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.

Bullshit in Sentencing

An ostensibly minimalist, and an unsatisfactory, decision from the Supreme Court

In R. v. Safarzadeh-Markhali, 2016 SCC 14, decided last month, the Supreme Court stuck down a provision of the Criminal Code that prevented sentencing judges from crediting more than the time the offender actually served in pre-trial detention against the sentence imposed when the offender had been denied bail was a past criminal record. The Supreme Court thus upheld the decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal in this case ― though not that court’s reasoning. Just like that ruling, the Supreme Court’s will likely to be seen as part of the judicial fightback against the late Conservative government’s “tough on crime” policy ― yet the Chief Justice’s opinion for the unanimous court is, on its surface anyway, a remarkably narrow one and, if anything, good news for anyone considering pursuing a “though on crime 2.0” project in the future.

There seems to have been no real dispute that denying judges the discretion to give enhanced credit to offenders who had been refused bail due to a past conviction resulted in deprivations of liberty due to longer prison sentences. It thus engaged section 7 of the Charter, which protects the right not to be deprived of one’s liberty except “in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.” The question is, which principle of fundamental justice, if any, is at stake here.

The Ontario Court of Appeal held that the relevant principle is that of proportionality in the sentencing process. The Court itself articulated this principle, according to which the sentencing process cannot be made contingent on irrelevant factors, and elevated it to the rank of a principle of fundamental justice. Somewhat confusingly, the Chief Justice only addresses this theory in a passage that feels like an appendix, at the very end of her reasons. In her view, the Court of Appeal’s approach is inconsistent with the idea that “the constitutional standard against which punishment is measured is and remains gross disproportionality” [73] under section 7 of the Charter, as well as the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment in section 12. That’s probably true ― when I commented on the Court of Appeal’s decision, I described it an example of legal contortionism by a court boxed in by restrictive precedents. The question, though, is whether these precedents are enough.

For the Chief Justice, they are. She says that the relevant principle of fundamental justice is the one that proscribes overbreadth. Overbreadth, as the Supreme Court has defined it, is the vice of a law that applies to situations that are not related to its purpose, as well as to those that are. While the law is only overbroad as to those cases that are not related to its objectives, an overbroad law that deprives people of their liberty will be struck down as a whole, and not merely read down to fit its purposes more exactly.

The overbreadth analysis is obviously dependent on the analysis of the impugned law’s or provision’s objective. In the absence of any clear indicia of purpose in the statutory text itself, the Chief Justice turns mostly to various statements made in the House of Commons by the Minister responsible for the legislation. She acknowledges that

[s]tatements of purpose in the legislative record may be rhetorical and imprecise. Yet providing information and explanations of proposed legislation is an important ministerial responsibility, and courts rightly look to it in determining the purpose of a challenged provision. [36]

The trouble, though, is that the Minister named a quite a number of different objectives when explaining the provision at issue to Parliament, ranging from the vague and symbolic to the more concrete. There was the protection of society from violent offenders, the rehabilitation of said offenders through prison programmes which is supposedly promoted longer prison terms, there was retribution and punishment too, and preventing offenders from “benefitting” from having been kept in prison. The Chief Justice concludes, however, that

the legislative purpose of the total denial of enhanced credit for pre-sentence custody to offenders who are denied bail because of a prior conviction is to enhance public safety and security by increasing violent and chronic offenders’ access to rehabilitation programs. [47; emphasis removed]

All the other purposes mentioned by the minister are merely “peripheral.” [47]

With this purpose in mind, the Chief Justice then finds that because the denial of enhanced credit “catches people in ways that have nothing to do with enhancing public safety and security,” [52] it is overbroad. Notably, the rule applies to offenders who do not fall in the “violent” and “chronic” categories as well as to those who do. For the same reason, the denial of enhanced credit is not “minimally impairing” and therefore cannot be justified under section 1 of the Charter.

