In my last post on Double Aspect, I wrote about the religious freedom issues addressed in the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Ktunaxa Nation v British Columbia (Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations), 2017 SCC 54, which concerned the constitutionality of a ministerial decision to allow development on land considered sacred by an Aboriginal nation. I want to return to Ktunaxa, this time to address a different issue that has, so far as I know, attracted relatively little attention: that of the standard of review of the Minister’s decision. On this point, the majority opinion (by the Chief Justice and Justice Rowe) and the concurrence (by Justice Moldaver) illustrate the ongoing failure of the Rule of Law in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence.
Let’s start with a bit of history. In Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12,  1 SCR 395, Justice Abella, for writing for the unanimous Supreme Court, articulated a framework “for reviewing discretionary administrative decisions that implicate Charter values”.  Such review would be deferential, conducted on a reasonableness standard, much like judicial review of most other legal issues, in recognition of administrative decision-makers’ expertise. This approach has been heavily criticized, not least by Paul Daly and Maxime St-Hilaire, but the Court has never overtly resiled from it. However, the application of Doré has been uneven, to say the least.
In Loyola High School v Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 12,  1 SCR 613, the majority opinion, written by Justice Abella, applied the Doré framework. However, as both Paul Daly and yours truly have suggested, there is little to choose between the way it does so and a more traditional proportionality analysis. Meanwhile, a partial concurrence by the Chief Justice and Justice Moldaver eschewed the Doré approach altogether. Just days later, in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16,  2 SCR 3, a majority of the Supreme Court took yet another approach, holding that the relationship between the freedom of religion, religious neutrality, and prayer by government officials was a question of central importance to the legal system and therefore reviewable on a correctness standard. Justice Gascon, writing for the majority, did offer an explanation for why this case was different, though one that Paul Daly criticized as confused and confusing. Justice Abella was also unimpressed; she concurred, but would have reviewed the decision of Québec’s Human Rights Tribunal on a reasonableness standard. Neither she nor Justice Gascon even mentioned Doré.
Back, now, to Ktunaxa. Again, the majority opinion does not so much as mention Doré. What is more, it does not even raise, never mind address, the issue of the standard of review. After describing the background and the history of the case, and outlining the Ktunaxa’s religious freedom claim, it proceeds to discuss the Charter right to freedom of religion and to address and reject the claim, without referring, much less deferring, to the Minister’s decision at all. It is worth noting that the Supreme Court’s next decision, Association of Justice Counsel v. Canada (Attorney General), 2017 SCC 55, is the same in this regard. One of the issues raised there was whether a policy requiring government lawyers to be available, several weeks a year, to handle urgent matters outside of regular working hours was an infringement of their right to liberty under section 7 of the Charter. A labour arbitrator said that it was, but the Court (unanimous on this point) easily rejected that view, again without addressing either the question of the standard of review or the administrative decision-maker’s reasoning (though the majority did discuss it at length on the other issue in the case, which concerned the interpretation of a collective agreement).
Justice Moldaver’s concurrence in Ktunaxa is also worth mentioning here. He too starts out with his own discussion of the scope of religious freedom under the Charter, criticizes the majority’s view on it, and insists that the Minister’s decision was a prima facie infringement of that right. And then, Justice Moldaver turns to… the Doré framework (citing the majority opinion in Loyola for the proposition that it is “the applicable framework for assessing whether the Minister reasonably exercised his statutory discretion in accordance with the … Charter“.  Justice Moldaver explains why he thinks the Minister considered the Ktunaxa’s religious rights, and why his decision proportionately balanced these rights with the applicable statutory objective, paying fairly close attention to the minister’s reasoning.
So what is going on? Prof. Daly seems to think that not much is, but I’m not so sure. Without telling anyone, the Supreme Court might have killed off, or at least curtailed, Doré. Ktunaxa and Justice Counsel seem to suggest that, at least at the stage of defining the scope of a Charter right, Doré is not the applicable framework, and indeed no deference, or even attention, is due to an administrative decision-maker’s reasoning. Now, I’m no fan of Doré, and would be glad to know it’s dead and buried ― but if the Supreme Court has decided to get rid of it, that seems like a pretty big deal, and it should have told us. As things stand, for all we know, the Court might re-embrace Doré in the next case and pretend that Ktunaxa and Justice Counsel never happened, just as in those cases it seems to pretend that Doré, or at least Saguenay, never happened.
