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science was not critical to the legal outcome, a Court relying on such information may find what seemed persuasive is no longer valid and the legal decision can no longer stand.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.








A Short Note On Why Behavioural Economics Should Matter to Criminal Lawyers

In some sense this blog posting is both a book review and a legal analysis. It is a book review as this blog arises from my reading of the Daniel Kahneman’s book entitled Thinking, Fast and Slow. It is also a legal analysis as the ideas and theories arising from Kahneman’s Nobel Prize winning research form the basis of my suggestion that it is time to critique some traditional criminal law principles. In the end what this blog is about is connections and how we, as in the legal profession “we,” must be cognizant of new and innovative developments in other subject areas, in this case social sciences, in order to craft new and innovative arguments. New arguments can lead to new law and this book might just be the catalyst for this kind of change.

I will not belabour the specifics of the book nor will I give a deep analysis of it. That kind of discussion should be done in a formal setting as in a well-reasoned journal article but I will leave that to a later opportunity. Essentially, Kahneman and his research partner did a series of break through behavioural testing which turned the field of economics on its head.  The two researchers, as psychologists, approached the construction of the rational Economic or Econ person in a totally different manner than the economists did previously. When I say previously, I mean the theories had been in place and used for decades. This would be, in Kahneman’s view, a good example of theory-induced blindness. In any event, Kahneman showed that the basic Econ, which was a staple figure in economic theory, was not in fact rational and at times, even down right irrational. Well, not really irrational, as the research showed there were a pattern to the behavioural responses but not the expected pattern of the Econ. Instead the Econ was really a Human – someone who made choices, often seemingly economically irrational choices, not based on the utility theory favoured by the economists but based on other more ephemeral reasons including fear, loss, and bias. What caused such a stir in the field of economics was that Kahneman and his partner could actually prove, through research data, that this was so. The rational Econ was a false promise and not the stuff upon which sound economic theory should be based. Additionally, what economic theory needed were better reference points – starting points from which the Human could become a better decision maker. In other words, the Econ was not working with a full deck or full information upon which these economic decisions or even life changing decisions should be made.

There is, of course, more to the book and the prize winning economic theory, called prospect theory, which arises out of Kahneman’s research. For instance, the first part of the book dwells on the cognitive theories of how and why we make decisions or choices. According to Kahneman we have an intuitive System 1, which thinks fast enabling us to make split second decisions and gives us speedy answers to questions like one plus one or the colour of the sky. We also have a slower or lazier System 2, which kicks in when we need to give a decision some thought such as the answer to 124 times 26 or remembering the lines of a poem we may have learned when we were young. These systems do not work totally independently. Although being aware of these two systems we can improve the correctness of our outcomes by slowing down our thought processes to allow System 2 to take over so we can improve our chances of “getting it right,” mostly we reflexively defer to our System 1, particularly when faced with exigent circumstances. This often produces acceptable outcomes as our System 1 works so fast as it is primed with crucial experiential information. However, these stored memory fragments are sometimes incorrect leading us to make bad choices and erroneous decisions. In those instances, we have no real choice but to simply go along for the ride.

So how does this lead to a critical analysis of legal principles? By extrapolating and applying these research based theories to the underlying reason for certain legal constructs, we can argue that certain unquestioned legal principles used in criminal law such as the “reasonable person” standard and the well-accepted premise that we intend the natural consequences of our actions (see my blog on the Walle case), may in fact no longer be valid. It is time, therefore, for the legal profession to break out of our theory-induced blindness and integrate, in the appropriate case, theories from other areas of the science and humanities to ensure that the law is a real reflection of society. Now, doesn’t that sound reasonable?

Age As A Defence – Section 13: Episode 15 of the Ideablawg Podcasts on the Criminal Code of Canada

In previous podcasts I have spoken of defences, a legal construct which an accused person can use in answer to the charge. There are two essential elements of a crime: the actus reus or prohibited act, which is the illegal behaviour and the mens rea or the guilty mind, which is the fault requirement. Some defences, negate the actus reus or prohibited act requirement of a crime, meaning that the accused cannot be convicted of the crime as the prohibited act was not committed by the accused voluntarily. This would occur, for example, in the following scenario: a person was driving his car with the window partially open and a wasp flew into the car, attacking the driver, and causing him to drive erratically. In that instance, a charge of dangerous driving under s.249 of the Code would fail as the prohibited act or bad driving was involuntary. The accused did not choose to drive in such as manner but external circumstances, beyond the accused person’s control, caused him to do so.

