Administrative Law/Citizenship: Standard of Review

Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v. Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65 (37748)

“V was born in Toronto in 1994. At the time of his birth, his parents were posing as Canadians under assumed names. In reality, they were foreign nationals working on assignment for the Russian foreign intelligence service. V did not know that his parents were not who they claimed to be. He believed that he was a Canadian citizen by birth, he lived and identified as a Canadian, and he held a Canadian passport. In 2010, V’s parents were arrested in the United States and charged with espionage. They pled guilty and were returned to Russia. Following their arrest, V’s attempts to renew his Canadian passport proved unsuccessful. However, in 2013, he was issued a certificate of Canadian citizenship.

Then, in 2014, the Canadian Registrar of Citizenship cancelled V’s certificate on the basis of her interpretation of s. 3(2) (a) of the Citizenship Act . This provision exempts children of “a diplomatic or consular officer or other representative or employee in Canada of a foreign government” from the general rule that individuals born in Canada acquire Canadian citizenship by birth. The Registrar concluded that because V’s parents were employees or representatives of Russia at the time of V’s birth, the exception to the rule of citizenship by birth in s. 3(2) (a), as she interpreted it, applied to V, who therefore was not, and had never been, entitled to citizenship. V’s application for judicial review of the Registrar’s decision was dismissed by the Federal Court. The Court of Appeal allowed V’s appeal and quashed the Registrar’s decision because it was unreasonable. The Minister of Citizenship and Immigration appeals.”

The S.C.C. (9:0, with separate joint concurring reasons) dismissed the appeal.

The Chief Justice et al wrote as follows (at paras. 12-15, 17, 23, 31-32, 36-37, 53-55, 60-65, 68-70, 143, 145, 194):

“…In order to fulfill Dunsmuir’s promise to protect “the legality, the reasonableness and the fairness of the administrative process and its outcomes”, reasonableness review must entail a sensitive and respectful, but robust, evaluation of administrative decisions: para. 28.

Reasonableness review is an approach meant to ensure that courts intervene in administrative matters only where it is truly necessary to do so in order to safeguard the legality, rationality and fairness of the administrative process. It finds its starting point in the principle of judicial restraint and demonstrates a respect for the distinct role of administrative decision makers. However, it is not a “rubber-stamping” process or a means of sheltering administrative decision makers from accountability. It remains a robust form of review.

On the one hand, courts must recognize the legitimacy and authority of administrative decision makers within their proper spheres and adopt an appropriate posture of respect. On the other hand, administrative decision makers must adopt a culture of justification and demonstrate that their exercise of delegated public power can be “justified to citizens in terms of rationality and fairness”: the Rt. Hon. B. McLachlin, “The Roles of Administrative Tribunals and Courts in Maintaining the Rule of Law” (1998), 12 C.J.A.L.P. 171, at p. 174 (emphasis deleted); see also M. Cohen-Eliya and I. Porat, “Proportionality and Justification” (2014), 64 U.T.L.J. 458, at pp. 467-70.

In conducting a reasonableness review, a court must consider the outcome of the administrative decision in light of its underlying rationale in order to ensure that the decision as a whole is transparent, intelligible and justified. What distinguishes reasonableness review from correctness review is that the court conducting a reasonableness review must focus on the decision the administrative decision maker actually made, including the justification offered for it, and not on the conclusion the court itself would have reached in the administrative decision maker’s place.

The presumption of reasonableness review can be rebutted in two types of situations. The first is where the legislature has indicated that it intends a different standard or set of standards to apply. This will be the case where the legislature explicitly prescribes the applicable standard of review. It will also be the case where the legislature has provided a statutory appeal mechanism from an administrative decision to a court, thereby signalling the legislature’s intent that appellate standards apply when a court reviews the decision. The second situation in which the presumption of reasonableness review will be rebutted is where the rule of law requires that the standard of correctness be applied. This will be the case for certain categories of questions, namely constitutional questions, general questions of law of central importance to the legal system as a whole and questions related to the jurisdictional boundaries between two or more administrative bodies. The general rule of reasonableness review, when coupled with these limited exceptions, offers a comprehensive approach to determining the applicable standard of review. As a result, it is no longer necessary for courts to engage in a “contextual inquiry” (CHRC, at paras. 45-47, see also Dunsmuir, at paras. 62-64; McLean, at para. 22) in order to identify the appropriate standard.

