The Nero Post: Two Niche Issues in Judicial Review Post-Vavilov

Lest I be accused of fiddling while Rome burns, I wish to note that I approach a pandemic as a time in which we must, subject to social distancing and isolation, proceed as normal as much as possible. Indeed, it is this sense of normalcy that should characterize what we do as much as possible. Because eventually, we will return to a sense of normal; and once we do so, we need to be equipped to handle the new world in which we will experience. Surely, life will be different. But we must be ready to tackle those challenges, and so we can’t close the door on the world. Life must, to the extent possible, go on.

In that spirit, I write today’s post, tackling two niche issues in the law of judicial review, post-Vavilov: the scope of the correctness categories, particularly the “general questions” category, and the effect of Vavilov on the BC Administrative Tribunals Act.

Let’s start first with the general questions category. As a reminder, Vavilov amended this category, a hold-over from Dunsmuir, to exclude considerations of expertise (Vavilov, at para 61). Now, the category reads as “general questions of law of central importance to the legal system as a whole.” If a question falls in this category, it will be subject to correctness review by the reviewing court. The logic behind this category is that certain questions transcend particular administrative regimes and require consistent answers from the reviewing court (Vavilov, at para 59). But the Court, in Vavilov, cautioned against an expansion of this category: questions that merely address issues of wider public concern do not fall in this category, and the simple fact that a question might be “important” in an abstract sense does not satisfy the category. In short, this category is not a “broad catch-all category for correctness review” (Vavilov, at para 61). Indeed, of all the questions so far recognized by the Supreme Court as falling into this category, all have had constitutional dimensions transcending the boundaries of a particular statutory scheme (see Justice David Stratas’ work, here, at pg 37).

Post-Vavilov, courts have largely heeded the call to interpret this category narrowly. For example, in Bank of Montreal v Li, the Federal Court of Appeal held that the issue of waiver of statutory entitlements was not an issue of general importance. The Court held that there was “no constitutional dimension to the question of whether an employee can contract out of a specific provision of a statute” and that the answer to the question posed “will not have legal implications for a wide variety of other statutes” (Li, at para 28). The Court again cautioned that this category is narrowly construed.

Similarly, in Beach Place Ventures, the BCSC also rejected the invitation to label a question as a general question of central importance. The controversy in that case involved whether certain complainants were “employees” under the Employment Standards Act [ESA]. The Court rejected the invitation to characterize this question as one of general importance. While the Court agreed that “what constitutes ‘employment’ is an important societal question,” the employee determination is one cabined by “statutory provisions rather than left to general principles of law” (Beach Ventures, at para 33). Put differently, the employee determination is one that is particular to the ESA, and the fact that the legislature chose to vest this question in the ESA was determinative for the Court.

But there has been at least one case where general questions were recognized. Take College of Physicians and Surgeons v SJO, where the issue was the production of documents in the context of a professional conduct investigation. The subject of the complaint raised an issue of privilege. The Court held that correctness should apply to this question, because “the way the disclosure and production issue has been raised here impacts in a broad way on the operation of the professional regulatory system” (SJO, at para 10).

Overall, I would say that the ground has largely stayed the same post-Vavilov on this ground of questions. Of the three cases cited above, two have recognized that this category is not a broad way to invite the application of the correctness standard. The only case that has recognized such a question, SJO, largely does so on solid ground: indeed, the Supreme Court has already noted that solicitor client privilege is a general question of central importance (see University of Calgary, at para 20). While SJO did not involve solicitor client privilege, it is only a hop, skip, and a jump from solicitor client privilege to other forms of privilege, even those not currently recognized at law. Indeed, the form of privilege asserted by the subject of the investigation in SJO was not recognized at law, but could impact other claims of privilege across the professional regulatory system. This, as I see it, is at least facially supported by existing Supreme Court precedent.

Overall, though, there has been little movement on this ground. And I think this is for the best. The central questions category is one that preserves the Rule of Law, but if it is used liberally, it could eat away at duly-delegated authority over certain questions. In this sense, I see the warning in Beach Place Ventures as apposite: a liberal application of the central questions category arrogates greater power to the courts to overturn decisions that, at least facially, have been delegated to administrative decision-makers. In the ordinary course, the scope of power delegated to a decision-maker, discernible through the ordinary rules of interpretation, should dictate the space available to a decision-maker—the level of deference (see Vavilov, at para 90 for a similar approach in which statutes, among other things, constrain a decision-maker). The ready imposition of an artificial correctness category risks upsetting this ordinary task. While this category should obviously exist, it must be left for questions with truly transcendental impact.

The second issue: the impact of Vavilov on the BC ATA. So far, there are duelling cases out of the BCSC that deal with this issue. In College of New Caledonia, the Court concluded that “Vavilov has not changed the law with respect to the meaning of patent unreasonableness under [the BC ATA]” (College of New Caledonia, at para 33). Meanwhile, in Guevara v Louie, the BCSC concluded that Vavilov’s comments on the reasonableness standard “also apply to a review of reasons on the standard of patent unreasonableness” because common law jurisprudence may impact what constitutes a patently unreasonable decision (Guevara v Louie, at para 48).

Of course, this is a classic problem: what role does the common law play in elucidating statutory guarantees? The Guevara Court cited to Khosa, at para 19, where the Court did say that patent unreasonableness in BC will be interpreted in light of general common law principles of administrative law. But this passage, in my view, should not be taken so far. While patent unreasonableness may receive limited inspiration from common law principles, it is also a distinct standard of review that differs from reasonableness as defined by the Supreme Court. Its distinctiveness comes from the fact that it is a statutory standard of review. As recently confirmed in Vavilov, legislated standards of review such as the patent unreasonableness standard should be given effect (Vavilov, at paras 35-36). This is simply a function of the hierarchy of laws; statutes (explicitly or by necessary implication) trump the common law. The common law cannot override the statutory standard, and I fear that is what happened in Guevara, and what a liberal application of Khosa would entail (just another reason to disfavour Khosa).

Overall, these two niche issues in judicial review will continue to be fleshed out in lower courts. For now, sit back, quarantine, and stay strong.

What Does Vavilov Stand For?

This post is co-written with Leonid Sirota.

As we previously noted in a joint post on Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65, that decision leaves open the question whether reasonableness review, as explained in the majority reasons, tends toward deference or vigilance, and so whether it will be more rigorous than pre-Vavilov reasonableness. After all, Vavilov begins by saying that its application of the reasonableness standard is based on a principle of judicial restraint, one which “demonstrates a respect for the distinct role of administrative decision-makers” (Vavilov, at para 13). Yet in the same breath the majority insists that reasonableness “remains a robust form of review” (Vavilov, at para 13). It then adds that the reasonableness standard is strong enough to guard against threats to the Rule of Law—yet not so strong as to revert to a form of jurisdictional review (Vavilov, at para 67).

Because of these statements, it is not surprising that some suggest that Vavilov is more robust than restrained, while others view it as “inherently deferential”. At first blush, these different takes on Vavilov could be argued to reflect confusion at the heart of the decision. And Vavilov’s rhetoric is indeed confusing. But an optimistic interpretation of the majority’s reasons might be that they speak to the great variety of cases to which they apply. In some, review will be more constrained; in others, it will be more rigorous. It will be the task of lower courts to parse the Vavilov judgment to determine which circumstances call for which application. But it is not clear that Vavilov prescribes an approach to judicial review that is uniformly more or less restrained.

While it is too early to draw any trend lines, the lower courts have had a chance to weigh in on this question, and they too are divided. But taking the cases together, they might support the conclusion that Vavilov is more contextual than categorical. On one hand, some cases have put forward more interventionist readings of Vavilov. One of us wrote here about Canadian National Railway Company v Richardson International Limited, 2020 FCA 20. There Nadon JA applied the appellate correctness standard, but he added that had he applied reasonableness review, he would have found the decision unreasonable. Nadon JA faulted the Canadian Transportation Agency for failing to take account of statutory context by focusing too much on the text of the relevant statutory provision—and said this would have been just as much of a problem on reasonableness review. Similarly, in Farrier c Canada (Procureur général), 2020 CAF 25, Gauthier JA explained that while she might have found a decision of the Appeal Division of the Parole Board of Canada reasonable under Dunsmuir and its progeny, under Vavilov, the story was different (Farrier, at paras 12, 19). The failure of the administrative decision-maker to provide reasons on some key legal elements of the decision was fatal.

