In previous episodes we discussed the party sections of the Criminal Code, a mode of participating in a crime as a participant who is not the main offender but assists the main offender in the commission of a crime. An accused can also participate in a crime as an accessory after the fact under section 23 of the Code. This is not a party section as the accused is not participating in the commission of the actual offence but is assisting an offender after the offence has been committed. This assistance, however, takes on a very specific form. Additionally, it should be noted that as the accused under this section is not participating in the main offence, the punishment for being found an accessory after the fact is less than the punishment of participating in the actual offence pursuant to s. 463 of the Code.
Section 23 reads as follows:
23. (1) An accessory after the fact to an offence is one who, knowing that a person has been a party to the offence, receives, comforts or assists that person for the purpose of enabling that person to escape.
It should first be noted that in the present section is a reference to subsection 2, which was repealed in 2000. The section also initially contained a further subsection, which was also repealed at an earlier time. Both of these original subsections provided exemptions to the section as a result of marriage. You may recall an earlier podcast wherein we discussed section 18, which also originally contained similar exemptions. In that podcast, I refer to s. 18 as an addendum to the s. 17 compulsion by threats or duress section. Presently, s. 18 clarifies that duress cannot be presumed merely on the basis that the offence was committed in the presence of a spouse. Turning to the original iteration of section 23, what was in the original 1892 Code as section 63, is very similar in essentials to section 23(1) but the additional subsections exempted a married couple from the effects of the section. Thus, under subsection 2 a spouse could not be charged as an accessory after the fact by assisting the other spouse. Further, under subsection 3, no “married woman” could be charged with being an accessory by assisting, on the direction and authority of her husband, another offender or her husband. It was only in the mid-1970s that the Statute Law (Status of Women) Amendment Act removed this subsection 3, which was clearly based on stereotypical presumptions that a husband has certain authoritative “rights” over his wife. At the time, this amending legislation was hailed as a huge step toward gender equality as it was created in response to the recommendations from the 1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Subsection 2, however, which may be viewed as a more gender-neutral exemption, stayed in the Code until 2000 when the amendments found in the Modernization of Benefits and Obligations Act removed the subsection exemption.
What is left of the section is, as already mentioned, quite specific. The actus reus requires the accused to “receive, comfort, or assist” a person who has committed a crime. Although “assist” and “comfort” have specific meanings, the addition of the word “receive,” which is quite broad in aspect, captures a wide range of activity. However, the accused must “receive” for a specified purpose as part of the mens rea of the section. Returning to the actus reus, the Supreme Court of Canada in the Morris case has found that the section requires more than a mere failure to advise the authorities of an offender’s whereabouts. This position is consistent with the traditional common law reluctance to punish omissions and failures. However, advising an offender that the police have the offender’s name and licence plate number may be enough to fulfill the prohibited act requirements. Furthermore, an accused can be convicted of being an accessory even if the offender assisted is not convicted of offence from which he or she was fleeing. Also, due to the amendments repealing subsection 2 and 3, an accused can be an accessory even if they helped a spouse or his or her child.
The mens rea requirements require a high level of subjective mens rea. The accused must have subjective knowledge that the person being assisted has been a party to or has committed an offence. Also, the assistance, comforting or receiving of the fugitive must be for the specific purpose of assisting the fugitive’s escape from the authorities. As a result, proof that the accused was reckless is not enough. The Crown must prove subjective knowledge or deemed knowledge through the doctrine of willful blindness. Therefore, it is not enough for a finding of accessory that the acts of assistance have the effect of helping a person escape the law. Nor is it enough that the acts were undertaken for the purpose of not being suspected of the crime itself. It is therefore difficult to prove an accused participated as an accessory after the fact. As a result, the police tend to charge an offender with other more easily proven offences such as obstruct justice under s.139 or harbouring a suspected terrorist under s. 83.23.