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.