Thursday, 9 May 2013

Deference on Questions of Procedural Fairness

Historically, judges have developed and enforced the rules of procedural fairness. Little or no deference is owed to procedural choices made by administrative decision-makers.

In an important new decision, however, Bich J.A. of the Québec Court of Appeal has challenged the prevailing orthodoxy. Bich J.A. taught law at my institution, the Université de Montréal, before her appointment to the bench and is a recognized authority on labour law and administrative law. She has been mooted as a possible appointee to the Supreme Court of Canada. Which is to say, her judgment in Syndicat des travailleuses et travailleurs de ADF - CSN c. Syndicat des employés de Au Dragon forgé inc., 2013 QCCA 793 demands careful attention from administrative lawyers across Canada and, indeed, beyond.

The case involved a contest before the Commission des relations du travail between two unions for the right to represent the employees of a company. There were allegations that membership procedures were not properly followed and that consents had been improperly procured. The union that ultimately lost its accredited status wanted access to the names of a number of employees the Commission determined not to belong to it.

The Commission refused the request, citing s. 36 of the Code du travail:
L'appartenance d'une personne à une association de salariés ne doit être révélée par quiconque au cours de la procédure d'accréditation ou de révocation d'accréditation sauf à la Commission, à un membre de son personnel ou au juge d'un tribunal saisi d'un recours...relatif à une accréditation. Ces personnes ainsi que toute autre personne qui prend connaissance de cette appartenance sont tenues au secret.
The fact that a person belongs to an association of employees shall not be revealed by anyone during the certification or decertification proceedings, except to the Commission, a member of its personnel, or the judge of a court to which an action...relating to a certification is referred. Such persons and every other person who becomes aware of the fact that the person belongs to the association is bound to secrecy.
The union argued that its right to full answer and defence had been denied, in violation of the principle audi alteram partem. At first instance, the Commission's decision was quashed: the union had been deprived of critical information and s. 36 was not sufficiently clear to oust the right to procedural fairness. While s. 36 appears clear enough on its face -- no personal information about employees should be released -- the union proposed a purposive analysis: s. 36 is there to protect employees against pressure coming from their employer, and does not speak to the inter-union conflict at issue in the present case. And following the traditional approach to procedural fairness, if there is no clear prohibition on their application, procedural fairness rights apply with full force.

