Legal Policy Analysis

AuthorRuth Sullivan
In determining the meaning of a provision in relation to particular
facts, courts inev itably engage in policy ana lysis. That is, they take into
account extra-textual values or norms that tend to favour one outcome
over another. Although this aspect of interpretat ion is often played
down by the courts, it is a norm al and appropriate part of the inter-
pretive process.1
There are several ways in which extr a-textual values and norms are
introduced into interpretation. As pa rt of the legal context, they assist
in inferring t he meaning and purpose of legislation in textual and pur-
posive analyses and i n distinguishing good from bad consequences in
consequential ana lysis. In these types of analyses the appeal to policy
is usually implicit and intuitive rather than formal and self-conscious.
However, policy enters interpretation in more formal and direct ways
as well: through the doctr ine of strict and liberal construction, through
presumptions of legislative intent, th rough distinct approaches to some
types of legi slation, and, on occasion, through direct appeals to policy.
These are not rigid or tidy categories. The values are ex pressed in vari-
ous ways, and there is a good deal of overlap. For example, respect for
private property rights f‌ig ures largely in the strict constr uction doc-
trine and is al so ref‌lected in the presumptions that the legislature does
1 For an account of legal context a s a source of values, see Chapter 3.
not intend to expropriate land without compensation and does not in-
tend to interfere with vested rights.
Although policy analysis i nvolves an appeal to values or norm s that
are external to t he text, it is a legitimate part of statutory interpreta-
tion insofar as the va lues and norms relied on are rooted in legislation
or the common law or in the evolving legal tradition. Such reliance is
legitimate because t hese values and norms make up the legal culture in
which legislatures and courts both operate. It is appropriately assumed
that the legislature h as them in mind when it enacts legislation and
that interpreters wi ll take them into account when determining the
meaning of a legislative tex t.
Objections to policy analysis i n statutory interpretation are gen-
erally grounded in fear th at judges will reach conclusions based on
their own subjective preferences instead of giving effect to the inten-
tion of the legislature. However, when properly done, policy analysis
is not grounded in subjective preference; rather it is grounded in what
the Supreme Court of Canada in R v Labaye has called “objectively de-
f‌ined norms.”2 Labaye dealt with a prosecution under subsection 210(1)
of the Criminal Code, making it an offence to keep a common bawdy
house. In subsection 197(1), “bawdy house” was def‌ined to include a
place resorted to for “the practice of acts of indecency.” It was up to the
courts to give meaningful content to the vague and value-laden notion
of indecency. The court held that for an act to be criminally indecent it
must create a risk of harm incompatible with the proper functioning of
society.3 Chief Justice McLachli n wrote:
Two general requirements emerge from thi s description of the har m
required for crim inal indecency. First, . . . the har m must be ground-
ed in norms which our so ciety has recogniz ed in its Constitution or
similar f undamental laws. Thi s means that the inqui ry is not based
on individual notion s of harm, nor on the teaching s of a particular
ideology, but on what society, through its laws and inst itutions, has
recognized a s essential to its prop er functioning. Second, the ha rm
must be serious in deg ree.4
In La baye the court clearly recognizes that a vague term i n a pro-
vision obliges the interpreter to complete the law-making process by
giving specif‌ic content to the term in the context of particular cases.
Interpreters give content to terms by relying on (among other things)
“objectively def‌ined norms.” There is no bright-line dist inction between
2 2005 SCC 80 at para 2 [Lab aye].
3 Ibid at paras 23–24.
4 Ibid at para 29.

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