As I said at the outset, this is ― ostensibly anyway ― a minimalist decision that is in effect limited to the facts of this case, and more precisely to the legislative record that was in evidence. If the Minister’s statements had been different ― if, for instance, they had emphasized the need for retribution more than the supposed effectiveness of longer imprisonment in rehabilitating habitual or violent criminals ― the Chief Justice would have been hard pressed to find that the denial of enhanced credit for time served was overbroad. A future government bent on pursuing a “tough on crime” agenda need only be more forthright to get its way ― not less punitive. Even more disturbingly, a future Supreme Court could easily emphasize different aspects of a similar legislative record, dismiss the nice-sounding stuff about rehabilitation as “peripheral,” and uphold an identical law.

Would it, though? In commenting on the Court’s decision in Safarzadeh-Markhali over at Policy Options Perspectives, Michael Plaxton invokes Harry Frankfurt’s idea of “bullshit” ― a statement made without regard for its truth or falsity. Much political discourse ― including, one suspects, ministerial statements made in introducing legislation in the House of Commons ― are bullshit in this sense, but prof. Plaxton suggests that the Court’s approach just might force Ministers to be more careful about what they say, which would “have welcome implications for democratic discourse.” (Prof. Plaxton worries, though, that the Court may also be forcing political discourse into levels of subtlety beyond the average voter’s comprehension.) But, with all due respect to its eminent members, I cannot help but wonder if the Court itself is not guilty of spreading bullshit ― still in the Frankfurt sense of course ― when it purports to identify the true intention of Parliament in the panoply of justifications offered by the Minister. That is to say, I wonder whether the Court actually cares whether the intention on which it settles is the one that animated the political actors, or whether it is content to attribute it to them regardless.

The reason I am asking such impolite questions is that the Chief Justice’s analysis of the legislative purpose strikes me as rather strained. The Chief Justice begins by saying that “[t]he title of the [Truth in Sentencing Act, which added the impugned provision to the Criminal Code] suggests that the evil to which it is directed is opaqueness in the sentencing process” [32] ― but surely it does not. What “truth in sentencing” is concerned with is not so much opaqueness as the fact that offenders ended up spending less time in prison than they were sentenced to, due to judges giving enhanced credit for pre-trial detention. The Act, accordingly, limited this credit in various ways. The Chief Justice, it seems to me, tries as best she can to avoid engaging with Parliament’s real motivations. Ultimately, she divines legislative intent from ministerial statements that allow her to strike down the impugned provision while telling the politicians that they merely chose the wrong means to laudable ends, and not that their ends themselves were unacceptable. But I, for one, am not convinced that she believes any of this. And if so, then the Chief Justice’s ostensible minimalism is merely a smoke-screen.

Yet as in other instances, adopting a narrow approach designed to minimize potential conflict with Parliament has its costs. The Truth in Sentencing Act was itself a rather remarkable instance of bullshit. As the Ontario Court of Appeal pointed out in its decision, it could result in offenders with similar criminal histories serving different prison terms depending on things such as the strength of their sureties, and even in people foregoing applying for bail in order to avoid being refused on the basis of their criminal histories and being denied enhanced credit as a result. This is not what “truth in sentencing” means to any fair-minded person ― but of course the government that introduced that legislation didn’t care. While the way in which it did so was questionable, the Court of Appeal at least addressed these issues directly. The Supreme Court does not even try. It leaves in place the jurisprudential framework that forced the Court of Appeal into legal contortionism, and wades further into the minefield of relying on legislative history without addressing the well-known issues with this practice, which Benjamin Oliphant summarized in his own Policy Options Perspectives post. As I already said here, “the problem with leading from behind is that one has trouble seeing ahead.” The Supreme Court needs to think about this before engaging in any more minimalism, real or feigned.

Down with Hypocrisy, Again

Over at Democratic Audit UK, Mollie Gerver has an interesting post arguing that the European Union should decriminalize people smuggling ― that is, helping consenting individuals to cross borders which they lack permission to cross, in exchange for payment. (Consent is very important here: it’s what distinguishes “smuggling” from “trafficking,” the moving of people by force or fraud.) Having once written that Canada’s anti-smuggling laws are a form of organized hypocrisy, I agree. If anything, I would go even further than Ms. Gerver.

