Newfoundland Telephone Co. v. Newfoundland (Board of Commissioners of Public Utilities),  1 S.C.R. 623
Newfoundland Telephone Company Limited Appellant
The Board of Commissioners of Public Utilities Respondent
Indexed as: Newfoundland Telephone Co. v. Newfoundland (Board of Commissioners of Public Utilities)
File No.: 22060.
1991: November 7; 1992: March 5.
Present: La Forest, L'Heureux‑Dubé, Sopinka, Gonthier, Cory, McLachlin and Iacobucci JJ.
on appeal from the court of appeal for newfoundland
Administrative law ‑‑ Apprehension of bias ‑‑ Policy‑making board ‑‑ Board member expressing strong views as to issue board considering ‑‑ Decision made after Board declined to remove member from panel ‑‑ Extent to which an administrative board member may comment on matters before the board ‑‑ Whether or not reasonable apprehension of bias ‑‑ If so, whether or not decision void or merely voidable.
Respondent Board, whose members are appointed by cabinet subject only to the qualification that they not be employed by or have an interest in a public utility, regulates appellant. One commissioner, a former consumers' advocate playing the self‑appointed role of champion of consumers' rights on the Board, made several strong statements which were reported in the press against appellant's executive pay policies before a public hearing was held by the Board into appellant's costs. When the hearing commenced, appellant objected to this commissioner's participation on the panel because of an apprehension of bias. The Board found that it had no jurisdiction to rule on its own members and decided that the panel would continue as constituted. A number of public statements relating to the issue before the Board were made by this commissioner during the hearing and before the Board released its decision which (by a majority which included the commissioner at issue) disallowed some of appellant's costs. A minority would have allowed these costs. Appellant appealed both the order of the Board and the Board's decision to proceed with the panel as constituted to the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal found that the Board had complete jurisdiction to determine its own procedures and all questions of fact and law and that it declined to exercise its jurisdiction when it refused to remove the commissioner from the panel. Although the court concluded that there was a reasonable apprehension of bias, it held that the Board's decision was merely voidable and that, given that the commissioner's mind was not closed to argument, the Board's order was valid.
The issues under consideration here were: (1) the extent to which an administrative board member may comment on matters before the board and, (2) the result which should obtain if a decision of a board is made in circumstances where a reasonable apprehension of bias is found.
Held: The appeal should be allowed.
The duty of fairness applies to all administrative bodies. The extent of that duty, however, depends on the particular tribunal's nature and function. The duty to act fairly includes the duty to provide procedural fairness to the parties. That simply cannot exist if an adjudicator is biased. Because it is impossible to determine the precise state of mind of an adjudicator who has made an administrative board decision, an unbiased appearance is an essential component of procedural fairness. The test to ensure fairness is whether a reasonably informed bystander would perceive bias on the part of an adjudicator.
There is a great diversity of administrative boards. Those that are primarily adjudicative in their functions will be expected to comply with the standard applicable to courts: there must be no reasonable apprehension of bias with regard to their decision. At the other end of the scale are boards with popularly elected members where the standard will be much more lenient. In such circumstances, a reasonable apprehension of bias occurs if a board member pre‑judges the matter to such an extent that any representations to the contrary would be futile. Administrative boards that deal with matters of policy will be closely comparable to the boards composed of elected members. For those boards, a strict application of a reasonable apprehension of bias as a test might undermine the very role which has been entrusted to them by the legislature.
A member of a board which performs a policy‑formation function should not be susceptible to a charge of bias simply because of the expression of strong opinions prior to the hearing. As long as those statements do not indicate a mind so closed that any submissions would be futile, they should not be subject to attack on the basis of bias. Statements manifesting a mind so closed as to make submissions futile would, however, even at the investigatory stage, constitute a basis for raising an issue of apprehended bias. Once the matter reaches the hearing stage a greater degree of discretion is required of a member.
The statements at issue here, when taken together, indicated not only a reasonable apprehension of bias but also a closed mind on the commissioner's part on the subject. Once the order directing the holding of the hearing was given, the Utility was entitled to procedural fairness. At the investigative stage, the "closed mind" test was applicable but once matters proceeded to a hearing, a higher standard had to be applied. Procedural fairness at that stage required the commission members to conduct themselves so that there could be no reasonable apprehension of bias.
