It has been over one month since the Courts of British Columbia significantly curtailed operations in an attempt to combat COVID-19.
For many of those who work in the legal field, it was this development that made it all real. It quickly became clear that the novel coronavirus had the potential to spread quickly, and the confined space of a courtroom serves as ideal grounds for transmission.
Despite the coronavirus acting as a proverbial wrench in the gears of justice, the judicial system continues to putter along. This is largely due to increased utilization of technological tools like video/conferencing for court appearances and swearing of affidavits, and relaxing restrictions when it comes to fax/electronic filing of court documents.
Video conferencing isn’t new to the BC court system. As early as 2002, Judges across the province agreed that the technology improved procedural efficiency by facilitating witness testimony from distant locations and allowing interim appearances by video involving counsel from other jurisdictions. Judges also noted the value of video- conferencing for inmates at correctional centres – defeating the purpose of transferring multiple inmates from various correctional centres to various courthouses. The bottom line is that modernizing certain aspects of the criminal justice system makes sense financially and systemically – and events like COVID-19 demonstrate how it can have occupational benefits too.
At present, there is enormous value in modernizing certain judicial processes for two reasons – one, to limit face-to-face interactions between judicial staff, defence counsel and an Accused person, and two, to mitigate the consequences of what can only be described as colossal delay.
In reducing operations, the majority of criminal trials scheduled between March 18, 2020 and June 1, 2020, have been adjourned generally to dates in June and July, 2020. Cases that are deemed to be of an urgent nature will be able to proceed, although in a procedural sense, things will look different – for example, witnesses who would ordinarily appear before the Court to give evidence may be authorized to testify via video. For the most part, however, trials will proceed at a date that is likely much later than originally anticipated.
The situation is more grim for accused persons in custody awaiting their trial. Inmates are, of course, among the most vulnerable to contracting the novl coronavirus – a concern that was a topic of discussion before the courts closed – but didn’t really become part of the actual narrativeuntil it was too lateTrials for accused persons in custody have also been adjourned (for trials scheduled between March 23 and May 16, 2020). Sentencing hearings and bail hearings for accused persons will proceed. This could be positive – for some, it might result in their immediate release from the correctional system. For others, further incarceration for as little as an additional 90 days in custody will be devastating, a potential death sentence.
It is far too early to gauge how overwhelmed the court system will be at the return to business as usual – but when you consider that there was ahugebacklogbefore COVID-19 shut it all down, it seems only reasonable that extreme measures – such as implementing night/weekend court, and permanently authorizing certain modernization measures – will need to be taken to truly return to normal.
“No person is criminally responsible for an act committed or an omission made while suffering from a mental disorder that rendered the person incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of the act or omission or of knowing that it was wrong”
He was a student and Captain of Mount Royal University’s hockey team – but that changed on January 13, 2018, after taking a large dose of magic mushrooms.
Shortly after ingesting 4 grams of mushrooms at a house party, Matthew Brown took off all of his clothing and disappeared into the freezing night. Eventually, he came upon the home of a Mount Royal University professor that he had never met before. He broke into her home and beat her with a broken broom handle, leaving her with severe injuries. After leaving her residence, he broke into another home where he was eventually apprehended by the police.
On March 2, 2020, he was acquitted after mounting a successful defence of “non-insane automatism” resulting from severe self-intoxication.
Mr. Brown was acquitted and walked out of court a free man. His actions were found to be involuntary – but not by reason of mental disorder. His defence of non-insane automatism resulting from severe self-intoxication was only available after a pre-trial ruling in which a judge found that Section 33.1 of the Criminal Code, prohibiting self-intoxication as a defence, was unconstitutional.
Non-insane automatism and insane automatism both involve an Accused person that was unaware of the consequences of their actions at the time of the offence, and therefore could not form intent required to prosecute the offence.
In Mr. Brown’s case, his automatism ended when the effects of the drugs wore off, and he was left with no memory of the event. Since his actions were not attributed to a disease that would have recurring symptoms, a Not Criminally Responsible according to Mental Disorder (NCRMD) finding would have been inappropriate.
A finding of NCRMD relates to automatism as a consequence of a mental disorder. Unlike automatism resulting from intoxication, it does not result in an acquittal. NCRMD is most commonly seen in cases where an Accused suffers from severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia. Across Canada, the number of Accused deemed NCRMD is small, however, media attention on these particular cases often results in public outrage.