Moreover, there is an intermediate possibility, suggested by Justice Moldaver’s concurrence in Ktunaxa ― though of course we have no idea what the majority of the Court thinks about it, since it does not comment on this, or indeed any other, aspect of Justice Moldaver’s reasons. Perhaps, while the definition of Charter rights, as opposed to the justifiability of infringements under section 1, is a matter for the courts, while the justifiability of infringements is still to be reviewed by applying the Doré framework, perhaps as modified, if modified it was, in Loyola. This is not a crazy approach (which isn’t to say that I like even this diluted version of Doré). One could argue that the scope of Charter rights is necessarily a question of central importance to the legal system on which administrative decision-makers, even otherwise expert ones like labour arbitrators, are not in a privileged position vis-à-vis the courts, while whether a particular restriction to a right is permissible is an issue that is both less important and more bound up with a particular decision-maker’s expertise.
Crazy or not, I don’t think this approach is what Doré stands for. As I read it, Doré meant to move away from the two-stage Charter review with prima facie infringement and justification, in favour of a less structured, more global assessment. This is presumably why Justice Abella persistently spoke of Charter “values” instead of rights. Besides, at least one of the cases that Justice Abella invoked as supporting the proposition that discretionary administrative decisions engaging these “values” had to be reviewed on a reasonableness standard was a section 7 case, and in such cases the important questions typically (although, as we now know, not quite always) have to do with the definition of the right, not with its limitation under section 1. There just isn’t any indication in Doré that Justice Abella or her colleagues meant to confine it to the more limited role that it plays in Justice Moldaver’s Ktunaxa concurrence.
At the very least, then, the Supreme Court may have substantially modified Doré. Perhaps it has decided not to follow it anymore. But, to repeat, the Court has not told us so. This is problematic. Indeed, I think the Court is guilty of a serious Rule of Law failure. The Rule of Law requires law to be stable ― though not unchanging, to be sure ― yet the law on the standard of review of administrative decisions involving the Charter has now changed at least three, maybe four (depending on how to count Loyola) times in less than six years. The Rule of Law also requires, I think, that the fact of legal change be transparent (this is a function of the generally recognized requirement that law must be public). This is not always easy to ensure in the case of law being articulated and re-articulated by courts in the process of adjudication, but at least when a court knows that it is disregarding a relevant precedent or changing its approach to a type of case, it ought to be able to say so. The Supreme Court did so in Saguenay ― but not in Ktunaxa and Justice Counsel.
Or, look at this another way. In Dunsmuir v New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9,  1 SCR 190, the Supreme Court famously spoke of the importance of “the existence of justification, transparency and intelligibility within the decision-making process”.  That was by way of defining the notion of reasonableness in administrative law (itself a requirement of the Rule of Law), but you’d think that the courts should at least be held to as high a standard as administrative tribunals. Well, I’d say that it’s not easy to see much by way of justification, transparency, or intelligibility within the process by which the Supreme Court determines the standard of review of administrative decisions involving the Charter these days.
One last point. Justice Stratas links the doctrinal uncertainty that bedevils Canadian administrative law with turnover on the Supreme Court. I’m sure that this is a part of the story ― but Ktunaxa suggests that it is only a part. It’s not just that judges retire and are replaced by others who don’t agree with them. They don’t even stick to one approach while they are on the Court. Justice Abella wrote Doré and defended deferential review in Saguenay, but she signed on to the majority opinion arguably ignoring it in Ktunaxa. Justice Moldaver co-wrote the partial concurrence in Loyola that effectively rejected Doré, but in Ktunaxa he enthusiastically applied it, albeit not in full. (To be sure, there is something to be said for a judge who accepts having been outvoted on a particular issue and falls in line with the majority. But given the overall uncertainty of the law in this area, it might not be the best place to demonstrate one’s team spirit.) Given this individual inconstancy, it is no surprise that the Supreme Court as a whole is lurching from one approach to another without anything to stop it.
Given the lack of clarity from the Supreme Court about what exactly it was doing to standard of review analysis in Ktunaxa and JusticeCounsel, we will have to wait to find out whether these case are just aberrations or the start of a new trend. It is at least possible, however, that they mean that Doré is, in whole or in part, no longer good law. I’d offer three cheers for that result, but must instead lament the lack of clarity and transparency with which it has ― unless it has not ― been reached.
This was originally published on Double Aspect, Professor Sirota’s award-winning blog.