On John Willis and the Pesky Politics of Administrative Law

John Willis was and is considered one of Canada’s most important administrative law academics. As a student of administrative law and the law of judicial review, one cannot skip Willis’ classic works, like his books “The Parliamentary Powers of English Government Departments” and “Canadian Boards at Work”—and his caustic papers, including his attack on the McRuer Report and his famous “Three Approaches to Administrative Law: The Judicial, The Conceptual, and the Functional.” Especially in this latter piece, Willis sets out his comprehensive functional theory of the law of judicial review—that theory holds that courts, with a typically “conservative” orientation, could never understand the difficulties of governments that, post-New Deal, were concerned with social welfare. Accordingly, courts should butt out, in service of the expertise, efficiency, and progressive orientation of administrative decision-makers.

While Willis should obviously be commended and respected as an eminent scholar of administrative law, there is a core problem at the centre of Willis’ thought that should stand as a warning for us in the modern era. Willis fundamentally viewed administrative law as a project of politics. As R. Blake Brown notes in this article, and as Willis himself always argued, the law of judicial review (and administrative law more broadly) was not about legal principles or controls on the administrative state, but was rather designed to limit the interference that legalist, conservative courts could wrought on tribunals pursuing the social good in an expert way. But this sort of thinking runs into two fundamental problems: (1) it ignores the fact that, strategically, administrative power can and has been used to fulfill the policy aims of governments who do not have any designs on social welfare goals—this was a clear blind-spot in Willis’ own work, one that led him to over-trust government; and (2) normatively, as recent Supreme Court and Federal Court of Appeal jurisprudence tells us, there is a meaningful difference between law and politics when it comes to the interpretation and application of laws governing judicial review. Granting deference based on the supposed underlying political motivations of particular decision-makers undermines this separation.

Let’s start by reviewing Willis’ functionalism. Willis self-described himself as a “government man,” and “what actually happens man.” By this he meant he was less concerned about the legal principles of a 19th century constitution, but rather was concerned with the making of “effective government” (see “Administrative Law in Retrospect” at 227). Functionalism crafted doctrine to align with the way government operates and the programs government is responsible for implementing. At the time of Willis’ writing, the struggle for government was the implementation of social welfare programs, closely associated with the New Deal. Delegation to administrative tribunals was one of the ways that these programs were implemented. A functional approach, then, would respect the legislative choice to delegate

In my view, deference to administrative tribunals in the functionalist mould was supported by a number of presuppositions about administrative decision-making, but the most important one for our purposes was what I call the “political” presupposition. Deference on the functionalist account was justified because of the apparent political valence of the decision-makers under review and what they were designed to achieve. Says Michael Taggart (at 257), describing the functionalists of the era:

These left-leaning scholars were deeply resentful of what they saw as conservative judges twisting the pliable rules of statutory interpretation to favour the existing order, privileging the rich and the powerful, and defeating the purposes of statutes intended to further the interests of the workers, the homeless, and the least well-off in society.

Deference on functionalist grounds was therefore a reactionary force, one that was a political project designed to fight back against the supposedly conservative orientation of the courts, that used legal principles to stunt the social welfare programs of governments.

Willis himself clearly fell in this category. A social democrat, Willis railed against any sort of thinking that would interfere with the prerogatives of government, undertaking social programs. He viewed government as fundamentally changing in light of the New Deal:

The State had changed its character, had ceased to be soldier and policeman, and was rapidly becoming protector and nurse…Again the right of the community bulk larger than the rights of the individual (See Parliamentary Powers at 13 and 51).

Risk described Willis’ functionalism as such:

Willis’ thinking about law and government can best be summarized by dividing it into three parts. The first is his observations and attitudes about government and its institutions….He perceive the nature and extent of the expansion of government, and its implications for the structure and functions of the legal institutions. He perceived a changing relation between the individual and the community, and how legislative policies were expanding the claims of the community against the individual, and circumscribing common law ideals….He had a great faith in experts, and he believed the courts should give liberal scope to the agencies on review (see Risk, at 545).

The political appreciation of administrative tribunals as representing the needs and wishes of the “community” was a constant thread through Willis’ scholarship advocating for a judicial “hands-off” approach to decision-makers like labour boards.

So, what are the problems with such an approach? To my mind, there are two. First, Willis’ political approach to deference fails on its own terms: it fails, on any complete account, to actually reach an ideal of social justice. This is because deference itself has no political valence, and can be easily used to vindicate decisions of administrators that run counter to social justice. And secondly, on principle, a political approach to deference runs counter to our positive law and to the good reasons for it.

Let’s first tackle the issue of social justice and its connection to doctrines of deference. As I’ve written time and time again, using deference as a means to reward the  decision-makers we like –because we ascribe to them some political ideal—is an unprincipled and politically naïve way to view the law. Let’s start with the latter contention. Willis’ supposition seems to be that courts themselves cannot be trusted to uphold the purposes of ameliorative legislation because of their conservative orientation. But it is not axiomatically true—and in fact, it seems bizarre—to suggest that deference will always serve to advance social welfare principles. It does no such thing.

