Of Pigeon Holes and Principles: A Reconsideration of Discrimination Law

Osgoode Hall Law Journal Vol. 40, No. 2, p.113, 2002

31 Pages Posted: 27 May 2008

See all articles by Denise G. Reaume

Denise G. Reaume

University of Toronto - Faculty of Law


The common law has never developed a cause of action for discrimination. Instead, the legislatures have stepped in. This article explores not whether there should be a cause of action for discrimination at common law, but whether our thinking about discrimination from a legal point of view would benefit from drawing upon common law methodology. We can contrast two methodologies for the design and development over time of legal norms: the topdown model of the comprehensive code designed to bring to life a grand theory about the norms regulating human interaction, and the bottom-up model of case-by-case analysis aiming toward the development of a set of principles explaining and justifying individual decisions. Each has its place, but the latter is perhaps better suited to creating and changing norms in the discrimination law area. However, the abdication of responsibility by the common law has led to the legislatures intervening in their typical top-down style. Lacking a grand theory, the resulting statutory rules have something of the quality of arbitrary pigeonholes into which complainants must fit their fact situation or fail. Three issues are examined, revealing the detrimental impact of the pigeonhole-like quality that current codes have taken on over the course of their development. The first two concern the difficulties encountered in determining which attributes come within the protection of the law through being designated as prohibited grounds of discrimination; the last is a re-examination of whether discrimination is confined to differential treatment motivated by prejudice or encompasses causing adverse effects upon vulnerable groups and individuals. The article makes some first steps towards showing how discrimination law could develop differently if we were to adopt something more like the common law method of norm creation and change.

Suggested Citation

Reaume, Denise G., Of Pigeon Holes and Principles: A Reconsideration of Discrimination Law. Osgoode Hall Law Journal Vol. 40, No. 2, p.113, 2002, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1137653

Denise G. Reaume (Contact Author)

University of Toronto - Faculty of Law ( email )

78 Queen's Park
Toronto, Ontario M5S 2C5
514-398-6694 (Phone)

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