What Precisely Is A Regulatory Offence? (Cross Posted From ABLawg at https://ablawg.ca/2018/09/26/what-precisely-is-a-regulatory-offence/)

This semester, I will start teaching 1Ls the first principles of criminal law. The main components of a crime, consisting of the familiar terms of actus reusor prohibited act and mens reaor fault element, will be the focus. These concepts, that every lawyer becomes intimately familiar with in law school, are figments of the common law imagination as actus reusand mens reado not figure in the Criminal Code. The terms are derived from the Latin maxim, “actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea,”which translates as “there is no guilty act without a guilty mind.”  This stands for the proposition that the actus reusor prohibited act must coincide or happen at the same time as the mens rea or fault element. That maxim, however, fails to shed light on what those terms mean in law. Indeed, what exactly is a prohibited act or actus reusdepends on the crime as described in the Criminal Code, and what exactly is the fault element or mens readepends on a combination of common law presumptions, statutory interpretation, and case law. In other words, it’s complicated. Even more complex is the vision of these terms when applied to the regulatory or quasi-criminal context. In the recent decision of R v Precision Diversified Oilfield Services Corp2018 ABCA 273[Precision], the Alberta Court of Appeal attempts to provide clarity to these terms but in doing so may be creating more uncertainty.

Although apparently straight forward, appearances in the regulatory world are not as they seem. Even the facts of Precision suggest the dichotomy that is regulation. On a high-level view, the incident is straight forward: a worker is involved in a workplace incident and suffers serious injuries. But when the trial court wades into the minutiae of the moments surrounding the incident, the factual matrix becomes complex and more nuanced. The simple incident devolves into an evidentiary whirl of drilling rig operations and oilfield “jargon” (at para 8). Arising from this factual cacophony is an incident involving manipulation of a machine by more than one worker creating a toxic mix of automation and human fallibility. The result is tragic.

However, the facts alone do not reflect the entire legal narrative. They must be viewed through the legislative scheme, adding an additional layer of intricacy. The defendant company was charged with two offences under the Alberta Occupational Health and Safety Act, RSA 2000, c O-2 [OHSA]. One offence was of a general nature invoking a general duty under s. 2(1) of the OHSAto ensure the health and safety of the worker “as far as it is reasonably practicable for the employer to do so.” The other more specific offence, found under the Occupational Health and  Safety Code 2009, Alta Reg 87/2009 [Safety Code], sets out, in regulatory fashion, the detailed rules of workplace engagement (at para 38). The specific rule allegedly breached was s. 9(1) of the Safety Code, requiring the company to take measures to eliminate identified workplace hazards or, “if elimination is not reasonably practicable,” to control them. Unsurprisingly, these two offences are not self-contained but overlap; a not unusual occurrence in regulatory enforcement. 

This overlap in offence specification also results in an overlap in the factual foundation. Even so, at trial, the prosecutor took different legal approaches in proving each charge. The offences are strict liability offences, a form of liability proposed in R v Sault Ste Marie, [1978] 2 SCR 1299[Sault Ste Marie]. This requires the prosecutor to prove the actus reus beyond a reasonable doubt, from which the fault element would then be inferred. Upon such proofthe burden of proof shifts onto the defendant to prove, on a balance of probabilities, they exercised all due diligence or took all reasonable steps to avoid liability. This formula for strict liability remains unchanged since the seminal decision of Sault Ste Marie.For instance, in La Souveraine v. Autorité Des Marchés Financiers[2013] 3 SCR 756[La Souveraine], the Supreme Court’s most recent discussion of due diligence requirements for regulatory offences, the court reiterates these basic elements as essential for the fulfilment of regulatory objectives of public welfare and safety (La Souveraineat para 54). Effectively then, the due diligence defence rebuts the presumption for fault. The onus rests on the defendant to discharge this burden on the premise they have the best evidence of the reasonable steps and industry standards required to proffer such a defence. For the prosecutor, proof of the actus reus is of vital importance in founding a conviction. 

