Ceci est-il une conversation?

The Supreme Court holds we can expect our text messages to remain private, even on other people`s phones

Last week, the Supreme Court released its eagerly-awaited judgment in R v Marakah, 2017 SCC 59, holding that a person had standing to challenge the admissibility of text messages to which he was a party but which the police had seized from another’s cell phone. The Chief Justice wrote the majority opinion, in which Justices Abella, Karakatsanis, and Gascon concurred. Justice Rowe wrote a brief concurrence, raising some concerns about the future implications of the majority opinion, with which he nevertheless agreed. Justice Moldaver, with the agreement of Justice Côté, wrote a fierce, strongly-worded dissent.

Section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides that “[e]veryone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure”.  This right applies when a person has an objectively reasonable “expectation of privacy” in the thing or information that is the object of the search or seizure. There is no question that Mr Marakah wanted and expected his exchange of text messages with an accomplice in a weapons-trafficking venture to remain private. But was he entitled to expect that the police would not read these messages on that accomplice’s phone?

The majority and Justice Rowe think that he was. As the Chief Justice put it, the

interconnected web of devices and servers creates an electronic world of digital communication that, in the 21st century, is every bit as real as physical space. The millions of us who text friends, family, and acquaintances may each be viewed as having appropriated a corner of this electronic space for our own purposes. There, we seclude ourselves and convey our private messages, just as we might use a room in a home or an office to talk behind closed doors. [28]

The information exchanged in these nooks and crannies of cyberspace is, potentially, highly private, and indeed “[i]ndividuals may even have an acute privacy interest in the fact of their electronic communications”. [33] Crucially,

this zone of privacy extends beyond one’s own mobile device; it can include the electronic conversations in which one shares private information with others. It is reasonable to expect these private interactions — and not just the contents of a particular cell phone at a particular point in time — to remain private. [37]

The fact that we might not control all the devices through which this information is accessible is not especially important. It is the information exchanged, the conversation, that is the subject of the expectation of privacy, not whatever device might allow one it view it. And even the fact the person with whom one is texting could disclose the fact or the content of the conversation does not allow the state to read it.

Justice Moldaver disagrees. For him, control is a key factor in the analysis. Justice Moldaver writes that “the reasonableness of a person’s expectation of privacy depends on the nature and strength of that person’s connection to the subject matter of the search”, and “[w]here an individual lacks any measure of control, this serves as a compelling indicator that an expectation of personal privacy is unreasonable”. [98] Justice Moldaver gives a number of examples: DNA in one’s body is private, but DNA traces left on, say, the body of a victim of a crime are not; thoughts recorded in a private diary are private, but not those publicly shared online. [116] While control does not require ownership or exclusivity of access, a lack of control means that information is not in a meaningful sense private.

When it comes to conversations, including conversations conducted by text messaging, Justice Moldaver is of the view that one loses control over what one has said once one has said it. What one’s interlocutor’s phone records is “an independent record”, [128] similar to the notes one might make after a spoken conversation, and within the interlocutor’s exclusive control. Evesdropping on an ongoing conversation, or intercepting text messages as they are being sent, violates a reasonable expectation of privacy. By contrast, just as each party to a conservation is free to share a record or recollection of it, and his or her interlocutor can (subject to any applicable privacy legislation) have no reasonable expectation of privacy in that record, so it is also with a “record” of a conversation conducted via text messaging.

Here, as I see it, is one important point of disagreement between the majority and the dissent. Both are ostensibly agreed that what Mr. Marakah had, or lacked, a reasonable expectation of privacy — or, in other words, “the subject matter of the search was Mr. Marakah’s ‘electronic conversation’ with” his accomplice. [17; 111] But it seems to me that while the majority does indeed approach the case as one about the privacy of a conversation, the dissent sees it as being not about a conversation as such, but rather about a record of a conversation. To repeat, Justice Moldaver accepts that “an electronic conversation” would be private; it could not be intercepted without due authorization. But the messages stored in the cell phone of one of the parties to the conversation are not the same thing. They are like the notes one of the interlocutors took. (Hence the title of this, in reference to René Magritte’s notorious The Treachery of Images, a.k.a. Ceci n’est pas une pipe.) As Justice Moldaver suggests, we can expect not to be eavesdropped on, when having a private conversation, but not necessarily that the contents of that conversation will never be revealed to third parties. So the majority decision makes sense in light of how it understood the issue, and the dissent makes sense in light of its author’s different understanding of the case.

But which of them is correct? I personally find this a very difficult question. A number of legal issues arising out of new technologies, broadly speaking, has to do with the erasure of the once-clear line between the spoken and the written word. The former was (usually) spontaneous and fleeting; the latter (relatively) deliberate and permanent. But electronic communications combine spontaneity and permanence in a way to which many of us are still only getting used and with which the legal system, unsurprisingly, struggles. One of my very early posts, for instance, was about a case that concerned an attempt by a university to punish students who ranted about their professor on Facebook. Student rants about a professor are nothing new, but the fact that they were made online rather than over beers left a record for the authorities to look into and to try (unsuccessfully in the event) suppressing. In a different way, the disagreement about the way to characterize text messaging “conversations” — often created in a spontaneous way, as if the parties were together in the same room, but a permanent record for the police to look at later — exemplifies the same set of difficulties. (This might come out most clearly in Justice Rowe’s brief concurrence.) On balance, though, I am inclined to think that Justice Moldaver’s view makes more sense. The idea of a never-finished conversation, to which one is always an ongoing party, and in which one is permanently entitled to expected privacy, which seems implicit in the majority’s approach, doesn’t quite make sense to me. This is a very tentative thought, however, and a minority view, I gather.