By their own admission, these cases take a harder look at the administrative decisions under review than one would have expected prior to Vavilov, especially in how they scrutinize the administrative decision-makers’ reasons. This seems fully consistent with Vavilov’s “reasons first” approach to judicial review (Vavilov, at para 84) and its clear rejection of the practice of judicial supplementation of reasons (Vavilov, at paras 96-97). Coupled with these changes, Vavilov introduces what one might call a “legal hard look review”. There is now an expectation that administrators will reason with reference to their enabling statutes and take account these statutes’ text, context, and purpose (Vavilov, at para 120). Their omissions in this regard can only be tolerated if they are minor (Vavilov, at para 122). But, as Richardson holds, a failure to justify a decision in relation to the statute at all will be fatal.

By contrast, some decisions in Ontario’s Divisional Court fail to see a meaningful difference between Vavilov and the previous judicial review regime. In Radzevicius v Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal, 2020 ONSC 319 , for example, Swinton J asserts that “Vavilov does not constitute a significant change in the law of judicial review with respect to the review of the reasons of administrative tribunals” (Radzevicius at para 57). She holds that, because there was no “fundamental flaw or gap in the Tribunal’s analysis”, the decision was reasonable (Radzevicius, at para 59). And in Correa v Ontario Civilian Police Commission, 2020 ONSC 133, Swinton J (writing for a differently composed panel) was similarly disposed, insisting that Vavilov did not impose a “more robust reasonableness review” (Correa, at para 54).

These cases divide on a basic question: is Vavilov reasonableness review more robust than what preceded it? The temptation is to fall on one or another side of this question, but the truth might be a bit more nuanced. The decisions we have just discussed suggest that, while Vavilov may impose more robust review in some circumstances, it is also possible that, in other cases, Vavilov will, indeed, not change the degree of deference.

In Richardson and Farrier, at issue were questions of legal interpretation: questions that required the decision-maker to engage with the enabling statute to determine the meaning, in context, of relevant provisions. A failure to engage with key elements of the statute, insofar as such a lack of consideration may change the result, is not reasonable, according to Vavilov (Vavilov, at para 122). It is probably fair to say that, at least when it comes to pure questions of statutory interpretation, reasonableness review may now take on a more interventionist flavour, particularly where decision-makers are not simply applying a statutory provision to facts but are actually attempting to determine the meaning of particular provisions. When decision-makers are interpreting a statute, Vavilov demands more of them than the cases it supersedes.

Radzevicius and Correa, by contrast, presented issues of mixed fact and law. Decision-makers having applied legal standards to particular facts and evidence; they did not fail to take account of relevant legal provisions or fundamentally misunderstand them. Vavilov says that while the evidence acts as a constraint on the decision-maker, courts must refrain from reweighing evidence or holding decision-makers to a high evidentiary standard (Vavilov, at para 125). This injunction is consistent with Vavilov’s judicial restraint theme. When evidence is more central to the disposition of the case, we might expect review to be more deferential. Whatever else it did, Vavilov did not—for better or for worse—bring back the concept of jurisdictional fact.

This division finds some theoretical support in the literature, specifically Jeffrey Pojanowski’s recent paper advocating for a “neoclassical” approach to administrative law (which one of us reviewed here). Under the neoclassical approach, courts take a harder look at agency legal interpretations while respecting agency space to maneuver on policy or evidentiary matters (883). Neoclassicism pays attention to what both a particular decision-maker’s enabling statute and general legislation, such as the American Administrative Procedure Act indicate about the intensity of the review to which the decision-maker is subject. This approach is to be contrasted with, among others, “administrative supremacy”, which advocates across-the-board deference on all questions of law, reducing the rule of law to a “thin residue” around the margins of delegated power (869).

Vavilov, on the understanding expounded in this post, lends itself to a neoclassical interpretation. On one hand, it asks decision-makers to specifically reason in relation to the limitations on their power, most notably their enabling statute (Vavilov, at paras 108-110, 120). It introduces new requirements to engage with the text, context, and purpose of the statute (Vavilov at para 118 et seq). All of these requirements are rooted in the centrality of the enabling statute, and the role of courts to interpret that statute to decide on the intensity of review. But on the other hand, Vavilov largely incorporates existing law in asking courts to stay their hand when it comes to the evidence before a decision-maker, and the way it might have been assessed (see Khosa, at para 61). In part, this can be justified as a dutiful reflection by the courts that the decision-maker was (1) the initial merits decider and (2) Parliament’s chosen delegate, established to be the merits decider. This division is therefore rooted in a plausible understanding of the respective roles of courts and delegated decision-makers.

Some caveats are in order. First, the distinction between questions of law and questions of evidence will not necessarily be perfectly neat. Indeed, it is true that sometimes, on legal questions, a decision-maker will have a wide margin in which to operate because of the words of a statutory grant of authority (Vavilov, at para 110). As a result, the distinction we draw here might not be helpful in every case. Our point is simply that it may help explain how courts have thus far treated Vavilov. And second, we do not know whether this distinction is really what drove the courts’ reasoning in these cases. Or was their reasoning, instead, primarily a function of individual or institutional views on judicial review, which are bound to influence judges as they work to make sense of equivocal guidance from the Supreme Court? It will be interesting to see, for example, how the Federal Court of Appeal treats more fact-bound cases and, conversely, how the Divisional Court will approach those where statutory interpretation is at the forefront.

That said, if there is one thing that is clear about Vavilov, it is that the various constraints that operate to limit the space within which a decision-maker can maneuver are supposed to be sensitive to context. As the relevant facts and applicable law vary, so different constraints come to the fore. The constraints that apply in a given case lead to more or less interventionist review. One of us suggested, in a contribution to the symposium on the tenth anniversary of Dunsmuir, that the administrative law framework that should replace the one that built on Dunsmuir (or on its ruins) ought to “abandon the pursuit, or the pretense, of across-the-board deference” in favour of greater sensitivity “to the circumstances of particular cases … As these circumstances vary, so must the applicable rules.” Ostensibly, Vavilov instead doubles down a one-size-fits-most reasonableness standard of review. But it may be that, in practice, it makes sufficient room for a more nuanced approach.

In the short term, this might lead to more confusion. In the long run, however, it may prove a more fruitful way of developing the Canadian law of judicial review. For now, it is for the lower courts to work out the precise circumstances in which more or less deference is due to administrative decision-makers. As a result, confident broad judgments about Vavilov’s true import are probably premature.

Richardson: Rigorous Vavilov Review

In one of the Federal Court of Appeal’s post-Vavilov cases, CNR v Richardson, the Court (per Nadon JA) demonstrates that Vavilov review, on substantive questions of law, will not be inattentive or subordinate to administrative discretion. Indeed, while some suggest that Vavilovian review is “inherently deferential,” I see the matter quite differently:  Richardson shows how Vavilov review puts the court in the proper position to rigorously enforce the statutory boundaries of administrative decision-making, particularly where decision-makers fail to engage with elements of the statute at all.

Richardson is an agri-food business that owns and operates 54 grain elevators [3]. CN and CP serve a number of Richardson’s elevators [3].  Meanwhile, the Canadian National Railway Company (CN) and the Canadian Pacific Railway Company (CP) connect railway networks at Scotford, Alberta [5], though the mainlines of each do not connect at Scotford. Around this connection (about 30km) lays Richardson’s Lamont elevator, located on CN’s main line [6].

Richardson filed an application before the Canada Transportation Agency, asking that the Scotford site be deemed an “interchange” and that Richardson traffic be transferred for “interswitching” between Scotford and Lamont elevator. Under the relevant statute (the Canada Transportation Act), an interchange “means a place where the line of one railway company connects with the line of another railway company and where loaded or empty cars may be stored until delivered or received by the other railway company” (s.111). Meanwhile, “interswitch” “means to transfer traffic from the lines of one railway company to the lines of another railway company” (s.111). The goal of interswitching is to ensure that shippers with only one choice of railway have “fair and reasonable access to the rail system at a reasonable rate.” Obviously, this would benefit Richardson.

The Agency first concluded that CN and CP operated an interchange, under the statute, at Scotford. While the Agency noted CN’s argument that its main line did not connect with CP’s main line at Scotford, it ultimately held that s.111 of the statute did not make a distinction between the type of railway line required to make the connection [11]. Rather, under the statute, a railway line is defined broadly [11]. Further, s.140 of the statute outlines exemptions for what a “railway line” does not include. To the Agency, if Parliament wanted to limit interchanges to areas where main lines connected, it could have include a similar exclusion in s.111 of the statute [11].

