Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bring on the holidays!

Grown-ups will remember when we used to use the pejorative term Kafkaesque. This word comes to mind on reading R v EMW 2011 SCC 31 (17 June 2011). To call the opinions "reasons for judgment" is an exaggeration. They read more like an inadequate headnote. Perhaps the unsuccessful appellant will be wondering if the judges really earned their pay on this one. It is impossible to evaluate the strength of Fish J's dissent. And while we must accept the majority's conclusions there seems to be no discernable lesson to the Court of Appeal, whose majority decision was overruled. Just a difference of opinions. I think a court of final appeal has a duty to explain itself more clearly.

The majority disagreed with the  Nova Scotia Court of Appeal majority (and apparently too with the dissenting judge in that court who seems to have accepted this point) as to whether Crown questioning of the complainant had been leading. The questioning is set out at para 80 of the NSCA majority judgment and more extensively at [118] of the dissenting judgment of Fichaud JA. At trial, after a stick drawing of a female person had been drawn by the prosecutor and the complainant had drawn a circle in the general vicinity of where the defendant had been touching her inappropriately, the questioning continued (I insert numbers for the questions):
"1. Q. Yes. What’s that part of the body on a female called?
A. Vagina.
2. Q. Vagina. And was your dad touching you on the vagina? 
A. Yes.
3. Q. And when he touched you on the vagina, was it outside of your vagina or inside of your vagina?
A. Inside.
4. Q. What part of his body was he using to touch the inside of your vagina?
 A. His fingers.
 5. Q. Was he on the inside or the outside of your clothes when he was doing this?
A. Inside.
6. Q. So you would wake up and your dad’s hand would be down your pants, and his fingers would be in your vagina?
A. Yes."

The Supreme Court majority held [9] that this was not leading questioning. But did it suggest answers or assume a state of facts that was in dispute? Q2 leads; it should be "Where was your dad touching you?" Q3 should be "Which part of your vagina was he touching?" Q5 should be "Were you wearing anything?" then, "Where was his hand compared to your clothing?" Q6 should be "When did you notice that?"

An interesting point concerns Fichaud JA's treatment of the defence cross-examination on these matters. Fichaud JA regarded the defence tactic of getting the complainant to repeat this evidence (by questions which in cross-examination are not, of course, objectionable for being leading) as defeating any objection that could have been made at trial to the Crown's leading of the same evidence. I should say that the defence cross-examination technique was flawed: it was wrong to get the complainant to repeat her evidence in chief; counsel should merely have led the inconsistent statement and then put the proposition that both were lies. But, given that counsel chose to repeat what in the hands of a prosecutor was objectionable, did this create a sort of estoppel on appeal against objection to the prosecutor's leading? I think not, because if the questions had not been allowed in chief they would not have been repeated in cross-examination.

The Supreme Court did not address this. Nor did it explain why the questions were not leading, except to say that binary questions (giving the complainant a choice between two alternatives, as in Q3 and Q5 above) did not here suggest an answer. Well, in the context of this case those questions were peripheral: the point was the allegation that the defendant was touching her vagina. Inside or outside vagina, or inside or outside of clothing, was of secondary importance. But in any event, binary questions are not necessarily acceptable, as they serve to reinforce the preceding answer, here that the vagina was touched, and that clothing was worn.

Oddly McLaughlin CJ for the majority said, on the issue of whether the questions suggested answers or assumed facts that were in dispute, that they "did not cross this threshold". There is a threshold? They were sort of leading but not quite? Is there a category of questions that are acceptably leading in a context where leading is prohibited? The majority did not say, yes, these were leading questions, but in this case the complainant was young and the prosecutor was having difficulty getting her evidence, so the judge was right to allow these questions. If that was what the majority intended, it would be controversial. Compare the remarks of the New Zealand Court of Appeal in R v E (CA308/06) [2007] NZCA 404, [2008] 3 NZLR 145 at [25]:
" We are conscious that there are some cases and commentators which suggest that leading questions may be allowable where young children are concerned . . . Given what is now known about the importance of using open-ended questions when interviewing children, these authorities should be treated with caution. We note, in any event, that under s 89 of the Evidence Act 2006, there is no exception to the prohibition of leading questions where a child is being questioned."