Singh v. Canada: The Charter Applies to Refugee Claimants

Singh v. Minister of Employment and Immigration was a 1985 Supreme Court of Canada decision that is to this day arguably the most significant decision that Canada’s Supreme Court has made in the area of Canadian immigration and refugee law.

The Facts

The Appellants were a mixture of Sikh and Guyanese individuals who sought refugee status in Canada during the late 1970s and early 1980s. At the time, the Immigration and Refugee Board did not yet exist.  Rather, asylum claimants submitted refugee claims directly to Canada’s immigration department, who would determine whether someone was a refugee based on advice received from the Refugee Status Advisory Committee.  If the claimant was unsuccessful, they could appeal to the Immigration Appeal Board.  Both the initial claim and the appeal were based on written submissions, and at the initial petition for asylum a claimant would also be questioned under oath by an immigration officer.  Applicants were not allowed to make oral appeals.  Nor could they respond to arguments made against them by the Refugee Status Advisory Committee.

The Appellants in Singh argued that the lack of a hearing violated Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

The Supreme Court’s Decision

The Supreme Court of Canada’s decision was a split one, although all six justices determined that the previous approach which denied an oral hearing could not stand.  Three of the justices based their decision on the Charter.  Three based it on Canada’s Bill of Rights. 

The key and lasting holdings of the Supreme Court of Canada were  that while non-citizens do not have a right to enter or remain in Canada, a refugee who does not have a safe haven elsewhere is entitled to rely on Canada’s willingness to live up to the obligations it has undertaken as a signatory to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and that the principles of fundamental justice demand, at a minimum, compliance with the common law requirements of procedural fairness.  In the refugee context, this right to procedural fairness includes access to an oral hearing.

In response to the government’s concern that the Supreme Court of Canada imposing a requirement that every refugee claimant in Canada get a full hearing would be prohibitively expensive, the Supreme Court responded by stating the following (which continues to be cited with concern by those who are worried about the cost of “judicial activism”):

… the guarantees of the Charter would be illusory if they could be ignored because it was administratively convenient to do so. No doubt considerable time and money can be saved by adopting administrative procedures which ignore the principles of fundamental justice but such an argument, in my view, misses the point of the exercise under s. 1 [of the Charter]. The principles of natural justice and procedural fairness which have long been espoused by our courts, and the constitutional entrenchment of the principles of fundamental justice in s. 7 [of the Charter], implicitly recognize that a balance of administrative convenience does not override the need to adhere to these principles. Whatever standard of review eventually emerges under s. 1, it seems to me that the basis of the justification for the limitation of rights under s. 7 must be more compelling than any advanced in these appeals.


Even if the cost of compliance with fundamental justice is a factor to which the courts would give considerable weight, I am not satisfied that the Minister has demonstrated that this cost would be so prohibitive as to constitute a justification within the meaning of s. 1. Though it is tempting to make observations about what factors might give rise to justification under s. 1, and on the standards of review which should be applied with respect to s. 1, I think it would be unwise to do so. I therefore confine my observations on the application of s. 1 to those necessary for the disposition of the appeals.

To recapitulate, I am persuaded that the appellants are entitled to assert the protection of 7 of the Charter in the determination of their claims to Convention refugee status under the Immigration Act, 1976. I am further persuaded that the procedures under the Act as they were applied in these cases do not meet the requirements of fundamental justice under s. 7 and that accordingly the appellants’ rights under s. 7 were violated. Finally, I believe that the respondent has failed to demonstrate that the procedures set out in the Act constitute a reasonable limit on the appellants’ rights within the meaning ofs. 1 of the Charter. I would accordingly allow the appeals. In so doing I should, however, observe that the acceptance of certain submissions, particularly concerning the scope of s. 7 of the Charter in the context of these appeals, is not intended to be definitive of the scope of the section in other contexts. I do not by any means foreclose the possibility that s. 7 protects a wider range of interests than those involved in these appeals.

The Aftermath

Four years after the Singh ruling, Canada created the Immigration and Refugee Board, which still exists today.  Refugee claimants are entitled to a hearing before the Refugee Protection Division, and, since 2013, also have an appeal to the Refugee Appeal Division.