On judicial review, CN argued that the Agency erred in interpreting the definition of “interchange.” The first question for Nadon JA was the standard of review. He concluded that while, pre-Vavilov, the standard was reasonableness, the case came before the Court on a statutory right of appeal, which meant that the standard of correctness applied [42-44]. But Nadon JA went on to conclude in obiter that even though the standard of review was correctness, “[u]nder the previous standard of reasonableness, I would have had no hesitation concluding that the Agency’s interpretation was unreasonable because it failed to consider both context and the legislative scheme as a whole” [46]. Moreover, the Agency misapplied a principle of statutory interpretation—the so-called “implied exclusion rule” adopted by the Agency was inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent  (see Green, at para 37). As such, Justice Nadon remitted to the Agency to receive its view about the interpretive matter, especially in light of the new correctness standard.

Nadon JA’s analysis is tightly connected to Vavilov, and demonstrates how courts should apply Vavilov in light of defective statutory reasoning. As Vavilov notes, at para 108, the governing statute is the most “salient” aspect of the context bearing on a decision-maker. As such, this most salient aspect must be rigorously enforced against the decision-maker. But a court cannot do so in absence of reasons from the decision-maker engaging with the statute.  Indeed, the reasons must demonstrate some engagement with this and other constraints (Vavilov, at para 120). It is for this reason that decision-makers are required to interpret the law in concert with its text, context, and purpose (see Vavilov, at paras 118, and 120). While the Agency is not required to engage in a “formalistic analysis” (Vavilov, at para 119), and not all errors will be material (Vavilov, at para 122), a failure to engage with purpose at all as in Richardson must be considered fatal, if the governing statutory scheme is a real constraint on administrative decision-making. More specifically, purpose and the overall context must always be considered in run-of-the-mill statutory interpretation cases, and a failure to do so is fatal in that context (see ATCO Gas & Pipelines, 2006 SCC 4 at para 48), as Vavilov says it can be in the administrative context. And what’s more, a failure to use the proper principles of interpretation is a failure of reasoning that Vavilov says is impermissible, because a decision-maker’s interpretation of a statutory provision must be consistent with the text, context, and purpose of a provision, and because “the usual principles of statutory interpretation apply equally when an administrative decision maker interprets a provision” (Vavilov, at para 120).

Richardson, then, is on solid ground. The Agency’s failure to consider the overall statutory context means that it was not “alive” to an essential element of interpretation (Vavilov, at para 120). A failure to engage with the statute at all cannot, on any understanding of the term, be reasonable. And the Agency’s use of the implied exclusion rule, without considering the broader context and purpose, clearly runs counter to the Supreme Court’s comments in Green about the implied exclusion rule. The failure to properly engage with the statute in its entirety, without using the proper tools of interpretation, is a Vavilovian error.

There is a broader point of principle here. As Vavilov implicitly holds, it is not formalistic to expect decision-makers, who share in the enterprise of law-making, to actually do the task properly. Indeed, proponents of deference cannot say two things at once: they cannot insist that decision-makers are contributors to law-making, but then grant decision-makers the ability to engage in reasoning that does not engage with the most obvious and natural limitation on administrative decision-making (Vavilov, at para 109). Either decision-makers are shared partners in law-making or they are not.

It is true that reasons are the focus of Vavilov, and so it is methodologically deferential to look at those reasons first. But this does not lessen the rigorousness of Vavilovian review, at least as exemplified by Nadon JA in Richardson. Indeed, the reasons are merely the window into the application of the constraints on the decision-maker. They are not an invitation for courts to sit back—reasons require responsive engagement by the Court, in relation to the application of the principles of interpretation.

While Nadon JA’s remarks in Richardson are obiter, they are a good example of the promise of Vavilov: rigorous reasonableness review that is focused on the statute and in ensuring that administrative decision-makers engage with the statute.

 

Tout nouveau, tout beau?

Ce que dit, et ce que ne dit pas, l’arrêt Vavilov, pour nos lecteurs francophones

Ce billet est co-rédigé avec Mark Mancini

L’arrêt Canada (Ministre de la Citoyenneté et de l’Immigration) c Vavilov, 2019 CSC 65 de la Cour suprême a fait l’objet de nombreux commentaires, tant sur ce blogue qu’ailleurs, – mais dans la langue de Laskin, pas celle de Beetz. Nous nous proposons donc de combler ce vide. Ce billet ne saurait reprendre les analyses et les critiques détaillées que nous avons tous deux déjà publiées (dont la liste suit ci-dessous) et celles, peut-être, encore à venir. Il se limite plutôt, d’une part, à offrir à nos lecteurs francophones un résumé des points saillants de l’arrêt et, de l’autre, à attirer leur attention sur les enjeux que risque de soulever la mise en œuvre de celui-ci par les tribunaux.

Ainsi qu’elle l’avait annoncé dans son jugement accordant l’autorisation de pourvoi, la Cour suprême profite de l’affaire Vavilov pour ajuster le cadre d’analyse employé par les tribunaux lorsqu’ils révisent une décision administrative sur le fond. Si les normes de contrôle disponibles demeurent celles que les tribunaux canadiens ont appliquées depuis l’arrêt Dunsmuir c Nouveau-Brunswick, 2008 CSC 9, [2008] 1 RCS 190, et que la présomption de l’application de la norme de la décision raisonnable demeure en vigueur, tant les fondements théoriques de ce cadre d’analyse que les circonstances où la présomption est repoussée sont révisées. De plus, la Cour fournit des explications étoffées sur la façon d’appliquer la norme de contrôle de la décision raisonnable, qui seront sans doute un enseignement tout aussi important, et probablement plus difficile à appliquer, de cet arrêt.


Le principe qui guide le choix de la norme de contrôle appliquée lors de la révision d’une décision administrative est celui voulant que cette norme doit « refléter l’intention du législateur sur le rôle de la cour de révision, sauf dans les cas où la primauté du droit empêche de donner effet à cette intention » [23]. Selon la Cour, cela signifie généralement que, « [s]i le législateur a constitué un décideur administratif dans le but précis d’administrer un régime législatif […] on peut aisément présumer que le législateur a voulu que celui‑ci puisse fonctionner en faisant le moins possible l’objet d’une intervention judiciaire » [24]. Il s’ensuit que c’est la norme de contrôle empreinte de déférence, soit celle de la décision raisonnable, qui s’applique – en principe.

Il faut bien noter que c’est le seul choix du législateur qui dicte cette conclusion. L’expertise réelle ou présumée du décideur administratif n’y est pour rien, à la différence de ce qui a pu être le cas dans la jurisprudence (dont l’arrêt Edmonton (Ville) c Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Ltd, 2016 CSC 47, [2016] 2 RCS 293 est un exemple particulièrement frappant). La notion d’expertise n’est pas tout à fait reléguée aux oubliettes – nous y reviendrons –, mais son exclusion de l’analyse quant choix de la norme de contrôle a des conséquences importantes, et pourrait en avoir d’autres, non moins significatives. Nous y reviendrons aussi.

La présomption voulant que la norme de contrôle d’une décision administrative soit celle de la décision raisonnable est repoussée dans deux cas. Le premier est celui où le législateur a lui-même indiqué qu’une autre norme de contrôle est applicable. Il peut le faire en légiférant directement sur le sujet. Il peut aussi, cependant, le faire en créant un droit d’appel – avec ou sans autorisation – à une cour de justice. Lorsqu’elle siège en appel d’une décision administrative, c’est la norme de contrôle qui s’appliquerait à une question équivalente dans un appel d’une décision judiciaire que la cour doit appliquer. Ainsi, « elle se prononcera sur des questions de droit, touchant notamment à l’interprétation législative et à la portée de la compétence du décideur, selon la norme de la décision correcte » [37]. Il s’agit là d’un changement important par rapport à la jurisprudence précédente qui, suivant l’arrêt Pezim c ColombieBritannique (Superintendent of Brokers), [1994] 2 RCS 557, recourait généralement, même en appel, à la norme de contrôle de révision judiciaire, en raison notamment de l’expertise supposée des décideurs administratifs. (Notons, cependant, « que ce ne sont pas toutes les dispositions législatives envisageant la possibilité qu’une cour de justice puisse contrôler une décision administrative qui confèrent dans les faits un droit d’appel » [51]. En particulier, l’arrêt Canada (Citoyenneté et Immigration) c Khosa, 2009 CSC 12, [2009] 1 RCS 339 et son interprétation, qui nous semble erronée, de la Loi sur les cours fédérales, ne semblent pas affectés par Vavilov.)

Le second cas où la présomption de l’application de la norme de la décision raisonnable est repoussée est celui où son application serait contraire à la primauté du droit. Vavilov enseigne que celle-ci exige une réponse correcte, et non seulement raisonnable, à trois types de questions. Il s’agit, en premier lieu, de questions de validité constitutionnelle; en deuxième lieu, de « questions de droit générales d’une importance capitale pour le système juridique dans son ensemble » [53]; et, en troisième lieu, de celles concernant « la délimitation des compétences respectives d’organismes administratifs » [63]. D’autres types de questions pourraient, en principe, s’ajouter à cette liste, mais la Cour semble plutôt sceptique à ce sujet.