After a judge has determined that an Accused is NCRMD, the case is usually handed over to theReview Board(governed byProvince/Territory) where there are three possible outcomes:
Detention in a hospital
While most cases do end up under the authority of the Review Board, the Court of hearing has the discretion to proceed to disposition if it feels appropriate in the circumstances. If the Court orders an Absolute Discharge (the only available option when the Accused has been found not to pose a significant risk to the public), the matter is concluded. If the Court orders a conditional discharge, or detention in a hospital, the Review Board must review the matter again with 90 days. In any circumstance, the Court or Review Board must impose whichever sentence is the least onerous and least restrictive on the Accused, all while balancing protection of the public and the interests, liberty and dignity of the Accused. There have beensuccess stories,(which may again cause unnecessary alarm to the public) that demonstrate how effective rehabilitation of mentally ill offenders is far from hopeless. It is also important to note that thestatistics surrounding NCRMD casesshow that the prevalence of an NCRMD finding in relation to violent offences are low.
Bill C-75 received Royal Assent on June 21, 2019. The Act amends the Criminal Code, the Youth Criminal Justice Act (“YCJA”), the Victim Surcharge Bill (C-28), the Exploitation and Trafficking in Persons Bill (Bill C-38), and the Unconstitutional provisions Bill (Bill C-39).
Lacking a comprehensive amendment since 1972, the bail provisions of the Criminal Code have been revised to address concerns that have been mounting for several decades. The Act seeks to simplify the judicial interim release process by expanding the conditions on which the police can release an Accused person, thereby making an appearance before a Justice unnecessary. The Act will also seek to reduce judicial delay by ensuring that release conditions are not redundant, unrealistic or overly complex, and that sureties are not overburdened.
If successful, the amendments relating to bail will result in fewer Administration of Justice Offences (“AOJO”) being brought before the Canadian courts. In any event, the Act has laid new framework by which these offences will be dealt with. Offences of this nature are offences that are “committed against the integrity of the justice system”, including but not limited to: failing to comply with bail conditions (no contact, no-go, abstinence alcohol/drugs to name a few), failure to appear in court, and breach of probation. Amendments to the Act provide that these offences will be directed to a judicial referral hearing when appropriate, as opposed to immediately laying a breach charge. At a judicial referring hearing, rather than focus on the guilt or innocence of the accused, the Judge will review the conditions imposed, and will decide how to proceed. Judicial referral hearings will not appear on a person’s criminal record – however, if a person does not appear for their hearing, the investigating police officer may use their discretion to either drop or proceed with the charge. Since Administration of Justice Offences account for about 4 out of every 10 incidents reported by police, removing these matters from the traditional court process will likely have a substantial impact on managing judicial delay.
The Act amends several portions of the YCJA. Firstly, it limits the conditions that can be placed on a young person upon their release from custody, in hopes of avoiding breaches that occur only due to unnecessarily rigid conditions. The intended result will be lower frequencies of Administration of Justice Offences. Additionally, prosecutors will no longer be obligated to consider an adult sentence for youth charged with serious violent offences, and are no longer obligated to bring that decision to the attention of the Court. The Crown will also not be obligated to consider an adult sentence for a youth convicted of a serious, violent offence.
In the interests of addressing delay, the Act has also removed certain elements of the judicial process, many of which could likely hinder an Accused person’s ability to make full answer and defence to the charges against them. Firstly, the Act restricts the availability of Preliminary Inquiries to offences that carry a maximum punishment of 14 years or more in prison (previously, any indictable offence could attract a Preliminary Hearing). Preliminary Hearings are an excellent opportunity for the Crown, Defence and Judge to assess the strength of the prosecution’s case. It assists with judicial case management, providing insight into the length of time required for witnesses to give their evidence, issues requiring a Voir Dire, and the number of days required for trial. In certain instances, it may also provide an opportunity for the defence to consider a resolution proposal, in circumstances where the evidence presented guides such a decision. Additionally, the Act permits Judges to limit the issues explored during a Prelim, and which witnesses may be called. It goes without saying that indictable matters aside from first degree murder and aggravated sexual assault are deserving of a Preliminary Hearing.
The Act also modifies the procedure for jury selection. Peremptory challenges, which allowed counsel to reject a potential juror without requiring a reason, have been abolished. There were serious concerns surrounding the misuse of peremptory challenges to ensure the jury was of a particular composition – one that would be adverse to the interests of the Accused.
The objective of the Act, broadly, is to reduce judicial delay by targeting and eliminating systemic flaws that impede the wheels of justice from turning as they should – but constitutional challenges are still to be expected.
