Section 16 describes the defence we now know as mental disorder but which we previously called the insanity defence. It is an incapacity defence, meaning that if successful the accused person is found to be incapable of forming the requisite intent for the crime. Thus, the accused could not even formulate the malicious intent required to commit the crime and is therefore absolved of criminal responsibility. The insanity defence is from English common law; specifically the 1843 British House of Lords Daniel M’Naghten case and thereafter the insanity defence became known as the M’Naghten Rule. This rule was codified into our Criminal Code from the Code’s inception.
In the 1892 Code, the defence was found under s.11. To read the section is a lesson in now inappropriate language as the section absolves those “labouring under natural imbecility” or disease of the mind. Other than this, the section does read very similarly to the present section 16 as a person “labouring” or “suffering,” as we say now, is exempt from criminal responsible if that disease or disorder rendered the person “incapable of appreciating the nature and quality” of his or her actions. However under the 1892 section the accused must also be incapable “of knowing that that the act or omission is wrong.” Let’s quickly look at the present section 16(1) for comparison:
No person is criminally responsible for an act committed or an omission made while suffering from a mental disorder that rendered the person incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of the act or omission or of knowing that it was wrong.
Our present defence requires that the person suffering from a mental disorder must be “incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of the act or omission” or “knowing it was wrong” and not and “knowing it was wrong” as in 1892 version.
The balance of the subsections under the 1892 section 11 is as follows:
2. A person labouring under specific delusions, but in other respects sane, shall not be acquitted on the ground of insanity, under the provisions hereinafter contained, unless the delusions caused him to believe in the existence of some state of things, which, if it existed, would justify or excuse his act or omission.
3. Every one shall be presumed to be sane at the time of doing or omitting to do any act until the contrary is proved.
Subsection 2 from the 1892 insanity section qualifies subsection 1 by providing an exception. A person may be “labouring under natural imbecility or a disease of the mind” but if they suffer from specific delusions and are otherwise sane, they cannot use the insanity defence unless those delusions “caused him to believe in the existence of some state of things which, if it existed, would justify or excuse his act or omission.” Subsection 3 indicates that everyone is presumed sane “until the contrary is proven.” Once an accused is found NCR or not criminally responsible, the person would be held in detention until the “pleasure” of the Lieutenant Governor. This “pleasure” had no time limitation. Although, I will not discuss this here, this indeterminacy was changed in later amendments.
The 1892 version of the defence continued until the 1953-54 amendments at which point the section was re-enacted as s. 16 but this version, again, is quite different from what we have today. The revised section reads very much like the original version except that it changes the “and” “knowing that such act or omission is wrong” to “or.”
In 1975, the Law Reform Commission of Canada, as it then was (it was disbanded in 1993 and re-enacted as the Law Commission of Canada in 1996 but then had its budget cut in 2006 and was closed down), published Working Paper #14 on “The Criminal Process and Mental Disorder.” The significant commissioners at the time were two soon to be Supreme Court of Canada Justices – Antonio Lamer (Vice-Chair and later to be Chief Justice of the SCC) and Gerard La Forest (commissioner) and the Chair, E. Patrick Hartt, who became a Justice of the High Court of Ontario in 1996 and retired in 2001. For more information on the fascinating history of Canada’s law reform agencies, I recommend reading Gavin Murphy’s paper that can be accessed here.
In any event, this Working Paper, although not partially acted upon until the 1991 amendments (which were done in response to the constitutional striking down of the old sections by the Supreme Court of Canada), suggested various fundamental changes to the insanity defence and the procedures surrounding it. As a result, it is with some irony that the Paper opens with the words “It [the Paper] examines many of the important but sometimes neglected problems of mental disorder in the criminal process.” It seems the issue was even further neglected legislatively for a further sixteen years.
However, there was some groundwork done in the intervening time. The government, in 1982, through the Department of Justice, started the Mental Disorder Project as part of a comprehensive review of the criminal process by provincial and federal Minister of Justice officials. In 1983, a discussion paper was published and again the procedural difficulties and inherent unfairness in the system were discussed. Additionally, with the advent of the Charter, the system’s constitutional compliance was questioned. A full report was eventually tabled in 1985 and a draft Bill was introduced in 1986 by the then Minister of Justice John Crosby. The Bill was still under scrutiny when in 1991, the Supreme Court of Canada found the insanity rules and some of the Criminal Code sections unconstitutional in the Swain case. It should be noted that the then Chief Justice Lamer together with Justice Cory and Justice Sopinka wrote what would be the majority decision. Justice La Forest concurred with Justice Gonthier, who agreed substantially with Lamer CJ’s conclusion.
Thus we have the 1991 amendments under which we practice today. Although the new amendments have not anticipated all issues, certainly section 16 is a much better and fairer section than the previous iteration.
The present version retains the presumption of sanity but also clarifies the burden of proof required to overcome the presumption. It must be noted that either the Crown prosecutor or the defence may raise the issue of mental disorder. If this occurs the trier of fact must be satisfied on the civil standard of balance of probabilities that the presumption of sanity does not apply. There is no exception, in the present s. 16, for specific delusions. The balance of the present section 16 (2) and (3) is as follows:
Presumption (2) Every person is presumed not to suffer from a mental disorder so as to be exempt from criminal responsibility by virtue of subsection (1), until the contrary is proved on the balance of probabilities.
Burden of proof (3) The burden of proof that an accused was suffering from a mental disorder so as to be exempt from criminal responsibility is on the party that raises the issue.
Although section 16 sets out the defence of mental disorder, the presumption of sanity and the burden of proof, it is Part XX.1 of the Criminal Code, entitled Mental Disorders, which sets out the procedure to be followed in considering the defence. It is a lengthy Part and thus the defence of mental disorder is complex and time consuming requiring often-competing experts and the application of circuitous special procedures. A full discussion on this Part will come when we discuss sections 672.1 to 672.9, much further down this Criminal Code journey.
One last comment on the recent controversial nature of this issue, particularly with the finding that Vince Li, who beheaded a passenger on a bus, was found not criminally responsible due to a mental disorder and was sent to a psychiatric institution for treatment. Just recently Li’s terms of segregation at the hospital were relaxed by the Criminal Code Review Board of Manitoba to permit Li to leave the hospital unescorted. This relaxation has resulted in a call to tighten once again the consequences of a finding of mental disorder.
The Federal Government has been most vocal in wanting changes and introduced last year a Bill C-54 to amend the Code to include strict restrictions on a person found mentally disordered under s.16. Critics of the Bill suggest that the further stigmatizing of the mentally ill will not “make society safer.” The Bill received its First Reading in the Senate in June of 2013. Read the presenting speech made by the original sponsor of the Bill, the then Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, as well as the response speeches here. Read also the article by the Canadian Psychiatric Association on the “fundamental flaws” in the new proposal.
It should also be noted that in a recent legal conference on mental disorder and the criminal justice system, questions were raised on the constitutionality of the proposed new amendments. Although, section 16 has come a long way from M’Naghten and the 1892 Code, the future of criminal responsibility and mental disorder is still unsettled and may only be determined, once again, by court intervention.