Trois observations s’imposent ici. Premièrement, s’agissant de questions constitutionnelles, Vavilov ne remet pas en cause – à première vue en tout cas – l’arrêt Doré c Barreau du Québec, 2012 CSC 12, [2012] 1 RCS 395. La Cour souligne expressément qu’elle ne se prononce pas sur la validité du cadre d’analyse qui y a été établi. Deuxièmement, s’agissant de « questions d’une importance capitale », cette catégorie se trouve possiblement élargie en comparaison avec le cadre d’analyse de l’arrêt Dunsmuir, puisqu’elle ne dépend plus d’une évluation de l’expertise relative du tribunal et du décideur administratif. Troisièmement, la catégorie de « véritables questions de compétence », retenue dans Dunsmuir et préservée, en ne serait-ce qu’en théorie, dans la jurisprudence subséquente, est abolie par Vavilov, du moins au stade du choix de la norme de contrôle.


Ces ajustements au choix de la norme de contrôle apportés, la Cour se tourne vers la norme de la décision raisonnable. Elle explique que « le contrôle selon la norme de la décision raisonnable a pour point de départ la retenue judiciaire et le respect du rôle distinct des décideurs administratifs » [75]. Ce contrôle vise néanmoins à s’assurer que le décideur administratif tienne compte des « contraintes juridiques et factuelles auxquelles [il] est assujetti » [85] et qu’il explique sa décision à ceux et celles qu’elle affecte.

Les motifs du décideur administratif occupent donc une importance centrale dans le contrôle judiciaire – et ce, même si la Cour suprême reconnaît qu’un décideur n’est pas toujours tenu de les rédiger. C’est le raisonnement du décideur administratif, tel que représenté dans les motifs, qui fait l’objet d’examen :

Une cour de justice qui applique la norme de contrôle de la décision raisonnable ne se demande donc pas quelle décision elle aurait rendue à la place du décideur administratif, ne tente pas de prendre en compte l’ « éventail » des conclusions qu’aurait pu tirer le décideur, ne se livre pas à une analyse de novo, et ne cherche pas à déterminer la solution « correcte » au problème. [83]

La cour de révision ne doit pas, non plus, « élabore[r] ses propres motifs pour appuyer la décision administrative » ou encore « faire abstraction du fondement erroné de la décision et […] y substituer sa propre justification du résultat ». [96] Cependant, les motifs ne sont pas tenus à la perfection et peuvent, le cas échéant, être lus à la lumière du dossier. Les motifs peuvent également permettre au décideur de démontrer son expertise et d’ainsi justifier « un résultat qui semble déroutant ou contre‑intuitif à première vue » comme étant « néanmoins conforme aux objets et aux réalités pratiques du régime administratif en cause » [93].

Appliquant la norme de la décision raisonnable, la cour de révision s’intéresse donc à la fois au raisonnement du décideur et au résultat auquel celui-ci a abouti. Les deux doivent être justifiables et justifiés. La Cour suprême propose une liste, qui se veut non-exhaustive, « de questions qui peuvent révéler qu’une décision est déraisonnable » [101]. Certaines concernent la cohérence du raisonnement du décideur administratif. Une décision irrationnelle, entachée de paralogismes, dont « la conclusion […] ne peut prendre sa source dans l’analyse effectuée » [103] ou celle dont « il est impossible de comprendre, lorsqu’on lit les motifs en corrélation avec le dossier, le raisonnement […] sur un point central » [103] doit être traitée comme déraisonnable.

Tel est aussi le cas d’une décision qui ne tient pas compte du contexte juridique et factuel dans lequel elle est rendue. La Cour souligne que

le régime législatif applicable est probablement l’aspect le plus important du contexte juridique d’une décision donnée. Le fait que les décideurs administratifs participent, avec les cours de justice, à l’élaboration du contenu précis des régimes administratifs qu’ils administrent, ne devrait pas être interprété comme une licence accordée aux décideurs administratifs pour ignorer ou réécrire les lois adoptées par le Parlement et les législatures provinciales. [108]

D’une part, même lorsque le décideur administratif jouit d’un pouvoir discrétionnaire, « tout exercice d’un [tel] pouvoir […] doit être conforme aux fins pour lesquelles il a été accordé » [108]. De l’autre, « un organisme administratif ne saurait exercer un pouvoir qui ne lui a pas été délégué ». [109] La porté du pouvoir délégué ou l’étendue des raisons de cette délégation varie selon le texte législatif applicable. Le contrôle en vertu de la norme de la décision raisonnable exige donc de la cour de révision « de déterminer si […] le décideur a justifié convenablement son interprétation de la loi à la lumière du contexte. Évidemment, il sera impossible au décideur administratif de justifier une décision qui excède les limites fixées par les dispositions législatives qu’il interprète ». [110]

La marge de manœuvre du décideur administratif dépend, en outre, des autres lois ou règles du droit prétorien qui peuvent s’appliquer à la décision. La décision administrative doit, notamment, tenir compte des règles d’interprétation législative, sans pour autant forcément « procéder à une interprétation formaliste de la loi » [119]. Le décideur administratif peut tenir compte de ses connaissances et de son expertise spécialisées, mais « il [lui] incombe […] de démontrer dans ses motifs qu’il était conscient [des] éléments essentiels » [120] de l’interprétation législative, et il ne lui est pas loisible d’ « adopter une interprétation qu’il sait de moindre qualité — mais plausible — simplement parce que cette interprétation paraît possible et opportune » [121].

Par ailleurs, une décision administrative doit aussi se justifier au regard de la preuve, des arguments des parties et de la pratique administrative. Elle doit aussi refléter, le cas échéant, son importance pour la personne visée : « Lorsque la décision a des répercussions sévères sur les droits et intérêts de l’individu visé, les motifs fournis à ce dernier doivent refléter ces enjeux. […] Cela vaut notamment pour les décisions dont les conséquences menacent la vie, la liberté, la dignité ou les moyens de subsistance d’un individu » [133].

Un dernier enseignement en matière de l’application de la norme de la décision raisonnable sur lequel nous voudrions attirer l’attention du lecteur concerne les réparations que peut accorder une cour de révision. La Cour suprême explique que « lorsque la décision contrôlée selon la norme de la décision raisonnable ne peut être confirmée, il conviendra le plus souvent de renvoyer l’affaire au décideur pour qu’il revoie la décision, mais à la lumière cette fois des motifs donnés par la cour ». [141] Cependant, et il s’agit, dans une certaine mesure, d’une nouveauté, la Cour précise qu’ « il y a des situations limitées » [142] où la cour de révision doit elle-même trancher le différend, pour éviter de le prolonger inutilement. C’est notamment le cas lorsqu’une seule réponse est possible a une question d’interprétation, mais d’autres facteurs, y compris ceux concernant les coûts, tant pour les parties que pour l’administration et le système de justice, doivent aussi être pris en compte.


L’arrêt Vavilov promet – pas pour la première fois en droit administratif canadien – « d’apporter une cohérence et une prévisibilité accrues à ce domaine du droit ». [10] Cette promesse sera-t-elle tenue? À certains égards, les enseignements de la Cour suprême sont prometteurs. Notamment, la nouvelle approche au choix de la norme de contrôle, qu’on soit ou non d’accord avec la présomption du choix de la norme de la décision raisonnable ou encore avec l’abolition de la catégorie de questions de compétence, promet du moins une certaine simplification par rapport à l’état du droit avant Vavilov. L’insistance de la Cour sur l’importance des motifs et du respect du cadre législatif par les décideurs administratifs est elle aussi plus que bienvenue.

Plusieurs questions importantes restent toutefois sans réponse. Les cours de révision, et éventuellement la Cour suprême elle-même, devront y répondre pour que l’on puisse véritablement affirmer que le droit administratif canadien est simple est prévisible. En voici quelques unes.

Quelle sera la portée réelle des catégories de questions où la primauté du droit exige l’application de la norme de la décision correcte? En particulier, quel avenir réserve la Cour à l’arrêt Doré?

Comme nous l’avons souligné ci-dessus, l’arrêt Vavilov semble élargir quelque peu la catégorie de questions « d’une importance capitale pour le système juridique », en raison de l’abolition de la référence à l’expertise dans sa délimitation. Or, si la Cour résume la jurisprudence existante à ce sujet et dit que celle-ci « continue de s’appliquer essentiellement telle quelle » [143], ce résumé ne fournit que des exemples, et non de véritables lignes directrices. L’incertitude risque de persister à ce sujet.