If you’ve been charged with a criminal offence, it is crucial that you contact an experienced criminal lawyer without delay. We are conveniently located in Richmond, B.C., only a few steps away from Brighouse Station on the Canada Line, which brings you from various locations in Metro Vancouver in 20 minutes. We service all areas of the lower mainland (including but not limited to Surrey, New Westminster, Port Coquitlam, North Vancouver, and Abbotsford) the interior of B.C. (including but not limited to Cranbrook, Kelowna, Kamloops, and Salmon Arm), Northern B.C. (including but not limited to Prince George, Prince Rupert, and Quesnel) and in the Yukon Territory where we offer services in Whitehorse, Dawson City, Faro, Mayo, and Old Crow. Contact our office today to speak to a criminal defence lawyer without delay.
The scales of justice weighed in favour of an Accused woman earlier this week, when the Ontario Superior Court upheld her acquittal of impaired driving related charges in Ontario.
Kimberly McLachlan was acquitted of impaired driving in August 2015 after she succeeded in having evidence inadmissible at Trial – her breathalyzer readings, to be specific. This is known as a Charter application, as it seeks to have evidence excluded based on a breach of a Charter protected right.
Her application was based on the fact that when she taken to the police detachment, where she was required to provide a breathalyzer sample, the arresting officers’ had her stand on a scale so that they could have an accurate record of her weight.
Unfortunately, their attempt to be thorough actually triggered a breach of Ms. McLachlan’s section 8 under the Charter – providing protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
It is not part of standard procedure that the police would weigh a person who has been arrested on suspicion of impaired driving. The Judge confirmed that weighing a person is a violation similar in nature to taking bodily fluids (such as a urine or blood) without a warrant.
It is nuances like this – something seemingly harmless – that will catch the attention of a skilled criminal lawyer. Circumstances like these demonstrate the necessity of hiring a criminal lawyer who is familiar with Charter protected rights.
Impaired driving is a particularly complex offence, with a variety of available defences that must be reviewed in tandem with your unique circumstances. Contact our office today for a consultation that will allow us to come familiar with your situation.
Dialogue surrounding mental illness echoes from the walls of nearly every courtroom across the country, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone. When dealing with an Accused person, both Crown and Defence will investigate what their client’s state of mind was like during the commission of the offence – it speaks to intent, which is a very important component in analyzing the intricacies of criminal behavior.
If Crown Counsel proceeds by way of Indictment (as opposed to summarily), the Accused will have the option of having their case heard by a Judge and Jury. If they so choose to have a Jury, members of the public will receive a summons to attend Jury Selection. Some will be chosen, and some will be dismissed. All who are chosen to sit on the jury will not have a say in what their role will be – they are bound by civic duty to fully participate.
Lengthy criminal trials are not uncommon – Robert Pickton’s Trial in 2007 lasted nearly a year, with lawyers calling 129 witnesses, and generating over 1.3 million documents. 129 individuals providing testimony, often gruesome and violent in nature, falling on the ears of 12 every day citizens, none of whom requested to put their lives on hold for a year. Jurors are required to view photo and video evidence, regardless of how brutal those images may be.
But, what happens to jurors once the Trial is over? One would assume that they gladly return to the nuisances of the life they had before the Trial. Sadly, however, many never return to their normal lives.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is often associated with mental illness – however, this is not a fact. PTSD is a psychiatric injury. After repetitive exposure to traumatic situations, the human psyche may succumb to the disturbance. This is rarely immediate – recurring nightmares or overwhelming thoughts are normal to a point. Fresh events remain fresh in our minds.
It is the fog, cotton-in-your-ears feeling, and anxiety that will indicate the onset of PTSD weeks or months after the trauma has occurred. It can be a very isolating and numbing experience – and for whatever reason, societal stigma or taboo, people tend to carry a lot of shame with their PTSD diagnosis. And it is no different for jurors like the ones who sat on Pickton’s jury.
After hearing weeks of testimony, a juror can feel a genuine, bona fide connection with the victim(s). This is amplified when the victim’s family and friends are present for the Trial. Huge internal conflict can erupt when a juror must balance their responsibility and duty to the Court with their own morals and values. This internal back-and-forth is another burden, on top of what they have seen and heard, that they will be left to deal with on their own when jury duty is over.
So what responsibility does our government have to jurors afflicted with PTSD as a result of their participation at Trial? It would not be absurd to consider them as victims of crime. As such, they should have access to every single resource that is made available to the victims of first instance.
Last month in Ontario, the provincial government began offering free counselling for juror members, available either at the end of the coroner’s inquest, or at the end of the Trial. Only time will tell how receptive jurors are to the program, which sadly, hangs on the willingness of individuals to fight against PTSD and its crippling side effects.