Thoughts On St-Cloud Or How Everything Old Is New Again

After reading the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in St-Cloud, I was instantly transported back to the heady days of the early nineties: where multifarious decisions produced more questions than answers but left the reader with the comforting feeling that somehow the Charter was above the fray. In those mixed-bag decisions there was the satisfaction that the Charter did make a difference and was shaping the new-look Canadian society. However, this nostalgic wave of emotion was not a “remembrance of things past” but was a physical time travel to the days of Morales, wherein the Supreme Court found the secondary “public interest” ground for justifying detention under the then s. 515 of no force and effect as it violated s. 11(e) of the Charter.

Now, let’s be clear, I agree that the 1990’s version of the grounds justifying detention under the Code is very different than today’s read. However, Justice Wagner’s decision applies a broad brush to those differences resulting in a tertiary ground which looks, feels, and acts like the old version.

In Morales and the companion case Pearson, Chief Justice Lamer unpacked the meaning of “public interest” as a judicial tool to justify the denial of bail. This justification was important to articulate, as the granting of bail was the default position under the section. Similarly, “reasonable” bail was guaranteed under s. 11(e) of the Charter. The meaning of “public interest” was therefore an important indicator of whether or not the law was properly mirroring this Charter right. In order to give meaning to a right, all courts should be in agreement with that meaning or the right is no longer an equitable claim.  If “public interest” could not be crystallized and articulable then it would be of no assistance in grounding a denial of bail. This did not mean that there must be a precise definition but an articulable one. Throughout this discussion, Chief Justice Lamer reiterated the “golden thread” by which the court was guided in viewing the matter – the “golden thread” of the presumption of innocence.

Under this 1990’s microscope, the court was unable to find a consensus on the meaning of “public interest” resulting in a “vague and imprecise” basis for detention, which was contrary to fundamental principles of justice such as the principle of legality as delineated in the SCC case of Lohnes rendered a few months earlier. Upon a thorough sweep of authorities, Lamer C. J. found the term “public interest” was “open-ended” and failed to provide a structure for legal debate.  With such a deficient yardstick, the ground could not be saved under s. 1.

It seems pretty clear from this decision that “public interest” is an unusable phrase from the past, except for this telling line from the Morales decision:

“As currently defined by the courts, the term "public interest" is incapable of framing the legal debate in any meaningful manner or structuring discretion in any way.” (Emphasis added)

Now, flash-forward to the St-Cloud decision and Justice Wagner’s valiant attempts to define “public confidence” seems to make short shrift of the Morales decision. To be sure the 2015 Court is working with a differently worded section and the issue is “public confidence” in the administration of justice and not “public interest” but what is “public confidence” now can be “public interest” then.  Although Justice Wagner is very careful to couch the meaning in Charter correct terms and is mindful of the unique connection release from custody has to our fundamental concepts of the presumption of innocence and burden of proof, the fact remains that these core principles are now bound by the public interest, albeit tempered by the concept of Canada’s nom de plume, “reasonableness.”

This case raises many questions. Not just questions of applicability and not just questions of how this decision will look like in the realities of bail court but fundamental questions such as: is the law looking backward instead of forward by essentially reviving the public interest as a controlling feature of bail? And if so, how does the public interest reside within our fundamental principles, which tend to the individual as opposed to the collective, such as the presumption of innocence as the “golden thread” that appears throughout our notion of criminal law? These hard questions must be asked if we are to move into the future and beyond.

Terrorism And Exceptional Circumstances: Is There A Public Interest In the Right To Counsel?

The recent tragedy in Boston and the terrorist related charges in Toronto and Montreal have left North Americans reeling: the concept of domestic terrorism and our society’s ability to, not only respond but to also intercept such events has become an issue. In the case of Boston, the investigators have invoked the public interest exception to the giving of Miranda rights or, in Canadian terms, the right to remain silent and the right to counsel under the Charter. Coincidently (or not), Harper’s government introduced the reinstitution of the extraordinary powers in the Anti-terrorism Act on the day the Canadian terrorist plot was uncovered. These powers were subject to a “sunset clause” whereby their viability is to be reviewed and re-enacted every three years. Not surprisingly, the powers were re-enacted by Parliament within days of the Toronto/Montreal terrorism arrests.

There is no question these powers are extraordinary, permitting “investigative detention” on the basis of suspicion alone, not just for the brief period approved by our Supreme Court of Canada but also for an extended period of time, up to three days. This power is, on the surface, completely contrary to the long list of legal rights an individual has when suspected of a criminal offence as found in sections 7 to 14 of the Charter. In order to understand how this piece of legislation can survive a Charter challenge, we must look to the concept of “public interest.”

As early as 1985, in the earliest days of Charter jurisprudence, the Supreme Court of Canada, even while creating a Charter vision, was also envisioning a world without a Charter. In the Re B.C. Motor Vehicle Act case, Mr. Justice Lamer, speaking for the majority, tackled the still troubling issue of the need for criminal intention for a criminal offence as opposed to the no-fault concept found in absolute liability offences. In the Courts opinion, section 7 of the Charter through the “principles of fundamental justice” required mens rea or criminal intention for crimes. However, the same principles did not require full criminal intention for a public welfare or regulatory offence. For those quasi-criminal offences, where jail was a possible sanction, the SCC found the minimum intention required was a less fulsome type of intention akin to negligence. However, if a public welfare offence, where jail was a possible sanction, required no fault element as in an absolute liability offence, this violated s. 7 of the Charter and was deemed unconstitutional. No fault was only available for regulatory offences where jail was not a penalty. Justice Lamer, in coming to this conclusion, made two very interesting, and now very relevant, remarks on the “public interest” dimension found in Charter analysis and on the possibility of the inapplicability of the Charter in certain circumstances.

One of the arguments in support of absolute liability or no-fault offences urged that the “public interest” necessitated such offences in certain public welfare situations where the public good was at issue and the risk of public harm was engaged. Justice Lamer agreed but underlined the limited application the “public interest” aspect would have in Charter analysis. In his view, the public interest was not relevant to whether or not absolute liability violated the principles of fundamental justice under s.7 as a loss of liberty where no intention was required would always be contrary to s. 7. However, it was relevant to the s.1 analysis, section 1 permitting the reasonable limitation of a Charter right, which the government could establish was “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” Thus, the government in establishing this justification could refer to and rely upon the “public interest” as a justification.

Another argument supports no-fault offences on the basis they are easier to prove and therefore more efficient or the “administrative expediency” argument. In the case of regulatory breaches, such efficiency would permit timely responses to scenarios of possible public harm. Justice Lamer soundly rejected the sacrifice of Charter values to administrative efficiency but with an important caveat: such a s.1 justification could only work “in cases arising out of exceptional conditions, such as natural disasters, the outbreak of war, epidemics, and the like.” 

It is this seemingly innocuous throwaway line (or obiter dicta), which I suggest will become the permission to suppress Charter rights in the name of terrorism.  In this way, an individual’s rights are not giving way to societal rights, in the sense that societal concerns trump individual protection. Instead, an individual rights actually become imbued with a “public interest” dimension. Thus, no longer can we speak of categories of rights created to protect the individual as the lines between rights become blurred. Indeed, we must now recognize that the individual is subsumed into the collective through the ever-present spectre of the “public interest.” Continuing on this line of reasoning, it is easy to see how even the jealously guarded right to counsel becomes expendable when “exceptional conditions,” like terrorism, rears its ugly head. Time may also show that this dimension will be carried further and become part of the right itself, not just a tool for justification by the state under s.1 but I will leave that analysis for a future posting!

 

 

Testifying Behind The Veil: The Human Factor

Yesterday I discussed the background to the N. S. case, which has recently been argued, on appeal, before the Supreme Court of Canada. The case is significant for two reasons: it raises the issue of conflicting Charter rights and how this conflict should be approached by the courts and it raises the issue of whether or not a witness in a criminal case is permitted to wear a face covering veil during testimony.

The second issue has broader implications in the public arena as it highlights the clash between traditional religious practices and the modern world, where identity and privacy seem to shrink in the public spotlight. In the age of mass communication, with over 500 million users of Facebook, the idea of masking one's identity, for whatever reason, appears to be not only redundant but also unacceptable.