No Credible Basis in Refugee Claims

Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act provides:

No credible basis

107(2) If the Refugee Protection Division is of the opinion, in rejecting a claim, that there was no credible or trustworthy evidence on which it could have made a favourable decision, it shall state in its reasons for the decision that there is no credible basis for the claim.

Manifestly unfounded

107.1 If the Refugee Protection Division rejects a claim for refugee protection, it must state in its reasons for the decision that the claim is manifestly unfounded if it is of the opinion that the claim is clearly fraudulent.

A finding of “no credible basis” may only be made where there is no credible or trustworthy evidence on which the Refugee Protection Division (the “RPD“) could make a positive finding. It is a high threshold that limits an applicant’s subsequent procedural rights.  Before determining that an applicant’s refugee claim has no credible basis, the RPD must look to the objective documentary evidence for any trustworthy or credible support for an Applicant’s claim.

A lack of credibility is not the same as saying that a claim has no credible basis.

Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v. Singh, 2016 FCA 300

In Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v. Singh, the Federal Court of Appeal answered the question of whether the RPD could still determine that a claim was manifestly uncredible after it had determined that an individual was excluded from refugee protection under Article 1F of the 1951 Refugee Convention because because of serious criminality or human rights abuses. Specifically, the Federal Court of Appeal asked:

Considering the authority of the Refugee Protection Division under subsection 107(2) and section 107.1 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to determine that a claim has no credible basis or is manifestly unfounded, is the Refugee Protection Division precluded from making such a determination after it has found that the claimant is excluded under section F of Article 1 of the Refugee Convention?

The Federal Court of Appeal answered the question in the affirmative.

Certified Questions After Kanthasamy

Section 74(d) of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act provides that an appeal to the Federal Court of Appeal may be made only if, in rendering judgment, the Federal Court certifies that a serious question of general importance is involved and states the question.  Certified questions have traditionally resolved divergent jurisprudence at the Federal Court, and have typically provided certainty on how immigration law is to be interpreted.  However, as a result of recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions, this is changing.

In Agraira v. Canada (Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness)the Supreme Court of Canada applied the reasonableness standard to answer the following certified question:

When determining a ss. 34(2) application, must the Minister of Public Safety consider any specific factors in assessing whether a foreign national’s presence in Canada would be contrary to the national interest?

The decision to not provide a definite answer caused some confusion at the Federal Court of Appeal, which declared in Kanthasamy v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2014 FCA 113, that:

 A decision made under the Act is subject to judicial review only if leave is granted by the Federal Court (subsection 72(1) of the Act). The Federal Court’s decision on the judicial review cannot be appealed unless the Federal Court certifies a serious question of general importance (paragraph 74(d) of the Act). This case, like Agraira has proceeded to this Court on the basis of a certified question from the Federal Court. In this case, as in Agraira, the certified question asks a question that requires an interpretation of a provision of the Act.

This Court has consistently taken the view that where a certified question asks a question of statutory interpretation, this Court must provide the definitive interpretation without deferring to the administrative decision-maker. Then, this Court must assess whether there are grounds to set aside the outcome reached by the administrative decision-maker on the facts and the law….

Until Agraira, the Supreme Court approached immigration matters in the same way. The Supreme Court assessed whether this Court correctly answered the stated question on statutory interpretation. See e.g., Hilewitz v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration); De Jong v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), 2005 SCC 57 (CanLII), [2005] 2 S.C.R. 706. Then it proceeded to assess, on the basis of the deferential reasonableness standard, whether there were grounds to set aside the outcome reached. On that part of the review, the Supreme Court has emphasized the need for “considerable deference [to] be accorded to immigration officers exercising the powers conferred by the legislation,” given “the fact-specific nature of the inquiry, [subsection 25(1)’s] role within the statutory scheme as an exception, the fact that the decision-maker is the Minister, and the considerable discretion evidenced by the statutory language”: Baker v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), 1999 CanLII 699 (SCC), [1999] 2 S.C.R. 817 at paragraph 62.

