Does the Constitution Mean Anything?

In defence of textualism in constitutional interpretation

The Stereo Decisis podcast recently devoted an episode to a discussion of a case that I have covered here, 9147-0732 Québec inc v Directeur des poursuites criminelles et pénales, 2019 QCCA 373, in which the Québec Court of Appeal held that corporations could avail themselves of the protection of section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms against “cruel and unusual treatment and punishment”. While the hosts Robert Danay, Oliver Pulleyblank, and Hillary Young disagreed on the merits of the issue before the court, they were, I take it, agreed on one thing: the approach to interpreting section 12 on which my post relied is not compelling. And indeed my post was pointedly textualist, and intended as a bit of a provocation to the adherents to Canadian consensus approach to the constitution, which is anything but. I am glad that it worked, and that we are, as a result, having a bit of a debate on constitutional interpretation; and all the more so since, in the course of this discussion, my critics nicely expose the weakness of their position.

Briefly, I had argued that section 12 does not apply to corporations because the word “cruel” refers to the wilful infliction of or indifference to pain or suffering, and pain or suffering is something that corporations are not capable of. I added a discussion of the evolution of the provisions intended to limit punishments from the Magna Carta, to the Bill of Rights, 1688 and the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution, to section 12, during the course of which the prohibition on “excessive fines” (to use the language of the Bill of Rights) fell by the wayside and was left out of the Charter. Considerations about whether it would have been a good idea for the Charter’s framers to have made a different choice and included a protection against excessive fines, which in effect is what the Québec Court of Appeal decided, are in my opinion irrelevant.

The hosts of Stereo Decisis took issue with that. We just can’t interpret the Charter simply by looking at what it says. Mr. Pulleyblank insisted that “‘[c]ruel and unusual’ is a bad phrase. It doesn’t really mean cruel and it doesn’t really mean unusual.” And beyond this particular provision, Professor Young said that the Charter is written in “rather loose language”, so that answers to questions about its meaning “can’t be found in the words”. Rather, they can only be obtained by asking what the Charter ought to mean. “You have to look beyond the words”, to “normative” considerations, such “how you feel about the Charter versus legislative authority”. The Québec Court of Appeal, for instance, had to decide whether “this particular right should apply to corporations”. (Emphasis mine) And that decision can yield, as Mr. Pulleyblank put it, “a norm that is different than either of those words [cruel and unusual] or both of those words together”.

Normative considerations are what caused the hosts to disagree about the outcome of the case. Mr. Danay said that “[w]e ought not to try to limit Charter rights. … If the Charter seems like it could protect something, probably a better reading … would be to protect that thing.” Professor Young, by contrast, saw a greater role for deference “to legislation enacted by elected legislatures”, and added that “[i]f we were talking about human beings’ rights, I would be less inclined to interpret so narrowly but I’m not super sympathetic about arguments for corporations’ rights against cruel and unusual treatment”. It was, as Mr. Pulleyblank summed it up, “just a disagreement” about “the impact on the democratic process”.

In my view, the hosts’ criticism of my textualist interpretation are weak, and their own approach grounded in vague normative considerations, unattractive. Now, it’s important to understand what textualism is not, and what it is. No textualist, for example, would say that answers to all constitutional questions can be found in the words alone. Sometimes, it is indeed necessary to go beyond the words of a provision. Some words that the Charter‘s framers used are vague. Context can clarify what at first glance appears to vagueness; in other cases, it might tells us that the most straightforward reading of a word whose import at first seems clear is not the most accurate one. Thus, contrary to what Mr. Pulleyblank rather derisively implied, my “going beyond the text” to look at section 12’s historical antecedents does not make me a bad textualist. Textualism is, in short, the idea that constitutional text, read in its proper context, binds ― insofar as it has an ascertainable meaning; it is not the view that text alone will always answer all constitutional questions. (In any case though, my ultimate commitment is to public meaning originalism, which starts, but does not always end, with textualism.)

So textualism can acknowledge the vagueness of a constitutional provision, but it will insist on not merely stipulating that its language is “bad” or “loose”, or that, if it is somewhat vague, it is incapable of providing any real guidance to the interpreter. The word “cruel”, in section 12, is a nice illustration. Of course, it is vague to a considerable extent. No amount of looking at dictionaries will tell us whether, say, a parole ineligibility period longer than an offender’s life expectancy is cruel (the main question in R c Bissonnette, 2019 QCCS 354) and, as a public meaning originalist, I do not think that knowing how the Charter‘s framers would have answered that particular question tells us much about the meaning of section 12 either. But it doesn’t follow that the word cruel is poorly chosen or that it has no real import at all. In the case before the Québec Court of Appeal, looking at the word’s ordinary meaning was helpful, indeed sufficient to dispose of the dispute (which an examination of the context confirmed).

