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Sunday
Apr132014

Section 19 - Ignorance and the Law: Episode 21 of the Ideablawg Podcasts on the Criminal Code of Canada

Reviewing the past few episodes, I have noticed a thematic connection: from section 13 to the section 18, the discussion has focused on the availability of specific defences. Today’s section 19 continues that Code conversation by speaking of the “defence” of “ignorance.” The section reads as follows:

Ignorance of the law by a person who commits an offence is not an excuse for committing that offence.

In fact, the section does not set out a defence but seems to take away a defence, the one of – I-did-not-know-that-was-a-crime – kind of defence. We know that mistake of fact is an excuse, which if accepted goes to the mens rea or criminal intention required but why should ignorance of the law not be accepted as an excuse considering there are so many laws. Not even a lawyer can keep track of the myriad of laws and regulations out there so why deem knowledge to seemingly naïve citizens?

This presumption of knowledge has actually been in place a long time: not only since the Code’s inception but also since laws were even glimmers in Hammurabi’s eyes.  The actual section comes from the English common law, which hails from a Latin maxim found in Roman law: ignorantia juris non excusat. Once laws were codified and therefore written down for all to see, this idea, that a breach of the law cannot be excused through lack of knowledge, became an important aspect of the internal workings of the law.

One reason for this presumption is to ensure that people did not become a law unto themselves – one cannot pick and choose the laws he or she wishes to follow. Everyone is considered to be equally knowledgeable and therefore equally liable if the law is breached.

Practically, it is about incentives – ignorance is no excuse so you better inform yourself before you do it. This ensured people did not remain willfully blind. Of course, as already mentioned, to inform oneself of all the laws is an almost impossible burden, but section 19 places the information burden, to a certain extent, on the individual as opposed to the state. The government does inform the general public of our laws through publications on websites, books, and, formally, in the Canada Gazette. It is then the responsibility of the specific individual to take advantage of these publications and inform him or her as needed. Putting it into historical context, if a citizen breaks the law, Hammurabi need only say “there is no excuse, the law is clearly here on the Stele!”

Histrionics aside, as I said earlier in the podcast/posting, section 19 “seems” to take away the defence of ignorance of the law. There are two reasons for this caveat.

First, there are numerous scholarly articles on how ignorance is in fact an excuse, in certain circumstances, and that the blanket statement in section 19, and found in the legal principles of most western legal systems, simply does not reflect the true state of the law. In support of this view, I recommend just some of the following articles: “Ignorance of the Law is No Excuse?,” “Ignorance of the Law is No Excuse, Except for Tax Crimes,” “Ignorance of the Law IS an Excuse, But Only for the Virtuous,” and my favourite, “The Death of a Maxim: Ignorance of the Law is No Excuse (Killed By Money, Guns, and a Little Sex.”

Second, there is a defence known as mistake of law, which I submit is not exactly an ignorance of the law excuse, and has found only limited success in the criminal law arena. This defence, known as the defence of officially induced error, is not so much about ignorance as it is about knowledge and from where that knowledge comes. This defence, which has its origins in the regulatory context, is a form of due diligence, which exonerates an accused who reasonably relies upon an erroneous legal opinion or relies upon incorrect advice from an official responsible for that particular area of law. So, the defence does not revolve around a complete failure to inform but around a mistaken but reasonable belief in the interpretation of the law. This exception to section 19 is permitted, as stated in the Supreme Court of Canada Jorgensen case, to ensure “that the morally blameless are not made criminally responsible for their actions.”

The main conceptual difficulty with s.19 is that knowing the law, as in knowing what the section says, does not mean one understands the law or understands what kind of behaviour a particular section may or may not prohibit. Meaning hinges on interpretation and therefore depends upon case law. To access this judge-made law one must have legal expertise. Surely, s. 19 does not take into account the seemingly endless complexities of our laws and of the legal interpretation of them.

