A BRIEF BOOK REVIEW ON WHAT A BOOK CAN DO: JONATHAN RUDIN’S INDIGENOUS PEOPLE AND THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM: A PRACTITIONER’S HANDBOOK  

When I read a superb book, I want to share it. Although I do read e-books, the delight in owning a paper book is its quality of collectiveness. I can share it with family and friends with the hope a critical dialogue can ensue. As a law professor, I can enthusiastically recommend it to my students. When I read a well-written, insightful and impactful book, I don’t want to keep it to myself. The book I am about to discuss, Jonathan Rudin’s Practitioner’s Handbook on Indigenous Peoples and the Criminal Justice Systempublished by Emond Publishers, is one such book. It is a carefully written book for a broad audience of legal practitioners on complex legal issues. Yet it is also a compassionate book, profoundly articulating the failures of our profession and legal system to address historic and continuing wrongs against the Indigenous people of Canada. 

First a note about Jonathan Rudinwho has dedicated his life’s journey to the recognition of our legal failures in our relationship with Indigenous people. His pathway through this book has been straight and true as he himself created legal institutions and legal principles, through his professional work at Aboriginal Legal Services, to ensure no Canadian forgets these failures. He has worked hard to turn these failures into positive developments. This book is indicative of his work and a testament to it. 

The book opens as any legal treatise might by offering a literature review highlighting the systemic issues. But this is no ordinary literature review as page after page, Rudin summarizes each of the 13 Inquiries and Reports tabled since 1989, which have ruminated on Indigenous people in the criminal justice system. Starting with Donald Marshall Jrand ending in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Report, it becomes evident that for almost 30 years our system has expounded on these legal failures. It is equally clear, that for an equal number of years we have done little to nothing to change the gross inequalities inherent in our society which has caused those failures. There are an inordinate number of recommendations and a paucity of resulting change. This singular truth haunts the reader and compels us forward as we read page after page of case law steering us through those failures which have come to us through excruciatingly slow and deliberate steps. 

And yet for all of our legal slowness, the impact of Gladue, as discussed in this book, is not so much celebrated as it is waved as a flag of defiance in support of a future that will move faster and with purpose. The purpose being to eradicate the discriminatory practices which have given the statisticaltruths of Indigenous overrepresentation in our legal systems their quality of hardness and bitter remorse. In the last part of the book, we revel in the promise of the extension of Gladueprinciples into every nook and cranny of our legal systems. From sentencing to bail and beyond into military and civil justice, we see a glimmer of what our law can be should we take up the task offered by this book. Indeed, no lawyer even on the margins of practicing law, should put this book aside without thought to what they can do to bring about meaningful change.

Meaningful change can be found in this book. Woven between the pages are suggestive kernels of knowledge that each of us can take back to our law practices, court rooms, and law schools. There is, for example, a telling passage on Aboriginal English (and French), taken from the ground breaking work of Australian Socio-linguist Diana Eades, which can leave one with the kind of “aha” moment needed to create innovative approaches to intractable problems. There are many such veil lifting moments in this book.

Another change moment appears in the chapter dedicated to Indigenous courts as organic entities, holding the promise of a more responsive and proportionate Canadian legal system. This chapter holds real meaning for me, as on June 21, 2018, The Donald Marshall Junior Centre for Justice and Reconciliationwas opened on the Nova Scotian Wagmatcook Reserve. The Centre holds provincial and superior courts incorporating Indigenous justice traditions and healing. It is the embodiment of the kind of change willed by Rudin’s book.

Often we say that truth is stranger than fiction, in the case of this practitioner’s handbook, we can say that truth, like good fiction, can move us to do great deeds. Although the book can be considered a legal treatise, it shows that the law does not need to speak in code to be understood. It is a book which I will keep on my shelves and unreservedly recommend to any future or present legal practitioner. It is a book for sharing and for shared dialogue on what we can do in our profession to right the wrongs of the past. Most of all, however, it is a book offering the promise of a better future for Indigenous justice to be read and fulfilled by us all.

 

SPEAKING NOTES TO THE STANDING COMMITTEE ON JUSTICE AND HUMAN RIGHTS: Concerning C-75 and the Amendments to the Preliminary Inquiry

Mr. Chair and honourable members of the Standing Committee, thank you for giving me this opportunity to comment on the proposed amendments to the preliminary inquiry sections of the Criminal Code. It is a privilege to be here to speak on an issue which carries the weight of historical discourse and has engaged far greater minds than myself. The question of abolishing the preliminary inquiry has echoed through these halls and the courts of our nation and has engaged the public’s interest as well.

How do I come to speak to this matter? I am by trade a criminal defence lawyer and have been so from my early days of law school in the mid1980s. I have conducted preliminary inquiries, I have argued about them as appellate counsel, and I have written about them as a now law professor. Indeed, I have been rather vocal about the preliminary inquiry and these proposed changes. I hope my Brief and this opening statement will shed some light on why I believe the preliminary inquiry, albeit in a different structural format, is worth saving. 

But first, I will open with a personal story. A story I often repeat to my students when asked which case most significantly impacted me in my early career. The day after being called to the Bar in 1989, I received a case from one of the lawyers sharing space with the law firm for which I was employed. 

The preliminary inquiry was only 2 days away. The client, who was detained in custody, was charged with an attempt break and enter with the intent to commit an indictable offence. The maximum punishment for the full offence, as it involved a dwelling house, would have been life imprisonment but as an attempt it was punishable by fourteen years. Still a significant term. As an aside under the new proposed amendments such a preliminary inquiry would not be possible. 

 It was rather a pathetic and all too familiar story. The client was found loitering in front of a home on the sidewalks of Rosedale holding a pointy and frayed stick. He appeared to be intoxicated. The police were called. Upon investigation of the nearby home, it appeared that the front door lock was freshly scratched with bits of paint that appeared to be derived from the client’s pointed stick. Appearances, however, may be deceiving, Upon review of the file, I recommended to the client we argue against committal at the preliminary inquiry. Needless to say, Judge George Carter agreed. The client was discharged and immediately released. This preliminary inquiry changed his life. He had a lengthy record and was an alcoholic, but this change in his fortunes gave him hope. He straightened out, went back to school and became a youth worker in a young offender facility. Ultimately, he attached himself to the UN peacekeeping tour of Bosnia and he never looked back. 

 I know I was asked here based on my academic credentials and writing in the area but to me there is no clearer evidence of the importance of the preliminary inquiry as a tool for good than this story and I did want to share it with you.

So on to the less emotional side of the equation.

I am certain you have already heard last week many good reasons for why the preliminary inquiry in its present format must be retained. My Brief also outlines the historical significance of the preliminary inquiry as an essential protective shield against the power of the state. It is more than procedural. It lies at the heart of the criminal justice system as it is linked with the presumption of innocence and fair trial concepts. The preliminary inquiry calibrates the scales of justice in accordance with those fundamental principles of justice and provides meaningful judicial oversight. 

The power of the preliminary inquiry, as I have already alluded to, cannot be taken for granted, nor underestimated. But preliminary inquiries take time, precious court resources that are finite. We are, in many ways, facing a crisis in our court system as evidenced by the Jordan andCody decisions on trial delay. In fact, one of the suggestions arising from the Senate Committee Report on that crisis recommended the termination or limitation of the preliminary inquiry. The recommendation before us today in Bill C-75 is the more tempered vision of this Senate recommendation but, in my submission, it still goes too far. The amendments do not provide the protection promised by the full operation of preliminary inquiries and, as outlined in my Brief, does not account for the many other ways the preliminary inquiry assists the proper functioning of the criminal justice system.

Keeping in mind all of these competing concerns, we must create a solution to the problem that still remains consistent with our desire to provide a fair trial in accordance with our long-held principles. Such a solution will require another recalibration, yet one which will maintain the scales of justice as writ large in our common law and Charter. In my respectful submission the solution recommended in the amendments do not do this. Instead, this honourable committee should consider a more practical solution. A solution that lies within easy reach can be found in our civil system of justice in its procedures for civil questioning or discovery. This discovery system, for the most part, lies outside of the courts. It provides useful evidence for trial and can encourage resolution. It is also predicated on full disclosure.

By using that civil system, judicial resources, and therefore court resources, can be used in a focussed manner that stays true to the primary committal function of the preliminary inquiry, yet would permit the advancement of those vital ancillary purposes, be it preservation of evidence, building an evidential threshold case for a defence, or engaging in resolution discussions. Where there is a realistic committal issue, a preliminary will be heard by a judge. Where the matter involves one of the other viable purposes for a pre-trial questioning, the matter can be heard in a less costly forum, outside of court, in a conference room where the matter can be recorded for future use at trial. This solution provides a viable alternative to the amendments, it balances competing rights, it is mindful of court resources and it is already in use.

I thank the Chair and the other members of this honourable committee for inviting me to make submissions on an integral part of our criminal justice system.

Brief Submitted to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights Concerning Bill C-75

On September 24, I will be appearing before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights to present my recommendations on revision of the amendments to the Criminal Code in Bill C-75 relating to preliminary inquiries. Here is an excerpt of that Brief:

Introduction

Bill C-75 introduces a number of proposed changes to the Criminal Code. There are 300 pages of amendments covering a broad range of procedural, evidential, and substantive issues. Some of the amendments will significantly change the criminal justice system. None more than the proposed changes to the preliminary inquiry. This Brief will outline the weaknesses inherent in such change and a recommendation for a better, more robust and balanced approach. 

The Proposed Amendment

Bill C-75, in accordance with the summary attached to the Bill, proposes to “restrict the availability of a preliminary inquiry to offences punishable by imprisonment for life and strengthen the justice’s powers to limit the issues explored and witnesses to be heard at the inquiry.” The amendments will abolish the preliminary inquiry for all but those offences attracting a maximum punishment of life imprisonment. Those offences range from murder to criminal negligence causing death. 

For example, a preliminary inquiry may be heard on a break and enter into a dwelling house[1]but not for a break and enter into commercial premises.[2]A preliminary inquiry will also not be permitted for an attempt break and enter into a dwelling house as the maximum punishment is 14 years imprisonment.[3]

Although prior to the proposed amendments, a preliminary inquiry was upon request of the accused or prosecutor, with the new amendments, the judge hearing the inquiry will have broad discretion to regulate the inquiry. Under the proposed changes to s. 537(1)(i), the hearing judge may do so “in any way that appears to the justice to be desirable, including to promote a fair and expeditious inquiry.” Specifically, under s. 537(1.01), the inquiry judge may “limit the scope of the preliminary inquiry to specific issues and limit the witnesses to be heard on these issues.” Through application of the new amendment to s. 540(1)(a), the inquiry judge may also restrict the defence’s cross examination of a witness called to testify by the prosecution. 

Background to the Role of the Preliminary Inquiry in Our Criminal Justice System

For years the efficacy of the preliminary inquiry has been questioned, studied and discussed by lawyers, government officials, and the courts. Despite debate and amendments, the preliminary inquiry, at its core, exists as the legislative “shield” between the accused and the Crown, protecting, as Justice Estey explains in the 1984 majority decision of Skogman v The Queen,[4]“the accused from a needless, and indeed, improper, exposure to public trial where the enforcement agency is not in possession of evidence to warrant the continuation of the process.” Despite this sentiment, both levels of government and the courts have questioned the efficacy of the preliminary inquiry seeing little value in the procedure and only costs to the efficient and effective administration of justice. 

The preliminary inquiry discussion started benignly with the call for the abolition of the grand jury system; an English common law procedure requiring a panel of 24 jurors to evaluate the charges to determine if the case should proceed to an Indictment.[5]Eventually, the grand jury system was abolished by attrition as individual provinces simply stopped using the practice. Ironically, the principle argument advanced in favour of eliminating the grand jury inquiry was the existence of the preliminary inquiry as the true procedural safeguard against the power of the state. 

The main purpose of the preliminary inquiry is the committal function. To determine this, a preliminary inquiry justice considers whether or not there is sufficient evidence to commit the accused to trial pursuant to s. 548 of the Criminal Code.If the evidence is insufficient for committal, the accused will be discharged. 