A denial of a right to a fair hearing cannot be cured by the tribunal's subsequent decision. A decision of a tribunal which denied the parties a fair hearing cannot be simply voidable and rendered valid as a result of the subsequent decision of the tribunal. The damage created by apprehension of bias cannot be remedied. The hearing, and any subsequent order resulting from it, must be void. The order of the Board of Commissioners of Public Utilities was accordingly void.
Considered: Szilard v. Szasz,  S.C.R. 3; Committee for Justice and Liberty v. National Energy Board,  1 S.C.R. 369; Old St. Boniface Residents Assn. Inc. v. Winnipeg (City),  3 S.C.R. 1170; Save Richmond Farmland Society v. Richmond (Township),  3 S.C.R. 1213; Cardinal v. Director of Kent Institution,  2 S.C.R. 643; referred to: Nicholson v. Haldimand‑Norfolk Regional Board of Commissioners of Police,  1 S.C.R. 311; Martineau v. Matsqui Institution Disciplinary Board,  1 S.C.R. 602.
Statutes and Regulations Cited
Public Utilities Act, R.S.N. 1970, c. 322, ss. 5(1) [as am. by S.N. 1979, c. 30, s. 1], (8), 6, 14, 15, 79, 83, 85, 86.
Janisch, Hudson N. Case Comment: Nfld. Light & Power Co. v. P.U.C. (Bd.) (1987), 25 Admin. L.R. 196.
APPEAL from a judgment of the Newfoundland Court of Appeal (1990), 83 Nfld. & P.E.I.R. 257, 260 A.P.R. 257, 45 Admin. L.R. 291, dismissing an appeal from an order and from a ruling of the Board of Commissioners of Public Utilities. Appeal allowed.
James R. Chalker, Q.C., and Evan J. Kipnis, for the appellant.
Chesley F. Crosbie, for the respondent.
The judgment of the Court was delivered by
Cory J. -- Two issues are raised on this appeal. The first requires a consideration of the extent to which an administrative board member may be permitted to comment upon matters before the board. The second, raises the question as to what the result should be if a decision of a board is made in circumstances where there is found to be a reasonable apprehension of bias.
The Factual Background
Pursuant to the provisions of The Public Utilities Act, R.S.N. 1970, c. 322, the Board of Commissioners of Public Utilities ("the Board") is responsible for the regulation of the Newfoundland Telephone Company Limited. Commissioners of the Board are appointed by the Lieutenant-Governor in Council. The statute simply provides that commissioners cannot be employed by, or have any interest, in a public utility (s. 6). In 1985, Andy Wells was appointed as a Commissioner to the Board. Earlier, while a municipal councillor, Wells had acted as an advocate for consumers' rights. When he was appointed, Wells publicly stated that he intended to play an adversarial role on the Board as a champion of consumers' rights. The Public Utilities Act neither provides for the appointment of commissioners as representatives of any specific group nor does it prohibit such appointments. The appointment of Wells has not been challenged.
Acting in accordance with The Public Utilities Act, the Board commissioned an independent accounting firm to provide an analysis of the costs and of the accounts of Newfoundland Telephone for the period between 1981 and 1987. The Board received the report from the accountants on November 3, 1988. In light of the report the Board, on November 10, decided to hold a public hearing. The hearing was to be before five commissioners including Wells and was to commence on December 19.
On November 13, 1988, The Sunday Express, a weekly newspaper published in St. John's, reported that Wells had described the pay and benefits package of appellant's executives as "ludicrous" and "unconscionable". Wells was quoted as saying:
"If they want to give Brait [the Chief Executive Officer of the appellant] and the boys extra fancy pensions, then the shareholders should pay it, not the rate payers," ...
"So I want the company hauled in here -- all them fat cats with their big pensions -- to justify (these expenses) under the public glare... I think the rate payers have a right to be assured that we are not permitting this company to be too extravagant."
On November 26, The Evening Telegram, a daily newspaper, published in St. John's, quoted Wells:
"Who the hell do they think they are?" Mr. Wells asked. "The guys doing the real work, climbing the poles never got any 21 per cent increase."