Plus grave encore, mais peut-être susceptible d’une résolution plus rapide, est l’incertitude quant à l’avenir du cadre d’analyse posé dans l’arrêt Doré et raffiné ou modifié dans École secondaire Loyola c Québec (Procureur général), 2015 CSC 12, [2015] 1 RCS 613 et Law Society of British Columbia c Trinity Western University, 2018 CSC 32, [2018] 2 R.C.S. 293. La Cour, nous l’avons déjà dit, se garde de se prononcer explicitement à ce sujet. Pourtant, les fondements de cette jurisprudence, qui repose en bonne partie sinon entièrement sur la volonté de respecter l’expertise – réelle ou supposée – des décideurs administratifs, nous semblent incompatibles avec l’exclusion de l’expertise de l’analyse quant au choix de la norme de contrôle dans Vavilov. De plus, nous sommes sceptiques face à l’idée que le législateur puisse dicter, implicitement ou même explicitement, le choix de la norme de contrôle en matière constitutionnelle, qu’il s’agisse de questions de validité ou des celles concernant la constitutionnalité de décisions particulières. La Cour suprême le dit fort bien dans Vavilov : « si un législateur peut choisir les pouvoirs à déléguer à un organisme administratif, il ne peut déléguer des pouvoirs dont la Constitution ne l’investit pas. Le pouvoir constitutionnel d’agir doit comporter des limites définies et uniformes, ce qui commande l’application de la norme de la décision correcte » [56].

Les questions de compétence sont-elles véritablement à oublier?

La catégorie de « véritables questions de compétence » est écartée de l’analyse quant au choix de la norme de contrôle. Pourtant, en affirmant que « certaines questions touchant à la portée du pouvoir d’un décideur […] ne sauraient commander qu’une seule interprétation », et qu’ « [é]videmment, il sera impossible au décideur administratif de justifier une décision qui excède les limites fixées par les dispositions législatives qu’il interprète », [110] la Cour semble tout simplement utiliser une nouvelle étiquette pour la décrire. Par ailleurs, les tribunaux pourraient être appelés à décider une question en est une de compétence en disposant d’appels autorisés par des dispositions législatives qui y font référence.

Comment la norme de la décision raisonnable sera-t-elle appliquée en l’absence de motivation adéquate par le décideur administratif?

Si l’on peut se réjouir du fait que la Cour suprême semble souhaiter mettre un frein à la tendance, qui s’est parfois manifestée dans la jurisprudence, de l’écriture rétroactive des motifs de décision administrative par les cours de révision, on peut se demander jusqu’où sa détermination ira en pratique. La Cour insiste, d’une part, pour dire qu’une décision administrative qui doit être motivée mais ne l’est pas ou ne l’est pas adéquatement sera déraisonnable, mais, d’autre part, elle souligne « qu’une cour de révision doit examiner le dossier dans son ensemble pour comprendre la décision et qu’elle découvrira alors souvent une justification claire pour la décision » [137]. L’équilibre entre ces deux exigences ne nous semble pas évident à trouver.

De la déférence à l’égard du décideur administratif et de la vigilance quant au respect du cadre législatif, laquelle va l’emporter de l’application de la norme de la décision raisonnable?

La Cour offre, à ce sujet, des enseignements qui peuvent sembler contradictoires. Elle affirme, notamment, dans un seul et même court paragraphe, que « [l]e contrôle selon la norme de la décision raisonnable […] tire son origine du principe de la retenue judiciaire », mais aussi que « [c]e type de contrôle demeure rigoureux ». [13] Comment la cour de révision s’y prendra-t-elle pour exercer son pouvoir avec retenue et vigueur à la fois? Comment va-t-elle déterminer si un décideur administratif a respecté les contraintes que la loi lui imposait sans pour autant tenter de délimiter l’ « évantail » des solutions possibles, ou encore vérifier s’il a respecté les principes d’interprétation législative tout en gardant à l’esprit que « La ‘‘justice administrative’’ ne ressemble pas toujours à la ‘‘justice judiciaire’’ » [92]?

Le fondement théorique de l’arrêt Vavilov, soit le respect de la volonté du législateur (circonscrit par le principe de la primauté du droit, mais déterminant dans les limites que celui-ci impose), ne permet pas de résoudre cette tension. S’il est vrai que le législateur confie l’application et donc la première interprétation de la loi au décideur administratif, c’est aussi le législateur qui choisir de limiter le pouvoir discrétionnaire de ce dernier par le texte de loi qu’il adopte. Il faudra donc voir comment les tribunaux, y compris la Cour suprême elle-même, appliqueront la norme de contrôle de la décision raisonnable, et s’ils parviendront à résoudre les tensions présentes dans les motifs de la Cour. Ce n’est qu’en cas de succès, qui n’est pas acquis d’avance, que l’on pourra affirmer que l’arrêt Vavilov a véritablement réglé les problèmes de cohérence et de prévisibilité du droit administratif auxquels la Cour suprême s’y attaquait.


L’arrêt Vavilov sera, évidemment, un jalon important dans le développement du droit administratif canadien. Cependant, ses silences et ses contradictions pourraient s’avérer tout aussi importants que ses enseignements. Aussi important ce jalon soit-il, il est loin de marquer la fin du parcours souvent tortueux de ce domaine du droit.


Voici la liste, mentionnée ci-dessus, de billets que nous avons publiés sur l’arrêt Vavilov et ses conséquences, en ordre chronologique:

After Vavilov, Doré is Under Stress

Part I of a two-part series on Doré

**This is Part I of a two part series on the interaction between Doré and Vavilov. Tomorrow, I will post a review of one of the first post-Vavilov cases, Ferrier at the ONCA. Ferrier raises issues about the standard of review on constitutional matters**

Vavilov ushhered in a new era in Canadian administrative law, particularly as it pertains to judicial review of administrative interpretations of law. That new era, as far as I can tell, is wholly inconsistent with the justifications underlying the Supreme Court’s decision in Doré in which the Court held that courts should defer to administrative decisions that engage the Charter; specifically, an administrator’s balancing of Charter values with statutory objectives. Doré is inconsistent with Vavilov in at least two ways: (1) Doré’s treatment of expertise is inconsistent with Vavilov’s treatment of the same subject; (2) Vavilov’s comments about the Rule of Law present no principled reason to distinguish between statutory constitutional questions and administrative constitutional questions (3) even if the Doré reasonableness standard is maintained, reasonableness will likely mean much more than it has in the Court’s cases subsequent to Doré . In total, what we are seeing is two cases represented by two completely different theories of administrative law. The tension is strong.

First, an admission: Vavilov hedged on Doré. This is what the Court had to say:

Although the amici questioned the approach to the standard of review set out in Doré v. Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 S.C.R. 395, a reconsideration of that approach is not germane to the issues in this appeal. However, it is important to draw a distinction between cases in which it is alleged that the effect of the administrative decision being reviewed is to unjustifiably limit rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (as was the case in Doré) and those in which the issue on review is whether a provision of the decision maker’s enabling statute violates the Charter (see, e.g., Nova Scotia (Workers’ Compensation Board) v. Martin, 2003 SCC 54, [2003] 2 S.C.R. 504, at para. 65). Our jurisprudence holds that an administrative decision maker’s interpretation of the latter issue should be reviewed for correctness, and that jurisprudence is not displaced by these reasons [57].

The Court was clearly right not to take the amici’s suggestion about Doré. There was no question of administrative interpretation engaging Charter rights or values on the facts of Vavilov (or the companion case of Bell/NFL), so it would be an unjustified expansion of the judicial role to deal with questions that were not before the court. But this does not mean that Doré sits easily with the new era of administrative law that Vavilov has ushered in.

Take, first, Vavilov’s comments on expertise. Vavilov concludes that expertise is not a legal reason for deference, as far as determining the standard of review [30-31]. Put differently, expertise cannot justify a presumption of deference because:

…if administrative decision makers are understood to possess specialized expertise on all questions that come before them, the concept of expertise ceases to assist a reviewing court in attempting to distinguish questions for which applying the reasonableness standard is appropriate from those for which it is not [28].

Specifically, then, expertise cannot assist a court in reviewing administrative interpretations of law, because it is not a good working assumption that decision-makers are expert on all matters that come before the court.

Now compare the tenor of these comments to what Doré had to say about expertise on constitutional matters. The Court in that case noted that a revised approach to the review of administrative decisions implicating the Charter involved “recognizing the expertise of these decision-makers” [35]. Specifically:

An administrative decision-maker exercising a discretionary power under his or her home statute, has, by virtue of expertise and specialization, particular familiarity with the competing considerations at play in weighing Charter values [48].