Although the test requires a fairly low evidential threshold, there are cogent illustrations of the impact of this discharge power. An example is found in the case of Susan Nelles, who was the pediatric nurse on duty when a number of babies died in the cardiac ward of the Hospital for Sick Kids in the early 1980s. She was ultimately charged with first-degree murder of four children by allegedly injecting them with lethal doses of the drug digoxin. The subsequent preliminary inquiry revealed a complete lack of evidence for the charge, resulting not only in her discharge but also in an inquiry into the deaths.[6]In this way, a preliminary inquiry protects an accused from the pernicious power of the state and can also provide a forum safe from the vagaries of public opinion.

Nevertheless, according to Mr. Justice Estey in Skogman, the preliminary inquiry serves an additional purpose, derived through usage, of “a forum where the accused is afforded an opportunity to discover and to appreciate the case to be made against him at trial where the requisite evidence is found to be present.”[7]It is this ancillary purpose, grounded in the right of an accused to make full answer and defence, which garners the most criticism and provides support for abolition. This argument suggests that with the advent of the Charterand the stringent disclosure requirements of Stinchcombe,[8]the preliminary inquiry is no longer a necessary discovery tool.[9]This reassessment did indeed happen. In October of 2001, the then Liberal government proposed, as part of a miscellany of criminal law amendments, significant changes to the preliminary inquiry process in the omnibus Bill C-15. The then Justice Minister Anne McLellan, in her presentation to the House upon second reading of the Bill, described the revisions as criminal procedure reform, spearheaded by the provinces, in an effort to:

simplify trial procedure, modernize the criminal justice system and enhance its efficiency through the increased use of technology, better protect victims and witnesses in criminal trials, and provide speedy trials in accordance with charter requirements. We are trying to bring criminal procedure into the 21st century. This phase reflects our efforts to modernize our procedure without in any way reducing the measure of justice provided by the system.[10]

Madame Justice Deschamps, in her majority decision in Regina vS.J.L.,[11]considered these amendments. According to Justice Deschamps, the ancillary function of the preliminary as a discovery tool “has lost much of its relevance”[12]due to enhanced disclosure requirements. Justice Deschamps pointed to the new procedures as clearly illustrating the trend “toward the adoption of mechanisms that are better adapted to the needs of the parties, not the imposition of more inflexible procedures.”[13]

At the same time as this movement away from the preliminary inquiry as a disclosure mechanism, we see a rise of legal rules requiring the accused person to provide an evidential foundation for certain applications and defences before they can advance these issues at trial.[14]

Why the Amendment Needs Revision

It is this last phrase - “better adapted to the needs of the parties, not the imposition of more inflexible procedures” – that requires further attention. Added to this sentiment is the need to ensure procedures do not impede full answer and defence to the detriment of the presumption of innocence, fair trial concerns, and the overall integrity of the justice system. Without fair and just procedures in place, the potential for miscarriages of justice increase. 

The proposed amendments go further than the previous changes to create an inflexible process, which fails to account for the original reason for the preliminary inquiry as a protective mechanism and fails to respond to the new realities of courtroom evidentiary requirements. This double concern results in amendments that detract from the integrity of the justice system instead of promoting it. 

For instance, the preliminary inquiry can be an indispensable tool to establish the required evidential foundation for threshold issues, such as admissibility of evidence, providing the basis for a legal defence or setting the stage for a Charterapplication.[15]Thus, the notion that the preliminary inquiry lacks utility and interferes with the administration of justice fails to recognize the access to justice issues resulting from the inquiry’s demise. In order for the counsel to “appreciate the case made against” the accused, counsel has to have an opportunity to see it.[16]

The concept that the preliminary inquiry weighs down the system and interferes with trial court efficiency is a misnomer. In fact, statistically, the preliminary inquiry works. In a timely 2013 article entitled Why Re-open the Debate on the Preliminary Inquiry? Some Preliminary Empirical Observations,[17]University of Ottawa criminologist Cheryl Webster, who has done extensive researchon court reform for the federal government, and retired Department of Justice counsel Howard Bebbington, found value in the preliminary inquiry process as, based on an empirical study, it did positively impact scarce court resources. As referenced in the article, a preliminary inquiry can identify weakness in a case, which may assist in resolution of the file or identify and delineate trial issues thereby shortening the process. In the same way, a preliminary inquiry can also assist in the release of an in custody accused as a weaker case can result in a successful bail application. Additionally, the preliminary hearing can assist either the prosecution or the defence in preserving evidence for admission at trial. 

Further, theview that the preliminary inquiry, as a committal and disclosure forum, can be adequately substituted by prosecutorial discretion and full disclosure fails to appreciate the importance of the inquiry as a forum providing the oversight of a fair and impartial member of the judiciary. Such judicial oversight is a cornerstone of our justice system. Moreover, in Regina v Nur,[18]the then Chief Justice McLachlin cautions against substituting prosecutorial discretion for judicial decision making, particularly in the adversarial context. This would, in the words of the Chief Justice in Nur, “create a situation where the exercise of the prosecutor’s discretion is effectively immune from meaningful review.”[19]Additionally, although Stinchcombehas set high disclosure expectations, disclosure is not a static concept but continues throughout the case. Disclosure requests are often informed by the preliminary inquiry process, which can actually result in trial efficiencies. 

Finally, to delineate between offences based on punishment fails to acknowledge the deeply personal impact an indictable charge can have on the dignity and self-worth of an individual, particularly where there may be insufficient evidence for that matter to go to trial. The prosecution office does not have the resources to comb through the many files to determine whether evidential sufficiency nor do they have the appropriate oversight function to do so. 

A more meaningful approach would include a real assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of the inquiry process. We must be open to looking at other ways to retain the safeguards presently built into the preliminary inquiry process. For instance, where committal is not in issue, we may find a useful court alternative in the civil discovery procedures, which permits a less formal and less costly forum for the questioning of parties after full disclosure of documents. With an informed and thoughtful discourse on the issue, a more flexible approach could, and should, be found to save the preliminary inquiry from this premature legislative demise. 

Recommendations

 That the proposed amendments be revised to consider the following:

 1. To retain the preliminary inquiry process for those offences where committal is in issue;

 2. For those cases where committal is not in issue, to utilize a modified civil form of discovery procedures, which would permit questioning to occur outside of the court process in a less costly and more efficient atmosphere.[20]

This proposal will take less judicial resources, less time and relieve courts yet still provide the protection envisioned by the original committal process.

Conclusion

Change can be good and can improve our concept of justice. However, even the smallest change must be calibrated toward a goal we all share: maintaining the fine balance between protection of the public and protection of the individual within that system who is faced with a potential loss of liberty. We must not sacrifice one for the other. Change must be viewed not as a piece of a maze but as a part of a whole through long-term strategic vision. 

Specifically, change within the criminal justice system cannot be done in the name of efficiency only. Efficiency is not what we want from our justice system. That is not what the Jordan[21]and Cody[22]decisions are all about. Cultural change involves a bundle of values not a bundle of paper being efficiently pushed about. The goal should be to enhance the criminal justice system while preserving the protections of those whose liberty is at risk.

[1]See section 348(1)(d) of the Criminal Code.

[2]See section 348(1)(e) of the Criminal Code.

[3]See section 463(a) of the Criminal Code.

[4][1984] 2 SCR 93 at 105 [Skogman].

[5]See Parliament of the Dominion of Canada, Sessional Papers, No 66 (1891)Volume17at 7-69.

[6]See Ontario, Ministry of the Attorney General, Royal Commission of Inquiry into Certain Deaths at the Hospital for Sick Children and Related Matters, Report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry Into Certain Deaths at the Hospital for Sick Children and Related Matters, by the Honourable Mr. Justice Grange, (Toronto, 1983. 

[7]Supranote 4 at105.

[8][1991] 3 SCR 326.

[9]See Re Regina and Arviv(1985), 19 CCC (3d) 395 (ONCA), G A Martin JA at para 31; R v O’Connor, [1995] 4 SCR 411,L'Heureux-Dubé J at paras 170 – 171.

[10]“Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2001”, 2ndreading, House of Commons Debates, 37-1, No 54 (May 3, 2001) at 1620 (Hon Anne McLellan).

[11][2009] 1 SCR 426.

[12]Ibid at para 23.

[13]Ibidat para 24.

[14]See e.g. R v Downey, [1992] 2 SCR 10 as it relates to the evidential burden on the accused to rebut presumptions; R v O’Connor, [1995] 4 SCR 411 as it relates to s. 276 applications; R v Davis, [1999] 3 SCR 759 as it relates to the air of reality test in raising honest but mistaken belief in consent; R v Ruzic, [2001] 1 SCR 68 as it relates to duress; Rv Cinous, [2002] 2 SCR 3 as it relates to self-defence; R v Pappas, [2013] 3 SCR 452 as it relates to provocation; R v Fontaine, [2004] 1 SCR 702 as it relates to mental disorder.

[15]Ibid

[16]Supraat note 4.

[17]Cheryl Marie Webster & Howard H. Bebbington, "Why Re-open the Debate on the Preliminary Inquiry? Some Preliminary Empirical Observations" (2013) 4:55 Can J Corrat 513-532.

[18]2015 SCC 15.

[19]Ibidat para 94.

[20]See e.g. Rule 31 of the Ontario Rules of Civil ProcedureRRO, 1990, Reg 194 and Part 5 of the Alberta Rules of Court, AR 124/2010.

[21]2016 SCC 27.

[22]2017 SCC 31.

Tracing the Likeness of Coulten Boushie in the Law Classroom (cross posted on Ablawg.ca)

On January 29, 2018, the nation’s gaze was decidedly fixed on Battleford, Saskatchewan where the second-degree murder trial of Gerald Stanley was commencing. From that first day of jury selection to the present, there is a general sense of shock, outrage and disbelief from so many corners of our country. In the legal community, there is much debate on the legal issues arising from the trial as well as concerns with jury selection and the presence of discriminatory practices that are embedded in our justice system. Many voices are being heard that are challenging the traditional common law perspective. Many of these voices are from the Indigenous community who are speaking from their heart and from their own personal experiences. As part of this reaction, the legal community is debating these issues through a variety of lenses and all sides of the issues. Like most everyone touched by this issue, I have read these accounts with interest. As a lawyer who practiced criminal law and now teaches it, my initial reaction is typically lawyerly: to parse the charge to the jury for legal errors, to debate the efficacy of peremptory challenges and to call for change in our justice system. But the overwhelming message, in my view, the message which needs to be presented in the law classroom is not just one promoting a legalistic analysis but one providing a broader more meaningful message presenting this case and this verdict as part of an overarching theme or subtext, which can be traced in the law classroom.

As mentioned, there are many salient legal arguments to be made in wake of the acquittal of Stanley for the murder of Colten Boushie. Most of those arguments are legalistic involving the law of homicide and the mens rea requirements for unlawful act manslaughter, the legal significance of the so-called “defence” of accident, opinion and expert evidence, instructions to the jury, and jury selection. But overlaid onto these legal arguments is the brutal truth – that our criminal justice system is slow to embrace the kind of change needed to make our justice system reflective of our Indigenous peoples. In fact, we have been meandering toward change in a very familiar and comfortable manner. To my case-law attuned mind comes the expression “incremental” change (i.e. R v Salituro, [1991] 3 SCR 654) as a description of how the justice system has responded to the dire issues raised by the Indigenous voices attempting to awaken the system. I cannot pretend to speak on behalf of those voices nor do I have the right to do so but I can through my own personal perspective add to this much needed call for change. To trace the likeness of this issue though the law classroom is an important piece of the awareness or awakening which needs to happen in our legal profession. We are the defenders of the rule of law but also the framers of that law and we need the future of our profession to be mindful of this awesome duty to create sustainable and meaningful change through law.