 Consistent with this strict liability notion, the prosecutor in Precision, for the general duty offence under s. 2(1) of the OHSA, relied upon “accident as prima facie proof of breach” pursuant to R v Rose’s Well Services2009 ABQB 1[Rose’s Well]. The Rose’s Well decision considered the same section in arriving at this position (Rose’s Well at para 68 and Precision at para 5). Quite simply, this was an “I think therefore I am” position: there was an accident, the worker was harmed, and Precision Corp. was the entity directing such work, ergo the prosecutor has proven the actus reus beyond a reasonable doubt shifting the burden onto the defendant. The more specific Safety Code offence, however, required a more detailed analysis of the actus reus. In neither of the offences did the prosecutor prove, as part of the actus reusrequirements, what was “reasonably practicable” in the circumstances. This, the prosecutor submitted, was a matter of proof for the defendant as part of the due diligence defence. The trial judge agreed, convicting Precision Corp. of both charges. 

On summary conviction appeal, the judge found errors in this approach. Although the “accident as prima facie proof of breach” could be sufficient to prove actus reus in some cases, it was “not a strict rule of law” (at para 27). At trial, the prosecutor failed to prove the commission of a “wrongful act” and as such failed to prove the required actus reus components of the general duty charge.  The “wrongful” part of that act could be found, according to the summary conviction judge, in the failure of Precision Corp.to do what was “reasonably practicable” to avoid the harm as required of the section. This phrase “reasonably practicable” was an essential element of the actus reusand without this evidence, the charges could not be made out. The appeal was allowed, and acquittals entered. It is that distinctive “reasonably practicable” phrase, which colours the meaning of the facts and in turn presents difficulties in discerning the not so bright line between actus reus and mens rea in the alleged contravention of general duty in a regulatory statute such as that set out in s. 2(1) of the OHSA.

This means that, unlike most appeals, the facts frame the issue and drive the legal principles. The conversation immediately devolves into a part legal, part factual debate on causation and fault, which requires a deeper dive into the facts. Even the characterization by the summary conviction appeal judge of the act as “wrongful” raises the level of the discourse up a notch. But how deep must the prosecutor go when it is a regulatory offence and not a criminal one? The exacting standards required of a criminal case gives way when the overarching objective is public welfare. Yet, where that line is to be drawn is an ongoing moving target that at some point must give way to clarity and immobility. An incident happens but how much detail is required for the prosecutor to meet the burden of proof? An incident happens but is it merely an unforeseeable accident? An incident happens but is it preventable and did the company do all that is “reasonably practicable” to prevent it? Already the factual matrix broadens into a general discussion of the company’s duty of care and the standard on which they must discharge that duty. However, in the world of actus reusand mens rea, as borrowed from the criminal law, the lines between act and fault are rigidly applied. The main issue in Precision is whether the lines as drawn in previous case law are workable in this regulatory regime of occupational health and safety.

 The majority, written by Madam Justice Veldhuis — yes, this is a split decision of the court suggesting this principle may have a future in the higher court — finds the phrase “as far as it is reasonably practicable for the employer to do so” is an active part of the actus reus. The minority decision of Justice Wakeling takes the opposite view, leaving the issue of reasonableness to the fault element analysis required in considering due diligence. Although the lines are drawn inPrecision, they are not written in stone. There are problems with both the majority decision and the dissenting opinion in this case, problems that are inherent to the regulatory/criminal law divide.

 For instance, this slippage from actus reus into mens rea seems natural when considering regulatory offences. La Souveraine, one of the more recent decisions of the Supreme Court on regulatory matters, makes this point. There, Justice Wagner, as he then was, for the majority of the court makes preliminary comments on the jurisdiction of the court to hear arguments on actus reus issues when leave was granted on the basis of mens rea due diligence concerns (La Souveraine at para 20). Justice Wagner finds the two issues “inextricably linked” (La Souveraine at para 26) and therefore the jurisdiction to consider both was evident. 

