As a political scientist specialized in public administration, refugee, human rights, and administrative law, I am pursuing sociolegal research focused on the role of administrative tribunals in public governance in Canada. Taking an interdisciplinary and ethnographic approach, my research interests are at the intersection of public administration and law and society– making connections between different disciplines with the aim of producing research that is both theoretically engaged and policy relevant. My scholarship takes law as a social force, among others, that shape and constrain decision-making by administrative tribunals. In my research, I adapt a law-in-action perspective and seek to understand how law operates in everyday and ordinary context of decision-making. I draw on organizational and governance theories rooted in Public Administration and Law and Society to examine how rights claims are made, screened, negotiated and disputed in front of inquisitorial and adversarial administrative tribunals.
My research is organized around one central question: How does the state exercise public authority in different settings? In other words, how does rule of law function in practice? In order to answer this question, I look at front-line assessments made by administrative tribunals in Canada. Tribunals, more popularly known as agencies, boards, and commissions (ABCs) are hybrid organizations. They straddle the line between the judiciary and the bureaucracy. They emerged in early 20th century and proliferated in the second half. Administrative tribunals signify a different form of administrative entity and a departure from the three traditional branches of government.
Tribunals provide an alternative to the court system; they were established to provide swift, efficient and inexpensive justice. They conduct reviews and hearings and take administrative decisions in most areas of social concern ranging from social benefits to human rights, refugee determinations to parole decisions. Most individuals will not appear in front of courts but they will bring their disputes, grievances and right claims in front of tribunals. That is why without them, according to the Beverly McLachlin Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the rule of law “would falter and fail”.
In Canada, it is mostly legal scholars who study these organizations with a focus on doctrinal issues. Unfortunately, we know very little what role tribunals play in public administration and how legal norms are elaborated in practice. My aim as a political scientist is to remedy that. Currently I am working on two related projects.
Knocking on Canada’s door: refugee decision making at the front-lines
This book project provides a vivid portrait and assessment of how Canada determines eligibility for refugee status. It is based on my dissertation “Contextualizing Discretion: Micro-dynamics of Canada’s Refugee Determination System” which was awarded the 2017 Vincent Lemieux Prize for the best Ph.D. thesis defended at a Canadian Institution by the Canadian Political Science Association.
In this research, I look at one area of migration governance; refugee status determination. Unlike most tribunal proceedings, refugee hearings and records are closed to the public; hence, very little is known about how adjudicators hear and evaluate refugee claims. Based on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork; direct observation of 50 private refugee hearings, 30 in-depth interviews with actors implicated in the refugee status determination process, and an analysis of confidential Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) documents, I demonstrated how adjudicators have different conceptions of their work and adapt contradictory assessment procedures that lead to major divergences in refugee status grant rates. These differences, however, are not simply based on personal traits of adjudicators but institutionalized practices since adjudicators’ discretion is protected from scrunity by the IRB as well as courts.
Functions and Mandates of Administrative Tribunals in Canada: A Public Governance Perspective
The aim of this research project is to examine the role of administrative tribunals in public governance from a political science perspective. Most research on administrative tribunals are conducted by legal scholars, whose scholarship has been useful in pointing out the limitations and ambiguities of administrative law and formal questions such as adjudicators’ merits, independence and accountability. However, they are of limited empirical value since they rarely draw attention to the tribunals’ procedures, organizational environment and the political context. Further, as there is no comprehensive review on tribunals yet. This project will also provide an exhaustive overview of federal, provincial / territorial and municipal tribunals in Canada. It aims to examine the functioning of administrative justice within administrative tribunals. By looking at Immigration and Refugee Board, Labor and Parole Boards, and Human Rights Commissions, the aim is to identify how the principles of rule of law, impartiality and independence animate administrative justice and detail the pressures faced by principal actors.