The trail must start somewhere, and I will choose to start it with a case which resonated with me as a young law student and then lawyer and still catches in my throat today: the story of Donald Marshall Jr., a young Mi’kmaq man wrongfully convicted of murder. His story was an egregious example of the miscarriage of justice our system could generate, and a shameful example of the discrimination and racism tolerated in that system. Out of that example came an acquittal, after years in prison, a royal commission advocating change, and a man who dedicated his life and voice to Indigenous rights. As inspirational as he is even a decade after his death in 2009, his example dates back to the 1980’s, some 35 years ago. His fight for traditional fishing rights culminated in a decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1999 (R v Marshall, [1999] 3 SCR 456) in which he was vindicated yet again for breaches of the Fisheries Act but this time on behalf of his people. This story exemplifies the subtext that can be found within the borders of case law and between the words enunciated by a jury verdict.

But I do not need to go back that far to continue the trace or the shadow cast by the “long arm of the law.” When I taught as a sessional instructor human rights and civil liberties to undergraduate criminal justice students in the 2000’s, I was sure to discuss Burnt Church First Nation’s struggle with fishing rights, the Neil Stonechild tragic and unnecessary death, and the treatment and incarceration of Indigenous peoples in the prison system as seen through Michael Jackson QC’s perspective on prisoner’s rights, the Arbour Report on the Prison for Women and the numerous reports from the Correctional Investigator of Canada. Added to this narrative is the Truth and Reconciliation Report and the call to action for monumental change, not incremental change, needed to eradicate injustice in our system. This mountain of information is more than a discussion piece it is the reality of our criminal justice system.

But the Stanley trial and the implications of the case shakes me out of past legal narratives to the present and to the continuing issues we see within the criminal justice system. In the 1L classroom my criminal law colleagues and I implemented curriculum changes to include Aboriginal sentencing issues and a panel discussion to hear, understand and experience the human connection between Gladue reports (R v Gladue, [1999] 1 SCR 688) and the criminal court room. Again, an example of how the law almost two decades ago changed but the impact of that change has not been a visceral one but a legalistic conversation which still haunts the criminal court room and the law classroom.

New cases emerge, adding to the memories of Donald Marshall and emphasizing the need to offer these examples as the contextual foreground in law classroom doctrinal learnings. Gladue comes easily to us as a paradigm of a discrete area of law involving clear statutory directions in s. 718.2 to include the aboriginal perspective. These newer examples are more difficult legally as they serve as counterpoints to the traditional trope of miscarriage of justice through the accused’s perspective. We are comfortable in law dressing our outrage in the language of legal errors directed toward our most cherished values as embodied in the presumption of innocence. This is important as evidenced in the Donald Marshall case but what is not evident and what is harder to debate is the criminal justice system as a societal mirror of how we implement the rule of law on behalf of the entire nation. To push ourselves to view justice in a big picture way is counterintuitive to the lawyer who is trained to peer through the magnifying glass and find those lacunae, those minute errors which provide us with the “Aha” moment when we can decry a miscarriage of justice on behalf of the accused who must face the imbalance of state authority and power. But it behoves us all to take up the mantle of lasting change by widening the focus and emboldening a deeper conversation involving the entirety of the justice system. These cases sit at the edges of the law but also serve as the reminders of what is at stake when the criminal justice system provides space for the stereotypical characterization of Cindy Gladue in R v Barton, 2017 ABCA 216 (see my previous posting on the case) and the impassive resistance of the complainant in R v Blanchard (see Alice Woolley’s excellent posting on this case)

The subtext or context or trace of the likeness of Colten Bushie can and must be taken in the law classroom. We must approach the discriminatory and slow to change mechanisms of our criminal justice system not as a mere legal problem or as a simple teachable legal moment akin to an in-class case hypothetical but as a mindful approach to what the legal principles and case law really mean. These discussions are hard and debatable but that does not mean we do not do it. We should question and debate the role of law in our society. A society committed to diversity, change and tolerance as reflected in our laws and our application of those laws. Sometimes incremental change works but sometimes it merely pulls from behind and pushes forward the vestiges of our legal past. If we want real change we need to listen to the echoes of the past through the lens of today and that includes the black-letter law we teach in the classroom.

We have the tools of reconciliation – desire and willingness to change but we need courage to do so. Our justice system is slow to embrace and integrate indigenous learning and practices. It should not be a question of accommodating or conforming. It should be a question of inclusivity. We are a unique nation and we need to recognize injustice when we see it and welcome those voices into the law classroom.

 

 

Seeing Justice Through the VR Lens

The first few 1L Criminal Law classes are dedicated to the “big picture” wherein we discuss the purpose of criminal law in the context of the criminal justice system. Unlike the other 1L doctrinal courses, criminal law is laden with context without which the doctrinal aspects would be meaningless. The context includes, but is not limited to the following: the roles and responsibilities of the Crown, defence and trial judge; respecting the trial narrative as real life situations impacting the lives of real people; trial strategy, professionalism and ethics; procedural “choices” and most importantly, the principles of fundamental justice, which permeates all of these concepts. I try to give them a sense of urgency – how vital all the pieces are to the healthy functioning of the system.

Although I like to use the puzzle piece metaphor to explain how each concept relates to one another and the incompleteness should one piece fail or be absent, in retrospect, that metaphor is too static. It fails to connect to the modern aspect, embedded as it is in technology and imagery. A conventional puzzle is too flat to express the multifarious dimensions of the justice system and the delicacy of the model we uphold. The more appropriate parallel is an interactive 3D environment that has presence, weight and texture. In such an environment, we can more fully appreciate the impact each micro-concept has on the macro-institution. This is the justice system as seen through virtual reality optics in which all the images meld together into a coherent and cohesive whole. This cohesiveness, I suggest, comes from those principles of fundamental justice as embodied in our Charter such as the presumption of innocence, fair trial, and the “specialness” of the criminal standard of proof. Of course, the Charter also supplies dissonance to the imagery as we struggle to overlay onto this reality other protected rights coming not just from the individual charged before the criminal law but also the individual who appears before it as witness. In this sense, the pursuit of justice in this VR lens takes on complex contours and new pathways.

Admittedly, this VR depiction seems a little too much for an explanation as to why the principles of fundamental justice matter in our criminal courts but visualization or depiction of the law is as important as articulation. In my working paper on “The W(D) Revolution”, I make a case for the case by showing why the essence of W(D) still matters and how it has revolutionized the way the courts view the presumption of innocence and burden of proof. I emphasize the need to strip down our trial discourse to the essentials - that assessment of the evidence must be done through the lens of those principles of fundamental justice which underline our core values as a society. We say we do this, however, the W(D) journey is also a cautionary tale, reminding us that espousing a formulaic mantra is meaningless without a true commitment to the content of W(D) and those principles the case enshrines. Without that commitment, we are not giving meaning to those values nor are we creating an image of the criminal justice system worth pursuing. We need to view the justice system through the lens of virtual reality and experience the texture of justice as we dispense it. This is why W(D) still matters and this is why teaching context is everything.

The Creation of Community “Space” in Sentencing in R v Saretzky

The Saretzky case will live in infamy as a disturbing crime that defies description and understanding. In this post, I do not intend to engage in a classic case analysis of the sentencing proceeding, which has been the primary subject of media attention and legal commentary. Certainly, the legal issues raised in this case are of concern as we struggle to make sense of a crime so devoid of humanity yet committed by a person who will now spend seventy-five years in custody, essentially to the end of his days. Is it a crushing sentence which fails to recognize the possibility, no matter how faint, of rehabilitation? Or is mere speculation about rehabilitation an inappropriate, unsafe, and frankly impossible standard to apply? Leaving aside the application of recognized principles of retribution and denunciation, are we comfortable with the reality of this decision, the warehousing of an individual who is a legitimate and continuing threat to society? Should the law be a “beacon of hope” or does “hope” go beyond legal expectations? Although we like to believe that hard cases make bad law, in fact, hard cases force us to look squarely at the worst scenario almost as a litmus indicator to test the strength and flexibility of applicable legal principles. In looking at Saretzky and Justice W. A. Tilleman’s reasons for sentencing, we can properly ask whether our sentencing principles and codified laws are up to the heavy task of assessing the worst case and the worst offender, the twin legal principles supporting the imposition of the maximum sentence.

The answer to all of this may require us to do some navel gazing and philosophizing that takes us outside traditional sentencing principles. It may also require us to explore whether there is a legitimate role in sentencing for the community. When I use the term “community,” I am not referring to bald public opinion as reflected on social media – that, as Justice Wagner cautioned in R v St-Cloud, 2015 SCC 27 (CanLII) at paras 80-84, is far from the considered and reasoned pronouncements of the law. No, community is not who has the most likes on Twitter and speaks the loudest on Facebook. Community or better yet the “community’s sense of justice” can be found in Justice Tilleman’s reasons in the Saretzky sentencing. Community bonds, communal mourning and healing all have a “space” in the Saretzky decision. It is my contention that the community’s place in the bounded space of the courtroom is connected to the judge’s now enhanced and expanded duty to protect the integrity of the administration of justice and to maintain trust and confidence in the criminal justice system. With this shift to community however, we must be ever mindful of our principles of fundamental justice which protect the individual offender as part of that community. We must rely on the delicate balance of sentencing to calibrate the scales of justice to ensure fair and just sentences.

In the first sentence, Justice Tilleman speaks through the offender to the community – not the community writ large but the community of Crowsnest Pass, a small district in southwestern Alberta with a population of a little over 5,500 people consisting of a string of even smaller communities, such as Frank, Blairmore, and Coleman, all hugging Highway 3 as it winds through the pass and into the British Columbia Rockies. It is a small community with big history. It is a community with memory of disaster. It was here in 1903 where the tip of Turtle Mountain tumbled into the town of Frank thereby defining a community through devastation and loss. It is here that Canadian opera found a voice in the tragic story of Filumena, a young woman convicted of the murder of an RCMP officer during the prohibition era. This and many other stories create the community, the community which Justice Tilleman addresses nineteen times throughout the sentencing reasons. These are the people of Crowsnest Pass whom Justice Tilleman, before asking Derek Saretzky to stand for the imposition of sentence, encourages to heal and move forward. He encourages them to “rebuild” and recreate another iteration of themselves as community, an image not defined by inexplicable tragedy (para 58).

Community also speaks to the offender in this decision. The jury of peers, charged with the difficult and awesome task of determining guilt or innocence, are representative of the shared community of the offender and the victims. It is through the jury process that community members, utilizing the legally embossed analytical tools given to them by the trial judge, engage in community decision making. In the words of Justice Addy in R v Lane and Ross, [1970] 1 OR 681, 1969 CanLII 545 (ON SC) (p 279), juries are the “bulwark of our democratic system and a guarantee of our basic freedoms under the law.” They are also part of the sentencing discourse through their parole ineligibility recommendations, and, in the Saretzky case, they unanimously urged the imposition of consecutive terms totalling 75 years of parole ineligibility (para 24).

Community also defines the victims. Justice Tilleman humanizes the deceased (para 48) through the lens of community as he circumscribes their community space and place by describing “Hanne Meketech—a community elder and dear friend,” and “Terry Blanchette—a young man and father,” and lastly “Hailey Dunbar-Blanchette, an innocent child.” Thus, Justice Tilleman monumentally memorializes their lives in relation to what these victims of violence meant to their community.

The approach taken in this sentencing, the bringing in of community to a forum traditionally partitioned off from community, evokes the Indigenous model for restorative justice as envisioned in R v Gladue, [1999] 1 SCR 688, 1999 CanLII 679 (SCC) at para 74 and as skillfully employed by Justice Nakatsuru throughout R v Armitage, 2015 ONCJ 64 (CanLII). This model requires more investigation as we learn from and embrace Indigenous culture, thought, and sense of community. It also brings to mind specialized international courts, such as the traditional Rwandan gacaca courts, which empower community as a step to repairing past harms.

These approaches, superficially, differ greatly from the English common law tradition and often sit uneasily within our sentencing principles geared toward the criminal sanction. But on closer examination, all sentencing approaches cause us to investigate the space, place, and boundaries of the judicial function in the larger sense. Hard cases such as Saretzky require us to reconcile the role of the trial judge, who is at once the arbiter of the facts and purveyor of the law whilst also the guardian and representative of the community’s fundamental values. Difficult cases challenge us to consider how we today in our truly Canadian context should read the roles and responsibilities of judgeship. Conversations over hard cases help us create and define our legal system. In this instance, we are required to pause and consider whether Justice Tilleman was fulfilling a legally recognized juridical role when he permitted community to speak in this decision or whether on a strict reading of our legal principles he overcompensated for community when he elevated the crime beyond the worst offence and worst offender nomenclature to describe it as a crime against community (paras 32, 45). It is this hard case that causes us to consider holistically the post-conviction regime set down for us in the Criminal Code including the long-term offender and dangerous offender regimes, which offer an alternate determination of long term risk and dangerousness of an offender like Saretzky who is deemed “a lethal harm to his community” (para 43).

