Episode 39 of the Ideablawg Podcasts on the Criminal Code of Canada: Section 34 – Defence Of The Person

As with many of our legal defences, defence of the person comes to us through the English common law and was ultimately codified in our first Criminal Code of 1892. Over time the codified defence, together with the codified defence of property, which we will discuss in the next episode, became increasingly obtuse, ultimately stretching over nine sections from section 34, which offered differing forms of self defence depending on whether the accused was the aggressor, to section 42, which provided justifications for those persons peaceably entering a dwelling house or real property to take lawful possession of it.

This mash-up of sections resulted in a nightmare of a defence as certain sections applied only in specific circumstances and certain subsections applied in even other circumstances.  For example, in the old section, s. 34(1) applied where the accused was unlawfully assaulted and did not provoke the attack, while s. 34(2) applied where the accused either provoked or did not provoke the unlawful assault. The nightmare continued as Judges struggled to explain these differences to a Jury, eagerly awaiting instruction. It is unsurprising that appellate courts considered many of these self defence cases.

So, in some sense, it was a relief in 2013, when the Federal government streamlined the defence into one applicable section. However, this streamlining, I would argue, may have re-focused the defence from a modified subjective/objective assessment to a more thorough consideration of the objective view of the accused’s conduct.

Before, we launch into the niceties of this new section, please remember that self defence and defence of the person is a category of common law defences known as justifications. Justifications, according to Justice Dickson in Perka v The Queen, “challenges the wrongfulness of an action which technically constitutes a crime.” In other words, the actions of the accused appear “rightful, not wrongful” and, as Justice Dickson further explained, “the concept of punishment often seems incompatible” with the act committed. Indeed, Justice Dickson opined, in the circumstances “the values of society, indeed of the criminal law itself, are better promoted by disobeying a given statute than by observing it.”

 In that aura of humanity, let us review section 34, which reads as follows:

(1) A person is not guilty of an offence if

(a) they believe on reasonable grounds that force is being used against them or another person or that a threat of force is being made against them or another person;

(b) the act that constitutes the offence is committed for the purpose of defending or protecting themselves or the other person from that use or threat of force; and

                        (c) the act committed is reasonable in the circumstances.

(2) In determining whether the act committed is reasonable in the circumstances, the court shall consider the relevant circumstances of the person, the other parties and the act, including, but not limited to, the following factors:

                      (a) the nature of the force or threat;

(b) the extent to which the use of force was imminent and whether there were other means available to respond to the potential use of force;

                        (c) the person’s role in the incident;

(d) whether any party to the incident used or threatened to use a weapon;

(e) the size, age, gender and physical capabilities of the parties to the incident;

(f) the nature, duration and history of any relationship between the parties to the incident, including any prior use or threat of force and the nature of that force or threat;

(f.1) any history of interaction or communication between the parties to the incident;

(g) the nature and proportionality of the person’s response to the use or threat of force; and

(h) whether the act committed was in response to a use or threat of force that the person knew was lawful.

 

(3) Subsection (1) does not apply if the force is used or threatened by another person for the purpose of doing something that they are required or authorized by law to do in the administration or enforcement of the law, unless the person who commits the act that constitutes the offence believes on reasonable grounds that the other person is acting unlawfully.

There are three parts or subsections to s. 34. Subsection 1 outlines the essence of the defence as containing both subjective and objective elements relating to the belief the accused was facing a situation that required the justified response. Subsection 2 enumerates a number of factors to be considered in determining whether or not the accused had a reasonable belief she was facing a situation where the use of force was justified. Although this list is lengthy it is not exhaustive and other factors may come into play depending on the case. Additionally, this list is derived from case law and reflects the many circumstances considered over the years of appellate review of the old sections.

Although the accused need only raise a doubt that her actions were so justified and therefore the burden to prove the accused actions were not justified are on the Crown, the defence must raise an air of reality to the defence before it will be considered by the trier of fact. I have written a paper on the application of the threshold test of air of reality to justifications and excuses at (2014) 61 Criminal Law Quarterly 531 or you may review my short blog version of that paper here.

Subsection 3 sets out when the defence is not available: where the force the accused was facing was lawful. However, the accused may rely on the defence if the accused believed on reasonable grounds that the force threatened was unlawful.

Since the change in the defence, there have been a number of trial court decisions applying the section. One of the first issues to be argued was whether or not the section is retrospective. The question was as follows: where the accused is facing a pre amendment charge but is tried post amendment, which statutory defence applies? The cases suggest that the section is not retrospective and the trial judge must apply the defence sections, which were in force at the time of the offence. For a discussion of this issue see R v Evans, 2015 BCCA 46 (CanLII).

In the end, how does the new section compare to the old sections? In my prior blog, Canada’s New Defence of the Person Section: Is It Too Reasonable, I argued that although the old sections, which blended objective/subjective considerations, provided a less than satisfactory defence, the new iteration is decidedly more objective and fails to adequately consider the accused’s subjective perception of the events. Thus, the section is concerned more with the hypothetical reasonable person’s viewpoint and less with the individual who is in reality facing the dire circumstances.