Bich J.A. did not accept this argument. One means of upholding the Commission's decision would have been to say that s. 36 was sufficiently clear to oust (or at least, qualify) the common law right to full answer and defence. But Bich J.A. went further:
[41]        Le débat, en l'espèce, ne porte donc pas simplement, comme le suggère l'intimé, sur la question de savoir si la Commission a violé une règle de justice naturelle à l'occasion de l'enquête régie par l'article 32 C.t. Il porte plutôt sur la question de savoir comment il convient d'interpréter, de conjuguer et d'appliquer les articles 30, 35, 36, 117 et 137.5 C.t. lorsque la Commission décide de tenir une audience aux fins de l'article 32 C.t.
The Commission was not subject to review on a correctness standard for its compliance with procedural fairness. Rather, because it was required to interpret and apply s. 36 (and related provisions) it was subject to review on a deferential standard. This, Bich J.A. held (at para. 44), was consistent with the approach of the Supreme Court of Canada in Doré v. Barreau du Québec, 2012 SCC 12, [2012] 1 SCR 395. There, a deferential standard was applied to a disciplinary tribunal's interpretation of the Charter right to freedom of expression. Sauce for the Charter goose should be sauce for the procedural fairness gander:
[45]        Les raisons de respecter les décisions du conseil de discipline d'un ordre professionnel en pareil cas et d'appliquer la norme de la décision raisonnable valent certainement dans un cas comme celui-ci, où l'on a affaire à la décision d'une instance spécialisée en droit et en relations du travail, instance qui interprète et applique sa loi constitutive en vue d'exercer les pouvoirs que celle-ci lui attribue...Autrement dit, l'interprétation [de] la Commission..., est-elle raisonnable eu égard au contexte de l'affaire, c'est-à-dire, tient-elle raisonnablement compte de la justice naturelle?
On the facts, the interpretation of the Commission struck the necessary reasonable balance (at para. 49) between the principle of audi alteram partem and the statutory objectives of protecting the identity of employees involved in labour disputes:
[61]        En somme, au nom d'une vision très stricte de la règle audi alteram partem, l'intimé souhaiterait la transmission intégrale de tous les renseignements que possède la Commission, y compris quant à l'appartenance syndicale des salariés, écartant ainsi les articles 35 et 36 C.t. Mettant plutôt dans la balance le principe de la confidentialité de l'appartenance syndicale et la règle audi alteram partem, la Commission choisit une interprétation qui combine ces deux valeurs : on protège ainsi, généralement, la confidentialité de l'appartenance syndicale tout en permettant que soient dévoilées aux parties intéressées les informations détenues par la Commission, mais d'une manière non nominative...On peut donc parler de « mise en balance proportionnée », pour emprunter la terminologie de la Cour suprême dans l'affaire Doré c. Barreau du Québec. Au pire, le fait de ne pas communiquer à un syndicat la liste des membres de son concurrent pourrait rendre la réalisation de son enquête un peu plus difficile ou, plus exactement, un peu plus longue, mais nullement insurmontable...
This approach is clearly distinct from that traditionally taken by courts when procedural fairness is in issue. A traditionalist would have held, either -- as the first-instance judge did -- that s. 36 was insufficiently clear to oust the common law, or that it was sufficiently clear. But Bich J.A. held that the Commission had only to strike a reasonable balance. Unquestionably, she applied a deferential standard.

The mere fact that this approach represents a new departure should not condemn it. Indeed, Bich J.A. convincingly explains why it is consistent with recent developments in Canadian administrative law (a point also made by Karim Renno). Decision-makers are presumptively entitled to deference when interpreting their home statutes. As the Commission was interpreting its home statute, a standard of reasonableness should, logically, presumptively apply. Moreover, if alleged breaches of constitutional rights are reviewable on a deferential standard in some cases, as held in Doré, there is less justification for giving additional judicial protection to procedural fairness rights. It would be odd if the common law were more protective than the Charter.

How far this logic would extend, however, is a difficult question. In this case, there was a statutory provision which spoke directly (if not necessarily clearly) to the procedural fairness issue raised by the union. Accordingly, it is plausible to characterize the Commission as interpreting its home statute.

Other cases are not likely to be so clear. What is the metric for determining when a statute is on point? One answer would be to say "It depends"; Bich J.A.'s deferential approach would apply only in limited circumstances. This is the answer she seems to give in the following passage: "la norme de la décision correcte s'appliquera lorsqu'est en jeu, directement, le respect des règles de justice naturelle" (at para. 31, my emphasis). In one set of cases, procedural fairness will be directly implicated. In another set, the home statute will be directly implicated. Deciding which case belongs to which set would likely prove a tricky task, leading to uncertainty and confusion.

Another, more radical answer, would be to say "Always"; any time a statute gives an administrative decision-maker the power to choose its procedures, a deferential approach should be followed by reviewing courts. After all, in such situations, the administrative decision-maker is interpreting its home statute.

One might well recoil from the more radical position on the basis that procedural rights should not be left at the mercy of administrative decision-makers. If so, it is a question of how far one recoils: to Bich J.A.'s intermediate position, which risks creating uncertainty and confusion; or to the traditional position.

As a local might say: "Ça va faire jaser".


  1. See the Div. Ct.'s decision, at paras. 20-22, here:

  2. I think cases where the decision-maker has to exercise discretion about the admissibility of evidence and related matters fall into a slightly different category, which I previously discussed here: