Poof! Into Thin Air – Where Have All The Defences Gone?: The Supreme Court of Canada And The Air Of Reality Test

THE FOLLOWING BLOG BECAME THE BASIS OF A PUBLISHED ARTICLE NOW IN  (2014) 61 Criminal Law Quarterly 531

Last week the Supreme Court of Canada, yet again, restricted access to criminal defences. The Court, in the earlier Ryan case, signaled their desire to limit criminal defences to the realm of the reasonable person. This objectifying of defences, which in the Ryan case involves the defence of duress, places a barrier between the specific accused, as a thinking and feeling person, and her culpable actions by assessing the individual through the lens of the general; that of the reasonable person, who has no fixed address but, apparently, a lot of common sense. This external assessment, which looks outside the confines of the Court for direction, fails to appreciate the humanity before it in the shape of an accused faced with a dire choice whereby breaking the law means survival. For more on Ryan read my blog here.

Now in the Cairney and Pappas cases, the Court has added an additional barrier to all justifications and excuses through the “clarification” of the air of reality test. I have considered the lower Courts decisions on these cases in an earlier blog.

To discuss these decisions, we must first understand the antecedents of the air of reality test in Supreme Court of Canada cases. The phrase “air of reality” comes from the 1980 Pappajohn case. Pappajohn was charged with the rape of a real estate agent who was trying to sell his home. The accused and the complainant had diametrically opposed versions of the incident. According to the complainant, she was violently raped and according to the accused, they had consensual intercourse. The defence argued for the defence of mistake of fact to be left to the jury for their consideration. This mens rea defence, if accepted, would entitle the accused to an acquittal on the basis the accused had an honest but mistaken belief the complainant was consenting and therefore did not have the requisite mens rea to commit the offence. The trial judge refused to leave the defence to the jury and Mr. Pappajohn was convicted of rape.

It is in the majority judgment, written by Justice McIntyre, where the term “air of reality” is first used in relation to defences. In dismissing the appeal, Justice McIntyre finds the trial judge was correct in refusing to consider the defence of honest but mistaken belief as there was no “air of reality” to it. According to Justice McIntyre, for such a defence to be considered there must be “some evidence beyond the mere assertion of belief in consent” found in evidential sources other than the accused.

This air of reality requirement was used two years later in the SCC Brisson case, where self-defence was at issue. In Brisson, although all justices dismissed the accused’s appeal against conviction for first degree murder, there were three concurring judgments, with one such judgment written by Mr. Justice McIntyre who again finds that a trial judge must only instruct a jury on a defence, which has “some evidence sufficient to give an air of reality.” Interestingly, in the later 1985 Sansregret case, again on the application of the defence of mistake of fact in a rape case, Justice McIntyre does not refer specifically to the “air of reality” test but to the “air of unreality” of the defence.

The term “air of reality” is finally elevated to a “test” by Justice McIntyre in another mistake of fact rape case, Bulmer, from 1987. Here, Justice McIntyre fills in the phrase, “air of reality,” with a framework for trial judges to apply. He explains the test as a preliminary step in which the trial judge “is not concerned with the weight of the evidence or with the credibility of the evidence.” The simple question to be answered at this initial stage is: in all of the circumstances of this case, is there an air of reality in the defence?” The accused’s evidence will therefore become a factor but not the determining factor in deciding if there is, on the whole of the evidence, an air of reality. None of the cases I have referred to above were considered in the Pappas and Cairney cases.

After the Bulmer case, most SCC air of reality cases relate to the defence of mistaken belief until the 2002 Cinous case, which considered the defence of self-defence. Six of the nine-member Court in Cinous agreed to allow the appeal and enter a conviction. The majority reasons written by Chief Justice McLachlin and Justice Bastarache emphatically upheld previous enunciations on the test and viewed the air of reality test in the singular with no need to modify it for differing defences. They reaffirmed that the test “does not make determinations about the credibility of witnesses, weigh the evidence, make findings of fact, or draw determinate factual inferences.”

