A Balancing Act: The Supreme Court of Canada and Testifying Behind The Veil

In two concurring reasons and one dissenting reason, the Supreme Court of Canada, in the N.S. decision, has continued the Charter discourse surrounding conflicting rights. Unsurprisingly, the majority message, written by Chief Justice McLachlin, is one of balance and accommodation on a case-by-case determination. The Trial judge must weigh the conflicting rights in the context of the case with due deference to Charter values. The values, however, are flexible, adaptable, and tolerant of each other. In the Charter arena, there is no room for immoveable values, which are fixed and unbending.

This approach does, on the face, appear to be consistent with the Charter itself, which guarantees rights and freedoms but not absolutely: they are subject to the reasonable limits of a free and democratic society. This, however, is a liberal concept, a concept born in the revolutionary times of the 18th century when religion was given a tempered view in favour of scientific and provable reasoning. As a result, the question remains whether the balancing act proposed by the SCC will provide enough protection to freedom of religion/belief in an age where having a belief system is not required in a free and democratic society.

On the other hand, the traditional concept of criminal law based on the presumption of innocence and fair trial, as values to be balanced, may very well be eroded by this balancing act as well. Critics of the SCC approach might properly ask: how can the very essential core concepts of criminal law ever be subject to accommodation? Some values, those critics would argue, should never give way or they will fail to stand on their own. Interestingly, these concerns form the basis of the concurring judgment of Justices Lebel and Rothstein.

Justice Abella’s dissent is not based on religious rights as a concept to be jealously guarded, but is based on Charter values flowing from earlier Charter cases on protecting the vulnerable members of our society such as children and women. Her dissent focuses on the very real issues of access to justice and the marginalization of those less powerful sectors of our society. This viewpoint becomes even more important in light of the recent release of Wally Oppal’s Report on missing women and the trend toward dismissing the rights, or even the existence of, prostitutes, the homeless, and Aboriginal women.

In the N.S. decision, we see a microcosm of Canadian society: differing viewpoints arising out of the same context, which reflect strongly held values, but which also reflect the true legacy of the Charter as a document that encompasses, and tolerates, all. 

Don't Pre-Judge! Jury Vetting and the Supreme Court of Canada

Next Wednesday and Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada will be hearing the appeals of Tung Chi Duong, Vinicio Cardoso, and Ibrahim Yumnu, which raise the issue of jury vetting: a process where the prosecution does a pre-court check of potential jurors. The three Ontario co-accused were convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder involving a contract killing. The Crown’s office, upon receipt of the jury panel lists containing the names of potential jurors, requested police enforcement authorities to do criminal record checks of the listed individuals and to make any comments “concerning any disreputable persons we would not want as a juror.” The Crown did not disclose the information received through this pre-vetting process to the defence, although there was some evidence trial counsel was aware of this practice. The information was used by the trial Crown in selecting the jury for the trial.

In terms of the legislative authority to perform such a check, neither the Criminal Code rules relating to the jury selection process in court nor the pre-trial rules found in the provincial Juries Act, as enacted at the time of the trial, permitted the procedure. It should be noted that the Ontario Juries Act has since been amended, under s.18.2, to provide a procedure for police to pre-check a potential juror for the presence or absence of a criminal record. Such a check is required under s. 4(b) to determine if a potential juror is ineligible to serve as a juror due to a prior conviction for “an offence that may be prosecuted on indictment.” The phrase “may be prosecuted on indictment” refers to the mode of trying the accused’s case in the criminal courts.  An indictable offence is considered to be a more serious crime and carries a higher penalty than a less serious summary conviction offence. Certain indictable offences give the accused the right to have the trial in the Superior Court as opposed to Provincial Court. Some indictable offences, such as murder, also give the accused the right to a jury trial.

Generally, pre-vetting of jurors is not an acceptable practice in Canada. Such a pre-trial process is contrary to the fundamental principles of justice, which require the offender to be tried before an independent and impartial jury. Since the advent of the Charter, this fundamental principle has been constitutionally protected under s. 11 (d) and is inexorably bound up with another core criminal law principle: the presumption of innocence. I have written at length on the historical significance of the presumption in earlier postings. More generally, this procedural right to a fair trial is also protected under section 7 of the Charter as the principle lies at the very heart of the administration of justice.

The issue is one of impartiality under the Charter. Section 11(d) protects an offender’s right to a fair trial before an independent and impartial jury. Permitting pre-vetting of jurors has the potential effect of selecting biased juries, which are neither independent nor impartial, but based on selected criterion. The resultant effect is a pre-packaged or pre-determined jury, which would therefore favour the party using the pre-selection process. In other words such a jury would “pre-judge” the issues.

Even the potential for bias is contrary to our concept of trial fairness. As discussed by Justice Cory in the Bain case, apprehension of jury bias is to be avoided as the mere appearance of impartiality would be contrary to Charter principles. Although the concept holds the administration of justice to a high standard of impartiality, the apprehension of bias must be reasonably held. Thus, the question to be determined on the issue of bias is as follows: would reasonable and right-minded persons find there a reasonable apprehension of bias in the circumstances.