On that note, I leave you to consider another Supreme Court of Canada decision, in the McIntosh case, wherein the then Chief Justice Lamer, on behalf of the majority, disapproved of reading-in words into the then s.34, self-defence section, as:

Under s. 19 of the Criminal Code, ignorance of the law is no excuse to criminal liability. Our criminal justice system presumes that everyone knows the law. Yet we can hardly sustain such a presumption if courts adopt interpretations of penal provisions, which rely on the reading-in of words, which do not appear on the face of the provisions. How can a citizen possibly know the law in such a circumstance?

The Criminal Code is not a contract or a labour agreement. For that matter, it is qualitatively different from most other legislative enactments because of its direct and potentially profound impact on the personal liberty of citizens. The special nature of the Criminal Code requires an interpretive approach, which is sensitive to liberty interests. Therefore, an ambiguous penal provision must be interpreted in the manner most favourable to accused persons, and in the manner most likely to provide clarity and certainty in the criminal law.

Section 19 may provide certainty in the criminal law but the real question is whether it provides clarity.

Section 19 - Ignorance and the Law: Episode 21 of the Ideablawg Podcast on the Criminal Code

Friday
Apr112014

Let’s Be Clear: The Supreme Court of Canada and the Enhanced Credit Cases

The enhanced credit trilogy cases released by the Supreme Court of Canada are truly a lesson in clarity on many levels. First, the main judgment in the Summers case, written by Madame Justice Karakatsanis, is clear, concise (at least for a SCC judgment) and readable. Second, the main basis for dismissing the Crown appeal is the government’s lack of clarity in defining the meaning of “circumstances” that justify enhanced credit under s. 719(3.1). Conversely, third, is the seemingly clear intention of the government to “cap” the credit at a 1:1.5 ratio. However, fourth, are the clearly defined and “well-established” and “long-standing” sentencing principles, which included enhanced credit for the lack of parole eligibility during pre-trial custody. In order to “overturn” these principles, Parliament must, fifthly, use clear and explicit language in the legislation.

What is also clear about this judgment (sixth) is that the Court is engaging in a dialogue with the government. If the government wants to change the law, they must do so, well, clearly – the government cannot hide behind value-laden words such as “truth” and “transparency.” However, the Court, albeit in an aside in paragraph 56 of the Summers judgment, also places a caveat on the government’s ability to change entrenched legal principles when Justice Karakatsanis states “Parliament does, of course, have the power to exclude these circumstances from consideration (barring a constitutional challenge).” Certainly, this advice is clear: if the government chooses to change legislation, then any changes must be consistent with the Charter.

 

Parliament, the ball is now in your “court!”

 

 

 

Friday
Apr042014

Section 18 – A Duress Addendum? Episode 20 of the Ideablawg Podcasts On The Criminal Code of Canada

Last week we discussed the codified version of the common law defence of duress or, as it is know in the Code, “Compulsion By Threats.” This week, we have a section, also concerned with compulsion but the specific compulsion, which may arise as a result of marriage. Section 18 faces this possibility and states as follows:

No presumption arises that a married person who commits an offence does so under compulsion by reason only that the offence is committed in the presence of the spouse of that married person.

This section is saying that the criminal law does not presume that a person who commits an offence in the presence of a spouse has been compelled to do the criminal act merely by virtue of their relationship. Immediately, one speculates on why it is the marriage relationship singled out in this fashion. Why does the section not speak to the parent/child relationship, which is also a strong bond between two people or even a sibling relationship? The answer lies in the original version of this section and although the present iteration seems benign enough, the historical version, on today’s standards, is much more contentious.

The section was in the original 1892 Code under the then section 13 and was entitled “Compulsion of Wife.” The section was, as you probably guessed, based on gender stereotypes as it held that “no presumption shall be made that a married woman committing an offence does so under compulsion because she commits it in the presence of her husband.” This one-sided notion was changed to gender-neutral language in the 1980 Code amendments. But this still does not explain why this section was codified in the first place.

