by Cheryl Milne
It seems like a lifetime ago that I last attended an in-person legal conference. It was only March 9th, and while the specter of COVID-19 was present (there were hand sanitizer dispensers at the elevator banks and we all used them), social distancing was not yet a phrase on everyone’s tongue as we sat shoulder to shoulder in the downtown conference facility. The conference hosted by Osgoode Hall Law School was a day-long examination of the Supreme Court of Canada’s long-awaited administrative law decision, Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65. I was asked to discuss its implications for constitutional issues.
The short answer is that the decision poses more questions than answers. The long version is what I think can be covered in a blog post rather than an academic paper. Hence, my attempt, from the relatively safe confines of my kitchen, to summarize what I said on March 9th and what I have thought about it since. I should add that I was joined on this two-person panel by Senwung Luk of OKT LLP, who addressed the implications for the duty to consult and accommodate, and whose succinct answer to that question was, “utter chaos.”
For those of you who were not hanging on the edge of your seats for the duration of 2019 awaiting the Court’s pronouncement on the standard of review in administrative law, the appeal involved the judicial review of the decision of the Registrar of Citizenship to cancel the Canadian citizenship of the Canadian-born son of parents later revealed to be Russian spies – their story served as inspiration for the television series, The Americans. That got some of your attention!
I don’t propose to analyze the Court’s overall approach to the administrative law questions and the standard of review here. For a more comprehensive treatment, I suggest Paul Daly’s blog Administrative Law Matters which links to his longer paper posted on SSRN. My task was to discuss the constitutional issues that the majority purported not to address.
In refusing to comment on its earlier administrative law decision in Doré v Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, the Court leaves open many questions. Doré established that the standard of review of an administrative decision that impacted Charter rights was reasonableness, rather than the application of the Oakes test under s. 1 of the Charter, but in keeping with the general theme of proportionality under s.1, the decision needed to be a proportional balancing of the Charter right with the governing statutory objective. This approach was reiterated in Loyola High School v. Quebec (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 12 and the Trinity Western decisions (referenced below). It remains controversial, with critics claiming that it fails to respect the primary or priority of Charter rights and fails to place the onus on government for justifying a limitation on rights as is required under s. 1 of the Charter.
The majority states clearly that “constitutional matters require a final and determinate answer from the courts” (para.55), thus attracting the correctness standard of review. But that applies only to constitutional questions, such as a challenge to the constitutional validity of legislation. The majority of the Court goes on to state,
So, you might ask what is so unclear about that? The reasonableness standard continues to apply to the Doré set of cases, while challenges to statutes require the standard of correctness. But the Court interchanges constitutional questions with the term constitutional matters, which include federalism issues and treaty rights, and glosses over any confusion that could arise over what could fit within that category. For example, the Ontario Courts of Justice Act defines a constitutional question as one that invokes the constitutional validity or applicability of a statutory provision as well as a claim for a constitutional remedy under s.24(1) of the Charter. Does this mean that the standard of correctness applies to a claim for a constitutional remedy based on government action as opposed to the validity of a statute, as anticipated by R v Conway, 2010 SCC 22?
To illustrate the Court’s inconsistency on this issue alone, one need only look to the case of Ernst v Alberta Energy Regulators, 2017 SCC 1, admittedly not a judicial review, but a case that provides confusing analysis about what constitutes a constitutional question. The plaintiff was seeking Charter damages against the administrative body for allegedly infringing her Charter right to freedom of expression. The regulator raised the statutory provision that barred claims against it to seek a dismissal of the proceedings, while Ernst argued that the provision could not be interpreted so as to prevent a Charter claim. A minority of the Court agreed with the regulator’s interpretation that the legislation barred a damages claim, suggesting the Ernst ought to have sought a judicial review instead. Their ruling dismissing the appeal became the majority decision when Justice Abella reasoned that the claim should be dismissed because the plaintiff failed to file a Notice of Constitutional Question to have the provision declared unconstitutional. If that sounds confusing to you, you are not alone.
A further constitutional matter that could also fall within the category of general questions of law of central importance to the legal system as a whole, which is another category requiring the correctness standard of review, is the consistent interpretation of a Charter right itself. As McLachlin, C.J. (as she then was) noted in her concurring reasons in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, possibly conflating reasonableness and correctness in this context,
In stating that it was not revisiting Doré, the majority said that “reconsideration of [its approach to the standard of review of reasonableness was] not germaine to the issues in this appeal” [para.57]. To properly examine this statement, one needs to dip one’s toe into the majority’s revised reasonableness framework. In asserting that the role of the reviewing court is to review and not to decide the issues themselves, the majority states that the review does not entail an “attempt to ascertain the ‘range’ of possible conclusions that would have been open to the decision maker” [para.83]. This specifically contradicts the language of Doré [para. 56] in respect of the proportionality analysis and the approach to judicial review generally enunciated in Dunsmuir v. New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9 [para. 47]. The Court reiterated this pre-Vavilov approach in Trinity Western University v Law Society of Upper Canada, 2018 SCC 33, where Justice Abella stated for the majority,
It is difficult to ascertain whether a given decision that is required to balance Charter rights against legislative purpose is proportional without asking whether the decision falls within a range of reasonable outcomes. While the section 1 Oakes test is not applicable, the imperative of minimally impairing a Charter right is central to the proportionality analysis.
Another aspect of the decision that raises questions about the approach to expect in future cases is the Court’s treatment of context. The contextual approach to determining the standard of review has been clearly rejected. Reasonableness, even where Charter rights are implicated (other than a constitutional question), is the presumptive standard. However, context still plays a role in the way that a robust reasonableness review is conducted.
The majority states, “what is reasonable in a given situation will always depend on the constraints imposed by the legal and factual context of the particular decision under review” [para. 90]. However, it is also important to note that the majority in Trinity Western also stated that in the Charter context reasonableness and proportionality are synonymous, suggesting, perhaps, a different approach to the standard of reasonableness given that one could argue that proportionality requires a particular approach when assessing the impact on Charter protected rights.
While we appear to be stuck with Doré for the foreseeable future, that may not be a bad thing in light of the Court’s deferential approach to reasonableness in Vavilov. However, questions still remain under that approach as to who bears the onus for demonstrating the reasonableness of a decision, with the Courts generally requiring those challenging the decision to meet that onus. This leaves the individual alleging the breach of their Charter rights with the burden, unlike the onus on government under the Oakes test.
So, my short summary was that there are more questions than answers in respect of the implications of Vavilov for constitutional issues. Those questions for me include: What is a constitutional question? Does the interpretation of the Charter right invoke the standard of correctness or is an incorrect interpretation unreasonable? How will the context of a Charter claim alter the reasonableness standard, or will it? How will the proportionality analysis be conducted if the reviewer is not to examine alternative outcomes that could have been available? And, does the requirement of justification and the focus on reasons address any of the issues pertaining to onus that have been the subject of the criticism of Doré?
Cheryl Milne is the Executive Director of the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights
 Macklin, Audrey, Charter Right or Charter Lite? Administrative Discretion and the Charter (October 9, 2014). Supreme Court Law Review, Vol 67, 2014. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2507801
 Liston, Mary, Administering the Charter, Proportioning Justice: Thirty-five Years of Development in a Nutshell Canadian Journal of Administrative Law & Practice; Toronto Vol. 30, Iss. 2, (Jun 2017): 211-246.