Sentencing to the Starting Point: The Alberta Debate (As Originally Edited By and Posted On www.ablawg.ca)

After R v Shropshire,[1995] 4 SCR 22, the future of starting points in sentencing seemed questionable but after R v M (CA)[1996] 1 SCR 500, the future of the concept seemed downright bleak. Yet, decades later in R v Lacasse,[2015] 3 SCR 1089, the Supreme Court still wrestled with the applicability of starting points in sentencing. Now, the province which embraced the concept is debating the efficacy of using this sentencing approach. Although the majority of the Alberta Court of Appeal has never wavered on the applicability of sentencing starting points, the meaning of such a tool has changed. In R v Ford2019 ABCA 87,the most recent pronouncement on the issue, the Court seems prepared to shed the past and move beyond this point of contention. 

 The Ford decision is brief and needs context. This requires a review of the principles surrounding starting points including a look back to the source of the principle. This review, however, and here is the spoiler alert, will not just engage a linear analysis of the law. It is not enough that we understand the divergent issues arising from applying starting points in sentencing to arrive at the final sentence determination in an individual case. We must also situate that starting point in the grander scheme of legal principle by asking the reason for using such a point in the first place. This exploration of the “why” requires us to understand what the attraction to a starting point in anything is anyway and whether, for this reason, we simply cannot shed the basic need to start from somewhere. For this part of the discussion, I will not start with the expected but with the unexpected.

A “starting point,” according to the online Cambridge Dictionary, is “a place or position where something begins.” This is a linear concept, reminiscent of elementary mathematical vectoring, where motion is conceived as implying a direction from A to B. We move through space and time from one point to another. A starting point anchors us in that space and carves out a place, a pinpoint, at which we can orientate ourselves. Without such concreteness of place and time, we would experience vertigo. We would be horribly out of place. A recent book by the theoretical physicist, Carlo Rovelli, explains this human need to belong to somewhere both literally and physically. In “The Order of Time,” Rovelli describes our entire world view as a human construct. “Entire” includes our conception of time. In fact, Rovelli persuasively argues, time is entirely a human construction which has little scientific basis. We created time to help us explain the world better and to better control it. Time, in other words, is humanity’s starting point. Time helps us understand events. If we can’t start with ‘In the beginning’ or the ‘Big Bang’ then we can’t completely appreciate the import and impact of those events. 

This brings us to Rovelli’s further contention that points in time are imbued with perspective. Perspective requires a particular point of view connected to the time event. According to Rovelli, “point of view is an ingredient in every description of the observable world we make” (at 153). This requires us to look at the world from within because that’s where we are located – within the world. Just as we cannot use a map to take us from point A to B without knowing where we are in relation to those points, we feel a need to make sense of the world through the eyes of the insider.

You may now ask how this travel through the space-time continuum relates to starting points in sentencing. It has everything to do with them. This seemingly side bar peregrination lends context to the debate on the space occupied by starting points in our sentencing nomenclature. Without considering the human desire to start from somewhere, we will not have the entire perspective before us. Without injecting the human perspective into an event, we are losing meaningful engagement with it and within it. 

To gain this meaning, we need to take a deep look at the source. Although Alberta did not create the concept of starting points in sentencing, it did perfect it in the 1984 decision, R v Sandercock,1985 ABCA 218. There, in the context of sentencing for a major sexual assault offence, Justice Roger Kerans, speaking for the panel which included the then Chief Justice James Laycraft, affirmed the Court’s “commitment to the ‘starting-point approach’ to sentencing” (at para 2). When I say, ‘the Court,’ I mean the entire Court. Justice Kerans, in paragraph 2, makes this unusual position clear. He states confidently that “All members of the Court were consulted ... and we are authorized to say that the conclusions in these Reasons were approved by a majority of all of the judges of the Court, as well as this panel, and are to be considered as a guideline.” With this sweeping statement, starting-points in sentencing in Alberta were swept in. 

Yet, the Court of Appeal was no stranger to that concept even then. The starting-point approach was first articulated as a guiding principle in the R v Johnas decision, 1982 ABCA 331. In Johnas, the Court considered the appropriateness of a starting-point for robbery in light of the sentencing of several offenders for factually similar circumstances but with differing personal backgrounds. Some of the offenders had criminal records, while others were youthful offenders (at para 2). All of the cases involved the late-night robbery of small retail venues, such as convenience stores and gas bars (at para 3). Although violence was threatened, no victims were harmed (at para 4). At the time, these types of robberies were of great community concern. In terms of general sentencing principles, due to the gravity of the robberies, the principles of deterrence and denunciation were of paramount concern rather than rehabilitation. On this basis, the Court found that “we must recorda term of three years imprisonment as a starting point in the seeking of an appropriate sentence” (at para 19). The word “record” is underlined for emphasis. Remember that word.

 In any event, the Court does recognize the individuality that is sentencing. The general principles in determining a fit sentence required the Court to “speak of generalities” but through the perspective of the individual and the circumstances of the offence to arrive at a fit sentence (at para 16). It is important to note the duality of this sentiment and the juxtaposition of terms. The specific becomes the general as the individual is sentenced to a term of imprisonment which fits the type. Yet, the Court does this as an imperative – “we must” – and “records” or keeps the information by storing it in the precedential archive for future use. The individual may still be present, at the point of the imposition of sentence but is the individual really present at that pre-recorded starting point? 

The Alberta Court of Appeal was not breaking new ground in Johnas but was, through clear court-driven consensus, normalizing starting-points and, in so doing, embedding the approach into well-established sentencing principles. Other provincial appellate courts were using a similar approach, but labelling is everything. In the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, for example, the Court referenced a “minimum” term of imprisonment for the Johnas-type of robbery (see R v Hingley (1977), 19 NSR (2d) 541 at 544). This was not consistent with the Alberta branding of starting-points (Johnas at para 22). It was too literal and restrictive, permitting discretionary decreases from that term only in “exceptional mitigating circumstances” (see R v Owen (1982) 50 NSR (2d) 696). This seems to suggest that the Johnas Court still recognized that sentencing was an exercise in discretion. 

Yet, the Court does not use the word “discretion” in the decision but does use the phrase “judicial reasoning” (at para 31). Judicial reasoning is a process, or a form of analysis, employed by a judge in arriving at a decision. It involves how the sentence is determined not the mechanisms used. Starting points are therefore about the consistent application of sentencing principles based on a “norm for the type of offence involved” (para 31). This norm is developed “by comparisons to other cases, by experience, by the seriousness of the offence and by its prevalence” (para 31). It is only after the norm is determined that the Court then looks at the aggravating and mitigating factors involved in the specific case (para 31). Sentences, in other words, are objectively determined but through the unique perspective of the offender and the specific circumstances of the case. No two sentences will ever be precisely the same. In support of this position, the Court quoted Lord Justice Lane said in R vBibi, (1980) 71 Cr App R 360, who stated that:

We are not aiming at uniformity of sentence; that would be impossible. We are aiming at uniformity of approach. (at 361)

Nevertheless, the distinction between uniformity of sentence and uniformity of approach is subtle. For instance, in the UK, Lord Justice Lane’s jurisdiction, uniformity seems to be the key word for both approach and sentence. A sentencing council, comprised of legal and non-legal members, create sentencing guidelines mandated for use in determining sentence in court (https://www.sentencingcouncil.org.uk). This council strives for “greater consistency in sentencing, whilst maintaining the independence of the judiciary.” These guidelines go further than a matter of judicial reasoning by setting a sentencing point based not only on legal principle and case authority but also on public consultation. This approach widens the field of perspective.

Having pursued the starting point to its starting point, we can fast forward to the Supreme Court’s most recent treatment of the approach in the Lacasse decision. Thisdecision sets the standard for sentencing across Canada by not setting a standard. In that decision, the majority of the Court reiterated sentencing principles found in the common law and as reflected in s 718 of the Criminal Code but at the same time confirmed the essence of sentencing as a discretionary process. The sentencing judge, as the eyes and ears of the Rule of Law, is in the best position to fashion a fit and appropriate sentence. In this way, sentencing is a true partnership between the principles, which guide the judge, and the judge’s own sense of justice as see through the factual, legal and societal lens. 

This human touch to sentencing is therefore, according to Lacasse, connected to the standard of appellate review. Deference to the sentencing judge serves to contain appellate review to demonstrably unfit sentences resulting from an error in principle and law. The principle of deference, in this way, illuminates the process of sentencing by recognizing responsibility lays on that judge to craft a just and fair sentence. It is a deep responsibility indeed. A responsibility that despite the comments in Lacasse has resulted in division in the Alberta Court of Appeal on the parameters in which that deference must be wielded. Yet, the recent decisions rendered by the Alberta Court on the issue suggests the softening of the starting point from a hard start to a soft reference point. Such approach, is more consistent with the Supreme Court’s views of the issue.

There have, of course, been critics of the more flexible approach to starting points. One matter of contention in the Alberta Court of Appeal started before Lacasse but continued in earnest even after the release of the decision. In a series of dissenting opinions (R v Murphy2014 ABCA 409 (Wakeling JA is not in dissent but renders a concurring judgment) Rv KSH2015 ABCA 370R v Rossi2016 ABCA 43R v Vignon2016 ABCA 75R v Yellowknee2017 ABCA 60), and R v SLW2018 ABCA 235, Justice Thomas Wakeling believes appellate courts “must provide an analytical framework for the assistance of sentencing courts” (KSHat para 60,Rossiat para 56, Vignon at para 45 and Yellowknee at para 52). In each decision, Wakeling JA creates sentencing protocols for sentencing judges, akin to the computer coding language of “if, then.” These “subsets” or “bands of offences” (see e.g. SLW at paras 97­–98) reflect categories of sentences in which gravity of the offence is the variable measurement. If an offence falls within a band, then the sentence to be imposed is easily ascertained and articulated.

