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Arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable

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Arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable

In law, the standard of review is the amount of deference given by one court (or some other appellate tribunal) in reviewing a decision of a lower court or tribunal. A low standard of review means that the decision under review will be varied or overturned if the reviewing court considers there is any error at all in the lower court's decision. A high standard of review means that deference is accorded to the decision under review, so that it will not be disturbed just because the reviewing court might have decided the matter differently; it will be varied only if the higher court considers the decision to have obvious error. The standard of review may be set by statute, rule or precedent. In the United States, "standard of review" also has a separate meaning concerning the level of deference the judiciary gives to Congress when ruling on the constitutionality of legislation.

United States

Main article: Appellate review

In the United States, the term "standard of review" has several different meanings in different contexts and thus there are several standards of review on appeal used in federal courts depending on the nature of the question being appealed and the body that made the decision.

Questions of fact

Arbitrary and capricious

In administrative law, a government agency's resolution of a question of fact, when decided pursuant to an informal rulemaking under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), is reviewed on the arbitrary and capricious standard. Arbitrary and capricious is a legal ruling wherein an appellate court determines that a previous ruling is invalid because it was made on unreasonable grounds or without any proper consideration of circumstances. This is an extremely deferential standard.

Substantial evidence

Under the "substantial evidence" standard, a finding of fact from a jury, or a finding of fact made by an administrative agency decided pursuant to an APA adjudication or formal rulemaking, is upheld on appeal unless it is unsupported by substantial evidence. The appellate courts will generally not review such findings unless those findings have no reasonable basis. For example, if a jury finds that a defendant used force during the commission of a crime, the appeals courts will not reverse this finding unless it has no reasonable basis in the testimony or other facts. This is a highly deferential standard.

Clearly erroneous

Under the "clearly erroneous" standard, where a trial court (as opposed to a jury or administrative agency) makes a finding of fact, such as in a bench trial, that finding will not be disturbed unless the reviewing court is left with a "definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed" by that court.[1] For example, if a court finds that, based on the testimony of a single eyewitness, that a defendant broke a window by throwing a one pound rock over 20 feet, the appeals court might reverse that factual finding based on uncontradicted expert testimony (also presented to the lower court) stating that such a feat is impossible for most people. In such a case, the appeals court might find that, although there was evidence to support the lower court's finding, the evidence taken as a whole—including the eyewitness and the expert testimony—leaves the appellate court with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake was committed by the Court below.

Questions of law

De novo

Under de novo review, the appellate court acts if it were considering the question for the first time, affording no deference to the decisions below. Legal decisions of a lower court on questions of law are reviewed using this standard. This is sometimes also called the "legal error" standard. It allows the appeals court to substitute its own judgment about whether the lower court correctly applied the law.

A new trial in which all issues are reviewed as if for the first time is called a trial de novo.


Questions of statutory interpretation decided by an agency in a manner that has the force of law are subject to Chevron review.


Questions of statutory interpretation decided by an agency in a manner that does not have the force of law are subject to Skidmore review.

Mixed questions of law and fact

Court and jury decisions concerning mixed questions of law and fact are usually subjected to de novo review, unless factual issues predominate, in which event the decision will be subject to clearly erroneous review. When made by administrative agencies, decisions concerning mixed questions of law and fact are subjected to arbitrary and capricious review.

Questions of trial oversight

Abuse of discretion

Where a lower court has made a discretionary ruling (such as whether to allow a party claiming a hardship to file a brief after the deadline), that decision will be reviewed for abuse of discretion. It will not be reversed unless the decision is unreasonable.

Plain error

Plain error is a special standard of review used to determine when an appellate court can review an "unpreserved" error, that is, mistakes made by the lower court that were not objected to as the law requires. In such a case, the appellate court may still choose to look at the lower court's mistake even though there was no objection, if the appellate court determines that the error was evident, obvious, and clear and materially prejudiced a substantial right, meaning that it was likely that the mistake affected the outcome of the case below in a significant way.[2]

In federal court, if a party commits forfeiture of error, e.g. by failing to raise a timely objection, then on appeal, the burden of proof is on that party to show that plain error occurred. If the party did raise a timely objection that was overruled, then on appeal, the burden of proof is on the other party to show that the error was harmless error. This approach is dictated by Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52, which holds, "[a]ny error, defect, irregularity, or variance that does not affect substantial rights must be disregarded, [while a] plain error that affects substantial rights may be considered even though it was not brought to the court's attention."[3] The appellate court has discretion as to whether or not to correct plain error. Usually the court will not correct it unless it led to a brazen miscarriage of justice.