Where a court reviews the merits of an administrative decision (i.e., judicial review of an administrative decisions other than a review related to a breach of natural justice and/or the duty of procedural fairness), the standard of review it applies must reflect the legislature’s intent with respect to the role of the reviewing court, except where giving effect to that intent is precluded by the rule of law.  The starting point for the analysis is a presumption that the legislature intended the standard of review to be reasonableness.

We wish to emphasize that because these reasons adopt a presumption of reasonableness as the starting point, expertise is no longer relevant to a determination of the standard of review as it was in the contextual analysis. However, we are not doing away with the role of expertise in administrative decision making. This consideration is simply folded into the new starting point and, as explained below, expertise remains a relevant consideration in conducting reasonableness review.

That being said, our starting position that the applicable standard of review is reasonableness is not incompatible with the rule of law. However, because this approach is grounded in respect for legislative choice, it also requires courts to give effect to clear legislative direction that a different standard was intended. Similarly, a reviewing court must be prepared to derogate from the presumption of reasonableness review where respect for the rule of law requires a singular, determinate and final answer to the question before it. Each of these situations will be discussed in turn below.

We have reaffirmed that, to the extent possible, the standard of review analysis requires courts to give effect to the legislature’s institutional design choices to delegate authority through statute. In our view, this principled position also requires courts to give effect to the legislature’s intent, signalled by the presence of a statutory appeal mechanism from an administrative decision to a court, that the court is to perform an appellate function with respect to that decision. Just as a legislature may, within constitutional limits, insulate administrative decisions from judicial interference, it may also choose to establish a regime “which does not exclude the courts but rather makes them part of the enforcement machinery”: Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology v. Bhadauria, [1981] 2 S.C.R. 181, at p. 195. Where a legislature has provided that parties may appeal from an administrative decision to a court, either as of right or with leave, it has subjected the administrative regime to appellate oversight and indicated that it expects the court to scrutinize such administrative decisions on an appellate basis. This expressed intention necessarily rebuts the blanket presumption of reasonableness review, which is premised on giving effect to a legislature’s decision to leave certain issues with a body other than a court. This intention should be given effect. As noted by the intervener Attorney General of Quebec in its factum, [translation] “[t]he requirement of deference must not sterilize such an appeal mechanism to the point that it changes the nature of the decision-making process the legislature intended to put in place”: para. 2.

It should therefore be recognized that, where the legislature has provided for an appeal from an administrative decision to a court, a court hearing such an appeal is to apply appellate standards of review to the decision. This means that the applicable standard is to be determined with reference to the nature of the question and to this Court’s jurisprudence on appellate standards of review. Where, for example, a court is hearing an appeal from an administrative decision, it would, in considering questions of law, including questions of statutory interpretation and those concerning the scope of a decision maker’s authority, apply the standard of correctness in accordance with Housen v. Nikolaisen, 2002 SCC 33, [2002] 2 S.C.R. 235, at para. 8. Where the scope of the statutory appeal includes questions of fact, the appellate standard of review for those questions is palpable and overriding error (as it is for questions of mixed fact and law where the legal principle is not readily extricable): see Housen, at paras. 10, 19 and 26-37. Of course, should a legislature intend that a different standard of review apply in a statutory appeal, it is always free to make that intention known by prescribing the applicable standard through statute.

In our view, respect for the rule of law requires courts to apply the standard of correctness for certain types of legal questions: constitutional questions, general questions of law of central importance to the legal system as a whole and questions regarding the jurisdictional boundaries between two or more administrative bodies. The application of the correctness standard for such questions respects the unique role of the judiciary in interpreting the Constitution and ensures that courts are able to provide the last word on questions for which the rule of law requires consistency and for which a final and determinate answer is necessary: Dunsmuir, at para. 58.

When applying the correctness standard, the reviewing court may choose either to uphold the administrative decision maker’s determination or to substitute its own view: Dunsmuir, at para. 50. While it should take the administrative decision maker’s reasoning into account — and indeed, it may find that reasoning persuasive and adopt it — the reviewing court is ultimately empowered to come to its own conclusions on the question.


