Tracing The Presumption of Innocence Through A Survey of Supreme Court of Canada Cases

In yesterday’s blog, the presumption of innocence, as a legal principle, was traced from its seemingly innocuous origins as a rule of evidence in civil cases to the status of a fundamental, constitutionally entrenched, principle of the criminal law. Today, I will detail how the presumption of innocence took on such elevated standing through a brief survey of early Charter and pre-Charter Supreme Court of Canada cases.

On a quick review of the Supreme Court of Canada cases discussing the presumption of innocence, it is the 1985 SCC reference case of Re B.C. Motor Vehicle Act, which explicitly crystallizes our present concept of the presumption of innocence as a fundamental principle of the criminal law and as a fundamental societal value. Justice Lamer described the presumption as not just a procedural tool but also as a substantive concept which “has both a societal and an individual aspect and is clearly fundamental; to our justice system.” The Charter’s influence in protecting such an expansive view of the presumption, thereby making the principle a right, is evident in other early post-Charter cases on the issue, such as the earlier case of Dubois in 1985, Oakes in 1986, and Whyte in 1988.

As an aside, it is no surprise that it is Justice Lamer who gives the presumption of innocence such an expansive and meaningful definition. Prior to his judicial appointments, Antonio Lamer was the Vice-Chairman of the Law Reform Commission of Canada (LRCC) in 1971 and Chairman thereof in April 1976 at a time when the LRCC was actively involved in shaping the jurisprudential landscape of the law.

In terms of pre-Charter, although Justice Estey, dissenting in the entrapment case of Amato in 1982, called the presumption of innocence a “fundamental doctrine,” there is little of this nomenclature in earlier cases. For example, in the 1969 Lampard case, the presumption of innocence is merely called “rebuttal,” hardly a powerful descriptor of the “cornerstone” of criminal law. Other pre-Amato cases characterize the presumption in the same manner: as a presumption, which ceases if the Crown can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Even in some earlier cases, the presumption is referred to as the “general presumption of innocence,” again a thoroughly unsatisfactory way of describing a constitutionally entrenched right. Interestingly, in all of these cases, the presumption is an adjunct to the burden of proof.

Finally, consistent with Fletcher’s theory of the origins of the presumption in English civil law, is the 1883 SCC case of McRae v. White. The case was one of unjust and fraudulent preference in an insolvency action. Although a civil suit, the case does have shades of fraudulent and therefore criminal intention, but the result is based upon a failure of the plaintiff to satisfy the onus as required by the Insolvency Act of 1875.

In other words, the plaintiff could not rebut the negative: that a man is presumed to fulfill his legal obligations. In this case, the defendant, in good faith, took on debt with the honest belief he would fulfill his obligations. The plaintiff was unable to establish otherwise. Admittedly, there is no mention of the actual phrase “presumption of innocence,” but the headline of the case reads “Insolvent Act of 1875—Unjust preference—Fraudulent preference—Presumption of innocence.”

Clearly, the presumption of innocence has matured into a much more powerful concept than originally imagined. This is so, at least in the legal arena. In my final posting on the issue, tomorrow I will discuss the international development of the presumption with an additional look at the historical non-legal usage of the concept.