Although Wakeling JA perceived this framework as providing articulable sentencing structure within a discretionary decision, other appellate courts disagreed. As later commented on by the Manitoba Court of Appeal in R v PES2018 MBCA 124, Justice Wakeling’s effort created “rigid analytical categories,” which “unnecessarily limit the discretion of the sentencing judge.” The Manitoba Court emphatically rejected this unifying approach (at para 77). The Alberta Court of Appeal too rejected this model in R v Gauvreau2017 ABCA 74and  R v RGB2017 ABCA 359. In RGB, the Court made it “absolutely clear, it is not the law in Alberta that a sentencing judge must apply the three-subset model in imposing sentence for these types of offences” as mandated by Justice Wakeling. The Court went further by categorically rejecting the Wakeling Model and “sentencing grids in general” (at para 18). In the Court’s view, the approach “fetters the proportionality analysis” (at para 18). 

Notably, Justice Wakeling continued to recommend “an analytical sentencing framework” even after the rejection of it. In the 2018 SLW decision, Justice Wakeling makes the case for his approach by referencing other jurisdictions such as the UK, which favours such a framework. As mentioned, the UK experience involves community input through a sentencing council, which does provide detailed and refined sentencing guidelines for certain offences, albeit not all. In Justice Wakeling’s last effort on the issue, he pointedly remarks in SLW at paragraph 100 that “because Parliament has not established a sentencing commission with a mandate to prepare sentencing guidelines, it falls to appeal courts to do so.” Wakeling JA’s comments did not attract any further attention from the courts. 

In R v Suter,2018 SCC 34, a decision of the Supreme Court of Canada rendered on June 29, 2018, the same day as the SLW decision, the Supreme Court considers a sentencing appeal from the Alberta Court of Appeal. Notably, Justice Clement Gascon, albeit in dissent, imagines an “analytical sentencing framework” already available in the Criminal Code sentencing provisions. At paragraph 153, Justice Gascon describes the statutory scheme as “carefully drafted” and as provisions which were “enacted as ‘a step towards more standardized sentencing, ensuring uniformity of approach’ (C. C. Ruby, G. J. Chan and N. R. Hasan, Sentencing (8th ed. 2012), at 1.59).” Justice Michael Moldaver for the majority in Suter, reiterates sentencing ranges “as merely guidelines” (at para 24). He too confirms the paramountcy of the statutory framework in the Code by suggesting that “as long as the sentence meets the sentencing principles and objectives codified in ss 718 to 718.2 of the Criminal Code, and is proportionate to the gravity of the offence and the level of moral blameworthiness of the offender, it will be a fit sentence.”It seems the Supreme Court views the statutory authority as sufficient sentencing guidance. 

Another, earlier riff, on an analytical framework for sentencing can be found in R v Hamilton,2004 CanLII 5549 (ONCA). There, Justice David Doherty envisions sentencing as “a very human process” (at para 87). In his view, “most attempts to describe the proper judicial approach to sentencing are as close to the actual process as a paint-by-numbers landscape is to the real thing” (at para 87). In discussing the appropriate range of sentencing for cocaine importation, Justice Doherty, after running through the various sentencing objectives, principles and sentencing precedents touches upon the meaning of a sentencing “range” for an offence. At paragraph 111, he explains how a range for a specific offence “does not determine the sentence to be imposed on a particular offender as the range is “in large measure a reflection of the ‘objective seriousness’ of the crime.” In other words, the range of sentence is a short hand for a constellation of objective criteria arising from a factual matrix including, in the example of cocaine importation, the amount of the drug imported and the commercial aspect of the incident. That range is then tailored to the specific instance by consideration of aggravating and mitigating factors resulting in a sentence which may be at any point throughout the appropriate range. Perhaps, even, Justice Doherty explains, the sentence imposed could be “well below” that range should the circumstances of the offence and the offender require it. Sentencing is thus humanized through the filling in of the objective criteria with real, tangible circumstances. 

Applying this sentiment, starting points may provide the objective point needed to focus or pin down the point of reference for a sentencing judge. But this point cannot be further objectified through a rigid container approach. Rather, the sentencing judge breathes life into the reference point through the just application of principles and objectives, which are responsive to and reflective of the narrative before them. In appellate review, this should mean deference to the sentencing judge who considered and understands the complexities of the case before them. It should not mean a recalibration of a sentence back to the starting point without a clear error as described in Lacasse. Using a renaissance art analogy, starting points should be the fresco cartoon, which roughly sketches and maps out the image, not the finished fresco imbued with colour and movement. That final piece is wholly created through the discretion of the sentencing judge.

Although the Wakeling experiment ended after SLW  in 2018, this foray into a more structured approach to sentencing was not so off the mark of the original starting point concept. Wakeling JA’s use of “subsets” or “different categories of offence classified by their degrees of seriousness or blameworthiness” (Yellowkneeat para 70), is essentially the same as the Court’s penchant for categorization through characterization of offences to assist in determining a starting point sentence. For instance, in R v Pazder,2016 ABCA 209,the court in an attempt to create a uniform approach to sentencing and uniformity of sentence, delineated distinctions between first level and second level offenders for commercial drug trafficking sentencing (at paras 13–14). The difference between the three-year starting point for level one, a more minor form of trafficking, and the four and a half year starting point for level two, involving the wholesale dealing of drugs, was found in the moral culpability or personal responsibility of the offender (at paras 15–17). The degree of responsibility could increase or decrease the sentence from the starting point (at para 18). Similarly, the LaBergecategories of culpability (1995 ABCA 196at paras 8–12) have resulted in highly regimented sentencing guidelines for manslaughter as sentencing submissions involve fitting the case into the desired sentencing category. Categories as a signature of blameworthiness was further approved in the five-panel decision in R v Arcand2010 ABCA 363, the pre-Lacassedecision upholding the Court’s approach to starting points and then again later in R v Hajar2016 ABCA 222, rendered after Lacasse

The Hajar decision reaffirmed the starting point mentality in the context of the starting point for a major sexual interference against a child. A five-panel court was assembled, producing a majority decision of three justices, a concurring judgment from one justice and a sole dissent. Even so, according to R v DSC2018 ABCA 335 at paragraph 40, “Hajar is binding on all trial judges in the province. Until it is overruled by the Supreme Court of Canada, or reconsidered by another five panel of this Court, it is binding on all appellate judges.” This statement directly responded to an earlier 2017 decision, R v Gashkanyi2017 ABCA 194,in which the majority essentially disagreed with Hajar. The majority in that case included Justice Ronald Berger, known for his dissenting positions. To be even more clear on the Court’s disapproval of Gashkanyi, in R v Reddekopp2018 ABCA 399, the Court unanimously reiterated that Gashkanyi “did not change” the three-year starting point for major sexual interferences cases (at para 5). The Court went further by clarifying that a starting point is “not a mandatory minimum sentence” (at para 10) but is only a point of reference. Interestingly, Justice Wakeling is a member of the Reddekopp panel, which decision was rendered nearly six months after Justice Wakleing’s last foray into an appellate-driven sentencing framework.

Yet Reddekoppwas but one of fifteen Court of Appeal decisions from 2018 discussing starting points in sentencing. For the most part, these 2018 decisions continue using the starting point as the focal point of the analysis. An exception is the decision in R v Gandour2018 ABCA 238. The Court, in allowing a Crown appeal against sentence, at paragraph 55, found the sentencing judge misconceived the scope of the starting point for a home invasion offence. According to the Court, the judge viewed the starting point as a “cap, not notional places to start the analysis.” This perspective suggests the starting point is a place to anchor the sentencing analysis and not mechanically binding number. 

However, a few months later in R v Godfrey2018 ABCA 369, the majority decision spends much of its time discussing the precedential effect of starting points. The majority admits that as per Lacasse and Suter“it is not per se an error in principle for a judge to sentence outside a sentencing guideline” (at para 4). However, in their view, starting points are “part of the law of the province” and are not “established in the abstract” (at para 5). In short, starting points are there to be recognized and considered as part of the sentencing process. Indeed, according to R v Arcand2010 ABCA 363, there is a three-step process in applying the starting point – akin to an analytical test (Godfrey at para 5 and 8). The Godfrey majority describes starting point sentences as “an assimilation and amalgam of all of the relevant sentencing considerations. They are not just ‘one more source of guidance’ among ‘competing imperatives’. They promote parity in sentencing, and consistency in weighing the gravity of the offence and the responsibility of the offender” (at para 6). In doing so, the majority in Godfrey cautions “local judges” to follow the starting point analysis and as they “are not entitled to invent their own standards in criminal sentencing isolated from national or provincial/territorial standards” (at para 7). Justice Brian O’Ferrall in dissent does not take exception with the concept of starting points as persuasive authority but contextualizes the starting point analysis as one of many “guides” to sentencing (at para 26). As Justice Gascon did in Suter, Justice O’Ferrall looks to statutory authority and codified sentencing principles as providing guidance as well (at paras 27–28). Appellate courts do also provide guidance but only to the extent that they review and analyze “hundreds of sentencing decisions” to arrive at the starting point (at para 29). In this way, starting point sentences are a grass roots venture, informed by the organic process of individual cases reviewed in reference to other cases. As Justice O’Ferrall aptly puts it “guidance is a two-way street” (at para 29). The concept of binding authority gives way to a communal perspective.