Beyond the characterization of “electronic conversations”, the Chief Justice and Justice Moldaver also disagree about the policy implications of the Supreme Court’s decision. In particular, Justice Moldaver worries that police will not be able to access, without a warrant, “electronic conversations” that are voluntarily tendered to them by one of the parties, even when the conversations are themselves crimes, and the parties disclosing them to the police are victims. A person may, for example, receive a threatening text message, and want to show it to police officers, but it is not clear that the police will be entitled to look without judicial authorization. At best, this will complicate the work of the police; at worst, serious crimes will go unpunished. The Chief Justice responds that these difficulties can be dealt with if and when they arise. For his part, Justice Rowe is not so sure, and I take that it is because he ” share[s] the concerns raised by Justice Moldaver as to the consequences of this decision” [89] that he goes to the trouble of writing separately.

A lot, then, remains to be decided. Privacy issues have been consistently difficult for the Supreme Court, or at any rate more consistently divisive than most others. I find these issues difficult too, so I have sympathy for judges on both sides. That the majority wants to be protective of privacy in a way the majority in R v Fearon, 2014 SCC 77, [2014] SCR 621 (which I criticized here) was not is heartening. (Some people on Twitter were wondering how many of the judges had got smartphones in the meantime. A cynical question, perhaps, but I’m not well placed to critcize those who are cynical about judges, am I?) The question now is whether the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of privacy. It might have, but we will have to wait to find out.

A Pile of Problems

A critique of Steven Penney’s take on the Supreme Court’s distinction between criminal and administrative penalties

Steven Penney has recently posted to SSRN an interesting article, published last year in the Supreme Court Law Review, criticizing the Supreme Court of Canada’s jurisprudence distinguishing the imposition of “administrative” and “criminal” penalties. People (and corporations) who risk the latter kind of penalties ― “true penal consequences” as the Court calls them ― benefit from a variety of procedural protections which section 11 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants to “[a]ny person charged with an offence”. Those facing only “administrative” penalties ― which can include suspensions of licenses (to drive or to practice a profession) and fines, even fines ranging in the hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars ― are not protected by the Charter.

Prof. Penney traces the intellectual roots of this distinction to the Canadian rejection of the “Lochner era” in American constitutional jurisprudence, which is generally thought to have involved judicial subversion of valuable economic regulation intended to protect society’s less powerful members.  Prof. Penney shares the concern that motivated this rejection, but argues that it has been taken too far. The “shadow of Lochner“, as his article’s title has it, has dimmed the guiding lights of the Charter, even as

[l]egislatures have increasingly relied on administrative and civil enforcement regimes to address forms of wrongdoing previously left to the criminal law. In many instances, the sanctions accompanying these regimes are harsh, the targets are ordinary people, and the rules protecting adjudicative fairness are weak. (309)

Prof. Penney argues that section 11 of the Charter should be interpreted more broadly, to provide procedural protections to persons involved in administrative as well as criminal proceedings. The government’s ability to justify restrictions to or departures from these protections under section 1 should be enough to prevent them from standing in the way of truly important economic regulation ― but the necessity of these restrictions or departures would have to be justified.

This is an intriguing argument. I have written here about Thibault c. Da Costa, 2014 QCCA 2347, a case in which the distinction between administrative and criminal penalties was used to uphold the imposition, on a financial advisor who had swindled some of his clients, of fines that were higher than those authorized by the applicable legislation as it stood at the time of the acts. In the criminal context, paragraph 11(i) of the Charter, which entitles persons charged with an offence “if found guilty of the offence and if the punishment for the offence has been varied between the time of commission and the time of sentencing, to the benefit of the lesser punishment”, prohibits this. But the Québec Court of Appeal took the view that the proceedings here were not really criminal, because the fines imposed were not “true penal consequences”, and so their retrospective increase was upheld. I wrote that the decision, although legally correct, was disturbing. Prof. Penney discusses two decisions of the Supreme Court that also apply this distinction to disturbing effect (as he, persuasively in my view, argues):  Guindon v Canada, 2015 SCC 41, [2015] 3 SCR 3 and Goodwin v. British Columbia (Superintendent of Motor Vehicles), 2015 SCC 46, [2015] 3 S.C.R. 250.

At the same time, however, Prof. Penney’s article suffers from a some flaws that are, sadly, characteristic of Canadian constitutional thought. One issue I have with Prof. Penney’s argument is that it mostly does not question the conventional wisdom on the “Lochner era” in which it finds the roots of the problem it tries to push back against. According to this conventional wisdom, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Lochner v New York, 198 US 45 (1905), held up, in prof. Penney’s words, “a rigid and formalist interpretation of the Bill of Rights to limit state efforts to enact and enforce progressive economic legislation”. (308) This is questionable; indeed, recent scholarship argues that it is simply wrong. David Bernstein, whose book prof. Penney cites but does not engage with, has shown that, far from being intended to protect the vulnerable and the disadvantaged, the legislation invalidated in Lochner served to protect (relatively) big ― and unionized ― established businesses against smaller, family-owned competitors. Many other laws invalidated in the “Lochner era” ― which were never as numerous as subsequent criticism made them out to be ― were similarly objectionable. Meanwhile, this reviled jurisprudential era has served as the foundation for the subsequent expansion in the enforcement of constitutional rights in the non-economic realm.