As I explained in previous podcasts, there are many common law defences available to an accused and still available through s. 8(3). I have talked about the major types of defences that are regularly used today – such as justifications and excuses and the defence of mistake of fact. However, there are other common law defences, which are not regularly used such as the defence of de minimus non curat lex. This translates to the “the law does not concern itself with trifles” and has been used in many different kinds of scenarios such as in theft cases where the subject matter value and/or the criminal actions are trivial. Leaving that aside, there are, as I said, other common law defences and the defence of marital coercion is just one such common law defence.

The defence, if successful, exonerated a woman of criminal responsibility for criminal acts carried out in the presence of her husband on the reasoning that the wife unquestionably obeys her husband and therefore has no choice but to commit the criminal offence. She is not acting under her own volition and therefore should be excused for her conduct. It is a defence that inures only to the benefit of the married woman as in common law the husband is not so duty bound. Although the defence appears to be very similar to the defence of duress there are differences in application. The accused must be the legal wife of the husband in question and therefore legally married at the time. Even an accused who has an honest but mistaken belief of marriage cannot use the defence. There is some case law in the United Kingdom, which also suggest that the coercion need not be physical but can be moral and psychological as well.

Although this common law defence, in a modified form, is still in use in the United Kingdom (the defence cannot be used for murder or treason, see Section 47 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925), section 18 of the Criminal Code abrogates that defence. As we discussed in earlier episodes, common law defences are only available unless they are “altered by or inconsistent with” the Criminal Code and thus the defence of marital coercion, be it husband or wife, is not available. Even so, this does not preclude the accused person from raising the defence of duress, either under the common law or under s.17 as applicable.

As an aside, there is a move to abolish the defence in the UK as a result of the 2013 Pryce case. Vicki Pryce, a well-known government economist, raised the defence in her trial of perverting the course of justice when, at the behest of her then husband, she lied to the police that she was driving the family car allowing her husband to avoid demerit points. The use of the defence in this case, caused an outrage in British society, particularly in light of Pryce’s elevated position in the government. She and her husband were convicted and sentenced to eight months incarceration. Just recently, the UK government announced plans to abolish the defence.

 

 

Episode 20 of the Ideablawg Podcast on the Criminal Code of Canada: Section 18 - A Duress Addendum?

Saturday
Mar222014

Section 17 – The Statutory Defence of Duress: Episode 19 of the Ideablawg Podcasts on the Criminal Code of Canada

In previous podcasts we have discussed the category of legal defences called justifications and excuses. We know that despite codification our criminal law permits an accused person to raise at trial a common law defence, as long as it is not inconsistent with the Code. There are purely common law defences such as the excuse of necessity (which by the way is exemplified in the seminal case taught in every first-year law school criminal law course – Regina v Dudley and Stevenson – where the two accused charged with murder committed cannibalism when their ship floundered in the high seas and they were forced to drift on a lifeboat – think Life of Pi without the animals) but there are also common law defences, which are subject to codification and found in the Criminal Code. The excuse of duress is one such defence from the common law, which appears in the Code under the section we are contemplating today, section 17.

When we first look at this section, and it is a long one, we realize that the word “duress” is never used in section 17. We therefore immediately feel that what we are about to look at and think about is not the same as the common law defence of duress. This is a correct assumption, on the face of this section. When we look behind this section however and look at the case law, which has developed in conjunction with the advent of the Charter on the mechanics of this section, we will see that in reality this section entitled “Compulsion By Threats” is really very similar to the common law version and only differs in terms of what category of accused person can use this section and for which offences.

Section 17 reads as follows:

A person who commits an offence under compulsion by threats of immediate death or bodily harm from a person who is present when the offence is committed is excused for committing the offence if the person believes that the threats will be carried out and if the person is not a party to a conspiracy or association whereby the person is subject to compulsion, but this section does not apply where the offence that is committed is high treason or treason, murder, piracy, attempted murder, sexual assault, sexual assault with a weapon, threats to a third party or causing bodily harm, aggravated sexual assault, forcible abduction, hostage taking, robbery, assault with a weapon or causing bodily harm, aggravated assault, unlawfully causing bodily harm, arson or an offence under sections 280 to 283 (abduction and detention of young persons).