The delicate balance of sentencing requires a steady hand; a community needs to heal, needs to feel in some way part of the application and presence of justice for matters happening in their living space. Principles of sentencing recognize this role of community. Yet, balance requires linkage and proportionality, and the sentencing court must fulfill the objectives of sentencing in such a manner that this offender is sanctioned for his actions and for his level of moral culpability or blameworthiness. Certainly, Justice Tilleman was aware of this when he emphasized the “deliberate and intentional conduct” of Saretzky in committing the offences (para 34-35). To fulfill these principles then, the court must, through the “judicial lens”, know the offender, the offence and the community.

Sentencing is, in my view along with bail, the most important part of the criminal justice system. Release until proven guilty and meaningful, principled and compassionate sanctioning are the bookends of the Criminal Code. Without either, our system will fall. Recently, the spot light has rightly been on the frailties of the justice system with bail as an indicator, like the canary in a coal mine, of the level of crisis facing us. Sentencing principles (R v Lacasse, 2015 SCC 64 (CanLII)) and plea negotiations (R v Anthony-Cook, 2016 SCC 43 (CanLII)) have received jurisprudential scrutiny but without any real integration into the now widespread discussion of what’s wrong with our justice system and how to fix it. Certainly, the Saretzky decision is not a prime example of “what’s wrong” but it reveals to us where the points of legal inquiry intersect and interface with public confidence and trust in the system. Judges, throughout the trial, make decisions based on the rule of law, and jurors too must confine their decision-making to the parameters of legal principle, which involve the application of common sense and reasonable inferences. However, community, in the fullest sense of the term, is, as Jane Jacobs envisioned it in Death and Life of Great American Cities, the legal equivalent of “eyes on the street”, that idiomatic second pair of eyes, which takes the form of the alter ego of the blindfolded goddess embodied as the community conscience or “community sense of justice”. In what form this communal sense or community space unfolds within the halls of justice is a matter for further reflection and consideration. Justice Tilleman in the Saretzky decision challenges us to do just that.

R v Anthony-Cook and the Community’s Sense of Justice

In R v Anthony-Cook (2016 SCC 43 (CanLII)), Justice Moldaver, on behalf of the full court, clarifies the test to be applied by a sentencing judge when departing from a joint submission on sentence and then gives clear step-by-step instructions to judges on how to properly apply the appropriate test. The joint sentence recommendation in this case arose out of a tragic set of circumstances in which the 28-year-old offender, who suffered from addiction and mental health issues, assaulted a fellow attendee at a local addiction and counselling organization. The assault resulted in death and ultimately, Mr. Anthony-Cook, after his lawyer negotiated a plea resolution with the Crown prosecutor, including an agreement on sentence, entered a plea of guilty to the charge of manslaughter. At the sentencing hearing, the defence and Crown prosecutor offered the joint submission on sentence, recommending the offender receive a further 18-months incarceration (he had already been in custody for a total of 11 months) without out any period of probation.

The sentencing judge declined to accede to the joint recommendation as the proposed sentence did “not give adequate weight to the principles of denunciation, deterrence, and protection of the public” (R v Anthony-Cook, 2014 BCSC 1503 (CanLII), Ehrcke J at para 68) and instead imposed a sentence of two years less a day to be followed by 3 years of probation. (at paras 54 to 63) In the sentencing judge’s view, the sentence proposed was unfit and therefore he was not bound by the joint submission. As a result, he departed “to some extent” from the negotiated sentence recommendation. (at para 67) The British Columbia Court of Appeal agreed with the sentencing judge’s assessment that the proposed sentence was unfit and not in the public interest and found no error in his sentencing departure. The matter was further appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada (hereinafter SCC) to clarify the test to be used by a sentencing judge in departing from a joint submission on sentence. Appellate courts across Canada were not ad idem on the issue, using four different tests for departure: the fitness test, the demonstrably unfit test, the public interest test, and a test which viewed the issues of fitness and public interest as the same.  The Supreme Court of Canada was asked to clarify which test was the controlling one with the court unanimously approving of the public interest test. As the sentencing judge erred by applying the incorrect test, Anthony-Cook’s negotiated sentence was imposed by the court.

As we have come to expect from Justice Moldaver, it is a plain language decision giving practical guidance to the sentencing judge in the context of the realities of our criminal justice system. This system is realistically depicted in other recent Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) decisions, most notably in R v Jordan, 2016 SCC 27 (CanLII), where we are told that trial fairness, a most cherished aspect of our principles of fundamental justice, is not in fact in “mutual tension” with trial efficiency; rather they are, “in practice,” in a symbiotic or interdependent relationship. (at para 27) According to Jordan (at para 28), “timely trials further the interests of justice.” These “interests of justice” involve our “public confidence in the administration of justice” and most notably our “community’s sense of justice.” (at para 25) It is therefore within the public interest to create clear and articulable bright-lines in our justice system to promote these community values. In the Anthony-Cook decision, the SCC continue their search for clarity by delineating the line at which a sentencing judge can depart from a joint recommendation agreed to by the defence and the prosecution as determined by the “public interest test.” Yet, as illuminating as this public interest test may be and as clear as the guidance is, just what the Court means by “public interest” must be unpacked by reference to other SCC decisions and by the Court’s concept of the “community’s sense of justice.”

I purposely use the metaphor of “unpacking” for a reason. For to fully understand the public interest test in Anthony-Cook we must not only travel to those obvious decisions cited in Anthony-Cook, such as R v Lacasse, [2015] 3 SCR 1089, 2015 SCC 64 (CanLII) and R v Power, [1994] 1 SCR 601, 1994 CanLII 126 (SCC), but also to those decisions not mentioned by Justice Moldaver, such as Jordan, that have a clear and convincing connection. For the sake of “timeliness,” I will travel to one such notable case, R v St-Cloud, [2015] 2 SCR 328, 2015 SCC 27 (CanLII), another unanimous decision rendered by Justice Wagner, on the test to be applied in the oft troublesome yet revamped tertiary ground for bail release under s. 515(10)(c) of the Criminal Code. (For a further discussion of the St-Cloud decision, read my post on ideablawg.)

We find in St-Cloud a fulsome discussion, a “deep dive” so to speak, into the meaning of the term “public.” This case sheds the brightest light on the SCC’s emphasis on the public as the litmus test for concerns relating to the administration of justice generally and advances future SCC decisions on the trial judge’s specific role as the guardian or “gatekeeper” of a properly functioning justice system. I would argue, but leave to a future time, that the gatekeeping function of a trial judge is expanding under recent pronouncements from the SCC. This feature, in my view, is no longer confined to the traditional evidentiary gatekeeping duties but is reflected in the Court’s vision of the trial judge, in the broadest sense, as the protector and keeper of the administration of justice as informed by the public’s confidence in that system.

How much does this concept of the public impact the Anthony-Cook decision? I would argue, quite a lot. In Anthony-Cook, Justice Moldaver refers to both the phrase “public interest” and the term “confidence.” In Moldaver J’s view, “confidence” is a key indicator of the public interest. Therefore, the public interest test not only directly relates to the public’s confidence in the administration of justice but also to the offender’s confidence in that same system. This twinning of the public and the accused harkens back to Jordan’s twinning of trial fairness and court efficiency. We, in criminal law, do not traditionally align the community’s sense of justice with the offender’s need for justice. We tend to compartmentalize the two as the antithesis of one another except when directed to do so by law, such as in considering the imposition of a discharge under s. 730 of the Code, where such a sanction depends on the best interests of the accused and is not contrary to the public interest. In Anthony-Cook, we have come full circle as the sentencing judge must take into account all aspects of the term “public”.

Indeed, as recognized by the Court in Jordan and the many recent SCC decisions on sentencing, this silo approach is no longer useful or valid. Now, the “community’s sense of justice” is approached holistically in the grandest sense yet tempered by the balance and reasonableness our Canadian notion of justice is founded upon. Indeed, as discussed earlier the key descriptor of the community in Anthony-Cook and, quite frankly in most community oriented legal tests, is “reasonableness.” A “reasonably informed” and “reasonable” community participant is the embodiment of the “public interest.” Although this limiting notion is expected in order to provide the bright-line needed in criminal law, to ensure citizens fair notice of the law and to give those enforcing the law clear boundaries (see R v Levkovic, [2013] 2 SCR 204, 2013 SCC 25 (CanLII), Fish J at para 10), in a society where we value multiculturalism and diversity, this concept of “reasonableness” might not resonate and might not “in practice” fulfill the promise of the “community’s sense of justice.” No doubt, this is a matter that needs to be further “unpacked” as we continue our legal journey through the vagaries of the rule of law.

In any event, whatever inferences are needed in order to apply the public interest test, according to the SCC, it is the responsibility of our judiciary to be mindful of us, the public, and to apply our common sense, our “community’s sense of justice” in the “delicate” task of sentencing. (see Lacasse, Wagner J at paras 1 & 12, see also R v CAM, [1996] 1 SCR 500, 1996 CanLII 230 (SCC), Lamer CJ at para 91) This sense of community justice, as articulated in Anthony-Cook, will provide the guidance the sentencing judge needs in assessing whether or not a departure from a joint recommendation as to sentence, which is an acceptable and desirable practice promoting the twin desires of fairness and timeliness, is just and appropriate.

Also posted on the Ablawg.ca website.

 

In Praise of the Passionate Lawyer

Recently, Rex Murphy eloquently reminded us of the lawyer’s role in the justice system. He did this in support of Marie Henein's CBC interview. An interview she did not give to defend the profession but to remind us of how it works. To remind us, as Rex Murphy stresses, of the core values lawyers protect and engage in: liberty, fairness, and justice through the lens of the presumption of innocence. Some of these values may seem trite or overdrawn but they are not. They are at the very heart of our society as they define who we are and who we are not. For lawyers, who practice in this milieu, these values underscore and frame everything we do. Admittedly, these values, or objectives, are difficult to attain.  Clarence Darrow, who epitomizes these values, once said: “Justice has nothing to do with what goes on in a courtroom; Justice is what comes out of a courtroom.” Thus, these values can be elusive, can be difficult to attain, and can question your belief in them. Perhaps this is why we cherish them even more.

There is one comment made by Rex Murphy I do question. He describes the lawyer’s role as dispassionate. This is not so. To be dispassionate suggests an observer’s role or even an impartial one. Lawyers are not observers: lawyers are in it and they are in it zealously. Perhaps he means lawyers cannot get lost in the emotional content of the case for fear of losing their perspective. It is this perspective, as a person learned in the law, which is of utmost assistance to the client. Nevertheless, lawyers are in the business of passion: Whether it is around us as part of the case or whether we passionately advocate for our client. It is this passion, which connects us, as lawyers and as members of society, to those core values we hold so dear. Passion and compassion is our stock and trade – and so I praise it.

The Scope of Appellate Review and Reasonable Apprehension of Bias: The Supreme Court of Canada in the Mian Decision

What occurred in the Mian case is not unusual: the Appellate panel hearing an appeal seizes on an issue, one not raised in the Appellant’s Factum, and raises it during the course of argument. indeed such an occurrence is a sign that the panel hearing the appeal has read the material and is thinking about the case or at least they have their own ideas about the case. Admittedly, many years ago I won a difficult conviction appeal, based on the near impossible ground of errors in the credibility assessment, when the then Chief Justice Dubin of the Court of Appeal for Ontario seized on a construction of the facts he found absurd, the appeal was thus allowed on the basis of an unreasonable verdict and an acquittal entered. However, there is, as the Mian case warns, a limit to appellate interference, which is very much connected to the concept of judicial deference but also ultimately to the “risk of injustice” should the court not act on its own accord.

