During the Nuremberg trials, many Nazis tried to exculpate themselves by suggesting they were only following superior orders. This was not a valid defence according to the Charter of the International Tribunal under article 8. However, it was a mitigating factor in determining punishment. If the defendant, however, was the superior, according to article 7, the de facto defence was also not available but neither was it to be considered in mitigation. In Canada, prior to the war, obedience to the laws made at the time was a bar to conviction pursuant to English common law and as codified under section 15 of the Criminal Code. However, after the war, in order to conform to international conventions and to ensure the prosecution of war criminals, the Criminal Code was amended to include an exception for war crimes. When the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act was enacted in Canada in the year 2000 the Code was again amended and the exception was moved from the Code to the new Act under sections 13 and 14.
Section 15 of the Code presently reads as follows:
No person shall be convicted of an offence in respect of an act or omission in obedience to the laws for the time being made and enforced by persons in de facto possession of the sovereign power in and over the place where the act or omission occurs.
An equivalent to this section has been in the Code since its inception but with different wording. Until the section was re-enacted as s.15 in the 1953-1954 Code amendments, the section “protected” a person from “criminal responsibility” as opposed to barring conviction.
In one of the oldest cases on the issue, the 1911 case of Kokoliadis v. Kennedy from the Quebec Superior Court, Justice Davidson considered to what extent a person was protected from criminal responsibility under the old section. In the case, Justice Davidson turned to the English common law for explanation and determined that laws as an expression of the “will of the legislature” “protects all who obey it and justifies all who do what it authorizes.” Furthermore, the law in question need only be made by persons with de facto or in fact authority, not necessarily legal authority. Thus, even if the authority is ultimately found to be ultra vires under the Constitution Act, the person obeying this law is still within his or her rights. Similarly, when a person is faced with two conflicting laws from two levels of government, he or she cannot be convicted of choosing to follow one over the other.
The purpose of the de facto doctrine, according to case law, “is to preserve law and order and the authority of the government” and “to protect the rule of law.” According to Albert Constantineau, a French-Canadian jurist writing in 1910 on this subject, without this doctrine “insubordination and disorder of the worst kind would be encouraged, which might at any time culminate in anarchy.”
For obvious reasons, this de facto doctrine was not applied at the Nuremberg trials and was specifically not accepted at “The Justice Trial,” wherein members of the Reich Ministry of Justice, including the law courts, were tried for their part in upholding Nazi laws.
The applicability and constitutionality of the combined effect of section 15 and the exception to it was at issue in the Supreme Court of Canada Finta case. Both the majority decision written by Mr. Justice Cory and the dissent (in part) written by Mr. Justice La Forest delve extensively into the defence of obedience to superior orders. Both decisions found that the exception to s.15 was not unconstitutional. In his dissenting reasons, Justice La Forest pointed out that s. 15 was more generous than international law, as we already noted in discussing the International Tribunal Charter. However, the defence under s.15 was available under the military law of other nations and therefore section 15 not only upheld the rule of law as submitted by Constantineau, but also acknowledged the realities of being a member of the military or police force. In La Forest’s view the defence of obedience to superior orders could provide a valid defence “unless the act is so outrageous as to be manifestly unlawful” as in the case of the Nazi atrocities.
When would an order be “manifestly unlawful?” When, according to Justice Cory writing for the majority, “it offends the conscience of every reasonable, right-thinking person” and is “obviously and flagrantly wrong.” According to Justice Cory, if the exception to s. 15 did not exist and obedience to de facto law was permitted in all scenarios “not even the most despotic tyrant, the author and enforcer of the most insidious laws against humanity, could be convicted of crimes committed under his regime.”
Harkening back to Constantineau’s concern that without section 15 chaos would ensue, we can see the tension between upholding the rule of law and the consequences of so doing it. Chaos may reign in not following de facto laws but surely in some situations death will reign in following them. However, in the situation envisioned by Justice Cory and unfortunately realized in our recent past, this conflict resolves itself in favour of using the criminal law as a reflection of society’s fundamental values and the societal abhorrence we feel toward crimes against humanity.
Although we like to believe the age we live in is the most peaceful and civilized, every day as we flip through the news, either digital or in print, we see the fallacy of this belief. Criminal law in Canada is built upon traditions and our Code is no exception but in this case, thankfully, there are exceptions to the rule.