Thursday 13 March 2014

Unreasonable Interpretations of Law

I have posted Unreasonable Interpretations of Law to SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Reasonableness has become the dominant standard of review of administrative action in Canada. Understanding what makes a decision unreasonable has become a critical issue for Canadian judges and jurists. The question I will address in this essay is: what does it mean to say that an interpretation of law is unreasonable?

Recently, Canadian courts have adopted an approach akin to the American Chevron doctrine. Unfortunately, this approach is badly misconceived. It is doctrinally incoherent; relies on the discredited concept of jurisdictional error; is beset by a fatal analytical flaw; reduces the importance of deference; and results in the unprincipled imposition of lawyerly methodology on non-lawyers empowered to resolve regulatory questions. It allows reviewing courts to employ the judicially developed principles of statutory interpretation to fetter the autonomy of administrative decision-makers.

A departure from a result reached on the application of the principles of statutory interpretation does not automatically justify intervention by a reviewing court, even if the result is said to be “clear”. Ambiguity should not be made the gateway to deference. If the divergence of views between the tribunal and the reviewing court can be explained by – for example – reference to cogent reasons and/or relevant evidence, then a deferential court should refuse to intervene.

Judicial review of administrative action should be limited to ensuring compliance with the fundamental precepts of the legal order. Courts should be cautious about imposing legalistic norms on administrative decision-makers established precisely to avoid a judicialized approach to regulation. Where an administrative decision-maker can explain its decision in cogent terms, its application of a legal concept – like estoppel, the rule of lenity or the principles of statutory interpretation – should be upheld. Chevron, I suggest, represents a category mistake. It erroneously treats departure from judicial approaches to statutory interpretation as deviations from the norm, when in fact judicial intervention to quash administrative decisions should be treated as deviant.

Courts should be ever-wary of the paradox of rationality: to subject administrative decision-makers to judicial review for rationality is to subject them to judicial standards of rationality. This can easily shade into the inappropriate imposition of lawyerly methodology. Resolving the paradox requires a subtle approach to the task of judicial review of administrative action rather than a dogmatic insistence on the primacy of judicially developed principles of statutory interpretation.

In Parts I and II I set out the current state of Canadian law, emphasizing in Part I the dominance of reasonableness (and hence the urgent need for a better understanding of its meaning) and in Part II the problematic approach to identifying the “range” of reasonable outcomes in a given case.

My focus is on Canadian law but what I have to say here in Parts III and IV will apply equally to the United States and other jurisdictions in which deference is accorded to administrative decision-makers’ interpretations of law. The search for “clarity” should be jettisoned in favour of a more modest approach.
I have a few more weeks before the submission deadline for this paper, so feel free to weigh in with comments.

Have I gone too far to describe Chevron as a category mistake?

Is my preference for how judicial review of interpretations of law should operate tenable?

Should ambiguity really be the gateway to deference?

Are there important cases (Canadian or otherwise) that I have not taken account of?

The paper can be downloaded here.


  1. Dear Professor Daly,

    The juxtaposition of your article, “Unreasonable Interpretation of Law”, with the Houle-Noreau-Valois-Issalys five-year study of 15 Quebec adjudicative tribunals published a month ago, high-lights for me an important question: How can advocates of more deference to tribunals by courts – or more assured deference –square their position with the undoubted fact that, in Canada, including apparently Quebec, adjudicative tribunals and their members are not independent of the executive branch of government, cannot be seen to be impartial, and cannot be counted on to be competent?

    With respect, leaving rights legislated by the legislative branch routinely open to partisan distortion through motivated, and unchecked, interpretation by the executive branch’s friends and allies is surely not compatible with democratic principles.

  2. That's a fair point, Ron, though I would wriggle away from it by saying that it goes to whether deference is appropriate in the first place rather than what form it should take. I've written that one of the relevant factors in determine whether deference is appropriate is the level of autonomy a body enjoys. That idea encompasses your focus on independence, though I accept that it does not make it a critical factor. I would be far happier to see the battle for independence waged at the constitutional level, though courts do not seem to have much stomach for that sort of fight.