Questions regarding the division of powers between Parliament and the provinces, the relationship between the legislature and the other branches of the state, the scope of Aboriginal and treaty rights under s. 35  of the Constitution Act, 1982 , and other constitutional matters require a final and determinate answer from the courts. Therefore, the standard of correctness must continue to be applied in reviewing such questions: Dunsmuir, para. 58; Westcoast Energy Inc. v. Canada (National Energy Board), [1998] 1 S.C.R. 322.

This Court’s jurisprudence continues to provide important guidance regarding what constitutes a general question of law of central importance to the legal system as a whole. For example, the following general questions of law have been held to be of central importance to the legal system as a whole: when an administrative proceeding will be barred by the doctrines of res judicata and abuse of process (Toronto (City), at para. 15); the scope of the state’s duty of religious neutrality (Saguenay, at para. 49); the appropriateness of limits on solicitor-client privilege (University of Calgary, at para. 20); and the scope of parliamentary privilege (Chagnon, at para. 17). We caution, however, that this jurisprudence must be read carefully, given that expertise is no longer a consideration in identifying such questions: see, e.g., CHRC, at para. 43.

We would stress that the mere fact that a dispute is “of wider public concern” is not sufficient for a question to fall into this category — nor is the fact that the question, when framed in a general or abstract sense, touches on an important issue: see, e.g., Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, Local 30 v. Irving Pulp & Paper, Ltd., 2013 SCC 34, [2013] 2 S.C.R. 458, at para. 66; McLean, at para. 28; Barreau du Québec v. Quebec (Attorney General), 2017 SCC 56, [2017] 2 S.C.R. 488, at para. 18. The case law reveals many examples of questions this Court has concluded are not general questions of law of central importance to the legal system as a whole. These include whether a certain tribunal can grant a particular type of compensation (Mowat, at para. 25); when estoppel may be applied as an arbitral remedy (Nor-Man Regional Health Authority Inc. v. Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals, 2011 SCC 59, [2011] 3 S.C.R. 616, at paras. 37-38); the interpretation of a statutory provision prescribing timelines for an investigation (Alberta Teachers, at para. 32);  the scope of a management rights clause in a collective agreement (Irving Pulp & Paper, at paras. 7, 15-16 and 66, per Rothstein and Moldaver JJ., dissenting but not on this point); whether a limitation period had been triggered under securities legislation (McLean, at paras. 28-31); whether a party to a confidential contract could bring a complaint under a particular regulatory regime (Canadian National Railway, at para. 60); and the scope of an exception allowing non-advocates to represent a minister in certain proceedings (Barreau du Québec, at paras. 17-18). As these comments and examples indicate, this does not mean that simply because expertise no longer plays a role in the selection of the standard of review, questions of central importance are now transformed into a broad catch-all category for correctness review.

In short, general questions of law of central importance to the legal system as a whole require a single determinate answer.  In cases involving such questions, the rule of law requires courts to provide a greater degree of legal certainty than reasonableness review allows.

Finally, the rule of law requires that the correctness standard be applied in order to resolve questions regarding the jurisdictional boundaries between two or more administrative bodies: Dunsmuir, para. 61. One such question arose in Regina Police Assn. Inc. v. Regina (City) Board of Police Commissioners, 2000 SCC 14, [2000] 1 S.C.R. 360, in which the issue was the jurisdiction of a labour arbitrator to consider matters of police discipline and dismissal that were otherwise subject to a comprehensive legislative regime. Similarly, in Quebec (Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse) v. Quebec (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 39, [2004] 2 S.C.R. 185, the Court considered a jurisdictional dispute between a labour arbitrator and the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal.

Administrative decisions are rarely contested on this basis. Where they are, however, the rule of law requires courts to intervene where one administrative body has interpreted the scope of its authority in a manner that is incompatible with the jurisdiction of another. The rationale for this category of questions is simple: the rule of law cannot tolerate conflicting orders and proceedings where they result in a true operational conflict between two administrative bodies, pulling a party in two different and incompatible directions: see British Columbia Telephone Co., at para. 80, per McLachlin J. (as she then was), concurring. Members of the public must know where to turn in order to resolve a dispute. As with general questions of law of central importance to the legal system as a whole, the application of the correctness standard in these cases safeguards predictability, finality and certainty in the law of administrative decision making.


