The “Science” Behind R v Tatton

Increasingly, the legal world and the empirical world intersect both in the approach lawyers take to present cases in court and in the decisions rendered by the courts. Statistics, studies and academic articles are used to connect the evidence to the issue at hand. Truly court cases have become “evidence-based” in the full meaning of the phrase as expert evidence elucidates the trier of fact on a particular material issue. This involves the calling of evidence and also the reliance on research done in the fields of science and social science.

This intermingling of fact and scientific fact has become even more important since the 1990’s when the Supreme Court of Canada relied upon social science research in determining whether or not a Charter breach can be saved under s. 1. Thus, the government, in order to sustain an argument that the legislative restriction is demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society, does so on the basis of academic research exploring the connection between the legislative policy and the real effects of such policy on individuals and institutions. For example, in the 1991 Seaboyer;Gayme case, concerning the constitutionality of the “rape shield” provisions of the Criminal Code, the SCC reviewed material outside of legal jurisprudence such as statistical and research-based reports and academic articles written by psychologists and criminologists. Indeed many of the SCC cases relating to child witnesses routinely refer to this extra-legal material as for example in R. v. F. (W.J.), [1999] 3 SCR 569 and R. v. L. (D.O.), [1993] 4 SCR 419.

The difficulty with relying on social science research is that such research can change over time. What is accepted can be undermined by further study. This occurred in the above-mentioned L.(D.O.) case where in the reasons of Madame Justice L’Heureux-Dube on the issue of the constitutionality of s. 715.1, which permitted the admission of a child’s videotaped statement, she referred to “child abuse accommodation syndrome.” Subsequently, the syndrome came under intense scrutiny and is no longer accepted as persuasive. Indeed, one study labeled the syndrome an example of “junk science.” Although, the reliance on science was not critical to the legal outcome, a Court relying on such information may find what seemed persuasive is no longer valid and the legal decision can no longer stand.

On the other side of the spectrum, it is most troubling when the Court pronounces on legal principles, which partly lie in the realm of public policy and therefore has a connection to experiential or empirical knowledge and yet does not support the decision with tested facts. In the recent Supreme Court of Canada Tatton case, Mr. Justice Moldaver, speaking for the Court, upheld a time honoured legal distinction between specific and general intent offences as it related to the applicability of self-induced intoxication. Liberally sprinkled throughout the decision is reference to the inextricable connection between intoxication and crime. Even the specific/general intent distinction is imbued with an analysis of the mental engagement of an individual. Despite this heavy reliance on what appears to be scientific truths, at no time did the Court refer to or support the position with scientific study or research. To be sure, the court referred often to the Daviault case, which did reference a number of governmental reports and studies on alcohol and crime. However, the Daviault case was rendered in 1994, twenty-one years ago, with the studies coming from the mid to late 1980s.

Surely, more recent evidence should have been used considering the decision finally determined the limited application of a legal defence. Since the 1980s there have been numerous studies (here, here, here, and here) done on intoxication and crime, some of which do show a high number of crimes committed while the offender was intoxicated. However, there are also studies, which cannot definitively connect intoxication as the reason for an offender committing crimes. So although 40% of crimes are committed while the offender is under the influence of some sort of intoxicant, this does not mean that these crimes would not have been committed without them. To make this connection, there is research concerning the effects of alcohol as a disinhibitor that impacts a person’s thought processes to such an extent that they perform acts they would not have otherwise performed. Further research on thought processes suggest that decision making is complex and highly individualized. Therefore, the additional ingredient of alcohol can have a profound impact on the mental reasoning or lack thereof of a person who acts contrary to the law while intoxicated. For some of these studies, go here, here, here, and here. What can be learned from these various studies are that the issue is has not been empirically determined and the relationship between alcohol, mental processes, and crime is highly complicated and variable.

What are the implications of this on the Tatton case? As mentioned earlier, the case’s import is twofold as it propounds on the general distinction between specific and general intent and then specifically relates these differences to the defence of intoxication. On both issues, I submit that Mr. Justice Moldaver relied upon the court’s perception of the “science” behind these legal principles in reiterating a long held position that intoxication is not a defence to a general intent offence without referencing any recent empirical studies but instead merely citing the twenty-one year old Daviault case. By proceeding on this basis, the Court missed the opportunity to provide some rational basis for the general/specific distinction. Instead, the Court has simply perpetuated a legal fiction as opposed to a scientific one.