Tax professionals who advise clients on judicial review of the CRA’s discretionary decisions should monitor developments in the standard of review in light of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Wilson v Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (2016 SCC 29).

In Wilson, the appellant was a non-unionized procurement specialist who worked for Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. for four and a half years. He was dismissed in November 2009 and filed an unjust dismissal complaint under the Canada Labour Code. At issue was whether the significant severance package provided to Mr. Wilson rendered the dismissal just.

The labour adjudicator found that a severance payment did not exempt an employer from a determination with respect to whether a dismissal was just. Applying a standard of review of reasonableness, the application judge reversed the decision of the labour adjudicator, finding that the Code permitted the dismissal of non-unionized employees without cause. The Federal Court of Appeal agreed, but held that the appropriate standard of review was one of correctness.

The Supreme Court of Canada allowed the appeal and restored the decision of the labour adjudicator. The Court split 5-3 and issued several sets of reasons in its decision.

On the merits, Justice Abella wrote for the Court that the standard of review with respect to a labour arbitrator was one of reasonableness, to be assessed in the specific context under review. In this case, Justice Abella found the interpretation of the labour adjudicator was reasonable. However, Justice Abella remarked – albeit in obiter – that the line between reasonableness and correctness had begun to blur in the case law. A single standard of reasonableness, she stated, would operate to both protect deference and give effect to one correct answer where the rule of law required it. This would give effect to the different gradations of deference to be given to administrative decision makers in different contexts.

Chief Justice McLachlin and Justices Karakatsanis, Wagner and Gascon concurred with Justice Abella’s reasons and expressed appreciation for her attempt to galvanize constructive conversation about the standard of review. However, they declined to recast the standard of review. Justice Cromwell also concurred in the result, but rejected Justice Abella’s attempt to define a new framework, finding that the correctness/reasonableness distinction that emerged in Dunsmuir was still appropriate.

Justices Cote, Brown and Moldaver dissented. Agreeing with the Federal Court of Appeal, they stated that a standard of correctness applied and that the contradictions inherent in a growing body of labour decisions called for judicial clarity. Specifically, they held that “where there is lingering disagreement on a matter of statutory interpretation between administrative decision-makers, and where it is clear that the legislature could only have intended the statute to bear one meaning, correctness review is appropriate”.

What does Wilson mean for tax litigators? First, even though four members of the Court declined to overhaul the Dunsmuir framework, they lauded Justice Abella’s attempt to refine this area of law. The views expressed in the reasons indicate that the Court may be willing to revisit and clarify Dunsmuir (which also contained three sets of reasons).

Second, to the extent that members of the Court wish to supplant the Dunsmuir test with a single standard of reasonableness (containing gradients of deference), attempts to challenge the CRA’s discretionary decisions could be met with increased difficulty in the future.