"Why should we, the rate payers, pay for an extra pension plan," he continued, adding that if the executive employees want more money put in their pensions they should take it out of shareholders' profits.
Mr. Wells said he senses an attitude of contempt by the telephone company towards the Public Utilities Board. The company seems to expect to always get its own way, he said, adding that the auditors had problems getting information from the company to do the audit requested by PUB. "But, I'm not having anything to do with the salary increases and big fat pensions," said Mr. Wells.
The telephone company wants the report kept confidential, "but, who do they think they are," said Mr. Wells. "This document should be public."
When the hearing commenced on December 19, the appellant objected to Wells' participation on the panel on the grounds that his statements had created an apprehension of bias. The Board found that there was no provision in the Act which would allow it to rule on its own members and it decided that it did not have jurisdiction to do so. The Board rejected the appellant's submission and ruled that the panel would continue as constituted.
On December 20, The Evening Telegram reported the previous day's events at the hearing. The article read in part:
Following Monday's proceedings, Mr. Wells said he was not surprised by the request to remove him from the PUB panel for the Newfoundland Telephone hearing.
"I don't think those expenses can be justified," said Mr. Wells. "I'm concerned about bias the other way."
On January 24, 1989, the "NTV Evening News" (a television news program originating in St. John's) reported on the continuation of the hearing. That report contained the following statements made by a reporter, Jim Thoms, and by Mr. Wells. They were as follows:
Jim Thoms:Before the hearing began last night board member Andy Wells went public with what he thought of the phone company. He nailed in particular increases in salary and pension benefits for top executives including president Anthony Brait and let it be known even before the board heard any evidence what his judgment would be.
Andy Wells:I was absolutely astounded to find out for 1988 that, that Brait is now about up to two hundred and thirty-five thousand dollars and I think that's an incredible sum of money to be paid for to manage a small telephone company.
Jim Thoms:Now Mr. Wells is trying to find out what happened for this year. He was going after '89 salary figures at a meeting today.
Andy Wells:And I just think that it is unfair to expect ratepayers, the consumers, you and I to pay for this kind of extravagance.
Jim Thoms:Okay now....Mr. Wells has left no doubt how his vote will come down in this matter. He wants the board to disallow the salary and pension increases as unreasonable for rate making purposes and to tell the stockholders to pick up the tab.
Andy Wells:And I think that's, that's a reasonable way of proceeding, it's too easy, it's too easy for, for the Company to pass off all these expenses as, onto the ratepayers....
On January 30, 1989 The Evening Telegram reported further comments of Mr. Wells pertaining to the salaries of the executives. The article read in part:
Mr. Wells complained in December that the salaries paid to the company executives, in particular to president Anthony Brait, were so high they were driving up the cost of telephone service to consumers.
Mr. Wells said Sunday that additional company documents subpoenaed by the board indicate Mr. Brait's salary for 1988 was close to $235,000, a figure Mr. Wells described as "ludicrous".
"I can't see what circumstances would justify that kind of money," Mr. Wells said.
"I don't think the ratepayers of this province should be expected to pay that kind of salary. The company can bloody well take it out of the shareholders' profits."
Mr. Wells said he doesn't know when the case will be before the court, but said if he is biased, it is on the side of the consumers who pay too much for their phone bills.
On April 4, Mr. Wells discussed the issue that was before the Board on the CBC morning radio program. His comments in part are as follows:
What's wrong is that it's not necessary to provide telephone services to the people of this Province for chief executive officer of a company operating in a protected enclave in the economy like that where revenues are down too where there's no real business pressure. To be paid at that level, I think the company is asking the board, I suppose, or asking the rate payers to approve a level of compensation which is excessive and I just don't know, there's absolutely no justification for it at all. The company, obviously, is out of touch with reality and insensitive to the cold hard facts of life that many Newfoundlanders face in earning living from day to day.
During the same program Commissioner Wells also commented:
There's no question about that, the question is whether or not this is excessive and very clearly, in my mind, it's certainly is and when you're as I say, you're not talking about a free enterprise situation where you have the competitive pressures in the market place, you're talking about a monopoly that's got a guaranteed situation and if something goes wrong then they can come crying to the board and get rate relief....