The ultimate conclusion should an appellate court not heed this warning is the possibility that the court’s best intentions lead to a reasonable apprehension of bias. Such a scenario, that an appellate court shows bias, is rare indeed. Typically, it is the appellate court considering whether or not the trial judge exhibited the bias, not the appellate court itself falling into the aura of unreasonableness.  Although, the SCC did not expand on this possibility, the test in such a scenario, per Justice Cory’s decision in the 1997 RDS case, would require a consideration of “whether a reasonable and informed person, with knowledge of all the relevant circumstances, viewing the matter realistically and practically, would conclude that the judge’s conduct gives rise to a reasonable apprehension of bias.

Certainly, one can imagine a situation in which an appellate court ‘s zeal for an issue, not raised by either parties to the appeal – perhaps for good strategic reasons – could lead to such an apprehended bias. As stated by the then Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Hewart, in the 1924 English case of R v SUSSEX JUSTICES ex p McCARTHY,  “it is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.” Of course “justice” here in the Mian case is balancing on a fine line as justice must not only be seen to be done in the scope of the appellate review but justice must also be done in the very decision the appellate court makes. In other words, to refer to another aphorism, albeit it a crass one, the court may be “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.” Thus, a reasonable apprehension of justice may arise by the court’s interference in the appellate process by raising a new issue on their own volition, yet if they do not do so, they run the “risk of injustice” should the issue not be independently raised.

In the WG case, the SCC in 1999 did in fact consider possible bias at the appellate court level – in that case on the part of the Newfoundland Court of Appeal. The issue was one of jurisdiction and whether or not the appellate court had the inherent jurisdiction to raise an issue pertaining to the sentence imposed, when the appeal was purely a conviction appeal and neither parties raised the issue of fitness of sentence. To this, the then Chief Justice Lamer, speaking on behalf of the majority, responded with a resounding “no.” However, Chief Justice Lamer did expand on the notion of whether or not, if the court cannot go it alone so to speak, could the court “invite” counsel to raise the issue. On this subsidiary issue the Chief Justice was also clear in stating that such an “invitation” should not be given as the appellate court should not go beyond raising questions during oral argument. Even an independent reference to the issue should not appear in any appellate reasons, although an innocuous comment by the court indicating that the issue of sentence was not raised by either parties on appeal, may be appropriate.

This “approach” by the SCC in this case acknowledges the deference to counsel and counsel’s strategic or “tactical” reasons for raising or not raising an issue on appeal. In the view of the Chief Justice, this approach also “avoids an apprehension of bias.” which the Newfoundland Court of Appeal failed to do when they expressed “discomfort” and “unease” with the sentencing process in the appellate reasons on conviction. In the WG case, the appellate court went further and ordered the parties back to argue the fitness of sentence. Thus, the apprehension of bias crystallized into a very real bias. Interestingly, in this case, the appellate court’s concern was with the harshness of the sentence and thus, presumably, would have shown a bias against the Crown, not the offender.

Finally, take note of the context of Mian, which called out for the SCC to “call out” the appellate court. Mr Mian was acquitted at trial on the basis of violations of his section 10(a) and (b) rights under the Charter. It is therefore in the context of an acquittal that the Court of Appeal of Alberta raised the new appellate issue of defence counsel’s cross-examination as a point of departure for the appellate review. This “new” issue, in the view of the SCC, could not be tied to the trial judge’s decision to acquit and therefore was not a situation where the appellate court was facing that fine balance, I previously mentioned. To add to the list of aphorisms, perhaps, indeed, “context is everything.” 

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? 

When Dissent In the Supreme Court of Canada Matters

Have you ever wondered about the significance of a dissenting opinion in the Supreme Court of Canada? To use one of their favoured terms, dissenting decisions may be signifiers of “incremental change.” Overtime, however, these dissenting opinions may become the majority decision. Certainly, some of Chief Justice McLachlin’s dissents are an example of this – most recently in the air of reality line of cases – see my previous blog on the issue here. Of course, sometimes a dissenting opinion does not signify change but simply signifies dissent – a vocalization of a differing viewpoint or to use probably a trite yet apt Robert Frost analogy “the road not taken.”  The recent Supreme Court of Canada Babos case on prosecutorial misconduct is an example of when dissent for dissent's sake matters.

Justice Abella’s dissent on the issue makes for powerful reading, invoking the sanctity of the justice system and the high standard we expect from our quasi-judicial prosecutors, who stand on behalf of the state as upholders of society’s fundamental values. Even in the adversarial system, the duties of the Crown prosecutor transcend the arena of dispute, as they must defend the law in the pursuit of justice. Justice does not have a stake in the ultimate outcome of guilt or innocence but does impact how the ultimate outcome is achieved.

This role is, as suggested by Madame Justice Abella, timeless and does not crystallize at particular points of a prosecution but must permeate every action or inaction of the Crown.  As she so eloquently said, “Time is not a legal remedy for a fundamental breach of the Crown’s role, and cannot retroactively cure intolerable state conduct.”  Difficult balancing must be done to fulfill this duty but it is of utmost importance in the viability and credibility of the criminal justice system.

So I encourage you to read the dissent and envision an alternate view where “an exceptional assault on the public’s sense of justice” is deemed worthy of dissent.

Ideablawg’s Weekly Connections: Peace And Violence

This past week there were some defining moments in history all in a background of love, war, violence, and peace.

1. All You Need Is Love: This week we celebrated the anniversary of The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. In this moment of reflection, let us consider the various ways the boys engaged law and authority. Consider Paul’s marijuana as found by the Japanese authorities in 1980 or John’s deportation battle in the USA. If you want something more uplifting – recall John and Yoko’s bed-in at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel. Here is a great legal connection – Allan Rock, lawyer and politician (now President of the University of Ottawa) – managed to convince the couple to go from Montreal to Ottawa in 1969 when he was President of the University of Ottawa Students’ Union. Here is a personal connection – Allan Rock taught me Civil Procedure II while I was at Osgoode Hall Law School. Only two degrees of separation between John Lennon and me!

2. War: Sixty-nine years after the end of World War II and we are still learning something new about the events of the War years. The Monuments Men, a movie that opened this past week, enlightens us on how art and architecture was saved or not saved during the war. I also recommend reading the book but if you do, read it with an iPad nearby to reference not only the art pieces but also the places in which the art was found. This further connects to the ongoing struggle for the return of art stolen during the war. I have written a previous blog on the issue. This past week, Germany considered extending the law allowing Jewish families to recover this art as more caches of such art are being found.

3. Peace: One of my personal heroes is Richard Feynman – the Nobel Prize winner in Physics who passed away 26 years ago on February 14, 1988. Not only was Feynman an engaging man and a tremendous mentor and teacher but he was also a clear thinker with a heart of gold. He’s the one who dropped the O-rings into the ice-cold water to demonstrate how the Challenger disaster accident really occurred. He also ended his minority report on the disaster by stating “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.” A dramatization of these events aired on the Science Channel last year with William Hurt playing Feynman. Having read all books Feynman, I recommend the autobiographical What Do You Care What People Think? and his lectures on Physics. Although he was one of the young physicist working on the Manhattan project and was at Los Alamos during the War, he had a very strong reaction to the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. I strongly recommend watching his interviews on the subject here.

4. Violence: Is the independence of the judiciary something to fight about? In Turkey, a fistfight broke out over the government’s plan to restrain the judiciary. Certainly, this undemocratic move has political overtones in a country rife with such difficulties. This latest move is unsurprising considering the government’s past treatment of free thinkers such as Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize recipient in Literature, who was charged with a criminal offence after speaking out on the Armenian genocide. Ultimately, the government dropped the charges but certainly this was a precursor to the events of Taksim Square and to the latest round of violence. Orhan Pamuk is another one of my role models – read Snow and My Name Is Red to experience Pamuk’s lyric and unforgettable prose.

Section 11: The Parallel Universe of Criminal and Civil Law: Episode 13 of the Ideablawg Podcast on the Criminal Code of Canada

Today we will step out of our criminal law comfort zone to talk a little bit about the civil law, in particular how criminal and civil law reside in a parallel universe due to section 11 of the Criminal Code.

To start, let’s discuss how civil law and criminal law differ from one another. First, it should be noted that when I speak of “civil law,” I am using this term generously to refer to the legal system controlling private disputes, particularly where there is harm caused either physically (tort law) or through a breach of contractual obligations. Another definition of “civil law” may be the civil law tradition, which comes from the Continental legal tradition (The Napoleonic Code for instance), and involves codified civil statutes governing society, such as found in Quebec.

As you probably already noticed, the main difference between criminal and civil laws is the type of parties engaged in each of these systems. Civil law is between private individuals, whilst criminal is between the state or the government and an individual, although a corporation can also be charged with a criminal offence. Thus, in criminal law we are concerned with public wrongs and harms against society. As, I have mentioned before, the criminal law underlines society’s fundamental values and is reflective of how we view our society at any given time.

As a result of this differing viewpoint, civil and criminal law employ different legal processes, on occasion differing legal rules, and even a different standard of proof. To reflect the specialness of the criminal law, the burden of proof, which is on the state, is beyond a reasonable doubt, and for the civil world it is proof on a balance of probabilities, which is a lower standard of proof than the criminal one.

The civil law also employs some different types of remedies than the criminal law, although sometimes not. Criminal law remedies are about punishment, with the concomitant ideals of retribution and rehabilitation. Typically, civil remedies are about compensation, to ensure the injured party is recompensed for the harm caused. However, there are occasions where these remedies do meet such us in the criminal law when compensation is ordered or in civil law when punitive damages are assessed. This blurring of the lines between civil and criminal law is best seen in the regulatory field of legislation. For further reading on this issue, My Masters Thesis considered the criminalization of regulatory offences and the use of the civil punitive sanction as an alternative.

Now that we understand the differences between civil and criminal, let’s take a look at section 11 of the Criminal Code to try and figure out what it means and what it is doing in our Criminal Code.

Section 11 is entitled Civil Remedy Not Suspended and reads as follows:

No civil remedy for an act or omission is suspended or affected by reason that the act or omission is a criminal offence.

As an aside, a similar section can be found in the 1892 Criminal Code under s. 534. It is under the General Provisions of procedure section of the Code, while the present section 11 is under the General Part.

On the face, the meaning of the section is fairly clear: a civil action may proceed despite a parallel criminal action. In other words, a person charged with an offence can also face a civil suit for his or her actions and that civil case can continue at the same time as the criminal prosecution. However, as discussed in the last two previous podcasts, as the court retains an inherent jurisdiction over its process, a judge, in exceptional circumstances, can suspend a civil case until the criminal matter concludes. The circumstances for such abeyance would involve the right of the accused to a fair trial and the prejudicial effect of a continuing civil case. It must be emphasized that this power is discretionary and there is no automatic right to stay a civil case until a criminal matter is completed.

Another concern for an accused facing a civil suit is the civil requirement for questioning the parties on the suit. Such responses may later incriminate the accused at the criminal trial. However, there is protection for the accused under s.13 of the Charter, which prohibits the use of such testimony in a criminal proceeding, except in a prosecution for perjury or “for the giving of contradictory evidence.” Therefore, the state cannot advance such incriminatory evidence at the accused’s trial unless the evidence forms the basis of a perjury charge or unless the accused testifies at the criminal trial and his testimony at the criminal trial is contradictory to the previous testimony in the civil proceeding. In that instance, the civil testimony does not go in for the truth of its content but can be used to cross-examine the accused on a prior inconsistent statement. However, under provisions in the Canada Evidence Act, an accused must still answer the questions put to him when questioned in a civil case.

There are cases where the civil trial judge has stayed the civil proceeding when the accused is facing criminal charges in the United States. In that forum, the accused, as a Canadian citizen, would not be entitled to invoke the protection of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and would not be protected by the Canadian laws.

