Section 19 - Ignorance and the Law: Episode 21 of the Ideablawg Podcasts on the Criminal Code of Canada

Reviewing the past few episodes, I have noticed a thematic connection: from section 13 to the section 18, the discussion has focused on the availability of specific defences. Today’s section 19 continues that Code conversation by speaking of the “defence” of “ignorance.” The section reads as follows:

Ignorance of the law by a person who commits an offence is not an excuse for committing that offence.

In fact, the section does not set out a defence but seems to take away a defence, the one of – I-did-not-know-that-was-a-crime – kind of defence. We know that mistake of fact is an excuse, which if accepted goes to the mens rea or criminal intention required but why should ignorance of the law not be accepted as an excuse considering there are so many laws. Not even a lawyer can keep track of the myriad of laws and regulations out there so why deem knowledge to seemingly naïve citizens?

This presumption of knowledge has actually been in place a long time: not only since the Code’s inception but also since laws were even glimmers in Hammurabi’s eyes.  The actual section comes from the English common law, which hails from a Latin maxim found in Roman law: ignorantia juris non excusat. Once laws were codified and therefore written down for all to see, this idea, that a breach of the law cannot be excused through lack of knowledge, became an important aspect of the internal workings of the law.

One reason for this presumption is to ensure that people did not become a law unto themselves – one cannot pick and choose the laws he or she wishes to follow. Everyone is considered to be equally knowledgeable and therefore equally liable if the law is breached.

Practically, it is about incentives – ignorance is no excuse so you better inform yourself before you do it. This ensured people did not remain willfully blind. Of course, as already mentioned, to inform oneself of all the laws is an almost impossible burden, but section 19 places the information burden, to a certain extent, on the individual as opposed to the state. The government does inform the general public of our laws through publications on websites, books, and, formally, in the Canada Gazette. It is then the responsibility of the specific individual to take advantage of these publications and inform him or her as needed. Putting it into historical context, if a citizen breaks the law, Hammurabi need only say “there is no excuse, the law is clearly here on the Stele!”

Histrionics aside, as I said earlier in the podcast/posting, section 19 “seems” to take away the defence of ignorance of the law. There are two reasons for this caveat.

First, there are numerous scholarly articles on how ignorance is in fact an excuse, in certain circumstances, and that the blanket statement in section 19, and found in the legal principles of most western legal systems, simply does not reflect the true state of the law. In support of this view, I recommend just some of the following articles: “Ignorance of the Law is No Excuse?,” “Ignorance of the Law is No Excuse, Except for Tax Crimes,” “Ignorance of the Law IS an Excuse, But Only for the Virtuous,” and my favourite, “The Death of a Maxim: Ignorance of the Law is No Excuse (Killed By Money, Guns, and a Little Sex.”

Second, there is a defence known as mistake of law, which I submit is not exactly an ignorance of the law excuse, and has found only limited success in the criminal law arena. This defence, known as the defence of officially induced error, is not so much about ignorance as it is about knowledge and from where that knowledge comes. This defence, which has its origins in the regulatory context, is a form of due diligence, which exonerates an accused who reasonably relies upon an erroneous legal opinion or relies upon incorrect advice from an official responsible for that particular area of law. So, the defence does not revolve around a complete failure to inform but around a mistaken but reasonable belief in the interpretation of the law. This exception to section 19 is permitted, as stated in the Supreme Court of Canada Jorgensen case, to ensure “that the morally blameless are not made criminally responsible for their actions.”

The main conceptual difficulty with s.19 is that knowing the law, as in knowing what the section says, does not mean one understands the law or understands what kind of behaviour a particular section may or may not prohibit. Meaning hinges on interpretation and therefore depends upon case law. To access this judge-made law one must have legal expertise. Surely, s. 19 does not take into account the seemingly endless complexities of our laws and of the legal interpretation of them.

On that note, I leave you to consider another Supreme Court of Canada decision, in the McIntosh case, wherein the then Chief Justice Lamer, on behalf of the majority, disapproved of reading-in words into the then s.34, self-defence section, as:

Under s. 19 of the Criminal Code, ignorance of the law is no excuse to criminal liability. Our criminal justice system presumes that everyone knows the law. Yet we can hardly sustain such a presumption if courts adopt interpretations of penal provisions, which rely on the reading-in of words, which do not appear on the face of the provisions. How can a citizen possibly know the law in such a circumstance?

The Criminal Code is not a contract or a labour agreement. For that matter, it is qualitatively different from most other legislative enactments because of its direct and potentially profound impact on the personal liberty of citizens. The special nature of the Criminal Code requires an interpretive approach, which is sensitive to liberty interests. Therefore, an ambiguous penal provision must be interpreted in the manner most favourable to accused persons, and in the manner most likely to provide clarity and certainty in the criminal law.

Section 19 may provide certainty in the criminal law but the real question is whether it provides clarity.

Section 19 - Ignorance and the Law: Episode 21 of the Ideablawg Podcast on the Criminal Code