The hopeless search for ‘true’ questions of jurisdiction

The Supreme Court of Canada has repeatedly said since Dunsmuir that there is a category of ‘true’ questions of jurisdiction. When responding to these questions administrative decision-makers must answer correctly, or face substitution of judicial judgment by the courts.

However, the Court has yet to identify a ‘true’ question of jurisdiction. This is not terribly surprising. The difficulty in identifying ‘true’ questions of jurisdiction is that most questions that one would — if pressed — identify as jurisdictional involve interpretations of a decision-maker’s constitutive statute or a statute closely related to its function, interpretations which attract a presumption that reasonableness is the appropriate standard of review (see here at para. 16). Indeed, the retention of the category of ‘true’ jurisdictional questions is at war with the Court’s promotion of deference.

But as long as the category remains part of the law of judicial review, asking what it might mean is a useful exercise, not least because courts around the country identify ‘true’ jurisdictional questions relatively often. For some surprising appellate examples see Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro v. Newfoundland and Labrador (Board of Commissioners of Public Utilities), 2012 NLCA 38 (refusal to exercise authority to disperse to energy consumers funds collected from industrial customers);  Lysohirka v. British Columbia (Workers’ Compensation Board), 2012 BCCA 457 (power to reconsider a decision)

Is there a way, then, to identify ‘true’ questions of jurisdiction in a coherent way? I fear not. A thought experiment prompted by a recent Alberta case, Imperial Oil Limited v Calgary (City), 2013 ABQB 393, should demonstrate why.*

The dispute in Imperial Oil was about disclosure of a remediation agreement under provincial freedom of information legislation: the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP). Along the way to deciding that the agreement should be disclosed, the Information and Privacy Commissioner interpreted provisions of another piece of legislation, the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (EPEA).

Stevens J. applied a standard of correctness to the interpretation of the EPEA:

[143]      A standard of review of reasonableness can be applied to other issues in this decision, however, in my view the standard of review of correctness applies here. The interpretation of the EPEA, its related regulations and Ministerial Orders are outside the Commissioner’s expertise. The Commissioner has taken on the task of interpreting the EPEA and its related regulations. It is not the Commissioner’s home statute, it is environmental legislation. The Commissioner’s decision is not therefore entitled to deference on this point.

Stevens J. does not use the language of jurisdiction, but it clearly underpinned his conclusion. This approach suggests a narrow definition of ‘true’ questions of jurisdiction: the interpretation of a statute that is not closely connected with a decision-maker’s function. Such an interpretation is not entitled to deference post-Dunsmuir.  

Clearly, the decision that it would be appropriate for a decision-maker to interpret another statute should attract deference. The detour through the environmental legislation was unavoidable in Imperial Oil, given that s. 16(3)(b) of FOIP permits disclosure where a provincial or federal statute requires it; the Commissioner had to look outside FOIP because FOIP told him to do so. But this only speaks to the decision to interpret the EPEA, not to the substantive interpretation reached. In other words, deference for decisions made under FOIP, but no deference for interpretations of EPEA or other legislation not closely connected with the Commissioner’s function.

It might be said, then, that the interpretation of an unrelated statute, rather than the decision to interpret it, is a ‘true’ question of jurisdiction.

But this distinction between interpretations and decisions is unsustainable. Like all other such distinctions it would doubtless break down in practice. But it also breaks down in theory. Consider a recent Quebec Court of Appeal decision: Courses automobiles Mont-Tremblant inc. c. Iredale, 2013 QCCA 1348.

The complainant here is a resident of the tourist resort of Mont Tremblant. One of the attractions to be found there is a racing track. Naturally, the track is noisy and, unsurprisingly, this draws the ire of some locals. The nub of the application here was that the municipality, in enacting an anti-noise by-law, had not imposed any upper limit on the noise that the race track could create. It had required the race track to limit its operation to a certain number of days. But it had not imposed any objective limit on the decibels it could produce.

One of the issues was whether the absence of an objective limit breached a provincial environmental statute. This was important because s. 3 of the Loi sur les competences municipales  provides that any municipal by-law which conflicts with a provincial enactment is inoperative.  Conflict with the provincial environmental statute would have rendered the noise by-law inoperative.

