Last Friday, the Supreme Court heard challenges to mandatory minimum sentences imposed for some gun-related offences as part of the federal government’s “tough on crime” agenda. In R. v. Nur, 2013 ONCA 677, the Court of Appeal for Ontario declared them unconstitutional because, although the sentence was not grossly disproportionate to the accused’s blameworthiness in the circumstances of that case, it could become so in a “reasonable hypothetical” situation, which made it “cruel and unusual punishment” contrary to s. 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The “reasonable hypothetical” framework has long been a staple of s. 12 jurisprudence, going back to the Supreme Court’s decision in R. v. Smith,  1 S.C.R. 1045. Yet as Justin Ling explains in the CBA National Magazine, during last week’s argument in Nur, “many on the top bench were pondering a departure from the practice.”
And that, I would suggest, should be food for thought for the judges of the Québec Court of Appeal who, on December 4, will hear an appeal from the Superior Court’s decision to allow the Québec Bar to challenge, wholesale, 94 mandatory-minimum provisions recently added to the Criminal Code, Barreau du Québec c. Canada (Procureur général), 2014 QCCS 1863. As I explained in criticizing the Superior Court’s decision, although Justice Roy found that the Barreau’s challenge is a “reasonable and effective” way to make the argument that mandatory minimum sentences unconstitutionally infringe on the judiciary’s discretionary powers, this argument is at best secondary in the Barreau’s application. The main one is of the sort that was made in Nur ― a claim that mandatory minimum sentences infringe s. 12 of the Charter. Needless to say, this argument proceeds in a factual vacuum, since no one actually accused of anything is involved in the case. The Barreau contends that this does not matter since s. 12 arguments can be made on the basis of reasonable hypotheticals anyway. But if the Supreme Court chooses to eliminate, or even merely to limit the use of reasonable hypotheticals in s. 12 analysis, this claim will ring more hollow than ever.
As for the claim that mandatory minimum sentences as such infringe the judiciary’s protected discretion, I remain of the view ― which I explained here ― that it is simply not a serious argument. On this point, the words of Chief Justice MacDonald of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal in the recent case of R. v. MacDonald, 2014 NSCA 102, which struck down the same mandatory minimum that is at issue in Nur, are apposite. The case, he said (at par. 9), is about
the comparative roles of the judiciary and Parliament. Specifically, in our constitutional democracy, Parliament decides what actions will constitute a criminal offence together with the corresponding range of punishment for each. This may include, in Parliament’s discretion, mandatory minimum sentences for certain offences. In this regard, the will of Parliament shall prevail, unless the sentencing provisions are so severe as to constitute cruel and unusual punishment as prohibited by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It then falls to the judiciary, as guardians of the Charter, to prevent such occurrences. (Emphasis mine)
It is Parliament’s role, not the courts’, to define the range ― that is to say the upper as well as the lower limits, if any ― of sentences for the offences which Parliament creates. It should go without saying that a power to create and define offences entails the power to define their relative gravity, and that the imposition of sentencing ranges is the most obvious (and maybe the only?) way to meaningfully do this. The only constraint on Parliament’s discretion in this regard is the Charter. The Barreau’s separation of powers argument is without merit, and the Court of Appeal shouldn’t repeat the Superior Court’s mistake by allowing its application to proceed on this shaky basis.