Today we will step out of our criminal law comfort zone to talk a little bit about the civil law, in particular how criminal and civil law reside in a parallel universe due to section 11 of the Criminal Code.
To start, let’s discuss how civil law and criminal law differ from one another. First, it should be noted that when I speak of “civil law,” I am using this term generously to refer to the legal system controlling private disputes, particularly where there is harm caused either physically (tort law) or through a breach of contractual obligations. Another definition of “civil law” may be the civil law tradition, which comes from the Continental legal tradition (The Napoleonic Code for instance), and involves codified civil statutes governing society, such as found in Quebec.
As you probably already noticed, the main difference between criminal and civil laws is the type of parties engaged in each of these systems. Civil law is between private individuals, whilst criminal is between the state or the government and an individual, although a corporation can also be charged with a criminal offence. Thus, in criminal law we are concerned with public wrongs and harms against society. As, I have mentioned before, the criminal law underlines society’s fundamental values and is reflective of how we view our society at any given time.
As a result of this differing viewpoint, civil and criminal law employ different legal processes, on occasion differing legal rules, and even a different standard of proof. To reflect the specialness of the criminal law, the burden of proof, which is on the state, is beyond a reasonable doubt, and for the civil world it is proof on a balance of probabilities, which is a lower standard of proof than the criminal one.
The civil law also employs some different types of remedies than the criminal law, although sometimes not. Criminal law remedies are about punishment, with the concomitant ideals of retribution and rehabilitation. Typically, civil remedies are about compensation, to ensure the injured party is recompensed for the harm caused. However, there are occasions where these remedies do meet such us in the criminal law when compensation is ordered or in civil law when punitive damages are assessed. This blurring of the lines between civil and criminal law is best seen in the regulatory field of legislation. For further reading on this issue, My Masters Thesis considered the criminalization of regulatory offences and the use of the civil punitive sanction as an alternative.
Now that we understand the differences between civil and criminal, let’s take a look at section 11 of the Criminal Code to try and figure out what it means and what it is doing in our Criminal Code.
No civil remedy for an act or omission is suspended or affected by reason that the act or omission is a criminal offence.
As an aside, a similar section can be found in the 1892 Criminal Code under s. 534. It is under the General Provisions of procedure section of the Code, while the present section 11 is under the General Part.
On the face, the meaning of the section is fairly clear: a civil action may proceed despite a parallel criminal action. In other words, a person charged with an offence can also face a civil suit for his or her actions and that civil case can continue at the same time as the criminal prosecution. However, as discussed in the last two previous podcasts, as the court retains an inherent jurisdiction over its process, a judge, in exceptional circumstances, can suspend a civil case until the criminal matter concludes. The circumstances for such abeyance would involve the right of the accused to a fair trial and the prejudicial effect of a continuing civil case. It must be emphasized that this power is discretionary and there is no automatic right to stay a civil case until a criminal matter is completed.
Another concern for an accused facing a civil suit is the civil requirement for questioning the parties on the suit. Such responses may later incriminate the accused at the criminal trial. However, there is protection for the accused under s.13 of the Charter, which prohibits the use of such testimony in a criminal proceeding, except in a prosecution for perjury or “for the giving of contradictory evidence.” Therefore, the state cannot advance such incriminatory evidence at the accused’s trial unless the evidence forms the basis of a perjury charge or unless the accused testifies at the criminal trial and his testimony at the criminal trial is contradictory to the previous testimony in the civil proceeding. In that instance, the civil testimony does not go in for the truth of its content but can be used to cross-examine the accused on a prior inconsistent statement. However, under provisions in the Canada Evidence Act, an accused must still answer the questions put to him when questioned in a civil case.
There are cases where the civil trial judge has stayed the civil proceeding when the accused is facing criminal charges in the United States. In that forum, the accused, as a Canadian citizen, would not be entitled to invoke the protection of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and would not be protected by the Canadian laws.
Our final consideration is why is the section in the Code. I suggest the section is in place to reiterate the differences between criminal and civil law. The sections speaks of civil remedies or the outcome of a civil case and also a civil suit’s purpose – to enforce a right of the party, which has been harmed, or unrecognized by the other party’s actions. This enforcement is between these two parties – not between Her Majesty and the accused - therefore the action is in respect of different parties. The harm is a private one, and again does not underline the social values at stake in a criminal case. Finally, the standard of proof is lower in a civil suit and therefore a civil remedy may be ordered even if an accused is ultimately acquitted of the criminal case – see the O.J. Simpson trial as an example of this. So they are different proceedings, for a different reason, making parallel proceedings possible. Finally, there is a desire that civil matters, like criminal cases, be heard in a timely manner to ensure the integrity of the civil system. Of course, with the caveat that, in matters of justice, the criminal case will prevail.