Our final consideration is why is the section in the Code. I suggest the section is in place to reiterate the differences between criminal and civil law. The sections speaks of civil remedies or the outcome of a civil case and also a civil suit’s purpose – to enforce a right of the party, which has been harmed, or unrecognized by the other party’s actions. This enforcement is between these two parties – not between Her Majesty and the accused - therefore the action is in respect of different parties. The harm is a private one, and again does not underline the social values at stake in a criminal case. Finally, the standard of proof is lower in a civil suit and therefore a civil remedy may be ordered even if an accused is ultimately acquitted of the criminal case – see the O.J. Simpson trial as an example of this.  So they are different proceedings, for a different reason, making parallel proceedings possible. Finally, there is a desire that civil matters, like criminal cases, be heard in a timely manner to ensure the integrity of the civil system. Of course, with the caveat that, in matters of justice, the criminal case will prevail.

 

 

 

Episode 13 of the Ideablawg Podcast on the Criminal Code of Canada: Section 11

The Golden Thread Metaphor: Section Six And The Other Presumption Of Innocence Episode Nine of the Ideablawg Podcasts on the Criminal Code of Canada – Text Version!

The presumption of innocence – the concept that an accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty - is easily the most well known legal principle. As important as this principle is to our concept of justice, the presumption of innocence has become much more than a legal tool. It has become part of the fabric of our society. Today, every citizen is aware of the presumption of innocence in a criminal case. This principle has transcended the legal arena to become one of our society’s fundamental values. It is not only a value understood by all but it is part of our culture.

Indeed, as an example of the ubiquitous nature of the presumption of innocence, we can find the concept used as a title of a book, such as in Scott Turow’s novel, Presumed Innocent and the movie version with Harrison Ford. Or used as almost a character flaw as in one of my favourite legal literary heroes, Rumpole of the Bailey, written by John Mortimer Q.C. In those stories, Horace Rumple, the rumpled everyman barrister, finds personal solace in his belief in “the health-giving qualities of claret, of course, the presumption of innocence, and not having to clock into chambers in the morning.” In the classic play/movie 12 Angry Men, when Juror #8, played by Henry Fonda, reminds Juror #2, played by John Fiedler, that “the burden of proof is on the prosecution. The defendant doesn’t even have to open his mouth. That’s in the Constitution,” we nod our heads in agreement and relief. Although many of us could not say which section of the Charter (s. 11(d): “to be presumed innocent until proven guilty”) encapsulates this concept, we all take comfort in knowing it is there.

But there is another place where the presumption of innocence is recorded in Canadian law and that is section 6 of the Criminal Code, which is entitled “presumption of innocence,” the first part of which reads as follows:

Where an enactment creates an offence and authorizes a punishment to be imposed in respect of that offence,

(a) a person shall be deemed not to be guilty of the offence until he is convicted or discharged under section 730 of the offence; and

(b) a person who is convicted or discharged under section 730 of the offence is not liable to any punishment in respect thereof other than the punishment prescribed by this Act or by the enactment that creates the offence.

Now, that’s not really the “presumption of innocence” we have come to expect, is it? When you read this section it just does not seem to have that visceral punch I talked about earlier when reacting to the lines spoken in 12 Angry Men. It also does not seem to be conveying the deep, and almost personal societal, values underlying this fundamental premise.

First, let’s look at the wording. Unlike the Charter equivalent, there is nothing in section 6 about a “presumption” only a “deeming.” So the very word, we hang on when discussing innocence, the “presumption,” which gives the concept such solemnity, is gone. Second, there is nothing in the section about “innocence” although the title suggests it. However, as we know from my previous podcasts, in the Criminal Code the headings are there for convenience only and do not form part of the section itself. Instead, I would suggest, the section seems to be contrary to the presumption of innocence as it focuses instead on the concept of guilt and punishment. The section describes the circumstances in which the court can finally impose punishment. Now to be sure the court needs to hold off until conviction, but as soon as that pre-condition is fulfilled the sanctioning regime kicks in and punishment is not only available but also inevitable. Section 6(1)(b) continues this punishment theme by ensuring that the punishment can only be that as prescribed or authorized by law but it adds nothing to our concept of the presumption of innocence. So this section is not really about the fundamental premise of our criminal justice system, the golden thread of criminal law, but about when punishment can, and will, be meted out.

To understand why this section reads as it does, a little legislative history is in order. The section first arose in 1886 legislation on punishment entitled An Act Respecting Punishment, Pardons, and the Commutation of Sentence, and was not only subsumed into the first Criminal Code but was placed in the latter part of the Code where the punishment sections resided. The purpose of the section was not therefore to trumpet the fundamental principle of the presumption of innocence but to reinforce the applicability of punishment at the time of a finding of guilt. This concept of punishment only upon conviction was not only consistent with English criminal law but was consistent with chapter 39 of the Magna Carta which stated that:

No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

In the original Latin phrase of this article “nisi per legale judicium parium suorum vel per legem terrae,” the Magna Carta protects the accused from punishment without judgment of his equals and in accordance with “the law of the land.” So this idea that an accused is guilty only when he is found guilty, remained under the general punishment section of the Code until 1955, when it was moved to the front part of the Code, namely to section 5(1), but was still viewed as a punishment section as it was then entitled Punishment Only After Conviction. However the wording of the 1955 section does resemble the wording we have today under section 6. It is not until the 1985 revision of the Code, when the section was repealed and reinvigorated as section 6 that it becomes the more venerable presumption of innocence. Of course this reconstitution (forgive my pun) came after the 1982 enactment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Understanding this legislative history does give us a better sense of how it came into the Code but why it was renamed the presumption of innocence is an unanswered question requiring deeper investigation than an Internet search. Certainly, looking at case law, this section is rarely invoked as authority for the principle of the presumption of innocence. A quick survey of cases reveals there are only a few such cases (these cases can be found here, here, here, and here) where section 6 was relied upon as propounding the concept but always invoked with the constitutionalized version found under s. 11(d) of the Charter.

Although I cannot explain why this presumption section is so named, I would like to take a few moments to consider where the concept of the presumption of innocence arose in the first place. In my earlier posting on the issue, I suggested, through the academic writings of George Fletcher that the concept actually migrated to criminal law from the English civil law. I do not want to return to that discussion, instead I want to take us to the moment when the presumption of innocence becomes imbued with the gravitas it now enjoys – the particular moment when the presumption of innocence transformed into the fundamental principle it is today. I have already alluded to that moment earlier in this podcast when I described the presumption as the “golden thread of criminal law.” In first year law school there a few seminal or landmark English cases we discuss and end up knowing virtually by heart. One of them is the case where this “golden thread” metaphor is first used, the 1935 English House of Lords case of Woolmington v. DPP.  The facts of the Woolmington case do not concern us here but the decision, what is written by the then Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, Viscount Sankey, does.

In order to set the stage for this momentous decision, I need to give a quick legal backgrounder on Lord Sankey and the great impact he had on Canadian law. After the Supreme Court of Canada in 1925 found women were not “persons” under the British North America Act and therefore ineligible to sit in the Senate, the case, known as the Persons case, was appealed to what was then the highest level of appeal, the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Civil appeals to the Privy Council were abolished in 1949, while criminal appeals ended in 1933. Lord Sankey, as a member of the Privy Council, wrote the appeal decision in the Persons Case or Edwards v. Canada (Attorney-General). In the case, reversing the Supreme Court of Canada decision and finding women were indeed “persons,” Lord Sankey commented on the argument that historically women were disbarred from public office. Despite this historical fact, Lord Sankey concluded that “the exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours” and that “customs are apt to develop into traditions which are stronger than law and remain unchallenged long after the reason for them has disappeared.” In the Persons Case there was no reason why women could not discharge the parliamentary duty of office. In terms of the efficacy of the actual British North America Act, which today we call the Constitution Act, 1867, Lord Sankey, famously remarked that the Act “planted in Canada a living tree capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits.” This metaphor of the Constitution as a living tree has taken root since the 1930 Persons Case and has become a guiding doctrine in our constitutional jurisprudence.

Needless, to say Lord Sankey has a way with words and the Woolmington case was no exception. On the issue of presumption of innocence, Lord Sankey surveyed the textbooks on the issue and was perplexed to find a suggestion that the presumption was one of guilt and the burden was on the accused to prove otherwise. After running through more cases, Lord Sankey described the fundamental importance of the presumption as:

Through-out the web of the English Criminal Law one golden thread is always to be seen that it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner's guilt subject to what I have already said as to the
defence of insanity and subject also to any statutory exception.

Lord Sankey then connects the presumption of innocence with the burden of proof, which requires the Crown to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This connection is explored in my previous blog on the issue. So, it was Lord Sankey who gave use this strong visualization of the presumption of innocence and turned the principle into something much more.

How Lord Sankey came to this golden thread metaphor is puzzling. I suggest that this metaphor must have come from the Greek myth of Ariadne and Theseus. Ariadne gave Theseus a golden thread to help him escape the Minoan Labyrinth after he killed the Minotaur. Thus, the presumption of innocence, as the golden thread of Ariadne, leads the accused out of the maze-like machinations of the criminal law.

This thread theme is reinforced by a further metaphor, which I also referred to earlier in my podcast; that the presumption of innocence is part of the “fabric” of our society. Indeed, I found a 1965 case, R v Dixon, from the then District Court of Ontario, written by Mr. Justice Robinson wherein he describes the presumption as the “golden thread” that “runs through the warp and woof and is thus firmly imbedded in the whole fabric of the administration of English and Canadian criminal justice.” When I first read this passage, not unlike a Wiki page, I thought someone added the phrase “warp and woof” for a joke. But, like a good researcher, I looked up “warp and woof” and found the following definition:

The essential foundation or base of any structure or organization; from weaving, in which the warp — the threads that run lengthwise — and the woof — the threads that run across — make up the fabric: “The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are the warp and woof of the American nation.” This expression, used figuratively since the second half of the 1500s, alludes to the threads that run lengthwise ( warp ) and crosswise ( woof ) in a woven fabric.

So this thread metaphor is taken in a different direction but is also a good candidate for explaining Lord Sankey’s “golden thread” turn of phrase. By the way, I did take my research a little further to find other cases that have used this archaic phrase. I found only a few cases, some which were actually about fabric making but there was a use of this metaphor in two Supreme Court of Canada constitutional Division of Powers cases; Reference as to the Validity of Section 6 of the Farm Security Act, 1944 of Saskatchewan and the 2009 Consolidated Fastfrate Inc. v. Western Canada Council of Teamsters. Notably, in the 2009 case, Mr. Justice Binnie used the phrase in a delicious quote invoking the world of the 1860s:

The current Canadian economy would be unrecognizable to the statesmen of 1867 and, to borrow an analogy from Thomas Jefferson, one would not expect a grown man to wear a coat that fitted him as a child.  The coat is of the same design, but the sleeves are longer and the chest is broader and the warp and woof of the fabric is more elaborate and complex.  Adopting a purposive approach to constitutional interpretation, as we must, what is important is not how transportation was viewed in 1867 but rather to match in our own era the level of regulation (federal, provincial or territorial) appropriate to the nature and scope of the undertaking.  Now, as in 1867, when a transportation undertaking connects or extends “beyond the Limits of the Province” its regulation is assigned by the Constitution Act, 1867 to the federal level of authority.

In 1859, Charles Dickens also used a golden thread metaphor in A Tale Of Two Cities, to suggest a strong bond of familial love created by the indomitable Lucie. Although, there is a strong affiliation between the criminal law and the presumption, I still prefer the Greek myth connection. I should recommend here my previous blog on Charles Dickens and the law called Charles Dickens Is On The Side Of Justice wherein I discuss some of the more legally minded passages of Dickens’s novels. 

One final aside on this golden thread metaphor brings us to American literature and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, where Hester is required to sew a letter “A” onto her clothing as her punishment as an adulterer. As time wears on, Hester proudly marks her shame with an “A” made of golden thread. For Hester, the golden quality of the thread reflects the shame of the community who branded her with their cruelty.

In some way the golden thread of the presumption of innocence protects us from a similar fate – a society devoid of compassion - or as Chief Justice Dickson, as he then was, reminded us in the 1986 Supreme Court of Canada Oakes case, the presumption of innocence "confirms our faith in humankind; it reflects our belief that individuals are decent and law‑abiding members of the community until proven otherwise." To me, his words are indeed golden.

 

 

Canada’s New Defence of the Person Section: Is It Too Reasonable?

