Section 17 – The Statutory Defence of Duress: Episode 19 of the Ideablawg Podcasts on the Criminal Code of Canada

In previous podcasts we have discussed the category of legal defences called justifications and excuses. We know that despite codification our criminal law permits an accused person to raise at trial a common law defence, as long as it is not inconsistent with the Code. There are purely common law defences such as the excuse of necessity (which by the way is exemplified in the seminal case taught in every first-year law school criminal law course – Regina v Dudley and Stevenson – where the two accused charged with murder committed cannibalism when their ship floundered in the high seas and they were forced to drift on a lifeboat – think Life of Pi without the animals) but there are also common law defences, which are subject to codification and found in the Criminal Code. The excuse of duress is one such defence from the common law, which appears in the Code under the section we are contemplating today, section 17.

When we first look at this section, and it is a long one, we realize that the word “duress” is never used in section 17. We therefore immediately feel that what we are about to look at and think about is not the same as the common law defence of duress. This is a correct assumption, on the face of this section. When we look behind this section however and look at the case law, which has developed in conjunction with the advent of the Charter on the mechanics of this section, we will see that in reality this section entitled “Compulsion By Threats” is really very similar to the common law version and only differs in terms of what category of accused person can use this section and for which offences.

Section 17 reads as follows:

A person who commits an offence under compulsion by threats of immediate death or bodily harm from a person who is present when the offence is committed is excused for committing the offence if the person believes that the threats will be carried out and if the person is not a party to a conspiracy or association whereby the person is subject to compulsion, but this section does not apply where the offence that is committed is high treason or treason, murder, piracy, attempted murder, sexual assault, sexual assault with a weapon, threats to a third party or causing bodily harm, aggravated sexual assault, forcible abduction, hostage taking, robbery, assault with a weapon or causing bodily harm, aggravated assault, unlawfully causing bodily harm, arson or an offence under sections 280 to 283 (abduction and detention of young persons).

Before we dissect this section to have a clearer understanding of it, I want to remind you of the key elements of the class of defences we call excuses.

Both the actus reus and the mens rea of the offence must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt by the prosecution before a legal excuse or for that matter a legal justification can be used as a defence. This means that the case against the accused is made out and, but for this defence, the accused would be found guilty. In light of that prerequisite, the class of defences known as excuses acknowledge the wrongfulness of the conduct but as a result of the circumstances facing the accused person, the accused should not be held criminally responsible for his or her criminal actions. However, the circumstances facing the accused must be dire, in other words, the defence of excuse can only be used in emergency situations. It is therefore the accused’s reaction to these dire situations, which cause society to excuse or absolve their conduct.

Excuses are a concession to human frailty and therefore reflect our humanity in two ways. First, this defence realizes that as individuals, as part of our humanity, we may act inappropriately in order to preserve our life or others. Secondly, as humans we understand that we are not perfect and that our laws must bend to this truth in order to have a compassionate society.

Despite the above, the situations in which excuses can be used are very restrictive because we fear that permitting too broad an excuse for criminal conduct will result in cases where we as a society may not be so sympathetic. So, the rule of law draws a line between what is excused and what is not. The difficulty then becomes, where to draw this line in order to remain true to our humanity without losing it.

As I already mentioned, the section is a reflection, albeit as we will see an imperfect one, of the common law defence of duress and thus this section was in the 1892 Criminal Code under section 12. This original section, except for certain language changes, is virtually the same as the now section 17. Not much changed over the years to this section and yet, as I have already mentioned, the section has changed dramatically since 2001 when the Supreme Court of Canada gave this section a constitutional make-over in R v Ruzic.

The Court in Ruzic, under the auspices of section 7 of the Charter, found that the statutory duress defence was too restrictive, particularly in relation to its common law partner, which even with s.17, could be used by parties to an offence. In the Court’s view, the statutory defence, available only to principal offenders, should not be more restrictive than the common law. In order to re-balance s. 17, the Court took out those passages in the section, which did not accord with the common law equivalent. Even so, the Court did not remove the offences for which the defence was available, choosing to leave those changes, if desired, to the government.