Before we dissect this section to have a clearer understanding of it, I want to remind you of the key elements of the class of defences we call excuses.

Both the actus reus and the mens rea of the offence must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt by the prosecution before a legal excuse or for that matter a legal justification can be used as a defence. This means that the case against the accused is made out and, but for this defence, the accused would be found guilty. In light of that prerequisite, the class of defences known as excuses acknowledge the wrongfulness of the conduct but as a result of the circumstances facing the accused person, the accused should not be held criminally responsible for his or her criminal actions. However, the circumstances facing the accused must be dire, in other words, the defence of excuse can only be used in emergency situations. It is therefore the accused’s reaction to these dire situations, which cause society to excuse or absolve their conduct.

Excuses are a concession to human frailty and therefore reflect our humanity in two ways. First, this defence realizes that as individuals, as part of our humanity, we may act inappropriately in order to preserve our life or others. Secondly, as humans we understand that we are not perfect and that our laws must bend to this truth in order to have a compassionate society.

Despite the above, the situations in which excuses can be used are very restrictive because we fear that permitting too broad an excuse for criminal conduct will result in cases where we as a society may not be so sympathetic. So, the rule of law draws a line between what is excused and what is not. The difficulty then becomes, where to draw this line in order to remain true to our humanity without losing it.

As I already mentioned, the section is a reflection, albeit as we will see an imperfect one, of the common law defence of duress and thus this section was in the 1892 Criminal Code under section 12. This original section, except for certain language changes, is virtually the same as the now section 17. Not much changed over the years to this section and yet, as I have already mentioned, the section has changed dramatically since 2001 when the Supreme Court of Canada gave this section a constitutional make-over in R v Ruzic.

The Court in Ruzic, under the auspices of section 7 of the Charter, found that the statutory duress defence was too restrictive, particularly in relation to its common law partner, which even with s.17, could be used by parties to an offence. In the Court’s view, the statutory defence, available only to principal offenders, should not be more restrictive than the common law. In order to re-balance s. 17, the Court took out those passages in the section, which did not accord with the common law equivalent. Even so, the Court did not remove the offences for which the defence was available, choosing to leave those changes, if desired, to the government.

In light of this, let’s return to section 17 and this time, I will edit the section to accord with the Ruzic decision:

A person who commits an offence under compulsion by threats of immediate death or bodily harm from a person who is present when the offence is committed is excused for committing the offence if the person believes that the threats will be carried out and if the person is not a party to a conspiracy or association whereby the person is subject to compulsion, but this section does not apply where the offence that is committed is high treason or treason, murder, piracy, attempted murder, sexual assault, sexual assault with a weapon, threats to a third party or causing bodily harm, aggravated sexual assault, forcible abduction, hostage taking, robbery, assault with a weapon or causing bodily harm, aggravated assault, unlawfully causing bodily harm, arson or an offence under sections 280 to 283 (abduction and detention of young persons).

Even with these changes the defence is a difficult one to employ. According to the newest Supreme Court of Canada case, in Ryan, the defence can only be used on the following bases:

  1. There must be a threat of death or bodily harm;
  2. The threat can be directed at the accused or a third party;
  3. The accused must reasonably believe that the threat will be carried out;
  4. There must be no safe avenue of escape, evaluated on a modified objective standard;
  5. There must be a close temporal connection between the threat and the harm threatened;
  6. There must be proportionality between the harm threatened and the harm inflicted by the accused, evaluated on a modified objective standard;
  7. The accused cannot be a party to a conspiracy or association whereby he or she is subject to compulsion as long as the accused actually knew that threats and coercion to commit an offence were a possible result of this criminal activity, conspiracy or association;
  8. The accused must be the principal offender and;
  9.  