Starting points as binding authority or one of many guides to sentencing is another aspect of the concern with starting points as effective minimum sentences. Although in R v Arcand2010 ABCA 363(at para 131), the Court of Appeal emphatically found that “starting points do not amount to minimum sentences,” there was a notion earlier in the Supreme Court of Canada that “there is a risk that these starting points will evolve into de facto minimum sentences” (see Lamer CJC’s remark in R v Proulx, 2000 SCC 5 (CanLII) at para 88). With the advent of an increasing number of minimum sentences in the Code, the Alberta Court has continually reiterated the distinctiveness of starting points. The most recent decision commenting on this, R v Ford2019 ABCA 87, is both a decision on starting points and on the constitutionality of minimum sentences for sexual interference. In that decision both concepts are overlaid upon each other resulting in, as discussed further below, in a softer approach to starting points. 

This softer view seems to come “top up” as per Justice O’Ferrall’s comments in Godfrey through the application of starting points in the lower courts. The Honourable Judge J. Maher explores the meaning of starting points in R v BCP2019 ABPC 2. In this decision, Judge Maher compares starting points with sentencing ranges and discusses the preference, as a sentencing judge, for the starting point approach (at paras 11–14). In his view, starting points are more flexible and less confining than a sentencing range which involves “floors” and “ceilings” creating a rigid field of sentences absent exceptional circumstances (at para 12). Conversely, a starting point has no end or beginning and therefore releases the sentencing judge from the blinders created by a rigid range. Although this reasoning is attractive, it seems at odds with Justice Doherty in Hamilton and with the Supreme Court in Lacasse. Ranges may in fact provide more options as guidelines not requirements. Additionally, “exceptional” circumstances provide a generalized label that only garners meaning from the facts of each individual case. Still, as recognized in R v Alcantara2017 ABCA 56at paragraph 45, the starting point also provides “guidance” but does not “fix a mandatory number.” 

As later restated in Ford, in the Court’s view, there is a clear dividing line between mandatory minimums and starting points (at para 32). In Ford, the sentencing judge imposed 6 months imprisonment for sexual interference of a child, far below the Hajar starting point of 3 years. Although, Ford is notable for striking down the mandatory minimum of 12 months required for the offence under s 151, the Court, through the decision of Justice Martin, suggests Judge Maher’s view of starting points may in fact be correct. While still approving of Hajar, the Ford court upholds the 6-month sentence imposed on the basis that the accused suffered from mental challenges and was therefore less morally culpable. The starting point may be present in Ford but as a background reference, a reference point from which the sentencing could be viewed through the factual perspectives. This blurring of the starting point into a contextual guideline is evident in other 2019 Court of Appeal decisions such as in R v Paulson ,2019 ABCA 147and R v Costello2019 ABCA 104

Starting points are needed but they must not be applied in the vacuum devoid of individuality. In deep space and time without a reference point we are lost. So too in sentencing as defined in Reddekopp, a starting point is “as the term suggests, it is that point at which the applicable principles and objectives of sentencing are applied to the relevant circumstances of the case to arrive at a fit sentence” (at para 10). Points of light can guide us, but we must do so with the perspective of the within. Justice Martin reminds us in R v Boudreault2018 SCC 58 ,that “sentencing is first and foremost an individualized exercise, which balances the various goals of sentencing” (at para 58). The Ford decision suggests the Alberta Court of Appeal may finally be in sync with the “highly individualized” and “delicate balancing” of sentencing (see para 4 of R v Suter). Starting points or not, sentencing Courts must approach this exercise with the individual at the centre of that point – not alone – but in the contextual mix of legal principle and circumstances of the case to arrive at a fit, just, fair and proportionate sentence. This is the perspective which must lie at the core of the point from which sentencing is imposed.

 

Why Reconsider W(D)? (Cross-Posted From www.ablawg.ca)

I have written at great length on the W(D) decision, R v W(D)1991 CanLII 93 (SCC), and the extraordinary impact that case has on our justice system. In my recent article on the issue, aptly entitled The W(D) Revolution, (2018) 41:4 Man LJ 307, I posit that the decision reflects a watershed moment in the assessment of credibility in criminal cases. The case decision, outlining the analytical approach to be taken in assessing credibility when there are “two diametrically opposed versions”of events, revolutionized such assessments by providing a template for integrating factual determinations within the burden and standard of proof (see e.g. R v Avetysan, 2000 SCC 56 (CanLII)at para 28). The W(D) state of mind was one that ensured that the principles of fundamental justice as distilled through the special criminal burden and standard of proof, would remain front and centre in the ultimate determination of guilt or innocence of an accused. This is not to say that the path towards enlightenment has not been strewn with difficulties. To the contrary, to recognize the imperfections of the decision and to experience the twists and turns of W(D) as pronounced upon in future SCC decisions, is to appreciate the W(D) ethos even more. W(D) has needed reinterpretation and reaffirmation throughout the decades since its release, but the question of whether it needed a reconsideration was at issue in the recent decision from the Alberta Court of Appeal in R v Ryon, 2019 ABCA 36 (CanLII).

Before we consider whether we reconsider W(D) there may be some of you, albeit I am guessing not many, who are unaware of the decision and the principle for which it is named. In W(D), the jury, as the trier of fact, was faced with competing narratives from the complainant and the accused on a sexual assault charge. The accused was convicted. On appeal, the issue was the manner in which the trial judge instructed the jury on the task of assessing the disparate evidence. This concern was not a new one. Previous appellate decisions had warned of the “credibility contest” conundrum in which the trier of fact improperly believes they are obliged to base the verdict on choosing between two stark alternatives of believing the Crown evidence or the defence evidence (see e.g. Regina v Challice, 1979 CanLII 2969(ON CA) at 556). By seeing the decision as binary, the trier was not considering the legitimate alternative – that the trier of fact is unable to resolve the conflicting evidence and is simply left in a state of reasonable doubt. This error effectively shifted the burden of proof, requiring the accused to provide a credible explanation. 

Although the issue at the time of W(D) was far from unique, the error was common. Something more than appellate review was needed. This “something more” came in the form of Justice Cory, speaking for the majority in W(D), who attempted to break the cycle of error by suggesting an instruction that would convey the correct approach. An approach that would be simple yet convey the importance of the burden and standard of proof in a criminal prosecution.

Justice Cory, sadly, was wrong. W(D) has been referenced in 9701 cases and counting. Notably, it has been referenced in 38 Supreme Court of Canada decisions. Of those 38, two of those decisions are from the past year, one, R v Calnen, 2019 SCC 6 (CanLII), as recent as February 1, 2019. In Alberta, W(D) has especially resonated with 968 case mentions, almost the same number as British Columbia and twice as many as Saskatchewan. The Alberta Court of Appeal has considered the case a little more than 50 times from 2015 to present. In this context, it is unsurprising that the Alberta Court of Appeal felt it necessary to reconsider W(D)in Ryon. Indeed, the issue had been raised almost two years earlier in R v Wruck2017 ABCA 155 (CanLII), an application for judicial interim release pending appeal heard before Justice Watson, who later delivers a concurring judgment in Ryon. Presumably, the Wruck appeal was not to be after the bail application was dismissed and the reconsideration was left for another day and another case. Although Ryonappears to be just that case, as I will explain, the Court had already revisited W(D)in 2012.

Before we turn back the W(D) clock, we need to take a close look at the most recent decision in Ryon. Justice Martin writes for the majority. As mentioned, Justice Watson writes a concurring decision but essentially agrees with the Court’s general exasperation with yet another W(D) appeal – and a good one at that, as the Court allows the appeal on the basis of the W(D) error. Instead of sending the case back for a re-trial with a disappointing shake of their collective appellate heads, Justice Martin digs into the time vortex in an effort to rehabilitate, refresh and generally update the W(D) instruction. 

There are many reasons why Justice Martin feels the need to intercede. W(D)is a staple in the trial judges’ decision-making tool kit but it was a framework, a bare bones recommendation that required filling in. It was created with an eye to the factual matrix from which it came involving two competing narratives. It did not account for a more sophisticated evidentiary base arising from a complex factual and legal situation such as a case involving inculpatory and exculpatory evidence from the admission of an accused’s confession, or unsavory witnesses overlaying a Vetrovec caution (See Vetrovec,1982 CanLII 20 (SCC)) onto the instruction or trials involving multiple charges and included offences. In short, the W(D)instruction, when lifted directly from the pages of the decision, lacks context and therefore meaning. Many a trial judge, believing the words spoken by Justice Cory to be adequate, failed to realize the error of leaving the words alone to do the heavy lifting. 

Although Justice Martin fills in the framework to account for these variant situations at paragraphs 29 to 32 of Ryon, it is the common-sense admonishment underlying his decision that truly encapsulates the essence of W(D). At paragraph 38, for instance, he advises us to “step back and consider the message intended to be delivered.” Later, at paragraph 48, Justice Martin reiterates the need for the instruction to be “contextual and responsive to the evidence.” Finally, after recommending a more inclusive instruction, Justice Martin at paragraphs 53 and 54 cautions that 

Like W(D), the foregoing is not intended to be an incantation that must be included in every trial where there is conflicting evidence to be resolved. Ultimately, the wording used is not critical so long as the trier is given sufficient information to understand the correct burden and standard of proof to apply ... However, reciting and relying solely on the wording of W(D), without elaboration, will not usually be sufficient in a jury trial. That portion of the charge must be responsive to the evidence and explained in such a manner that the jury is able to understand the message intended to be conveyed.