This question brings us back to the Duong, Cardoso, and Yumnu case. On appeal to the Court of Appeal for Ontario, appellate counsel did not refer to the arguments as outlined above but focused instead upon the Crown’s lack of disclosure of the vetting process. In the appellant’s view, this lack or delay of disclosure compromised the defence’s ability to make full answer and defence under s. 7 of the Charter. This position was easily dismissed by Justice Watt, speaking on behalf of the Court, as there was no evidence of any actual or perceived unfairness of the selection of the jury based on this non-disclosure. Unfortunately it appears the defence will be making the same arguments before the Supreme Court of Canada as revealed by a perusal of the appellant Yumnu’s factum.

However, a large number of Intervenors have filed material and will be making submissions on the issue such as the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, the Ontario Crown Attorneys’ Association, David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. It remains to be seen what arguments will be finally presented on this issue and it will be of great interest to see how the Supreme Court of Canada ultimately deals with the issue of pre-vetting a jury.

In the next posting, I will continue the discussion through the international perspective on the efficacy and issues surrounding jury vetting.

Testifying Behind The Veil: The Facts In The N.S. Case

On September 10, 2008, M---D.S. and M.---L. S. appeared before His Honour Judge Weisman for their preliminary hearing on charges arising out of historical sexual assault allegations. The victim, N. S., was a child at the time, when, according to her allegation, her uncle and her cousin sexually assaulted her. Although she complained of the assaults at the time, her father did not want the matter to be further investigated.

It was only as a mature adult, married and with children of her own, did N. S. reinstate the allegation and charges were subsequently laid. The allegations were such that the primary evidence against the two accused was from the alleged victim, making credibility the main determining factor in the case.

Unfortunately, this kind of situation, involving historical sexual assault allegations involving family members, is not unusual. What did make this case unusual was the manner in which the witness N. S. was dressed when she attended court to give evidence. As a practicing Moslem, N. S. was wearing a full body covering, known as an hijab, with a face covering veil, called a niqab, which showed only her eyes.

Defence counsel objected to her garb and requested the judge order the removal of the veil in order to conduct face-to-face cross examination. Judge Weisman, in open court, without conducting a formal hearing in which N.S. would have testified under oath and be subject to cross examination, questioned N. S. on her reason for wearing the veil. N. S. confirmed wearing the veil for religious reasons of modesty and only disrobing for family members. Another reason she did not wish to unveil herself was that:

--- the accuseds in this case are from the same community, they all go to the same place of worship as my husband as well and I have had this veil on for about five years now and it is --my face does not make any special, you know, like I know that--you know, there's body language, there's eye contact. I mean, I can look directly at the defence counsel, that is not a problem...it is a part of me and showing my face to--and it is also about--the religious reason is not to show your face to men that you are able to marry. It is to conceal the beauty of a woman, and you know, we are in a courtroom full of men and one of the accused is not a direct family member. The other accused is a direct family member and I, you know, I would feel a lot more comfortable if I didn't have to, you know, reveal my face. You know, just considering the nature of the case and the nature of the allegations and I think, you know, my face is not going to show any signs of--it is not going to help, it really won't.

N. S. was, however, unveiled for a driver's licence photograph, but a female photographer took the image while N. S. was behind a screen.

Judge Weisman ordered N. S. to remove her veil for her testimony. The decision was quashed upon judicial review by Justice Morrocco, but an application to permit N. S. to wear her veil during testimony was refused. This decision was appealed to the Ontario Court of Appeal, where, in a well written and reasoned decision, Justice Doherty, speaking for the panel, upheld Justice Morrocco's decision and remitted the matter to the preliminary hearing Judge to make the final determination on whether or not N. S. could testify behind the veil.

In another posting, I will discuss the reasoning for these decisions, but today I would like to point out the significance of the information given by N. S. at the time she was questioned by the Court, albeit in a less than procedurally satisfactory situation.

It appears, there are, in actuality, two issues to determine: the wearing of the veil for religious reasons and the wearing of the veil in order to provide comfort and privacy.

One issue, the wearing of the veil in accordance with Moslem modesty laws and tradition, is an issue of religious freedom under s.2(a) of the Charter. In this instance, this right comes into direct conflict with the accused's right to face his or her accuser for full answer and defence of the charges and is a protected principle of fundamental justice under s.7 of the Charter

The other issue, of comfort and privacy, engages N.S.'s right to protect her personal integrity and self-identity during the criminal process. Thus, society's interest in protecting trial fairness and in encouraging reporting by victim's of abuse is engaged as well. 

This delineation of the two issues is important as the final determination must take both concerns into account. Indeed, there are already provisions in our laws, specifically in the Criminal Code, to provide a more comfortable experience for a witness. One way this can be done is by permitting the witness to testify behind a privacy screen according to s.486.2(2), if "necessary to obtain a full and candid account from the witness." If so ordered, only the Judge and the lawyer conducting the examination can view the witness. Such an order strikes the right balance: as witness privacy rights are preserved and the trier of fact is able to assess demeanour and credibility. The constitutionality of this procedure was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Levogiannis case.

The other issue at stake, involving the freedom of religion and the competing interest of an accused's fair trial rights, must be assessed on a different basis. It is this clash of ideals which is at the heart of the N. S. appeal recently heard before the Supreme Court of Canada, and which will be further discussed in another posting. But here too, I suggest, there is an opportunity to strike a balance and come to an accommodation which preserves the rights of all.