The Stereo Decisis hosts never actually disputed this ― they did not refer to definitions of the word “cruel” that contradicted the claims that Justice Chamberland (who dissented at the Court of Appeal) and I made about it. (At least that’s how I understood them; as I was writing this post, Benjamin Oliphant suggested that “the hosts raise a worthwhile challenge to [my] interpretation of section 12. What if the words ‘cruel and unusual’ are properly understood to mean “grossly disproportionate’ … ?” I don’t think the hosts said that section 12 actually means this ― only that it has been read in this way by the Supreme Court. And I don’t think that “cruel” actually means “grossly disproportionate”. Again, dictionary definitions tend to emphasize wilful infliction of pain. Moreover, section 12 applies not only to “punishment” but to other “treatment” of the individual by the state. While it makes sense to speak of cruel treatment, I don’t think that “grossly disproportional” works here; disproportional to what?)

As I understood the Stereo Decisis hosts, they took what I can only describe as a dogmatic position that a word like “cruel” must be so vague as to provide no guidance. I don’t think that going into an interpretive exercise with a pre-determined view of this sort is right. Vagueness is not an all-or-nothing thing; a word, or a provision, can be vague as to some questions but not others. The interpreter needs to make a reasonable effort to glean what guidance can be had from the text and context before concluding that they “run out” and that the question facing him or her must be answered by looking at other considerations.

And then, the interpreter needs to face the question of what considerations should be looked at when, and to the extent that, a constitutional provision does run out. (In originalist terms, this is the question of what theory of construction one must adopt for those cases that interpretation does not settle.) The Stereo Decisis hosts suggest that we must go straight to very general normative views about the Charter and legislative power. As their discussion shows, however, this approach is not especially fruitful, in that it promptly leads to stark normative disagreement between those who would maximize the scope of the Charter‘s limits on government power and those who would reduce it in the name of preserving legislative authority. The two sides of this dispute have little to say to one another; both argue that the case should simply be decided by following their normative priors; they can only count heads to see who wins on any particular panel. Adjudication along these lines is not readily distinguishable from a legislative power struggle.

I do not mean to deny that cases where a court can do no better may arise from time to time. Still, I think that we should be uneasy about this prospect. Telling judges that it’s normal, rather than exceptional and worrying, for them to decide constitutional cases by reference to their own normative commitments produces nefarious consequences, as judges come to think that their personal understanding of right and wrong is more important than the law. From constitutional cases, this belief bleeds into other areas of the law ― into cases of ordinary statutory interpretation and even common law ones. This destroys the Rule of Law and removes the most important constraint on judicial power, which is the requirement to (normally) follow the law, be it constitution, statute, and precedent, that someone else has first set out.

Moreover, if constitutional disputes can only be decided by reference to what are political rather than legal considerations, then it is not obvious, as a normative matter, why they should be decided by the courts rather than by political institutions. (This is, of course, especially true of cases that involve individual rights; federalism disputes arguably require a neutral arbiter, but even there, it is not quite clear why the arbiter should be judicial in character.) And, as a descriptive matter, those who hold to the view that constitutional texts are more or less meaningless don’t even have access to the positive law argument I have made here that, as a textual matter, our constitution actually requires judicial supremacy. They must attempt to answer the question of whether it does so with normative arguments alone, and are unlikely to convince anyone not predisposed to agree with them.

It is much better, as well as more consistent with our Rule of Law tradition and with the positive law of our constitution, to insist that judges ascertain the meaning of the law given them, and if the meaning does not resolve the dispute they have to settle, that they endeavour to implement this law, not on the basis of their predilections, but of the law’s purposes. A judge who happens to share my distaste for most economic regulation can and should nevertheless conclude that, while an additional obstacle to such regulation’s excesses in the shape of an extension of the scope of section 12 to corporations would be normatively desirable, the constitution that we actually have does not raise this obstacle in the grasping legislatures’ way. But for him or her to be able so to conclude, that judge must be committed to elucidating and applying the law, instead of believing that judicial office gives one carte blanche to implement one’s own preferences.

Constitutional interpretation isn’t discussed enough in Canada. A general lack of interest, caused by overconfidence in a living constitutionalist orthodoxy, has meant that when Canadian lawyers confront questions of constitutional interpretation they are liable to reason in ways that are not compelling. Sadly, the Stereo Decisis discussion of the question whether section 12 of the Charter extends to corporation was illustrative. It relied on a mistaken assumption that constitutional language is infinitely malleable, with the result that, as Mr. Pulleyblank put it, “[i]f you want to go one way you can probably get there. If you want to go the other way you can probably get there.” Descriptively, this mischaracterizes our constitutional documents, which are rather less vague than is sometimes said. Normatively, a state of affairs in which constitutional law dissolves in competing assertions about the appropriate relationship between courts and legislatures, has little to recommend itself.

These two defects feed into each other. The less faith one has in the capacity of constitutional texts to guide their interpreters, the more power one is inclined to grant judges (even if only to seek to claw it back through free-floating doctrines of deference). The less one accepts limits on judicial power, the more one is tempted to see vagueness in every text, without seriously examining it. Still, I hope that, by discussing constitutional interpretation and calling into question beliefs about it whose truth has too long simply been assumed we will make much needed progress.

Climb Out!

The Québec Court of Appeal errs in holding that corporations are protected against cruel and unusual punishment

In a case that has attracted some media attention, 9147-0732 Québec inc v Directeur des poursuites criminelles et pénales, 2019 QCCA 373 the Québec Court of Appeal recently ruled that a corporation is entitled to the protection of section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which provides that “[e]veryone has the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment”. In my view, however, the majority is mistaken. Its analysis illustrates the perils of what I have been referring to as “constitutionalism from the cave” ― the belief that our constitution is only an imperfect reflection of the true constitutional justice to which the courts ought to give effect.


Justice Bélanger’s opinion for the majority (herself and Justice Rancourt) starts with a discussion of the place of organizations, a term that includes but is not limited to corporations, in contemporary criminal law. In Justice Bélanger’s view, since the constitution is an evolving “living tree”, its interpretation ought to be fitted to the context of a criminal law that imposes liability similar to that of corporations on unincorporated associations of individuals. In this context, seeking to maintain a sharp distinction between the rules applicable to individuals and corporations “would create more problems than it would solve”. [102; translation mine, here and throughout]

Justice Bélanger then rejects the argument that corporations cannot avail themselves of the protection of section 12 because this provision aims at upholding human dignity. She points out that other Charter guarantees ― the presumption of innocence and the right to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure ― have also been linked to human dignity, yet they apply to legal persons. Moreover, deprivations of economic resources can affect people, and while corporations have distinct legal personalities, not all organisations, as the criminal law uses the term, do. In any case, “a legal person can suffer from a cruel fine that is evidenced by its rigour, harshness, and a kind of hostility”. [122]

Turning to constitutional text, Justice Bélanger notes that the section 12 rights are guaranteed to “everyone”. In the context of various other rights (for example, the protection against unreasonable searches and seizures), “everyone” has been read as encompassing legal persons.

Justice Bélanger also argues that allowing the imposition of disproportionate fines on corporations is against the public interest, as well the normal purposes of criminal punishment. Indeed, she

do[es] not believe that Canadian society would find acceptable or in the natural order of things, in whatever circumstances, that a grossly disproportionate fine cause the bankruptcy of a legal person or organization, thus imperilling the rights of its creditors or requiring layoffs. [130; footnote omitted]


Justice Chamberland dissents, making two main arguments. Perhaps the more important one is based on the purpose of section 12 of the Charter, notably as defined by the Supreme Court. This purpose is to preserve human dignity. The Supreme Court says so in multiple decisions. The Canadian Bill of Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Charter‘s legal rights, including those protected by section 12, can be traced, are “instruments that provide for protection of rights in connection with human dignity”. [57] Indeed, “[t]he assertion that no one is to be subject to cruel treatment or punishment cannot be dissociated from human dignity”. [58] While the scope of “treatments or punishments” that may potentially be regarded as cruel can evolve so as to extend to fines, the requirement that the dignity of an individual, not a legal person, be affected is fixed.