This history matters. Rectifying the record is useful for its own sake of course. Prof. Penney says that “[t]he story of Lochner is well known” (310) ― and, in the next sentence, misstates the year in which it was decided; an accident, no doubt, but an ironic one. Prof. Penney quotes a passage from Justice Cory’s reasons in R v Wholesale Travel Group Inc, [1991] 3 SCR 154 describing the “so-called ‘Lochner era'” as the period of time when “courts struck down important components of the program of regulatory legislation known as ‘the New Deal'”. But of course the “Lochner era” began well before Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, and most of the laws struck down during this period had nothing to do with it. In short, “the story of Lochner” is rather less well known than one might be tempted to suppose; what people think they know about it may be ideological myth more than reality. More importantly, however, recovering Lochner‘s philosophy ― an opposition not to any and all economic regulation, but to the sort of regulation that privileges some groups in society above others ― might also make us rightly more suspicious than we tend to be of the  regulatory schemes that the courts end up protecting by invoking the administrative-criminal distinction. In my post on Thibault I suggested that courts should be wary of “the specious claims professional organizations, and governments which choose to delegate their regulatory powers to them, make about their role” when they ask themselves whether the penalties at issue are administrative or penal in nature. Remembering Lochner‘s lesson ― that economic regulation is not always as benign and protective as it seems ― might help here.

My other, and more important, objection to prof. Penney’s argument concerns his approach to constitutional interpretation. He “claim[s] … that the Supreme Court’s construal of ‘charged with an offence'” in section 11 of the Charter as excluding administrative proceedings  “is too restrictive”. (323) It is too restrictive, prof. Penney argues, because of the bad consequences it produces ― in the sense that individual rights to “adjudicative fairness in contesting substantial state-imposed penalties” (324) are under-protected. As I suggest above, I think that prof. Penney is right to decry the under-protection of these rights. But it is not enough to say that, because interpreting a constitutional provision in a certain way produces unpleasant consequences, a different interpretation can and ought to be adopted.

The jurisprudence that prof. Penney criticizes arguably illustrates the perils of this approach. In prof. Penney’s telling, the Supreme Court is concerned about the costs of enforcing the Charter‘s procedural protections for the state’s ability to impose economic regulations, more than it is about the consequences of not enforcing these protections when “true penal consequences” such as imprisonment are not at stake. A consequentialist approach to constitutional interpretation can go either way; there is no guarantee that it will always be right-protecting. Consequentialism, in turn, is one possible way of implementing the “living tree” interpretive methodology that the Supreme Court and Canadian academia loudly insist is the only appropriate one. It’s not the only way ― one might be a living-treeist without being a consequentialist. But saying “living tree” is not enough to decide cases. Once one accepts that constitutional meaning can change, one has to figure out what it should change to, and this is where consequentialism comes in. If one wants to foreclose, or at least to limit, its influence in constitutional interpretation, one should, I suspect, abandon living-treeism, at least in the radically unspecified form in which it is practised in Canada.

Now, it is not clear that doing so will lead to results that prof. Penney or I would find pleasant in this particular case. The main alternatives to living-tree constitutional interpretation are the different versions of originalism. (For a primer, see Benjamin Oliphant’s and my paper recently published in the Queen’s Law Journal.) An originalist approach to section 11 of the Charter would consist in asking whether (depending on the version of originalism one subscribes to)  “charged with an offence” would have been understood in 1982 as applying to administrative proceedings or was intended to apply to them by the Charter‘s authors. And I don’t know the answer to these questions. What I do know is that, insofar as these questions do have an ascertainable answer (they might not; perhaps the phrase “charged with an offence” is irreducibly vague, forcing an originalist interpreter into the “construction zone” that is, on some views, not very different from living tree interpretation), this answer does not turn on competing, and potentially variable, cost-benefit analyses, which will inevitably be influenced by personal preferences, of judges or scholars. Originalism is not necessarily more rights-protective than living-treeism ― though as prof. Penney shows, living-treeism isn’t always very rights-protective either. But originalism does hold out a promise of a constitutional law that is actually law-like, in that it is independent of the individuals who apply it. In the long run, this is not only valuable in itself, but arguably also more likely to protect individual rights in situations where doing so is likely to be seen as undermining important social objectives ― which after all is the whole point of constitutional rights protection.

Prof. Penney’s article is valuable because it attracts our attention to a number of serious problems affecting our constitutional law. On the one hand, there is problem of insufficient constraints on the imposition of “administrative” penalties, which the article decries. On the other, there are the twin problems of reliance on a blinkered version of history and on open-ended “living tree” constitutional interpretation that opens the door to consequentialist reasoning unconstrained by anything other than personal preferences, which the article exemplifies. Proponents of prof. Penney’s interpretive approach might say that my argument is contradictory, since it suggests that the constitution might not give us the resources to address the problem prof. Penney identifies. But if that is so, the solution is not to surreptitiously re-write the constitution under the guise of an interpretation that will only be adhered to by those who share the interpreter’s beliefs, but to amend it in a way that will be binding on all future interpreters, whatever their personal views.

More of the Same

Yet another “tough on crime” attempt to deny judges discretion about to be struck down

Last week, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench issued yet another in a long series of constitutional reverses for the previous federal government’s “tough on crime” agenda, holding in R v Ndhlovu, 2016 ABQB 595 that legislative amendments that rendered the making of sex-offender registration orders mandatory was contrary to section 7 of the Charter. It is, as yet, not a finding of unconstitutionality, because ― quite unusually ― the Crown asked and will permitted to proceed separately with a justification under section 1 of the Charter, but successful justifications of section 7 infringements are vanishingly rare. More of the same, then, in that as in many cases where the courts have struck down mandatory minimum sentences, Parliament’s attempt to take discretion away from sentencing judges is deemed to be the source of constitutional difficulty ― albeit on a somewhat different basis.

In 2004, Parliament enacted the Sex Offender Information Registration Act, which allowed prosecutors to seek orders requiring those convicted of certain offences to register with and provide extensive information to the police, who can conduct random checks to ensure that the information provided by the offender is correct. Non-compliance is itself an offence and can lead to heavy fines or imprisonment. In recognition of the fact that these requirement would not always be appropriate, Parliament allowed judges to reject the prosecutors’ applications “if the effects of the order on the offender’s privacy or liberty interests were grossly disproportionate to the public interest in protecting society” by acquiring information about the offender. In 2011, however, Parliament changed this regime when it enacted the Protecting Victims from Sex Offenders Act. Among other things, that statute dispensed with the need for prosecutors to seek a registration order (and thus their discretion not to do so), and the judges’ discretion not to make an order.

