Monday, December 04, 2006

Attempting to conspire

A good example of a policy decision about the scope of criminal law comes from the Supreme Court of Canada in R v Dery [2006] SCC 53 (23 November 2006). At issue was whether there should be an offence of attempting to conspire to commit an offence. There was no legislative provision determining this question, so it concerned the scope of the common law.

The Court held unanimously that there is no offence of attempting to conspire: acts preceding conspiracy are not sufficiently proximate to a substantive offence to warrant criminal sanction.

This decision highlights the meaning of “agreement” in the context of conspiracy. A criminal conspiracy is an agreement to commit an offence. Imagine two people, A and B, who discuss committing an offence; A is very keen that they should do so, but B wants more time to decide and tells A that he will send him a text message about this later. B leaves A and later decides that, yes, he will agree to commit the proposed offence with B, so he sends him a text message to that effect. However, the message is never received by A.

Here, B has tried to agree with A to commit the offence. He has done what A expects him to do to agree. He believes they have an agreement. Should B be guilty of attempting to conspire with A? His position is different from that of A, who, not having received any communication from B, does not believe they have reached agreement, although he hopes they have. A would not be guilty of conspiracy with B.

While it might be acceptable, in circumstances like this, to hold B guilty while A escapes liability, the legal concept of agreement as a combination of minds prevents this. The law looks at potential harm as the justification for imposing criminal liability, and for conspiracy it is the harm that arises from the combination of minds, directed at the commission of an offence, that warrants criminal sanction. While, in the hypothetical discussed here, B’s state of mind is that of a conspirator, the danger he poses is lessened because A is unaware of B’s agreement. It is often said that a person is not to be punished for his thoughts alone, and in the absence of a combination of minds B’s individual liability must depend on whether he does any other act which is sufficiently proximate to the commission of a substantive offence to make him liable for the attempt to commit that offence.

We are, of course, focusing on liability for an attempt to conspire. It should not be thought that A will escape all liability, for consideration will have to be given to incitement. It may be that A is liable for inciting B to commit the crime which was the objective he discussed with B. Further questions arise here, concerning what “inciting” involves. If it is no more than trying to arouse another person’s interest in committing an offence, then A would be liable whatever B decided; but, if inciting requires the actual arousal of that interest in the mind of the other person, then A is only liable if B (as he did in the above hypothetical) becomes interested in the commission of the offence. This latter approach would be consistent with the harm-based justification for imposition of criminal liability. However, the common law interpretation is different: inciting does not require the creation of an interest in the commission of the offence, mere encouragement being sufficient. Adams on Criminal Law puts it this way, at CA66.17(2):

““Inciting” means to urge or spur on by encouragement, persuasion, or coercion. See Burnard v Police [1996] 1 NZLR 566; R v Tamatea (2003) 20 CRNZ 363, and the following decisions at common law on the meaning of the term in the inchoate offence of incitement: Invicta Plastics Ltd v Clare [1976] RTR 251; R v Hendrickson [1977] Crim LR 356; R v Fitzmaurice [1983] QB 1083; R v James (1985) 82 Cr App R 226; Race Relations Board v Applin [1973] QB 815.”

A leading New Zealand case on incitement, consistent with this statement of the law, is R v Schriek [1997] 2 NZLR 139; (1996) 14 CRNZ 449; 3 HRNZ 583 (CA). The position may therefore be summarised as follows: criminal liability requires that the accused caused harm, and as far as conspiracy is concerned the minimum harm needed for liability is, consistent with the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in R v Dery, the existence of an agreement to commit an offence. Such an agreement does not exist without communication between the two parties to it (or, where there are more than two parties, between at least two of them). But, where incitement is concerned, the necessary degree of harm has been held to arise from mere encouragement, whether or not an interest in offending is aroused. This inconsistency in policy will require attention.

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