Section 17 – The Statutory Defence of Duress: Episode 19 of the Ideablawg Podcasts on the Criminal Code of Canada

In previous podcasts we have discussed the category of legal defences called justifications and excuses. We know that despite codification our criminal law permits an accused person to raise at trial a common law defence, as long as it is not inconsistent with the Code. There are purely common law defences such as the excuse of necessity (which by the way is exemplified in the seminal case taught in every first-year law school criminal law course – Regina v Dudley and Stevenson – where the two accused charged with murder committed cannibalism when their ship floundered in the high seas and they were forced to drift on a lifeboat – think Life of Pi without the animals) but there are also common law defences, which are subject to codification and found in the Criminal Code. The excuse of duress is one such defence from the common law, which appears in the Code under the section we are contemplating today, section 17.

When we first look at this section, and it is a long one, we realize that the word “duress” is never used in section 17. We therefore immediately feel that what we are about to look at and think about is not the same as the common law defence of duress. This is a correct assumption, on the face of this section. When we look behind this section however and look at the case law, which has developed in conjunction with the advent of the Charter on the mechanics of this section, we will see that in reality this section entitled “Compulsion By Threats” is really very similar to the common law version and only differs in terms of what category of accused person can use this section and for which offences.

Section 17 reads as follows:

A person who commits an offence under compulsion by threats of immediate death or bodily harm from a person who is present when the offence is committed is excused for committing the offence if the person believes that the threats will be carried out and if the person is not a party to a conspiracy or association whereby the person is subject to compulsion, but this section does not apply where the offence that is committed is high treason or treason, murder, piracy, attempted murder, sexual assault, sexual assault with a weapon, threats to a third party or causing bodily harm, aggravated sexual assault, forcible abduction, hostage taking, robbery, assault with a weapon or causing bodily harm, aggravated assault, unlawfully causing bodily harm, arson or an offence under sections 280 to 283 (abduction and detention of young persons).

Before we dissect this section to have a clearer understanding of it, I want to remind you of the key elements of the class of defences we call excuses.

Both the actus reus and the mens rea of the offence must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt by the prosecution before a legal excuse or for that matter a legal justification can be used as a defence. This means that the case against the accused is made out and, but for this defence, the accused would be found guilty. In light of that prerequisite, the class of defences known as excuses acknowledge the wrongfulness of the conduct but as a result of the circumstances facing the accused person, the accused should not be held criminally responsible for his or her criminal actions. However, the circumstances facing the accused must be dire, in other words, the defence of excuse can only be used in emergency situations. It is therefore the accused’s reaction to these dire situations, which cause society to excuse or absolve their conduct.

Excuses are a concession to human frailty and therefore reflect our humanity in two ways. First, this defence realizes that as individuals, as part of our humanity, we may act inappropriately in order to preserve our life or others. Secondly, as humans we understand that we are not perfect and that our laws must bend to this truth in order to have a compassionate society.

Despite the above, the situations in which excuses can be used are very restrictive because we fear that permitting too broad an excuse for criminal conduct will result in cases where we as a society may not be so sympathetic. So, the rule of law draws a line between what is excused and what is not. The difficulty then becomes, where to draw this line in order to remain true to our humanity without losing it.

As I already mentioned, the section is a reflection, albeit as we will see an imperfect one, of the common law defence of duress and thus this section was in the 1892 Criminal Code under section 12. This original section, except for certain language changes, is virtually the same as the now section 17. Not much changed over the years to this section and yet, as I have already mentioned, the section has changed dramatically since 2001 when the Supreme Court of Canada gave this section a constitutional make-over in R v Ruzic.

The Court in Ruzic, under the auspices of section 7 of the Charter, found that the statutory duress defence was too restrictive, particularly in relation to its common law partner, which even with s.17, could be used by parties to an offence. In the Court’s view, the statutory defence, available only to principal offenders, should not be more restrictive than the common law. In order to re-balance s. 17, the Court took out those passages in the section, which did not accord with the common law equivalent. Even so, the Court did not remove the offences for which the defence was available, choosing to leave those changes, if desired, to the government.