Another category of defences, known as justifications and excuses, are available even though the accused could be found guilty of the crime. If such a defence is successful, the accused is acquitted of the crime as he or she may be justified in committing the crime or may be excused from responsibility. In Episode 11, I explain these defences more thoroughly and I discuss the defence of duress, an example of the defence of excuse, in my previous blog here. Although these defences, if accepted, typically result in a full acquittal, the exception is the defence of provocation, a form of justification, which is only a partial defence, reducing murder to manslaughter, per s.232 of the Criminal Code. See my previous blog on the issue.

There are also defences, which negate the mens rea or the criminal intention required for a crime. Mistake of fact is such a defence where the accused believes in a set of facts, which, if true, would exonerate the accused. In those circumstances, the accused would not have the intention required to commit the offence.

Still another category of defences, which also relates to the mens rea of an offence, is where the accused is incapable of forming the intent required. Incapacity is difficult to use as a defence and tends to require expert medical evidence to establish the incapacity such as in the defence of intoxication (a common law defence, which has been severely limited by the Code under section 33.1) and mental disorder under s. 16 (or insanity as it was originally called). Another form of incapacity, which does not require medical evidence, is incapacity based on age. This is where section 13 comes into play – in fact, child’s play – as the section reads:

No person shall be convicted of an offence in respect of an act or omission on his part while that person was under the age of twelve years.

Interestingly, the word “child” is not used in the actual section, although it is used in the descriptive heading for the section, Child Under Twelve. As there is no statute of limitation on criminal offences, meaning that a person is still liable for a crime committed years previously, not using the descriptive word “child” in the actual section does make sense. Also note that although the section states a person under twelve years of age cannot be convicted of an offence, he or she may be charged with an offence. Again, if you have been listening/reading my previous podcasts, the Code seems to be focused on the “end game” of conviction and punishment.

Furthermore, this type of incapacity differs from intoxication and mental disorder as the simple proof of age, which is easily done, bars conviction. Intoxication and mental disorder as a defence, not only may require medical evidence but are complex defences, and in the case of mental disorder, has a complex procedure in the Criminal Code.  Certainly, in the case of mental disorder, an alternate mental health system is available to take over when the criminal law cannot.

So why is there such a limitation and why is it set at under twelve? Perhaps it is time we do a little historical review to find some answers.

In the 1892 Criminal Code, section 9 prohibited conviction of a person under seven years of age. Traditionally, English common law did not attach responsibility to young children for crimes, as children, like the mentally challenged, could not understand the consequences of their actions and therefore could not be held responsible in criminal court. This was the norm until the advent of the 1980 Young Offenders Act, which replaced the Juvenile Delinquents Act, when the present day age of twelve was substituted for the age of seven. This change in age was supported by psychological and medical research, which showed that the neurological development of a young person was not fully advanced until well into the teens. Thus developed the concept that a person under twelve years of age was incapable of forming the criminal intent. The research on this issue is certainly more complex as I have summarized and I invite you to do your own research on this topic. Needless to say, some academics presently question whether the child is truly incapable of forming an evil intent, although most agree that a child, due to developmental factors, should not be treated the same as an adult. Certainly Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act is based on that premise.

Politics has also come into the issue as the Conservative Party in 1999, through a private member’s Bill, attempted to change the age of incapacity to a child under ten years of age. This Bill did not survive but this concept has survived and may be raised yet again by the government particularly as the now Justice Minister, Peter McKay, was the sponsor of that 1999 amendment.

Additional pressure to change the age of incapacity comes from media reports of children under the age of 12 committing crimes, usually murder, both here and in the UK. It should however be noted that in terms of statistical evidence, 61% of the offences committed by young offenders are committed by the oldest offenders between the ages of 16 and 17. I know all of this fails to explain why the age barrier is under twelve as opposed to under eleven or under thirteen. I believe much of this is connected to societal perceptions and expectations, which do change over time.

To be sure, even though the criminal justice system is not engaged when a child under twelve commits a crime, the social service system can and will deem such a child in need of protection and he or she will be taken into the child welfare system. The focus is then on the reason why the child acted inappropriately and focuses on treatment and not punishment. However, the difference between these two concepts tends to become blurred in the eyes of a young person. An example of this in Alberta is the Protection of Children Abusing Drugs Act wherein a child using drugs or alcohol may be taken into a protective “safe house.”