Putting Vavilov and Doré side by side like this illustrates the ill-fit: Doré’s underpinning concept is that of expertise, particularly the notion that administrators have expertise in legal matters as a presumptive rule. But if this is no longer assumed when it comes to selecting the standard of review in the Vavilov context, there is no reason to assume it in the constitutional context, where the case for expertise is—logically—weaker. In other words, constitutional law is not the same as routine legal matters with which administrators may have experience. Making the jump from these routine legal matters to constitutional matters was always the fatal flaw of Doré, and now that Vavilov does not even assume expertise when it comes to legal matters, there is no reason to make that same assumption on constitutional matters.

Next, consider what Vavilov had to say about the Rule of Law. The Rule of Law, according to the Supreme Court, will sometimes require “a singular, determinate and final answer” to the question before a particular court (Vavilov, at para 32). This makes sense: the Supreme Court has also said that the Rule of Law, among other things, “requires the creation and maintenance of an actual order of positive laws which preserves and embodies the more general principle of normative order” (Reference re Manitoba Language Rights, at 749). On certain questions, it would undermine this “general principle of normative order” for a court to take a “hands-off” approach to a certain decision, or to permit multiple “reasonable” interpretations of a particular issue to stand when it comes to the Constitution.

One of the categories of correctness review emphasized in Vavilov is constitutional questions, where “[t]he application of the correctness standard…respects the unique role of the judiciary in interpreting the Constitution and ensures that courts are able to provide the last word on questions for which the rule of law requires consistency and for which a final and determinate answer is necessary” (Vavilov, at para 53). Under this understanding, there is no principled reason that Vavilov’s comments about the Rule of Law and constitutional questions should necessitate a different response just because of the forum in which the constitutional argument arises. Just because, on judicial review, an applicant challenges a statute as opposed to an administrative decision should not change the task of the judiciary to be the final expositors of the Constitution. This, again, was a fatal flaw of Doré. It is, in my view, difficult for Doré to stand given Vavilov’s doubling-down on the traditional role of the courts in interpreting and applying the Constitution.

True, the concurring opinion in Vavilov (Abella and Karakatsanis JJ) was quick to point out that “[t]he majority’s approach to the rule of law, however, flows from a court-centric conception of the rule of law rooted in Dicey’s 19th century philosophy.” I’ve always been struck by the intellectual laziness of the charge of “Dicey” as a legal argument; but no matter, in the context of the Constitution, the Rule of Law is primarily the rule of courts, at least on the majority’s understanding in Vavilov. And, what’s more, the majority’s understanding is consistent with what the Supreme Court has said itself about the role of the judiciary in a constitutional democracy, in a variety of different contexts: Hunter v Southam, at 155: “The judiciary is the guardian of the constitution…”; Ell v Alberta, at para 23: “[a]ccordingly, the judiciary’s role as arbiter of disputes and guardian of the Constitution require that it be independent from all other bodies”; United States v Burns, at para 35: “…the Court is the guardian of the Constitution…”; Kourtessis v MNR, at 90: “The courts are the guardians of the Constitution and they must have the powers to forge the instruments necessary to maintain the integrity of the Constitution and to protect the rights it guarantees”; and in a judgment jointed by Abella and Karakatsanis JJ in the Nadon Reference, the Court endorsed the proposition that since the judiciary became the “guardian of the Constitution,” the Supreme Court itself became a “foundational premise of the Constitution” (at para 89). These comments can easily be taken to imply that courts, in comparison to administrators, have a unique role in interpreting the Constitution by systemic legal design, even if administrators, in the odd case, may have something of value to say about the Constitution. Particularly apt, on this score, is the comment in Ell regarding independence: courts are the only independent guardians of the Constitution.

Finally, there is something to say about reasons, even if correctness is not the applicable standard of review. Applying the reasonableness standard in the Doré context requires proportionality (see Doré , at para 56), but Doré does not explain explicitly what is required in terms of reasoning. That said, the Court has been reticent to adopt a formal reasons requirement for Doré -type decisions, consistent with the Court’s jurisprudence that reasonableness means different things in different contexts (see Catalyst, at para 18), and that the adequacy of reasons is not a standalone basis for review (see Newfoundland Nurses, at para 14), with courts being permitted to supplement reasons for decision (Newfoundland Nurses, at para 12). The classic example of this was in TWU, where the majority of the Court, relying on these authorities, concluded that simply because the Benchers were “alive” to the Charter issues, there was no issue of discretion fettering when the Law Society ordered a referendum on TWU (TWU, at para 56). In dissent in TWU, Brown and Côté JJ would have required more in the way of justification from the Law Society, especially given the Charter rights at play (TWU, at paras 295-296).

Vavilov says something different about what reasonableness requires, putting stress on Doré and its progeny. The Vavilov framework withdraws from the “supplementation” of reasons (Vavilov, at para 96), still permitting the reviewing court to look to the record, but not permitting courts to gin up its own reasons for decision. But reasons take on an expanded importance in Vavilov, specifically requiring a decision-maker to justify decision in relation to particular legal constraints on the decision-maker (Vavilov, at para 108) and in terms of the impact on the affected individual (Vavilov, at para 133), among other things. Interestingly, Vavilov does note that its reasons first methodology will be difficult where reasons are not provided (Vavilov, at para 137), explicitly citing TWU, and further notes that in the absence of reasons, courts must still apply the various constraints on the decision-maker, but that the analysis may focus more on outcome that on reasoning (Vavilov, at para 138).

Even with these comments in mind, the past precedent, TWU, and Vavilov do not stand easily together. Specifically, the most important legal constraint on any decision-maker is the Constitution. It is difficult to see how a decision-maker could fail to justify a decision under the Constitution and for a court to rule that that decision is reasonable—courts should not cooper up bad or non-existent reasoning in these cases. This is even more so given that one of the constraints on the decision-maker, the impact and importance to the affected individual, is particularly acute in situations involving constitutional rights. It might appear that in the constitutional context, more should be required if we retain a reasonableness standard on constitutional matters. Simply put, reading TWU and concluding that the decision-maker was “alive” to the Charter issues seems to be the wrong line of thinking, with Vavilov. In this sense, there are genuine signals pointing to Brown and Côté JJ’s dissent in TWU, where they would require more in term of reasoning. That said, this is an area of genuine ambiguity that I cannot resolve here, and there are also signals in Vavilov that cases like TWU are still good law.

I do not make these comments with the naïve understanding that the Court could not save Doré in light of Vavilov. Vavilov explicitly does not mention the Charter in the class of cases to which correctness should apply. And the Court’s approach could, admittedly, allow for Doré to stand. For example, courts could continue to apply the reasonableness standard to constitutional questions where expertise is demonstrated by an administrator in interpreting the Constitution. This finds some support in Vavilov, where expertise is “folded into the new starting point and, as explained below, expertise remains a relevant consideration in conducting reasonableness review” (Vavilov, at para 31). But this runs into a number of problems: first, it continues to apply a reasonableness standard even though expertise is no longer is a reason to apply that standard under Vavilov. Second, it would require courts, in each case, to measure expertise as an empirical matter on constitutional questions. While rules of thumb could be used to assist in this matter, it is unlikely to be an attractive option to the Court.

At the very least, Doré now stands at odds with Vavilov, its underlying justifications under stress because of the new administrative law foundation introduced by the Supreme Court. In my view, the two cases represent two different visions of administrative law. On one hand, Vavilov is indeed a move towards Diceyanism (and I mean this in the best way possible), in the sense that the statute is the centrepiece of the analysis when it comes to selecting the standard of review and applying it. Doré is based on more functional concerns, notably, expertise. There is a fundamental mismatch here. How long Doré lasts, only time will tell. But there is at least some reason to think that Doré is under significant tension because of Vavilov.

Vavilov’s Reasonableness Standard: A Legal Hard-Look Review

In my first post on Vavilov, I celebrated the Court for finally bringing some sense to the Canadian law of judicial review. Particularly, I focused on three issues relevant to determining the standard of review: the banishment of jurisdictional questions, the introduction of statutory rights of appeal as a category of correctness review, and the sidelining of expertise from the task of determining the standard of review. I did not address what I consider the real meat of Vavilov: the application of the new, robust [13], reasonableness standard.