The constitutionality of the discretionary regime of the 2004 version of the Act had been challenged a number of times, but was upheld. In Ndhlovu, it was the mandatory character of registration requirements as they now stand that was alleged to be unconstitutional. The Crown having conceded that the legislation interfered with liberty ― presumably, because of the possibility of imprisonment for non-compliance ― the main question for Justice Moen was whether that interference was arbitrary, overbroad, or grossly disproportional. The registration regime’s purpose is mainly to help police investigate known or suspected sexual offences by providing them with accessible information about known offenders ― on the theory that they are likely to re-offend. The 2011 amendments to the legislation added a further purpose of “preventing” sexual offences, although it is not clear how this to be achieved, and not much is made of this further purpose in Justice Moen’s reasons. The question, then, is whether the regime does in fact serve to help investigate offenses at all (otherwise, it would be arbitrary), whether it fails to do so in some instances (which would make it overbroad), and whether its effect in doing so is grossly disproportionately small relative to its consequences on the persons subject to the regime.

Justice Moen rejected the arbitrariness claim. The Crown argued that the registration regime “is based on the assumption that convicted sex offenders have an increased propensity to commit sex crimes” [90] ― without, it would seem, any data to support this “assumption”. Whether the judge accepted the Crown’s argument is not quite clear to me. He wrote that “[t]here is, no doubt, a statistical probability that a sex offender will offend again” [92] That’s true so far as it goes, but put this way, the sentence would still be true even if data showed that sex offenders were actually less likely than the rest of the population to commit sexual offences in the future ― there would still be “a statistical probability”. Perhaps this is not what Justice Moen means ― but that suggests that he might not understand the concept of “statistical probability” (is there any other kind?) very well.

This is ultimately irrelevant. The heart of the matter for Justice Moen is overbreadth. Already in his arbitrariness analysis he follows up the sentence about “statistical probabilities” by observing that “statistical probabilities cannot protect individuals who will not probably find themselves on that statistical curve ever again”. [92] Again, this might not be very rigorous from a scientific point of view, but what Justice Moen means is that for those offenders who are deemed unlikely to re-offend, registration does little to help police investigate future crimes ― which they presumably are not likely to commit. The Crown conceded as much, but argued that it was impossible to tell which offenders fell in that category. In Justice Moen’s view, however, this argument goes towards establishing a section 1 justification rather denying the existence of overbreadth at the section 7 stage.

In addition, Justice Moen found that mandatory registration is grossly disproportional to its purpose. Those required to register are asked to supply a considerable amount of information, and “the effects of random compliance checks, including the risks of information being divulged during these checks” are significant. (There was evidence that the Edmonton police had a policy intended to minimize these effects and risks, but it was only a policy, not law.) The discretion that used to exist in the registration legislation was an attempt to strike a constitutionally-minded balance between these effects and the needs of law enforcement. With the exemption gone, the law is unconstitutional.

Subject to my reservations about Justice Moen’s understanding of elementary notions of statistics, this seems right. I’d like to venture a couple of observations though. First, still on the statistical theme, I think it is remarkable that both the Crown and, possibly, Justice Moen are content to operate on mere “assumptions” about the propensity of categories of people to commit crimes. Is an assumption all it takes to restrict constitutional rights? Perhaps the Crown will yet come up with actual evidence at the section 1 hearing, but the fact-free nature of the proceedings so far is depressing. Second, speaking of the section 1 hearing, I don’t recall seeing Charter proceedings bifurcated in this way before. I’m not sure whether this development, if it takes hold, would be a good or a bad thing. In any case, it’s worth keeping an eye on, though it is only potentially relevant in a relatively small number of cases, as the infringement of a right is often a foregone conclusion and section 1 is all there is to debate.

Finally, I think it’s useful to note that this case illustrates just how narrow a concept arbitrariness in the section 7 sense is. Suppose that the assumption about sex offenders being prone to recidivism is not correct. (I don’t know whether it is, but assumptions have a way of turning out to be false from time to time.) If so, singling out sex offenders for registration would be arbitrary in the sense that it would illogical and capricious, which is how a layperson would use the term arbitrariness. But the legal test ― would registration contribute to the objective of facilitating the investigation of crime ― would still be satisfied. This test can, indeed, justify the registration of every person in Canada on the same terms as sex offenders, since it would no doubt help make police work easier. A programme of wholesale registration and surveillance would be overbroad and grossly disproportionate, but not arbitrary in the constitutional sense. Keep this in mind when courts do strike down laws as arbitrary ― those rare cases are well and truly egregious abuses of the legislative power.

The late administration’s “tough on crime” agenda was bad enough though. Built on assumptions and without regard to justice in individual cases, it will not be missed. While I have been and remain skeptical of claims to the effect that removing judicial discretion in sentencing somehow attacks the judiciary, it is quite clearly often inconsistent with individual rights. But one must hope that the courts will not do too much collateral damage to the law in the process of upholding these rights, important though they are.

Someone’s Got to Do It

Was the Supreme Court right to change the law on the right to a speedy trial?

In my last post, I summarized the Supreme Court’s decision in R. v. Jordan, 2016 SCC 27, in which the Court, by a 5-4 majority and over the vigorous disagreement of the concurrence, held that criminals prosecutions in which a trial does not conclude by a set deadline will be presumed to breach the right to be tried within a reasonable time, protected by paragraph 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (The deadline is of 18 months from the day charges are laid for cases that proceed without a preliminary inquiry, 30 months otherwise.) This decision, I said, raises a number of significant questions regarding constitutionality of the majority’s decision, the soundness of its approach as a matter of policy, its choice to implement this approach by judicial fiat, and the process it has followed in doing so. I addressed the first of these questions in my last post, saying that while one aspect of the majority’s decision was clearly at odds with constitutional text, I am not sure that this is true of its main feature, the fixed presumptive ceilings. Here, I address the other questions.