Well that's the point, that's the point, I mean I don't particularly care what the company decides to pay its top executives, I care about how much of that compensation is to be paid for by rate payers, by you, as consumers of telephone services and very clearly that issue has to be addressed and I hope when we have an order out on this issue later on the month, they, they will in fact, be addressed. No justification whatsoever to expect the consumers of telephone services in this Province to be paying the full cost of salary levels for these people, no justification whatsoever.
Very clearly, very clearly there is a significant level of executive over compensation and very clearly the board has to deal with that. To what degree the board does in fact deal with it, by that I mean, to what level we're, we're prepared to allow for rate making purposes, of course, awaits determination and the result of the hearing.
Well I, no you're right, it's not the amount of money, I mean the amount of money relative to the overall revenues of the company is in fact incidental, it's peanuts but what's important here is the issue of equity, the issue of fairness.... what's important is that pay levels be set with in tune with what's paid generally in the community and that they be fair and be perceived to be fair, very clearly in the minds of I suppose, 99 percent of Newfoundlanders, paying Mr. Brait over $200,000.00 a year along with what's being paid to the rest of the executives is not fair in the minds of ordinary Newfoundlanders and I think they're perfectly right and indeed, I think it's incumbent on this board to address that inequity even though as you say, it's not going to result in lower telephone bills. But as somebody once said if you watch the pennies the dollars look after themselves you know.
It is to be noted that all these comments were made before the Board released its decision on the matter. The decision was contained in Order No. P.U. 20 (1989) dated August 3, 1989. In that order, the Board (i) disallowed the "cost of the enhanced pension plan" for certain senior executive officers of the appellant as an expense for rate-making purposes, and (ii) directed the appellant to refund to its customers in the former operating territory of the Newfoundland Telephone Company Limited the sums of $472,300 and $490,300 which were the amounts charged as expenses to the appellant's operating account for 1987 and 1988 to cover the costs of the enhanced pension plan; (iii) made no order respecting the individual salaries of the senior executive officers of the appellant.
Mr. Wells and two others constituted the majority of the Board which disallowed the costs of the enhanced pension plan for executive officers of the appellant. A minority of the Board would have allowed this item as a reasonable and prudent expense. Although the Board made no order respecting the salaries of senior executive officers, Mr. Wells added a concurring opinion and comment in which he stated:
Because the Board failed to properly address those issues and on the basis of the evidence presented, I have to agree with the rest of the Board.
In conclusion I am in complete agreement with the Majority on the issue of the special executive retirement plan and given the evidence as presented at the hearing, I have to concur with the rest of the Board on the issue of executive salaries. However, the latter issue requires a more thorough examination by the Board in the future. It is not an issue that has been finally resolved.
Proceedings in the Court of Appeal (1990), 83 Nfld. & P.E.I.R. 257
The appellant appealed both the order itself and the ruling of the Board to proceed with Wells as a member of the hearing panel.
The Court of Appeal found that the Board had been in error in concluding that it had no jurisdiction to change the composition of the panel. It noted that the Board had complete jurisdiction to determine its own procedures as well as all questions of law and fact. It held that the Board had declined to exercise its jurisdiction when it refused to consider the removal of Wells from the hearing panel.
Morgan J.A. for the Court of Appeal then considered whether the comments of Wells had raised a reasonable apprehension of bias with regard to the Board's decision. He observed that natural justice requires that an administrative board proceed without actual bias or in a way that does not raise a reasonable apprehension of bias. He noted that the standard of natural justice varies with the nature and functions of the tribunal in question. While he found that the enabling statute required the Board in this case to act as investigator, prosecutor and judge, he rejected the contention that the hearing formed part of the investigatory process. He held that the members of the Board must act fairly and with their minds open to persuasion. The fact that they have given prior opinions should not disqualify them. However, he concluded that Wells' comments did indeed raise a reasonable apprehension of bias which might well have disqualified him from the hearing if the appellant had sought a writ of mandamus to have the matter resolved.
He then considered the consequences of his conclusion that a reasonable apprehension of bias had been established. In his view a hearing of an administrative board is void ab initio if the adjudicator has an actual conflict of interest. On the other hand, if only a reasonable apprehension of bias exists, the proceedings are simply voidable. He then examined the conclusions of the Board and observed that Wells did not find against the company on the matter of executive wage increases. He took this as proof that Wells' mind had not been closed to argument. As a result he determined that the order of the Board was valid.
The Composition and Function of Administrative Boards
Administrative boards play an increasingly important role in our society. They regulate many aspects of our life, from beginning to end. Hospital and medical boards regulate the methods and practice of the doctors that bring us into this world. Boards regulate the licensing and the operation of morticians who are concerned with our mortal remains. Marketing boards regulate the farm products we eat; transport boards regulate the means and flow of our travel; energy boards control the price and distribution of the forms of energy we use; planning boards and city councils regulate the location and types of buildings in which we live and work. In Canada, boards are a way of life. Boards and the functions they fulfil are legion.
Some boards will have a function that is investigative, prosecutorial and adjudicative. It is only boards with these three powers that can be expected to regulate adequately complex or monopolistic industries that supply essential services.
The composition of boards can, and often should, reflect all aspects of society. Members may include the experts who give advice on the technical nature of the operations to be considered by the Board, as well as representatives of government and of the community. There is no reason why advocates for the consumer or ultimate user of the regulated product should not, in appropriate circumstances, be members of boards. No doubt many boards will operate more effectively with representation from all segments of society who are interested in the operations of the Board.
Nor should there be undue concern that a board which draws its membership from a wide spectrum will act unfairly. It might be expected that a board member who holds directorships in leading corporations will espouse their viewpoint. Yet I am certain that although the corporate perspective will be put forward, such a member will strive to act fairly. Similarly, a consumer advocate who has spoken out on numerous occasions about practices which he, or she, considers unfair to the consumer will be expected to put forward the consumer point of view. Yet that same person will also strive for fairness and a just result. Boards need not be limited solely to experts or to bureaucrats.
The Duty of Boards
All administrative bodies, no matter what their function, owe a duty of fairness to the regulated parties whose interest they must determine. This was recognized in Nicholson v. Haldimand-Norfolk Regional Board of Commissioners of Police,  1 S.C.R. 311. Chief Justice Laskin at p. 325 held:
...the classification of statutory functions as judicial, quasi-judicial or administrative is often very difficult, to say the least; and to endow some with procedural protection while denying others any at all would work injustice when the results of statutory decisions raise the same serious consequences for those adversely affected, regardless of the classification of the function in question....
Although the duty of fairness applies to all administrative bodies, the extent of that duty will depend upon the nature and the function of the particular tribunal. See Martineau v. Matsqui Institution Disciplinary Board,  1 S.C.R. 602. The duty to act fairly includes the duty to provide procedural fairness to the parties. That simply cannot exist if an adjudicator is biased. It is, of course, impossible to determine the precise state of mind of an adjudicator who has made an administrative board decision. As a result, the courts have taken the position that an unbiased appearance is, in itself, an essential component of procedural fairness. To ensure fairness the conduct of members of administrative tribunals has been measured against a standard of reasonable apprehension of bias. The test is whether a reasonably informed bystander could reasonably perceive bias on the part of an adjudicator.
In Szilard v. Szasz,  S.C.R. 3, Rand J. found a commercial arbitration was invalid because of bias. He held that the arbitrator did not possess "judicial impartiality" because he had a business relationship with one of the parties to the arbitration. This raised an apprehension of bias that was sufficient to invalidate the proceedings. At p. 7 he wrote:
Each party, acting reasonably, is entitled to a sustained confidence in the independence of mind of those who are to sit in judgment on him and his affairs.
This principle was relied upon in Committee for Justice and Liberty v. National Energy Board,  1 S.C.R. 369. In that case a member of the Board had participated in a Study Group which had examined the feasibility of the Mackenzie pipeline. The appellants objected to his assignment to a panel which was considering competing applications for a certificate to undertake the pipeline. The standard the Board was required to apply in considering the applications was one of public convenience and necessity. Chief Justice Laskin held that the member's prior activity raised a reasonable apprehension of bias. He observed that the National Energy Board was charged with the duty to consider the public interest. Public confidence in the impartiality of Board decisions was required to further the public interest.
Bias was considered in a different setting in Old St. Boniface Residents Assn. Inc. v. Winnipeg (City),  3 S.C.R. 1170. That case concerned a planning decision which was made by elected municipal councillors. The governing legislation for municipalities was designed so that councillors would become involved in planning issues before taking part in their final determination. The decision of the Court recognized that city councillors are political actors who have been elected by the voters to represent particular points of view. Considering the spectrum of administrative bodies whose functions vary from being almost purely adjudicative to being political or policy-making in nature, the Court held that municipal councils fall in the legislative end. Sopinka J., at p. 1197, set forth the "open mind" test for this type of situation:
The party alleging disqualifying bias must establish that there is a prejudgment of the matter, in fact, to the extent that any representations at variance with the view, which has been adopted, would be futile. Statements by individual members of Council while they may very well give rise to an appearance of bias will not satisfy the test unless the court concludes that they are the expression of a final opinion on the matter, which cannot be dislodged.
This same principle was applied in the companion case, Save Richmond Farmland Society v. Richmond (Township),  3 S.C.R. 1213. That case concerned a municipal councillor who campaigned for election favouring a residential development. He made public statements that he would not change his mind with regard to his position despite public hearings on the issue. Sopinka J. found that the councillor should not be disqualified for bias because he did not have a completely closed mind. He determined that to have ruled otherwise would have distorted the democratic process by discouraging politicians from expressing their views openly.
It can be seen that there is a great diversity of administrative boards. Those that are primarily adjudicative in their functions will be expected to comply with the standard applicable to courts. That is to say that the conduct of the members of the Board should be such that there could be no reasonable apprehension of bias with regard to their decision. At the other end of the scale are boards with popularly elected members such as those dealing with planning and development whose members are municipal councillors. With those boards, the standard will be much more lenient. In order to disqualify the members a challenging party must establish that there has been a pre-judgment of the matter to such an extent that any representations to the contrary would be futile. Administrative boards that deal with matters of policy will be closely comparable to the boards composed of municipal councillors. For those boards, a strict application of a reasonable apprehension of bias as a test might undermine the very role which has been entrusted to them by the legislature.
Janisch published a very apt and useful Case Comment on Nfld. Light & Power Co. v. P.U.C. (Bd.) (1987), 25 Admin. L.R. 196. He observed that Public Utilities Commissioners, unlike judges, do not have to apply abstract legal principles to resolve disputes. As a result, no useful purpose would be served by holding them to a standard of judicial neutrality. In fact to do so might undermine the legislature's goal of regulating utilities since it would encourage the appointment of those who had never been actively involved in the field. This would, Janisch wrote at p. 198, result in the appointment of "the main line party faithful and bland civil servants". Certainly there appears to be great merit in appointing to boards representatives of interested sectors of society including those who are dedicated to forwarding the interest of consumers.
Further, a member of a board which performs a policy formation function should not be susceptible to a charge of bias simply because of the expression of strong opinions prior to the hearing. This does not of course mean that there are no limits to the conduct of board members. It is simply a confirmation of the principle that the courts must take a flexible approach to the problem so that the standard which is applied varies with the role and function of the Board which is being considered. In the end, however, commissioners must base their decision on the evidence which is before them. Although they may draw upon their relevant expertise and their background of knowledge and understanding, this must be applied to the evidence which has been adduced before the Board.
Application to the Case at Bar
It is first necessary to review the legislation which constitutes the Board and sets out its role and function. The key sections to The Public Utilities Act are as follows:
5. (1) The Lieutenant-Governor in Council may appoint three or more persons who shall constitute a Board of Commissioners of Public Utilities, and shall designate a chairman and two vice‑chairmen of and appoint a clerk for the Board.
(8) The commissioners and the clerk shall be paid such salaries as the Lieutenant-Governor in Council determines.
14. The Board shall have the general supervision of all public utilities, and may make all necessary examinations and enquiries and keep itself informed as to the compliance by public utilities with the provisions of law and shall have the right to obtain from any public utility all information necessary to enable the Board to fulfil its duties.
15. The Board may enquire into any violation of the laws or regulations in force in this province by any public utility doing business therein, or by the officers, agents or employees thereof, or by any person operating the plant of any public utility, and has the power and it is its duty to enforce the provisions of this Act as well as all other laws relating to public utilities.