Like W(D), the foregoing is not intended to be an incantation that must be included in every trial where there is conflicting evidence to be resolved. Ultimately, the wording used is not critical so long as the trier is given sufficient information to understand the correct burden and standard of proof to apply ... However, reciting and relying solely on the wording of W(D), without elaboration, will not usually be sufficient in a jury trial. That portion of the charge must be responsive to the evidence and explained in such a manner that the jury is able to understand the message intended to be conveyed.

Like W(D), the foregoing is not intended to be an incantation that must be included in every trial where there is conflicting evidence to be resolved. Ultimately, the wording used is not critical so long as the trier is given sufficient information to understand the correct burden and standard of proof to apply ... However, reciting and relying solely on the wording of W(D), without elaboration, will not usually be sufficient in a jury trial. That portion of the charge must be responsive to the evidence and explained in such a manner that the jury is able to understand the message intended to be conveyed.

These are sentiments that apply to every situation in which the accused’s exculpatory evidence is pitted against the prosecution’s case. In the end, it is the trier of fact alone, equipped with the special criminal standard, who must use and apply their common sense, as nurtured by lived experience, to the set of facts before them. However, in the case where there is potential for a credibility contest, the concept of reasonable doubt as it applies to that evidence must be brought home to the trier of fact. As Justice Sopinka said in R v Morin1988 CanLII 8 (SCC) at 360, rendered before his dissent in W(D), “The law is clear that the members of the jury can arrive at their verdict by different routes and need not rely on the same facts. Indeed, the jurors need not agree on any single fact except the ultimate conclusion.” This freedom to fact-find is essential to our criminal justice system and through the judicious use of judicial instructions on how to get to that ultimate conclusion, we are ensuring that the verdict arrived at will be a fair and just one.

Although Justice Martin is right to bemoan the overuse of W(D)as a panacea for credibility assessments, he does seem to get too far into the weeds by over-instructing the trier of fact with all the potentialities of a W(D)situation. His comments on the sequence of the instruction, including which evidence must be considered first, may create a less flexible framework and run contrary to Justice Sopinka’s fact-finding vision as articulated in Morin. Granted, providing clarity on the type of evidence to be considered, exculpatory rather than inculpatory, is helpful, but to get into parsing evidence into types may cause more problems than it’s worth. For instance, the concern raised with applying W(D) to neutral evidence may result in arguments by counsel over what is neutral evidence and what is not. At some point we must trust the jury to come to a true verdict by allowing them to draw inferences from the evidence on the basis of their findings of fact.

Nevertheless, Justice Martin’s penultimate statement on what information should be imparted to the jury at paragraph 51 is helpful and does fill in the skeleton-like structure of the W(D) instruction. Of course, Justice Martin had ample opportunity to consider this as he expounded similar suggestions in his 2012 decision, R v Gray2012 ABCA 51 (CanLII). As an aside, that decision received quite a bit of traction with the Honourable Judge Gorman of the Newfoundland and Labrador Provincial Court who quoted the Gray decision in 13 cases between 2012 and 2014. I too will quote from Justice Martin in Gray at paragraph 45 in which he explains that “In other words, the instruction is a contextual, evidence‑sensitive, one that requires a trial judge to carefully mould it to the evidence and not just recite it in isolation with the hope that the jury will understand or figure it out.” Truer words have never been spoken—or, rather, they have been spoken but not listened to—but perhaps this time these words will have the impact they deserve.

I conclude this post with some final thoughts on conflicting narratives and criminal trials. The situation of competing narratives is not in and of itself unusual. A trial is a time anomaly. The trial itself is conducted in the present four corners of the courtroom, yet it is concerned with past events that lie outside of those courtroom walls. In many ways a trial borders on science fiction as it leaps through the time-space continuum. 

The trier of fact, who is in the present space, must turn the present tense into the past through the consideration of days gone by. In short, a trial is stuck in the past and the trier of fact needs tools to translate the past events into a language of the present. This is particularly important as at the time those past events were occurring, not everyone involved could see the future significance of those events. The narrative was not captured in pristine form at the time. A further “past meets present without future thought” problem is that often those events did not involve direct observers. The people living those events did not rush out and bring in a witness for future use. Indeed, these events are by their very nature done in private. Nor did these events necessarily produce animate items for future use at trial. 

The W(D) trial is a description of the past from the perspective of the complainant and the accused person. The trier must assess that information through a kaleidoscope of time, which collapses those past events into present time. But that is not all—those events are also filtered through legal rules and principles. This changes the texture of those narratives and gives them a different, special meaning. It is the application of those legal principles that frames the past so it may be used in the present time of a trial. This is the true message of W(D), which serves as a memorial itself by commending to a trier of fact a possible, but not the only, way to review evidence in coming to the ultimate decision of guilt or innocence. 

 Does W(D) need a reconsideration? There is not much wrong but much right about re-energizing legal principles and ensuring they are understandable, meaningful and relevant for those who must apply them. An update and a re-working can enhance the administration of justice. However, in that new look, we must retain the essence of that original statement and its raison d’etre. In the case of W(D), any reformulation must emphasize the linkages that must be made between credibility assessment and reasonable doubt. Without this crucial connection, a reconsideration is not doing W(D) justice. Justice must not only be seen to be done, it must also be done. The Ryon decision, in its aspect and essence, will go a long way of doing just that.

 

 

 

Unpacking R v Barton

R v Barton is a bold and intrepid decision. It is not so much a lengthy decision as it is densely packed and nuanced, examining and uncovering layers of issues. It is a case that identifies errors and then offers solutions. It is a decision that exudes the modern principled approach, now a staple in an appellate Court’s analysis of a variety of legal issues from the admission of evidence to the interpretation of statutes. Admittedly, the decision can give the reader a sense of discomfort, the kind of unsettling feeling one gets when being challenged to think differently. The kind of feeling one can have when reading something unexpected. But that does not mean the feeling is unwelcome. In this post, together we will “unpack” or identify some of the salient features of the decision. I will also try to respond to this feeling of discomfort. I caution however that the decision requires much contemplation and measured thought. What I am attempting to do here is to articulate my impressions upon reviewing the decision. I will leave to a later date in a further article an analysis of the myriad of legal issues raised in this decision through a review of precedent and legal principles.

The facts are startling, sad, and familiar. Cindy Gladue, a young Aboriginal woman, was paid sixty dollars by Mr. Barton to perform sex acts. Two interactions occurred over two days and on the second evening, Ms. Gladue died in the bathtub of Mr. Barton’s hotel room. She bled to death from a perforated vaginal wall. At trial, Mr. Barton admitted he had sexual contact with the deceased that evening. He admitted he repeatedly pumped his fist into Ms. Gladue’s vagina at which point she started to bleed. He maintained that he did not intend to harm her and that he was unaware of her condition until he awoke in the morning and found her immobile in the bathtub. In his evidence, he called the incident an “accident”. After finding her in an injurious state, Barton tried to mop up the blood, fled the scene, and discarded the bloody towel, only to return to the hotel room soon thereafter at which point he called 911. His statements after the incident, to both friends and the police, suggested Ms. Gladue came to his hotel room and asked to shower in his washroom, where he found her dead the next morning. At the time, he denied any physical interaction with the deceased. At trial, medical evidence was called on behalf of the Crown and the defence. The Crown’s expert contended the perforation was caused by a sharp object, while the defence expert disagreed and opined that weakness in the vaginal structure was the operating cause of the injury.

The trial was heard before a judge and jury in the early part of 2015 and Mr. Barton was ultimately acquitted. An application was made by the Crown, during the trial, to admit “real” evidence in the form of the vaginal tissue of Ms. Gladue to assist in understanding the evidence of the medical expert who examined the tissue (R v Barton, 2015 ABQB 159 (CanLII)). Real evidence is directly observable by the trier of fact. Like direct testimonial evidence of a witness who has personally observed an event, it does not require the trier of fact to draw an inference from the evidence, should it be accepted. Unlike direct testimonial evidence of a witness, the trier of fact becomes the direct observer, acting, in some sense, as the witness to the event. This act of “direct self-perception” or “autoptic proference” as Wigmore described it (John Henry Wigmore, Evidence in Trials at Common Law, revised by John T. McNaughton (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1961) vol. 4 at 1150), occurs with all real evidence such as photographs, audio and visual recordings, electronic and hard copy communications or the spent cartridges of a firearm. Similarly, application can be made pursuant to section 652 of the Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46  during the course of a jury trial, up until the verdict is rendered, for a “view” of “person, place or thing” located outside of the Courtroom. These direct observations made by the trier of fact become part of the evidence assessed at trial. Often, real evidence or direct observations by the trier can “speak for itself,” such as those spent cartridges but real evidence, in terms of how it fits into the narrative puzzle, is subject to interpretation. Either way, real evidence is admissible at trial if it is relevant and material to the case. Relevancy depends on authenticity. An item that does not reflect its true nature at the time of the incident is worthless and has no probative value. Applications to admit such evidence are usually, therefore, framed in authenticity terms: Is the item unaltered and unchanged? The application, in this instance, was opposed by the defence, not because the tissue was irrelevant or not authentic but because the prejudicial effect of such evidence before the jury would outweigh the probative value. This exclusionary discretion or gatekeeper function of the trial judge is an important safeguard in ensuring a fair trial while ensuring the truth-seeking function of the trial is not inappropriately compromised. This discretion is an example of the balancing done over the course of a trial. In the area of expert evidence, for instance, the trial judge has an ongoing duty to ensure such evidence stays within its scope to ensure trial fairness (White Burgess v Haliburton, 2015 SCC 23 (para 54) and in R v Sekhon, 2014 SCC 15 (para 46)). In this instance, the trial judge admitted the evidence, recognizing the probative value outweighed the prejudicial effect. It was, in the Court’s opinion, evidence to assist the jury in their consideration of the case. The trial judge also reminded the jury to decide the case fairly and dispassionately and not to base the verdict on an emotional response to the evidence. Although, as noted by the Court at paragraphs 127 and 128, standardized cautions to the jury without contextualizing the instruction to the facts of the case are meaningless.