Here too, in Precision, it is difficult to separate the two concepts. In some ways this inability to distinguish clearly between the prohibited act and the fault element results in the finding of the majority in Precision that proof of what was “reasonably practicable” must be proven by the prosecutor as part of the actus reus. This circularity is embedded in the creation of strict liability as the compromise “half-way house” form of liability in Sault Ste Marie (at pp 1313, 1315 and 1322). According to Justice Dickson, as he then was, in Sault Ste Marie, this purely regulatory type of liability was needed to relieve the harshness of the absolute liability offence for which a defendant has little ability to defend themselves. Strict liability also assuages the concerns inherent in subjective liability offences, which by nature mimic the full mens rea requirements of proof from criminal law. Instead, strict liability permits a contained but fair due diligence defence; a defence mirroring the regulatory obligations of the defendant, yet in a manner which relieves the prosecutor from climbing into the psyche of the defendant and taking on the defendant’s expertise and knowledge  to prove a fault element beyond a reasonable doubt. With strict liability, the prosecutor need only prove beyond a reasonable doubt the objective facts of the actus reusthus triggering the response from the defendant to show they acted duly diligently. Key to this form of liability is the inference drawn from the actus reus of prima facie proof of the fault element. It is in this half-way form of liability where the mens rea or fault element can be found in the actus reus, binding the two concepts together. It is no surprise then that the majority in Precision sees the need for proof of a mens rea type concept as part of the actus reus, where, based on statutory interpretation, the legislature specifically emphasized the need for it. Without such a finding, the phrase “reasonably practicable” would have little to no meaning. 

But does it have meaning on this reading? Or is it merely a euphemism for “show me the facts.” Is not the reality of the majority decision in Precision merely another way of putting the prosecutor on notice that, with this offence as it is worded, they cannot simply rely on the surface facts of an accident but must do their own “due diligence” by leading evidence of the circumstances surrounding the incident? 

Notably, the majority’s decision may parallel similar findings in careless driving prosecutions, where actus reus and mens rea elements are interconnected and provide mutual meaning. In a recent decision from the Ontario Court of Justice in R v Gareau2018 ONCJ 565, the Justice of the Peace considering the issue made insightful comments on the “unique nature” of the actus reus found in careless driving under the provincial legislation (para 48). JP McMahon correctly points to the essential actus reus component of the charge involving a failure to meet the standard of a reasonably prudent driver (see also R v Shergill[2016] OJ No 4294 (QL) at para13). Proving this, the JP opined, “easily leads to confusion” as negligence becomes part of the actus reus proof process (para 48). The “practical effect” of this, according to the JP, is that a defendant will be acquitted if the defendant is able to raise a reasonable doubt as to whether they were driving below the required standard. Raising a reasonable doubt is all that is needed as the standard of care forms part of the actus reus, which must be proven by the prosecutor beyond a reasonable doubt. Raising a reasonable doubt, as suggested by the JP McMahon (at para 49), is an easier burden to meet than the standard of proof on a balance of probabilities, which is required for a due diligence defence (See R v Wholesale Travel Group Inc[1991] 3 SCR 154at pp 197–198 [Wholesale Travel]). The same can be said of the Precision decision by importing reasonableness into the actus reus, the enforcement mechanism weakens, bringing into question whether the objectives of regulatory regimes are being advanced.

As with all that is regulatory, the Precision decision engages a myriad of tough issues. So tough, in fact, that the court of appeal required further argument on a number of specific issues, which resulted in a divided court (at para 31). It is telling that this re-focus was required as the parties drifted back into the mens reaor due diligence tropes. As Gareau reminds us, looking at actus reus where a duty of care is involved is like looking into the fun house mirror that endlessly repeats the same image. Regulatory mind tricks aside, the issues in Precision span the legal repertoire with concerns involving the viability of long-held legal principles, application of the rules of statutory interpretation, proof and procedural requirements. All of this, of course, is in the context of promoting the pressing and desired societal objective of ensuring a safe and healthy workplace environment. 