Ms. Gerver points that it is not illegal for a refugee to pay a smuggler, or to come to a country where he or she applies for protection. Even those whose applications for refugee status are denied are only deported, not punished. Smugglers, by contrast, face stiff criminal sanctions if they are caught, and this, Ms. Gerver explains, creates all sorts of perverse incentives. For example, smugglers “require extensive intelligence information to evade border control officials, which is often only possible by joining forces with those involved in arms trading and human trafficking networks.” Even worse, “[t]o avoid getting caught and arrested, smugglers often also take violent actions against migrants and refugees.” Moreover, because they face criminal sanctions whether or not they endanger the people they transport, smugglers are incentivized to carry as many people as they can, regardless of the risks, so as to maximize the profits.

Ms. Gerver proposes that smuggling be decriminalized, and that smugglers only face criminal punishment actions that are independently wrong, whether abuse or endangerment of the migrants, arms trafficking, or even “fraud if they fail to warn migrants and refugees about the risks of the journey.” In this way, smugglers will actually have an incentive to avoid, not to engage in, these sorts of behaviour. In Ms. Gerver’s view, such an approach would not be inconsistent with turning potential refugees away if they are intercepted before reaching safe haven, and generally with trying to reduce the number of those who reach their destinations and claim asylum. Indeed, she believes that “smuggling may also be easier to stop if decriminalised,” because smugglers might become “less nervous about being caught” once they know that they will not face sanctions if they are.

I’m not sure quite how seriously Ms. Gerver means her suggestions that decriminalization would be a way of reducing the number of refugees able to claim asylum in the West. I doubt that the suggestion is correct, because lowering the price of smuggling to those who engage in it will also lower the price their clients have to pay, and thus attract more of them, many more, I suspect, than would be stopped en route. Ms. Gerver might not think that this would be a good thing. But I certainly do. Indeed, I now believe, as I did not when I wrote the post linked to above, that states have no right to keep out any migrants, whether they are fleeing natural disasters, war, political persecution, or misery caused by the same sort of bad government that makes natural disasters into humanitarian catastrophes and causes wars and persecution. But you need not share this view to think that allowing more people who are genuine refugees as the term is generally understood to come to safety would be a good thing.

Indeed, you do not even need to believe that to want to change a policy that makes it more likely that refugees will be victimized by smugglers. To repeat, this policy is one of rank hypocrisy. We say that we welcome refugees, but actually we put barriers that not only make it difficult for them to come, but ensure that those who make the attempt are more likely to suffer or even die. That this barriers are invisible makes it worse. Ostensibly we protect vulnerable people from exploitation. In reality, as I argued in my earlier post on this topic, and as Ms. Gerver confirms, we create incentives for the smugglers to exploit them. To the somewhat more specific points Ms. Gerver makes, I would add the following, more general, one that I made in my earlier post:

[a]s with drugs, illegality ― created by the state ― reduces the number of willing sellers and increases the risks for which each of them wants to be compensated out of the price he charges. … But it seems quite wrong for the state to manufacture the conditions that give rise to the appearances of exploitation and then blame, and even criminalize, others for that exploitation.

The same situation prevailed with sex work under the legislative framework that the Supreme Court struck down in Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 S.C.R. 1101. As I wrote in commenting on that decision, exploitation of sex workers by pimps is no small part a predictable consequence of the illegality of “living off the avails” of prostitution:

no law can make demand for protection of and assistance to prostitutes vanish. By criminalizing the supply that emerges to meet this demand, law makes supply more scarce, and therefore more costly, both in purely financial terms, and in the overall exactions the suppliers impose on their customers. An illegal activity inevitably attracts more “tough” ― read, abusive ― people than a legal one would.

Parliament was forced to change the way it regulated sex work after Bedford, but the new legal framework is, if anything, even more similar to that which applies to people smuggling, both in form and in effect. Only one side of the consensual  transaction, the one allegedly exploiting the other, is criminalized (in the case of smuggling, the supply; in the case of sex work, the demand), but the putative victim is endangered, and probably also stigmatized, as a result. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that, as with sex work and other activities considered reprehensible, regulations that ostensibly protect people from their ill-effects are actually meant to scare or disgust them out of engaging in these activities; or at least that, even if this is not the intent, the supporters of such laws really do not mind if they this effect.