In light of this, let’s return to section 17 and this time, I will edit the section to accord with the Ruzic decision:

A person who commits an offence under compulsion by threats of immediate death or bodily harm from a person who is present when the offence is committed is excused for committing the offence if the person believes that the threats will be carried out and if the person is not a party to a conspiracy or association whereby the person is subject to compulsion, but this section does not apply where the offence that is committed is high treason or treason, murder, piracy, attempted murder, sexual assault, sexual assault with a weapon, threats to a third party or causing bodily harm, aggravated sexual assault, forcible abduction, hostage taking, robbery, assault with a weapon or causing bodily harm, aggravated assault, unlawfully causing bodily harm, arson or an offence under sections 280 to 283 (abduction and detention of young persons).

Even with these changes the defence is a difficult one to employ. According to the newest Supreme Court of Canada case, in Ryan, the defence can only be used on the following bases:

  1. There must be a threat of death or bodily harm;
  2. The threat can be directed at the accused or a third party;
  3. The accused must reasonably believe that the threat will be carried out;
  4. There must be no safe avenue of escape, evaluated on a modified objective standard;
  5. There must be a close temporal connection between the threat and the harm threatened;
  6. There must be proportionality between the harm threatened and the harm inflicted by the accused, evaluated on a modified objective standard;
  7. The accused cannot be a party to a conspiracy or association whereby he or she is subject to compulsion as long as the accused actually knew that threats and coercion to commit an offence were a possible result of this criminal activity, conspiracy or association;
  8. The accused must be the principal offender and;
  9.  

In closing, there are a few items to note. First, the modified objective test is a creation of the Supreme Court of Canada in the series of cases on the meaning of criminal negligence. A discussion on this “test” and whether it is in fact a modifying one can be found in one of my previous blogs entitled The Subjective/Objective Debate Explained.

Second, the common law defence of duress in Canada is not restricted by type of offence, even though, in the UK the common law defence of duress cannot be used in a homicide charge, be the accused principal or a party.

Third, despite section 8(3) of the Code, which holds that common law defences continue unless they are altered or are inconsistent with the Code, section 17 changed to become more aligned to the common law as opposed to the common law defence changing to become more aligned to the Criminal Code iteration. This is because the common law defence of duress is for parties to an offence and the statutory defence is only for principal offenders. It is this distinction allows the common law defence to stand apart from the Code.

Fourth, even though Ruzic changed section 17, the Code does not reflect this change. One has to read the case law in order to know how the section should actually be implemented. This insistence by the federal government not to reflect court imposed Charter changes to sections is something that will come up again in the Code and in these podcasts. Indeed, there are whole sections, such as s.230 of the Code known as the constructive murder section, which have been struck down by the courts as constitutionally invalid and yet still appear in our Criminal Code. Why this is so is a matter of speculation but one wonders if the government believes that a differently composed court will take a different view or that the Charter may somehow change in the future. Either way, it is an oddity that these sections remain as they do as a vestige of the pre-Charter past.

Finally, there is much to be said about the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision in Ryan, which precluded the use of the duress defence in a situation where the accused was an abused woman who contracted an undercover police officer to kill her husband.  I will not, however, discuss those issues here in this podcast. Instead, I invite you to access my previous blog on the matter entitled Not To Make Excuses, But - The (Un)Responsiveness of the Supreme Court of Canada To Duress. I have also written on the application of the “air of reality test,” which is the threshold test used to determine if, in the circumstances of a case, a legal defence will be available to an accused in my blog entitled Poof! Into Thin Air – Where Have All The Defences Gone?: The Supreme Court of Canada And The Air Of Reality Test. I am currently writing a full article on this issue for publication.

We will of course come to further sections in the Criminal Code codifying common law defences where we will continue to peek back at the common law to frame the statutory doppelganger in the Code

Episode 19 of the Ideablawg Podcast on the Criminal Code of Canada: Section 17 - The Statutory Defence of Duress

A Long Holiday Read On Section 8 And Section 9 Of The Criminal Code - Codification vs. Common Law, Is The Criminal Code Big Enough?: Episode Eleven Of The Ideablawg Podcast (And The Text Version!) On The Criminal Code of Canada

Codification can be a good thing: instead of searching multiple statutes to find the criminal offence for which your client is charged, as an English barrister must do, the Canadian lawyer just flips through the weighty but convenient Criminal Code. To be fair to England, they did try to codify their criminal law. In fact, our codified criminal law comes from that English attempt by Sir James Fitzjames Stephen. I say the English "attempt" as even though we Canadians embraced the codification concept, the English Parliament did not. For more information on the history of the Criminal Code and possible reform, I invite you to read my previous blog on the subject entitled The Criminal Code of Canada: Codification and Reform from February 12, 2012.

Codification can therefore provide much needed certainty of the law. There is no guess work with codification – we know it is a crime because the Code says so. Thus, the concept of ignorance of the law is no excuse from the Latin maxim of ignorantia juris non excusat, is crystallized in a compendium of sections of the Criminal Code and even is codified in it as we will see when we discuss s.19 of the Code.

Alas, however, this same reasoning can lead to the conclusion that codification can also be a bad thing. Firstly, codification leaves little room for interpretation. The Criminal Code, as a really, really, long statute, abides by the rules of statutory interpretation, which guides us on the application and meaning of this statute. According to another Latin maxim of statutory interpretation expressio unius est exclusio alterius or “expression of one is the exclusion of the other,” means that what is not written in the Criminal Code is not part of the Criminal Code. This principle is supported by other statutory interpretation rules such as the  plain meaning rule of statutory interpretation, which advises us that the words used in the Criminal Code mean what they ordinarily mean.

These rules have not gone unchallenged and there are interesting articles discussing those issues. For instance, the rule raises the question as to whether or not there truly is an “ordinary” meaning of a word when considering the differing cultures and perceptions of our multicultural nation.

Besides critics of these statutory interpretation concepts, there are other rules of interpretation, which seem contrary to these “closed book” rules, such as the ability of a court to “read-in” words or phrases to a statute to ensure its constitutional integrity. To be sure courts through the ages have read-in phrases and meanings in certain sections of the Code but they have not actually read-in a whole section. 

Thus, through the effect of codification, the Criminal Code captures and defines our criminal law, leaving very little room, if any, for change, unless Parliament so chooses. In this way the dynamic nature of society is not reflected through our laws. Certainly, however our Charter has added a fluid dimension to the Criminal Code by superimposing societal change, albeit incrementally, onto the written word. Instead of a closed book, the Code seems to be more akin to an e-reader, in which the internet can be accessed, on occasion, to elucidate the reader.

The second problem with codification is the isolation of the criminal law from the English common law tradition, which brings with it a rich and varied criminal law. Using another metaphor, codification is like a tree without its roots as common law is an important source of our criminal law. However, the whole purpose of codification would be defeated by the uncertainty caused by permitting the common law to exist outside of codification. How would an accused then know the charge for which he or she was facing without reference to a specific charge found in the Code if unwritten common law could still form the basis of a charge?

This last objection, to permitting the common law to stand as a system parallel to the Criminal Code, is also reflected in our Charter as a principle of fundamental justice under section 11(a) wherein a person charged with a criminal offence has a right to be informed of the specific offence without delay.

Thankfully, the framers of the Code did think of these issues and so we finally come to the sections which we will discuss in this podcast: sections 8 and 9 of the Criminal Code. But first we will look at section 9, which restricts the common law and ensures Canadian criminal law is consistent with the Charter. Section 9, under the heading Criminal Offences To Be Under Law Of Canada reads as follows:

Notwithstanding anything in this Act or any other Act, no person shall be convicted or discharged under section 730

(a) of an offence at common law,

(b) of an offence under an Act of Parliament of England, or of Great Britain, or of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, or

(c) of an offence under an  Act or ordinance in force in any province, territory, or place before that province, territory or place became a province of Canada,

but nothing in this section affects the power, jurisdiction, or authority that a court, judge, justice or provincial court judge had, immediately before April 1, 1955, to impose punishment for contempt of court.

