The Registrar of Motor Vehicles’ interpretation of its enabling statute was not entitled to deference and is reviewable on a standard of correctness. Where there is an apparent discrepancy between a statutory provision and a regulation as to which vehicles qualify as “special mobile equipment”, the statutory definition must prevail. When there is an ambiguity in the interpretation of a statutory provision, there is a residual presumption in favour of taxpayers.

25. October 2011 0

Administrative law – Decisions of administrative tribunals – Registrar of Motor Vehicles – Permits and licences – Motor vehicles – Special mobile equipment – definition – Judicial review – Compliance with legislation – Statutory interpretation – Standard of review – Correctness

Carter Brothers Ltd. v. New Brunswick (Registrar of Motor Vehicles), [2011] N.B.J. No. 304, 2011 NBCA 81, New Brunswick Court of Appeal, September 22, 2011, J.T. Robertson, B.R. Bell and B.V. Green JJ.A.

This was an appeal by the Appellant Carter Brothers Ltd. from the dismissal of its judicial review application of a decision by the Respondent Registrar of Motor Vehicles. The appellant owned 26 boom trucks used for installation and repair of telephone and power lines. The Registrar concluded that the 26 boom trucks did not qualify as “special mobile equipment” under the Motor Vehicle Act, R.S.N.B. 1973, c. M-17 and its General Regulations 83-42 and the appellant was not entitled to registration plates bearing the “M” designation. The appellant was directed by the Registrar to return the “M” plates and obtain plates bearing the “L” designation. The cost of differential between the two designations amounted to between $16,000 and $29,000 in additional registration fees. The appellant sought judicial review. The judge found that the Registrar’s decision was owed deference and met the standard of reasonableness.

The appeal was allowed. The Court of Appeal concluded that correctness was the proper standard of review and a Minister’s interpretation of his or her enabling statute was owed no deference. The Court of Appeal differentiated this case from one of an adjudicative tribunal whose decisions were protected by a privative clause. This was also not a case involving an exercise of administrative discretion. In contrast, in the case before it, the Court was dealing with the interpretive opinion rendered by government officials during the course of the administration of a legislative enactment. Even if legally trained, the Court does not accord deference to the opinions of lawyers working within the office of the Attorney General or in adjacent departments. The fact that the ultimate decision regarding the right to “M” plates requires the application of findings of fact to the interpretation of the Motor Vehicle Act and its general regulation is inconsequential. Moreover, the wording of the General Regulation departed substantially from the definition of “special mobile equipment” set out in s. 1 of the Motor Vehicle Act in that the General Regulation limited or narrowed the scope of the statutory definition by introducing other criteria. The lieutenant governor-in-council had no authority to adopt a regulation effectively amending a definition found within the statute, either by narrowing or expanding the scope of the statutory definition. This understanding is consistent with the common law rule that statutory definitions apply to regulations made under the statute as well as to the statute itself. Finally, any doubt in resolving the apparent inconsistency between the definition of “special mobile equipment” found in s. 1 of the Act and in s. 7(6) of the General Regulation is to be resolved (and the question of whether the boom trucks qualified as “special mobile equipment”) ought to be resolved in favour of the taxpayer. As such, the appeal was allowed.

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