The Subjective/Objective Debate Explained

Over the past year, I have detected a theme in the criminal cases decided by the Supreme Court of Canada: is the criminal law objectively or subjectively based? This is a crucial yet traditional argument touching upon almost every aspect of a criminal charge, including the mental element or mens rea for a crime and criminal law defences. In other words, this issue or debate, impacts all areas of substantive criminal law and therefore is seminal to our understanding of the law and the appropriate and fair application of the law.

As punishment is the ultimate outcome of a finding of guilt in a criminal case, the standard of assessing the accused’s behaviour is of vital importance. Indeed, it is at the core of the presumption of innocence as it provides the tools by which a trier of fact, be it judge or jury, decides whether the prosecutor has proven the case beyond a reasonable doubt.

As discussed in a previous posting, the standard of assessment can make all the difference between a finding of guilt and a finding of innocence. The subjective standard requires the prosecutor to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that this accused intended his or her actions while the objective standard requires the prosecutor to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a reasonable person would have not acted as the accused did in the circumstances of the case. By using a standard of reasonableness as opposed to the particular accused’s awareness, the objective liability is a lower standard and therefore easier for the prosecutor to prove. Yet, objective liability crimes, such as manslaughter, carry the maximum sentence of punishment of life imprisonment. The objective standard is harsh and can result in a conviction of a person, who due to personal frailties and inabilities, could never come up to the standard of a reasonable person. These individuals may be viewed as morally innocent as they do not have an intention to commit the prohibited act. In criminal law we justify this conviction by applying the principle of the utilitarian concept of the “greater good,” which emphasizes the “commonweal” and the importance of preventing societal harm. However by doing so, we ignore the societal interest in preventing the punishment of the morally innocent or those who are, to put it bluntly, “substandard” individuals.

The issue of subjective/objective mens rea came to the foreground after the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was implemented. Section 7 of the Charter requires that no one is to face a loss of liberty except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice. Harkening back to the presumption of innocence, section 7 seemed to require a conviction based on subjective mens rea or individual awareness of the risk of his or her conduct. In a series of cases in the late 1980s and the 1990s, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed, yet disagreed. The Court agreed certain traditional crimes, such as murder and theft, which attracted great social stigma upon conviction (one is branded as a murderer or a thief), required subjective liability. However, other crimes, particularly those requiring a duty of care such as in the licensed activities of driving, need only require objective liability.

Although, the court arrived at a “modified” objective standard in a split decision in Hundal, the end result was far from a true modification. Unlike Justice Lamer’s dissent position, which called for an allowance for personal characteristics in the objective assessment, the majority preferred to “soften” the harshness of the objective standard by requiring the trier of fact to determine liability “contextually” in the circumstances of the particular facts of the case. Instead of taking heed to the specifics of the individual, the person whose liberty interests were at issue, the court preferred to focus on a construct of reality as revealed by the facts of the case. Justice Lamer’s stance, interestingly and importantly for my analysis, was supported by the now Chief Justice McLachlin.   At the end of the 1990s, it was clear that not only was the objective standard here to stay, it had reached constitutional status. Thus, the standardization of crime came into being.

This penchant for objectiveness also began to permeate the defences available to the accused. Certainly, the assessment of defences on a reasonable or objective standard was not new as seen in the assessment of the common law defences of justifications (self-defence) and excuses (duress and necessity). However, the objective assessment was always tempered with a subjective inquiry to ensure that this accused’s actions in face of a subjectively perceived threat were taken into account. However, I would argue that with the passing of the new defence of the person section in the Criminal Code, the objective requirement is forefront and again, the subjective assessment is left to a factual analysis, devoid of any personal viewpoints. See a previous blog I have done on this very issue. As argued by George Fletcher in an essay on the defences, The Individualization of Excusing Conditions, by turning the focus away from the accused, we are imposing an artificiality into the criminal law process wherein we sacrifice the individual in favour of the rule of law. Thus, we forget that defences, such as excuses, are “an expression of compassion for one of our kind caught in a maelstrom of circumstance.”

In the next posting, I will review the past year of SCC cases on the objective/subjective debate to determine if the Supreme Court of Canada has gone too far into the objective territory.