This section is actually an enabling section as it ensures that the Criminal Code has full force and effect in Canada and that no one can be convicted or discharged with an offence other than an offence under the Code. This was needed as prior to codification, the sources of law were varied and included laws of the United Kingdom, laws particular to pre-Confederation governments, and laws arising from common law.

It is interesting to note that the section bars punishment for these offences as opposed to prohibiting a person from being charged for these offences. I would suggest that the word “charged,” as under s. 11 of the Charter, refers to the laying of an Information against an accused person, an action which comes at the beginning of the criminal process as opposed to “conviction,” which comes at the end. Thus, the protection of this section is triggered at the end of the trial process when an accused is found guilty by the trial judge and a conviction is entered. The triggering words are similar to the ersatz (see my previous podcast/blog where I explain why I use this qualifying adjective) presumption of innocence found under section 6 of the Code. In effect then, someone may be arrested, charged, and tried for an offence under either 9(a) or (b) or (c), and even found guilty, but it is the judicial action after the finding of guilt and immediately before a conviction or a discharge is entered, which section 9 prohibits. As in section 6, the focus is on punishment and is unlike the Charter sections on legal rights, which so assiduously protect the accused throughout the criminal process; from detention to arrest to charges to pre-trial custody to trial and then to acquittal or punishment.

Of note, is section 11(g) of the Charter that gives a person charged with a criminal offence the right

not to be found guilty on account of any act or omission unless, at the time of the act or omission, it constituted an offence under Canadian or international law or was criminal according to the general principles of law recognized by the community of nations.

This section seems to parallel section 9 but it may be interpreted as giving a broader protection by using the phrase “not found guilty,” and therefore protects an individual before a finding of guilt is made. After the trial judge makes a finding of guilt, the accused is not convicted as he or she may be discharged under section 730 of the Code. Although a discharge is not a conviction, and therefore the accused does not have a criminal record, it is a “sentence” or punishment under the Code. This does seem to be a question of semantics, yet an interesting one to ponder.

There is, however, an exclusion to this decree as the section permits a court to “impose punishment for contempt of court.” Thus, section 9 preserves the court’s “inherent and essential jurisdiction” to cite and punish someone appearing before it for the common law offence of contempt of court. The purpose of preserving this power, according to Justice McIntyre speaking for the Supreme Court of Canada in the Vermette case, was “necessary, and remains so, to enable the orderly conduct of the court's business and to prevent interference with the court's proceedings.”

However, the jurisdiction of the inferior court or provincial court differed from the inherent powers of the superior courts. While the provincial court could only cite someone for common law contempt where the actus reus or contemptuous conduct occurred in the face of or in the presence of the court, the superior court could also use their contempt power in circumstances where the conduct was outside of court or ex facie. This was due to the inherent jurisdiction of the superior courts to maintain discipline within their courts independent of statute as opposed to the provincial or inferior courts whose jurisdiction was purely statutory.

This common law power is still used in courts today, albeit sparingly, and is available even though there are perfectly appropriate charging sections in the Criminal Code, such as s. 139 obstruct justice and s. 131 perjury. I have represented an individual for common law contempt and the unique aspect of the offence is the ability of the accused to proffer an explanation or an apology for the contemptuous behaviour that may be accepted as “purging” the contempt charge. I say “may” as the apology may negate the mens rea required for conviction but a judge is certainly not required to accept an apology as vacating the contempt finding.

Let’s now return to the second section to be discussed today, section 8. We saw how Parliament ensured that the Criminal Code would safeguard an accused’s rights by limiting common law offences and now, section 8, extends this protection by permitting some common law principles, which inure to the benefit of the accused, such as common law defences. In particular, I will read section 8(3):

Every rule and principle of the common law that renders any circumstance a justification or excuse for an act or a defence to a charge continues in force and applies in respect of proceedings for an offence under this Act or any other Act of Parliament except in so far as they are altered by or are inconsistent with this Act or any other Act of Parliament.

