Section 14 – Consenting To Death: Episode 16 of the Ideablawg Podcasts on the Criminal Code of Canada

Although we have not traversed very far into the Criminal Code, we have already discussed some fundamental principles of English common law, including common law defences. Codification, as we have seen, does not usually change these traditional concepts but crystallizes the customary into the written rule. Even with codification, common law has informed the interpretation and implementation of the Code sections through the application of case law. Later, we will see how codification can and has radically changed common law, but the section we are now discussing, section 14 of the Criminal Code, is a reiteration of the common law rule – that a person cannot consent to their own death. The corollary to that presumption is that even if a victim does consent, an accused person cannot use this consent as a defence and is still legally liable for his or her actions. The section reads as follows:

No person is entitled to consent to have death inflicted on him, and such consent does not affect the criminal responsibility of any person by whom death may be inflicted on the person by whom consent is given.

Let’s take a deeper look at what this section is saying and what it is not saying. First, the section is actually speaking to us all – not just to an accused person – and acts as a warning: “no person is entitled to consent to have death inflicted.” But why this wording? Why doesn’t the section simply say, “no person shall consent to death?” By putting in the word “entitled,” I submit that not only can we not consent to our own death but we also have no right to do so. This of course opens up a much larger debate on who has ownership over an individual’s life – is it the person or is it the state as the Code seems to suggest? Or is it a combination of the two?

This debate continues, as the Supreme Court of Canada will reopen the issue of the right of a person to die when they consider the constitutionality of the assisted suicide section 241 of the Code in the British Columbia Carter case. I have written previous blogs on the issue: Whose Life Is This Anyway? The Canadian “Right To Die” Debate Part One – Definitions and A Story and Whose Life Is This Anyway? Sue Rodriguez and the Supreme Court of Canada. We will further discuss this when we come to the relevant section in the Code but the issue of whether or not society has an interest in the continuance of our individual lives is a weighty one. The difficulty is we do want society to take responsibility for ensuring the necessities of life such as food, clothing and education – all of which by the way have been subject to great constitutional debate. But we do not want society directing the manner in which we live our lives such as our sexual orientation and our decisions around childbirth. Of course, all of these issues are predicated on the decision to live, not on the decision to die. The question “whose life is this anyway?” does not generate an easy or static answer.

The other part of section 14 is a warning to the offender - the victim’s consent cannot be used to relieve the accused of the criminal responsibility for causing the victim’s death. Again, this argument may be raised in an assisted suicide situation but it could also arise in other scenarios such as sporting events. Although we no longer live in a world where a fight to the death is an acceptable spectacle (do we?) this does not mean the issue is dead – excuse my pun. Although dueling under section 71 is a Criminal Code offence, there are contests where death may not be the object but serious bodily harm certainly is and death may be probable if you engage in the “sport” enough times – prize fighting comes to mind. Certainly, in Canada, “blood” sports are either prohibited or highly regulated as in section 83 of the Criminal Code. Recently, the Canadian government changed the meaning of a “prize fight” under this section to permit mixed martial arts events such as the Ultimate Fighting Championships, a highly popular form of entertainment.

Still when death does occur during the course of a sporting event there may be criminal code repercussions. An infamous example is the Todd Bertuzzi – Steve Moore case, when well –known defence man Todd Bertuzzi punched Moore from behind during a hockey game in Vancouver. Moore suffered serious injuries and Bertuzzi was not charged with the more serious criminal negligence, but with the lesser offence of assault causing bodily harm, which is an infliction of bodily harm without consent. Bertuzzi entered a plea of guilty and received a conditional discharge, a lesser punishment available under the Code.  

This brings us to the related consideration of whether one can consent to bodily harm. A much more difficult issue considering many contact sports involve serious injury. It also brings to mind the fistfight or the let’s-take-this outside kind of attitude that is not unknown in bars across the country. Interestingly, this is where common law and codified law intersects. Although we know from section 8(3) that common law defences are available, this seemingly straightforward exception becomes complicated when consent, as in an assault, form an essential element of an offence.

In determining whether or not consent exists as per the Code, how far can a court rely on and apply the common law principles? This was the issue in the Supreme Court of Canada Jobidon case, wherein the accused stepped out of a bar with the victim and engaged in a seemingly consensual fistfight, which left the victim dead and the accused facing a manslaughter charge. Jobidon was acquitted at trial on the basis of the consent but the Ontario Court of Appeal reversed the decision. The majority judgment in the Supreme Court of Canada, written by Mr. Justice Gonthier, found that the common law conception of consent was relevant to whether or not the victim’s consent was applicable in the circumstances. To that end, Justice Gonthier stated at page 738:

If s. 8(3) and its interaction with the common law can be used to develop entirely new defences not inconsistent with the Code, it surely authorizes the courts to look to preexisting common law rules and principles to give meaning to, and explain the outlines and boundaries of an existing defence or justification, indicating where they will not be recognized as legally effective -- provided of course that there is no clear language in the Code which indicates that the Code has displaced the common law.  That sort of language cannot be found in the Code.  As such, the common law legitimately serves in this appeal as an archive in which one may locate situations or forms of conduct to which the law will not allow a person to consent.

In accordance with these comments, the SCC took an expansive view of section 8(3) and did not feel encumbered by the argument that consent forms part of the actus reus or prohibited conduct of an offence. In this instance, the common law restricted consent in fistfights, where there was bodily harm, for reasons of public policy – to ensure good order and appropriate behaviors. The Court however was very clear to restrict this decision to circumstances, which “vitiates consent between adults intentionally to apply force causing serious hurt or non-trivial bodily harm to each other in the course of a fist fight or brawl.”  This was an important caveat for the court as:

Stated in this way, the policy of the common law will not affect the validity or effectiveness of freely given consent to participate in rough sporting activities, so long as the intentional applications of force to which one consents are within the customary norms and rules of the game.  Unlike fistfights, sporting activities and games usually have a significant social value; they are worthwhile. 

Indeed, this comment is puzzling. Although sports such as hockey and football are for some worthwhile pursuits, the issue does not lie in the sports themselves but in the injuries occasioned in these sports. Are these injuries equally worthwhile should be the question. The answer lies in the rules of the sport and certainly Bertuzzi’s criminal responsibility depended upon going outside the rules or norms of the sport.  Although only a certain level and type of harm will be tolerated, this tolerance, as it bends and flows, will have an impact on the future of acceptable violence in Canadian society and in Canadian sport.

Episode 16 of the Ideablawg Podcasts on the Criminal Code of Canada; Section 14 - Consenting To Death