Dunsmuir's Flaws Exposed: Recent Decisions on Standard of Review

Article excerpt

In Dunsmuir v. New Brunswick, the Supreme Court of Canada attempted to clarify and simplify Canadian judicial review doctrine. I argue that the Court got it badly wrong, as evidenced by four of its recent decisions.

The cases demonstrate that the new categorical approach is unworkable. A reviewing court cannot apply the categorical approach without reference to something like the much-maligned "pragmatic and functional" analysis factors. The categories regularly come into conflict, in that decisions could perfectly reasonably be assigned to more than one category. When conflict occurs, it must be resolved by reference to some factors external to the categorical approach.

The new, single standard of reasonableness is similarly unworkable without reference to external factors. Different types of decision attract different degrees of deference, on the basis of factors that are external to the elegant elucidation of reasonableness offered in Dunsmuir.

Clarification and simplicity have thus not been achieved.

Dans Dunsmuir c. Nouveau-Brunswick, la Cour supreme du Canada a tente de clarifier et simplifier la doctrine canadienne du controle judiciaire. J'avance que la Cour s'est trempee dans son analyse, comme le prouvent quatre de ses recentes decisions.

Ces affaires demontrent que la nouvelle approche de categorisation ne fonctionne pas. Une cour de revision ne peut pas appliquer cette approche sans se referer a des outils semblables aux facteurs tant decries de l'analyse pragmatique et fonctionnelle. Les categories entrent en conflit regulierement, dans la mesure ou des decisions peuvent raisonnablement etre assignees a plus d'une categorie. Quand un conflit se presente, il doit etre resolu en se referant a des facteurs externes a l'approche de categorisation.

Le nouveau standard de la decision raisonnable est egalement impraticable sans reference a des facteurs externes. Differents types de decisions attirent differents degres de deference, bases sur des facteurs externes a l'elegante elucidation de la norme de la decision raisonnable offerte par Dunsmuir.

Clarte et simplicite n'ont donc pas ete atteintes.


I.   Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner)
     v. Alberta Teachers' Association
II.  Nor-Man Regional Health Authority Inc. v. Manitoba
     Association of Health Care Professionals
III. Canada (Canadian Human Rights Commission)
     v. Canada (Attorney General)
IV.  Catalyst Paper Corp. v. North Cowichan (District)



Judicial review aims to ensure that administrative action is lawful, reasonable, and procedurally fair. (1) Achieving these goals requires the development and application of doctrine, which is often complex in its design. Complexity results from the inherently technical nature of the discipline, which involves the application of general principles to substantive areas of law that differ greatly in their contours and content, combined with the need for doctrine to conform to normative commitments (such as the principles of good administration and the rule of law). (2) Sitting atop the Canadian judicial hierarchy, the Supreme Court of Canada bears the additional responsibility of developing clear and coherent doctrine, thus providing a set of tools that lower courts can confidently apply to the complex (and not-so-complex) cases that come before them.

In its decision in Dunsmuir v. New Brunswick, (3) the Court attempted to clarify and simplify Canadian judicial review doctrine. (4) I will argue in this paper that the Court got it badly wrong, as evidenced by four of its subsequent decisions. Clarification and simplicity have not been achieved. Indeed, one might playfully suggest that the Court's decisions fail to meet the standards of justification, transparency, and intelligibility that the Court has deemed central to the conception of reasonableness in Canadian law. …