Some Thoughts On Teaching Evidence

This week I began teaching Evidence, a required course for the 2Ls. This is my first time teaching the course and yet the rules and principles of evidence seem second nature to me. True, this can partly be explained by my legal career, involving criminal trial and appellate practice, in which I used these principles on a very practical basis. Perhaps, it can also be explained by the fact these rules and principles are generally a matter of common sense and human experience. Certainly, the basic rule of the admissibility of evidence is predicated on that concept: admissible evidence, as a matter of common sense and experience, is relevant when its introduction tends to make a fact more or less probable than the fact would be without it.

However, this initial feeling of comfort and familiarity with the rules and principles of evidence is perhaps why teaching and learning evidence is so crucial to a modern legal education. True, many of the 2Ls in my course will not be trial and appellate lawyers and many of them won’t be obsessively sifting through Supreme Court of Canada judgments to find thematic connections. Rather, evidence is meaningful not because of the rote application of the rules but because of the underlying purpose of these rules which cause us to question the rules and principles themselves. In many ways, this exploration of evidence leads us to re-consider the meaning of law itself.

To make my case, I will refer to some examples from this first week of the course by starting with this concept of “common sense.” Indeed, throughout the trial process, common sense and human experience is a common theme, albeit traditionally it is often perceived through the lens of judicial experience. In support of this contention, read Justice Moldaver’s approach to many criminal law issues in which he applies the “common-sense” paradigm, such as in the 2012 Walle decision or the 2015 Tatton case. I have written further on these decisions here and here. Or, if your bent is more to the civil side, read the 2012 Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Clements v. Clements where the “but for” test for causation is applied in a “robust common sense fashion” by the majority. However, it is in the consideration of the community sense of how legal constructions are perceived, which seems to be now recognized as a legitimate reference point in judicial interpretation. A previous posting I wrote on this issue considering the SCC case of Anthony-Cook discusses this very point.

Another evidential concept requiring meta-reflection involves the first matter of consideration in the course: what is evidence in the broadest sense, outside of the legal premise. This question leads one to realize that evidence is not just an old shoe or a scrap of paper starting with the words “IOU.” Evidence is about relationships. There are no absolutes in evidence nor are there inherent qualities of an item which makes something, anything, a piece of admissible evidence. These things can only be viewed in relation to the “other.” The shoe is evidence only as it relates to the expert witness who describes the tread as similar to the tread found at the scene of the crime. The scrap of paper becomes evidence of an intention or a promise to pay in a civil action. The above describes just one sort of relationship evidence engenders. There are many more, replete with meaning both inside and outside of the courtroom.

One such outside connection is based on the overarching purpose of evidence as it relates to the truth-seeking function of the trial process. This is a cornerstone of our adversarial system and why we, almost smugly, suggest our form of justice is superior to the investigatory form found in continental Europe. Bringing differing facts to court permits the trier of fact to get at the truth of the matter bringing to light the real events. But what is “truth”? Is it an absolute or is it merely a chimera of what was and is, therefore unattainable? As the historian Carl Becker, a strong proponent of historical relativism, suggested in his provocative piece, “Everyman His Own Historian” published in 1932, the present recollection of the past is really a creation of our own history. Essentially, he argues, as we describe past events we imbed created memories “as may be necessary to orient us in our little world of endeavor.” Are we then constructing a false sense of comfort and security when we suggest our evidentiary rules advance the “truth-seeking” function of our justice system? These are the kind of questions to be asked when faced with the law of evidence.

