Révision judiciaire et risque d’échec des projets

7 juillet 2020

Le risque d’échec des principaux projets énergétiques du Canada est extrêmement élevé actuellement, que ce soit en raison d’un retard injustifié, d’une restructuration majeure ou d’un abandon pur et simple. La révision judiciaire a considérablement contribué à ce risque d’échec.

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Major energy projects in Canada currently face extraordinary completion risk – whether by way of undue delay, major restructuring or outright abandonment. A material contributor to such completion risk has been judicial review: the policies, practices and standards that Canada’s courts have applied in reviewing administrative decisions made to assess and approve proposed projects.

The principal issues in administrative law roiling the courts for the last decade have been:

  • when to apply a relatively deferential reasonableness standard for judicial review and when to subject administrative decision–makers to a more exacting, entirely undeferential, correctness standard of review; and
  • if applying a reasonableness standard, what does that mean in practical terms.

For major energy projects, the consequences of which standard of review will be applied and the appropriate conduct of any such review are enormous.

In the case of Northern Gateway, a robust judicial review process contributed to a 24 month delay and resulted in the original federal approvals for the project being quashed.

Regarding the Trans-Mountain Expansion, judicial review and associated corrective administrative proceedings and Aboriginal consultations delayed completion for two to three years.

These administrative law issues came before the Supreme Court in Vavilov, in December 2019. See Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v. Vavilov 2019 SCC 65. The Supreme Court, in a far-reaching 7 - 2 decision, fundamentally recast the Canadian law of judicial review of administrative decisions, but not in a way that is likely to promote, encourage or assist systemic coherence and efficiency in administrative decision-making on major energy projects.

The Standard of Review

While deciding that reasonableness is the presumptive standard for judicial review, the Court held that a number of key legal issues are to be subject to a full correctness review:

  • all questions of law on statutory appeals
  • all questions of constitutional law
  • all questions of law which are of “central importance to the legal system as a whole”
  • questions of jurisdiction where regulatory mandates overlap.

When it comes to legal matters or issues, in the words of the minority in Vavilov: “the majority’s reasons are an encomium for correctness and a eulogy for deference”.

Conduct of a Reasonableness Review

The Court in Vavilov did not stop there. In addition to its analysis of the applicable standards for judicial review – and likely of equal precedential importance – the Court went on to describe a set of tests or rules for conducting reasonableness review. The majority in Vavilov described their overall reasonableness standard as requiring a “robust“ review, as opposed to a restrained one.

The criteria for meeting a reasonableness standard are set out in substantial detail over close to 40 paragraphs in the majority’s reasons.

The minority in Vavilov stated:

“We fear however that the majority’s multi-factored, open ended list of ‘constraints’ on administrative decision making will encourage reviewing courts to dissect administrative reasons in a ‘line by line treasure hunt for error’.

Vavilov and Uncertainty

We will all need to keep an open mind and review the ways in which Vavilov is actually applied, both by the Supreme Court and by Canada’s various appellate courts as well. But on its face, at least, Vavilov certainly appears to increase the role of correctness on major points of law and establishes a relatively strict or robust set of criteria for conducting a reasonableness review. If indeed this proves to be the case in practice, Vavilov will have only added to the burden of bringing major energy projects to completion.

B/f This post is a summary of a more detailed paper, here.

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