Quietly, Canada’s criminal law changed dramatically, without a word of criticism, on March 13, 2013 with the coming into force of the Citizen's Arrest and Self Defence Act. Perhaps, everyone was too focused on the broadened citizen arrest powers to notice the dramatic change in law or perhaps the legal community is at a loss for words. Without fanfare or discussion, Canada’s self-defence laws, from sections 34 to 42, were swept away on March 13, 2013 to be replaced by two broad sections: the new section 34, which outlines the defence of the person and the new section 35, which is defence of property. For purposes of this post, I will be making reference to the defence of the person found in section 34 and not defence of property under section 35. Although the new section 34 appears to be broader – no more does the law distinguish between provoked and unprovoked attacks – there is a noticeable emphasis on the reasonableness of the response as the standard for assessment.

Admittedly the old sections were cumbersome and confusing: section 34(1) offered a different defence from 34(2) and they both differed from sections 35 and 37. Then there were the myriad of defence of property sections from sections 38 to 42. Self-defence, as codified before the amendments, distinguished between a provoked and unprovoked attack. Section 34(1) could only be used as a defence by an accused who was subject to an unprovoked attack by the victim and who did not intend to cause death or grievous bodily harm in responding to that attack. In those very limited circumstances, the accused could use this self-defence section if the force used was no more than necessary to repel the attack.

Subsection 2 of that same section 34 offered a different and much broader defence. The section was silent as to who started the initial assault and therefore could be used by an accused who provoked an assault as well as an accused who did not provoke the assault. Additionally, the section applied where the accused intended to cause death or grievous bodily harm or did not intend it – as long as the victim died as a consequence of the action. The accused must have a reasonable apprehension of risk of death or grievous bodily harm from the victim to use the defence. The accused must believe on reasonable grounds that he or she could not otherwise be preserved from death or grievous bodily harm other than to use the force, which resulted in the victim’s death. The assessment was not totally objective, however, as the accused must have a subjective belief that force was necessary but must have a reasonable basis for the belief. Therefore, the defence a blending of objective and subjective elements.

Self-defence in section 35 was not used as often as section 34. The section restricts self-defence in circumstances where accused, without justification, assaults another or provokes an assault. The accused must not intend to cause death or grievous bodily harm before the need to defend self arose. However, to use the section, the accused must have a reasonable apprehension of death or grievous bodily harm and had a reasonable belief that force was necessary to preserve himself from death or grievous bodily harm. Finally, the accused must have attempted to retreat from the situation.

The final defence of the person section, under s. 37, is again a broader section of self-defence, which also extends the defence to the defence of another person under the accused’s protection. This section permits force only where the accused is preventing an assault or a further assault. Although the response of the accused must be reasonable there is no requirement that there be a reasonable apprehension of death or harm or a reasonable belief force was necessary to prevent death or harm.  The only requirement is the need for proportionality and therefore the force used must be no more than is necessary to repel the assault.

There are many difficulties with these sections, including the sheer difficulty in actually reading these sections and making sense of them.

Of course, these old sections come to us through the English common law, hence the requirement to retreat in where the accused is the aggressor. The sections thus deals with the seemingly “innocent” accused differently than the “aggressor” accused. The self-defence section 35, for the aggressor accused, is much more restrictive than s.34(1), for the innocent accused unjustly provoked. Contrasting the two sections, section 35 requires the accused, although the aggressor, not to intend death or grievous bodily harm but to have a reasonable belief that he would be subject to death or grievous bodily harm unless he acted. The force used must be no more than necessary and there must be an attempt to retreat. Indeed, a very difficult section to use considering the prerequisites. However, section 34(2), as broadly interpreted by the courts, filled that gap to include virtually any situation. The interpretation was so expansive, it seemed a wonder why section 35 was required at all. However, even with s. 34(2) expanding who could use self-defence, the objective/subjective assessment ensured that only those accused who fulfilled the objective/subjective requirements could use the defence successfully.

Two major difficulties are identified with this approach: firstly, to assess an accused’s actions at a time of split-second decision-making seemed mechanical and unrealistic. For an accused faced with an aggressive victim or for an accused in a highly emotional circumstance, the requirement that the accused use no more force than necessary was difficult to determine. Thus, the law stepped back from the emotions and required an objective assessment as well. This perhaps made it easier for the trier of fact, who was not faced with these circumstances and who could not possibly appreciate the life and death decision-making arising at that instance. But, it also made it much more difficult for an accused, who made a decision at the time in a heightened situation, to be then thinking of what application force, in response to that situation, is no more than necessary.

Secondly, the self-defence laws were so limiting that it failed to allow for exceptional circumstances, such as what arose in the Lavallee case, where a battered woman killed her husband. This case, in light of the recent SCC Ryan case (upon which I wrote a previous post here) also raises issue with other defences such as duress and defences – known as excuses – as opposed to self-defence, which are considered justifications. I will not delve into the these cases, other than to say a deeper analysis of them is required in light of this new legislation.

For further explanation, justifications such as self-defence, recognize that the elements of the crime have been made out – that both actus reus and mens rea are present – but the accused actions are justified as the accused faced external pressures (in the case of self-defence from another person) which caused the accused to act contrary to the law. As the major theme of our criminal law is choice and the ability of an actor to make the right choice, such pressures effectively take away choice, leaving the accused no other choice but to act as he or she did. In a justification defence, the accused challenges the wrongfulness of an action which would technically be a crime. In the circumstances the fundamental values of society and of the criminal law are promoted by disobeying the law rather than following it. Therefore, in self-defence there is a crime but the actions of the accused are not “wrong” and therefore the accused should not be held responsible for the crime and should therefore not be punished by the criminal justice system. Of course the real question is: how far does society want to go in justifying these criminal acts? Are our self-defence laws truly a reflection of our society’s fundamental values if they do not offer a defence for a battered spouse or a psychologically bullied child?

Do these changes then rectify the two problems as identified above? On the issue of creating an artificial scenario upon which the accused is to be assessed, the new section does little to alleviate this by imposing very clearly an objective assessment of the circumstances and leaving little room for individualization. Although the new amendments do equalize the section in the sense that now “any person” can use the defence, the list of factors to be considered in assessing the reasonableness of the criminal act ensures that all of the limiting circumstances, which were clearly set out in the old sections, are now found, not as clearly, in a list of factors which must be considered by the trier of fact.

Additionally, the assessment, which was viewed under the old sections as a blending of subjective/objective considerations, now appears to be more decidedly objective. There is no longer a consideration of the accused’s subjective belief in the force used being necessary. Now, stepping back, this change should be welcome as it does move away from the idea that an accused must weigh to the niceties the level of force used at the time. However, it also takes away any assessment of the accused’s subjective belief that the force used at the time was necessary. Instead the subjective belief only goes to whether or not the accused believed, reasonably of course, that the “force is being used against them or another person or that a threat of force is being made against them or another person.” After that “concession” to human frailty, the assessment is all done through the eyes of the reasonable man in an almost regulatory offence manner reminiscent of the due diligence or all due care defence in which the defendant will be acquitted if he or she or it (corporation) acted reasonably in all of the circumstances and took all reasonable steps required to avoid the harm. The only factor missing is the burden of proof, which in a regulatory scheme is “balance of probabilities” as opposed to the higher standard of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Even in the criminal law’s cherished burden of proof the concept of “reasonableness” is present!

As to whether the new section will support extraordinary circumstances of a battered spouse or abused child will remain to be seen. Again, the lack of individualization in the assessment is concerning and although one of the factors to consider in determining the reasonableness of the act involves a review of the nature of the relationship between the accused and victim, the fact this must be assessed through the reasonableness lens does not permit a full consideration of the complexities of an abusive relationship.

Only the use of this section in court with a real set of facts will enlighten us on the viability and justiciability of this new defence of the person section. However, at first blush, it appears this is yet another example of how our criminal law is becoming more objective in outlook and less like the traditional principles of individualization, which was the hallmark of the criminal law as a humane law.

 

 

 

Not To Make Excuses, But - The (Un)Responsiveness of the Supreme Court of Canada To Duress

The new Supreme Court of Canada decision on duress highlights the limitations of our English common law system. In that system, an articulated defence cannot be found for Nicole Ryan who, as a result of years of abuse and threats, acted contrary to the law because she could not act in any other way. Although ultimately the result was a veiled recognition of this, the manner in which the SCC came to the result was a clear and unequivocal endorsement of the rule of law.

There are many reasons for not broadening the restrictive application of excuses in our criminal law. One reason involves the dynamics of excuses: such a defence is predicated on the commission of a crime, where both the unlawful act, or actus reus, and the criminal intention, or the mens rea, has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In a world without excuses, a completed offence labels the alleged accused as a convicted offender with all of the responsibility and accountability that goes with such a designation. The next step involves the manner of the State's response to such abhorrent behaviour. The next step is punishment and the meting out of sentence, crafted in bespoke fashion to fit the particular circumstances of the case and the specific background of the offender. In the sentencing forum, discretion and compassion is allowed. But why do such considerations have no part in the determination of guilt?

This can only be answered by reading legal theorist George P. Fletcher’s essay on The Individualization of Excusing Conditions. According to Fletcher, his call for individualization envisions a criminal law, not shackled by the constraints of the English common law system, but set free by compassion, where the unique frailties of an individual are taken into account in determining criminal responsibility. The focus is therefore on the person, the very human being who was faced with very real extraordinary circumstances, and who had no choice but to act in an extraordinary manner. Fletcher argues to connect excuses to the individual's personal make-up creates more reasonable and rational outcomes than the English common law's desire to connect actions to an ephemeral and superficial "reasonable" person. To use a reasonable person standard in assessing criminal liability constructs a false rule of law bent on dehumanizing the law. When that happens, argues Fletcher, all we have left are stark, disembodied rules imposed in restrictive and unrealistic circumstances. 

In this restrictive world, Fletcher suggests, any prospects of individualization is pushed away onto the fringes of the criminal justice system to reside in the "semi-secret" sentencing arena. Sentencing, as a forum for individualization, permits discretion and compassion but, as Fletcher points out, such flexibility comes too late. Sentencing is for the guilty, not for those who should be viewed by society as innocent. 

In the Ryan case, the SCC followed the strictures of the English common law and thus the rule of law and failed to take the much needed bold step toward individualization. This is not surprising considering the slow dance the SCC has taken towards objective mens rea as the standard for crime as opposed to subjective mens rea - the last bastion of the individual. For further discussion see my previous posting Is This The End Of Subjective Intention?The Supreme Court of Canada and the Walle Case

Although the end result crafted by the SCC, in some way, vindicates Nicole Ryan, it is cold comfort to those facing dire situations, who must rely on excuses as a defence. In those cases, justice comes in the form of "semi-secret" pronouncements and extraordinary remedies and not where it counts - in assessing the true nature of criminal liability.

 

Through The Judicial Lens: The Supreme Court of Canada and Unreasonable Verdicts

On January 21, 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada heard the W.H. appeal from the Newfoundland Court of Appeal on the issue of unreasonable jury verdicts where credibility is the sole issue. In W.H., the Court of Appeal quashed the conviction for sexual assault on the basis the finding of guilt by the jury was an unreasonable verdict due to the “inconsistencies and improbabilities” of the complainant’s evidence.

The case was a classic “he-said, she-said,” with error free” trial and jury instructions. In the Court of Appeal’s opinion, the jury, as trier of fact, failed “to act judicially in assessing credibility” and therefore it was incumbent on the appellate court to re-assess the evidence. The Court, after reviewing the evidence through “the lens of judicial experience,” found the verdict was unreasonable and the conviction was quashed with an acquittal entered.

The Supreme Court of Canada after hearing arguments and reading the factums, reserved their decision. Hopefully, the SCC will re-clarify the grounds for an unreasonable verdict finding by an appellate court where credibility is an issue. Hopefully too, there will be some discussion of the requirement that the review be done through the “lens of judicial experience.”

This concept of reviewing the record from a judge’s perspective is not new. Indeed, for unreasonable verdict cases, the requirement the reviewing court be satisfied that the jury was “acting judicially,” presupposes such a perspective.