Legally, such a stance seems to be against precedent as seen in the 2009 Supreme Court of Canada Alberta v. Hutterian Brethran of Wilson Colony case, wherein the Court upheld provincial legislation which required photographic driver licence identification even though such requirement conflicted with the religious precepts of the Brethren. Such picture identification was rationally connected to the real and pressing concerns of safety and security.

Politically too, keeping one's identity private is not acceptable as in the recent decision by the Federal Government to require the removal of face covering veils when fulfilling citizenship requirements, particularly when taking the citizenship oath. This decision does not appear to be decided on the basis of security and safety but, according to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, on the basis that the "public declaration that you are joining the Canadian family ...must be taken freely and openly." 

In that backdrop, we return to the N. S. case and the decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal written by the Honourable Mr. Justice Doherty for the panel. In the decision, Justice Doherty perfectly sets out the issues at stake "in human terms": 

N.S. is facing a most difficult and intimidating task.  She must describe intimate, humiliating and painful details of her childhood.  She must do so, at least twice, in a public forum in which her credibility and reliability will be vigorously challenged and in which the person she says abused her is cloaked in the presumption of innocence.  The pressures and pain that complainants in a sexual assault case must feel when testifying will no doubt be compounded in these circumstances where N.S. is testifying against family members.  It should not surprise anyone that N.S., when faced with this daunting task, seeks the strength and solace of her religious beliefs and practices. 

M---d.S. is facing serious criminal charges.  If convicted, he may well go to jail for a considerable period of time.  He will also wear the stigma of the child molester for the rest of his life.  In all likelihood, the mere fact that charges have been laid has led many within his family and community who are aware of those charges to look at M---d.S. in a very different way. 

M---d.S. is presumed innocent.  His fate will depend on whether N.S. is believed.  In a very real sense, the rest of M---d.S.’s life depends on whether his counsel can show that N.S. is not a credible or reliable witness.  No one can begrudge M---d.S.’s insistence that his lawyer have available all of the means that could reasonably assist in getting at the truth of the allegations made against him.    

What is really being impacted by this case, which has now taken on national proportions, legally, politically, and socially, is the lives of two people. Certainly, the public's interest in the outcome of the case is valid. This is even more so considering the number and type of intervener's in the SCC case: the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the Criminal Lawyer's Association, the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund, and the Muslim Canadian Congress, to name but a few. However, we must not forget the "human terms" or human factor, which requires us to contemplate the life-changing possibilities of this ruling.

Injunctions In The Charter Context: Part Two

Yesterday, I posted a brief backgrounder on injunctions and the special case which presents when the Charter provides the context. Today, I will discuss how courts apply the three step injunction test where the exercise of Charter rights results in disobedience of the a purportedly unconstitutional law. In those cases, the applicant for the injunction is the government, who according to case law, is the "protector of public rights and the public interest."

Step one: There must be a serious case to be tried. This step is typically easy to fulfill as most injunctions involve serious unresolved issues. Certainly, in the case of a Charter violation from the application and enforcement of laws, there is a serious matter to determine.

Step two: Is there irreparable harm caused if the application is refused? In the civil context, it is a question of monetary compensation, but in a Charter violation harm is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. As a result, this step, is also easy to fulfill.

Step three: On a balance of convenience, which party suffers greater harm by the making of the order? In this step, the court considers the actual Charter harm or breach complained of by the claimants. However, case law also suggests deference must be given to the government's legislation, which necessitates obedience to its precepts until the constitutional validty is determined. Thus, it has been argued, that the court should be reluctant to refuse an injunction or order to conform with the law.

Some cases have refused to give such deference in a Charter case, particularly where constitutionality of the legislation is at issue and where fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression, are at risk. Indeed, it can be argued that both the government and the Charter claimants are acting within the public interest: the government in upholding law and the claimants for protecting fundamental rights important to all. 

Now that the three step injunction analysis in the Charter context is clarified, tomorrow, I will apply this test to the occupy movement.