Justice Chamberland’s other argument is textual. He considers that, as a matter of plain meaning, the word “cruel” refers to the infliction of “suffering, torture, inhumanity, and barbarity, all words that are tied to living beings and cannot be related to a legal person”. [51] He adds that “[o]ne can be cruel to living beings, of flesh and blood, whether humans or animals. And not to corporations with share capital.” [54-55; paragraph break removed] Justice Chamberland adds that “[t]he English Bill of Rights 1688 and the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution specifically provide protection against excessive fines, which the Canadian Charter and the Canadian Bill of Rights do not incorporate”. [66]


In my view, Justice Chamberland comes to the right conclusion, essentially for the textual reasons that he gives, though they are worth elaborating on a bit. Take the historical or comparative context first. It is useful to start with the Magna Carta (to which Justice Bélanger, but not Justice Chamberland, alludes). The original, 1215, version of the Magna Carta (in English translation) stipulated that

For a trivial offence, a free man shall be fined only in proportion to the degree of his offence, and for a serious offence correspondingly, but not so heavily as to deprive him of his livelihood. In the same way, a merchant shall be spared his merchandise, and a villein the implements of his husbandry, if they fall upon the mercy of a royal court. None of these fines shall be imposed except by the assessment on oath of reputable men of the neighbourhood.

The Bill of Rights 1688 picks up on this idea of proportionality between offence and fine, but it joins it with two other guarantees: “That excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”. The Eighth Amendment repeats these exact words, only replacing “ought not to be” with “shall not be”. The Charter does things somewhat differently from its forbears. The right “not to be denied reasonable bail without just cause” is placed in a separate provision (section 11(e)) from the protection against cruel and unusual punishment (section 12). The proscription of “excessive fines”, meanwhile, has not been retained.

These drafting choices ought to matter. In particular, the Charter‘s text means that excessive fines are not, without more, unconstitutional. Now, in R v Boudreault, 2018 SCC 58, the Supreme Court held that a fine could be punishment for the purposes of section 12, which is fair enough. But of course that doesn’t remove the requirement that the fine, like any other punishment, must be “cruel and unusual” for it to be unconstitutional.

This brings me to the other part of Justice Chamberland’s textual argument: the meaning of the word “cruel”. It is remarkable, and telling, that Justice Bélanger does not directly engage with this question. Yet it is a crucial one. Both the French dictionaries to which Justice Chamberland refers and the OED define “cruel” in terms of the wilful infliction of pain and suffering or indifference to suffering. “Cruel” is not just a synonym for “excessive” or “grossly disproportionate”. Though disproportionality can be a useful indication of cruelty, it does not become cruelty unless it also causes or reflects indifference to suffering.

Now, perhaps this will always be the case with grossly disproportional punishment is inflicted on human beings. But in the case of personae fictae, the shortcut from disproportionality to cruelty is barred. As Justice Chamberland observes, legal persons cannot suffer or be pained. Justice Bélanger’s suggestion to the contrary, quoted above, strikes me as feeble. A corporation may certainly, in an objective sense, be the victim of harsh punishment and hostility. But it cannot subjectively suffer from these things.

Justice Bélanger’s main textual argument ― that section 12 protects “everyone”, and other provisions that do so apply to legal persons ― is also unpersuasive. Justice Bélanger is right that section 8 does apply to legal persons; she could also have pointed to section 2, at least some of whose guarantees (especially freedom of expression) clearly apply to corporations. But “everyone” also introduces section 7 of the Charter, whose protections, especially the right to life, can only apply to natural persons. The word “everyone”, it seems, is used ambiguously in the Charter, and we cannot rest very much on it.

Justice Bélanger’s point about human dignity being associated with rights that have been held to extend to corporations is better taken. But, by itself, it cannot clinch the argument for her position. Indeed, neither she nor Justice Chamberland should have gotten into a discussion of human dignity at all. The issue in this case can be resolved at the stage of interpretation ― of discerning the meaning the constitutional text ― without the need for construction in light of the purpose of the provision at issue. In some cases, construction is necessary to arrive at a workable way of applying a vague constitutional text. Here, by contrast, it only serves to muddy the waters.

Ultimately, Justice Bélanger decides the case the way she does because she thinks that it would be better if our constitution prevented Parliament and legislatures from imposing disproportionate fines that would cripple, and perhaps bankrupt, businesses. There is surely something to be said for this view as a normative matter. But what is “in the public interest” is not for the courts to decide. It is the politicians’ prerogative to, first, choose which limitations will be imposed on them and their successors, by framing constitutional provisions; and then by legislating within the boundaries of these provisions. It is arguable that the framers of the Charter made a mistake in failing to incorporate a protection against excessive ― and not only cruel ― fines. It is arguable that Québec’s legislature erred in imposing the minimum fine at issue in this case on a corporation guilty of a purely regulatory victimless offence (operating a construction business without a license). But it is not the Court of Appeal’s job to correct these errors.


As I have said before, it is a serious if all too common mistake to believe that the Charter’s text “is not so much a law that courts must apply as a sort of shadow in Plato’s cave, a vague reflection of true constitutional ideals that the judges must discover and explain to us cavemen”. The Charter, and the rest of the constitution, is binding law ― binding on the courts as well as on legislatures. “There can be”, I said, “no real constitutionalism in Plato’s cave. It’s time to climb out.” That includes the Québec Court of Appeal.