The title of my comment on Bedford was “Down with Hypocrisy.” I still feel that way about the criminalization of sex work ― or of the demand for sex work. And I still feel that way about the criminalization of human smuggling ― or, to describe it less hypocritically, of remunerated assistance to people crossing borders that states had no business preventing them from crossing in the first place. Hypocritical laws enacted with, at best, a reckless disregard for the misery they cause do not belong on the statute book of any decent polity.

H/t: Michael Plaxton

The Fog of Law

The Prime Minister has announced that, should his government return to power after the election, it will seek to enact legislation criminalizing the travel to some parts of the world, considered to be hotbeds of terrorism. Both the list of areas in question and the details of the legislation are sketchy at this point, so it is hard to say anything definitive about this proposal. Craig Forcese considers both the merits of this proposal and its constitutionality, on the basis of what little is known about it, and concludes that while some version of a travel ban would be both a good idea and constitutional, Mr. Harper’s proposal, which would apparently include exceptions ― subject to a reversed burden of proof ― for journalists, humanitarian workers and, maybe, for people go to the prohibited zones to fight terrorists as well, might be neither.

Unlike prof. Forcese, I’m not qualified to speak to the merits of Mr. Harper’s idea. However, I want to venture some thoughts about its constitutionality. Overall, my views are similar to prof. Forcese’s. I think that some form of travel ban may well be constitutional, though the exceptions make defending the proposal put forth by Mr. Harper more difficult to defend. In this post, I will consider four Charter rights potentially implicated by the proposal, as well as the arguments that might justify limiting these rights under s. 1 of the Charter.

The most obvious place to start in assessing the constitutionality of a travel restriction is surely section 6(1) of the Charter, which states that “[e]very citizen of Canada has the right to enter, remain in and leave Canada.” Prof. Forcese says that “it is not clear … that the s.6 right to enter and leave Canada includes ‘the right to leave Canada and go to a war zone of your choosing’.” I would put the same thing even more strongly: the constitutional text speaks of a “right to … leave Canada” ― not a right to go anywhere in particular. I suspect that what inspired its entrenchment (and, earlier, the enshrinement of international mobility rights in the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights) was the practice of totalitarian (especially Communist) regimes to prevent their citizens from leaving the country whether permanently or even temporarily ― or, having allowed a person to leave, of stripping him of citizenship and thus preventing his return. A targeted travel ban is very far from that sort of thing. It is arguable, I suppose, that the longer the list of prohibited destinations, the more illusory the right to leave the country becomes. But for now that is a theoretical concern. In my view, the government would have a very strong argument on this point. That said s. 6(1) has not received much attention from the Supreme Court, except in the context of extradition and the transfer of Canadians imprisoned abroad back to Canada. Its contours in other circumstances remain to be drawn.

A related argument involving a constitutional right that has received even less attention from the Supreme Court is that based on the freedom of the press protected by section 2(b) of the Charter. Prof. Forcese suggests that “the reverse onus ― requiring a journalist to prove they are journalist to avoid going to jail for travelling to a designated zone ― could also raise novel new s. 2(b) freedom of the press issues.” Indeed, while there is little if any jurisprudence to rely on for such a claim, it would be a plausible one if, as Benjamin Oliphant has proposed in a fascinating article, the freedom of the press were interpreted as protecting newsgathering activity. A journalist travelling to a designated area to collect information in order to inform the Canadian public of the goings-on there would, quite clearly, be engaged in newsgathering, and thus in a constitutionally protected activity. (Mr. Oliphant suggests excluding “inherently harmful activity” from the scope of this protection, however; I suspect that travel, even to a terrorist-infested warzone, wouldn’t qualify as “inherently harmful,” but it’s not entirely clear to me how that might pay out.)