Regulation of legitimate activities is a sign of good government and is at the core of our democratic ideal. Of course, there is room for a robust debate on the quantity of regulation needed. Naysayers tend to depict a “nanny state” where our lives are burdened with rules, while those in favour look to the benefits of regulation as providing incentives or nudges to individuals to make those safe and healthy life choices. Whichever side one takes, we all agree that, particularly in the workplace regulation is needed and the proper incentives to comply, considering the potential harm, must be vigorously enforced. Precision presents a situation, however, that is all too familiar in the regulatory field: when it comes down to the mechanics of enforcement, who is in the best position to bear the burden of proof and cost? More important is the question of which approach will promote the objective of providing the right kind of incentive without severely impacting the real economic benefits of such activities.

The added difficulty, as exposed in Precision, is the reality of the regulatory regime. In the regulatory world, there are no clear edges of the criminal law; rather, there are blurred signposts where the law is part criminal, through the application of criminal law concepts and terminology, and part civil law, as the conduct complained of are not true crimes like murder or theft but engages what we would consider legitimate activities. We want to promote those activities, but we also want to ensure these legitimate activities are performed mindfully, to use a new age term. Mindfulness means we need to recognize we are part of a collective of individuals all doing our own thing but doing it in the same space as one another. We want to be sure people conduct themselves with the other person in mind; when we mow our lawn, when we smoke a cigarette, and when we work, for example. Work, play, and leisure time is not, therefore, truly our own. Underlying this is our drive toward the market economy as we want to incentivize people and corporate entities to strive for innovation and production. In criminal law terms, this is foreign; we want to incentivize people to make the right choices, but we do not concern ourselves with how they make them, as long as they are within the boundaries our criminal law has set for them. Does it therefore make sense — common sense — to impose on the regulatory world criminal-like requirements when the two worlds, criminal and regulatory, are objectively and subjectively not the same?

As recognized by the Supreme Court in a number of decisions (See e.g., Beaver v The Queen[1957] SCR 531, Sault Ste Marie, and Wholesale Travel), there are fundamental differences between the criminal justice system and regulatory regimes. Justice Cory in Wholesale Travel succinctly described those differences: “criminal offences are usually designed to condemn and punish past, inherently wrongful conduct, regulatory measures are generally directed to the prevention of future harm through the enforcement of minimum standards of conduct and care” (at p 219). Thus, the two systems are different yet, “complementary” (La Souveraineat para 90). Complementary does not mean one system eclipses the other. Complementary suggests one needs the other. Criminal law underlines our fundamental values and collectively speaks out when egregious wrongs are committed. Regulatory law safeguards the public interest and creates a safe place for us to live. We need both. It is therefore, as suggested by Justice Wagner in La Souveraine “essential not to lose sight of the basic differences between the two systems and, as a result, to weaken the application of one by distorting the application of the other” (at para 90). In the context of Precision, this caution can be applied to the fallacy of reading into the regulatory field the ill-suited rigidly defined criminal law concepts. For in the regulatory regime the individual rights paradigm is not paramount. Rather, the public good is supreme.

What will be the fallout from this decision? Certainly, prosecutors will be mindful of their proof and particularization obligations under the pertinent sections of OHSA. The exact phrase, “as far as it is reasonably practicable for the employer to do so” is integral to this legislation and the previous iterations of this section. Yet, a CanLII search reveals 561 legislative references to the phrase “reasonably practicable” in many occupational health and safety regulations across the country, covering everything from length of ladders (See s. 9 of the Federal Canada – Nova Scotia Offshore Marine Installations and Structures Occupational Health and Safety Transitional Regulations, SOR/2015-2) to general duties of employers in Saskatchewan (See s. 3 of The Occupational Health and Safety Amendment Act, 2012, SS 2012 c 25). This decision reaches far and will reverberate in the workplace and the many “textbook” examples of public welfare legislation (Precision at 46), where a duty of care is required. It may also prove to be the Supreme Court decision which will precisely describe the constituent elements of a regulatory offence. This, we hope, will not be done in criminal law terms but in a manner befitting the objectives of our regulatory regimes.

Riesberry – Does It Get Past The Post?