79. Whenever the Board believes that any rate or charge is unreasonable or unjustly discriminatory, or that any reasonable service is not supplied, or that an investigation of any matter relating to any public utility should for any reason be made, it may, of its own motion, summarily investigate the same with or without notice.
83. The Board shall give the public utility and the complainant, if any, ten days' notice of the time and place when and where the hearing and investigation referred to in Section 82 [i.e. when a complaint is made] will be held and such matters considered and determined and both the public utility and the complainant are entitled to be heard and to have process to enforce the attendance of witnesses.
85. If after making any summary investigation, the Board becomes satisfied that sufficient grounds exist to warrant a formal hearing being ordered as to the matters so investigated, it shall furnish such public utility interested a statement notifying the public utility of the matters under investigation and ten days after such notice has been given the Board may proceed to set a time and place for a hearing and an investigation as provided in this Act.
86. Notice of the time and place for the hearing referred to in Section 85 shall be given to the public utility and to such other interested persons as the Board shall deem necessary as provided in this Act and thereafter proceedings shall be held and conducted in reference to the matter investigated in like manner as though complaints had been filed with the Board relative to the matter investigated [see s. 83], and the same order or orders may be made in reference thereto as if such investigation had been made on complaint.
It can be seen that the Board has been given the general supervision of provincial public utilities. In that role it must supervise the operation of Newfoundland Telephone which has a monopoly on the provision of telephone services in the Province of Newfoundland. The Board, when it believes any charges or expenses of a utility are unreasonable, may of its own volition summarily investigate the charges or expenses. As a result of the investigation it may order a public hearing regarding the expenses. In turn, at the hearing the utility must be accorded the fundamental rights of procedural fairness. That is to say, the utility must be given notice of the complaint, the right to enforce the attendance of witnesses and to make submissions in support of its position.
When determining whether any rate or charge is "unreasonable" or "unjustly discriminatory" the Board will assess the charges and rates in economic terms. In those circumstances the Board will not be dealing with legal questions but rather policy issues. The decision-making process of this Board will come closer to the legislative end of the spectrum of administrative boards than to the adjudicative end.
It can be seen that the Board, pursuant to s. 79, has a duty to act as an investigator with regard to rates or charges and may have a duty to act as prosecutor and adjudicator with regard to these same expenses pursuant to ss. 83, 85 and 86.
What then of the statements made by Mr. Wells? Certainly it would be open to a commissioner during the investigative process to make public statements pertaining to the investigation. Although it might be more appropriate to say nothing, there would be no irreparable damage caused by a commissioner saying that he, or she, was concerned with the size of executive salaries and the executive pension package. Nor would it be inappropriate to emphasize on behalf of all consumers that the investigation would "leave no stone unturned" to ascertain whether the expenses or rates were appropriate and reasonable. During the investigative stage, a wide licence must be given to board members to make public comment. As long as those statements do not indicate a mind so closed that any submissions would be futile, they should not be subject to attack on the basis of bias.
The statements made by Mr. Wells before the hearing began on December 19 did not indicate that he had a closed mind. For example, his statement: "[s]o I want the company hauled in here -- all them fat cats with their big pensions -- to justify (these expenses) under the public glare... I think the rate payers have a right to be assured that we are not permitting this company to be too extravagant" is not objectionable. That comment is no more than a colourful expression of an opinion that the salaries and pension benefits seemed to be unreasonably high. It does not indicate a closed mind. Even Wells' statement that he did not think that the expenses could be justified, did not indicate a closed mind. However, should a commissioner state that, no matter what evidence might be disclosed as a result of the investigation, his or her position would not change, this would indicate a closed mind. Even at the investigatory stage statements manifesting a mind so closed as to make submissions futile would constitute a basis for raising an issue of apprehended bias. However the quoted statement of Mr. Wells was made on November 13, three days after the hearing was ordered. Once the hearing date had been set, the parties were entitled to expect that the conduct of the commissioners would be such that it would not raise a reasonable apprehension of bias. The comment of Mr. Wells did just that.
Once the matter reaches the hearing stage a greater degree of discretion is required of a member. Although the standard for a commissioner sitting in a hearing of the Board of Commissioners of Public Utilities need not be as strict and rigid as that expected of a judge presiding at a trial, nonetheless procedural fairness must be maintained. The statements of Commissioner Wells made during and subsequent to the hearing, viewed cumulatively, lead inexorably to the conclusion that a reasonable person appraised of the situation would have an apprehension of bias.