In closing, there are a few items to note. First, the modified objective test is a creation of the Supreme Court of Canada in the series of cases on the meaning of criminal negligence. A discussion on this “test” and whether it is in fact a modifying one can be found in one of my previous blogs entitled The Subjective/Objective Debate Explained.

Second, the common law defence of duress in Canada is not restricted by type of offence, even though, in the UK the common law defence of duress cannot be used in a homicide charge, be the accused principal or a party.

Third, despite section 8(3) of the Code, which holds that common law defences continue unless they are altered or are inconsistent with the Code, section 17 changed to become more aligned to the common law as opposed to the common law defence changing to become more aligned to the Criminal Code iteration. This is because the common law defence of duress is for parties to an offence and the statutory defence is only for principal offenders. It is this distinction allows the common law defence to stand apart from the Code.

Fourth, even though Ruzic changed section 17, the Code does not reflect this change. One has to read the case law in order to know how the section should actually be implemented. This insistence by the federal government not to reflect court imposed Charter changes to sections is something that will come up again in the Code and in these podcasts. Indeed, there are whole sections, such as s.230 of the Code known as the constructive murder section, which have been struck down by the courts as constitutionally invalid and yet still appear in our Criminal Code. Why this is so is a matter of speculation but one wonders if the government believes that a differently composed court will take a different view or that the Charter may somehow change in the future. Either way, it is an oddity that these sections remain as they do as a vestige of the pre-Charter past.

Finally, there is much to be said about the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision in Ryan, which precluded the use of the duress defence in a situation where the accused was an abused woman who contracted an undercover police officer to kill her husband.  I will not, however, discuss those issues here in this podcast. Instead, I invite you to access my previous blog on the matter entitled Not To Make Excuses, But - The (Un)Responsiveness of the Supreme Court of Canada To Duress. I have also written on the application of the “air of reality test,” which is the threshold test used to determine if, in the circumstances of a case, a legal defence will be available to an accused in my blog entitled Poof! Into Thin Air – Where Have All The Defences Gone?: The Supreme Court of Canada And The Air Of Reality Test. I am currently writing a full article on this issue for publication.

We will of course come to further sections in the Criminal Code codifying common law defences where we will continue to peek back at the common law to frame the statutory doppelganger in the Code

Episode 19 of the Ideablawg Podcast on the Criminal Code of Canada: Section 17 - The Statutory Defence of Duress

Tuesday
Mar182014

Making A Split-Decision In The Supreme Court of Canada

Last month the Supreme Court of Canada released their statistics covering the last decade of decisions. The graphs make interesting reading if you want to know how long it takes for decisions to be rendered or which provinces send the most appeals. If those issues are not at the top of your must-know list, the graph on the number of unanimous decisions versus split decisions may be the graph to pique your interest. The lowest percentage of split decisions in a given year was in 2006, where 20% of the cases heard resulted in a dissenting decision. The highest percentage of dissenting decisions occurred in 2007 with 38% of the cases. Last year, 32% of the cases produced dissents.

What could have made these statistics even more enticing would be a break down on who sits in dissent most often and why. Are there thematic connections? Well, of course there are: a justice dissenting on a specific issue would not be expected to change his or her mind if the same or even similar issue arises. However, change does occur, as we know when reviewing the decade of cases from the 1990s on the mens rea requirements for criminal negligence. This change or shift in the court’s decision-making is appropriate and welcome: we want our courts to be reflective of societal fundamental values and this ability for change in legal principles permits this. We also want our jurists to be open to this change, in a principled way, of course. So, analyzing SCC decisions is a way to track change and to better understand the court’s position or change in position on any given issue.

Instead of waiting another decade for these interesting numerical tidbits, I crunched the criminal law numbers for this year. From January to mid-March there have been 13 criminal cases in which written decisions were rendered. Out of the 13 cases, nine of the cases resulted in unanimous decisions. Quite frankly these unanimous decisions are very short and merely the Court agreeing with the lower level appeal courts. Four cases, however, were split decisions. Roughly, 30.7% of the cases are therefore split or dissent decisions. This percentage is fairly consistent with last year.

 

Now, let’s move away from the empirical side and look at these four decisions for meaning. What kind of split decisions are these?

I have spoken about the Babos case in a previous blog entitled When Dissent In The Supreme Court Matters. This type of split decision, where there is only one Justice in dissent, signifies a fundamental difference in opinion between the majority written by Justice Moldaver, on behalf of the five other justices on the panel, and the lone dissenter, Justice Abella. As such, the dissent is heartfelt and invokes value-laden terms such as the “exceptional assault on the public’s sense of justice” in the face of “egregious state conduct.” Justice Abella, with her background in human rights, is speaking out in a case where her dissent may not really matter in legal principle terms but is a matter with which she disagrees “on principle.” I would call this a “moral/ethical” decision.

The MacDonald case is more benign. It is a “true application” decision. The disagreement does not involve a direct disagreement on the issue at hand but a disagreement on the true or correct application of previously decided legal principles. Thus, the dissent written by Justice Moldaver and Justice Wagner with Justice Rothstein concurring takes umbrage with the majority’s application or misapplication of the Mann case, decided a decade earlier, on the reasonableness of protective police searches. Ironically, Justice LeBel, who wrote the majority decision, was a member of the majority Mann decision. The dissent does not fail to appreciate this irony when they write:

The majority in this case purports to apply Mann.  Respectfully, however, it does not.  Instead, it renders Mann redundant, depriving police officers of the limited search powers they need to protect themselves and the public in fluid and often unpredictable situations of potential danger.

Such a case leaves the legal profession wondering if the Court can’t apply its own case properly, who can? Keep an eye on how this decision, which did not cause the flurry of attention in the legal profession it should have, will affect trial matters in the lower courts.

In Sekhon, the court considered the admissibility of a police officer’s “expert” evidence on drug couriers pursuant to the Mohan criteria. Although, both the majority decision, written by Justice Moldaver, and the dissent, written by Justice LeBel (notice how quickly the tables turn in the SCC in terms of who is in the dissent and who is in the majority!), agree that the evidence was inadmissible, the differences come in the application of s. 686(1)(b)(iii) and whether the appeal should be dismissed as there was no substantial wrong or miscarriage of justice. Again, both the majority and dissent agree on the basics: that the admission of the evidence was not a trivial error. However, in Justice Moldaver’s view the evidence of guilt was overwhelming and therefore it is within the public’s interest not to send the matter back to trial considering the costs to the criminal justice system. Justice LeBel agreed “that ordering a new trial places demands on judicial resources,” however, “this cannot override the appellant’s right to a fair trial based solely on admissible evidence.” In Justice LeBel’s view, the inadmissible evidence went to the very issue before the court – the guilt or innocence of the accused. This kind of decision is the “tug of war” decision.

Finally, the Hutchinson case is the “throw-back” decision. What did we say in Mabior again? While this case does not re-litigate the issues, as Mabior was a unanimous decision written by Chief Justice McLachlin, it does build upon some of the key pronouncements in that case. Thus, in Hutchinson, the majority, written by Chief Justice McLachlin and Justice Cromwell, agree that sexual assault offences protect sexual autonomy but not absolutely as the “blunt instrument of the criminal law” must be used with “appropriate restraint.” On the other hand, the dissent written by Justice Moldaver and Justice Abella view the protection of the sexual integrity of a person, as the controlling issue in the meaning of consent, within the broader context of public policy. Interesting to see the majority speak of traditional criminal law principles in the context of offences, which, for public policy reasons, are the least traditional criminal law offences in the Code. Clearly, there is much more to be said on the issue and a further “throw-back’ decision would not be unlikely.

So, there is a lot to be said about the court’s decisions over and beyond the simple statistical graphs we review every ten years. I wonder what the next few weeks will tell us?