Green Lighting Correctness Review: Stewart v Elk Valley Coal Corporation, 2015 ABCA 225

Has the Supreme Court of Canada encouraged lower courts to employ correctness review of certain legal questions? Its recent decisions in Tervita Corp. v. Canada (Commissioner of Competition), 2015 SCC 3 and Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16, both cases where the Court decided correctness review would be appropriate (see my posts here and here), seem to be having a trickle-down effect. Two examples are Stewart v Elk Valley Coal Corporation, 2015 ABCA 225 and Commission de la santé et de la sécurité au travail c. Caron, 2015 QCCA 1048. I should say at the outset that these cases are relatively exceptional: most judicial reviews of the substance of administrative decisions apply the reasonableness standard of review. But the exceptions are nonetheless interesting, as they represent situations in which courts felt minded to apply the more interventionist standard of correctness, in which they were comforted by recent Supreme Court pronouncements.

At issue in Stewart was whether S, a cocaine user, had been discriminated against on the grounds of physical disability (his drug dependency) or fired on the basis of a breach of a company policy. All the members of the panel of the Alberta Court of Appeal (Picard J.A. and Watson J.A., O’Ferrall J.A. dissenting) felt the interpretation of the “definition” of discrimination and the “definition” of bona fide occupational requirement had to be reviewed on a standard of correctness.

These definitions were said to be “central pillars of the law of the people” (at para. 52). Any presumption of deference because the Human Rights Tribunal was interpreting its home statute was rebutted: “There is no legal space for a multitude of inconsistent legal meanings to the constituent elements of the…definitions in our Constitutional order, notably as they are common law elaborations of statute” (at para. 50). The implication seems to be that once the judges have interpreted a statute, only judges can interpret the statute authoritatively. There is no reason that this must be so: for an alternative point of view, see Adamson v. Canada (Human Rights Commission), 2015 FCA 153. At most, one might say that where the courts previously applied a standard of correctness, the same standard should be applied in future cases. Beyond that, there is no great wisdom in prioritizing judicial over administrative interpretation.

Picard J.A. and Watson J.A. also wrote: “McCormack [sic] v. Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP., 2014 SCC 39 (CanLII) at paras 16 to 19, [2014] 2 SCR 108 holds for correctness on foundational issues of a human rights code” (at para. 55). I think this overstates the scope of McCormick, which is a case where the standard of correctness was mandated by statute.

More convincing was their argument that the presumption of reasonableness review had been rebutted because of unusual statutory language. They identified two indications of legislative intent that correctness review should apply:

One is in s 37(4) of AHRA which provides that the appeal court (Court of Queen’s Bench) may on appeal “….. confirm, reverse or vary the order of the human rights tribunal and make any order that the tribunal may make under section 32 …..”. The other is in s 36 which provides that an order made by a tribunal may be filed with the clerk of the Court of Queen’s Bench and “enforceable in the same manner as an order of the Court of Queen’s Bench”.  In other words, the Legislature has indicated that the Court and the Tribunal are dealing with ‘rule of law’ questions (at para. 55).

Note that Saguenay segmentation, whereby the legal aspects of a decision can be separated from its factual or policy aspects, played an important role:

Correctness would not apply to the underlying fact findings such as respecting what is; (a) the specific work environment; (b) the taxonomy of relevant and reasonable occupational requirements in that environment; (c) the reality of employer-employee relations in that environment; (d) the content of collective agreements or other arrangements involving the employer and employees, would deserve deference. Equally, matters such as the credibility of witnesses or the value of expert evidence and so on are matters of fact or are contributors to conclusions of mixed law and fact. For those things, a review standard of reasonableness is appropriate with the deference associated therewith being owed (at para. 58).

Commenting on Saguenay , I said “Clever lawyers will be licking their lips at the possibility of slicing decisions apart, extracting ‘general’ or — an old favourite — ‘jurisdictional’ issues for intensive judicial review”. So it seems.

Caron is a fascinating case about the interplay between the Quebec Charter, a quasi-constitutional human rights instrument, and provincial worker protection legislation. Over time, the courts have gradually come to treat discrimination on the basis of occupational injuries as a breach of the Charter’s equality guarantee. Meanwhile, the legislation provides for a limited right of reinstatement for injured workers. Does the Charter provide a remedy independent of the legislation? And if so, who amongst the multiplicity of arbitrators and administrative decision-makers can grant it? In a series of cases, the Quebec Court of Appeal has grappled (or sometimes avoided grappling…) with the interplay between the Charter and the legislation. Here, the Commission des lésions professionnelles refused to apply the Charter guarantee of reasonable accommodation, on the basis that the provincial workplace accident legislation is itself a reasonable accommodation.

