notes, an accused may simply forego counsel, fearing a fine—which would undermine the so-called “secondary purposes” of the legal fees provisions. Instead, it is more natural to read the legal fees provisions as meaning something different and reflecting different purposes of access to justice and the presumption of innocence. These purposes, as in Williams, bear most heavily on discovering the meaning of the particular legislative provisions under interpretation—in other words, they are the most helpful to solving the interpretive difficulty. “Crime does not pay” does not, practically, get us any closer to solving the interpretive difficulty.

True, it would be right to note that money returned for legal fees could later be determined to be proceeds of crime; from this perspective, the accused “benefitted” from crime because he used tainted money to pay for his legal fees. But there are two responses to this position. First, at the time the accused spends the money on legal fees, one does not know whether the fees constituted “proceeds of crime”; “the accused may never be convicted, or the property may never be proven to be proceeds of crime. Thus, when accused persons spend returned funds on reasonable legal fees, they are spending their own money on their legal defence” (at para 45). Secondly, when balanced with the local purposes—access to justice and the presumption of innocence—it is more likely that Parliament intended a carve-out from the general “crime does not pay” principle in the distinct circumstances of legal fees. This is because of the centrality of counsel in our constitutional system. It is not absurd to suggest that when Parliament enacted these provisions, it had the backdrop of the important role of counsel in mind, as a limited carveout from the general crime does not pay principle (see the legislative history at paras 40-41). With that role in mind, coupled with the important role of the presumption of innocence, it is not a far leap to suggest that Parliament wanted different purposes to drive these particular sections of the Criminal Code.

Overall, and as I mentioned above, textually-constrained purposivism has two parts. Telus v Wellman focused on the importance of text vis-à-vis purpose. Rafilovich solves the other problem associated with purposivism: how do we decide which purpose governs? Martin J’s opinion selects the most local purposes to the interpretive dispute, explicitly giving meaning to Parliament’s language in the legal fees provisions. This, to my mind, is a positive step.

It’s Happening Here Too

Canadians need to heed David Bernstein’s warning about administrative decision-makers’ disregard of constitutional rights

A very interesting article by David E. Bernstein, “Anti-Discrimination Laws and the Administrative State: A Skeptic’s Look at Administrative Constitutionalism” has recently been published in the Notre Dame Law Review. Professor Bernstein cautions against allowing administrative decision-makers to pursue egalitarian goals unchecked by judicial supervision, because this pursuit often tramples over constitutional guarantees, especially freedom of speech. It is a compelling warning, and deserves the interest of Canadian readers, because the problems Professor Bernstein identifies afflict Canadian law. Indeed, much of his argument applies to the administrative enforcement of other statutes, not only anti-discrimination ones.


Professor Bernstein takes aim at the view, which he attributes to a significant number of American scholars, that administrative decision-makers both do and ought to play a very significant role in defining the scope and content of constitutional protections for certain fundamental rights. This view, “administrative constitutionalism”, rests on a number of arguments. Its supporters think that administrative decision-making “is more transparent than” the judicial sort, that administrators “are more accountable to public opinion than are courts”, and that they bring their expertise to bear on the application of constitutional standards to particular regulatory schemes. (1384) Professor Bernstein provides a number of examples of administrative decision-makers “aggressively enforcing antidiscrimination laws at the expense of constitutional protections for freedom of expression and guarantees of due process of law”, (1386) sometimes in defiance of relevant Supreme Court precedent and political direction. These will be of considerable interest to readers who follow American legal and political developments.

But what is more interesting from a parochial Canadian perspective is Professor Bernstein’s analysis of the situation ― his explanation for why administrative decision-makers tend to apply the law in a way furthers their statutory mission at the expense of the constitutional rights of those subject to their decisions. The explanation is partly institutional, and partly ideological.