Another example will make my final point on the expanding properties of thinking about evidence. After discussing the basic rule of admissibility in the second class of the course, we discussed the general exclusionary discretion which permits the trial judge to exclude admissible evidence if the prejudicial effect of the evidence outweighs the probative value. The obvious first question arising from this exception to the basic rule of admissibility involves the meaning of “discretion.” What does it mean, in the legal context, to exercise discretion and what are the repercussions of exercising or not exercising such power? Notice, I used the word “power” to describe the exercise of discretion. Notice, I mentioned that using discretion creates an outcome, of which some will cheer and others will decry. Discretion as a power, as the excellent casebook used in the course, Evidence: Principles and Problems edited by Deslisle, Stuart, Tanovich and Dufraimont suggests, can also be revered or jeered. As pointed out in the readings (pages 176-178), discretion can be a tool of the authoritarian state as every tyrant imposes his will through the exercise of discretion. Conversely, discretion can be the mark of the most tolerant and accepting society as it considers an individual as a concept worthy of respect and personhood even in that individual’s darkest moments. Discretion therefore can be the face of compassion or the mask of fear and terror. In the case of exclusion, discretion is a delicate balancing act in which the rule of law acts as the tightrope and the trial judge as the safety net. But, whether this in fact takes place provides us with more questions to consider.

It is true that teaching about evidence can amount to naval gazing with that inward eye, which can leave us in a state of doubt about almost everything. However, this constant drive to re-examine and re-assess our traditional rules and principles is what, in my view, make our rule of law admirable and meaningful. In this light, perhaps talking about evidence in a law classroom is one of the most “relevant and material” journey in a law career.


Is the Supreme Court of Canada "Kicking It Old School"?

When I practiced as appellate counsel in the Court of Appeal for Ontario, I came to know the differing approaches of the Justices of Appeal very well. Just prior to the hearing date, I would call the Registrar's office seeking the one piece of information which could make or break a favourable hearing: the panel list. Would there be a Justice on the panel familiar with and sympathetic to criminal law issues? Or would the panel be stacked with Justices more concerned with commercial liens and the division of property?

In truth, the best panel was not filled with Justices learned in the law but those hardened by the trial courts: those Justices who had spent the prime of their career sitting in the lower level courts presiding over murders, robberies, and drug conspiracies. Judges like Justice John Brooke, Justice Allan Goodman, and Justice Horace Krever were the best draw in a criminal appeal as they exercised their judgment and common sense in a manner made for a criminal appeal. True they were no stranger to case law, indeed, they made case law. But their legal acumen was enhanced by their uncanny ability to seize upon the heart of an issue and render a fair and equitable decision. For this panel, the law was known, and the advocate's challenge was to adroitly respond to the comments made by these wily and nimble judges, who could see the play of a trial in their mind's eye, like an intricate chess game, and thus appreciate the dynamics of the case before them.

In contrast, the Supreme Court of Canada seemed to be more lofty, requiring a sublime understanding of the case law. Only Chief Justice Lamer, as he then was, (and yes, I just dated myself) offered a refreshing glimpse of one who was, like Leo Bloom in Ulysses, a journeyman accustomed to the realities of the trial courts. 

This nostalgic foray was brought about by the recent decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada, some of which I have written about in prior postings here, here, and here, culminating in the last effort when the SCC released the jury vetting trilogy. The trilogy decision seemed effortless, straight forward, almost easy and uneventful. On the second reading, it dawned on me why this was so: the decision was based on a common sense and practical approach to criminal law. The decision was pure trial judge.

Essentially, the decision approves of background criminal record checks of jurors, where legislation permits, as long as the information is subsequently shared with the defence. By extension, should the police or the Crown come across other pertinent information relating to the potential juror through other investigative techniques, then that too can be used in choosing a jury, but again with the concomitant obligation to disclose the material.

However, this disclosure is not limitless in its aspect. Often experience and intuition are invaluable tools, producing invaluable information. Such irreplaceable information gleaned through years of practice, need not be shared and cannot be reproduced to form part of a disclosure package. How true. Common sense cannot be packaged and this decision, together with the other recent SCC decisions I blogged about show that common sense can make precedents. As an aside, these decisions were all written by Justice Moldaver, a recent SCC appointment from Ontario, who not only sat as a Trial judge but was also a defence lawyer. It seems as though the SCC is truly kicking it old school!