The Court of Appeal quashed this decision. Bélanger J.A. sought to lay down a clear rule:

[66]        En principe, je ne vois aucune raison de ne pas appliquer ces principes généraux en matière de droit à la réintégration à la suite d’un accident de travail ou d’une lésion professionnelle. Quoique la L.a.t.m.p. n’impose aucune obligation à l’employeur de mettre un emploi convenable à la disposition du travailleur porteur d’un handicap à la suite d’une lésion professionnelle, rien n’empêche que l’employeur puisse être contraint de tenter de trouver une mesure d’accommodement. Le caractère supralégislatif de la Charte commande que l’employeur soit soumis à cette obligation et que la CSST puisse vérifier si cet exercice a été réalisé.

In her view, the threshold question of whether an administrative tribunal could consider the Charter at all required correctness review: “Il s’agit là aussi d’une question de droit général d’importance pour le système juridique, comprenant le système de justice administrative” (at para. 37). She cited four principles drawn from Saguenay in support:

1.   L’importance de bien identifier les questions soulevées pour déterminer la norme applicable;

2.   Lorsque le tribunal agit à l’intérieur de son champ d’expertise et qu’il interprète la Charte québécoise pour décider de l’existence de discrimination, la déférence s’impose;

3.   Lors du contrôle judiciaire d’une décision d’un tribunal administratif spécialisé qui interprète et applique sa loi constitutive, il y a lieu de présumer que la norme de contrôle est la décision raisonnable et la déférence est normalement requise;

4.   Cette présomption peut être repoussée en présence de :

a)   une intention claire du législateur de ne pas protéger la compétence du tribunal à l’égard de certaines questions;

b)   l’existence d’une compétence concurrente et non exclusive sur le même point de droit;

c)   lorsque se soulève une question de droit général d’importance pour le système juridique et étrangère au domaine d’expertise du tribunal spécialisé. Il rappelle d’ailleurs qu’il est important de résister à la tentation d’appliquer la norme de la décision correcte à toutes les questions de droit d’intérêt général (at para. 33).

It is interesting that, like Gascon J. at the Supreme Court of Canada, Bélanger J.A. treated the identification of a question of central importance to the legal system as rebutting the presumption of reasonableness. This is not my view but it is obviously gaining some currency.

I should note that Saguenay has not been universally treated as opening up more room for correctness review in Quebec. Far from it: see e.g. Commission scolaire des Découvreurs c. Syndicat de l’enseignement des Deux-Rives (SEDR-CSQ), 2015 QCCA 910. and, hot off the press, 2015 QCCA 1397. But it is standard-of-review catnip for lawyers who must argue for correctness review and for judges who are minded to agree with them.

UPDATE: Even hotter off the press is FortisAlberta Inc v Alberta (Utilities Commission), 2015 ABCA 295, where another panel of the Alberta Court of Appeal explained why a deferential approach is appropriate in judicial review of utilities regulation decisions: here, the question was whether utility shareholders or rate payers should pay for so-called “stranded assets” “that are no longer used to provide utility service as a result of extraordinary circumstancesfor example, flood, fire or early obsolescence” (at para. 2). There is little to disagree with in Paperny J.A.’s analysis, which indicates that correctness review may not be about to sweep the land after all:

[90]           In Dunsmuir, LeBel J described the principle underlying the deferential standard of reasonableness as follows: “certain questions that come before administrative tribunals do not lend themselves to one specific, particular result. Instead, they may give rise to a number of possible, reasonable conclusions. Tribunals have a margin of appreciation within the range of acceptable and rational solutions”: Dunsmuir at para 47. In reviewing a decision on a reasonableness standard, therefore, courts are concerned with “whether the decision falls within a range of possible, acceptable outcomes which are defensible in respect of the facts and law”: Dunsmuir at para 47.

[91]           These principles are all at play. There can be little argument that the Commission is expert in the area of rate-setting and utility regulation. It is assigned the task of working with its constitutive legislation and with the same industry participants to regulate a complex area of economic policy and fulfill its legislative mandate which is, ultimately, to set just and reasonable rates for utility services balancing the interests of ratepayers and the shareholders of corporate utilities in the process. The Commission and its predecessors have been fulfilling this role in Alberta for more than 100 years. The nature of the questions at issue on this appeal, which considers the return to be made on public utility investment and the appropriate apportionment of the risk related to utility assets, are at the centre of the Commission’s legislative mandate, the interpretation and application of its home legislation, and its area of expertise. Presumptively, then, the Commission’s approach to and conclusions on those issues are to be accorded deference on appeal, and the appropriate standard of review is reasonableness.