The first institutional fact that contributes to administrative disregard of constitutional rights, according to Professor Bernstein, is that administrative decision-makers “maximize their power and budget”, and secure “political support, by expanding the scope of the laws they enforce”. (1401) Constitutional limits to this expansion are brushed aside. Second, a purposivist approach to statutory interpretation “practically invites agencies to find and even create ambiguities so that they can interpret statutes broadly”. (1402) In doing so, administrative decision-makers see themselves as accomplishing legislative goals, and ignore the compromises that may have been involved in the enactment of their enabling legislation. Third, administrative “agencies tend to attract employees who are committed to the agency’s regulatory mission” (1403) and want to expand their own power to, as they see it, do good. While some instances of regulatory overreach invite pushback from those subject to the regulation, this is generally not the case when it comes to “antidiscrimination regulation”, in part because “many businesses hesitate to publicly oppose” this regulation “because of the negative public relations implications”. (1403) Fourth and last, administrative decision-makers “do not see enforcing constitutional constraints on their authority as their job”. (1404) The courts themselves are partly to blame for this, because they often discourage the bureaucrats from looking to the constitution. But, for their part, supporters of “administrative constitutionalism” positively encourage administrative decision-makers to treat constitutional constraints as no more than a factor, among others, to take into account or to reject.

As for ideological concerns, they have to do with the fact that “conflicts between freedom of expression on the one hand, and restrictions on discrimination by private actors on the other, are conflicts between a
constitutional right and a statutory privilege”. (1406) As a matter of orthodox law the former ought to prevail, but for those “who believe that protecting vulnerable groups from discrimination should be at the heart of our legal and political system”, (1406) such an outcome would be wrong. They are accordingly inclined to discount constitutional concerns, or to seek to re-balance them by appealing to “the notion that the ‘constitutional value’ of antidiscrimination should trump First Amendment limitations on government regulation”. (1407) These views are prevalent not only in the legal academy, but also among activists ― and their ideological allies among the administrative decision-makers in charge of enforcing anti-discrimination laws. The fact that “[a]t the state and local level” these decision-makers are often

known as ‘human rights commissions’ … suggest[s] that the right to be free from private discrimination is at least as valuable as other rights, including constitutional rights. Indeed, the phrase ‘human rights’ suggests a superiority over mere textually supported constitutional rights. (1408)

So why, Professor Bernstein asks, don’t the courts do something about administrative decision-makers run amok? After all, the courts ― at least “generalist courts” ― “do not share mission-driven agencies’ tunnel vision, i.e., the latter’s devotion to its statutory mission at the expense of
other considerations”. (1410) But the administrative state is often able to escape scrutiny by using settlements or ostensibly “soft” forms of regulation that are not subject to judicial review. Professor Bernstein argues that courts should engage in review of administrative action more often, and that they ought to be less deferential when they do so. He also suggests possible institutional reforms, notably “to establish constitutional watchdog offices devoted to protecting constitutional rights from
[administrative] overreach”, (1413) whether within individual administrative entities or for the government as a whole.


Canadian readers probably do not need me to tell them that the issues Professor Bernstein describes arise with at least as much, and probably more, urgency in Canada. After all, although it rests on foundations that are partly different from those of its American counterpart, and goes by a different name, administrative constitutionalism is the law of the land in Canada, whenever a court is minded to follow the precedent set in Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395. In Doré, the Supreme Court held that, given their alleged expertise in applying constitutional “values” in the context of specific statutory schemes, administrative decision-makers are entitled to judicial deference, even in cases where the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is implicated. Whether an administrative decision gives effect to constitutional “values” ― not even rights ― as fully as possible in light of the statutory objectives is to be assessed on a standard of reasonableness. The Supreme Court also confirmed that reasonableness is the presumptive standard of review applicable to the decisions of anti-discrimination tribunals, in Canada (Canadian Human Rights Commission) v. Canada (Attorney General), 2018 SCC 31, [2018] 2 SCR 230 (although this was not a Charter case).

Admittedly, the Supreme Court hasn’t always been inclined to do so, occasionally simply ignoring Doré. But its latest engagement with administrative interference with constitutional rights, in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293, reiterated the applicability of the Doré framework, although it is worth pointing out that the Court’s majority insisted that this wasn’t supposed to be “a weak or watered-down version of proportionality”. [80] Still, the majority wrote that

Doré’s approach recognizes that an administrative decision-maker, exercising a discretionary power under his or her home statute, typically brings expertise to the balancing of a Charter protection with the statutory objectives at stake … Consequently, the decision-maker is generally in the best position to weigh the Charter protections with his or her statutory mandate in light of the specific facts of the case … It follows that deference is warranted when a reviewing court is determining whether the decision reflects a proportionate balance. [79; references omitted]

Professor Bernstein’s article helps us identify the folly of this approach. Despite the claims to the contrary of Justice Abella (the author of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Doré and the most strident defender of “administrative constitutionalism”, most recently in Canada (Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness) v Chhina, 2019 SCC 29) and her colleagues, administrative decision-makers are unlikely to take the constitution, or even constitutional “values”, seriously at all. Granted, unlike their American counterparts, Canadian courts do not discourage bureaucrats from taking the Charter into account. Justice Abella, in particular, exhorts them to do so. But such exhortation is unlikely to mean much, compared with the much more concrete incentives Professor Bernstein identifies.

