So What is the Real Legacy of Oakes? Two Decades of Proportionality Analysis under the Canadian Charter's Section 1
New York University School of Law
Supreme Court Law Review, Vol. 34, No. 2d, pp. 501-525, 2006
R. v. Oakes is widely regarded as one of the most important judgments interpreting Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In addition to laying down its famous proportionality test to assess the reasonableness of limits on Charter rights, it clarified the Supreme Court of Canada's Court's interpretive methodology for Charter cases, perhaps most centrally that rights are of presumptive importance, and limitations the exception that are only acceptable if governments meet a demanding test of justification.
The citation of Oakes by courts in Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Fiji, Hong Kong, Ireland, Israel, Jamaica, Namibia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Vanuatu and Zimbabwe has made Oakes one of the central models for rights-based constitutional adjudication. So the almost immediate retreat from Oakes is of broader constitutional significance, both domestically and abroad. If Oakes was a model for how to interpret the Canadian Charter, and how rights-protecting documents in other jurisdictions should be construed, the question is what kind of model it remains two decades on.
There is a dominant narrative on what the true legacy of Oakes and the retreat from Oakes are. The argument is that Oakes set out a uniform approach for assessing justifiable limitations on Charter rights irrespective of differences in context, but that in the decade following Oakes, the Court searched for criteria of deference, to reliably and predictably categorize cases where deference was warranted and those where it was not. These categories were not applied consistently by the Court, and, indeed, produced disagreement within the Court over how they should be applied in specific cases. Underlying both trends were concerns regarding the cogency of the distinctions employed by the Court to delineate the boundaries of these categories. The broader lesson of Oakes is the need to tailor judicial review to the unique context of each case.
Although the dominant narrative captures much of Oakes' legacy, it misses much of what is at stake in many recent s. 1 cases, and by implication, what the true legacy of Oakes and the retreat from Oakes are. In my view, Oakes created an enormous institutional dilemma for the Court, by setting up a conflict between the demand for definitive proof to support each stage of proportionality analysis, and the reality of policy making under conditions of factual uncertainty. And so the legacy of Oakes is that the central question of s. 1 is how the Court should allocate the risk of factual uncertainty when governments legislate under conditions of imperfect information.
If Oakes is a comparative model for proportionality analysis under other rights-protecting constitutions, then these kinds of problems are not particular to Canada. More generally, what is striking about the comparative reception of Oakes is that neither the narrative nor counter-narrative of the legacy of the judgment appears to have traveled outside of Canada. Foreign courts would be wise to grapple with these difficulties with the benefit of two decades of reflection by Canadian courts instead of simply applying the Oakes test in its original and undeveloped form.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 36
Keywords: constitutional law; comparative law
Date posted: September 17, 2006