Parties Part 2 – Common Intention: Episode 24 of the Ideablawg Podcasts on the Criminal Code of Canada

Last episode I introduced the concept of parties in criminal law and we discussed in detail section 21(1) of the Criminal Code, which describes when an accused person becomes a party as an aider or abettor. In this episode, we will look at section 21(2), which is a more general party section relating to the common intention between two or more persons. Caution: do not confuse this section with the inchoate or unfilled crime of conspiracy. They are not the same and in fact a person can be a party to a conspiracy by aiding and abetting the conspirator but we will get to that way down the road when we finally reach section 465.

Section 21(2) reads as follows:

Where two or more persons form an intention in common to carry out an unlawful purpose and to assist each other therein and any one of them, in carrying out the common purpose, commits an offence, each of them who knew or ought to have known that the commission of the offence would be a probable consequence of carrying out the common purpose is a party to that offence. 

This section is jammed packed with information. First, the section refers to “an intention in common” or what we will call a “common intention.” Typically, and strategically, this section is used when the principal accused person has committed crimes beyond which the parties intended to aid and abet and the party “know or ought to have known” those acts “would be a probable consequence of carrying out the common purpose.”

This section is jammed packed with information. First, the section refers to “an intention in common” or what we will call a “common intention.” Typically, and strategically, this section is used when the principal accused person has committed crimes beyond which the parties intended to aid and abet and the party “know or ought to have known” those acts “would be a probable consequence of carrying out the common purpose.”

“Unlawful purpose” simply means contrary to the Criminal Code. The actus reus is not confined to the specific offence the principal commits and may be any included offence. So, a principal may be convicted of robbery but a party may be acquitted of the robbery but convicted of the lesser-included offence of theft. The same reasoning applies to murder and the lesser-included offence of manslaughter but before we discuss that, let’s discuss mens rea of the section.

Second, is the mens rea requirement. The Crown must prove beyond a reasonable doubt a formation of the common purpose and knowledge that the offence would be a probable consequence of carrying out the unlawful purpose. As there are two categories of mens rea - objective or subjective – the Crown must prove either subjective knowledge, for those offences requiring subjective mens rea, or objective forseeability for those offences requiring objective mens rea.

We have not as yet discussed the difference between these two types of criminal liability. I have written previous blog postings on this issue in The Subjective/Objective Debate Explained and in Is This The End of Subjective Intention? The Supreme Court of Canada and the Walle case. I encourage you to review these postings for more details for further explanation but for our purposes, I will give you a fairly brief definition.

The subjective standard requires the Crown to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the accused intended his or her actions while the objective standard requires the Crown 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 this particular accused person’s intent, the objective liability is a lower standard of liability and therefore easier for the Crown to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. As a result of the Charter, however, certain crimes must require subjective liability and cannot require objective. Murder is the best example of a purely subjective liability offence. However, the lesser-included offence of manslaughter is considered an objective liability offence, which only requires an objective forseeability of bodily harm.

This difference in mens rea is important for s.21(2) parties. If an accused is charged under the section as a party to a murder, the Crown must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused “knew that the commission of the offence would be a probable consequence of carrying out the common purpose” NOT “ought to have known.” If, however, the accused is considered a party to a manslaughter, then the “ought to have known” phrase applies as it signifies an objective standard.

For punishment purposes, a party faces the same punishment as the principal although a party’s sentence may be lower than that of a principal based on lesser participation in the crime.

Next podcast, we will discuss section 22 and counseling a crime that is committed.

Episode 24 of the Ideablawg Podcasts on the Criminal Code of Canada: Section 21(2) Common Intention Parties

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.

 

Not To Make Excuses, But - The (Un)Responsiveness of the Supreme Court of Canada To Duress

The new Supreme Court of Canada decision on duress highlights the limitations of our English common law system. In that system, an articulated defence cannot be found for Nicole Ryan who, as a result of years of abuse and threats, acted contrary to the law because she could not act in any other way. Although ultimately the result was a veiled recognition of this, the manner in which the SCC came to the result was a clear and unequivocal endorsement of the rule of law.

There are many reasons for not broadening the restrictive application of excuses in our criminal law. One reason involves the dynamics of excuses: such a defence is predicated on the commission of a crime, where both the unlawful act, or actus reus, and the criminal intention, or the mens rea, has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In a world without excuses, a completed offence labels the alleged accused as a convicted offender with all of the responsibility and accountability that goes with such a designation. The next step involves the manner of the State's response to such abhorrent behaviour. The next step is punishment and the meting out of sentence, crafted in bespoke fashion to fit the particular circumstances of the case and the specific background of the offender. In the sentencing forum, discretion and compassion is allowed. But why do such considerations have no part in the determination of guilt?

This can only be answered by reading legal theorist George P. Fletcher’s essay on The Individualization of Excusing Conditions. According to Fletcher, his call for individualization envisions a criminal law, not shackled by the constraints of the English common law system, but set free by compassion, where the unique frailties of an individual are taken into account in determining criminal responsibility. The focus is therefore on the person, the very human being who was faced with very real extraordinary circumstances, and who had no choice but to act in an extraordinary manner. Fletcher argues to connect excuses to the individual's personal make-up creates more reasonable and rational outcomes than the English common law's desire to connect actions to an ephemeral and superficial "reasonable" person. To use a reasonable person standard in assessing criminal liability constructs a false rule of law bent on dehumanizing the law. When that happens, argues Fletcher, all we have left are stark, disembodied rules imposed in restrictive and unrealistic circumstances. 

In this restrictive world, Fletcher suggests, any prospects of individualization is pushed away onto the fringes of the criminal justice system to reside in the "semi-secret" sentencing arena. Sentencing, as a forum for individualization, permits discretion and compassion but, as Fletcher points out, such flexibility comes too late. Sentencing is for the guilty, not for those who should be viewed by society as innocent. 

In the Ryan case, the SCC followed the strictures of the English common law and thus the rule of law and failed to take the much needed bold step toward individualization. This is not surprising considering the slow dance the SCC has taken towards objective mens rea as the standard for crime as opposed to subjective mens rea - the last bastion of the individual. For further discussion see my previous posting Is This The End Of Subjective Intention?The Supreme Court of Canada and the Walle Case

Although the end result crafted by the SCC, in some way, vindicates Nicole Ryan, it is cold comfort to those facing dire situations, who must rely on excuses as a defence. In those cases, justice comes in the form of "semi-secret" pronouncements and extraordinary remedies and not where it counts - in assessing the true nature of criminal liability.