As I will set out here, this is the strength of Vavilov because it creates a real legal standard for deference that does not permit decision-makers to “drift” beyond statutory boundaries. It forces reasoning that is explicitly tied to the enabling statute, rather than extraneous “policy” factors. This is a form of legal “hard-look” review that will not enable decision-makers much room to justify outcomes that are inconsistent with the enabling statute or otherwise do not engage with core interpretive elements. Indeed, the enabling statute is “likely to be the most salient aspect of the legal context relevant to a particular decision” [108]. This overarching theory is employed in what the Court mandates for decision-makers, creating a framework, at least on questions of law, that looks something like this:

  • Decision-makers must render a decision that is consistent with the text, context, and purpose of the statute [120] (a focus on outcome)
  • Decision-makers must engage with the most pertinent aspects of text, context, and purpose, with only limited room for omissions where those omissions are “minor” [122], while writing reasons that justify these interpretive choices [84], showing that a decision-maker was “alive to these essential elements” [120].
  • Courts will no longer cooper up defective interpretations of law by ginning up their own reasons for decision [96].

Overall, these three restraints on administrative excess ensure that the statute—as interpreted by the decision-maker, through reasons—is the starting point for all administrative review. This does not abdicate a court’s function; fundamentally, the court will determine whether the reasons evince an engagement with the statutory context in a way that is justifiable and justified [86].

Take first the requirement that a decision-maker render a decision consistent with the text, context, and purpose of the statute. The focus here has two dimensions that make it ideal for the conduct of judicial review as a matter of appreciating statutory boundaries. First, the “reasons first” [84] methodology of the Court protects against what I call the real legacy of Dunsmuir: disguised correctness review. The evil of disguised correctness review was not that it unduly impacted administrative prerogative; it is that it potentially limited the scope of delegated power set by Parliament. The potential for disguised correctness review is now, at the very least, curtailed. Courts have to start with the reasoning of the decision-maker to determine whether it falls within the scope of the legislation [116]. That scope will sometimes be wide, sometimes be narrow, [110] but the administrative reasons, as they interpret the scope of the legislation, are the starting point.

What is to be avoided on this line of thinking is what Justices Abella and Martin did in the Canada Post decision. There, they largely reasoned from their own view of the statute at play, and used that reasoning to judge the decision-maker’s interpretation of the law. This seems odd, considering Justice Abella’s cries about deference in Vavilov itself. Nonetheless, this approach is not–and should not be–a majority approach.

But this is not the end of the inquiry. Ultimately, a court must review, and it will be the reviewing court’s decision as to whether the administrative decision-maker has made a decision that transgresses the scope of the statute. After all, “[i]t will, of course, be impossible for an administrative decision maker to justify a decision that strays beyond the limits set by the statutory language it is interpreting,” which justification is assessed “in the eyes of the reviewing court” [110]. Here, the court takes a meaningful role in determining whether the decision strayed beyond the scope of the legislation the decision maker is interpreting; the merits of a decision must be consistent with the text, context, and purpose of the provision [120]. Under this framework, then, courts have a meaningful role to play in implicitly determining the boundaries of statutory limits, in order to then determine whether the administrator’s interpretation can be justified by the legal constraints bearing on it. In other words, under Vavilov, the application of legal constraints is still a preserve of the courts.

Now, consider the requirement that a decision-maker must engage with the essential elements of statutory interpretation: the text, context, and purpose. Here, another balance is struck. On one hand, a decision-maker is not required to engage the formalistic tools of interpretation, at least in “every case” [119]. I take this to mean that decision-makers will not be required to apply ejusdem generis or noscitur a sociis, or other lawyerly lingo. But, it will be necessary for decision-makers to ensure that they do not miss the most salient aspects of text, context, and purpose—at least in some cases—lest their decisions be unreasonable [122]. Their reasons must evince that they weighed the interpretive tools of text, context, and purpose, determining in a given case which is dominant [120].

Ultimately, this is a good development. Administrative decision-makers do not have to dress up their reasons in legal garb, but if they are to be true participants in the legal system—and if they are truly joint partners in upholding the Rule of Law—their reasons must be cognizable to the rest of the legal system. Reasons that are written exclusively in the vernacular of a particular industry or policy area do no good to others seeking to determine whether the decision is consistent with particular statutory limitations. In this sense, while we cannot expect decision-makers to know semantic canons of interpretation, they must justify their decisions so that they are rendered in the language of the most basic tools of interpretation: text, context, and purpose. This is the language of law, and decision-makers, if they are to truly be partners in the enterprise, must speak it to some degree.

In particular, reasons serve a transmitting function on this account. They are a means to and end: the end of judicial review. Their purpose is ensure that courts can adequately assess whether decision-makers have justified their decisions in relation to statutory limits. In this way, the reasons requirement instantiated in Vavilov is ultimately tied back to the enabling statute, the fundamental basis of all administrative law.

Finally, and connected to the above, the importance of reasons means that courts cannot gin up reasons for decision when they are absent on a particular essential element [96]. Indeed:

Where, even if reasons given by an administrative decision maker for a decision are read with sensitivity to the institutional setting and in light of the record, they contain a fundamental gap or reveal that the decision is based on an unreasonable chain of analysis, it is not ordinarily appropriate for the reviewing court to fashion its own reasons in order to buttress the administrative decision.

Why shouldn’t this be permissible? As Justice Stratas noted pre-Vavilov in Bonnybrook (at para 93):

But faced with a silence whose meaning cannot be understood through legitimate interpretation, who am I to grab the Minister’s pen and “supplement” her reasons? Why should I, as a neutral judge, be conscripted into the service of the Minister and discharge her responsibility to write reasons? Even if I am forced to serve the Minister in that way, who am I to guess what the Minister’s reasoning was, fantasize about what might have entered the Minister’s head or, worse, make my thoughts the Minister’s thoughts? And why should I be forced to cooper up the Minister’s position, one that, for all I know, might have been prompted by inadequate, faulty or non-existent information and analysis?

Bonnybrook’s understanding is basically now the law in Vavilov. When administrative decision-makers are delegated power, they are delegated that power with the understanding that they will make decisions at first instance, not courts. If these administrative decision-makers fail to live up to that delegated mandate, that is no fault of the courts, and so it is not the job of the courts to make the decision for the decision-maker. It is, however, the job of the courts to render the decision unreasonable. This is particularly the case where there is a missing part of the decision on a core interpretive element, under which the result of the decision would be different (Vavilov, at para 122).

All together, what Vavilov has created is a new reasonableness standard that is tightly focused statutory limits, using statutory interpretation as a tool for discerning those limits. Of course, there are other “constraints” on decision-making that matter (see Vavilov, para 106) —but where we are talking about legal interpretation, legal constraints will be the most salient element of the decision-maker’s reasoning. Ultimately, this is a positive step forward, since all administrative law is a function of statutory interpretation and analysis.

Canada Post: Vavilov’s First Day in the Sun

Vavilov didn’t have to wait long to have its first day in the sun. In Canada Post Corp v Canadian Union of Postal Workers, 2019 SCC 67 (a 7-2 opinion, Abella and Martin JJ dissenting), the Court had its first crack at applying the revised standard of review framework set out in Vavilov. In my view, the Court did an admirable job in Canada Post, showing that at least when it comes to garden-variety administrative law cases, Vavilov is a durable precedent. The devil will be in the details: especially where reasons are non-existent.

In this post, I review the facts of Canada Post and the analysis of the majority and the dissent. Then I demonstrate why the majority had the better of the argument here, particularly on applying the reasonableness standard in statutory interpretation cases.

Facts and Opinions

Canada Post concerned a decision of the Occupational Health and Safety Tribunal of Canada (OHSTC). A union representative at the Burlington mail depot filed a complaint with Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, alleging that Canada Post was not abiding by its obligations under the Canada Labour Code [CLC]. The complainant claimed that Canada Post was failing these obligations because it was only inspecting—for health and safety—the Burlington depot itself, and not “letter carrier routes and locations where mail is delivered” [4]. This had obvious practical impacts, because “letter carriers travel 72 linear kilometres delivering mail to 8.7 million points of call” [4].

Following the complaint, an officer conducted an investigation and found that Canada Post failed to comply with s.125(1)(z.12) of the CLC, which provides that “the employer must ensure that every part of the workplace is inspected once a year” [5]. Canada Post appealed to the OHSTC, which rendered the decision under review. The decision-maker, an Appeals Officer, held that the CLC section only applied to the “parts of the work place over which the employer had control…” which did not include the mail routes and places where mail was delivered [5] The Appeal Officer looked to the text of the relevant section, the definition of “workplace” in the relevant part of the CLC, and the “remedial purpose of health and safety legislation” [17]. He ultimately concluded that since health and safety inspections were designed to “permit the identification of hazards and the opportunity to fix them or have them fixed,” control over the workplace was a necessary condition [19].

