Many legal decisions today are made by specialized
administrative tribunals rather than courts. The decisions can be
reviewed by the courts, whether on appeal or by judicial review,
but the courts are increasingly deferring to the tribunal's
expertise by refusing to overturn a decision unless it is
unreasonable. It is not enough that a decision is incorrect in law,
it must be unreasonably incorrect. This deference to administrative
tribunals makes it increasingly important to know what kind of
decision will be found not only to be incorrect, but
One test often applied in the statutory interpretation context
is whether the tribunal chose one of several reasonable
interpretations of a statute. It does not have to choose the
interpretation that the court would have chosen; it is enough if it
chooses one of several reasonable interpretations. But what if the
tribunal chooses one reasonable interpretation one day, and another
the next? Are both decisions reasonable since each interpretation
was itself reasonable? The Court of Appeal of Alberta has said no,
In Altus, the Court dismissed an appeal from the
decision of a chamber's judge who had cancelled the decision of
a Local Assessment Review Board ("ARB"). The ARB decision
held, contrary to a previous decision of the Municipal Government
Board (a predecessor of sorts to the ARB), that certain landlords
of commercial office space were liable for business tax for leasing
parking spaces under a municipal taxation bylaw that applied to a
"business in premises". The chambers judge found it was
unreasonable for the ARB to reach the opposite statutory
interpretation to prior authority on point.
In upholding the decision of the chamber's judge, the Court
of Appeal noted that, strictly speaking, an administrative tribunal
does not have to follow its own decisions—it is not bound by
the principles of stare decisis. Further, where numerous
reasonable interpretations of legislation exist, the tribunal may
change its policy regarding the interpretation it will adopt. That
is the case even where an appellate court has found one particular
interpretation to be reasonable.
Nevertheless, previous decisions of the tribunal provide
important context to the analysis. After noting the "little
direct authority" on point, the Court opined that "it is
difficult to conceive of meaningful legislation that would allow
diametrically opposed interpretations, both of which are
reasonable, not to mention correct." Both the rule of law, to
which consistent rules and decisions are fundamental, and the
presumption of legislative coherence reinforce this view. While not
creating an independent basis for judicial intervention, a previous
administrative decision provides a direct comparison against which
to judge the tribunal's decision. The unlikelihood of
contradictory interpretations being reasonable is especially the
case when interpreting tax statutes, where consistency is
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guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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