Section 3 "For Convenience of Reference Only": Episode Three of the Ideablawg Podcast on the Canadian Criminal Code

The following is the text version of Episode Three of the Ideablawg Podcast on the Canadian Criminal Code. At the end of the text is the actual podcast or, better yet, download the podcast directly from iTunes by searching for ideablawg. Enjoy!

Today we are going to discuss section 3 of the Criminal Code, which is the last section under the interpretation heading. Last week we looked at sections 2 and 2.1, which were definitions of some, but not all, terms used in the Code. As I mentioned last week, the federal Interpretation Act applies to all federal statutes, and therefore the Criminal Code, as long as the provisions found in the Interpretation Act are not inconsistent with the specific statute. If there is a contrary intention, then, the Interpretation Act must give way and the provision found in the specific Act is the rule.

So, this puny interpretation segment in the Code is most definitely not the last word on how to interpret the Code. Indeed, besides legislative interpretation, which is what we are doing here, there is also judge-made interpretation found in case law. Today, we are going to look at case law in understanding section 3 because the puzzle is – what is the significance of this odd section and why, of all the statutory interpretation rules, it is here.

Let’s start with reading this section in order to get our bearings:

First the title of this section – which by the way does not form part of the section but is a way to identify and organize sections in the Code – is “descriptive cross-references.” Far from being “descriptive” this heading is not telling us much. The actual section 3 reads as follows:

Where, in any provision of this Act, a reference to another provision of this Act or a provision of any other Act is followed by words in parenthesis that are or purport to be descriptive of the subject-matter of the provision referred to, the words in parenthesis form no part of the provision in which they occur but shall be deemed to have been inserted for convenience of reference only.

By the way at the end of each section of the Code there is an odd phrase, in this case, “1976-77, c. 53, s. 2.” This phrase denotes the year the section was enacted, in this case 1976-77, and also the chapter number, c.53, of the amending statute with the section, S.2. When the actual amendment is integrated into the Code, the chapter and section number becomes meaningless but it is the year, which gives us valuable information. For example, the previous section, 2.1, which told us that the firearm definitions under s.84(1) apply throughout the Code, was placed in the Code in 2009. So, what we do know about section 3 is that it has been around for quite awhile.


Now getting back to the actual section. What does it mean? Good question. It is one of those sections I call “ugly sections,” which are difficult to understand and require multiple readings before you can glean the meaning. But upon re-reading, the meaning is quite clear: throughout the Code, there may be references to other sections of the Code or even other sections of another statute. There also may be, in parenthesis or brackets, a description of that referred to section following the section number. These parentheses descriptions, so section 3 suggests, may not be completely accurate as they merely act as signifiers of that particular section. Therefore, s. 3 warns the reader that if they do see a description in parenthesis following a section, that description is only there to give us a heads up on what the referred to section means and is not part of the Criminal Code. It’s just a “BTW,” or “By The Way” information for your “convenience of reference only.” Great, thanks for the caution, but that does not explain why, of all the various statutory interpretation rules there are, and there are many, this particular one is integrated into the Code.

Now let’s discuss statutory interpretation. This will be a very superficial discussion as such a talk could and does form a whole course, typically an optional course, offered in law school. “TBH” or “to be honest,” this kind of course should be mandatory for all law students considering the amount of time we all spend, no matter what area of law, reading and trying to understand statutes.

To explain statutory interpretation, I am actually going to go to case law and a recent Supreme Court of Canada criminal law case from 2012 called R v. Dineley. Mr. Dineley was charged with impaired driving and driving with a blood alcohol concentration over the legal limit. Due to amendments to the Criminal Code a particular defence, which permitted the accused to challenge the accuracy of the breathalyzer readings based on an expert’s toxicology report, called the Carter defence, was eliminated. This amendment happened during Mr. Dineley’s trial and his counsel argued that the amendment could not be applied retrospectively, according to rules of statutory interpretation, and therefore the Carter defence was still valid.

The trial judge agreed and acquitted Dineley but the Court of Appeal for Ontario disagreed and ordered a new trial. The Supreme Court of Canada in a split decision agreed with the trial judge, found the new amendment could not be applied retroactively and upheld the acquittal.

Despite this, I am going to take us to the dissent written by Mr. Justice Cromwell, who has an administrative law background and explains in this case what statutory interpretation does. I am going to read some excerpts of Justice Cromwell’s decision to help us:

He first says: “statutory interpretation aims to ascertain legislative intent…”.

Then, he states what is really the first principle of statutory interpretation:

The courts ascertain legislative intent by reading legislative language in context and in its grammatical and ordinary sense, harmoniously with the scheme and purpose of the legislation at issue...

And here is another fundamental interpretation principle: “When the legislator’s words permit it, the courts will take the legislature not to have intended to work injustice or unfairness.”


Hopefully, you get the idea: that the rules of statutory interpretation are supposed to not only help clarify what we read but also to bring us into the parliamentarian heart whereby we can see and feel the purpose of the framers of legislation in writing the Act. However, we are also not supposed to read too much into this intent, instead we should take a balanced approach, which I would suggest involves applying some good common sense. Conversely, in the United States, the concept has taken a life of its own when dealing with the Constitution through the doctrine of “original intent.” This principle has not gone without controversy but certainly the US Supreme Court is much more concerned with the original intent of the founding fathers than we are of the fathers of confederation. Be that as it may, statutory interpretation is a complex and at times, changing area of law.

This does lead us however to the Interpretation Act, which is chock-full of rules of interpretation and construction. It tells us, for example, that the law is “always speaking” meaning that a law may be fashioned in x year but it applies even if it is used in x + 50 years – as long as the law has not been repealed. It even explains the preambles we were discussing in podcast one: section 13 of the Interpretation Act states "The preamble of an enactment shall be read as a part of the enactment intended to assist in explaining its purport and object."

It does not however tell us what to do if we see words in parentheses. It does, in section 14, advise us that:

Marginal notes and references to former enactments that appear after the end of a section or other division in an enactment form no part of the enactment, but are inserted for convenience of reference only.

This sounds like a very similar caution to section 3 of the Code. So in the end section 3 is really only doing what section 14 of the Interpretation Act is doing, except in the Code parentheses are used. By the way, there are also marginal notes in the Code, such as those headings I have been referring to and which form no part of the actual statute but are just there for organizational purposes.


So where do we find these parentheses actually being used in the Code? Typically, where there is a list of offences such as in s. 231. This section sets out in what circumstances murder is classified, for parole ineligibility purposes, as first-degree. Section 231(5) lists the offences for which an offender, who causes the death of another, is found committing or attempting to commit will then be guilty of first-degree murder. For example s. 231(5)(e) states “section 279 (kidnapping and forcible confinement)”. The words in the parenthesis describe summarily the offence found under s. 279 and is there for “convenience of reference only.” In fact, case law suggests that to describe s. 279(2) as “forcible confinement” is inaccurate as the better description is “unlawful confinement.”

Thank you for joining me on this third podcast. Next week, we won’t be going too far as we discuss s. 3.1 of the Criminal Code. The section is a throwback to the interpretation segment but it falls under a completely new heading and is under the first Part of the Criminal CodePart I – called the “General” Part of the Code.


Episode Three of the ideablawg Podcast on the Canadian Criminal Code: Section 3 "For Your Convenience Only"