The Federal Court affirmed. The Federal Court of Appeal would have affirmed the original officer’s decision.

At the Supreme Court, Rowe J wrote for the majority. He first outlined that the decision would be assessed under the Vavilov framework, even though the result under the Dunsmuir framework would have been the same [24]. After quickly determining the standard of review of reasonableness under the Vavilov framework [27], Rowe J turned to applying the standard. He noted that Vavilov instantiated a “reasons first” [27] approach to review, and so first set out some comments about reasons under the Vavilov framework. Here, he noted that the administrative decision-maker’s reasons were “exemplary,” but that what is required of decision-makers in a given case will depend on the context [30]. Both outcome and reasons matter: a decision must be justifiable in outcome and justified by reasons [28]. He noted that, while Vavilov defined reasonableness as generally mandating two things, (1) an internally coherent set of reasons (2) justified by legal and factual constraints, this analysis is not necessarily germane to every case [34] (see Vavilov, at para 101, 106).

Rowe J first concluded that the decision was internally consistent [35], before turning to the Appeal Officer’s interpretation of s.125(1)(z.12). Rowe J first outlined that, in reviewing a delegate’s legal decision, “a reviewing court should not conduct a de novo interpretation…” by adopting a “yardstick” and measuring a decision up against that yardstick [40]. A “reasons first” approach “requires the reviewing court to start with how the decision maker arrived at their interpretation, and determine whether it was defensible in light of the interpretative constraints imposed by law” [41]. This still requires a decision-maker to be alive to the essential elements of statutory interpretation: text, context, and purpose (Vavilov, at para 120).

Here, the Court first looked to the text of the section. The Appeals Officer concluded that the definition of “workplace” in the CLC, must be interpreted “broadly to account for all areas in which an employee may be engaged in work” [46]. Section 125(1) applies in respect of a workplace [45]. It provides that:

125 (1) Without restricting the generality of section 124, every employer shall, in respect of every work place controlled by the employer and, in respect of every work activity carried out by an employee in a work place that is not controlled by the employer, to the extent that the employer controls the activity,

The core interpretive difficulty was whether this paragraph should be read disjunctively or conjunctively; meaning, do the obligations apply to situations where employers control the workplace, do they apply where they don’t, or do they apply to both situations? The Union made the latter argument, but the Appeals Officer concluded that certain of the listed obligations “apply only where the employer has control over the work place…” [49], whereas others applied when the employer controlled the activity but not the workplace [50]. The statutory context ultimately supported this view [50-53].

Turning to purpose, Rowe J focused on the specific purpose animating Part II of the CLC, under which the core interpretive difficulty arose: that purpose was designed to “prevent accidents and injury to health arising out of, linked with or occurring in the course of employment to which this Part applies…” [54]. The Appeals Officer concluded that a condition precedent to the fulfillment of this purpose, and the specific obligation in the relevant section, was control over the workplace, so that hazards could actually be identify [55]. Practically, it would be difficult for Canada Post to ameliorate hazards in areas it did not control. This practical reasoning was endorsed in Vavilov as an indicium of reasonableness (see Vavilov, at para 93).

Finally, the Court concluded that the evidence and arguments were taken seriously by the Appeal Officer [63].

In dissent, Abella and Martin JJ would have held that the relevant section applies to both activities where control is not present and areas controlled by Canada Post. This reading was supported by the text of the provision and a more general legislative purpose contained in s.124: “Every employer shall ensure the health and safety at work of every person employed by the employer is protected.” The dissent claimed that the Appeal Officer’s reasoning was “deeply flawed” [100, citing Dunsmuir at para 72), because it “read out the words and purposes of the safety inspection duty…” [101].

Analysis

In my view, the majority had the better of the argument here, mostly because the majority’s analysis is consistent with what the Supreme Court has recently said about statutory interpretation and because it is consistent with the principled deferential posture set out in Vavilov. The dissent makes a fundamental statutory interpretation mistake while arguably unreasonably parsing the Appeal Officer’s decision.

First, I would be remiss if I did not mention the determination of the standard of review. That analysis was undertaken by the majority in one paragraph. This is astounding for Canadian administrative law. Finally, it appears that we have accomplished Binnie J’s admonition in Dunsmuir that we move to merits quickly rather than focusing on determining the standard of review. In Canada Post, the emphasis is rightly where it should be: dealing with the statutory interpretation and the merits, particularly the reasons offered for the decision.

And on that score, there is much to analyze. Most importantly, and first, is the Court’s approach to the reasons of the Appeals Officer. The Court does what it says in this decision: it focuses on the reasons for decision, without parsing them, without creating its own yardstick, and without engaging in disguised correctness review. By focusing first on the coherence of the Appeals Officer’s reasoning, and then moving to legal constraints, the Vavilov framework guides and structures the application of the standard of review—and it did so here, in Canada Post.

Canada Post also demonstrates how Vavilov strikes the correct balance in ensuring that courts do not engage in disguised correctness review. Prior to Vavilov, the Court often engaged in disguised correctness review, sometimes not even mentioning the standard of review at all. But the reasons first methodology focuses the inquiry on what the decision-maker actually said, protecting against disguised correctness review. Instead of the court crafting its own interpretation, and disregarding the administrative reasons, it is for the decision-maker to demonstrate how she engaged with the “interpretive constraints” imposed by law; text, context, and purpose. Those constraints are real and binding as a matter of structuring administrative discretion, but the onus is properly on the delegated decision-maker to abide by them. Reasons are properly the gateway to deference, and its scope.

Here, the Appeal Officer’s reasons engaged with the text, context, and purpose. As the Court noted, the text could be conjunctively or disjunctively read: but the Appeal Officer’s reasoning, when taken in light of the purpose, was consistent with this reading. This meant that the Appeals Officer had some room to maneuver under the standard of review. Given the possible interpretive options, the Appeals Officer was owed deference.

But the dissent seemed to take a more activist approach that is profoundly inconsistent with Vavilov. The dissent instead came to its own interpretation of the relevant statute, and imposed that yardstick on the decision-maker. It did not take a reasons first approach; rather, it first determined the statutory meaning and then analyzed the Appeals Officer’s reasoning in light of that meaning. Instead, to be consistent with Vavilov, the dissent should have structured its analysis by first analyzing the reasons of the decision-maker, and then determining whether they engaged with the text, context, and purpose, which sets the range of interpretive options open to the decision-maker. This is not an approach that should find majority support.

On the merits, another issue cropped up in terms of statutory interpretation: how courts deal with purpose. This has been a common theme at the Supreme Court this year: see Telus v Wellman and Rafilovich. In particular, what divided the majority and dissent in Canada Post was the selection of the purpose that drove the analysis. For the majority, the obligations contained in s.125(1) fulfilled the broader purpose in Part II of the CLC, but the focus was on s.125 and what was required to fulfill those obligations: namely, control. For the dissent, it would have focused on s.124 as a general organizing purpose, and set s.125 as a particular instantiation of that purpose (see para 77).

The majority’s approach is more consistent with the Supreme Court’s recent statutory interpretation precedents, particularly Rafilovich. Rafilovich deals with what I call the horizontal frequency problem in statutory interpretation: where multiple purposes are stated across the statutory context at the same level of abstraction. Rafilovich basically held that courts should choose the purpose most local to the dispute at hand, not other purposes that may have more bearing on other sections of the statute. In essence, this may come to an assessment of weight; which purpose is more relevant?

This approach—choosing the most local purpose—is consistent with the task on judicial review to discover legislative intent and meaning in language. As I noted in reference to Rafilovich:

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).

In my view, Vavilov does not change any of this, and is arguably actually consistent with Rafilovich by focusing on the ordinary principles of interpretation. In reference to Canada Post, then, the most local purpose to the interpretive difficulty is s.125(1), and its particular obligations. Section 124, taken too far by the dissent, could be read to impose an obligation on employers no matter whether they control the workplace or not. But section 125(1), properly interpreted in its context, would only apply some of the obligations to situations of control. This best effectuates the general purpose of Part II of the CLC and s.125 because of the practical reasoning employed by the Appeals Officer. If s.124 was taken to its literal extent, it would mean Canada Post has an obligation to conduct inspections on all sorts of routes and mail delivery locations. This would undermine the general safety purpose—as the Court noted “[a]n interpretation which imposed on the employer a duty it could not fulfil would do nothing to further the aim of protecting accidents and injury” [59]. This is simply an application of absurdity avoidance; but taking s,124 at its word could conceivably lead to this absurdity.

Conclusion

All in all, Vavilov’s first day in the sun was a good one. While there will be more battles to come, and potentially more ambiguities, for now we must celebrate. Those in the administrative law community do not often get to do so.