Although the child welfare system may seem to be a kinder and gentler way of dealing with a troubled child, the system is rife with problems such as the power of the state to take children from their biological families and the difficulty of treatment without the fair trial procedures as would be required in the criminal courts. On the other hand, the stigma of a criminal charge and the use of the process-oriented criminal justice system, even if it is supposed to look towards rehabilitation of a young person, tend to provide band-aid solutions, where there are consequences, a bit of treatment, but no long-term solutions.

In the end, the criminal justice system is probably not the answer for a troubled child but the child welfare system may not be either. Perhaps, it is time for us to start thinking of alternative ways, proactive ways, to ensure that all children have the opportunity to engage in play and not crime.




Episode 15 - Section 13 Age As A Defence: The Ideablawg Podcasts on the Criminal Code of Canada

Legal Intuition

Iain McGilchrist is a  psychiatrist who has a theory connecting the development of the human brain into "right" and "left" halves, with the development of the Western World. In his book The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist argues that although the brain is not divided, in the sense there are different functions working in different hemispheres, the different halves of the brain process information differently resulting in very different results. The right or "master" side is detailed oriented and relies upon the left or "emissary" side to provide context and meaning. The problem with the divisions is that the left side has developed its own agenda and humans increasingly rely on the left side to direct them personally and socially. This leaves us with a gap in our true functioning as we emphasize the "what" of nature instead of the "how." For a different explanation, I strongly recommend this animated video of McGilchrist's theory. It is excellent.

But what does this theory have to do with law? According to McGilchrist, the right side is very good at intuiting a result and thus better able than the left side to make the right decision based on context and facts. It is this intuitive side, McGilchrist argues, we are sorely lacking in today's society. We have so embraced fact and reason, we no longer embrace the use to which intuition and feeling can bring us success. Is this true of law as well? Does intuition have any place in this arena of reason and logic?

I looked for intuition as an acceptable legal concept. Of course, the concept of intuition may be masked behind a judge's use of common sense in finding the facts of a case. The traditional principle permits a judge to draw conclusions based on a theory that a person intends the natural consequences of his or her actions. Is the judge just really applying her intuition or is it pure reasoning and logic?

The best way to delve into this conundrum is to look at jury cases. Juries tend to articulate more readily when they are struggling with an issue. Juries also do not have the legal training which encourages them to articulate their findings in the language of principle and precedent. The Northwest Territories Court of Appeal dealt with this scenario in the 1998 Lam case. Lam was charged with narcotic offences and was tried before a judge and jury. The jury was deliberating well into the night when they sent a note to the judge which read as follows:

We all agree to 11 key facts. We all agree these facts point to a guilty verdict. One of us feels uncomfortable at a gut intuitive level. Please advise how we weigh intuition versus facts - evidence.

The trial judge, obviously frustrated by the question, exhorted the jury to use only the "rule of evidence" in deciding the case and gave them a limited amount of time to come to their verdict. Th Court of Appeal found no difficulty with the judge's instructions. In their view, the judge was not advising the uncomfortable juror to conform but to simply be guided by the evidence. Articulated intuition was not legally acceptable.

The Supreme Court of Canada grappled with a similar issue in the 2009 Griffin case. Circumstantial evidence was at the centre of the case. The jury came with a question during deliberations: can reasonable doubt be based on feelings and intuitions? In response, the trial judge explained that individually they should be able to explain their decision. The jury ultimately convicted. On appeal, the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned the finding but the Supreme Court of Canada reinstated the conviction on the basis verdicts cannot be based on "feelings and intuition" but as previously decided in the Lifchus case, "on reason and common sense."

Seemingly then, there is no room for the right side in the legal analysis. Or is there? Is not common sense, as earlier argued in this post, not just an almost "scientific" way of describing a person's "gut feeling?" Indeed, in a strong dissent in Griffin, Justices Lebel and Fish relied on Lifchus for the proposition that jurors are not required to articulate their reasons for having or not having a reasonable doubt. Doubts, may be reasonable yet "are simply incapable of articulation." 

Nomenclature may be at the root of this difference of opinion or maybe, as McGilchrist suggests, it is just our right side taking over. Either way, there may be legal intuition; we just can't seem to be able to articulate it.