Therefore, all common law defences, unless they are “altered by or are inconsistent with” the Code are available to an accused. The defences specified by the section are “justifications and excuses,” which are complete defences to a criminal charge but apply even though both the actus reus and mens rea of an offence are proven. Although both of these defences are restricted to a reasonable response by the accused to external pressures, they do differ.

An excuse acknowledges the wrongfulness of the action but holds that the accused should not be punished for his or her actions as Justice Dickson stated in the Perka case,

a liberal and humane criminal law cannot hold people to the strict obedience of the laws in an emergency situation.

Examples of an excuse would be the defence of duress, as in the Paquette case, and the defence of necessity as in the Perka case.

Conversely, a justification is where the accused challenges the wrongfulness of the act  as in the circumstances where “the values of society, indeed of the criminal law itself, are promoted by disobeying the law rather than observing it.”

For a fuller discussion on the present law on excuses see my previous blog on duress and the SCC Ryan case entitled Not To Make Excuses, But The Unresponsiveness of the Supreme Court of Canada To The Defence of Duress.

Returning to the exception in the section, which suggests that if the common law defences alter or are inconsistent with codified defences, then the codified versions prevail, we must consider the defence of duress as codified under s.17. As we will discuss when we arrive at s.17, both the common law defence of duress and the section 17 duress are available to certain accused in certain circumstances. We will see that far from the caution that the common law defence where altered or inconsistent cannot stand in the face of the codified defence, the common law defence of duress has actually altered the codified version as a result of the application of the Charter. But we will come to this in due course.

Of course, there is a world of common law defences outside of the Code and outside of the rubric of justifications and excuses such as the common law defence of mistake of fact and the common law defence of mistake of law. Certainly, the common law defence of mistake of fact has been altered for sexual assault offences pursuant to s. 273.2. There are other common law defences, which sadly are sorely underused such as the de minimus defence, or the defence that the law does not consider trifling breaches of the law. These common law defences receive short shrift unfortunately due to the advent of the Charter and the subsequent Charter-weaned lawyers who believe Charter rights are the only kind of defence worth pursuing.

Finally, a note on the legislative histories of these two sections. Section 8 actually was our present section 9 and our present section 9 was the then section 7 until section 6 was re-enacted as the present section 7. Section 7, as you may recall in the previous podcast, involves offences on aircraft and offences occurring outside of Canada. Our present section 9 was enacted as section 8 in the 1953-54 Code amendments. The reversal occurred in the revisions under the 1985 Code when section 8 became section 9. To make matters even more confusing section 8 was present in our original Criminal Code of 1892 under the then sections 7 and 983. In 1906, the sections were combined and re-enacted as sections 9 to 12. The following revisions made a dizzying number of changes until the 1985 revisions re-enacted the then section 7 to the present section 8.

Confusing? As I have complained before in these podcasts, often the government has placed content over form by changing and adding sections to the Code without consideration for placement or sense.

On that historically obfuscating note, I wish one and all a very happy holidays and a happy new year. This podcast will return in January 2014 as we discuss the next section of the Criminal Code of Canada – section 10 when we revisit the common law offence of contempt of court and the availability of appellate remedies.

Episode 11Of The Ideablawg Podcast On The Criminal Code of Canada: On Section 8 And Section 9 Of The Criminal Code - Codification vs. Common Law, Is The Criminal Code Big Enough?

Poof! Into Thin Air – Where Have All The Defences Gone?: The Supreme Court of Canada And The Air Of Reality Test

THE FOLLOWING BLOG BECAME THE BASIS OF A PUBLISHED ARTICLE NOW IN  (2014) 61 Criminal Law Quarterly 531

Last week the Supreme Court of Canada, yet again, restricted access to criminal defences. The Court, in the earlier Ryan case, signaled their desire to limit criminal defences to the realm of the reasonable person. This objectifying of defences, which in the Ryan case involves the defence of duress, places a barrier between the specific accused, as a thinking and feeling person, and her culpable actions by assessing the individual through the lens of the general; that of the reasonable person, who has no fixed address but, apparently, a lot of common sense. This external assessment, which looks outside the confines of the Court for direction, fails to appreciate the humanity before it in the shape of an accused faced with a dire choice whereby breaking the law means survival. For more on Ryan read my blog here.