Fraud has been around for centuries. So has the concept of cheating at play. In R v Riesberry, the Supreme Court of Canada attempts to put 2 and 2 together, so to speak (albeit randomly!), to clarify the meaning of “game” under s. 209, which criminalizes “every one who, with intent to defraud any person, cheats while playing a game or in holding stakes for a game or in betting.” Game is defined under s.197 as a “game of chance or mixed chance and skill.” What was at issue in Riesberry was the favourite Ontario pastime of horse racing and Mr. Riesberry’s penchant for winning. In this case, winning by drugging two horses. Although the Court defined “game” as including a horse race, in my view the more interesting aspect of the decision is the Court’s comments on the fraud charges and what I will suggest is a failure to fully integrate criminal law principles.

Justice Cromwell, speaking for the unanimous court (although the case was not heard by the full panel of judges but of a smaller panel of 7), essentially relied upon previous SCC decisions on the actus reus requirements of fraud, specifically Olan (1978) and Theroux (1993) and the companion case Zlatic. The actus reus for fraud is comprised of two parts as per section 380, an act of “deceit, falsehood, and other fraudulent means” coupled with, according to Theroux and Zlatic, a deprivation “caused by the prohibited act,” which may result in an actual loss or a risk to the “pecuniary interest” of the victim. In the earlier decision Olan, the court expanded on the phrase “other fraudulent means” by defining it as any act “which can properly be stigmatized as dishonest.”

Before we move onto Justice Cromwell’s position, let’s unpack the significance and the impact of the Olan and Theroux/Zlatic decisions.

First, Olan, an Ontario case about a substantial fraud involving a convoluted fact scenario of companies within companies. However, as Justice Dickson (pre-Chief Justice days), on behalf of the full Court, astutely reminds the reader “One of the dangers in this case is the risk of being overwhelmed by factual minutiae. Superficially, the facts are complicated. Stripped of unessentials, it is clear what took place.” Of note is the manner in which this decision is structured, with a full recitation of the relevant law before the facts of the case are outlined. Clearly, according to Justice Dickson, the facts are not the issue as the lower court should have realized, this is an “easy” case of fraud. Hence the broad definition of “other fraudulent means,” which nicely concurs with Lord Diplock’s assessment in the House of Lords Scott decision, three years earlier. In Scott, Lord Diplock gave a generous definition of the phrase by suggesting “other fraudulent means” can involve “dishonesty of any kind.” Justice Dickson, approved of this passage and Justice Cartwright’s earlier 1963 decision in Cox and Paton to arrive at the now oft quoted meaning of the phrase as found in s. 380 as “not in the nature of a falsehood or a deceit” but acts that can “encompass all other means which can properly be stigmatized as dishonest.”

Although Justice Dickson also discussed the further actus reus requirements of deprivation, this aspect was thoroughly canvassed in the Theroux/Zlatic cases. Theroux is one of those great cases indicative of the unsettled Court of the early 1990s. Rendered in the 1993 when the Court grappled with the meaning and content of mens rea in light of the subjectivity principle and the objectivity “creep” from the driving cases of Hundal and the manslaughter decision in Creighton.  This was a time when the Court’s decisions were visceral and driven by ideology, when members of the Court aligned themselves both with other members of the Court and against other members of the Court. To prove my point just read the following SCC cases rendered that year: Cooper on the “slightly relaxed” intention found under s. 229(a)(ii) murder,  as previously mentioned Hundal and Creighton, and three further cases on the presence of objective criminal liability in Naglik, Gosset, and Finlay. Not only was mens rea on the Court’s mind but also an expansion of evidential and procedural rules as in KGB, Plant, Wiley, Grant, Levogiannis and Osolin as well as the meaning of s. 7 of the Charter as in Rodriguez and Morgentaler.