However, the standard of “acting judicially,” may be too high a standard for a jury, which is composed of the accused’s peers, to attain. For one, the jury is not steeped in legal knowledge. Of course, this omission is to be overcome by the trial judge, who as arbiter of the law must instruct the jury on the law and the proper application of the law to the facts as they find them. Whether or not such an instruction is sufficient to fill the legal gaps is a better subject for a future blog. In any event, even if we accept such instructions assist the jury in “acting judicially,” in many unreasonable verdict cases, such as in the W.H. case, the instructions to the jury were “error free” and thus correct.

So, “acting judicially” is not really based on legal knowledge and instruction, but on the application of that knowledge. This is where “judicial experience” comes into play. As stated thirteen years ago by Justice Arbour in Biniaris, sometimes

the totality of the evidence and the peculiar factual circumstances of a given case will lead an experienced jurist to conclude that the fact-finding exercise applied at trial was flawed in light of the unreasonable result that it produced.

There again is our standard of assessment, the “experienced jurist,” applying her perfect knowledge in a perfect world. Justice Arbour further articulated her understanding of “acting judicially” as:

not only acting dispassionately in applying the law and adjudicating on the basis of the law and nothing else.  It means, in addition, arriving at a conclusion that does not conflict with the bulk of judicial experience.  The reviewing court’s assessment must, in other words, proceed through “the lens of judicial experience” to identify and articulate, as precisely as possible, those features of the case which suggest that the verdict was unreasonable.

Thus, not only must the jury act judicially, but the decision, which they render, must be consistent with “judicial experience.”

The reviewing court must therefore not only use the judicial “lens” in assessing how the jury came to their decision, but must also use the judicial “bifocals” in ensuring that the determination accords with their judicial experience. This requires a broader analysis of precedent to confirm such a consistency. Therefore, in entering into an unreasonable verdict analysis, the reviewing court must not only look to the totality of the evidence at bar but also at the weight of case law on the particular issue. Thus, in W.H., not only must the specific inconsistencies and improbabilities of the complaint’s evidence be assessed judicially, but the court must also consider through the “lens of judicial experience” as reflected through case law, whether or not the jury’s decision makes “judicial” sense. We look to the SCC’s decision on this case to make this analysis “crystal-clear.”

 

 

The Pham Decision And The Human Face of Sentencing

Mr. Justice Doherty of the Court of Appeal for Ontario reminds us, in his decisions, that there is a human factor at play in the criminal law. It is not just concerned with legal maxims and the “golden thread,” but also with the real individuals who are affected by the criminal justice system. In learning and discussing criminal law issues, it is vitally important to be aware that the law works in a human environment.

For example, in a previous posting, I discussed the N.S. Ontario Court of Appeal decision on testifying behind the veil, which Justice Doherty authored on behalf of the court. In that decision, he remarked on the devastating effect the sexual assault trial will have on both the victim and the accused: for the victim, the humiliating prospect of describing her most intimate details and, for the accused, the prospect of a long period of incarceration if convicted and, if acquitted, the taint of being suspected of such a horrific crime.

The spectre of humanity raises itself yet again in the Pham case, a sentencing decision from the Alberta Court of Appeal, to be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada this Friday on January 18, 2013. In this case, the issue is whether or not the extraordinary effects of a sentence imposed in a deportation context should be considered when a trial judge sentences an accused to, what would be otherwise, an appropriate sentence. Specifically at issue is the length of the sentence to be imposed considering the accused was subject to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which extinguishes an applicant’s right of appeal under the Act should that person be subject to a term of imprisonment of “at least” two years. Pham was indeed sentenced to a term of two years incarceration for his participation in drug offences for which he already had a criminal record.

Outside of immigration issues, there is a significant difference between a sentence of two years and a sentence of two years less a day: two years signifies time to be spent in the Federal prison system, while two years less a day permits the sentence to be served in provincial institutions. Because of the significance, there is more than just twenty-four hours at risk: Federal time, viewed as “harder” than Provincial time, means that some crimes require the denunciation which Federal time can provide. Therefore, in sentencing the accused to an appropriate period of time, the significance of federal vs. provincial imprisonment is taken into account. The trial judge would ask; does this crime warrant time in a Federal institution? Is Federal time an appropriate sentence in light of known sentencing principles?

To add into this discussion the issue of immigration seems to distort the process or so the majority of the Alberta Court of Appeal seemed to find. In their view, if the sentence imposed is appropriate, the appellate courts should not tamper with the sentence for the sole reason of preserving an immigration right. Considering all factors relating to the sentencing of Pham, the majority found the two year sentence to be fit in the circumstances.

The dissent or what I call loosely “the dissent,” as Justice Martin starts on the same premise as the majority, found that:

those with a criminal record who are sentenced to imprisonment for two years or more should not usually have their sentence reduced, even by a day, simply to enable them the right to appeal a deportation order.” However, the Crown consented to the appeal, agreeing that the sentence could be reduced by a day for immigration purposes, as the trial Crown presented just such a sentence on a joint submission before the trial judge.

So, the end result is that the SCC will have to decide whether or not immigration issues matter and if so, to what extent and in what circumstances. They will also need to consider the fitness of a sentence in relation to two years or two years less a day – are these sentences truly significantly different? The decision may also impact other sentencing considerations, such as granting a discharge as opposed to entering a conviction where the accused’s employment requires cross-border movement. A conviction, in those circumstances, may bar an accused from entry into the USA. As seen in the Bertuzzi case, such allowances for hockey players is not uncommon.

Now let us go back to Justice Doherty’s human factor as his on point decision in 2004 Hamilton case was referred to in the Pham majority decision. In that case, the accused were, what is commonly known as “drug mules,” women who due to extreme circumstances are induced into breaking the law by being cross-border drug couriers. It must be noted that both women in the case did not have prior drug convictions as in Pham. Justice Doherty made the following comments:

The imposition of a fit sentence can be as difficult a task as any faced by a trial judge. That task is particularly difficult where otherwise decent, law abiding persons commit very serious crimes in circumstances that justifiably attract understanding and empathy. These two cases fall within that category of cases.” And later stated “would not characterize the loss of a potential remedy against a deportation order that might be made a mitigating factor on sentence. I do think, however, that in a case like Ms. Mason’s there is room for consideration of the potentially added risk of deportation should the sentence be two years or more. If a trial judge were to decide that a sentence at or near two years was the appropriate sentence in all of the circumstances for Ms. Mason, the trial judge could look at the deportation consequences for Ms. Mason of imposing a sentence of two years less a day as opposed to a sentence of two years. I see this as an example of the human face of the sentencing process. If the future prospects of an offender in the circumstances of Ms. Mason can be assisted or improved by imposing a sentence of two years less a day rather than two years, it is entirely in keeping with the principles and objectives of sentencing to impose the shorter sentence. While the assistance afforded to someone like Ms. Mason by the imposition of a sentence of two years less a day rather than two years may be relatively small, there is no countervailing negative impact on broader societal interests occasioned by the imposition of that sentence.

Hopefully, this “human face of sentencing” will be recalled when the SCC comes to their final decision on this case.

A Balancing Act: The Supreme Court of Canada and Testifying Behind The Veil

In two concurring reasons and one dissenting reason, the Supreme Court of Canada, in the N.S. decision, has continued the Charter discourse surrounding conflicting rights. Unsurprisingly, the majority message, written by Chief Justice McLachlin, is one of balance and accommodation on a case-by-case determination. The Trial judge must weigh the conflicting rights in the context of the case with due deference to Charter values. The values, however, are flexible, adaptable, and tolerant of each other. In the Charter arena, there is no room for immoveable values, which are fixed and unbending.

This approach does, on the face, appear to be consistent with the Charter itself, which guarantees rights and freedoms but not absolutely: they are subject to the reasonable limits of a free and democratic society. This, however, is a liberal concept, a concept born in the revolutionary times of the 18th century when religion was given a tempered view in favour of scientific and provable reasoning. As a result, the question remains whether the balancing act proposed by the SCC will provide enough protection to freedom of religion/belief in an age where having a belief system is not required in a free and democratic society.

On the other hand, the traditional concept of criminal law based on the presumption of innocence and fair trial, as values to be balanced, may very well be eroded by this balancing act as well. Critics of the SCC approach might properly ask: how can the very essential core concepts of criminal law ever be subject to accommodation? Some values, those critics would argue, should never give way or they will fail to stand on their own. Interestingly, these concerns form the basis of the concurring judgment of Justices Lebel and Rothstein.

Justice Abella’s dissent is not based on religious rights as a concept to be jealously guarded, but is based on Charter values flowing from earlier Charter cases on protecting the vulnerable members of our society such as children and women. Her dissent focuses on the very real issues of access to justice and the marginalization of those less powerful sectors of our society. This viewpoint becomes even more important in light of the recent release of Wally Oppal’s Report on missing women and the trend toward dismissing the rights, or even the existence of, prostitutes, the homeless, and Aboriginal women.

In the N.S. decision, we see a microcosm of Canadian society: differing viewpoints arising out of the same context, which reflect strongly held values, but which also reflect the true legacy of the Charter as a document that encompasses, and tolerates, all. 

Criminal Law and the Science of Prediction

It was a devastating earthquake on many levels: loss of life as over three hundred people died, loss of property as buildings crumbled, and loss of history as an ancient medieval fortress town came tumbling down. All it took was seconds as the earth shook on April 6,2009 in the tiny hilltop village of L’Aquila, Italy. Yet, behind the disaster were years of earthquake readiness and scientific predictions. Behind the devastation was months of tremors; warning signs that something was not quite right. Yet, disasters happen and this one certainly did.

But was there someone to blame? The government thought so when they charged six scientists and one government official with manslaughter. Finally, after a lengthy trial, on October 22, 2012, Judge Marco Billi found them guilty of manslaughter and sentenced them to six years imprisonment. Those convicted included the head of the Serious Risks Commission, the Director of the National Earthquake Centre, and a physicist. The prosecutor built a case of mismanagement, inaccuracy, and the withholding of crucial information, which could have saved lives. The defence emphasized the unpredictability of earthquake prediction and the “chill effect” such a verdict would bring. Indeed after the verdict, a number of Italian scientists quit government posts as scientists across the globe warned of the harmful effects the verdict would have on future research efforts.

There are clearly two sides to the issue but, when looked at more closely, the two sides are not in opposition. The prosecutor is correct in characterizing erroneous or even untimely information as an act or omission, which can and should ground a criminal charge. In Canada, manslaughter requires an underlying unlawful act, which can be viewed as objectively dangerous in nature, which then causes the death of a human being.  Here, the allegation the scientists knowingly mislead the people of L’Aquila, may be a basis for such a manslaughter charge.

However, a mere failure to accurately predict a major disaster is not, in itself, a basis for a manslaughter charge. If it were, the defence’s concern that such prosecution would curtail scientific innovation would be correct. Such a prosecution would be the antithesis of the scientific method. A scientific hypothesis must be first tested before accepted. If the experiment does not produce the results expected, then the hypothesis is modified: such trial and error is needed to produce a final result. Without the ability to make mistakes with impunity, many medical treatments would not be developed.

There is also the difficulty with predictions, whether under the rubric of science or not as seen by the successes and failures of polls and the pollsters who interpret them. As Nate Silver, predictor extraordinaire, explains in his new book "The Signal and the Noise," although some outcomes are predictable if we crunch enough numbers and gather enough data, some, like earthquake prediction, is not possible at this time. How then can we expect a standard of behaviour in an area that is impossibly non-standard?

There is also, a “half-way” opinion between the two: that certain failures or breaches of rules should stay in the regulatory arena and sanctioning should be through the controlling regulatory scheme as opposed to the criminal law.

All of the above is, of course based, on the facts and the level of liability would be commensurate with those facts. In the Italian case, if the findings of the trial Judge were as submitted by the prosecutor, then not unlike the Walkerton, Ontario tainted water incident, the criminal law is properly engaged. However this case is viewed the decision has caused much debate. To sample the various viewpoints, read this, this, this, and this. To read more about public disasters that attract the intervention of criminal law, please read my posting from January 15, 2012 on Public Disasters and the Criminal Law and my posting from February 25, 2012 entitled Safety First: Laboratory Safety and the Criminal Code.