This narrative of the admissibility of the tissue evidence highlights the balancing required throughout the trial in both the admissibility of evidence and the instructions to the jury. But this story of admissibility goes even further than the bounded space of the Courtroom. Ms. Gladue’s family was devastated with the decision to admit the tissue evidence. To the family, it was a decision that required their input and consent to protect Ms. Gladue’s dignity as an Aboriginal woman. To the friends and family of Cindy Gladue, she was “more than a statistic, more than an addict and more than a piece of tissue” (Death and Life of Cindy Gladue by Kathryn Blaze Carlson, May 15, 2015, The Globe and Mail). In the interview for the Globe article, Ms. Gladue’s mother emphasized that Cindy is “still human, she still has a name, not just ‘prostitute’.” This evidentiary application highlights the concern the Court of Appeal has in Barton with the approach this case represents: We in the justice system are attuned to categories of legal issues to which we must respond such as the admissibility of real evidence, the inadmissibility of bad character evidence, the proper use of circumstantial evidence and the correct legal articulation of the substantive law. We are not trained to be mindful of the larger view of the case which involves a self-assessment of how the case, in totality, presents. We are not recognizing that important societal values, some of which are Charter values, must also be reflected in the justice system. This includes the way we refer to a witness as a “prostitute” rather than a “sex worker” or even why that kind of labelling, done throughout the trial by all participants in the case (para 116) is required. We need to constantly ask ourselves when we prepare and present a case, “why”? Why do we need the witness to be called a “prostitute”? How does it advance the case? Is there another way of making our point that does not fall into stereotypes or is the notion simply not required as its sole purpose is just prejudicial and irrelevant? These basic questions are part of the Court of Appeal’s “re-setting” to the modern approach to the contextual appreciation of a case.

The facts of this case do not serve merely as the framework upon which the legal issues are placed but are the essence of this decision. Woven in between these facts are the legal issues, which, to extend the metaphor, become the fabric of our discussion in this post or the “unpacking” of the case. Typically, this term “unpacking” refers to an analytical unfolding of issues that are difficult to ascertain without some sort of roadmap or guide. In essence, “unpacking” suggests an opening up of the folded map or triptych to reveal the whole route. It requires us to also extend ourselves and to examine the big picture. In seeing the whole, we can then consider how these various packets of legal issues fit together to provide the final outcome. But “unpacking” can also mean what it says – that a journey has ended and it’s time to clean out the baggage. We are done but not finished as when we “unpack” we might re-fold in a different or better way or we may clean and re-start again. We may even discard. After reading Barton and after reflecting on it, this post is about both types of “unpacking”. As I have already suggested, we need to ask broader and deeper questions such as: What is the long view of this decision? Where does it lead us? What will it impel us to do?

Admittedly, all of this may seem too existential for a legal blog but as a practitioner and academic, I am enjoying the pure joy of reading a decision which challenges me to set aside a legal response and instead to think about the kind of justice system which appropriately reflects who we are as a society and who we want to be. It sparks a badly needed conversation about our approach to the law and whether it is approachable for all those impacted by it. I can’t say with certainty that I know what the justice system should look like or can look like but I can say that this is something that we all need to be engaged in because change requires hard work and dedication. It also requires all of us to step out of our comfort zone, which cases such as R v Jordan, 2016 SCC 27 (CanLII), and now Barton push us to do. However, change does not mean we give up what is essential to us as a country committed to Charter values. It simply requires us to be mindful of those values in fashioning our justice system. We should not be pressured into cutting corners or rights in the name of expediency. Rather, we should be scrupulous in our desire to see justice done. Complacency or leaving the status quo, be it trial delay or conviction of the innocent, is a dead end to nowhere. Only thought that leads to action makes a difference.

As I first suggested, the Barton decision is nuanced, providing layers of discussion: I suggest at least seven layers which interconnect. Looking at the first layer of the unpacking of issues, there is an overarching theme, which in my mind extends far beyond the case at hand, relating to instructing the jury in a clear, robust and frank manner. We in the legal profession too often rely on the probity of legal nomenclature to get us to where we are going (model jury instructions can be found on the National Judicial Institute website: https://www.nji inm.ca/index.cfm/publications/model-jury-instructions/). Barton reminds us that justice is not only for those in the know but is also for those who really don’t care to know until they are face to face with questions of justice. Clarity of thought, simplicity of explanation, and frank conversation go a long way to inform the non-legal partners in our justice system. To be truthful, this approach goes a long way for those legal minds who are in the know as well. I will call this approach to jury instructions, in legal language, the modern principled approach, which embodies the contextual approach approved of and utilized by the Supreme Court of Canada in other areas of law such as in statutory interpretation (para 21 of Rizzo & Rizzo Shoes Ltd. (Re), 1998 CanLII 837 (SCC)) and in the admissibility of hearsay (see R v Khan, [1990] 2 SCR 531, and R v KGB,[1990] 1 SCR 740 as the foundational cases). This approach is open to doing law differently, within the bounds of legal principles and within the context of the case at hand. To do otherwise would be to detach the decision-making from the unique narrative offered by each case.  

A modern approach to jury instructions sounds grand but in the context of Barton it finds meaning. This is where the Alberta Court of Appeal provides us with guidance and helpful exemplars for the fulfillment of the modern approach. A jury instruction must provide meaningful assistance to the jury by simplifying the complex law on sexual assault while recognizing no two cases are alike. The trial judge’s role is to also “unpack” by unfolding the trial narrative with the concomitant legal issues as they are relevant in the particular case. The trier must ask, is this a case involving consent or no consent? Or is it an issue where consent is given but vitiated? If so, on what basis is there such a vitiation? This deep dive into the facts, this modern contextual approach, requires the trial judge to specifically identify the essential nature of the offence. As discussed throughout Barton, the emphasis in the charge was askew. For example, the focus should not have been on the “application of force” as required for the “assault” element of the offence but on the “sexual activity in question” per s 273.1 of the Criminal Code, which defines consent for the purpose of sexual offences. As recognized in the decision, sex, which is in and of itself a legal activity, is by nature a touching. This case is not one where the accused denied the sexual conduct so the emphasis in the instructions on a finding of an “application of force” was confusing and unhelpful for the jury (para 189). Instead, the focus for the jury should have been on the amount of force used as an aspect of the sexual activity (paras 193, 194).

Creating a jury charge that fits the case is not the only function of this modern jury instruction approach. A modern principled approach requires balance in the instructions to the jury. But balance does not mean the traditional evidential and procedural safeguards are no longer necessary. Instructions on the presumption of innocence and on impermissible inferences must be part of the discourse between trial judge and jury. However, the trial judge, who must remain balanced in thought and impartial in aspect throughout the trial, has a duty to present all evidence in a fair manner. The accused is to be judged on the evidence and not on improper inferences arising from it. In the Barton case, the trial judge admonished the jury to not engage in “reasoning prejudice” or “moral prejudice” that occurs when a trier draws an inference that the accused was a bad person and worthy of conviction because he consorted with an “unsavoury” person, in this case a “Native girl” who was a “prostitute” (para 130). This classic limiting instruction is given to ensure any potential “bad character” evidence, which is presumptively inadmissible, is not used for that impermissible purpose (see R v Mack, [2014] 3 SCR 3; 2014 SCC 58 para 57).  But in this case, the concern to protect the potential “bad character” of the accused was not informed by the gate keeper function of a trial judge that aims to provide balance and fairness into the trial. Here, again, is the problem with the silo approach to law where case approach is embodied by a check-list of issues. By this one-sided appreciation of “prejudice” in this case, as only the accused person’s prejudice, the full meaning of trial fairness, as functionalized by the gate keeper function of the trial judge, was missing.

The missing instruction, according to the Barton Court, was the lack of instruction cautioning the jury to refrain from entering into similar reasoning or moral prejudice in assessing the status of the deceased as a female, Indigenous sex worker. Similar to the instruction regarding the accused, the jury should have been told not to draw the impermissible inference that because the deceased was a “prostitute”, she implicitly consented to all forms of sexual interaction by virtue of her profession (Barton paras 116-132). This connects to the further error, discussed later in this post, relating to the lack of a section 276 application regarding sexual history evidence. The jury would also have benefited from a direction that Ms. Gladue was not less “worthy” as a person because of how she was “labeled” or defined by society as a female, as an indigenous person, and as a sex worker. Defence counsel and Crown counsel in this case should welcome such instruction as it would completely neutralize any suggestion of “bad personhood” on the part of Barton. It would also humanize the case, placing it in real terms. As eloquently referenced in para 128 of the Barton decision, the case is about relationships between race, gender and status. It is also about the trial judge’s relationship with the jury, the relationships between all parties in the case and the relationships between the justice system and the community. These relationships are at the core of the criminal justice system. They are based on trust and confidence. In these relationships we expect a “fair” trial not a “fixed” one as emphasized by the Court of Appeal in Barton (at para 262).