It is in this context that Theroux was decided with 3 decisions which concurred in the result:  from Justice Sopinka (with Lamer, CJ), Justice McLachlin’s majority decision (with LaForest, Gonthier, and Cory JJ.) and Justice L’Heureux-Dube’s own decision. The fragmented decision is connected to the companion Zlatic case where Justice Sopinka and the Chief Justice dissented as stated in the opening parargraphs of Theroux, because “there are several issues in my colleague's analysis of the law of fraud with which I have difficulty.” One of these “issues” involve the tension between objective and subjective mens rea and the Court’s inability to envision how the traditional criminal law world would look when that Pandora’s box containing an objective form of liability is opened. We are still feeling the effects of this conundrum today, which deserves another blog posting all together. In any event, Theroux is typically now quoted for Justice McLachlin’s (as she then was) clarification that mens rea signifies the guilty mind and does not encompass all of the mental element requirements of an offence as the actus reus too has a mental aspect requiring the prohibited act to be a voluntary act “of a willing mind at liberty to make a definite choice or decision” (See Taschereau J. in the 1962 King case). For our purposes, however, Justice McLachlin reiterated fraud’s actus reus as described in Olan with a reminder that Olan was a departure from precedent as it marked a broadening of fraud by removing the requirement for deceit and replacing it with a “general concept of dishonesty” to be objectively determined and by permitting deprivation to include a risk or “imperilling” of economic interest.

Viewing Riesberry in this context, we should not be surprised that the Court unanimously accepted this precedent and found the act of “cheating” to be an act worthy of criminal sanction. However, what should surprise us about the decision is how the Court treated the required causal connection between the dishonest act and the deprivation. Justice Cromwell easily made this crucial connection through the time-honoured “but for” test, wherein the trier asks “but for” the accused’s actions would this consequence have occurred or, as in this case, “it created the risk of betting on a horse that, but for Mr. Riesberry’s dishonest acts, might have won and led to a payout to the persons betting on that horse.” This “risk of prejudice to the economic interests of bettors” provided a direct causal link required to prove the actus reus of the fraud.

Although to Justice Cromwell this linkage was elementary, the decision on this issue is disquieting. Causality in criminal law has received much attention by the Supreme Court of Canada.  It has been a particularly difficult issue in cases where there may be multiple causes or, as in Mr. Riesberry’s case, there is a temporal issue. Causation is also a civil law concept, arising in tort cases. Like the tension between subjective liability, a traditional criminal law precept, and objective liability coming to criminal law from the regulatory or civil arena, the concept of “criminal” causality has been a long-standing subject in criminal cases.  

The question of factual causation or the “but for” test referred to and applied by Justice Cromwell has indeed been straight forward and easy to apply. But the issue of legal causation, the concept of culpability and where the criminal law should draw the line has been less easily determined. Legal causation sees the “but for” but wants to know to what degree is the accused the cause and is it sufficient to attract the full force of the criminal law. This was the issue in Harbottle, where the degree of causation required in a first-degree murder charge was considered, and interestingly enough was decided in 1993 when Theroux was considered. It was also the issue in Nette where second-degree murder was considered and the entire concept of criminal causation was considered. To attract criminal culpability not only must the “but for” test be fulfilled but the actions of the accused must also be a “significant contributing cause” of the consequence. Since Nette, this legal test has been applied such as in the recent case of Maybin involving a manslaughter. Not only did Justice Cromwell not enter into this legal analysis, he did not even mention its existence. Considering fraud is akin to theft in that it is a “true crime,” which attracts stigma upon conviction, the legal concept of causation should have been considered even on these facts.

Had it been considered, the final analysis may very well have been the same but the case, left as it is, seems unfinished. Without getting into it, another area of disconnect in this decision is with the concept of deprivation as a “risk” as opposed to an actuality. This position seems consistent with previous decisions of the court such as Mabior and Hutchinson as it related to fraud vitiating consent under s. 265(3). Again, no analytical connection is made here. This also seems decidedly “unmodern.”

As early as 1990 (see Starr v Houlden), the Supreme Court of Canada had begun to embrace the “holistic approach” to law, refusing to be pigeon-holed by the past (specifically see paragraph 16 of the 2011 Sarrazin case and approval of this concept as recommended by Moldaver, J.A., as a then dissenting voice in the Ontario Court of Appeal decision). This recognition and desire for integration has also seen traction in the broader societal context. Riesberry, by failing to integrate principles and make these holistic connections, leaves us to consider the pieces of the puzzle instead of the picture as a whole.



