CANADA (MINISTER OF CITIZENSHIP AND IMMIGRATION) v. VAVILOV 2019 SCC 65

A new structure of Standard of Review for administrative decisions established.

In this case, Mr. Vavilov (V), the respondent was born in Canada to Russian foreign intelligence service agents posing to be Canadians. When they pled guilty to espionage, they were returned to Russia. Post their arrest, V tried to renew his passport but failed to do so till 2013, when, he was issued a certificate of Citizenship. However, in 2014, his citizenship was cancelled by the Canadian Registrar based on interpretation on section 3(2) (a) of the Citizenship Act. V applied for a judicial review of this decision. While the Federal Court dismissed the application, the Court of Appeal allowed his appeal and quashed the decision of the Registrar. The Minister of Citizenship and Immigration appealed against that decision in the Supreme Court.

The court unanimously held that the decision of the Court of Appeal should be upheld and that the decision of the Registrar was unreasonable and based on an erroneous interpretation of section 3(2) (a) of the Citizenship Act. In the course of this case the court addressed the larger and more important issue of clarifying the standard of review by the Courts.

The majority of learned bench presented a revised framework for the review of an administrative decision. They made it clear that although precedents provide for predictability and certainty, blindly following them was an incorrect approach and they should be considered according to the circumstances. It was also said that there would be a presumption that reasonableness would be the standard of application while reviewing an administrative decision. This could be rebutted only in two circumstances: when the legislature explicitly mentioned another standard of review or when the ‘rule of law’ required another standard of correctness which was methodically different from the reasonableness review to be applied. The court also specified a non-exhaustive list of questions where the correctness review would be applied; they included Constitutional questions, general questions of law of importance to the legal system as a whole and questions regarding the jurisdictional boundaries between two or more administrative bodies. Thus, a comprehensive view of establishing a standard of review had been determined by the Court.

It was further established that a reasonableness review should not only take into account the reasoning behind the decision but also the outcome sought to be achieved. It was also clarified that a decision would be unreasonable when it will be based on incoherent reasoning and when it will not be justified by legal and factual constraints. However, this approach of standard of review was criticized by the 2 Justices in minority on the bench.