In Agraira, the Supreme Court conducted reasonableness review on the administrative decision-maker’s decision on the statutory interpretation issue, ignoring the fact that the case proceeded in this Court in response to a certified question from the Federal Court. It did not vet this Court’s answer to the stated question.

There is nothing in the Supreme Court’s reasons in Agraira to explain this apparent change in approach. For that reason, until some clarification from the Supreme Court is received, it is my view that this Court should continue to follow its practice of providing the definitive answer to a certified question on a point of statutory interpretation. In reaching that conclusion, I note that the Supreme Court in Agraira did not say or suggest that this Court’s practice was wrong.

In this Court, providing the definitive answer to a certified question on a point of statutory interpretation is the functional equivalent of engaging in correctness review. But this is merely an artefact of having a certified question put to us. It is not a comment on the standard of review of Ministers’ interpretations of statutory provisions generally .

The Supreme Court of Canada in  Kanthasamy v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), [2015] 3 SCR 909, 2015 SCC 61, held that the replacement of the correctness standard for questions that are certified as being of general importance with the reasonableness standard was not a one-off. It stated:

In this case, the Federal Court applied a reasonableness standard. The Federal Court of Appeal, however, concluded that the appropriate standard of review was correctness because there was a certified question. It suggested that this Court’s approach in Agraira, where the standard of review was reasonableness despite the presence of a certified question, was at odds with the prior case law. I respectfully disagree.

The Federal Court of Appeal refers to one case from this Court to support this point: Hilewitz v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), 2005 SCC 57 (CanLII), [2005] 2 S.C.R. 706. This case is not particularly helpful. It was decided before Dunsmuir v. New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9 (CanLII), [2008] 1 S.C.R. 190, there was no discussion of the impact of a certified question on the issue of standard of review, and the parties asked that correctness be applied: para. 71. In any event, the case law from this Court confirms that certified questions are not decisive of the standard of review: Baker, at para. 58; Chieu v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), 2002 SCC 3 (CanLII), [2002] 1 S.C.R. 84, at para. 23. As the Court said in Baker, at para. 12, the certification of a question of general importance may be the “trigger” by which an appeal is permitted. The subject of the appeal is still the judgment itself, not merely the certified question. The fact that the reviewing judge in this case considered the question to be of general importance is relevant, but not determinative. Despite the presence of a certified question, the appropriate standard of review is reasonableness: Baker, at para. 62.

Paul Daly, Associate Dean and Faculty Secretary at the Faculty of Law, Université de Montréal, is a frequent commentator on administrative law in Canada.  In this blog post titled “Can This Be Correct? Kanthasamy v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2015 SCC 61, he perfectly summarizes the problem with this approach, which is that as a result of the reasonableness standard applying to certified questions of general importance that”deference is [now] due to decision-makers who have no legal expertise, who do not address relevant arguments expressly in their reasons, and who may reasonably come to diametrically opposed conclusions as to similarly situated individuals.”  The inanity that existed in citizenship law prior to Bill C-24, where citizenship judges could pick and choose which tests they chose to apply, will likely soon manifest itself in many areas of the law. Indeed, this possibility was explicitly affirmed by the Federal Court of Appeal in Tranwhere the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that as a result of the recent Supreme Court jurisprudence it would be reasonable for the Immigration and Refugee Board member to rule that a conditional sentence was a sentence that could lead to deportation, and that it would be perfectly reasonable for a different Immigration and Refugee Board member to reach the opposite conclusion.

The Federal Court of Appeal has now essentially asked Parliament to intervene, stating in Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v. Huruglica that:

Kanthasamy will obviously have a tremendous impact, given that for many years, the Federal Court resorted to the certification process under subsection 74(d) to settle divergent interpretations or disagreements on legal issues of general importance. This Court’s providing the correct answer to certified questions appears to have been welcomed, particularly by the IAD and the RPD, who saw it as helpful in carrying out their functions.

The legislator is obviously empowered to set the standard of review that it wants to see applied to questions certified pursuant to subsection 74(d) of the IRPA. However, this must be done very clearly. Should the legislator wish to continue the system that was in place before Kanthasamy, it would be required to amend the IRPA and clarify its intention that certified questions be reviewed on a correctness standard.

In my opinion, it should.