Questions of constitutionality

Questions of constitutionality are considered a type of question of law, and thus appelleta courts always review these questions de novo. However, the term "standard of review" has an additional meaning in the context of reviewing a law for its constitutionality, which concerns how much deference the judiciary should give Congress in determining whether legislation is constitutional. Concerning constitutional questions, three basic standards of review exist: rational basis, intermediate scrutiny, and strict scrutiny. This form of standard of review is sometimes also called the standard or level of scrutiny.

Rational basis

Generally, the Supreme Court judges legislation based on whether it has a reasonable relationship to a legitimate state interest. This is called rational basis review. For example, a statute requiring the licensing of opticians is permissible because it has the legitimate state objective of ensuring the health of consumers, and the licensing statutes are reasonably related to ensuring their health by requiring certain education for opticians. Williamson v. Lee Optical Co., 348 U.S. 483 (1955)

Intermediate scrutiny

Under the Equal Protection Clause, when the law targets a "quasi-suspect" classification, such as gender, the courts apply intermediate scrutiny, which requires the law to be substantially related to an important government interest. It is more strict than rational basis review but less strict than strict scrutiny.

Other forms of intermediate scrutiny are applied in other contexts. For example, under the Free Speech Clause, content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions on speech are subject to a form of intermediate scrutiny.

Strict scrutiny

If, however, the statute impinges on a fundamental right, such as those listed in the Bill of Rights or the due process rights of the Fourteenth Amendment, then the court will apply strict scrutiny. This means the statute must be narrowly tailored to address a compelling state interest. For example, a statute restricting the amount of funds that a candidate for public office may receive in order to reduce public corruption is unconstitutional because it is overly broad and impinges the right to freedom of speech. It affects not only corrupting individual contributions, but also non-corrupting expenditures from their own personal or family resources, as well as other sources that may not exhibit a corrupting influence. Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976)

The courts will also apply strict scrutiny if the law targets a suspect classification, such as race. For example, there is no fundamental right to be an optician (as explained above), but if the state only requires licenses of African Americans (and not opticians of other races), that double standard would receive strict scrutiny, and would likely be ruled unconstitutional.


In Canada, a decision of a tribunal, board, commission or other government decision-maker can be reviewed on two standards depending on the circumstances. The two standards applied are "correctness" and "reasonableness." In each case, a court must undertake a "standard of review analysis" to determine the appropriate standard to apply. This approach was described in detail by the Supreme Court of Canada in Dunsmuir v. New Brunswick.

The standard of review for findings of fact is such that they cannot be reversed unless the trial judge has made a “palpable and overriding error." A palpable error is one that is plainly seen. The reasons for deferring to a trial judge's findings of fact can be grouped into three basic principles. Firstly, given the scarcity of judicial resources, setting limits on the scope of judicial review in turn limits the number, length and cost of appeals. Secondly, the principle of deference promotes the autonomy and integrity of the trial proceedings. Finally, this principle recognizes the expertise of trial judges and their advantageous position to make factual findings, owing to their extensive exposure to the evidence and the benefit of hearing the testimony viva voce.

The same degree of deference must be paid to inferences of fact, since many of the reasons for showing deference to the factual findings of the trial judge apply equally to all factual conclusions. The standard of review for inferences of fact is not to verify that the inference can reasonably be supported by the findings of fact of the trial judge, but whether the trial judge made a palpable and overriding error in coming to a factual conclusion based on accepted facts, a stricter standard.

Making a factual conclusion of any kind is inextricably linked with assigning weight to evidence, and thus attracts a deferential standard of review. If there is no palpable and overriding error with respect to the underlying facts that the trial judge relies on to draw the inference, then it is only when the inference‑drawing process itself is palpably in error that an appellate court can interfere with the factual conclusion [1].

See also


External links

  • article on Canadian Standard of Review
  • Legal definition
  • Standards of Review on Appeal
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