It is worth noting the negative implications of this argument, however. “Freedom of the press” is explicitly protected by the Charter. “Humanitarian work,” “fighting terrorists,” or whatever other activity people might want to engage in in the areas subject to the travel ban are not ― even in Canada, never mind abroad. To me, this seems to strengthen the case against reading s. 6 so as to include the right to travel to some specific foreign destination for these purposes. Nor would this right be protected by the liberty guarantee of s. 7 of the Charter. While the Supreme Court has interpreted this guarantee to encompass “fundamental personal choices,” it seems very unlikely that it would treat an occupational choice, even a humanitarian one, as fundamental enough. That said, Mr. Harper’s travel ban proposal would still implicate s. 7 if penalties for breach include imprisonment. I will come back to that point shortly.

First though, I want to discuss the presumption of innocence, entrenched in section 11(d) of the Charter, and the possibility of justifying an infringement under s. 1. Prof. Forcese points out that “while the jurisprudence under [s. 11(d)] and its application to defences is less than a paragon of clarity, it is still a meaningful hurdle for the government.” Indeed, it seems to me that a finding that requiring people to prove the reasons for their presence in a prohibited area, instead of asking the prosecution to prove that their purpose in being there was not among the authorized exceptions, infringes the presumption of innocence is likely enough.

Can the reverse onus (and, possibly, the burden it puts on the freedom of the press) be justified under s. 1 of the Charter? Here I part ways with prof. Forcese, who says that he doesn’t “think [he] could ever concoct a s.11(d) or s.2 justification that would satisfy s.1.” I think that the way for the government to at least try justifying the reverse onus aspect of its travel ban would be to point to the difficulty for the prosecution of gathering evidence in prohibited areas, and perhaps the comparative ease with which the persons who actually travel there might be able to collect evidence of their activities. Prof. Forcese says that “evidence necessary to prove the many complicated elements of a terrorism offence [is] often unavailable when it comes to proving actual conduct in a war zone,” which might explain the paucity of prosecutions under these offences in Canada and elsewhere. Arguably, the same logic can be applied to the travel ban, and invoked to justify requiring the accused, rather than the prosecution, prove the reasons for their travel, and indeed make the reverse onus the least restrictive means of attaining the objectives of the travel ban.

Just what would such an argument, if it is accepted (and I don’t feel confident prognosticating whether it would be, though I think that that’s at least a real possibility) prove? A couple of Supreme Court decisions are interesting here. One is R. v. Keegstra, [1990] 3 S.C.R. 697, the hate speech case. It is better known for what it said about freedom of expression, but there was also a s. 11(d) argument involved, because the Criminal Code provided a defence of truth to a hate speech charge ― but one that the accused had to prove. The majority said that while a violation of s. 11(d), the reverse onus was justified under s. 1, in part because proving the falsity of a statement beyond reasonable doubt is too difficult, and because the harm caused by hate speech occurs even if what is said is true, so that it is important not to let the accused off the hook too easily.

The other relevant case is R. v. Laba, [1994] 3 S.C.R. 965, which considered the constitutionality of a requirement that a person accused of selling ore or other minerals containing precious metals prove his or her legal entitlement to do so. This was, concededly, a violation of s. 11(d), but the Supreme Court concluded that some infringement of the presumption of innocence was justified because it was important to prevent trade in stolen ore, and the technology that would allow the Crown to prove the provenance of an ore sample and thus establish that it had been stolen was not yet good enough. However, the Court also said that instead of having the accused prove their entitlement to be selling the ore on a balance of probabilities, the requirement that the infringement be minimally impairing of the s. 11(d) right meant that it should be enough for them to present evidence that raises a reasonable doubt as to their guilt.

We don’t know, of course, what form the reverse onus aspect of the travel ban would take. And even if it is a full requirement to prove one’s reason for going to a prohibited zone on a balance of probabilities, it is not clear to me whether the courts would see the case as being more like Keegstra or Laba. In R. v. Keegstra, [1996] 1 S.C.R. 458, the Court said that the two cases were distinguishable, but did not actually explain why. I suppose the difference is this idea that hate speech is harmful even if within the scope of the defence. What about travel to prohibited zones? If I read prof. Forcese correctly, he suggests that it might be, but perhaps the very existence of the defence should be taken to reflect a governmental judgment that this is not so.