Even with this clear admonishment, the majority did modify the air of reality test by introducing the concept of the limited weighing of evidence

“where the record does not disclose direct evidence as to every element of the defence, or where the defence includes an element that cannot be established by direct evidence, as for example where a defence has an objective reasonableness component.” (underlining added)

It is the last part of this quote which concerns the use of the defences known as justifications and excuses – necessity, duress, self defence and defence of the person including provocation, the defence raised in Pappas and in Cairney. These defences all have subjective and objective elements. All of these defences are subject to the air of reality test and subsequently all of these defences are open to the limited weighing of the evidence to determine whether or not the defence will be available to the accused.

In Cinous, for example, the Court referred to the proportionality requirement of the defence of necessity as requiring the trial judge to balance the various social values at play with public policy in deciding if the harm inflicted was proportionate to the harm avoided. This objective assessment requires the trial judge to draw inferences from the world outside of the accused and thus, according to the SCC, the trial judge must employ the limited weighing of the factors underlying the defence, which may impact this assessment. 

But from where did this concept of “limited weighing” come, if as Chief Justice McLachlin maintains in the majority judgments of Pappas and of Cairney the air of reality test has never changed?

This limited weighing does not come from the assessment of defences but from directed verdict/preliminary hearing cases. The first SCC mention of “limited weighing” comes from the 1998 Charemski case on a directed verdict where the case was based on circumstantial evidence. Unsurprisingly, it is Chief Justice McLachlin who consistently approves of limited weighing and is the torchbearer of Justice McIntyre’s air of reality test. Charemski is a case heard by only a five-member court with the then Justice McLachlin in dissent. Justice McLachlin disagreed with the majority and pointedly suggested that “while some judges,” (hint as to who those “judges” are – just take a look at the majority decision), “have referred to a distinction between “no evidence” and “some evidence”, this distinction is nonsensical.” According to McLachlin, it is the sufficiency of evidence at issue. To determine sufficiency in the circumstantial world, McLachlin further explained, trial judges must “engage in a limited evaluation of inferences.”

In the SCC 2001 Arcuri case, the extent to which the trial judge or, in this case the preliminary inquiry judge, must enter into this limited weighing was clarified by Chief Justice McLachlin on behalf of the full Court. Arcuri wanted the preliminary inquiry judge to weigh the evidence as the evidence was purely circumstantial and the witnesses evidence arguably exculpatory. In dismissing the appeal, the Chief Justice explained that limited weighing did not mean the judge was actually weighing the evidence in determining guilt or innocence but engaged in limited weighing as follows:

In the sense of assessing whether it is reasonably capable of supporting the inferences that the Crown asks the jury to draw.  This weighing, however, is limited.  The judge does not ask whether she herself would conclude that the accused is guilty.  Nor does the judge draw factual inferences or assess credibility.  The judge asks only whether the evidence, if believed, could reasonably support an inference of guilt. 

This means the trial judge when engaging in limited weighing of the evidence is considering the reasonable possibilities of such evidence and not considering the quality of the evidence. In the Court’s view it is for the trier of fact to decide what inference should be taken in determining guilt or innocence.

The nuances of this test are obvious: the idea the judge must draw a reasonable inference is importing, into yet another stage of a criminal trial, the objective standard. Such limited weighing may go the accused’s benefit such as in the Charmeski case where the then Justice McLachlin would have restored the acquittal. However, to apply the same standard of assessment to defences, may be the way of the Musketeers – all for one test and one test for all – but it fails to recognize the importance and uniqueness of justifications and excuses as the last bastion against the power of the State. Almost akin to a “faint hope” clause, when an accused turns to a justification or excuse as a defence, the case has essentially been made out against the accused as both the mens rea and actus reus, the dual requirements for a crime,  have been established beyond a reasonable doubt. Guilt is nigh and the only reasonable doubt becomes whether or not this accused, faced with dire circumstances, made the only choice available.

These defences are not broadly based and are not a concrete lifeline. They are subject to both subjective and objective elements and if the accused does not fulfill the prerequisites of the reasonable person portion of the defence, the defence fails. To then superimpose the limited weighing concept of the air of reality test, which is also based on an objective assessment, is to further restrict an already narrowly based defence.

Through this limited weighing on an air of reality test, the SCC has effectively increased the standard with which the evidence of the defence is to be assessed. One wonders if this kind of restriction is truly in the spirit of Charter values. It would be worthwhile, in a year from now, to study the impact this case will have on the ability of the accused to make full answer in defence and whether, like a transient puff of air, all of the defences are gone.