In light of this, let’s return to section 17 and this time, I will edit the section to accord with the Ruzic decision:

A person who commits an offence under compulsion by threats of immediate death or bodily harm from a person who is present when the offence is committed is excused for committing the offence if the person believes that the threats will be carried out and if the person is not a party to a conspiracy or association whereby the person is subject to compulsion, but this section does not apply where the offence that is committed is high treason or treason, murder, piracy, attempted murder, sexual assault, sexual assault with a weapon, threats to a third party or causing bodily harm, aggravated sexual assault, forcible abduction, hostage taking, robbery, assault with a weapon or causing bodily harm, aggravated assault, unlawfully causing bodily harm, arson or an offence under sections 280 to 283 (abduction and detention of young persons).

Even with these changes the defence is a difficult one to employ. According to the newest Supreme Court of Canada case, in Ryan, the defence can only be used on the following bases:

  1. There must be a threat of death or bodily harm;
  2. The threat can be directed at the accused or a third party;
  3. The accused must reasonably believe that the threat will be carried out;
  4. There must be no safe avenue of escape, evaluated on a modified objective standard;
  5. There must be a close temporal connection between the threat and the harm threatened;
  6. There must be proportionality between the harm threatened and the harm inflicted by the accused, evaluated on a modified objective standard;
  7. The accused cannot be a party to a conspiracy or association whereby he or she is subject to compulsion as long as the accused actually knew that threats and coercion to commit an offence were a possible result of this criminal activity, conspiracy or association;
  8. The accused must be the principal offender and;
  9.  

In closing, there are a few items to note. First, the modified objective test is a creation of the Supreme Court of Canada in the series of cases on the meaning of criminal negligence. A discussion on this “test” and whether it is in fact a modifying one can be found in one of my previous blogs entitled The Subjective/Objective Debate Explained.

Second, the common law defence of duress in Canada is not restricted by type of offence, even though, in the UK the common law defence of duress cannot be used in a homicide charge, be the accused principal or a party.

Third, despite section 8(3) of the Code, which holds that common law defences continue unless they are altered or are inconsistent with the Code, section 17 changed to become more aligned to the common law as opposed to the common law defence changing to become more aligned to the Criminal Code iteration. This is because the common law defence of duress is for parties to an offence and the statutory defence is only for principal offenders. It is this distinction allows the common law defence to stand apart from the Code.

Fourth, even though Ruzic changed section 17, the Code does not reflect this change. One has to read the case law in order to know how the section should actually be implemented. This insistence by the federal government not to reflect court imposed Charter changes to sections is something that will come up again in the Code and in these podcasts. Indeed, there are whole sections, such as s.230 of the Code known as the constructive murder section, which have been struck down by the courts as constitutionally invalid and yet still appear in our Criminal Code. Why this is so is a matter of speculation but one wonders if the government believes that a differently composed court will take a different view or that the Charter may somehow change in the future. Either way, it is an oddity that these sections remain as they do as a vestige of the pre-Charter past.

Finally, there is much to be said about the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision in Ryan, which precluded the use of the duress defence in a situation where the accused was an abused woman who contracted an undercover police officer to kill her husband.  I will not, however, discuss those issues here in this podcast. Instead, I invite you to access my previous blog on the matter entitled Not To Make Excuses, But - The (Un)Responsiveness of the Supreme Court of Canada To Duress. I have also written on the application of the “air of reality test,” which is the threshold test used to determine if, in the circumstances of a case, a legal defence will be available to an accused in my blog entitled Poof! Into Thin Air – Where Have All The Defences Gone?: The Supreme Court of Canada And The Air Of Reality Test. I am currently writing a full article on this issue for publication.

We will of course come to further sections in the Criminal Code codifying common law defences where we will continue to peek back at the common law to frame the statutory doppelganger in the Code

Episode 19 of the Ideablawg Podcast on the Criminal Code of Canada: Section 17 - The Statutory Defence of Duress