At the Executive’s Pleasure

When Parliament delegates power to agencies, it does so for any number of reasons. At least in theory, Parliament could delegate to a tribunal because it genuinely believes that some particular problem requires expert treatment. Parliament could also delegate as part of a “make or buy” decision, in a Coasian sense: the costs of crafting legislation may be prohibitive, and it may make more sense for Parliament to set out the broad strokes and let the agency fill in the blanks. Or, sometimes problems require solving by an independent body. Tribunals, for example, could play an important role in this regard. For example, determining whether a government action is contrary to human rights law is likely best determined by an impartial adjudicator. In such cases, so the story goes, a so-called “flexible” tribunal is best suited to deal efficiently with these sorts of problems.

But the promise of true independence is not often (and perhaps never) realized, because its existence is determined by the legislature and the executive. This should make us question whether the model of administrative justice we currently employ is even working.

The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal is finding this out the hard way. Recently, it came to light that the tribunal is experiencing a shortage of adjudicators, causing mass delays. The shortage is due, apparently, to the Attorney General’s refusal (or failure) to fill vacancies. The Ministry of the Attorney General oversees the province’s tribunals, including the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. Lawyers and observers have pointed out the effect that the Attorney General’s delay in appointing adjudicators has on procedural fairness rights, and the general efficiency of the administrative justice system. Some people may view this state of affairs as untenable and inappropriate state of affairs, inconsistent with the spirit of administrative justice. But, to my mind, it is predictable.

Why should we expect this? The Tribunal is a recipient of delegated power, under the Ontario Human Rights Code. But like many legislative delegations, power is also concurrently delegated to the executive. As the Supreme Court said in Ocean Port at para 24, this means that tribunals span the constitutional divide between executive and judicial powers, but are primarily invested with these powers by legislative delegation. They are “created precisely for the purpose of implementing government policy.” There is no constitutional principle requiring structural independence, and it need not matter whether the tribunal is adjudicative or regulatory in character.

The Human Rights Tribunal is no exception from the Supreme Court’s comments in Ocean Port. In this case, the legislation specifies the Governor-in-Council has power to make appointments (s.32(2)). The language presupposes that there “shall” be “members” of the Human Rights Tribunal, but how many is left unsaid, presumably up to executive discretion. Otherwise, the only legislative specification on appointments is that appointments must be made according to a particular process (s.32(3)). Other than that, how much members of the tribunal shall be paid (s.32(4)) and their terms of office (s.32(5)) are matters for Cabinet. Cabinet has a wide degree of discretion to shape the efficiency and responsiveness of the administrative process in the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, supposedly an independent agency, perhaps the “Crown jewel” of administrative law.

The fact that the legislature—at least arguably—even permits this should make us question the actual degree of independence in the administrative state. In fact, recalcitrance in conducting appointments is just one of the many ways that the executive can undermine the project of administrative justice. It is also perfectly legitimate, should the legislation permit it, for a Cabinet, after an election, to fire all the members of a labour board and to replace those members with persons that it sees fit. And this is just on the topic of appointments. Ron Ellis, in his book Unjust By Design (ably summarized by Professor Daly here) goes into detail about the ways in which executive actors can undermine tribunal independence, in a way that undermines the project of administrative justice. Renewal of tribunal members is one way that the executive can do so, but one can also imagine considerations such as the power of the purse and general administrative reorganization as ways in which the executive can subtly (and not so subtly) control the success and efficiency of the administrative state.

This might all sound bad, but I for one, think that independence is an overrated virtue, and should be calibrated to the strength of the case for independence. There is clearly a case for the Bank of Canada to be independent. But one can imagine closer cases. After all, we live in a system of responsible government and political accountability, and creating islands of power without adequate oversight should be concerning. That said, there is clearly a need for the broader category of “independent agencies” in modern administrative decision-making.

So, how do we balance accountability with independence? I think we need to go to the source: Parliament and the legislatures. One way is to insist that Parliament, if it is to empower the executive with power over these tribunals, legislate more specifically. In the Human Rights Tribunal example, perhaps Parliament could specify a minimum number of adjudicators that must exist at a given time. Or it could delegate the power to the Cabinet to do so, but make it a mandatory requirement. More specificity in delegation, while increasing the costs of legislating, also helps to guide executive action and provide constraints on executive recalcitrance.

The Law Reform Commission, in 1985, recommended that the independent agency be decoupled from Cabinet, and instead be made to report directly to Parliament to remove the spectre of executive interference. This might seem desirable, but I fear it prizes independence over accountability. Having someone able to answer, on a day-to-day basis, for the tribunal activities (and to be accountable in a broader sense for the tribunal’s mandate) is an important accountability mechanism in and of itself. It may make more sense for us to expect Parliament to adequately debate and decide on the limits of executive action in relation to tribunals, and then expect responsible ministers to be accountable for whatever they do in relation to the tribunals.

Overall, there is a risk that tribunals merely exist at the executive’s pleasure. But legislatures themselves have made this choice. It is for them to solve.