* * *

I will start with the one on which I have a pretty firm view ― that which concerns the court’s decision-making process. The concurrence castigates the majority for having imposed its presumptive “ceilings” ― and thereby transformed long-standing understanding of paragraph 11(b) ― without having been asked to do so by the parties and without adversarial debate. It adds that there was limited evidence in the record about both the current state of affairs ― which the majority characterized as “a culture of delay” ― and about the potential consequences of the new approach. I think that these criticisms are justified.

There is no question that the majority’s decision is a fairly radical departure from the existing law. Indeed, the majority is clear that it wants to change the way all the actors in the criminal justice system operate, and that governments may well have to spend more to meet their new constitutional obligations. Whether or not this new departure is a good idea, and whether or not it is consistent with the Court’s constitutional role ― questions to which I will come shortly ― it should not have been taken lightly. And while I have no doubt that the majority did consider it seriously, I do not think that it has done enough. Given the magnitude of the change it was considering, and the fact that it was not canvassed by the parties in argument, the Court should, it seems to me, have re-opened the argument and invited the parties to make submissions that would have addressed its concerns. Indeed, I wonder if the Court could have invited Attorneys General, only one of whom (Alberta’s) intervened, to participate in the debate.

Alternatively, the Court could have decided the case on the basis of the existing framework (perhaps modified as suggested by the concurrence), and suggested ― in its reasons ― that it would, in a future case, be willing to entertain submissions on whether that framework should be overhauled in the future. This would of course have delayed the implementation of any proposed changes, but it would also have allowed for any decision on whether these changes are a good idea to be made on the basis of a record put together and tested by the parties, and not only of the majority’s own limited research.

Speaking of the the research, Michael Spratt points out that the majority “did not do what every elementary school student is taught to do — show his or her work.” He calls the majority’s framework “a product of judicial alchemy and … entirely unprincipled.” I would not go this far, but an opinion that doesn’t show its authors’ work makes them vulnerable to such charges. As I said here after the Court’s decision in Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 S.C.R. 331, “I am happy to assume that the Court did its work, but others may not be, and neither they nor I should have to take that on faith.” Sure, the reasons in Jordan are very long, but the majority could have produced some sort of annex to explain the results of its research much better than it has done. It is a question of transparency, and arguably even simple respect for the public over which the Court is exercising a considerable power.

* * *

Put these (significant) concerns about process to one side, and the question whether the majority was right to decide the case the way it did gets much trickier. Admittedly, I am not especially well qualified to answer it, so take what follows with a generous helping of salt. And admittedly, more qualified people have been quite critical of the majority decision in Jordan. Mr. Spratt is especially scathing, arguing that “[t]he Supreme Court’s latest decision pays lip service to the constitution while doing little to improve the pace of Canadian justice.” In a very well argued interview with Jim Brown, on the CBC Radio’s The 180, my friend Joanna Baron has defended “incrementalism,” in preference to the majority’s approach that risks allowing too much time for trials in provincial courts, and not enough in the superior courts. Lauren Heuser, in a National Post op-ed, calls “the ceiling on trial times … worryingly firm,” especially in that it prevents courts from making exceptions on account of the “the depravity of an offence.” She writes that “[m]ore than a few people will be uncomfortable when suspected perpetrators of serious crimes walk free on perceived legal technicalities.”

Ms. Heuser’s suggestion, at least, is easy enough to dispose of. The Charter does not speak of “a right to be tried within a reasonable time, except for those accused of depraved offences.” The Jordan majority is quite right to say that only the complexity of the legal or factual issues, rather than the gravity of the charge, can justify a prosecution taking longer to conclude. Those who think otherwise need to amend the constitution.

But the underlying critique ― that (relatively) firm ceilings are not an appropriate response to the problem of delay due to the infinite variety of the cases to which they will be applied is serious. I do not know nearly enough to reject it. But I would like to raise a question for those who endorse it. It is, quite simply this: what makes you think that a few tweaks to an approach that appears to have thoroughly failed are enough? Ms. Heuser writes that “[w]hile one can question whether this ruling was the best way to light a fire under Canada’s court system, few would dispute that a fire needed to be lit.” The Jordan concurrence does not seem to address the majority’s claim that the system suffers from a “culture of delay” directly ― which seems like a concession. The concurrence does argue that the majority’s radical approach is unnecessary, because the case isn’t even a close one under the old one, at least as modified in its opinion. But there remains the fact that both the trial court and the unanimous Cour of Appeal thought that the delay which the concurrence thinks is clearly unconstitutional was just all right. I share Ms. Baron’s general preference for incrementalism, but I’m not convinced that the time for incrementalism on this issue has not run out.

Now, that doesn’t mean that what the Supreme Court did was right. Just because something must be done, and x is something, it doesn’t follow that x must be done. But what other options were there? Mr. Spratt agrees that “[c]hange is indeed needed,” but insists that “we should hold little hope that a cynical judgment from the Supreme Court will change anything.” Well, maybe ― though I think it’s unfair to describe the majority opinion in Jordan as “cynical,” despite its flaws, and would be unfair even the majority is ultimately wrong. But while it is easy enough for a blogging defence lawyer to rail against the practices of police and prosecutors, and the policies of governments, and accuse the courts of complicity, such tirades, even if justified, hardly answer the question of what a court ought to do when it does recognize the existence of a problem, even if belatedly.

* * *

Sometimes, though, the answer to the question of what one is to do even in the face of a situation crying out action, is “nothing.” The courts’ role, like that of other institutions, is limited. The Jordan concurrence has suggested that numerical ceilings should only be imposed, if at all, by legislation. Ms. Baron is also of that view. The concurrence has also criticized the majority for overturning settled precedent. So has Ms. Heuser. Both these critiques amount to a contention that the majority overstepped the proper judicial remit. I am not persuaded of this.

I agree that the majority’s decision is essentially legislative. The fact that it felt the need to lay out a transitional framework underscores this ― transitional provisions are common in statutes, but almost unheard-of in judicial decisions. But that alone isn’t enough to show that it is not appropriate for a court to make such a decision. Some judicial decisions are essentially legislative: one that comes to mind is Andrews v. Grand & Toy Alberta Ltd., [1978] 2 S.C.R. 229, in which the Supreme Court imposed a hard cap on the amount of damages that can be awarded for pain and suffering in personal injury cases. Pace such legal philosophers as Ronald Dworkin and F.A. Hayek, courts do on occasion introduce new rules of law that cannot be derived in any straightforward way from either legal principles or from the practices prevalent in society, and most people seem prepared to live with these decisions. Legislatures often accept them even when they could overturn them.

So it’s not enough to say that the Court effectively made new law and thus usurped the legislatures’ prerogative. And of course, even if the legislatures had enacted statutes to impose ceilings on delays in the justice system, the courts would still have the last word on these statutes’ constitutionality. Ruling on ceilings in the context of a constitutional challenge to a statute is almost certainly better from a process standpoint, as such a case would likely feature a substantial record of the sort that was missing in Jordan. But in terms of institutional legitimacy, it would not be that different. Indeed, such a ruling would come with complications of its own, because it would confront the courts with very difficult questions under section 1 of the Charter, which are avoided when, as in Jordan, the constitutional challenge is not aimed at a rule or regulation ― most fundamentally, about whether delays that are intolerable if produced by a “culture of delay” can be saved as “reasonable limits” to the section 11(b) rights, under section 1, by a legislative ratification.

Ultimately, though, the issue is not whether, in a perfect world, the legislatures would act to limit delays, and how the courts should respond to such legislation. Rather, the issue is that legislatures have done nothing at all to remedy the problem of unconstitutional delays. If, the lack of evidence in the record notwithstanding, it is the case that delays are endemic, and that there is a “culture of delay” ― which no one denies ― the issue is the existence of widespread and ongoing violations of the constitutional rights of thousands of people. These violations have to be remedied. Sure, it’s not the courts’ job to pursue policy objectives to which the elected officials fail to attend. But we’re not talking about mere policy here. Sure, courts should beware of disregarding procedural constraints because doing so undermines the Rule law. But doesn’t systematic disregard for the constitution undermine the Rule of Law too? If the governments will not bring themselves in conformity with their constitutional obligations, shouldn’t the courts try to make them? And if the courts do not, who will?

* * *

For all that, I am not certain that the Supreme Court got Jordan right. Its interpretation of the Charter is not beyond question; its procedural careless is disturbing; its chosen solution to what is admittedly a grave problem may be a bad one; and perhaps, all things considered, it should not have endeavoured to do more than mitigate that problem’s worst manifestations. But it is far from clear that this is so. There is more to be said in defence of the majority opinion in Jordan than most observers seem to think. Getting the government to comply with constitutional obligations is hard ― but someone’s got to do it.

Keeping Time, Time, Time

The Supreme Court changes the meaning of the right to be tried within a reasonable time

A couple of weeks ago, the Supreme Court issued a very important, and fairly radical, decision on the “right … to be tried within a reasonable time,” which paragraph 11(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants to “any person charged with an offence.” In R. v. Jordan, 2016 SCC 27, a divided Court overturned precedent and introduced presumptive caps on the amount of time that can elapse before a trial no longer takes place “within a reasonable time.” This decision raises significant questions about the judicial role, especially in the face of inaction by other branches of government.

Mr. Jordan, along with a number of others, had been charged with multiple drug offences. His trial concluded a little over four years later, two months of which he spent in prison, and the rest under restrictive bail conditions. The trial judge found that while Mr. Jordan was responsible for four months of that delay, the prosecution was responsible for two more, while the rest ― more than two and a half years ― “was attributable to institutional delay” [15]. However neither the trial judge nor the Court of Appeal accepted Mr. Jordan’s argument that the delay was an infringement of his rights under par. 11(b) of the Charter.  This was notably so because Mr. Jordan was facing other charges and serving a separate sentence, with conditions more or less equivalent to those of his bail, while waiting for his trial, meaning that his liberty would have been restricted even without the delay in this case.

* * *

The majority opinion, co-written by Justices Moldaver, Karakatsanis, and Brown, with whom Justices Abella and Côté concur, treats Mr. Jordan’s case as symptomatic of “a culture of delay and complacency towards it” [29]. The existing rules for the application of par. 11(b), which involved assessing the reasonableness of the delay in a given case in light of its length, causes, and impact on the accused are too complicated and vague, causing “its application [to be] highly unpredictable” [32] and subjective. A focus on the prejudice the delay causes to the accused misses some of the less tangible harms delay produces, not least those to the administration of justice as a whole, and devalues the right to a speedy trial. Finally, the existing rules are “designed not to prevent delay, but only to redress (or not redress) it” [35]. The “culture of delay” must change,

[a]nd, along with other participants in the justice system, this Court has a role to play in changing [it] and facilitating a more efficient criminal justice system, thereby protecting the right to trial within a reasonable time. [45]

The way in which the majority wants to play that role is by changing the applicable rules. As mentioned at the outset, the majority opinion introduces

ceiling[s] beyond which delay is presumptively unreasonable. The presumptive ceiling is set at 18 months for cases going to trial in the provincial court, and at 30 months for cases going to trial in the superior court (or cases going to trial in the provincial court after a preliminary inquiry), [46]

excluding any delay for caused or waived by the defence. The Crown can still show that exceptional circumstances outside of its control have arisen and that they explain ― and excuse ― a case taking longer than these timeframes, but unless it does so, a stay of proceedings will be the automatic consequence of such delay. Meanwhile, an accused will be able to show that delay below these ceilings is unconstitutionally unreasonable, but to do so they will need to demonstrate not only that the delay is “markedly” greater than reasonable, but also that they diligently sought to have the case heard sooner. (This test is reminiscent of that which Justice Moldaver applied in the Court’s recent decision in R. v. Vassel, 2016 SCC 26.)