This kind of instruction, I suggest, is also consistent with the Supreme Court of Canada’s position on the editing or excising of an accused person’s criminal record in R v Corbett, [1988] 1 SCR 670, 1988 CanLII 80 (SCC). There, the Court considered the prejudicial effect of placing an accused’s criminal record before the jury in a situation where the accused will testify, and the resultant moral and reasoning prejudice which may arise from the accused person’s prior criminal convictions. The concern is two-fold; that the jury will find that the accused is a bad person who has a propensity to commit crimes, and therefore likely committed the present crime and is therefore worthy of punishment and that such a prior record could distract the jury from their duty to determine guilt or innocence on the basis of the evidence before them. Although the Corbett Court recognized the discretion of the trial judge to edit or excise a criminal record to ensure trial fairness, Chief Justice Dickson cautioned that such application must not result in a “serious imbalance” where the Crown witnesses may also have previous convictions and where, as a result, their credibility is attacked (Corbett para 34). This requires the judge to look at the context of the case or the long view of the facts which would be before the jury to ensure the case was not reimagined unfairly and that the truth-seeking function of the Court remained intact. This application is an example of the exclusionary discretion or gatekeeper function of the trial judge I mentioned earlier in this post in which the focus is on trial fairness. The Alberta Court of Appeal in Barton was applying the same reasoning in calling for a more balanced and contextual approach in the jury charge.  

The second layer of issues in the case, which flow from the general concern with the jury instructions, are the numerous specific “traditional” legal errors in the charge identified by the Court. I am labeling these issues as “traditional” as they are the kind of legal errors in instructing a jury one regularly argues on a murder appeal. Here too, I would suggest, the errors are connected. For instance, as I will explain further, the misdirection and non-direction to the jury on the use to be made of the post-offence conduct is related to the misdirection on the “defence” of accident. In turn, these errors are compounded by the misdirection in the charge on unlawful act manslaughter and the inadequate charge on the two potential pathways (standard and Jobidon related as I will discuss later in the post) to manslaughter. I caution again that the purpose of this post is not to thoroughly discuss the legal niceties of these errors. These errors, however, serve to highlight the entanglement of issues found in this case.

Post-offence conduct must be approached by the trier of fact with caution to ensure such potentially damning evidence is considered in its proper context (see R v White, [1998] 2 SCR 72, 1998 CanLII 789 (SCC)). There are instances where an accused person’s actions after the incident “look suspicious” but are in fact consistent with an innocent explanation. Of course, it is within the purview of the trier of fact to accept or reject evidence and to determine the weight, if any, to place on evidence. However, as with impermissible character evidence, the trier of fact should not be concerned with evidence that has no probative value and merely distracts the jury from its duty to fairly and objectively assess the evidence. The concern with post offence conduct is the potential illogical “leap in logic” which can occur should the trier unreasonably infer guilt from evidence that merely “looks bad”. This does not mean that such evidence is presumptively inadmissible. On the contrary, post-offence conduct can be useful circumstantial evidence of guilt, of motive and of credibility, as noted by the Alberta Court of Appeal in Barton (paras 57-75). The misdirection and non-direction on the use of such evidence in Barton impacted the jury instructions on Mr. Barton’s position that what happened was an accident, as his “innocent explanation” seemed to negate a proper instruction on the use to be made of the post-offence conduct (paras 63-69).

The Court in Barton raises the “elephant in the room” concern, which is whether “accident” is a positive defence the jury will be specifically instructed to consider like self defence or duress (paras 184-293). Of course, such an instruction would only be given if the defence has an “air of reality.” This test requires the trial judge to determine “whether there is evidence on the record upon which a properly instructed jury acting reasonably could acquit.” (R v Cinous, [2000] 2 SCR 3 paras 47 to 57) Without entering into a thorough discussion here on that issue, put simply, the Barton Court finds that there is no self-contained “defence” of accident as such a position merely negates the essential elements of a crime, be it actus reus or mens rea. Further, the characterization of the defence as “pure accident” in the charge (para 287) was inconsistent with Mr. Barton’s admission at trial that he repeatedly and forcibly entered Ms. Gladue’s vagina with his fist. I would add that even if “accident” is a “defence,” it is arguable whether, on the evidence, the defence had any “air of reality” such that it was properly placed for consideration before the jury. Further, this emphasis on “accident,” as it is mentioned enhances the error in misdirecting the jury on post offence conduct and on the mens rea for unlawful act manslaughter, which is based on an objective foresight of bodily harm per R v DeSousa, [1992] 2 SCR 944, 1992 CanLII 80 (SCC), and R v Creighton, [1993] 3 SCR 3, 1993 CanLII 61 (SCC). Additionally, the lack of direction on the objective dangerousness of Barton’s actions in the context of a manslaughter charge is in and of itself worthy of appellate intervention.

These “traditional” errors also led to the third layer of legal errors to be unpacked relating to the law of sexual assault, now so sadly prevalent in the appellate courts. These errors impact the substantive instructions on the law of murder and manslaughter, as the element of sexual assault causing bodily harm is integral to a proper understanding of the homicide instruction. This layer takes us back to the beginning as it reveals the fragility of the model jury instructions, the weaknesses inherent in a categorical “check list” approach rather than the modern contextual holistic approach, and the lack of a “humanity litmus test”, which reminds us that this case is about real people, whose voices (or lack thereof in Ms Gladue’s case) are being heard by real people. This set of errors impacts how we generally and traditionally approach the law of sexual assault but also reminds us of the need to step back and look at the case we are presenting and ask ourselves those “why” questions. For the Crown and the defence those “why” questions should be in the context of their theme/theory, strategic decisions including the thought processes on how to present the best and most effective case before the jury that promotes trial fairness. The Court in Barton identified legal errors in the instructions on the law of sexual assault but also in the manner in which the law of sexual assault was presented as part of a “boiler plate” or “fossilized” (para 8) instruction (paras 173-258).

This misdirection in the charge was preceded by and imbued with the missing procedure under s 276 of the Criminal Code or what is known as the “rape shield” law (paras 85-153 of Barton and for further discussion see R v Seaboyer;R v Gayme, [1991] 2 SCR 577). Again, this fourth layer of error relates to the admissibility of evidence that may lead to impermissible, prejudicial, and illogical inferences. Section 276 prohibits evidence whose sole purpose is to perpetuate the “twin myths” (para 89) relating to sexual assault complainants that prior sexual conduct, including being a “prostitute,” means consent was present at the time of the offence and that prior sexuality is a form of “bad personhood” making such a person of “loose morals” less credible. This prohibition is to ensure trial fairness and balance. The same balance that requires the instructing judge to remind the jury that Ms. Gladue, like all people in the justice system—the accused, the lawyers, the witnesses—must be treated with dignity and respect. A person is not to be “judged” by race, sexual orientation, gender or profession.

An application to use prior sexual history evidence for purposes other than the prohibited twin myths relating to consent and credibility is required whenever the accused is tried on a sexual assault charge. However, s 276 does not specifically reference homicide, which requires, according to s 222(5), an unlawful act. Such an unlawful act can be sexual assault or as in this case, sexual assault causing bodily harm. The Barton Court interprets the s 276 requirement that the application is engaged “in proceedings in respect of an offence” as including a homicide, where the underlying act is a sexual offence. This interpretation, using the modern approach as defined by Rizzo & Rizzo Shoes Ltd. (Re), [1998] 1 SCR 27, 1998 CanLII 837 (SCC), is consistent with the purpose and objective of the section. To interpret it otherwise would present an absurdity and would be contrary to Parliamentary intention in creating the protection under s 276. The section provides a mechanism whereby the accused can apply to have such evidence admitted if it is connected to a relevant matter that goes beyond the realm of myth and is needed for fair trial purposes and to fulfill the accused’s right to full answer and defence under s 7 of the Charter.

The fifth area to unpack is the obiter comments found in the reasons. There are three areas of concern involving, as already discussed, whether there is a recognized stand-alone “defence” of accident (paras 284-293), the use of public policy in defining or confining consent pursuant to Jobidon, and a call for clarification of the “reasonable steps” requirement for mistaken belief in consent under s 273.2(b). All three of these concerns are valid and worth investigating, particularly the continuing struggle to reconcile R v Jobidon, [1991] 2 SCR 714, 1991 CanLII 77 (SCC), with the much-changed legal landscape on the matter of consent since its release 26 years ago (paras 301-310 and for further discussion see my previous post on Jobidon). Again, these discussions require a detailed response for a later date, however, I would like to acknowledge the pressing issue of the clarification of the “reasonable steps” requirement as raised in Barton (paras 294-300). Section 273.2 enumerates situations where the accused in a sexual assault case cannot rely on the defence of mistake of fact in consent.  Under subsection (b) the mistaken belief in consent defence is unavailable where the accused does not take reasonable steps to ascertain consent. Soon after the release of Barton, the Supreme Court of Canada released R v George, 2017 CanLII 24267 (SCC), involving a charge of sexual interference under s 151 where the accused was 35 years of age and the complainant was 14 and a half years old. Section 150.1(4) of the Criminal Code prohibits a mistake of age defence unless the accused took “all reasonable steps”. In the George case, the Court found that where there is an air of reality to the defence of mistake of fact, the burden is on the Crown to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that either the accused did not honestly believe the complainant was at least 16 or the accused did not take all reasonable steps to ascertain the age of the complainant. Considering the similarity in wording with s 273.2, as recognized by the Barton Court, this obiter issue, which was not raised in the Barton appeal, becomes even more pressing to consider (para 294).

