Dunsmuir 10 Years Later (Hon. Michel Bastarache CC QC)

Michel Bastarache was a judge of the Supreme Court of Canada from 1997 to 2008 and is now counsel at Caza Saikaley LLP

At the outset, I should express my gratitude to Professors Daly and Sirota for the invitation to contribute to this remarkable project, including such a superb array of leading lawyers, scholars, and judges. I have encountered the challenges of administrative law for most of my professional life in various capacities, but the sheer diversity of diagnoses and prescriptions, from such a wide range of contributors with such disparate views and organizing premises, has been eye-opening. By my count, there have been calls to revive the patent unreasonableness standard and to eliminate standards of review entirely; calls to greatly expand and tightly limit deference; calls to jettison presumptive categories and calls for more categorization; calls for greater attention to theory and more steely-eyed pragmatism; calls to hew more closely to Dunsmuir and to cast it aside more or less entirely; and much else besides that.

Depending on how you look at it, Dunsmuir is a decision so poor that all can agree went wrong in every conceivable direction, even if they agree on nothing else; or it may be that by synthesizing previous decisions and providing useful guideposts, it managed to secure some modest measure of progress. That ultimate reckoning is a task I will leave to others. I can only say that the contributors have been imaginative, original, astute and perceptive, and reading them all together provides invaluable insight into the subject, for which I am personally grateful and from which I think others can benefit greatly.

Obviously, I have my own views on Dunsmuir and the cases that followed it, and will share a few of them. But my focus in this response is not to defend Dunsmuir from its many critics, but to hopefully provide some insight into what we were trying to achieve, the thinking that went into it, how the unique role of a Supreme Court judge manifested itself in the decision. I intend this not as an apologia, although it may seem that way sometimes; rather, I hope that a better idea of our processes and thinking might help inform and provide some context around the many insights contained in the contributions, and be of some value to students of administrative law, of which I remain myself. I offer these observations in that spirit.

Institutional Constraints

I will begin with the paradox within which Supreme Court judges operate: that we are at once enormously powerful and tightly constrained. Acting at the apex of a system of laws, and guarded by judicial independence, there are few options categorically off the table, at least in terms of developing the common law, of which administrative law is one part. At the same time, we are subject to a broad range of effective constraints, including those imposed by precedent, the autonomy of colleagues, the cases that come before us, and the arguments as framed and argued by the parties. The degree to which a judge feels constrained by any of these factors will vary depending on the judge and the case; I can only speak of my own views, and the extent to which these considerations informed my contribution to Dunsmuir.

From my perspective, it is rarely possible for judges, even Supreme Court judges, to rewrite the law from scratch, however much we may like to do so. We are neither scholars at liberty to develop innovative solutions entirely anew, nor a law reform commission. And while we have the luxury of time that many judges in trial courts do not, we still need to decide a good many cases each year. We do not have the opportunity to focus exclusively on a particular problem or agonize over a judgment for too long, nor can we address an area of law in every conceivable respect in a single judgment. As our individual records might indicate, we are only too human.

Moreover, to the extent we can provide solutions to particular problems, we must not only attempt to find solutions that are conceptually sound, but also practically workable. We realize that it is not helpful to create overly abstract standards, however theoretically pleasing, that judges cannot apply and litigants cannot understand. Especially in an endeavour as diverse as administrative law, which touches on so many aspects of the modern state, the importance of ensuring our judgments are practical and accessible is not to be underestimated.

Perhaps most importantly, Supreme Court judges do not operate alone. We operate within a framework defined by our predecessors, by the need to obtain consensus with our contemporary colleagues, and by the knowledge that there will be subsequent judges who will soon take the reins.

Therefore, in a case like Dunsmuir, we must not only attempt to provide guidance to lower courts, but also create a workable framework that is consistent with and synthesizes the wisdom of generations of judges who came before us. To borrow from Ronald Dworkin’s terminology, we must attempt to both “justify” the system of judicial review by placing it in its best light, and make sure our solution “fits” reasonably well with our past and current practices. We can move the law, but incrementally ― we cannot knock everything down and start from scratch, however much that may be our personal preference.

And when we attempt to move the law, we must do so in a way that satisfies at least four of our colleagues. I recall experiencing this difficulty early in my Supreme Court career, when I first tried to obtain support for a less daring change in Pushpanathan. Of course, it is always possible for a Supreme Court judge to set out his or her own personal vision of the perfect solution, but that is not always the way you make real progress. (I should not be taken to be diminishing the value of a strong and principled, if lonely, judgment; my Dunsmuir co-author’s concurring reasons in CUPE, of course, identified many of the concerns that led to Dunsmuir itself.)

The difficulty, of course, is seeking to reconcile considerations that may pull in different directions in the context of a particular case that needs to be decided. An innate sense of justice and view of a theoretically sound approach to a particular issue pulls one way; the equally firmly held views of colleagues may pull in another; the gravitational force of precedent may pull in a third; and the concern with ensuring not only conceptual coherence but practical workability may pull another way still. In this reality, compromise is unavoidable.