Sentencing Judgment Found Inside a Chinese Fortune Cookie

The sentencing judgment in the Québec City mosque shooter’s case is badly flawed

This post is co-written with Maxime St-Hilaire

The sentence imposed on the accused in R v Bissonnette, 2019 QCCS 354 for murdering six worshippers at a Quebec City mosque, and injuring, in many cases grievously, multiple others is striking: life imprisonment, as for all murderers, and no possibility of parole for 40 years. This is one of the longest periods of parole ineligibility in Canadian history, and thus one of the heaviest sentences imposed since the abolition of the death penalty. Yet equally striking, and in our view insufficiently discussed (in English anyway), is the reasoning of the Québec Superior Court judge who imposed this sentence―and re-wrote the Criminal Code in order to do so.

At the heart of the decision is section 745.51 of the Criminal Code, which since 2011 has authorized―but not required―judges to stack parole ineligibility periods for persons convicted of multiple murders. The Crown invoked it and asked for Mr. Bissonnette to be subject to six consecutive 25-year periods, thus theoretically making him eligible for parole after 150 years. The defence argued that such stacking would be unconstitutional, and that Mr. Bissonnette’s periods parole ineligibility should run concurrently, as they would have before 2011, potentially making him eligible for release in 25 years.

Having reviewed the harrowing facts, Justice Huot takes the view that neither of these positions is just. On the one hand, courts ought not to “sink into excess by imposing punishment that impresses the media but is, all told, of little real significance”. [758; translation ours here and throughout] On the other, “the needs for denunciation, deterrence, and incapacitation are so pressing in this case that the imposition of six concurrent ineligibility periods would bring the administration of justice into disrepute”. [766] According to Justice Huot, justice requires that Mr. Bissonnette be ineligible for parole for more than 25 years―but less than 50. Yet section 745.51 dictates that if ineligibility periods for those guilty of multiple first-degree murders are going to be stacked, they must be stacked in full; that is to say, by increments of 25 years (the mandatory period for one such murder), on the premise that the lives of all victims are of equal value.

However, Justice Huot finds that section 745.51 is unconstitutional. In his view, it is a violation of the constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment (section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms) and against deprivations of liberty and security of the person not in accordance with principles of fundamental justice (section 7 of the Charter). And having so found, Justice Huot takes it upon himself “to modify … existing law” [1173] to grant himself the power to sentence Mr. Bissonnette in the exact way he thinks just.

We think that Justice Huot’s conclusions on section 12, section 7, and the remedy are all fatally flawed. His opinion is, moreover, petty (to the point, as we suggest below, of possible illegality), and lacking in rigour (even misspelling Chief Justice McLachlin’s name on a couple of a occasions). For all its prodigious length and academic, even literary, pretension, the judgment is a failure of scholarship as well as of judicial craft. We cannot comprehensively summarize Justice Huot’s reasons here, but will try to highlight their most significant defects.


Section 12 of the Charter provides that “[e]veryone has the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment”. Justice Huot argues that

it would be disproportionate, cruel, and contrary to Canadian society’s values of justice and compassion to deny an individual who has, since his teenage years, suffered from mental health problems all hope of gaining his freedom back, if only for a few years, regardless of how abominable his crimes were. Canada is not a land where the most undesirable elements of the community are shut in a gaol and their very existence forgotten, the key of their liberty having been thrown into the river of a vast collective indifference. [845]

Of course, section 745.51 didn’t require Justice Huot to impose what he regards as a cruel sentence. It says that parole ineligibility periods can be stacked―not that they must be. Like many if not most provisions of the Criminal Code, it made possible the imposition of a maximum sentence that the judge considers excessive in the circumstances of a particular case. That, by itself, should be no reason to hold it to be contrary to the Charter.

The idea that it is cruel to, in effect, sentence a person to die in prison is also perplexing. For Justice Huot, it is nothing short of “sophistry to assert that [multiple murders] should reasonably expect, in a free, civilized, and democratic society, to spend the rest of their days behind bars, any endeavours at rehabilitation notwithstanding”. [975] Indeed, he asserts that “Canadians would consider as ‘odious and intolerable’ any sentence denying the accused a reasonable chance at conditional release in the last years of his life”. [982] Yet depending on the offender’s age, a fit and just sentence, even for a lesser crime than a hate-driven massacre, may have such a consequence. