Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Showcase–New Directions in Administrative Law Theory: Maitland’s Challenge

[Editor’s Note: This is the third entry in an eight-part Showcase on new ideas in administrative law theory. The introductory post is available here.]

–Jacob Weinrib, Queen’s Faculty of Law

In the final years of the nineteenth century, FW Maitland looked to “the real practical working of English public law”[1] and observed a transformation: “The new wants of a new age have been met in a new manner.”[2]  The transformation consisted in the legislative delegation of an ever-increasing array of powers to an ever-increasing array of agencies.   In this new age, Maitland insisted that any adequate theory of public law would have to offer a way of thinking about the kinds of functions that administrative agencies should perform.   Because he had no such theory to offer, he apologized to his students for his “very poor lecture” on administrative law, and admonished them not to overlook the increasing significance of administrative agencies and their functions even “though we can do little more than barely state their existence.”[3]

If we are to move beyond the mere description of the functions that administrative agencies perform, we must come to grips with a series of fundamental questions raised by the transformation that Maitland observed.  What is the connection between public law, with its concern for the relationship between sovereign and subject, and the various functions that administrative agencies perform?  Are these functions to be regarded simply as the residue of past legislative decisions?  Or do these functions respond to some underlying (set of) moral problem(s) that public law presents?  In short, what is the moral significance of administrative functions?  These questions form Maitland’s challenge.  This challenge is made all the more pressing by, on the one hand, the proliferation of administrative functions that has occurred since Maitland’s day and, on the other, persistent calls to roll back the administrative state.         

Maitland’s challenge extends from the emergence of administrative law to our contemporary efforts to make sense of it.  Open your favorite treatise on administrative law and you will see two disconnected answers to the common question, “What is administrative law about?”  The first holds that administrative law is about the principles that animate the judicial review of administrative action, which are often thought to include the rule of law, the separation of powers, fairness, democracy, accountability, and so on.  Another answer says: administrative law is about the various functions that the legislature, at a particular time and place, has called on administrative agencies to perform.  This sprawling list of functions includes the provision of public services and social support, forms of social control including the prison and immigration systems, implementation of human rights and labour regimes, and the regulation of the economy, trades and professions, and particular industries..  And so students are confronted by two disparate stories about the meaning of administrative law, a story about the principles apposite to the judicial oversight of administrative action and a story (largely devoid of principles) about the functions that administrative agencies happen to perform.  But suppose one asks: What is the connection between these accounts?  Is there a principled way of thinking about the functions that administrative agencies must perform?  And if so, might there be a single reservoir of principles capable of illuminating the whole of public administration, that is, the functions that an administrative state must perform and the law that governs the performance of these functions?  Does the road to an adequate theory of administrative law run through a theory of the administrative state?  

Contemporary accounts of administrative law shy away from these questions.  Their presupposition is that the principles that guide administrative law can be elucidated without reference to the reason why we have an administrative state in the first place.  FR Scott, Canada’s leading scholar of constitutional and human rights, objected to this way of thinking about and teaching administrative law when he observed:  “Lawyers tend to pay attention mostly to judicial review over administrative agencies; law school courses in administrative law usually concentrate on this aspect of the matter.  Yet this, though of great importance, is not the central issue.”[4]  Scott conceived the central issue to be the moral object of the laws that public officials are to implement.  Referring to unemployment insurance, old age pensions, and free universal education, Scott suggested that the common purpose underlying these regimes was to realize a class of human rights that require government action rather than forbearance.  Further, he held that “among members of the legal profession” these “forms of human rights” are “apt to be forgotten or neglected, because these social insurances require administration through government commission and enforcement in administrative tribunals rather than consultation with lawyers and actions in the regular courts.”[5]  For Scott, as for Maitland, our theories of administrative law are radically incomplete so long as they have nothing principled to say about the functions that administrative agencies must perform. In my essay for the Oxford workshop, “New Directions in Administrative Legal Theory”, I begin to confront Maitland’s challenge.  These steps are both critical and constructive.  As a critical matter, I argue that the leading contemporary theories of public law have no answer to Maitland’s challenge.  The result is skepticism about both the administrative state and law that governs it.  As a constructive matter, I sketch an approach that responds to Maitland’s challenge by articulating a class of rights that public administration alone can realize.

Suggested Citation: Jacob Weinrib, Showcase–New Directions in Administrative Law Theory: Maitland’s Challenge, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Sept. 12, 2019, at:–new-directions-in-administrative-law-theory:-maitland’s-challenge

[1] FW Maitland, The Constitutional History of England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1909) at 407.

[2] Ibid at 417.

[3] Ibid at 500.

[4] FR Scott, Essays on the Constitution: Aspects of Canadian Law and Politics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977) at 357.

[5] Ibid.


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