We would cease to recognize jurisdictional questions as a distinct category attracting correctness review. The majority in Dunsmuir held that it was “without question” (para. 50) that the correctness standard must be applied in reviewing jurisdictional questions (also referred to as true questions of jurisdiction or vires). True questions of jurisdiction were said to arise “where the tribunal must explicitly determine whether its statutory grant of power gives it the authority to decide a particular matter”: see Dunsmuir, at para. 59; Quebec (Attorney General) v. Guérin, 2017 SCC 42, [2017] 2 S.C.R. 3, at para. 32. Since Dunsmuir, however, majorities of this Court have questioned the necessity of this category, struggled to articulate its scope and “expressed serious reservations about whether such questions can be distinguished as a separate category of questions of law”: McLean, at para. 25, referring to Alberta Teachers, at para. 34; Edmonton East, at para. 26; Guérin, at paras. 32-36; CHRC, at paras. 31-41.

Reasonableness review does not give administrative decision makers free rein in interpreting their enabling statutes, and therefore does not give them licence to enlarge their powers beyond what the legislature intended. Instead, it confirms that the governing statutory scheme will always operate as a constraint on administrative decision makers and as a limit on their authority.  Even where the reasonableness standard is applied in reviewing a decision maker’s interpretation of its authority, precise or narrow statutory language will necessarily limit the number of reasonable interpretations open to the decision maker — perhaps limiting it one. Conversely, where the legislature has afforded a decision maker broad powers in general terms — and has provided no right of appeal to a court — the legislature’s intention that the decision maker have greater leeway in interpreting its enabling statute should be given effect. Without seeking to import the U.S. jurisprudence on this issue wholesale, we find that the following comments of the Supreme Court of the United States in Arlington, at p. 307, are apt:

  • The fox-in-­the-henhouse syndrome is to be avoided not by establishing an arbitrary and undefinable category of agency decision-making that is accorded no deference, but by taking seriously, and applying rigorously, in all cases, statutory limits on agencies’ authority. Where [the legislature] has estab­lished a clear line, the agency cannot go beyond it; and where [the legislature] has established an ambiguous line, the agency can go no further than the ambiguity will fairly allow. But in rigorously applying the latter rule, a court need not pause to puzzle over whether the interpretive question presented is “jurisdictional” . . . .

In these reasons, we have identified five situations in which a derogation from the presumption of reasonableness review is warranted either on the basis of legislative intent (i.e., legislated standards of review and statutory appeal mechanisms) or because correctness review is required by the rule of law (i.e., constitutional questions, general questions of law of central importance to the legal system as a whole, and questions regarding jurisdictional boundaries between administrative bodies). This framework is the product of careful consideration undertaken following extensive submissions and based on a thorough review of the relevant jurisprudence. We are of the view, at this time, that these reasons address all of the situations in which a reviewing court should derogate from the presumption of reasonableness review. As previously indicated, courts should no longer engage in a contextual inquiry to determine the standard of review or to rebut the presumption of reasonableness review. Letting go of this contextual approach will, we hope, “get the parties away from arguing about the tests and back to arguing about the substantive merits of their case”: Alberta Teachers, at para. 36, quoting Dunsmuir, at para. 145, per Binnie J., concurring.

However, we would not definitively foreclose the possibility that another category could be recognized as requiring a derogation from the presumption of reasonableness review in a future case. But our reluctance to pronounce that the list of exceptions to the application of a reasonableness standard is closed should not be understood as inviting the routine establishment of new categories requiring correctness review. Rather, it is a recognition that it would be unrealistic to declare that we have contemplated every possible set of circumstances in which legislative intent or the rule of law will require a derogation from the presumption of reasonableness review. That being said, the recognition of any new basis for correctness review would be exceptional and would need to be consistent with the framework and the overarching principles set out in these reasons. In other words, any new category warranting a derogation from the presumption of reasonableness review on the basis of legislative intent would require a signal of legislative intent as strong and compelling as those identified in these reasons (i.e., a legislated standard of review or a statutory appeal mechanism). Similarly, the recognition of a new category of questions requiring correctness review that is based on the rule of law would be justified only where failure to apply correctness review would undermine the rule of law and jeopardize the proper functioning of the justice system in a manner analogous to the three situations described in these reasons.