Is This The End of Subjective Intention? The Supreme Court of Canada and the Walle case

Presently, there are essentially two different kinds or categories of criminal intent: subjective and objective. Intent or mens rea is the fault requirement of a crime. Without intent or the intention to do the prohibited act, there is no crime and the accused should be acquitted. Traditionally, the criminal law recognized only one category of intent: subjective mens rea as the basis for a criminal offence. Subjective intent requires the prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this accused intended his actions. This requires the trier of fact to contemplate on the thought processes of the accused as presented through the evidence. Subjective intent differs greatly from objective intent, which sets up as a model of behaviour the standard of the “reasonable man.” Thus, the trier of fact when considering an objective mens rea offence must consider what a reasonable man would have done in the circumstances. If the accused fails to act in accordance with this standard or model of behaviour, the accused is deemed guilty of the offence, even if the accused did not intend the consequences of his actions.

Objective intent can be a harsh standard as it can be argued that those individuals who are not “average” or have some deficiencies of character cannot possibly reach the standard of a reasonable man. On the other hand, the criminal law’s main thrust is to protect the public. In harsh terms then, the criminal law punishes those who are unsafe to protect the majority of people who are fully aware of what is a reasonable course of action in the circumstances.

I stop to reflect on the term “reasonable man.” This traditionally was the term and equally traditionally this was the standard: a reasonable and sober man. Not a woman, but a man. Obviously when society accepted the equality of the sexes, this phrase was changes to “reasonable person.” Of course there is no description of a “reasonable person.” One cannot simply look up the phrase in a dictionary and find a full description or even a picture of such a venerated individual. No, triers of fact are left to their own devices in conjuring up such an individual, presumably because the trier of fact is assumed to be a reasonable person. In almost a tautological argument, the presumed reasonable person assumes a reasonable person for the purposes of determining the guilt or innocence of an accused person.

As a result, the objective standard of intent is not favoured by the defence and yet, unsurprisingly is favoured by the prosecutor. It is much easier to rely on a concept of reasonableness, than it is to determine a particular person’s intention. As the bar is lowered, convictions occur more readily in an objective mens rea crime. Typically, however such crimes were reserved to unsafe licensed behaviour such as careless use of a firearm or dangerous driving. A licensed activity requires a certain licensing standard and thus if you fall below that standard while involved in a dangerous activity, then objective mens rea should apply: common sense dictates it must. And that is where we come to the new Supreme Court of Canada case of R. v. Walle, 2012 SCC 41.

Adrian Walle was charged and convicted of second-degree murder, when he shot at point blank range with a sawed-off .22 calibre rifle, Jeffery Shuckburgh, a Calgary bar owner who at the time was escorting Walle off the premises. Walle’s trial counsel argued that the rifle went off due to an unintentional movement made by the accused. In other words, Walle’s actions were not voluntary as he acted without awareness of his actions, in other words the shooting was purely accidental. A prohibited act or the actus reus of a crime must be a voluntary act. Without a voluntary prohibited act, there is no crime. This argument had little basis in the evidence and the trial judge, sitting without a jury as occurs when a case is complicated or based on legal argument, made the following finding in convicting the accused:

I am satisfied, beyond a reasonable doubt, that when the accused Walle deliberately pulled the trigger, in the circumstances I have just described, he knew that the reasonable and probable consequence was that he would either cause Mr. Shuckburgh’s death or would cause him grievous bodily harm which would likely cause his death and was reckless, whether death ensued or not.

The trial judge also relied upon the “common sense inference,” which contemplates the reasonable person or that a “sane and sober person” intends the reasonable and probable consequences of his acts. On appeal, counsel for the defence argued that the trial judge was wrong to rely upon this “common sense inference” without recognizing that Adrian Walle was not only under the influence of alcohol at the time, but was also suffering from various psychiatric disorders including “Asperger’s disorder, paranoid personality disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, adult antisocial disorder, and alcohol abuse disorder.”