Further, the defence requires that the accused’s actions must be “for the purpose of defending or protecting themselves or others.” This requirement at first blush seems non-controversial, as obviously the conduct must be in response to an unlawful assault. However, on closer examination and upon reviewing some case law, this requirement may unduly restrict the defence.

In the 2015 Ontario Superior Court of Justice case of Allen before Justice Fairburn, Mr. Allen assaulted a police officer and appeared to resist arrest by punching the officer and placing him in a “choke hold.” In the end, the officer was found not to be in the lawful execution of his duty and therefore the arrest was unlawful. Although Justice Fairburn dismissed the defence of self defence under s. 34, as the act of the accused was not reasonable in the circumstances, the court commented on the “purpose” of the assault. According to Justice Fairburn, the accused did not testify and therefore the court inferred that the act was not for the purpose of defending himself but was force used purely for the “sake” of using force against the police officer. This analysis suggests that not only should defence counsel consider very carefully whether or not to call a client where self defence is raised but also provides a strict meaning of the term “for the purpose.” Defence counsel should be aware that this subsection could add a further evidential burden on the accused despite the fact the accused need only raise a doubt on the issue.

Although this section has been in use for two years, the section has not been subject to an appellate court decision. It will be interesting to see what interpretation ultimately is given to this section. For instance, an issue may arise considering the applicability of the common law version of the defence where this statutory defence differs from the common law and whether the courts are willing to modify the statutory defence in accordance with common law principles. In the meantime, counsel should carefully review the defence evidence on the issue of defence of the person in light of this new statutory defence and be mindful of the new requirements.

 

 

 

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.

Canada’s New Defence of the Person Section: Is It Too Reasonable?

Quietly, Canada’s criminal law changed dramatically, without a word of criticism, on March 13, 2013 with the coming into force of the Citizen's Arrest and Self Defence Act. Perhaps, everyone was too focused on the broadened citizen arrest powers to notice the dramatic change in law or perhaps the legal community is at a loss for words. Without fanfare or discussion, Canada’s self-defence laws, from sections 34 to 42, were swept away on March 13, 2013 to be replaced by two broad sections: the new section 34, which outlines the defence of the person and the new section 35, which is defence of property. For purposes of this post, I will be making reference to the defence of the person found in section 34 and not defence of property under section 35. Although the new section 34 appears to be broader – no more does the law distinguish between provoked and unprovoked attacks – there is a noticeable emphasis on the reasonableness of the response as the standard for assessment.

Admittedly the old sections were cumbersome and confusing: section 34(1) offered a different defence from 34(2) and they both differed from sections 35 and 37. Then there were the myriad of defence of property sections from sections 38 to 42. Self-defence, as codified before the amendments, distinguished between a provoked and unprovoked attack. Section 34(1) could only be used as a defence by an accused who was subject to an unprovoked attack by the victim and who did not intend to cause death or grievous bodily harm in responding to that attack. In those very limited circumstances, the accused could use this self-defence section if the force used was no more than necessary to repel the attack.

Subsection 2 of that same section 34 offered a different and much broader defence. The section was silent as to who started the initial assault and therefore could be used by an accused who provoked an assault as well as an accused who did not provoke the assault. Additionally, the section applied where the accused intended to cause death or grievous bodily harm or did not intend it – as long as the victim died as a consequence of the action. The accused must have a reasonable apprehension of risk of death or grievous bodily harm from the victim to use the defence. The accused must believe on reasonable grounds that he or she could not otherwise be preserved from death or grievous bodily harm other than to use the force, which resulted in the victim’s death. The assessment was not totally objective, however, as the accused must have a subjective belief that force was necessary but must have a reasonable basis for the belief. Therefore, the defence a blending of objective and subjective elements.

Self-defence in section 35 was not used as often as section 34. The section restricts self-defence in circumstances where accused, without justification, assaults another or provokes an assault. The accused must not intend to cause death or grievous bodily harm before the need to defend self arose. However, to use the section, the accused must have a reasonable apprehension of death or grievous bodily harm and had a reasonable belief that force was necessary to preserve himself from death or grievous bodily harm. Finally, the accused must have attempted to retreat from the situation.

The final defence of the person section, under s. 37, is again a broader section of self-defence, which also extends the defence to the defence of another person under the accused’s protection. This section permits force only where the accused is preventing an assault or a further assault. Although the response of the accused must be reasonable there is no requirement that there be a reasonable apprehension of death or harm or a reasonable belief force was necessary to prevent death or harm.  The only requirement is the need for proportionality and therefore the force used must be no more than is necessary to repel the assault.

There are many difficulties with these sections, including the sheer difficulty in actually reading these sections and making sense of them.

