Friday, 30 August 2013

Standard of Review: Merits or Not

Canadian administrative lawyers worry a lot about the standard of review. In many cases there is significant disagreement over whether the reasonableness standard or correctness standard should be applied. Occasionally, weary voices suggest that all this haggling over the standard of review is an unnecessary distraction from the merits of cases.

An interesting perspective on this question comes from Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro c. Régie de l'énergie, 2013 QCCS 3848 (yet another piece of litigation arising out of energy production at Churchill Falls!).

There was a challenge to a decision of the Régie, which sought to intervene. In Canada, adjudicative tribunals face significant restrictions on their participation in judicial review applications brought against their decisions.

Here, the Régie's submissions on the applicable standard of review were held to be inappropriate:
[38]        En prenant la position que la norme de contrôle applicable était celle de la décision raisonnable quant à toutes les questions en cause et en indiquant que seuls les éléments de preuve déposés devant la Régie pouvaient être considérés, la Régie s’opposait directement à NLH et se rangeait dans le camp d’Hydro-Québec...
[40]        Hydro-Québec était tout à fait en mesure d’éclairer le Tribunal quant aux questions en  litige, incluant celles de la norme de contrôle applicable et de la preuve pouvant être considérée. Il n’était ni nécessaire ni utile que la Régie prenne position sur ces questions dans le contexte du présent dossier et, en fait, son devoir de réserve exigeait dans les circonstances qu’elle s’en abstienne. Le Tribunal fera donc abstraction des arguments de la Régie quant à ces questions et aucun dépens ne sera accordé à la Régie dans les circonstances, et ce, malgré le sort de la requête.
If the standard of review is really a distraction from the merits, this case, and the Court of Appeal authority it cites, should have come out the other way.

The standard of review might seem like a preliminary matter (and the Supreme Court of Canada has certainly sought to downplay its importance) but it goes to the heart of the relationship between administrative bodies and the ordinary courts. It determines the extent of administrative autonomy. Given that judicial review is, fundamentally, about the allocation of decision-making authority in the administrative state, the determination of the appropriate standard of review is anything but a distraction.

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