The Imperial Oil conclusion that a standard of correctness should be applied to the question of compatibility was surely open to Bich J.A., on the basis that the environmental statute was not one closely connected with the functions of the municipality. Indeed, there was no equivalent provision to s. 16(3)(b) which actively directed the municipality to interpret related statutes.

Nonetheless, Bich J.A. held that a standard of reasonableness should be applied to the by-law. Whether the by-law was inconsistent with a provincial statute formed part of the reasonableness analysis: relevant provincial statutes provided part of the context in which reasonableness fell to be assessed. Simply raising the question of compatibility was not enough to justify intervention on a standard of correctness:

[55]        À mon avis, plutôt que de constituer un exercice distinct obéissant à sa propre norme, cette démarche fait partie intégrante du processus visant à vérifier, plus généralement, si le règlement est raisonnable au sens de l’arrêt Catalyst, c’est-à-dire s’il fait partie de l’éventail des issues acceptables au regard de l’ensemble des facteurs juridiques et non juridiques (sociaux, économiques et politiques) que doit considérer une municipalité dans l’exercice des compétences que lui attribue sa loi habilitante. Autrement dit, lorsqu’une ville édicte un règlement relatif à un sujet relevant de sa compétence en vertu de sa loi habilitante, l’existence des autres lois fait partie du contexte qu’elle doit considérer et influe sur la manière dont elle peut agir. Il va sans dire que ne serait pas une issue acceptable, c’est-à-dire raisonnable, le fait pour une municipalité d’adopter un règlement qui enfreindrait une autre loi ou encore un règlement du gouvernement. Comme l’écrit la Cour dans Catalyst, « [l]’éventail des issues raisonnables est donc circonscrit par la portée du schème législatif qui confère à la municipalité le pouvoir de prendre des règlements ». Font partie de ce schème législatif non seulement la loi habilitant la ville à adopter un règlement dans telle ou telle matière, mais également les autres lois qui touchent cette même matière…

[60]        En résumé, la question de savoir si la Ville a valablement agi en réglementant le bruit et, en particulier, le bruit issu des activités des exploitants ne peut être résolue qu’en fonction de la norme de la raisonnabilité/déraisonnabilité. C’est la même norme qui s’applique à la question particulière de savoir si les règlements contestés sont, conformément à l’article 3 L.c.m., compatibles ou non avec l’article 20 L.q.e.Et c’est toujours cette norme qu’il faudra appliquer au test qui, selon l’enseignement des juges majoritaires dans l’arrêt Spraytech, permet de savoir si le règlement municipal est conciliable avec la loi provinciale.

In my view, Bich J.A. has the better of the argument. In a case like Imperial Oil, interpretation (expressly or impliedly) of multiple statutory provisions factored into the Commissioner’s conclusion. This conclusion, on matters central to the Commissioner’s mandate, should have been reviewed on a global standard of reasonableness. The Commissioner’s interpretation of the EPEA was only part of the overall conclusion and should not have been hived for intrusive review. Picking apart a decision like this involves an impermissible “treasure hunt for error“.

Moreover, the distinction offered above between decisions and interpretations is flawed. Once a decision-maker has decided that a statute is closely connected to its function, it must surely follow that the statute is closely connected to its function — and therefore entitled to deference — unless the decision is unreasonable. There is no way to avoid the presumption of deference.**

The conclusion on standard of review in Imperial Oil is therefore wrong, because, once the Commissioner had interpreted s. 16(3)(b) as identifying the EPEA as a closely connected statute, the Commissioner’s interpretation of the EPEA was presumptively entitled to deference. Given that there was nothing unreasonable about the Commissioner’s interpretation of s. 16(3)(b), the Commissioner was entitled to deference on the interpretation of the EPEA. Stevens J. could not open up any route to correctness review.

Is the search for a definition of ‘true’ questions of jurisdiction truly hopeless? Thoughts welcome!

* For further discussion of the case, see here

** For a similar formulation, see Trevor Guy on Twitter, here, here and here.

This content has been updated on June 11, 2014 at 09:46.