On November 29, 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada accepted the arguments of Miller Thomson partner Kent Davidson and reinstated a decision of the Alberta Labour Relations Board. In so doing, the Supreme Court recognized the important role that labour relations tribunals play in the Canadian collective bargaining system and underscored the deference that appellate courts should give to such administrative bodies.

The case was Construction Labour Relations– An Alberta Association v. Driver Iron Inc., 2012 SCC 65.It involved an appeal from an Alberta Relations Board decision interpreting section 176 and 178 of the Alberta Labour Relations Code.

The Alberta Labour Board’s decision was upheld on an initial appeal to the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta.A further appeal to the Court of Appeal of Alberta was allowed and the Board’s decision was quashed. This set up the appeal to Canada’s highest court.

Both Kent Davidson’s argument and the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision were direct and to the point.They emphasized four now well settled principles of law:

  1. labour tribunal decisions are due deference by the courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada;
  2. an administrative tribunal does not need to consider and comment upon every issue raised by the parties in the tribunal’s reasons for decision;
  3. when interpreting a labour statute, a labour tribunal need not explicitly address in writing all possible shades of meaning of the statute;
  4. the fundamental issue for consideration by a reviewing court is whether the tribunal’s decision, viewed as a whole in the context of the record, is reasonable.

Just as significant as the Court’s emphasis on these established principles of administrative law was the brevity of the reasons for decision allowing the appeal. The Supreme Court took just four paragraphs on one page to make the point that appeal courts must show restraint and give deference to administrative tribunals. The message is clear: courts are only to intervene where they are satisfied that the decision of an administrative decision maker is unreasonable.