A Fresh Look at Fearon: How Language Informs The Law

A case commentary typically expounds on the legal doctrinal issues raised by the decision and rarely looks at the judgment as a literary document. The final full SCC judgment of the year, Fearon, has been much discussed on the doctrinal level but as a final 2014 legal send-off, a different kind of case commentary is in order.

On a literary linguistic level, the Fearon case is a fascinating example of how the majority and the dissent employ differing or shall we say dueling word usage. The choice of terminology is not only intended to signal a very particular perspective but firmly connects the decisions to doctrinal perspectives emanating from prior cases. This continuity with the past provides precedential value to the two decisions and challenges us, as readers, to determine which decision is really the right one. Hand in hand with this analysis, is the revealing metaphors abounding in these decisions.

Let’s first look at the majority decision written by Justice Cromwell. The first term used in this decision is the phrase “truly incidental” as in the police generally (note that the general versus the specific is also underlined in the majority decision) have a common law power to search a cell phone incident to arrest if the search is truly incidental to the arrest. Not just incidental but truly incidental. In the judgment there are 22 incidents of this phrase, all in the majority decision! Yet, in terms of previous SCC cases, the term appears only in the Caslake decision, which found an “inventory” search of an accused’s vehicle, hours after arrest, invalid as such a search was not “truly” incidental. For a search to be truly incidental, there must be a “valid purpose” connected to the arrest. By the way, the term “valid purpose” pops up 5 times in the majority judgment.

Caslake is referred to 15 times in the judgment, with 12 references in the majority and 3 in the dissent. The dissent refers to the generalities of Caslake - as to when a warrantless search may be appropriate - and does not mimic the s. 8 language as the majority does. Although “truly incidental” is found in only 2 SCC criminal cases, the term is used in lower court nomenclature. In Ontario, including Fearon, there are about 46 cases using the term but they all occur after 1998, the year the SCC decision in Caslake was released. Although the Manitoba Court of Appeal decided the lower court decision in 1995, Caslake, was not, as yet, part of the s.8 vocabulary.

Before we move onto other terminology, note that the phrase “strictly incidental” is used only once as is the phrase “properly incidental.” According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “truly” is defined, for Fearon purposes, as “without question or doubt” and “strictly” means “rigorously conforming to principle or a norm or condition.”

The word “prompt” is used 31 times, with only two of those occasions by the dissent and for very different reasons. The majority uses the word “prompt,” defined as “performed readily or immediately” to provide the underlying reason for a search incident to arrest as the immediate need to investigate the offence by gathering crucial evidence.  It is the timeliness and the speed with which the police must pursue this investigation, which underlies the majority decision. Conversely, one of the times the dissent uses “promptly” is in reference to Justice Cromwell’s majority decision and the other occurrence is to highlight how quickly the police, in the case, applied for a warrant when case law suggested they needed to do so. Thus the term “immediate” or “immediately” is used often throughout as well.

Another phrase used liberally throughout the majority decision is the phrase “law enforcement objectives,” which is used 26 times, 4 of which is in the dissent. Again, 3 of those 4 occasions in the dissent are direct references to Justice Cromwell’s majority decision. This term is used in 4 previous SCC cases, 3 of which are search and seizure cases being the Law case from 2002 – privacy interest in stolen property; Chehil – sniffer dog case involving the search of vehicles from 2013; and the Stillman case of 1997 the case on the seizure of bodily samples and discussed at length in Fearon. The term “law enforcement” is further described in the majority judgment as being “important” 12 times in the majority.

The word use is much different in the dissent. Indeed, the atmosphere of the two decisions differs dramatically. Justice Cromwell’s decision has a law and order aspect reminding us of the need for investigatory powers to enhance and uphold the rule of law. As will be discussed below, the choice of words highlights this theme through the use of metaphors involving balancing and weighing and metaphors involving the limitation of space and time.

In contrast, the dissent is a decision marked by Charter values and modernity – it reads like a law school paper on constitutional rights and freedoms, inviting the reader to muse on the lofty ideals crucial to a free and democratic society. Indeed that term, “free and democratic society” appears three times in the dissent (plus “democracy” appearing once) and appears there only with no such Charter values relied upon in the majority, other than the balancing of rights required under s.8.

Other Charter values involving individual rights and freedoms are also relied upon in the dissent decision but it is the word “privacy” that trumps them all. This word is used 123 times in the decision with the word used 37 times in the majority but a whopping 86 times in the dissent. Certainly “privacy” is a word that at some point must be used by the majority when the decision speaks to the balancing of rights under s. 8 but more telling is the use of the word “private” in the decision. It occurs once in the majority but only in reference to strip searches and “private areas.” In the dissent however “private” occurs 27 times to describe “private digital devices,” “private lives,” and the “private sphere,” among some of the uses of the term. Again, this term is signaling the core of the dissent’s decision that privacy is at stake in the case and therefore it is privacy and the living of the “good” life protected by Charter values which are be the controlling issues in the case.

Not only are certain terms and phrases utilized to bolster each of these decisions but the decisions use the literary device of metaphor to solidify and justify the decisions as well. Thus, both the majority and dissent use balancing and weighing metaphors (25 times) to support different outcomes. The majority relies heavily on space metaphors and the desire to delineate the space wherein the rule of law must reside requiring the use of the words “scope” and “parameters” and “limits” and “points” by the majority. The majority also uses work or structure metaphors, using the term “framework,” “task,” and “link.” The dissent uses social words connoting society and community such as “lives,” “relationships” and “intimate” with a liberal use of emotive terms such as “likes and dislikes, our fears, hopes, opinions, beliefs and ideas.” The metaphor of “big brother” also looms large as a pointed reference to Orwell’s 1984 figures in the dissent. In contrast the concept of freedom and the ability to choose one’s own path is highlighted.

There are many other nuggets in this judgment worth discussing as a counter-point or enhancement of a pure doctrinal study of the case. It will indeed be interesting if any future SCC cases utilize this stark linguistic contrast or if it is merely a result of the impassioned differences on the SCC on this particular issue, which determined choice of language. 

I must at this point acknowledge Professor Jonnette Watson-Hamilton, for whom I did some research on metaphors and language many years ago while pursuing my Masters at the University of Calgary, Faculty of Law. She introduced me to the critical theories of language involving the use of metaphors in legal decision-making – a “truly” illuminating experience! Review her articles written to access her publications involving language and metaphor.

For further information on this, start with the seminal works by cognitive linguist George Lakoff, particularly Metaphors We Live By, which Lakoff wrote with Mark Johnson. There are now multiple scholarly articles involving metaphors and linguistic techniques in legal discourse. The starting point for this is found in the articles written by Robert Cover, a fantastic legal scholar, sadly now deceased. Read his two seminal articles entitled Violence and the Word and Nomos and Narrative. I have also written a previous blog on Cover called Is Violence The Word? Additionally, I have written two previous blogs using metaphors as part of the legal analysis in Impression and Claim: Are They Both The Same? and in Blogs As Graffiti.