Canadian bureaucrats, no less than their American colleagues, want to expand their power and to advance their and their allies’ ideological goals. The seemingly expanding efforts of human rights bureaucracies or other administrative decision-makers (such as the former benchers of the former Law Society of Upper Canada) to police speech in the name of equality are an illustration of these twin tendencies. And while there has been pushback against the Law Society’s demand that lawyers “promote equality, diversity, and inclusion”, culminating in the election of a plurality of benchers opposed to this imposition, the incentives, both in the private sector and, still more in, say, public educational institutions are very much on the side of tacit or even vocal endorsement of the one-way ratchet of obstensibly pro-equality agenda.

The Supreme Court’s rulings on statutory interpretation exacerbate this problem. In West Fraser Mills Ltd v British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal), 2018 SCC 22, [2018] 1 SCR 635, the majority insisted that the statute at issue featured a “broad and unrestricted delegation[s] of power” [11] so that an administrative decision-maker could pursue its purposes; in TWU, the majority also spoke of a statutory objective “stated in the broadest possible terms”. [33] (West Fraser, to be sure, was not a case implicating constitutional rights. TWU was such a case, however, and their logic is much the same.) In both cases, as I explained respectively here and here, the majority gave no effect to statutory language suggesting that the administrative decision-makers’ powers were not, in fact, unlimited, to which dissents sought to draw its attention. In West Fraser, the majority opinion disparaged attention to such details as “formalistic”. [18] As Professor Bernstein points out, when empowered to pursue expansively defined statutory missions, administrative decision-makers will be unlikely to pay much heed to constitutional concerns. Indeed, TWU offers a perfect illustration of this, since the Supreme Court ended up having to make up the reasons that supposedly justified the administrative decisions at issue.

What Professor Bernstein terms “ideological” factors operate in Canada too. Here too, the value of non-discrimination in the private sphere, branded as a “human right” by federal and provincial legislation alike is held to prevail over such constitutional concerns as freedom of expression and freedom of conscience. The TWU majority spoke of “shared values”, notably non-discrimination, as a valid reason for limiting constitutional rights, despite the fact that the Charter explicitly provides that it does not expand the law-making powers of legislatures or their creatures in the administrative state.


Like Professor Bernstein, I will conclude with an appeal for greater judicial scrutiny of administrative decisions that implicate constitutional rights. Judges ought to realize that administrative decision-makers have no particular incentive to be mindful of the constitution, and real incentives to disregard it. Even when they act in good faith, bureaucrats suffer from a single-minded, excessive focus on their statutory missions, real or assumed, that is bound to divert their attention from constitutional rules that ought to be paramount for all those who exercise public power, but in reality matter primarily to the courts ― if they matter to anyone.

To be clear, the issue is not only with the Doré framework ― though this is the most obvious way in which excessive and unwarranted deference is given to administrative decision-makers when they decide Charter questions. The Doré framework must go, the sooner the better, but this is not enough. The idea that “values” are an adequate substitute for law, whether as a source of constitutional guarantees or of administrative powers, must go along with the Doré framework, to which it is closely linked. And the Supreme Court’s approach to statutory interpretation, and in particular its willingness to countenance supposedly “unrestricted delegations” of power to administrative decision-makers, even if this requires disregarding more circumscribed statutory language, must go too. This, in turn, may require an end of the Court’s fascination with administrative expertise and its pro-regulatory bias.

This is, admittedly, a very ambitious programme. But, as Professor Bernstein shows, it is on that must be attempted if constitutional constraints are to be meaningful in the administrative state. “Administrative constitutionalism” is no substitute for the real thing. This is precisely why its supporters, who are not willing to accept constraints on what they believe is the bureaucracy’s power to do good, advocate for it. This is why we must reject it.