I will confess I often found managing this task challenging, as I think most Supreme Court judges do. And it was especially challenging in a case like Dunsmuir, involving an attempt not only to craft reasons that will have some lasting impact, but which touched on such an enormous range of circumstances. As difficult and controversial as many issues that reach the Supreme Court can be, they often only affect a small subset of the population or a narrow area of the law; changes to judicial review of the scale contemplated in Dunsmuir affect a good part of the Supreme Court’s docket, hundreds if not thousands of lower court decisions every year, and at least at the margins, the day-to-day interactions between members of the public and government.

In this institutional setting, you realize your limitations pretty quickly, and do your best to work within them. I turn now to our attempt to manage this reality in Dunsmuir, and the problems we were trying to solve.

Our Objective in Dunsmuir

When Justice Lebel and I wrote the decision in Dunsmuir, we were not naïve enough to think it would be the last word on judicial review. We were not trying to resolve all of the insuperable theoretical disagreements or irreconcilable precedents in this vast legal universe, which often go to the heart of public law theory and modern governance. We were ambitious, but not that ambitious.

Instead, we were trying to bring as large a reform as we could to deal with what we saw as immediate and, we hoped, manageable problems. Those problems have been described many times, but I will say a word on some of the considerations that motivated us to think that we should try to do more than simply resolve the case before us.

First, from a practical perspective, we recognized that judges would routinely spend as much or more time addressing which of the three standards of review properly applied as they did on the legality of decisions under review. As Justice Binnie observed in his concurring reasons in Dunsmuir, the courts had become “unduly burdened with law office metaphysics” (at para 122). While there were paradigmatic cases where the standard of review would be clear, such as labour arbitrators interpreting a collective agreement, the proliferation of administrative actors and bodies and the variety of issues that may come before them often made it difficult to determine what standard should be applied. We hoped to make that process easier, at least some of the time.

Second, the distinction between reviewing for ‘reasonableness’ and ‘patent reasonableness’, in our view, had no principled foundation. As mentioned in Dunsmuir, we considered that “it would be unpalatable to require parties to accept an irrational decision simply because, on a deferential standard, the irrationality of the decision is not clear enough”, and that it was “inconsistent with the rule of law to retain an irrational decision” (at para 42).

The primary difficulty, of course, was to determine when deference should be applied. One of our goals was to try to eliminate the need to undertake a full pragmatic and functional approach in every case. To that end, we attempted to provide principled and workable “guideposts”, while recognizing that we cannot provide more certainty than that.

We did not think that we could eliminate the pragmatic and functional factors entirely, however, simply because we realized the sheer breadth and diversity of the administrative state, and the ability of governments to come up with new and inventive ways of enforcing laws, delivering services, and carrying out social policies. Thus, if the standard of review had not been clearly identified in the past in relation to the particular body and type of decision, the court would still be able to consult the newly renamed standard of review factors.

It is true that the factors were not new, and did not lead to a clear or undisputable result in every case, but we saw no reason to abandon them. We believed, like many of our colleagues before us, that the standard of review factors – the presence of a privative clause, the purpose of the tribunal or other decision maker, the nature of the question at issue and the expertise of the tribunal – were the type of considerations that properly informed the question of how our courts should determine the appropriate degree of deference. Given the nature of the case itself, our analysis was prepared with adjudicative tribunals in mind; more attention would be paid to other actors in the administrative state in another context. But our hope at the time was that new decisions could fill that void, and that the retention of the standard of review factors gave the courts the tools to do so.

Having eliminated the patent unreasonableness standard, we were left with an obvious problem: what does “reasonableness” mean? One struggles to think of a concept as integral to so many areas of the law, and as stubbornly resistant to definition, as the idea of “reasonableness”. We recognized that we were unable to resolve that quandary in a way that could apply with precision to all of the varied circumstances that the courts would face, and therefore made no attempt to do so. What we did try to do was, again, to provide some guidelines or touchstones that fit with our understanding of the term as it had been applied in this context.

With our focus being on adjudicative tribunals, we were particularly concerned with their reasoning and decision making processes, to ensure that they demonstrate justification, transparency and intelligibility. But in our view, that did not exhaust the court’s supervisory task; we believed that one also must consider the outcome, and ensure that it was defensible in respect of the facts and the law. In this way, we attempted to reconcile and provide at least some structure to the types of decisions that the courts had, throughout modern history, determined were ‘unreasonable’. Our hope was that with the two flexible foundations for reasonableness review in hand, that subsequent cases would have the tools they needed to reach justice in individual cases, and develop the law accordingly.

Our objective in Dunsmuir was to create a framework for greater clarity moving forward, which both justified the use of judicial review, fit it into the framework of the cases that came before, and provided at least some workable guidance moving forward to be filled in and supplemented by future decisions. This provides a convenient segue into my next and final topic: the post-Dunsmuir cases.