The majority justified its decision by asserting that

[a] presumptive ceiling is required in order to give meaningful direction to the state on its constitutional obligations and to those who play an important role in ensuring that the trial concludes within a reasonable time: court administration, the police, Crown prosecutors, accused persons and their counsel, and judges. [50]

In the majority’s view, its approach is simpler than the existing rules, and eliminates the undue focus on prejudice to the accused. The majority acknowledges that even the ceilings it imposes are “a long time to wait for justice,” but insists that they “reflect[] the realities we currently face,” [57] ― as reflected, it seems, in “a qualitative review of nearly every reported s. 11(b) appellate decision from the past 10 years, and many decisions from trial courts” [106] ― while cautioning that the Court “may have to revisit these numbers and the considerations that inform them in the future.” [57] Ultimately, the majority hopes that its approach “will help facilitate a much-needed shift in culture,” [112] including

by reminding legislators and ministers that unreasonable delay in bringing accused persons to trial is not merely contrary to the public interest: it is constitutionally impermissible, and will be treated as such. [117]

In its conclusion, the majority adds that “[g]overnment will also need to consider whether the criminal justice system (and any initiatives aimed at reducing delay) is adequately resourced.” [140]

Applying its approach (including a transitional framework for cases already in the system prior to its ruling) to the facts of Mr. Jordan’s case, the majority finds that the delays that afflicted it were unreasonable. In the process, it castigates the Crown for not having had a plan for bringing the matter to trial expeditiously, and for doing “too little, too late” when it became aware of the problem.

* * *

The Chief Justice and Justices Cromwell, Wagner, and Gascon do not disagree with this conclusion. They too are of the view that the delay in this case was unreasonable. However, Justice Cromwell’s concurring opinion is sharply critical of the majority’s approach to par. 11(b), which it calls “both unwarranted and unwise.” [254] While it accepts that some revisions to the current framework are in order, it rejects the imposition of fixed ceilings on acceptable delays.

Drew Yewchuk summarizes the concurrence’s approach and exposes some difficulties with it in a post at ABlawg. Here I will briefly sum up Justice Cromwell’s critique of the majority opinion. Justice Cromwell argues that the majority’s approach will not be as simple to apply as the majority hopes, because “[t]he complexity inherent in determining unreasonable delay has been moved into deciding whether to ‘rebut’ the presumption that a delay is unreasonable if it exceeds the ceiling in particular cases.” [254]

As a matter of principle, the reasonableness of pre-trial delay “cannot be captured by a number; the ceilings substitute a right for ‘trial under the ceiling[s]’ … for the constitutional right to be tried within a reasonable time.” [147] Indeed,

The proposed judicially created “ceilings” largely uncouple the right to be tried within a reasonable time from the concept of reasonableness which is the core of the right. The bedrock constitutional requirement of reasonableness in each particular case is replaced with a fixed ceiling and is thus converted into a requirement to comply with a judicially legislated metric. This is inconsistent with the purpose of the right, which after all, is to guarantee trial within a reasonable time. Reducing “reasonableness” to a judicially created ceiling, which applies regardless of context, does not achieve this purpose. [263]

No foreign jurisdiction imposes numerical guidelines for speedy trials either. As for the majority’s approach to cases where trial is completed with the 18- or 30-month limit, it is “a judicially created diminishment of a constitutional right, and one for which there is no justification.” [264]

Each case must be decided separately, based on its own circumstances ― including, to some (limited) extent the prejudice to the accused, as well as society’s interest in the prosecution. The creation of definite ceilings is a legislative task, and it should be accomplished, if at all, by legislation. Besides, there is no evidence to support the majority’s approach, and it was neither put forward by any of the parties nor “the subject of adversarial debate.” [147] Nor was the majority’s assessment of the jurisprudence subject to scrutiny by the parties. The impact of its decision is unknown, but “[f]or the vast majority of cases, the ceilings are so high that they risk being meaningless,” thus “feed[ing] … rather than eliminat[ing]” [276] the culture of delay that the majority is concerned about, while for a small but significant minority, the ceilings risk proving too rigid, leading to stays being entered in the most important prosecutions.  

* * *

There are many questions to be asked about this case. They concern the constitutionality of the majority’s decision, the soundness of its approach as a matter of policy, its choice to implement this approach by judicial fiat, and the process it has followed in doing so. Since this post is already very long, I will only briefly address the first one here, and put off the other three to a separate discussion, which I hope will follow… in a reasonable time.

What I mean by the constitutionality of the majority’s decision is its consistency with the Charter’s text. The concurrence effectively argues that the constitutional text requires treating reasonableness as a standard and prohibits translating it into a bright-line rule. (Notice, though, that Justice Cromwell doesn’t quite put the point in this way: he says that the majority’s approach is inconsistent with “purpose of the right” ― consistently with the Supreme Court’s tendency to treat constitutional text as secondary, at best, to the “purposes” it is deemed to implement.) The majority, it seems to me does not make much of an effort to address this argument.

