The Legitimacy of Judicial Review

AuthorRobert J. Sharpe; Kent Roach
There has been a lively debate in Canada, particularly since the enact-
ment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, regarding the
legitimacy of judicial rev iew. Although judicial review on federalism
grounds has been a featu re of the Canadian con stitution since the early
days of Confederation, the tradition of parli amentary supremacy re-
mained strong until the advent of the Charter. In that tradition, there
are no constraints upon what Parliament can do, and it is thought that
Parliament is the best place to achieve an appropriate balance between
individual right s and freedoms and the broader public interest. This
principle had always been qual if‌ied in Canada by the pract ice of judi-
cial review on federalism grounds, but the Charter of Rights and Free-
doms added signif‌icantly to t he judiciary’s power.
Under the Charter, the questions put to judges involve issues of
value and moral choice, which are not only more open-ended and ap-
parently less constrained by strict legal principles, but also of gre ater
signif‌icance to the average citi zen than those relat ing to federalism.
For example, does the right to life, libert y, and security of the per-
son in section 7 include a woman’s right to choose whether to have an
abortion? Does the right to freedom of expres sion include the right to
spread hatred against particular racia l or religious groups? Can the
government deny benef‌its or marital status to couples who are of the
same sex?
The result of a Charter decision can a lso be more signif‌icant th an
one made on federalism grounds. Because the Canadian constitution
exhaustively gra nts legislative power to either the federal Pa rliament or
the provincial legislatures, the result of a decision holding that, s ay, a
province cannot enact a cert ain law will almost inevitably be that the
federal government can. On the other hand, the result of a Charter de-
cision striking down a law is that, unles s resort is had to the “override”
clause or if a new law can be justif‌ied under section 1, neither level of
government can enact exactly t he same law. Hence, a Charter decision
can have a much more telling impact upon the scope for legislative
The debate over the legitimacy of judicial review i s fuelled by the
fact that the Canad ian judicial system in general, and t he adjudication
of constitutional case s in particular, are premised on the assumption
that questions coming before the court s are legal rather than political
and as such are to be decided strict ly upon legal grounds. As will be
noted later in Chapter 7, the procedure for a constitutional case is more
or less the same as th at used for a property or contracts dispute be-
tween two private parties. The same judges decide the constitutional
issue as decide the private di spute, and in theory, they decide the con-
stitutional issue on grounds similar to those th at apply to the private
dispute. It has become increasi ngly obvious, however, that many, if not
most, Charter issues involve matters of value and public policy quite
different in nature from the questions formerly posed to the courts. It
is not surprising to f‌ind many observers aski ng whether it is legitimate
to give unelected and unaccountable judges a def‌initive say on these
vitally import ant and highly controversial matters. In particular, some
have questioned the qualif‌ications of the lawyers who sit on the bench
to decide political, moral, and philosophical controversie s.
From a formal perspective, there is a clear answer. As the Supreme
Court itself has pointed out, the judges did not ask for the Charter of
Rights and Freedoms nor for the powers th at the Charter confer s upon
them.1 The enactment of the Charter and t he decision to confer a broad-
er mandate upon the courts wa s the conscious choice of the elected
1 In Reference Re s 94(2) of the Motor Vehicle Act (BC), [1985] 2 SCR 486, 24 DLR
(4th) 536, Lamer J states at 497 (SCR):
It ought not to be forgotten that the h istoric decision to entrench t he Charter
in our Constitut ion was taken not by the courts b ut by the elected represen-
tatives of the p eople of Canada. It was those repre sentatives who extended
the scope of const itutional adjudication and entr usted the courts wit h this
new and onerous resp onsibility. Adjudication under the Char ter must be ap-
proached free of any l ingering doubts as to its leg itimacy.
See also Vrie nd v Alberta, [1998] 1 SCR 493, 156 DLR (4th) 385 at paras 131–32,
Iacobucci J [Vrie nd].

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