I come back now to the s. 7 issue I had set aside before. It might be something like a trump card against the s. 1 argument I have just described. The possibility of imprisonment for breaching the travel ban would have to be in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice. The relevant principle here is that first identified in Chief Justice Dickson’s judgment in R. v. Morgentaler, [1988] 1 S.C.R. 30 (and later recalled ― although not found to be applicable ― by the majority in R. v. St‑Onge Lamoureux, 2012 SCC 57, [2012] 3 S.C.R. 187): “when Parliament creates a defence to a criminal charge, the defence should not be illusory or so difficult to attain as to be practically illusory.” The issue here is was whether the difficulty of obtaining evidence in a prohibited area would mean that not only the prosecution, but also the defence would it it impossible to do so. (By contrast, in Laba, the Court was of the view that an innocent person would not find it difficult to introduce the evidence required at least to raise a reasonable doubt.) As I suggested above, it seems to me that the accused should be in a better position than the prosecution, but I don’t know enough to really tell.

All that to say, it is by no means impossible that a travel ban, even in the form mooted by the Prime Minister, would be constitutional, but also by no means certain. The matter is quite complicated, not least because many of the constitutional issues that the proposal raises have not been much explored. Uncertainty isn’t only a characteristic of war zones. It is also, sometimes at least, a prominent feature of constitutional law.

UPDATE: Kent Roach takes on the travel ban proposal an interview with UofT News. He thinks that the ban would infringe ss. 6(1) and 11(d) of the Charter, and also seems more skeptical of its merits than prof. Forcese. Also, have a look at CM’s comments below. My own views haven’t changed, however.

FURTHER UPDATE: Michael Plaxton Tyler Shandro comments over at the Policy Options blog (apologies for my confusion about the authorship of the post!). He seems pretty confident that Mr. Harper’s proposal, in its current form, already takes the Charter issues into account and is constitutional. Still, I am not persuaded that the objections I discuss above can be so easily dismissed.

What Were They Smoking?

Last week, the Supreme Court held that the prohibition on medical marijuana products intended to be ingested or applied as creams ― as opposed to dried medical marijuana for the purposes of smoking, for which a permission can be granted ― is arbitrary and, therefore, not in accordance with principles of fundamental justice, in violation of s. 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The decision, R. v. Smith, 2015 SCC 34, is terse, but it is noteworthy for a number of reasons.

The respondent, Joseph Smith, was involved in the confection of medical marijuana products not authorized by the regulations, such as “cannabis cookies,” massage oil, and lip balm. He was charged with possession of cannabis and possession for the purpose of trafficking, but contested the charges, arguing that the exclusion of such products from the medical marijuana exemptions was unconstitutional. The Crown retorted that, not being a consumer of such products, he lacked standing to bring such a challenge, but the Court made short work of this argument, pointing out that “[a]ccused persons have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the law they are charged under, even if the alleged unconstitutional effects are not directed at them.” [12]

On the constitutional claim, the Court found that the restriction on the scope of permissible medical marijuana products engaged s. 7 of the Charter in two ways. First, it exposed the makers, sellers, and users of the prohibited products to a threat of imprisonment, and was thus a potential violation of their right to liberty. Second, by “prevent[ing] people who have already established a legitimate need for marihuana — a need the legislative scheme purports to accommodate — from choosing the method of administration of the drug,” [18] the restriction infringes both these people’s liberty and their security of the person. Liberty comprises the right to choose one’s medical treatment. For its part, security of the person is compromised because the evidence accepted by the trial judge showed not only that for for some medical marijuana users smoking it is not the most medically effective treatment, but also that smoking can produce harmful consequences, such as “the risk of cancer and bronchial infections.” [18]