Now in the Cairney and Pappas cases, the Court has added an additional barrier to all justifications and excuses through the “clarification” of the air of reality test. I have considered the lower Courts decisions on these cases in an earlier blog.

To discuss these decisions, we must first understand the antecedents of the air of reality test in Supreme Court of Canada cases. The phrase “air of reality” comes from the 1980 Pappajohn case. Pappajohn was charged with the rape of a real estate agent who was trying to sell his home. The accused and the complainant had diametrically opposed versions of the incident. According to the complainant, she was violently raped and according to the accused, they had consensual intercourse. The defence argued for the defence of mistake of fact to be left to the jury for their consideration. This mens rea defence, if accepted, would entitle the accused to an acquittal on the basis the accused had an honest but mistaken belief the complainant was consenting and therefore did not have the requisite mens rea to commit the offence. The trial judge refused to leave the defence to the jury and Mr. Pappajohn was convicted of rape.

It is in the majority judgment, written by Justice McIntyre, where the term “air of reality” is first used in relation to defences. In dismissing the appeal, Justice McIntyre finds the trial judge was correct in refusing to consider the defence of honest but mistaken belief as there was no “air of reality” to it. According to Justice McIntyre, for such a defence to be considered there must be “some evidence beyond the mere assertion of belief in consent” found in evidential sources other than the accused.

This air of reality requirement was used two years later in the SCC Brisson case, where self-defence was at issue. In Brisson, although all justices dismissed the accused’s appeal against conviction for first degree murder, there were three concurring judgments, with one such judgment written by Mr. Justice McIntyre who again finds that a trial judge must only instruct a jury on a defence, which has “some evidence sufficient to give an air of reality.” Interestingly, in the later 1985 Sansregret case, again on the application of the defence of mistake of fact in a rape case, Justice McIntyre does not refer specifically to the “air of reality” test but to the “air of unreality” of the defence.

The term “air of reality” is finally elevated to a “test” by Justice McIntyre in another mistake of fact rape case, Bulmer, from 1987. Here, Justice McIntyre fills in the phrase, “air of reality,” with a framework for trial judges to apply. He explains the test as a preliminary step in which the trial judge “is not concerned with the weight of the evidence or with the credibility of the evidence.” The simple question to be answered at this initial stage is: in all of the circumstances of this case, is there an air of reality in the defence?” The accused’s evidence will therefore become a factor but not the determining factor in deciding if there is, on the whole of the evidence, an air of reality. None of the cases I have referred to above were considered in the Pappas and Cairney cases.

After the Bulmer case, most SCC air of reality cases relate to the defence of mistaken belief until the 2002 Cinous case, which considered the defence of self-defence. Six of the nine-member Court in Cinous agreed to allow the appeal and enter a conviction. The majority reasons written by Chief Justice McLachlin and Justice Bastarache emphatically upheld previous enunciations on the test and viewed the air of reality test in the singular with no need to modify it for differing defences. They reaffirmed that the test “does not make determinations about the credibility of witnesses, weigh the evidence, make findings of fact, or draw determinate factual inferences.”

Even with this clear admonishment, the majority did modify the air of reality test by introducing the concept of the limited weighing of evidence

“where the record does not disclose direct evidence as to every element of the defence, or where the defence includes an element that cannot be established by direct evidence, as for example where a defence has an objective reasonableness component.” (underlining added)

It is the last part of this quote which concerns the use of the defences known as justifications and excuses – necessity, duress, self defence and defence of the person including provocation, the defence raised in Pappas and in Cairney. These defences all have subjective and objective elements. All of these defences are subject to the air of reality test and subsequently all of these defences are open to the limited weighing of the evidence to determine whether or not the defence will be available to the accused.