I am not sure who is right, to be honest. The idea of reasonableness does indeed normally refer to a standard, not a rule. But ― precisely for that reason ― the constitutional text that entrenches this standard calls for judicial elaboration or, as modern originalists would say, construction. In other words, the constitutional text itself does not give answers to the questions that arise in the course of adjudication. It must be supplemented by judicially-developed doctrines. The question is whether the courts can make numerical rules part of their doctrines. (And it really is only part; the majority is probably right to say that the concurrence somewhat overstates the degree to which the test a numerical one.) Or is it simply inconsistent with the meaning “reasonableness”? Again, I am not sure, but I do not think that the matter is as clear as the concurrence suggests. The fact that reasonableness requirements have not been construed in this way so far, in Canada or abroad, is significant, but hardly dispositive. It really is too bad that the majority does not address this issue.

In my view, however, the concurrence is pretty clearly right that the majority’s approach to cases that fall below its ceilings is a departure from constitution text. The text provides a right “to be tried within a reasonable time” ― not a right “to be tried within a time that is not markedly unreasonable provided that one has been diligent.” Presumably the majority introduce these additional requirements in order to incentivize defence counsel to contribute to the cultural change which it seeks. But while understandable, this motivation cannot justify an obvious inconsistency with the constitutional text.

That said, the issues of whether there can and ought to be a “ceiling” above which the burden of proof shifts to the Crown, and just what ought to happen below that ceiling, are distinct. It may be that the majority is right about the first even if it is wrong about the second.

All right. That’s quite unreasonable already ― for now.

Churchill on Prison

Winston Churchill’s thoughts on his time as a prisoner (of war)

I’m not sure, and am too lazy to verify, whether if Winston Churchill is the only head of a Commonwealth government to have been a prisoner; but there cannot have been many. (UPDATE: As my friend Malcolm Lavoie points out to me, Nelson Mandela is another example. It is rather stupid of me to have forgotten that and, as you will presently see, quite ironic.) Churchill did not long stay in captivity ― he escaped the converted school where he (a war correspondent at the time) and British officers taken prisoner during the early days of the Boer war were held ― but the experience still marked him, and he wrote about it in his memoir My Early Life, written in 1930:

[T]he whole atmosphere of prison, even the most easy and best regulated prison, is odious. Companions in this kind of misfortune quarrel about trifles and get the least possible pleasure from each other’s society. If you have never been under restraint before and never known what it was to be a captive, you feel a sense of constant humiliation in being confined to a narrow space, fenced in by railings and wire, watched by armed men, and webbed about with a tangle of regulations and restrictions. I certainly hated every minute of my captivity more than I have ever hated any other period in my whole life. (273)

In My Early Life, Churchill says relatively little about his philosophy, and almost nothing about his political career in the 1910s and ’20s, focusing mostly on telling the story as he lived it at the time of the events. However the topic of imprisonment prompts a rare digression:

Looking back on those days, I have always felt the keenest pity for prisoners and captives. What it must mean for any man, especially an educated man, to be confined for years in a modern convict prison strains my imagination. Each day exactly like the one before, with the barren ashes of wasted life behind, and all the long years of bondage stretching out ahead. There in after years, when I was Home Secretary and had all the prisons of England in my charge, I did my utmost consistent with public policy to introduce some sort of variety and indulgence into the life of their inmates, to give to educated minds books to feed on, to give to all periodical entertainments of some sort to look forward to and to look back upon, and to mitigate as far as is reasonable the hard lot which, if they have deserved, they must none the less endure. (273-74)

This is, I think, something that those in charge of prison policy at various levels would do well to consider ― all the more since they, unlike Churchill, will typically lack the experience, however short, of the shoe being on the other foot.

And speaking of books for a mind to feed on, whether or not the body that houses it is in prison or at large, one can find worse than My Early Life. Though it is, no doubt, somewhat politically incorrect by our standards, the events it tells are fascinating; the author’s philosophical observations, though infrequent, are sharp; there is a somewhat wicked pleasure in reading it while knowing what Churchill did not know when it wrote it ― the events that would made him one of history’s great heroes, instead of a minor footnote; and last but not least, it is brilliantly written and thus simply a joy to read.

Expanding Hatred Again

Don’t expand the Criminal Code’s hate speech provisions. Repeal them!

This morning, the federal government has introduced a new bill in Parliament, C-16, that would, if enacted, add “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the definition of “identifiable grounds” used in the advocacy of genocide and hate speech provisions of the Criminal Code. (It would also make them prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Canadian HumanRights Act, but I am not concerned with that here.) Fighting transphobia is a worthy cause, but even in the service of a worthy cause, not all the means are appropriate. As I argued when the previous government introduced its own expansion of the Criminal Code‘s hate speech provisions, this one is not. Here is what I wrote then:

I have argued, in a number of posts (collected here), that prohibitions on hate speech are useless, both because they only punish what I described as “the rear-guard of hatred” and because the truly noxious speech is that of sophisticated and influential politicians who can easily evade the narrow prohibitions of the criminal law, and that they are dangerous, because of their chilling effect and vulnerability to abuse. Needless to say, the greater the scope of the hate-speech provisions of the Criminal Code, the greater their chilling effect and potential abuses are.

I also said that while promoting hatred or advocating genocide on the newly-added grounds is every bit as immoral as on those that were already in the Criminal Code,

criminal law does not and should not perfectly track morality. Not everything that is morally wrong, even deeply wrong, should be criminalized. Hate speech is one of these things.

This remains the case today. The only thing I would add is that the ongoing expansion of the hate speech provisions suggests that there is no limiting principle that would prevent future governments from extending them further and further. Any group that succeeds in making its voice heard in the political arena will understandably demand the same “protections” that others already enjoy, however illusory these “protections” actually are, and the scope of the hate speech provisions will go on expanding. The only way to stop this process is, I believe, to acknowledge that the criminalization of hate speech is inappropriate in a free society, and must be renounced.