The development of the administrative state is simple proof of this. When Willis was writing, he made the near-sighted appreciation that deference supported the administrative state as it existed at that time. At that time, observers were mostly concerned with labour tribunals, who were seen as consummate experts in their craft. But Willis either did not predict that deference would and could also have to attach to tribunals he did not appreciate under his social welfare rubric. That is, and I have said before, there are other aspects of the administrative state that do not map so neatly onto any past or modern description of social justice. Prisons, an area of interest for me, come to mind—perhaps the place where administrative discretion, at least prior to the CCRA, was most unbounded. Another example, that of immigration decision-making,  also comes to mind. What, beyond brash politics, justifies treating these tribunals any differently?  If one believes in deference, how can one say that prisons are any less deserving of deference than any other decision-maker?

This does not strike me as a consistent approach based on social justice. Later in Willis’ career, this thought must have occurred to him. That is because, in his “Administrative Law in Retrospect,” Willis addressed the question of a number “fashionable cults” which, to him, were negatively affecting the prerogatives of government:

This is very interesting coming from someone who is committed to social justice. How could it be consistent, if one accepts some political justification for deference based on social justice, for Willis to deny prisoners a right to be heard? Why are prisoners less good, in Willis’ eyes, than unions before a labour board? Willis’ myopic conception of social justice was profoundly underinclusive, even on its own terms.

Another explanation of this oddity is that Willis was not committed to social justice at all. Rather, it is very likely and possible that Willis was indeed a “government man” in the most literal sense of the term. Any action that could offend a government prerogative, in his eyes, was abhorrent. So the “cult of the individual,” and prisoners, all serve to run against government, even if government offends social justice. But this stands inconsistently with the idea of social justice. Social justice, on any cohesive account, is not about empowering government for the sake of government. The problem is that government can act in ways that contradict the theory of social justice

The above point challenges Willis on his own social justice terms, but there is an external, doctrinal reason to be wary of Willis’ approach to deference. It is indeed true that the fight for deference in Canada is overlayed by considerations of politics. After all, the laws delegating power to decision-makers—or laws that work to limit the scope of power for these decision-makers—are passed against the backdrop of a legislature that is a partisan organ. But that is a separate matter altogether from the actual legal justifications for deference, which like the interpretation of statutes, should be a separate concern from politics. Luckily, our law recognizes this fact clearly, and does so for good reasons. Vavilov, for example, does not base deference on any good-faith presumptions about the expertise of decision-makers. Now, the very fact that the legislature delegated power—any power—to any decision-maker is a fact worthy of deference. The tool of delegation as the grounds of deference has the benefit of being agnostic as to how one can judge, politically, particular tribunals. And Vavilov itself (at paras 120-121) cautions against reverse-engineering doctrine to suit a desired outcome. Clearly, Willis’ political approach to doctrine (and the arguably political approach of the common law courts) run afoul of our current law, which erects a clear separation between deference as a doctrine and the political results of a deferential approach. Justice Stratas in the Federal Court of Appeal has made a similar point in the context of statutory interpretation and judicial review: see Williams, at para 48; Cheema, at para 74; and Hillier, at para 33.

While that is the state of the positive law, it is the positive law for a good normative reason. It is orthodox today in the academy that law cannot be meaningfully separated from politics. It is even true that some say that any attempt to do so is necessarily “reactionary” or “conservative.” But this contention does not take account of the different parts of law-making and interpretation, and the very purpose of law itself. As I mentioned above, it is of course true that laws reflect the political consensus of the legislature at the time they are passed. It would be wrong and overbroad to suggest that the making of law is or should be divorced from the political process: indeed, it is the function of our legislatures to make laws that, at least in theory, are undergirded by the support of a majority. However, this is a completely separate act from the interpretation of laws. Laws, in order to be consistent with at least one aspect of the Rule of Law, must be general rather than specific; and when a judge interprets a law, she does so to give the meaning to the text, context, and purpose of the law that is enacted on the page (even purpose, as I discuss here, is usually and ultimately guided by text). The task of interpretation of laws should not be governed by consideration of politics; of what this or that judge thinks of this or that tribunal. Should it be the case that judges grant deference because of their political views, we will go along way towards undermining our separation of powers between courts and legislatures, imperfect as it is in Canada.

Of course, it is impossible to say that politics will never enter the interpretive activity. But that is a different question altogether than how doctrine is constructed. Ideally, the way we theorize deference and interpretation should not be based on political musings; rather, theory should be based on the foundational principles of our legal order, including the choice of a legislature to delegate power and the core interpretive function of the courts. It might be orthodox to suggest otherwise these days, but in my view, the very purpose of law in the law of judicial review is to enforce the limits that legislatures themselves provide—no matter how wide or loose they are—on administrative decision-makers. It should not be the role of the courts, as Justice Stratas so eloquently says in the above-cited decisions, for courts to pick winners and losers based on politics.

Back to Willis. John Willis’ contributions to Canadian administrative law will live for the ages. But his approach to the law of judicial review should not be celebrated wholesale. Willis’ cardinal mistake was falling victim to the game started by the “conservative” common law courts. If it is true that those courts struck administrative decisions because they did not appreciate the social welfare function of those agencies, that runs counter to our governing law and the good reasons for it. But today, Willis is still celebrated; the common law courts are not. I think it is fair and appropriate to draw attention to the blindspots in Willis’ theory: his myopia regarding what he thought was “social justice”; and the specious attempt to import deference based on some political justification.