Section 21- Modes of Participation By Being A Party To An Offence Part One: Episode 23 of the Ideablawg Podcasts on the Criminal Code of Canada

In the next few sections, we are leaving behind the housekeeping/general sections of the Code and moving into modes of participation or the various ways an accused can participate in a crime. The general section heading is called “Parties To Offences,” although it is section 21, which deals with the specific concept of parties to an offence. Yet, the general heading is apt as “party” means to participate in an event, while s. 21 specifies, in legal terms, what is required to be a party under that section.

Before we go to that section, we must step back and consider the concept of “secondary liability.” Secondary liability is where one party (participant in an event) is not directly involved but assumes or is deemed responsible for the actions of another party who is directly involved. This type of liability, in the civil arena, has long been recognized at common law. Examples of such liability are vicarious liability and corporate liability, particularly in the area of copyright and patents.

In the criminal law, however, secondary liability has limited application, partly due to the Charter, which prohibits criminal liability and punishment on those individuals who are deemed responsible for the actions of others on the basis the individual has no mens rea for the crime or often no actus reus as well. Traditionally, in criminal law, as stated by Justice Estey in the 1985 Canadian Dredge & Dock Co case, “a natural person is responsible only for those crimes in which he is the primary actor either actually or by express or implied authorization.” This was reinforced through the application of section 7 of the Charter, when the SCC, in the 1985 Re B.C. Motor Vehicle Act, emphasized the minimum mens rea requirement for a crime required some form of mens rea, which could be found in objective liability. Thus, secondary liability, which required no mens rea on the part of the person deemed responsible, was contrary to the fundamental principles of criminal law and, therefore, contrary to the Charter.

An example of permissible vicarious liability can be found in the quasi-criminal or regulatory field such as speeding offences based on photo radar. A license plate of a speeding vehicle is caught on camera but the speeding ticket is sent to the owner of the vehicle, whether or not the owner was the actual perpetrator. Thus the owner has neither the mens rea (which in the regulatory field, depending on the punishment, is considered Charter appropriate) or the actus reus for the offence yet is still deemed guilty for purposes of the highway traffic regulation. Such a deeming of liability would be unacceptable in the criminal law as the components of a crime (criminal intention and prohibited act) would be absent and as the Charter requires some form of mens rea be present where an accused person may be subject to incarceration upon conviction. However, in the regulatory field, where public safety is at a premium and the stigma of a criminal conviction is absent, as long as the possibility of jail is not an option upon conviction, vicarious liability is acceptable.

Although this form of secondary liability is not found in the criminal law the traditional common law concepts of parties is acceptable as the accused person, in the party scenario, is criminally liable based on his or her participation in the crime albeit not as the principal or main offender. Parties may have lesser roles in the crime but their participation, in terms of criminal intention and action, is directly connected to them and to the commission of the crime, making them personally criminally responsible.

The parties sections in the Code therefore anticipate two situations of persons deemed parties: one situation as found in the following section 22 of the Code embrace those accused who induce others to commit crimes, with or without that accused person’s direct involvement in the criminal act and the other situation, as in s. 21 involve those accused persons who help others commit crimes.

Now let’s turn to section 21. There are four types of parties to an offence as outlined in this section.

The first type of party is found under section 21(1)(a) and is as follows:

s. 21. (1) Every one is a party to an offence who

         (a) actually commits it;

This may seem contrary to the party principles I just outlined but in fact it is a prosecutorial aide. This subsection, by making a principal or main offender (in other words the accused person who actually commits the offence) a party to an offence, relieves the Crown from specifying in the Information or at trial whether an accused person is the principal offender or a party. Thus, the Crown need not prove at trial that any specific accused was the principal offender as long as the Crown proves each accused knowingly assisted or abetted the other. This means multiple accused can be convicted as parties without anyone being convicted as a principal.

The second type of party is as follows:

s. 21. (1) Every one is a party to an offence who

(b) does or omits to do anything for the purpose of aiding any person to commit it;

Here, the person becomes a party by “aiding” another person, be that person a party or principal, in the commission of the offence. Here, the word “aid” means providing assistance. The party may “aid” by doing something or by failing to do something. The Crown must prove the accused aided as the actus reus or prohibited act of being a party. Remember that the Crown must not only prove an accused is a party but must also prove the elements of the offence to which the accused is a party.

The third way of becoming a party is under s. 21(1)(c):

s. 21. (1) Every one is a party to an offence who

(b) abets any person in committing it.

The actus reus here is abetting, which, according to the SCC in R v Greyeyes, includes "encouraging, instigating, promoting, and procuring" the crime.

To “aid” or “abet” are distinct forms of liability but what is the difference? The best way to explain the difference is through the following example: a person who distracts a security guard in a store so another person can steal an item, is acting as a party to the offence of theft by “aiding” the principal who took the item. Conversely, a sales clerk who encourages and allows another person to take an item is “abetting.”

However, in both of these forms of liability, the mere presence of the accused at the scene of the crime is not enough to convict the accused as a party nor is the mere inaction or passive acquiescence of the accused enough to convict. In the seminal Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) case on the issue, Dunlop and Sylvester v The Queen from 1979, the two accused were charged, with others, for a “gang” rape but were acquitted by the majority of the SCC as, according to the evidence, the two saw the rape but they did not encourage or assist in the act. Neither did they try to stop it, they simply left. Morally wrong - yes -but not legally responsible.

Mere presence and passive acquiescence may be enough if accompanied by other factors such as prior knowledge of the principal’s intention or if the presence of the accused prevents the victim from escaping or receiving assistance. Also, a failure to render assistance may be enough to make an accused person a party if that person was under a legal duty to act. For example, merely watching a crime being committed does not make someone a party unless the person is a police officer (let’s make this easy and say on duty and in the execution of that duty) and is therefore under a legal duty to stop the crime.

The Crown must also prove the mens rea requirement for s. 21(1) by showing the accused intended to assist or encourage the principal accused. However, the Crown need not prove that the accused knew the exact details of the crime to be committed. The accused need only be aware of the type of crime to be committed and must be aware of the circumstances necessary to constitute the offence. A final caution: motive is not intention. The accused need not desire the end result for the mens rea requirement.

If the accused is charged as a party to a murder, the mens rea requirements for murder are applicable. Therefore, the Crown must prove that the accused party intended death or was reckless whether or not death ensued. This requirement is Charter based and requires the Crown prove the accused person had subjective foresight of death. Due to this high level of liability, an accused party may be acquitted of being a party to the murder, even if the principal offender is convicted of murder, but convicted as a party to a manslaughter, which requires a much lower level of mens rea found in the objective foresight of bodily harm. (Click on the hyperlinks for the case authority)

The fourth type of liability as a party under section 21(2), common intention, will be the subject of our next podcast!



Episode 23 of the Ideablawg Podcast on the Criminal Code of Canada: Section 21(10 - Parties - Modes of Participation