According to s. 7 of the Charter, a law that compromises life, liberty, or the security of the person must be “in accordance with principles of fundamental justice.” One such principle, long recognized by the Court, is a prohibition on arbitrariness, understood as the absence of a rational relationship between a law’s purpose and its effect. The purpose of the rule at issue here, the Court found, “is simply the protection of health and safety.” [24] According to the Court, the evidence on the relative effectiveness of the various forms of medical marijuana for different users shows that, far from serving this objective,

the prohibition on non-dried medical marihuana undermines the health and safety of medical marihuana users by diminishing the quality of their medical care. The effects of the prohibition contradict its objective, rendering it arbitrary. [25]

Besides, there was no evidence that the prohibited forms of marijuana are more dangerous to users, or that they are more likely to fall into the hands of people not authorized to use the drug for medical purposes. The result is “a total disconnect between the limit on liberty and security of the person imposed by the prohibition and its object,” [27] contrary to the requirement of non-arbitrariness. Needless to say, this outcome cannot be justified under s. 1 of the Charter, which requires a rational connection between an infringement of a right and some “pressing and substantial” objective.

The last issue for the Court was that of the remedy. In form, the remedy chosen by the Court is a declaration that the prohibitions on marijuana possession and trafficking “are of no force and effect, to the extent that they prohibit a person with a medical authorization from possessing cannabis derivatives for medical purposes.” [31] In substance, this is a rare case of “reading in” ― the expansion of the scope of an underinclusive legal rule in order to make it constitutional. Finally, the Court refuses to suspend this declaration in order to give Parliament time to consider its options, because to do so “would leave patients without lawful medical treatment and the law and law enforcement in limbo.” [32]

This seems like an obviously correct decision, at least assuming that the trial judge’s assessment of the evidence on the effects of the various forms of medical marijuana is correct ― indeed, one wonders whether it was really necessary to make a Supreme Court case out of this issue. And what a case, too. Decisions signed by “the Court” are normally issues in the most politically salient and controversial cases. The assisted suicide decision, Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5, [2015] 1 S.C.R. 331 was one such case. Arguably the Court’s most high profile drug-related decision, in the Insite case, Canada (Attorney General) v. PHS Community Services Society, 2011 SCC 44, [2011] 3 S.C.R. 134 was not. Yet judging by the government’s hysterical reaction, the Court was right to treat what strikes me as a comparatively trivial matter as equivalent in importance to assisted suicide. This means, by the way, that the government’s attacks on the Court’s integrity may well be having the perverse effect of making the judges less accountable ― at least if it is the case, as many believe, that opinions signed by their individual authors are an important element of judicial accountability. 

The Court, undoubtedly, is well aware of the political responses to its rulings. Its refusal to suspend the declaration of invalidity might be further evidence of this. That people would remain without treatment to which they are constitutionally entitled was no less true in Carter than it is here; that law and law enforcement would be left in limbo was just as true after the Court struck down the prostitution provisions of the Criminal Code in Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 S.C.R. 1101. Yet in both those cases, the Court granted the government’s request for a suspension of the declarations of unconstitutionality. The government’s response ― especially its foot-dragging on Carter ― are unlikely to have impressed the judges.

The last point I wanted to note is that Smith joins the growing line of cases, which notably includes Insite, Bedford, and Carter, that has been described as an “empirical turn” ― a tendency to resolve Charter cases by reference to scientific evidence. The Court is not exactly consistent in its use of such evidence, as I have noted in the past, and as Lisa Silver notes in a fascinating recent post over at Ideablawg (which I hope to discuss in more detail soon). But Smith, at least, shows that this trend, however inconsistent, is still very much alive.

It also shows that, the government, for now anyway, tends to lose when scientific evidence ― which the current government, at least, so often ignores ― drives the case. Here, though, the loss seems particularly clear. The government, apparently, had no real arguments at all for its position, which makes me wonder ― what is it that they were smoking when they decided it was constitutionally defensible?

Help Us. Or Maybe Don’t?

