Section 25 of the Criminal Code Part II: Episode 31 of the Ideablawg Podcasts on the Criminal Code of Canada

In the previous episode, I introduced section 25 of the Criminal Code as a protective measure for those persons enforcing or administering the law and those persons assisting in such activities. Under subsection (1), the section permits the use of force and justifies it if the authorized person acts on “reasonable grounds” and the authorized person uses no more force than is necessary to affect his purpose. Thus, when an authorized person steps outside this reasonable and necessary protection, the force would be considered excessive. However, this justification is qualified under subsection (3) when the force used is “intended or likely to cause death or grievous bodily harm.”

Although, subsection (3) discusses the scenario when the authorized person is not protected under s. 25, in actuality, the subsection establishes when an authorized person would be justified in using, for the want of a better term, “deadly” force. Such force is justified if the authorized person “believes on reasonable grounds that it is necessary for the self-preservation of the person or the preservation of any one under that person’s protection from death or grievous bodily harm.” However, subsection (3) adds a qualifier to subsection (1), where the force is intended to cause death or grievous bodily harm. In those heightened circumstances not only must the force be reasonable and necessary for the enforcement and administration of the law but it must also be used in the context of a reasonable belief on the part of the authorized person that using such force was necessary to protect himself or others under his protection from death or grievous bodily harm. This qualifier is itself subject to (4) and (5). Thus, under subsection (4) such force is justified where the authorized person is arresting someone in circumstances outlined under the subsection. Further, such force is justified against an inmate who is escaping from the penitentiary if the authorized person believes on reasonable grounds that any of the inmates pose a threat of death or grievous bodily harm and the escape cannot be reasonably prevented by less violent means.

There is a large amount of case law on whether the authorized person falls outside of this section and therefore the force is excessive and not justified. The courts have tended to interpret this section generously and to the benefit of the authorized person using the force. For instance, the court recognizes that in the determination of whether or not the force used was reasonable and necessary, the court must not assess the situation through the “lens of hindsight” but must take into account the immediacy of the decision in light of the heightened emotional and stressful circumstances typically surrounding the event. However, the issue of excessive force is a nebulous one driven by factual considerations. Interestingly, though the court is cautious not to be  “a Monday morning quarterback,” many of these cases involve expert evidence not only on appropriate use of force training but also on the ultimate issue as to whether the force used in the case was in fact excessive. By elevating these cases to almost a scientific interpretation of events, the admonishment not to view the cases through the “lens of hindsight” seems to obscure rather than elucidate. A case-by –case determination, applying the relevant legal principles, seems like a more judicious approach.

I don’t intend to go through the case law on this issue in this blog but I would like to point out how the use of force as authorized under this section has impacted areas both outside of criminal law and in criminal law but in a non-traditional basis. The issue of use of force has greatly impacted tort law and civil litigation against police officer and police services. Some of these cases relate, not just to individual officers but also to the concept of use of force in the tactical decisions made by the police. Thus, in the Alberta Court of Appeal case of Webster v. Wasylyshen from 2007, the court considered whether or not the use of the tactical team in the search of the plaintiffs’ home amounted to excessive force. The Court, in that case, found the use of the team was not an excessive use of force “given the need for public protection in the circumstances known to the police.” Excessive use of force by the police is also an issue, which tangentially finds relevance in certain Charter cases where a violation of Charter rights requires an exclusion of evidence under s. 24(2) as the officers’ excessive use of force shows bad faith on the part of the police resulting in the administration of justice being brought into disrepute. Such an argument was accepted in the dissenting decision of the Supreme Court of Canada 2010 Cornell case.  Further, excessive use of force has been used as a mitigating factor on sentence, where an offender is being sentenced for offences but in which the officers were found to be using excessive force.

Although some form of section 25 has been in the Criminal Code since its inception, the section has continued to be tested by the courts in many differing areas of law. The issues raised under this section will no doubt give rise to further advancements in the test to be used in determining excessive use of force and the circumstances in which the court will make such a finding as the world moves into the digital age and the image finds prominence in the courtroom setting. Instead of “dueling” use of force experts the courts will be faced with “dueling” videotapes emanating from citizen cell phones and officers body worn cameras. These new evidentiary tools will, I suggest, push the evidentiary limits of the law in this area and will, I suspect, provide a whole new area of case law in this area.