As just mentioned, our hope in Dunsmuir was to make some progress in both simplifying the standard of review analysis, and providing some workable guideposts and grounding for judicial review moving forward. It was an attempt to take stock of all the disparate and idiosyncratic decisions over the previous decades, and to synthesize it into a workable model. The success of such a project depends not only on the (always limited) abilities and foresight of authors, but also on the existence of other judges who agree with the project, both in terms of the foundational principles set out in Dunsmuir, and their application in particular cases.

Needless to say, such a consensus has been hard to achieve. I mentioned earlier that there have been cases decided since Dunsmuir that I would have decided differently, sometimes quite drastically. I will give a few examples.

In my view, in order for the Dunsmuir understanding of reasonableness to apply, there must be reasons and a rationale behind a decision. Unfortunately, this was set aside in Newfoundland and Labrador Nurses, and in Bernard v Canada (Attorney General) (2014) SCC 13. I also believe that legislative intent is still relevant, with the privative clause providing a strong suggestion that deference applies (see Dunsmuir, at para 52), and a right of appeal indicating otherwise. That is why, in my view, it is not acceptable to collapse appeal and judicial review, contrary to what was held in Mouvement laïque québécois v Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16. Professor Daly mentions that the leave requirement for an appeal and the differentiation between questions of law and questions of fact reveal an intention to have the question addressed by the courts. I agree.

In the Sageunay case, the court found that the presumption of deference had been rebutted; but I do not think there is or should be a legal presumption. The presumption of deference came from Alberta Teachers. As I understand Dunsmuir ― a necessary qualification, because I know my co-author signed on to the reasons in Alberta Teachers! ― we insisted on a contextual approach with general guideposts, which is inconsistent with a presumption of deference across the board. We simply said that, generally, reasonableness would apply in some circumstances (at para 54). We certainly did not say that correctness would no longer apply except in the case of four categories of decisions; the so-called correctness categories were examples of cases where correctness was obviously required. Beyond those categories, context would determine when correctness would be applied, and expertise would play a key role in those determinations. I might add that we did not say that expertise would be presumed, as some subsequent cases have held; in my opinion, deference had to be earned and justified in the context (at para 49). Deference is imperative for “processes and determinations that draw on particular expertise and experiences”, but not for all questions of law, merely because the question is raised by a decision-maker’s home statute. As Justice Slatter of the Alberta Court of Appeal put it, “these signposts were never intended to be hard and fast categories, and the standard of review analysis remains sensitive to the statutory and factual context.” Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Limited v. Edmonton (City) 2015 ABCA 85 at para 23.

It also seems to me that some of the decisions that followed Dunsmuir were not based on a consistent principled approach, whether it be that in Dunsmuir or another; it seems clear to me that, in at least some cases, the Court wanted to expedite affairs that had dragged on for too long, and in the process, lost sight of the need for consistency (see Bernard, Canadian Human Rights Commission).

Indeed, I think there have been too many decisions that have cut against what we were trying to achieve in Dunsmuir, or at least have proceeded on an understanding of administrative law to which I do not personally subscribe. I did not expect the court to give leave soon after Dunsmuir to so many applicants; I thought it would give lower courts time to experiment so that future necessary changes could be better identified. I personally regret that the court tried to adjust the Dunsmuir approach so soon, and that it made decisions that were, in my view, inconsistent with Dunsmuir, while purporting to apply it. In my view, this created unnecessary confusion.

Suffice to say that there have been many decisions made since Dunsmuir that I would not have personally made. Differences of opinion are to be expected. I respect that. To a certain extent, this reflects the complexity of the subject, the wide variety of cases that may come before the Court, and the difficulty of creating a comprehensive solution that will suit every judge and work for every case in a field such as this. Whether the more significant departures reflect the limits and errors of the authors of Dunsmuir, a misapplication of it by subsequent judges, or a deeper disagreement with the project itself, I cannot say. The reality is that I cannot force others to follow the understanding of Dunsmuir that I would want them to follow, much less to resolve its unanswered questions and unavoidable ambiguities as I would want them resolved. And while that can be frustrating at times, it might ultimately be for the best.

That is because our common law system of judging depends on forging a consensus that persists over time, and proceeds on the assumption that the wisdom of judges collectively, acting incrementally, are better than a single judge dictating law for all time. While each individual judge is fallible and each judgment is flawed in the eyes of some, we must have faith in the collective abilities of the judiciary to work through and get us ever closer to where we should be. Like democracy as a system of government, I believe this widely dispersed, common law system is the worst possible process for judicial law making, except for all the others.

It is for this reason that while some might regret that our decision in Dunsmuir was incomplete or left important questions unanswered, I do not. I understand those who express this regret but can only say that it is not possible to produce such comprehensive and definitive answers to such monumental questions. All that we could do, in our short time on the Court, is to attempt to provide a theoretically sound and practical framework for the application of judicial review, and then to try to apply those principles in subsequent cases, to the best of our ability. I will leave it to others to judge our success in that project – the reviews appear to be mixed – and to the courts to do all that they can to improve upon that project moving forward. I have faith that they will do so to the best of their ability, as we attempted to do with ours.

This content has been updated on March 9, 2018 at 12:20.