Testifying Behind The Veil: A Study In Conflicting Charter Rights

Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) reserved judgment after hearing argument on the N.S. case involving a witness's religious right to wear a naqib or a face covering veil while testifying. This Charter right comes into direct conflict with the right of an accused, under s. 7 of the Charter, to full answer and defence, a principle of fundamental justice and "one of the pillars of criminal justice on which we heavily depend to ensure the innocent are not convicted." 

As discussed in previous blogs, Charter rights are not absolute and may be restricted by the government if justified in a free and democratic society. Charter rights may also be limited when rights conflict. In those instances, the Court is required to determine the parameters of the competing claims in a just and appropriate manner consistent with Charter values. Just how the Court must approach this decision is the subject of this blog as a primer to the specific rights at issue in the N.S. case, which I will fully discuss in a future posting.

How to balance competing Charter rights? In the Dagenais case, Chief Justice Lamer considered the competing rights where a publication ban is ordered in a criminal trial. According to Lamer, "a hierarchical approach to rights, which places some over others, must be avoided" in favour of a balanced decision which "fully respects the importance of both sets of rights." As a result, the publication ban prohibiting CBC from showing the fictional account of abuse in The Boys of St. Vincent was overturned, despite the fair trial interests of the accused Christian Brothers, but on the basis the ban was overly broad and too protective.

The correct approach is, therefore, to balance the conflicting interests instead of choosing one right as more important, and thereby, more worthy of protection. This balancing must take into account all interests at stake, including the societal interest in promoting and protecting both sets of rights.

In the N.S. case, freedom of religion and the right of an individual to privacy conflicts with the principles of fundamental justice, which lay at the core of our criminal justice system. Add to that, the societal interest in promoting multiculturalism and tolerance and in protecting the presumption of innocence and fair trials, and the issues become even more complicated. 

It is these hard cases, where all interests are valid and Charter worthy, which make for interesting law. And it is the Court's subsequent response, which can change society.