The Subjective/Objective Debate Explained

Over the past year, I have detected a theme in the criminal cases decided by the Supreme Court of Canada: is the criminal law objectively or subjectively based? This is a crucial yet traditional argument touching upon almost every aspect of a criminal charge, including the mental element or mens rea for a crime and criminal law defences. In other words, this issue or debate, impacts all areas of substantive criminal law and therefore is seminal to our understanding of the law and the appropriate and fair application of the law.

As punishment is the ultimate outcome of a finding of guilt in a criminal case, the standard of assessing the accused’s behaviour is of vital importance. Indeed, it is at the core of the presumption of innocence as it provides the tools by which a trier of fact, be it judge or jury, decides whether the prosecutor has proven the case beyond a reasonable doubt.

As discussed in a previous posting, the standard of assessment can make all the difference between a finding of guilt and a finding of innocence. The subjective standard requires the prosecutor to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that this accused intended his or her actions while the objective standard requires the prosecutor to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a reasonable person would have not acted as the accused did in the circumstances of the case. By using a standard of reasonableness as opposed to the particular accused’s awareness, the objective liability is a lower standard and therefore easier for the prosecutor to prove. Yet, objective liability crimes, such as manslaughter, carry the maximum sentence of punishment of life imprisonment. The objective standard is harsh and can result in a conviction of a person, who due to personal frailties and inabilities, could never come up to the standard of a reasonable person. These individuals may be viewed as morally innocent as they do not have an intention to commit the prohibited act. In criminal law we justify this conviction by applying the principle of the utilitarian concept of the “greater good,” which emphasizes the “commonweal” and the importance of preventing societal harm. However by doing so, we ignore the societal interest in preventing the punishment of the morally innocent or those who are, to put it bluntly, “substandard” individuals.

The issue of subjective/objective mens rea came to the foreground after the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was implemented. Section 7 of the Charter requires that no one is to face a loss of liberty except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice. Harkening back to the presumption of innocence, section 7 seemed to require a conviction based on subjective mens rea or individual awareness of the risk of his or her conduct. In a series of cases in the late 1980s and the 1990s, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed, yet disagreed. The Court agreed certain traditional crimes, such as murder and theft, which attracted great social stigma upon conviction (one is branded as a murderer or a thief), required subjective liability. However, other crimes, particularly those requiring a duty of care such as in the licensed activities of driving, need only require objective liability.

Although, the court arrived at a “modified” objective standard in a split decision in Hundal, the end result was far from a true modification. Unlike Justice Lamer’s dissent position, which called for an allowance for personal characteristics in the objective assessment, the majority preferred to “soften” the harshness of the objective standard by requiring the trier of fact to determine liability “contextually” in the circumstances of the particular facts of the case. Instead of taking heed to the specifics of the individual, the person whose liberty interests were at issue, the court preferred to focus on a construct of reality as revealed by the facts of the case. Justice Lamer’s stance, interestingly and importantly for my analysis, was supported by the now Chief Justice McLachlin.   At the end of the 1990s, it was clear that not only was the objective standard here to stay, it had reached constitutional status. Thus, the standardization of crime came into being.

This penchant for objectiveness also began to permeate the defences available to the accused. Certainly, the assessment of defences on a reasonable or objective standard was not new as seen in the assessment of the common law defences of justifications (self-defence) and excuses (duress and necessity). However, the objective assessment was always tempered with a subjective inquiry to ensure that this accused’s actions in face of a subjectively perceived threat were taken into account. However, I would argue that with the passing of the new defence of the person section in the Criminal Code, the objective requirement is forefront and again, the subjective assessment is left to a factual analysis, devoid of any personal viewpoints. See a previous blog I have done on this very issue. As argued by George Fletcher in an essay on the defences, The Individualization of Excusing Conditions, by turning the focus away from the accused, we are imposing an artificiality into the criminal law process wherein we sacrifice the individual in favour of the rule of law. Thus, we forget that defences, such as excuses, are “an expression of compassion for one of our kind caught in a maelstrom of circumstance.”

In the next posting, I will review the past year of SCC cases on the objective/subjective debate to determine if the Supreme Court of Canada has gone too far into the objective territory.

 

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.