Here’s another point that I found interesting in the Supreme Court’s decision in R. v. Tatton, 2015 SCC 33. (I wrote about Justice Moldaver’s comment regarding mandatory minimum sentences yesterday.) The issue in Tatton was whether self-induced intoxication could be invoked as a defence to a charge of arson ― but Justice Moldaver, writing for the unanimous Court, also sought to clarify the broader question of the sorts of offences to which intoxication can be a defence. The distinction between offences for which this defence is available and those for which it is not “continues to perplex counsel and trial courts alike,” [22] says Justice Moldaver. And, worse, this

confusion … is part of a larger problem that has plagued the Canadian criminal law for decades. Regrettably, the Criminal Code often provides no clear direction about the required mental element for a given offence. It is therefore left to judges to attempt to divine the required mental element (also referred to as the degree of fault). [23]

Justice Moldaver notes that “academics and law reform bodies have urged that the Code be amended to specify the mental element and fault requirement for each crime” [24] and adds his own voice to the chorus:

Legislative intervention is sorely needed to spell out the mental element of offences and to specify when intoxication short of automatism can be considered. [25]

This call for help tells us something interesting about the respective roles of courts and legislatures (Parliament, in this case) in developing the law. Justice Moldaver does not appeal to Parliament because courts cannot themselves work out the mental element of an offence or whether it is such that intoxication should be a possible defence. After all, the Supreme Court does just that in Tatton ― seemingly, without too much trouble, at least if the decision’s concision and unanimity are any indication.

The reason why “legislative intervention is sorely needed” is that judicial decisions work things out piecemeal, which creates a twin Rule of Law problem. First, decisions can be inconsistent, with apparently similar offences treated differently, and indeed courts disagreeing among themselves regarding the treatment of any one offence, at least until the Supreme Court clarifies matters. It is perhaps worth noting that in a perfect Dworkinian world, where judges excel at “fitting” their decisions with all the others so that the law is the proverbial seamless web, this problem should not arise. But the perfect Dworkinian world is not the one in which we live.

Second, partly as a result of these inconsistencies, the litigants have a hard time knowing what the law even is. Now, while a person’s being subject to criminal liability for infringing a law of which he or she could not be aware is widely regarded as perhaps the worst possible Rule of Law infringement, the obscurity of the law regarding mental states generally and especially intoxication might not be quite so bad. People should refrain from getting drunk and doing stupid and dangerous things, regardless of whether they can be prosecuted for doing them. Even if Mr. Tatton, who set the house where he lived on fire ― not out of malice, it seems, but as a consequence of being in a state that a certain ex-mayor would have described as a drunken stupor ― could have invoked this state as a defence to a criminal charge, his actions would still have been unambiguously wrong, and even he surely would not have disputed that. Still, not every action that is morally wrong is criminal, and so there is a moral loss in prosecuting people on the basis of an unknowable law, even for independently reprehensible conduct.

By clarifying things across the board and at once, legislation can solve Rule of Law problems caused by the slow and sometimes disorderly development of the law by the courts. But then again, real-world legislation doesn’t always do that. Later on in his opinion, Justice Moldaver mentions sexual assault as an example of offence for which the defence of intoxication is not available. In a footnote, the only one of the opinion, he adds:

The Criminal Code now explicitly states that an accused may not rely on intoxication to support his mistaken belief in the complainant’s consent: see s. 273.2. However, this was the position at common law long before s. 273.2 was enacted.

Perhaps I’m overthinking this, but I cannot quite shake the impression that Justice Moldaver is being somewhat snarky, if not a bit passive-aggressive here, and telling Parliament something like “we really didn’t need you to tell us that.” But that would be at odds with his earlier call for legislative intervention, wouldn’t it?

Not necessarily. A single provision like s. 273.2, which applies to a very narrow set of offences, is precisely the sort of piecemeal clarification that courts themselves are perfectly capable of supplying. It contributes nothing to a more “big-picture” view of the law of mental states or intoxication. Parliament might have had its reasons for enacting it (symbolic reasons, perhaps), but Justice Moldaver may well think, and would have a reason for thinking, that its energies would have been better spent elsewhere ― namely, on the more difficult business of the sort of law reform that Parliament is uniquely well-positioned to enact. Parliament should help the courts, but it should go about it the right way.