Last week the Supreme Court of British Columbia declared Canada’s prohibition on human smuggling, s. 117 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, S.C. 2001, c. 27, [IRPA] unconstitutional because overbroad. S. 117 provides that, under pain of severe penalties,
[n]o person shall knowingly organize, induce, aid or abet the coming into Canada of one or more persons who are not in possession of a visa, passport or other document required by [the IRPA].
The accused in R. v. Appulonappa, 2013 BCSC 31, argued that this criminalized conduct which Parliament did not actually intend to prohibit or prosecute, and so was contrary to s. 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which proscribes deprivations of liberty contrary to “principles of fundamental justice.” One of these principles, long recognized by Canadian courts, is that penal laws must be no broader than is necessary to achieve their objective; in other words, they must not threaten people with punishment for conduct which it is not necessary to punish to achieve Parliament’s goals.
The accused claimed that s. 117 could do just that. Although it is aimed at human smuggling, which international agreements define, roughly, as assisting people to enter into a country illegally in order to make an economic profit, its wording is so broad that it could apply to family members or humanitarian workers helping people come to Canada and validly claim refugee status. Refugees, generally speaking, do have not the papers required by the IRPA. But the statute exempts them from liability for coming to Canada without them. Yet, while the refugees themselves would not be committing any offence, those who “organize, aid or abet” their “coming into Canada” would, regardless for their reason doing so.
The government argued that the examples put forth by the accused were far-fetched, and that, in any case, subs. 117(4), which provides that the Attorney-General has to authorize any prosecution under s. 117, would prevent any abuses. Indeed, it argued that the Attorney-General was legally bound to exercise his authority under subs. 117(4) so as to comply with international agreements that would protect humanitarian workers and family members.
Justice Silverman was unimpressed with the government’s submissions. The accused’s examples were realistic enough, and “technically within the scope of ‘human smuggling’ under s. 117.” Yet “they are not within the objectives that Canada is trying to achieve through s. 117. To the contrary, it is the clear intention of the government not to prosecute such people” (par. 149). But that intention, of course, is not expressed in the provision, which, as a result, is too drafted much more broadly that necessary. This “makes it impossible for persons to know if certain activities (those of humanitarian aid workers and close family members) will result in charges” (par. 153). The argument that the requirement of the Attorney-General’s authorization would prevent prosecution of those whom Parliament did not really intend to target was equally unpersuasive. Even if, as the government contended, the Attorney-General had a legal obligation to protect family members and humanitarian workers, it is not clear how that obligation could be enforced by courts. And if it was only a matter of policy, it could easily be abandoned.
Thus, although insisting that his “decision is not a negative comment on Parliament’s legitimate goal and objective of passing legislation which targets human smuggling” (par. 166), Justice Silverman struck down s. 117. Trying to read it down or to read into a condition not inserted by Parliament would have amounted to an usurpation of legislative power, so a declaration of unconstitutionality was the only possible remedy.
This is right. It is a basic principle of the Rule of Law that laws should be enforced as written, rather than according to implicit but unstated executive policy or legislative intentions smuggled in by courts through interpretation. The Rule of Law also requires that people have notice of what they can and what they cannot be prosecuted for. A law that threatens prosecution of an innocent activity has a “chilling effect” on that activity: people will fear engaging in it even if the state never really meant to prohibit it. So if the international consensus and Canada’s own policy is not to prosecute certain activities, a revised version of s. 117 should make that clear.