On January 24, while the hearing was already in progress, Wells was making statements that might readily be understood by a reasonable observer, as they were by the telecast reporter Jim Thoms, that Wells had made up his mind what his judgment would be even before the Board had heard all the evidence. Evidence sufficient to create a reasonable apprehension of bias can be found in some of the statements made by Wells during the course of a January 24th telecast, and in the subsequent comments to the press and to the radio. For example, during a radio broadcast he said:
To be paid at that level, I think the company is asking the board, I suppose, or asking the rate payers to approve a level of compensation which is excessive and I just don't know, there's absolutely no justification for it at all.
There's no question about that, the question is whether or not this is excessive and very clearly, in my mind, it's certainly is and when you're as I say, you're not talking about a free enterprise situation where you have the competitive pressures in the market place, you're talking about a monopoly that's got a guaranteed situation....
No justification whatsoever to expect the consumers of telephone services in this Province to be paying the full cost of salary levels for these people, no justification whatsoever.
Very clearly, very clearly there is a significant level of executive over compensation and very clearly the board has to deal with that.
... I suppose, 99 percent of Newfoundlanders, paying Mr. Brait over $200,000.00 a year along with what's being paid to the rest of the executives is not fair in the minds of ordinary Newfoundlanders and I think they're perfectly right and indeed, I think it's incumbent on this board to address that inequity even though as you say, it's not going to result in lower telephone bills.
These statements, taken together, give a clear indication that not only was there a reasonable apprehension of bias but that Mr. Wells had demonstrated that he had a closed mind on the subject.
Once the order directing the holding of the hearing was given the Utility was entitled to procedural fairness. At that stage something more could and should be expected of the conduct of board members. At the investigative stage, the "closed mind" test was applicable. Once matters proceeded to a hearing, a higher standard had to be applied. Procedural fairness then required the board members to conduct themselves so that there could be no reasonable apprehension of bias. The application of that test must be flexible. It need not be as strict for this Board dealing with policy matters as it would be for a board acting solely in an adjudicative capacity. This standard of conduct will not of course inhibit the most vigorous questioning of witnesses and counsel by board members. Wells' statements, however, were such, that so long as he remained a member of the Board hearing the matter, a reasonable apprehension of bias existed. It follows that the hearing proceeded unfairly and was invalid.
The Consequences of a Finding of Bias
Everyone appearing before administrative boards is entitled to be treated fairly. It is an independent and unqualified right. As I have stated, it is impossible to have a fair hearing or to have procedural fairness if a reasonable apprehension of bias has been established. If there has been a denial of a right to a fair hearing it cannot be cured by the tribunal's subsequent decision. A decision of a tribunal which denied the parties a fair hearing cannot be simply voidable and rendered valid as a result of the subsequent decision of the tribunal. Procedural fairness is an essential aspect of any hearing before a tribunal. The damage created by apprehension of bias cannot be remedied. The hearing, and any subsequent order resulting from it, is void. In Cardinal v. Director of Kent Institution,  2 S.C.R. 643, at p. 661, Le Dain J. speaking for the Court put his position in this way:
... I find it necessary to affirm that the denial of a right to a fair hearing must always render a decision invalid, whether or not it may appear to a reviewing court that the hearing would likely have resulted in a different decision. The right to a fair hearing must be regarded as an independent, unqualified right which finds its essential justification in the sense of procedural justice which any person affected by an administrative decision is entitled to have. It is not for a court to deny that right and sense of justice on the basis of speculation as to what the result might have been had there been a hearing.
In my view, this principle is also applicable to this case. In the circumstances, there is no alternative but to declare that the Order of the Board of Commissioners of Public Utilities is void.
In the result the appeal will be allowed, the order of the Court of Appeal will be set aside, and Order No. P.U. 20 (1989) of the Board of Commissioners of Public Utilities is declared void ab initio. The appellant should have the costs of the appeal in this Court and in the Court of Appeal.
Appeal allowed with costs.
Solicitors for the appellant: Chalker, Green & Rowe, St. John's.
Solicitors for the respondent: Kendell & Crosbie, St. John's.