The sixth unpacking involves the notion of appellate review of an acquittal. Section 676(1) of the Criminal Code confines an appeal against acquittal by the Attorney General to a question of law alone. This limitation arises from the core values of our justice system. As articulated by Justice Wilson in the majority decision of R v B(G) [1990] 2 SCR 57, 1990 CanLII 115 (SCC) at 66, the restricted appellate review “reflects the fundamental principle that an accused is presumed to be innocent until proved guilty by proof beyond a reasonable doubt”. In B(G), Justice Wilson reviewed what the term “question of law” entails. Although factual errors alone, as in an unreasonable verdict or sufficiency of the evidence, would not amount to a question of law, a misapprehension of fact could be if it amounted to a misdirection on the law (pages 70-72). Throughout Barton, the Court is careful to characterize the errors as irreversible misdirections and non-directions of law.

As raised earlier in this post, the recent Supreme Court of Canada George decision may have an impact on the obiter legal issues raised by the Court in Barton on the clarification of the “reasonable steps” requirement for a defence of an honest belief in consent under s 273.2(b) of the Criminal Code. George was a case of an appeal against acquittal and it is the comments on the jurisdiction of appellate review of an acquittal, which may pose further discussion points in the review of the Barton decision. For the appellate Court to intervene in an appeal against an acquittal, there must be an error in law and that error must materially impact the not guilty verdict. The threshold for such materiality is quite high. There must be at least an error that with a “reasonable degree of certainty” has a material effect (George para 27). In paras 6 and 52 of the Barton decision, the Court suggests the identified legal errors “might reasonably” have a material bearing on the outcome, which could suggest too low of a threshold. However, later in the reasons the Court clearly finds the specific legal errors did have a material bearing on the acquittal. In any event, although it might seem like semantics, I could see an argument made on a further appeal that the threshold they used was too low. Additionally, the Court in George discussed the concern with conflating what are factual issues with legal issues, whereby the “legal” errors are actually factual ones (George para 17). Again, it would be difficult to suggest the Barton Court entered into the same error. 

A final comment to make, the seventh unpacking, is a connection I see with some of the research I have been doing on the evolving role of the trial judge in a criminal case as the trier of fact, the arbiter of the law, and the gate keeper and guardian of the courts, and the impact the sense of community or societal values is having on this “enhanced” version of the trial judge. I jokingly refer to the new and improved vision of the trial judge as “gate keeper on steroids” but really a trial judge does not sit alone but sits in the heart of the community of justice. It is the relationship or connection between all individuals in the criminal justice system which interests me and which I believe profoundly impacts the way the courts impart justice. It also, in my view, explains why we are now struggling, in an existential way, with our conceptions of what the justice system should be. Cases like Barton, Jordan and even older cases such as R v Anthony-Cook, [2016] 2 SCR 204, 2016 SCC 43 (CanLII), R v St-Cloud, [2015] 2 SCR 328, 2015 SCC 27 (CanLII), and R v Lacasse, [2015] 3 SCR 1089, 2015 SCC 64 (CanLII), signal a new modern approach to criminal law. If this is so, then we need to be prepared to answer the issues raised in those cases, to be modern in our aspect and approach while continually ensuring the fundamental values embodied in our presumption of innocence and fair trial principles are not diminished and remain central to that modern approach.

The Barton decision is fresh and challenging. It will impact, not only the re-trial of this case but also future cases and has already been cited in a recent Alberta Court of Appeal decision (R v ARD, 2017 ABCA 237 at para 57). We are put off balance by the intricacies offered by the decision but then only until we re-adjust to a new balance. The unpacking we have just undertaken is a step toward discussion and review of what has been done in the past and whether the past can be a jumping off point that, as the Court recommends in Barton, allows for a “re-setting” to the modern approach.

 

 

Bail Pending Appeal And The Public Interest: The Effect of the Alberta Court of Appeal Decision In Rhyason

A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to address the students from Professor Glen Luther and criminal lawyer Brian Pfefferle’s Intensive Criminal Law Program at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law. It is always a pleasure to speak to a group of dedicated and eager students who have chosen the rewarding, yet often, difficult task of criminal work, be it prosecution or defence. The topic on which I chose to speak was on criminal appellate advocacy including practical considerations, the process and the written advocacy required. I also discussed the bail pending appeal process on conviction appeals to the provincial court of appeal and the criteria for release as outlined under s. 679(3) of the Criminal Code. This is an area rarely touched upon in law school and yet is an important step in the appellate process. Although s. 679(3) sets out articulable grounds for release, the judicial interpretation of the public interest ground has been unclear and often inconsistently applied. Yet, it tends to be the public interest ground relied upon by the Court to dismiss the bail pending appeal application.

Bail pending appeal significantly differs from judicial interim release at first instance, as the offender no longer has the advantage of the presumption of innocence. It is therefore the offender who has the burden to persuade the single Justice hearing the application to release the applicant pending the hearing of the appeal. If an offender is released on bail pending the appeal, he or she will be required to surrender into custody before the matter will be heard. Typically, this is manifested through a bail condition for the Appellant to surrender the evening before the hearing date. The custodian of the jail will transmit a confirmation this has been done. If the Appellant fails to surrender, the bail may be estreated, if applicable, and the appeal will be deemed abandoned.  

Considering the onus is on the Appellant, The Court of Appeal Justice, in determining the bail pending for a conviction appeal, must be satisfied, as per s.679(3) that the Appellant will:

 (a) the appeal or application for leave to appeal is not frivolous;

 (b) he will surrender himself into custody in accordance with the      terms of the order; and

            (c) his detention is not necessary in the public interest.

These three factors for release, as will be discussed, are not treated by all appellate courts as mutually exclusive and are interconnected. The requirement, for instance, that the Appellant will surrender himself into custody is related to the other factor that detention is not necessary in the public interest as an Appellant who does not establish that he will obey the court terms would also have difficulty establishing that the detention is not necessary in the public interest. Those Appellants who fail to fulfill the surrender requirement would be offenders who have failed to comply with recognizances in the past and/or have fail to appears on their criminal record. This kind of evidence goes to the concern, applicable to this ground,that the Appellant is a flight risk and will therefore evade serving the sentence. This concern is connected to both aspects of the public interest ground as a failure to surrender would bring the administration of justice into disrepute and would put the public safety at risk. Usually, however, the Appellant can satisfy the requirement to surrender with appropriate conditions and sureties and this factor is not the factor, which causes the Court the most concern.

The next requirement that the appeal is not frivolous has been traditionally a matter of the Appellant establishing that the appeal is arguable or that the appeal would not necessarily fail. This requires some argument on the grounds of appeal as proposed in the Notice of Appeal and as evidenced by the trial record. Usually, this ground too is fairly simple to establish, although obviously dependent on the ground being advanced. Certainly an appeal based on a question of fact or mixed law and fact would be more difficult to argue than a question of law due to the principle of deference to the trial judge in those factual findings. But this is not where the real difficulty appears. The real difficulty for the Appellant is in the public interest ground where some courts take into account the strength of the appeal in the assessment. An Appellant may, therefore, be able to establish that the appeal is arguable but if the appeal is arguable but weak this finding may impact release under the public interest ground. This is certainly the case in Alberta but not the case in Newfoundland. I will now discuss this a schism on this issue and the implications for an Appellant in arguing a bail pending where the Court prefers the Alberta position. In my view, this is an inconsistency, which requires direction from the Supreme Court of Canada.

First, we must be mindful of the legal interpretation of the phrase “not necessary in the public interest.” The classic definition or legal interpretation comes from the 1993 Farinacci case. In that decision, Justice Arbour finds there are two aspects to the term “public interest” as it involves both protection of the public and public respect for the administration of justice. This dual nature of public interest, she further explained, in the context of a bail pending appeal balances enforceability with reviewability. There is a public interest in having judgments of the court obeyed and therefore enforced. However, there is an equally cogent reviewability interest, which requires that judgments be error-free. In criminal law, therefore, there is an important interest in ensuring the law is applied but applied in a fair and just manner. A judgment, which perpetuates a miscarriage of justice, is in law, no judgment at all.

So far, the meaning of public interest appears to apply legal common sense and the kind of balancing we are so familiar with in Canada. But, it is the extension of this interpretation in the Alberta Court of Appeal Rhyason case, written by Justice Berger, which causes an imbalance to the Farinacci structure by placing undue emphasis on the strength of the Appellant’s appeal. I would argue that this emphasis is misplaced as it elevates the s. 679 requirement that the appeal not be frivolous to a higher standard depending on the public safety aspect of the public interest ground.