In Cinous, for example, the Court referred to the proportionality requirement of the defence of necessity as requiring the trial judge to balance the various social values at play with public policy in deciding if the harm inflicted was proportionate to the harm avoided. This objective assessment requires the trial judge to draw inferences from the world outside of the accused and thus, according to the SCC, the trial judge must employ the limited weighing of the factors underlying the defence, which may impact this assessment. 

But from where did this concept of “limited weighing” come, if as Chief Justice McLachlin maintains in the majority judgments of Pappas and of Cairney the air of reality test has never changed?

This limited weighing does not come from the assessment of defences but from directed verdict/preliminary hearing cases. The first SCC mention of “limited weighing” comes from the 1998 Charemski case on a directed verdict where the case was based on circumstantial evidence. Unsurprisingly, it is Chief Justice McLachlin who consistently approves of limited weighing and is the torchbearer of Justice McIntyre’s air of reality test. Charemski is a case heard by only a five-member court with the then Justice McLachlin in dissent. Justice McLachlin disagreed with the majority and pointedly suggested that “while some judges,” (hint as to who those “judges” are – just take a look at the majority decision), “have referred to a distinction between “no evidence” and “some evidence”, this distinction is nonsensical.” According to McLachlin, it is the sufficiency of evidence at issue. To determine sufficiency in the circumstantial world, McLachlin further explained, trial judges must “engage in a limited evaluation of inferences.”

In the SCC 2001 Arcuri case, the extent to which the trial judge or, in this case the preliminary inquiry judge, must enter into this limited weighing was clarified by Chief Justice McLachlin on behalf of the full Court. Arcuri wanted the preliminary inquiry judge to weigh the evidence as the evidence was purely circumstantial and the witnesses evidence arguably exculpatory. In dismissing the appeal, the Chief Justice explained that limited weighing did not mean the judge was actually weighing the evidence in determining guilt or innocence but engaged in limited weighing as follows:

In the sense of assessing whether it is reasonably capable of supporting the inferences that the Crown asks the jury to draw.  This weighing, however, is limited.  The judge does not ask whether she herself would conclude that the accused is guilty.  Nor does the judge draw factual inferences or assess credibility.  The judge asks only whether the evidence, if believed, could reasonably support an inference of guilt. 

This means the trial judge when engaging in limited weighing of the evidence is considering the reasonable possibilities of such evidence and not considering the quality of the evidence. In the Court’s view it is for the trier of fact to decide what inference should be taken in determining guilt or innocence.

The nuances of this test are obvious: the idea the judge must draw a reasonable inference is importing, into yet another stage of a criminal trial, the objective standard. Such limited weighing may go the accused’s benefit such as in the Charmeski case where the then Justice McLachlin would have restored the acquittal. However, to apply the same standard of assessment to defences, may be the way of the Musketeers – all for one test and one test for all – but it fails to recognize the importance and uniqueness of justifications and excuses as the last bastion against the power of the State. Almost akin to a “faint hope” clause, when an accused turns to a justification or excuse as a defence, the case has essentially been made out against the accused as both the mens rea and actus reus, the dual requirements for a crime,  have been established beyond a reasonable doubt. Guilt is nigh and the only reasonable doubt becomes whether or not this accused, faced with dire circumstances, made the only choice available.

These defences are not broadly based and are not a concrete lifeline. They are subject to both subjective and objective elements and if the accused does not fulfill the prerequisites of the reasonable person portion of the defence, the defence fails. To then superimpose the limited weighing concept of the air of reality test, which is also based on an objective assessment, is to further restrict an already narrowly based defence.

Through this limited weighing on an air of reality test, the SCC has effectively increased the standard with which the evidence of the defence is to be assessed. One wonders if this kind of restriction is truly in the spirit of Charter values. It would be worthwhile, in a year from now, to study the impact this case will have on the ability of the accused to make full answer in defence and whether, like a transient puff of air, all of the defences are gone.

 

 

 

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.

 

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.