Of course, these old sections come to us through the English common law, hence the requirement to retreat in where the accused is the aggressor. The sections thus deals with the seemingly “innocent” accused differently than the “aggressor” accused. The self-defence section 35, for the aggressor accused, is much more restrictive than s.34(1), for the innocent accused unjustly provoked. Contrasting the two sections, section 35 requires the accused, although the aggressor, not to intend death or grievous bodily harm but to have a reasonable belief that he would be subject to death or grievous bodily harm unless he acted. The force used must be no more than necessary and there must be an attempt to retreat. Indeed, a very difficult section to use considering the prerequisites. However, section 34(2), as broadly interpreted by the courts, filled that gap to include virtually any situation. The interpretation was so expansive, it seemed a wonder why section 35 was required at all. However, even with s. 34(2) expanding who could use self-defence, the objective/subjective assessment ensured that only those accused who fulfilled the objective/subjective requirements could use the defence successfully.

Two major difficulties are identified with this approach: firstly, to assess an accused’s actions at a time of split-second decision-making seemed mechanical and unrealistic. For an accused faced with an aggressive victim or for an accused in a highly emotional circumstance, the requirement that the accused use no more force than necessary was difficult to determine. Thus, the law stepped back from the emotions and required an objective assessment as well. This perhaps made it easier for the trier of fact, who was not faced with these circumstances and who could not possibly appreciate the life and death decision-making arising at that instance. But, it also made it much more difficult for an accused, who made a decision at the time in a heightened situation, to be then thinking of what application force, in response to that situation, is no more than necessary.

Secondly, the self-defence laws were so limiting that it failed to allow for exceptional circumstances, such as what arose in the Lavallee case, where a battered woman killed her husband. This case, in light of the recent SCC Ryan case (upon which I wrote a previous post here) also raises issue with other defences such as duress and defences – known as excuses – as opposed to self-defence, which are considered justifications. I will not delve into the these cases, other than to say a deeper analysis of them is required in light of this new legislation.

For further explanation, justifications such as self-defence, recognize that the elements of the crime have been made out – that both actus reus and mens rea are present – but the accused actions are justified as the accused faced external pressures (in the case of self-defence from another person) which caused the accused to act contrary to the law. As the major theme of our criminal law is choice and the ability of an actor to make the right choice, such pressures effectively take away choice, leaving the accused no other choice but to act as he or she did. In a justification defence, the accused challenges the wrongfulness of an action which would technically be a crime. In the circumstances the fundamental values of society and of the criminal law are promoted by disobeying the law rather than following it. Therefore, in self-defence there is a crime but the actions of the accused are not “wrong” and therefore the accused should not be held responsible for the crime and should therefore not be punished by the criminal justice system. Of course the real question is: how far does society want to go in justifying these criminal acts? Are our self-defence laws truly a reflection of our society’s fundamental values if they do not offer a defence for a battered spouse or a psychologically bullied child?

Do these changes then rectify the two problems as identified above? On the issue of creating an artificial scenario upon which the accused is to be assessed, the new section does little to alleviate this by imposing very clearly an objective assessment of the circumstances and leaving little room for individualization. Although the new amendments do equalize the section in the sense that now “any person” can use the defence, the list of factors to be considered in assessing the reasonableness of the criminal act ensures that all of the limiting circumstances, which were clearly set out in the old sections, are now found, not as clearly, in a list of factors which must be considered by the trier of fact.

Additionally, the assessment, which was viewed under the old sections as a blending of subjective/objective considerations, now appears to be more decidedly objective. There is no longer a consideration of the accused’s subjective belief in the force used being necessary. Now, stepping back, this change should be welcome as it does move away from the idea that an accused must weigh to the niceties the level of force used at the time. However, it also takes away any assessment of the accused’s subjective belief that the force used at the time was necessary. Instead the subjective belief only goes to whether or not the accused believed, reasonably of course, that the “force is being used against them or another person or that a threat of force is being made against them or another person.” After that “concession” to human frailty, the assessment is all done through the eyes of the reasonable man in an almost regulatory offence manner reminiscent of the due diligence or all due care defence in which the defendant will be acquitted if he or she or it (corporation) acted reasonably in all of the circumstances and took all reasonable steps required to avoid the harm. The only factor missing is the burden of proof, which in a regulatory scheme is “balance of probabilities” as opposed to the higher standard of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Even in the criminal law’s cherished burden of proof the concept of “reasonableness” is present!

As to whether the new section will support extraordinary circumstances of a battered spouse or abused child will remain to be seen. Again, the lack of individualization in the assessment is concerning and although one of the factors to consider in determining the reasonableness of the act involves a review of the nature of the relationship between the accused and victim, the fact this must be assessed through the reasonableness lens does not permit a full consideration of the complexities of an abusive relationship.

Only the use of this section in court with a real set of facts will enlighten us on the viability and justiciability of this new defence of the person section. However, at first blush, it appears this is yet another example of how our criminal law is becoming more objective in outlook and less like the traditional principles of individualization, which was the hallmark of the criminal law as a humane law.