The concept of deference in substantive review of administrative decisions in four common law countries


University of British Columbia

Date Issued


Document Type



Master of Laws - LLM




This thesis examines the concept of “deference” in relation to judicial review of administrative decisions in Canada, and then compares this approach to judicial review to that which exists in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia. Canadian courts have adopted a system of “substantive review” of administrative decisions, at least since 1979 (if not earlier), and will generally show deference to the decision-maker. It is important to note that Canadian courts have interpreted the word “deference” not as subservience (an approach that would make judicial review pointless), but as a form of “respectful attention” to the decision under review. Canadian courts recognise that they do not have a monopoly of wisdom on matters of statutory interpretation, but will step in to set a decision aside when that decision is unreasonable in some sense. Courts in the United Kingdom have recognised at least since 1987 that the classic standard of Wednesbury unreasonableness – that the decision is “so unreasonable that no reasonable person could have made it” – is not suitable for all kinds of administrative decisions, and have moved to a system whereby there is a “variegated standard” of reasonableness on judicial review for matters not covered by the Human Rights Act 1998, and a proportionality approach for those that are. The law in New Zealand is not as clear, because the Supreme Court has yet to squarely approach the issue, but the lower courts certainly appear to be moving in a similar direction. However, Australian courts vehemently deny that they show any deference to administrative decision-makers, and Australian academic commentators are equally insistent that such an approach is legally suspect at best and mere obsequiousness to government at worst. This is despite the fact that Australia has always recognised Wednesbury unreasonableness as a ground of judicial review. This thesis attempts to dispel some of the Australian arguments against a deference approach, particularly in relation to s.75 of the Australian Constitution, and concludes that Australia would be best off adopting a form of substantive review of administrative decisions, similar to that which exists in Canada.

Date Available



Attribution 3.0 Unported




Law, Faculty of