Tracing The Presumption of Innocence Through A Survey of Supreme Court of Canada Cases

In yesterday’s blog, the presumption of innocence, as a legal principle, was traced from its seemingly innocuous origins as a rule of evidence in civil cases to the status of a fundamental, constitutionally entrenched, principle of the criminal law. Today, I will detail how the presumption of innocence took on such elevated standing through a brief survey of early Charter and pre-Charter Supreme Court of Canada cases.

On a quick review of the Supreme Court of Canada cases discussing the presumption of innocence, it is the 1985 SCC reference case of Re B.C. Motor Vehicle Act, which explicitly crystallizes our present concept of the presumption of innocence as a fundamental principle of the criminal law and as a fundamental societal value. Justice Lamer described the presumption as not just a procedural tool but also as a substantive concept which “has both a societal and an individual aspect and is clearly fundamental; to our justice system.” The Charter’s influence in protecting such an expansive view of the presumption, thereby making the principle a right, is evident in other early post-Charter cases on the issue, such as the earlier case of Dubois in 1985, Oakes in 1986, and Whyte in 1988.

As an aside, it is no surprise that it is Justice Lamer who gives the presumption of innocence such an expansive and meaningful definition. Prior to his judicial appointments, Antonio Lamer was the Vice-Chairman of the Law Reform Commission of Canada (LRCC) in 1971 and Chairman thereof in April 1976 at a time when the LRCC was actively involved in shaping the jurisprudential landscape of the law.

In terms of pre-Charter, although Justice Estey, dissenting in the entrapment case of Amato in 1982, called the presumption of innocence a “fundamental doctrine,” there is little of this nomenclature in earlier cases. For example, in the 1969 Lampard case, the presumption of innocence is merely called “rebuttal,” hardly a powerful descriptor of the “cornerstone” of criminal law. Other pre-Amato cases characterize the presumption in the same manner: as a presumption, which ceases if the Crown can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Even in some earlier cases, the presumption is referred to as the “general presumption of innocence,” again a thoroughly unsatisfactory way of describing a constitutionally entrenched right. Interestingly, in all of these cases, the presumption is an adjunct to the burden of proof.

Finally, consistent with Fletcher’s theory of the origins of the presumption in English civil law, is the 1883 SCC case of McRae v. White. The case was one of unjust and fraudulent preference in an insolvency action. Although a civil suit, the case does have shades of fraudulent and therefore criminal intention, but the result is based upon a failure of the plaintiff to satisfy the onus as required by the Insolvency Act of 1875.

In other words, the plaintiff could not rebut the negative: that a man is presumed to fulfill his legal obligations. In this case, the defendant, in good faith, took on debt with the honest belief he would fulfill his obligations. The plaintiff was unable to establish otherwise. Admittedly, there is no mention of the actual phrase “presumption of innocence,” but the headline of the case reads “Insolvent Act of 1875—Unjust preference—Fraudulent preference—Presumption of innocence.”

Clearly, the presumption of innocence has matured into a much more powerful concept than originally imagined. This is so, at least in the legal arena. In my final posting on the issue, tomorrow I will discuss the international development of the presumption with an additional look at the historical non-legal usage of the concept.

 

 

 

 

 

The Presumption of Innocence: The Making of a Principle

The presumption of innocence is at the heart of our criminal justice system. As a cornerstone of criminal law principles, the presumption of innocence guarantees a fair trial for all. By ensuring only those individuals who are found guilty will be punished, it protects the vulnerable individual from the awesome powers of the State. It is indeed a fundamental principle, constitutionally entrenched in our Charter, and an integral part of our rule of law.

As important as this principle is to our concept of justice, the presumption of innocence has become much more than a legal tool; it has become part of the fabric of our society. Today, every citizen is aware of the presumption of innocence in a criminal case. This principle has transcended the legal arena to become one of our society’s fundamental values. It is not only a value understood by all but it is part of our culture. It can be found in journalism, literature, movies, and television.

Yet, historically, according to academic scholars, the presumption of innocence was not a fundamental principle but a general rule of evidence used in civil cases. In a series of articles, George Fletcher, a well-known scholar now Cardoza Professor of Jurisprudence at Columbia Law School, maintained the presumption of innocence did not become part of the common law nomenclature until the mid-1800s.

In fact, the concept of the presumption arose from a series of civil cases in the early 1800s wherein the court applied the common sense evidentiary rule that a man (yes, this is the early 19th century) is presumed to fulfill his legal obligations. Thus, if a plaintiff is alleging the negative situation, that the defendant did not fulfill his legal obligation, then the plaintiff must prove otherwise. Only later, did this evidentiary rule apply to criminal case and then became, what we call, the presumption of innocence.

According to Fletcher, even the core concept of the burden of proof in a criminal case, which requires the Crown to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt developed separately from the presumption of innocence and only later, in the 1850s, did these two principles become connected. In the Commonwealth, the ultimate articulation of this connection is found in every first year law student's curriculum: the House of Lords case of Woolmington v. D.P.P from 1935. In this seminal case, Lord Sankey famously describes the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof in a criminal case, which is to prove the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, as the "golden thread...woven deep into the fabric of our law."

In the Oakes case, Chief Justice Dickson waxed eloquent on this dual concept and found the presumption of innocence essential to society as it "confirms our faith in humankind; it reflects our belief that individuals are decent and law‑abiding members of the community until proven otherwise." It was indeed the Charter which elevated and crystallized the presumption of innocence as the fundamental concept of our criminal justice system.