Given that this appeal and its companion cases involve a recalibration of the governing approach to the choice of standard of review analysis and a clarification of the proper application of the reasonableness standard, it will be necessary to briefly address how the existing administrative law jurisprudence should be treated going forward. These reasons set out a holistic revision of the framework for determining the applicable standard of review. A court seeking to determine what standard is appropriate in a case before it should look to these reasons first in order to determine how this general framework applies to that case. Doing so may require the court to resolve subsidiary questions on which past precedents will often continue to provide helpful guidance. Indeed, much of the Court’s jurisprudence, such as cases concerning general questions of law of central importance to the legal system as a whole or those relating to jurisdictional boundaries between two or more administrative bodies, will continue to apply essentially without modification. On other issues, certain cases —including those on the effect of statutory appeal mechanisms, “true” questions of jurisdiction or the former contextual analysis — will necessarily have less precedential force. As for cases that dictated how to conduct reasonableness review, they will often continue to provide insight, but should be used carefully to ensure that their application is aligned in principle with these reasons.

Before turning to Mr. Vavilov’s case, we pause to note that our colleagues mischaracterize the framework developed in these reasons as being an “encomium” for correctness, and a turn away from the Court’s deferential approach to the point of being a “eulogy” for deference (at paras. 199 and 201). With respect, this is a gross exaggeration.

Multiple legal and factual constraints may bear on a given administrative decision, and these constraints may interact with one another. In some cases, a failure to justify the decision against any one relevant constraint may be sufficient to cause the reviewing court to lose confidence in the reasonableness of the decision. Section 3  of the Citizenship Act  considered as a whole, other legislation and international treaties that inform the purpose of s. 3 , the jurisprudence cited in the analyst’s report, and the potential consequences of the Registrar’s decision point overwhelmingly to the conclusion that Parliament did not intend s. 3(2) (a) to apply to children of individuals who have not been granted diplomatic privileges and immunities. The Registrar’s failure to justify her decision with respect to these constraints renders her interpretation unreasonable, and we would therefore uphold the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision to quash the Registrar’s decision.”

Justices Abella and Karakatsanis wrote (in concurring reasons) as follows (at paras. 199, 230, 251):

“Regrettably, the majority shows our precedents no such fidelity. Presented with an opportunity to steady the ship, the majority instead dramatically reverses course — away from this generation’s deferential approach and back towards a prior generation’s more intrusive one. Rather than confirming a meaningful presumption of deference for administrative decision-makers, as our common law has increasingly done for decades, the majority’s reasons strip away deference from hundreds of administrative actors subject to statutory rights of appeal; rather than following the consistent path of this Court’s jurisprudence in understanding legislative intent as being the intention to leave legal questions within their mandate to specialized decision-makers with expertise, the majority removes expertise from the equation entirely and reformulates legislative intent as an overriding intention to provide — or not provide — appeal routes; and rather than clarifying the role of reasons and how to review them, the majority revives the kind of search for errors that dominated the pre-C.U.P.E. era. In other words, instead of reforming this generation’s evolutionary approach to administrative law, the majority reverses it, taking it back to the formalistic judge-centred approach this Court has spent decades dismantling.

The majority’s framework rests on a flawed and incomplete conceptual account of judicial review, one that unjustifiably ignores the specialized expertise of administrative decision-makers. Although the majority uses language endorsing a “presumption of reasonableness review”, this presumption now rests on a totally new understanding of legislative intent and the rule of law. By prohibiting any consideration of well-established foundations for deference, such as “expertise . . . institutional experience . . . proximity and responsiveness to stakeholders . . . prompt[ness], flexib[ility], and efficien[cy]; and . . . access to justice”, the majority reads out the foundations of the modern understanding of legislative intent in administrative law.

The result reached by the majority means that hundreds of administrative decision-makers subject to different kinds of statutory rights of appeal — some in highly specialized fields, such as broadcasting, securities regulation and international trade — will now be subject to an irrebuttable presumption of correctness review. This has the potential to cause a stampede of litigation.”
Full Decision