Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Stairway to heaven?

Disagreement over whether sufficient reasons had been given for a judge-alone decision occurred in the Supreme Court of Canada in R v Szczerbaniwicz [2010] SCC 15 (6 May 2010). The Court had given guidance on sufficient explanation for judge-alone decisions in R v REM (blogged here 3.10.08).

To prevent his wife from damaging his Masters diploma which had been hanging on the wall of a stairway, the appellant (let's call him D) pushed her. She fell on the stairs and received bruising.

D relied on the justified use of force in defence of his property: s 39(1) Criminal Code:

"39. (1) Every one who is in peaceable possession of personal property under a claim of right, and every one acting under his authority, is protected from criminal responsibility for defending that possession, even against a person entitled by law to possession of it, if he uses no more force than is necessary."

This was held to import a requirement of reasonableness (majority per Abella J para 17; minority per Binnie J para 29, 33). The prosecution must prove D did not use reasonable force and that he did not believe on reasonable grounds that he was using reasonable force.

The minority (Binnie and Fish JJ) did not suggest that the verdict had been wrong, but held that sufficient reasons for it had not been given. Of concern was absence of explanation for how the pushing or shoving was itself an excessive amount of force, either objectively or subjectively (para 26, quoting the dissenting judge in the court below). Yes, the wife fell on the stairs and received bruising, but it is wrong to reason backwards by saying that because the injuries were serious the force used was excessive (para 39). Also, it was wrong to rely on D's apparent admission that he had overreacted, because he may have lost his self-control but still used reasonable force (para 40). D can't be expected to "weigh to a nicety" the amount of force needed in a quick response situation (para 35). The fact findings were unclear as to where the diploma was when D pushed his wife, so one could not say "why" the judge concluded the force used was unreasonable (para 43).

It helps in this sort of case to return to basics and separate the actus reus and the mens rea components of the offence in the light of the claimed defence. The actus reus is the use of unreasonable force. The only evidence of unreasonableness was the injuries. They resulted from the victim's loss of balance on the stairway, so the actus reus question is whether the force used, being sufficient to cause loss of balance, was reasonable. Only if the actus reus component is satisfied do we need to consider the mens rea component. The mens rea component is either knowing that the force used was unreasonable, or unreasonably thinking it was reasonable. Those issues would require fact findings on, for actus reus, the nature of the stairway (steepness, length, availability of handrails) and the likelihood of the victim losing her balance (which way was she facing and leaning compared to the direction of the push, what was she doing at the moment she was pushed, did she have any warning, should she have foreseen the danger?), and for mens rea, what risk to his property did D reasonably apprehend – where was the diploma and what was about to happen to it, what alternative course should he reasonably have been aware of – would she have stopped if warned, what risk of injury to his wife should he reasonably have foreseen – what force did D intend to use and what was his purpose in using it?

The majority found the trial judge's decision to be "eminently justified" (para 23), stressing the finding that D had lost his temper.

This is one of those cases where the correct verdict may well have been arrived at, and the SCC majority's judgment would, on its face, appear routine, but where closer analysis by the dissenters leaves us in some doubt as to the rigor with which R v REM has been applied.

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