The Supreme Court of Canada unanimously disposed of this appeal. In a judgment written by new appointment Mr. Justice Moldaver, who I have written on in previous posting, the court easily rejected this argument on the dual basis that this argument was not raised at the time of trial and that a trier of fact need not refer in the reasons to every piece of evidence proffered. As long as the decision appears to be based upon the relevant evidence, which it was in this case, the reasons are sound. The fact the issue was not raised at trial merely goes to trial tactics. Trial counsel views a case in a certain way and crafts a trial position as a result. Often, counsel will at trial pursue this theory solely and thus not raise very possible argument on the case as it would detract from the chosen position.

The secondary argument on appeal, raised by the intervenor’s in the case, the Criminal Lawyers’ Association of Ontario, cause the court more concern. The crux of that argument involved the propriety of using the “common sense inference” in circumstances where the accused is clearly not an individual who practices common sense due to his psychiatric issues. Such an inference essentially imports an objective mens rea standard into a crime which is considered one requiring subjective intent. To convict of murder, the prosecutor was obliged to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Walle intended to kill or that he was reckless as to whether death would be a consequence of his actions. Murder is not based on what a reasonable person should have done at the time. However, manslaughter is an objective mens rea crime, which requires an accused to have an objective awareness that his actions will cause bodily harm. In murder, the accused must be subjectively aware that his actions will cause death.

Of course, in Walle’s case, the argument is a strong one. Certainly, Mr. Walle would definitely not be the poster-boy for a reasonable person nor would he be described as “sane and sober.” Despite this, Justice Moldaver rejected this argument but with a caveat. In his view, the “common sense inference” “provides a jury with a marker against which to measure the rather amorphous concept of intent.” The instruction also cautions the jury that such an inference may be made but is not required to be made in their deliberations on intent.

Leaving aside that the Walle case did not employ a jury, Justice Moldaver’s comments highlight the difficulty with the concept. To view the inference as “a marker against which to measure” in my mind clearly suggests the objective standard of mens rea is at work. Indeed, it is difficult not to view this inference as anything but applying an objective standard based upon the trier of facts conception of what a reasonable person would have done in the circumstances. Thus, the objective standard is not only alive and well in Canadian criminal law, it has crept into the very heart of criminal law precepts, which require those core crimes such as murder and theft, require subjective intention. This inevitably should leave us wondering if the categorizing of the intention required for a particular crime is history, in favour of what the Supreme Court of Canada likes to call the “principled approach” to legal decision-making.

In closing, I refer back to the finding of the trial judge mentioned earlier that “when the accused Walle deliberately pulled the trigger … he knew that the reasonable and probable consequence...” By the trial judge using that phrase “reasonable and probable,” he has blurred the lines between objective and subjective intention, ensuring that the concept of “reasonable person,” whoever that may be, is an integral part of the crime of murder.

The Supreme Court of Canada in a much earlier 1990 Charter case said, in the majority judgment written by Chief Justice Lamer, this about the importance of subjective mens rea in R. v. Martineau:

In my view, in a free and democratic society that values the autonomy and free will of the individual, the stigma and punishment attaching to the most serious of crimes, murder, should be reserved for those who choose to intentionally cause death or who choose to inflict bodily harm that they know is likely to cause death. The essential role of requiring subjective foresight of death in the context of murder is to maintain a proportionality between the stigma and punishment attached to a murder conviction and the moral blameworthiness of the offender. Murder has long been recognized as the "worst" and most heinous of peace time crimes. It is, therefore, essential that to satisfy the principles of fundamental justice, the stigma and punishment attaching to a murder conviction must be reserved for those who either intend to cause death or who intend to cause bodily harm that they know will likely cause death.

In the end, it is clear that there was ample evidence to uphold Walle’s conviction, but as they say, bad facts lead to bad laws. The question is whether this approach is a foreshadowing of what is to come in terms of the Court’s position on intention or whether it is merely a specific response to a particularly heinous crime.