[92]           A different conclusion on standard of review was reached by a slim majority of the Supreme Court in Stores Block, who applied a correctness standard to the Regulator’s method of allocating proceeds from the disposition of assets (three members of the Court, in dissent, would have deferred to the Regulator’s method as being part of its ratemaking authority). It is worth noting, however, that the decision in Stores Block preceded the Supreme Court’s rethinking of standards of review in Dunsmuir, and preceded the direction in ATA that deference is presumed when a tribunal is interpreting and applying its home statute. Were Stores Block to be decided today, it is certainly possible that the majority approach on standard of review might more closely mirror that of the dissent. As Fraser CJA noted in the ATCO Costs Appeal, “that was then and this is now”.

[93]           I share the view of Fraser CJA in that same case, that this Court’s decision in Shaw v Alberta (Utilities Commission), 2012 ABCA 378 (CanLII), 539 AR 315 does not lead to a different conclusion on standard of review. The Supreme Court has recognized circumstances in which the presumption of deference can be rebutted and Shaw is an example of one such circumstance. In McLean, Moldaver J noted that (1) a contextual analysis may rebut the presumption, and (2) certain categories of question warrant review on a correctness standard (including general questions of law of central importance to the legal system, and “true questions of jurisdiction”): para 22. It was the latter category that was at issue in Shaw, where the question before the Court was whether a particular matter had, by legislative amendment, been removed from the jurisdiction of the Commission and placed in the hands of the legislative or executive branch of government. This court characterized that issue as a “true question of jurisdiction” that warranted review on a standard of correctness.

[94]           This appeal does not raise a question of jurisdiction that would rebut the presumption of reasonableness review. Rather, it involves the interpretation and application of the Commission’s ratemaking power as granted by legislation and as affected by judicial pronouncements. Moreover, the interpretation of the Commission’s home statutes and the policy choices necessary to ensure just and reasonable rates in light of those pronouncements are not general questions of law, nor are they outside the expertise of the Commission. To the contrary, they are specific to the Commission’s mandate and, indeed, central to that mandate.

[95]           Nor does this Court’s decision in Edmonton East (Capilano) Shopping Centres Limited v Edmonton (City), 2015 ABCA 85 (CanLII) (leave to appeal granted, [2015] SCCA No 161) affect the analysis in this case. In Edmonton East, the Court undertook a contextual analysis of the municipal taxing statute at issue and concluded that a legislative intent to have judicial review conducted on a correctness standard was indicated. Many of the factors identified there, such as the multiplicity of municipal assessment tribunals across the province, with the attendant possibility of conflicting decisions, and the relative expertise of the tribunal and the court with respect to the matters in issue, are not present here.

[96]           Accordingly, the decision of the Commission in this matter is entitled to deference on appeal. It is, in essence, a generic policy decision, a broad statement of how the Commission proposes to deal with a particular issue in the future. The task before us is to assess whether the Commission’s approach to stranded assets, in light of the legislative scheme and the principles set out in Stores Block and the subsequent decisions from this Court, “falls within a range of possible, acceptable outcomes which are defensible in respect of the facts and law”.


And, from the Quebec Court of Appeal, a rebuke to the Elk Valley panel of its Albertan counterpart. Applying a standard of reasonableness to the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal’s interpretation of the anti-discrimination provision of the Quebec Charter (Charte des droits et libertés de la personne, art. 10), Morissette J.A. held that Saguenay was not applicable and suggested that following the Elk Valley approach would give too broad a range to correctness review:

On peut probablement opter pour une interprétation très inclusive de ce qui est susceptible de constituer une question « importante pour l’ensemble du système juridique », mais cela crée le risque que beaucoup de questions de droit assez banales soient assimilées à ce que vise cette idée. Il semble néanmoins que ce fut la voie sur laquelle s’est récemment engagée la Cour d’appel de l’Alberta dans son jugement Stewart v. Elk Valley Coal Corp. Par contraste, en l’espèce, il me paraît difficile d’en venir à une conclusion semblable sur la question soulevée par le pourvoi…Aussi bien a priori qu’après un examen plus poussé du cadre d’intervention du Tribunal, il appert que trancher une question de cette nature se situe au centre de sa mission. Cela milite donc en faveur d’une déférence accrue et la norme d’intervention ici applicable est celle de la décision raisonnable. Du moins est-ce l’effet apparent de l’arrêt Mouvement laïque (at para. 23).



This content has been updated on October 13, 2015 at 19:46.