Making A Split-Decision In The Supreme Court of Canada

Last month the Supreme Court of Canada released their statistics covering the last decade of decisions. The graphs make interesting reading if you want to know how long it takes for decisions to be rendered or which provinces send the most appeals. If those issues are not at the top of your must-know list, the graph on the number of unanimous decisions versus split decisions may be the graph to pique your interest. The lowest percentage of split decisions in a given year was in 2006, where 20% of the cases heard resulted in a dissenting decision. The highest percentage of dissenting decisions occurred in 2007 with 38% of the cases. Last year, 32% of the cases produced dissents.

What could have made these statistics even more enticing would be a break down on who sits in dissent most often and why. Are there thematic connections? Well, of course there are: a justice dissenting on a specific issue would not be expected to change his or her mind if the same or even similar issue arises. However, change does occur, as we know when reviewing the decade of cases from the 1990s on the mens rea requirements for criminal negligence. This change or shift in the court’s decision-making is appropriate and welcome: we want our courts to be reflective of societal fundamental values and this ability for change in legal principles permits this. We also want our jurists to be open to this change, in a principled way, of course. So, analyzing SCC decisions is a way to track change and to better understand the court’s position or change in position on any given issue.

Instead of waiting another decade for these interesting numerical tidbits, I crunched the criminal law numbers for this year. From January to mid-March there have been 13 criminal cases in which written decisions were rendered. Out of the 13 cases, nine of the cases resulted in unanimous decisions. Quite frankly these unanimous decisions are very short and merely the Court agreeing with the lower level appeal courts. Four cases, however, were split decisions. Roughly, 30.7% of the cases are therefore split or dissent decisions. This percentage is fairly consistent with last year.

 

Now, let’s move away from the empirical side and look at these four decisions for meaning. What kind of split decisions are these?

I have spoken about the Babos case in a previous blog entitled When Dissent In The Supreme Court Matters. This type of split decision, where there is only one Justice in dissent, signifies a fundamental difference in opinion between the majority written by Justice Moldaver, on behalf of the five other justices on the panel, and the lone dissenter, Justice Abella. As such, the dissent is heartfelt and invokes value-laden terms such as the “exceptional assault on the public’s sense of justice” in the face of “egregious state conduct.” Justice Abella, with her background in human rights, is speaking out in a case where her dissent may not really matter in legal principle terms but is a matter with which she disagrees “on principle.” I would call this a “moral/ethical” decision.

The MacDonald case is more benign. It is a “true application” decision. The disagreement does not involve a direct disagreement on the issue at hand but a disagreement on the true or correct application of previously decided legal principles. Thus, the dissent written by Justice Moldaver and Justice Wagner with Justice Rothstein concurring takes umbrage with the majority’s application or misapplication of the Mann case, decided a decade earlier, on the reasonableness of protective police searches. Ironically, Justice LeBel, who wrote the majority decision, was a member of the majority Mann decision. The dissent does not fail to appreciate this irony when they write:

The majority in this case purports to apply Mann.  Respectfully, however, it does not.  Instead, it renders Mann redundant, depriving police officers of the limited search powers they need to protect themselves and the public in fluid and often unpredictable situations of potential danger.

Such a case leaves the legal profession wondering if the Court can’t apply its own case properly, who can? Keep an eye on how this decision, which did not cause the flurry of attention in the legal profession it should have, will affect trial matters in the lower courts.

In Sekhon, the court considered the admissibility of a police officer’s “expert” evidence on drug couriers pursuant to the Mohan criteria. Although, both the majority decision, written by Justice Moldaver, and the dissent, written by Justice LeBel (notice how quickly the tables turn in the SCC in terms of who is in the dissent and who is in the majority!), agree that the evidence was inadmissible, the differences come in the application of s. 686(1)(b)(iii) and whether the appeal should be dismissed as there was no substantial wrong or miscarriage of justice. Again, both the majority and dissent agree on the basics: that the admission of the evidence was not a trivial error. However, in Justice Moldaver’s view the evidence of guilt was overwhelming and therefore it is within the public’s interest not to send the matter back to trial considering the costs to the criminal justice system. Justice LeBel agreed “that ordering a new trial places demands on judicial resources,” however, “this cannot override the appellant’s right to a fair trial based solely on admissible evidence.” In Justice LeBel’s view, the inadmissible evidence went to the very issue before the court – the guilt or innocence of the accused. This kind of decision is the “tug of war” decision.

Finally, the Hutchinson case is the “throw-back” decision. What did we say in Mabior again? While this case does not re-litigate the issues, as Mabior was a unanimous decision written by Chief Justice McLachlin, it does build upon some of the key pronouncements in that case. Thus, in Hutchinson, the majority, written by Chief Justice McLachlin and Justice Cromwell, agree that sexual assault offences protect sexual autonomy but not absolutely as the “blunt instrument of the criminal law” must be used with “appropriate restraint.” On the other hand, the dissent written by Justice Moldaver and Justice Abella view the protection of the sexual integrity of a person, as the controlling issue in the meaning of consent, within the broader context of public policy. Interesting to see the majority speak of traditional criminal law principles in the context of offences, which, for public policy reasons, are the least traditional criminal law offences in the Code. Clearly, there is much more to be said on the issue and a further “throw-back’ decision would not be unlikely.

So, there is a lot to be said about the court’s decisions over and beyond the simple statistical graphs we review every ten years. I wonder what the next few weeks will tell us?