In Rhyason, the Appellant was convicted of impaired causing death in 2006. He had a prior conviction for impaired driving and was sentenced to eighteen months incarceration. He was gainfully employed at the time of incarceration and enjoyed the support of his family. At the time of the bail pending, he had been ticketed for speeding on three occasions and was convicted of failing to comply with the reporting condition of his pre trial bail as he had failed to telephone in as required.

On appeal, the defence advanced a number of errors entered into by the trial judge including an error in the finding that the officer had reasonable and probable grounds for the breath demand. Justice Berger in dismissing the bail application found there could be a close connection between both the requirement that the appeal not be frivolous and the requirement that the Appellant surrender with the public interest ground. As already discussed, there is a rational connection with the requirement to surrender but a connection that can be addressed by proper bail terms. However, by relating the strength of the appeal to the public interest ground, Justice Berger was not merely making a reasonable and valid connection but imbued the public interest with a further requirement that the Appellant must establish a certain a level of “argueability” to the appeal, which is simply not required under the rubric that the appeal simply not be considered frivolous.

Essentially, Justice Berger created a “sliding scale” whereby the more compellable the public interest is in further detaining the Appellant, the stronger the appeal must be for the Appellant to be released on bail. In the case of Rhyason, Justice Berger found compelling public interest reasons for detention although the appeal was “clearly arguable”, and therefore was “clearly” not frivolous, however, in Justice Berger’s opinion, the grounds for appeal did not have a “strong prospect of success,” which required the Appellant be ordered to remain in custody. For the Appellant to be released, according to Justice Berger, Rhyason would have to have an appeal that was more than clearly arguable to “trump” the public safety concerns in the case.

Ironically, the Rhyason case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada on the basis of a dissent in the Alberta Court of Appeal. Although the Supreme Court of Canada ultimately dismissed the Appellant’s appeal, it was a split 5:4 decision – a far cry from an appeal, which Justice Berger characterized as not having a strong prospect of success.

The Rhyason analysis was recently tested in the Alberta Court of Appeal case from 2015 in the Awer decision. Justice Berger was again faced with a bail pending application in which the Crown, opposing the release, urged the court to enter into a Rhyason analysis tying the strength of the appeal to the public interest issue. In releasing the Appellant on bail, Justice Berger attempted to limit the broad test he enunciated in Rhyason. Thus, in Awer, he found that the Rhyason analysis was only engaged when there was a “moderate” to “compelling’ public interest in detention, which was not the case in Awer. It should be noted that in Awer the accused was convicted of a serious sexual assault but there was conflicting expert evidence which, according to Justice Berger, “was a critical component” to the finding of guilt or innocence. Awer was released as his appeal was not frivolous and the terms of the bail could ensure public safety.  

The Newfoundland Court of Appeal has taken a position strongly opposed to Rhyason in a number of cases (see Parsons, Allen, and Newman) and will not take into account the strength of the appeal under the public interest ground.  The British Columbia Court of Appeal in Ali and in Al-Maliki cases appears to be firmly on side with Alberta.

There are many concerns with the Rhyason analysis. As earlier discussed the threshold requirement that the appeal not be frivolous is not only elevated but also fluctuates depending on how compelling the public interest is in a particular case. This uneven application of bail requirements allows for inequities between various Appellants, such as evinced in the Awer and Rhyason cases. As demonstrated in Rhyason, a case, which was not just “clearly” arguable but “strongly” arguable, the Rhyason analysis invites a single Justice to dispose of an arguable appeal without the benefit of a full transcript, a full argument and a full court. Further, this approach fails to properly consider the other important aspect of the public interest – reviewability – and the public confidence resulting from the need to provide a meaningful opportunity for an individual to appeal to protect society from miscarriages of justice. Without a clear and articulable standard, reviewability and our concept of justice will be hampered by an Appellant who abandons an appeal as a result of serving his or her sentence. Such a result is clearly not in the public interest.

 

 

This Is Thought-Provoking: Supreme Court of Canada To Hear Provocation Cases

In my last post, I considered the new defence of the person section in the Criminal Code, ruminating on the increased reliance this new section appears to have on the “reasonableness” or “reasonable person” standard of assessing the defence. Although the previous defence of the person sections cried out for modernization, the heavy reliance the government and the courts seem to place on the objective versus subjective standard of assessment, leaves one wondering where the individual fits into the new regime. This approach may make it easier for the trier of fact to determine responsibility but at the cost of dehumanizing the criminal law process by shifting the focus from this individual, who may have been justified in committing the crime, to the community norm of how people ought to act.  It is therefore of interest to see the Supreme Court of Canada hearing two Alberta cases, on the provocation defence found in section 232 of the Criminal Code, this April 26, 2013.

In the first case, R v Cairney, the accused was acquitted of second-degree murder but convicted of the lesser and included offence of manslaughter on the basis of the codified provocation defence in the Code. This defence stands apart from the self-defence sections (now section) of the Code and provides for a very specific partial defence based on very specific circumstances. Typically, the class of defences known as justifications and excuses, when accepted, exonerate the accused completely. Provocation, as a justification, only partially relives the accused from culpability, providing for a reduced charge where the defence is made out. Provocation can only be used as a defence where the accused is being tried for murder and the only possible outcome, if the defence is accepted, is a diminishment of the murder charge to the lesser crime of manslaughter. Often the defence is used in conjunction with other defences, such as the more general defence of the person or even the excuses of duress or necessity. In those instances, although provocation as a defence is raised, an accused may be acquitted if the trier of fact accepts these other defences or simply has a reasonable doubt on the accused’s guilt based on the totality of the evidence. Indeed, often the judge in instructing the jury on a murder trial may instruct that even if a particular defence itself does not raise a reasonable doubt, criminal intention may be negated on the basis that all of the defences “rolled up” together may raise a reasonable doubt. Thus, the whole is greater than the parts. In the Cairney case, this instruction was given, but by the conviction for manslaughter, provocation seems to be the controlling factor.

On the Crown appeal, the Alberta Court of Appeal was unanimous in allowing the appeal and sending the matter back, as a murder charge, to trial. In the court’s opinion, the defence of provocation had “no air of reality” and was therefore not properly before the jury. The concept of “air of reality” creates a threshold test, which requires there to be some evidence, upon which a properly instructed jury, acting judicially, could render a verdict based on the defence. In other words, there must be an evidential basis for the defence before the jury should consider it.  The judge does not weigh the evidence, she merely ensures that such evidence is present. It is the function of the jury to weigh the evidence, in its totality, to come to a final decision on guilt or innocence.

This threshold test is not, however, without controversy, as it does require the accused to point to some evidence, which may result in requiring the accused to lead evidence. Although this is viewed as an “evidential” burden only, where the accused has only one defence and is unable to overcome the threshold test, the accused will have no defence at all. On the other hand, there is a public interest in ensuring that a person is tried on the evidence and not on a fanciful doubt.

In the Cairney case, the Alberta Court of Appeal found there was no “air of reality” to the defence based on the objective assessment required for determining whether the wrongful act or insult directed toward the accused, was “sufficient to deprive an ordinary person of the power of self-control” and on the subjective element of the defence, which required the accused to act “on the sudden.” As, in the Court of Appeal’s view, there was no evidence supporting these factors, the defence was not viable and should not have been left to the jury.

There are two concerns here: first, whether or not the Court of Appeal is substituting their opinion when the trial judge, who was present at the trial, decided otherwise and second, whether or not the jury made their decision based on something other than provocation, which would make the manslaughter finding appropriate. Certainly, Cairney could have been acquitted of murder – not having the subjective foresight of death – and yet convicted of manslaughter as he had the objective foreseeability of bodily harm, all without consideration of the provocation defence. The Appellant’s Factum filed on behalf of Cairney at the SCC can be viewed here.

The other Alberta appeal case on provocation, R v Pappas, suggests a more nuanced point. Although Pappas raised the provocation defence, he was convicted of murder at trial. At issue, besides the argument that the trial judge misdirected the jury on the defence, was the post conduct evidence of Pappas disposing of some of the victim’s personal belongings and attempting to leave the country, and whether this evidence was relevant on the issue of provocation. Crown counsel thought it was and so urged the jury to consider the post conduct evidence as negating the provocation defence. Counsel for the accused argued the evidence was irrelevant and should not have been left to the jury on their consideration of provocation.

The majority of the Court of Appeal found there was no error as the trial judge, when referring to the evidence, instructed the jury that the evidence “has no relevance to the issues you must decide,” which was effectively telling the jury the evidence had “no probative value.” However, the trial judge connected the irrelevancy to the issue of identification and did not specifically refer to the defence of provocation. Furthermore, evidence, which has no probative value but is highly prejudicial to the accused, as this evidence may be, should be deemed inadmissible at trial. If the evidence and the manner in which the Crown referred to it in his jury address effectively “took away” the provocation defence from the jury, then the accused should have a new trial. Certainly Justice Berger, in dissent, disagreed with the majority on this issue, finding that the jury instruction did not clearly and unequivocally direct the jury not to use the evidence. Both the respondent and the Appellant’s Factum for the SCC can be viewed here.

Another issue raised on Pappas is the whether or not the defence had an “air of reality” to it. Although the majority preferred not to second-guess the trial judge and proceeded on the basis the defence was viable, Justice Berger came out strongly in the dissent for the defence being left to the jury as it was “for the jury to measure the Appellant’s conduct at the critical moment.” This brings us back to the Cairney case and the role of the jury. These cases may provide some needed guidance on not only provocation as a defence but generally on the issue of threshold tests and on the level of deference appellate courts should have for the jury process.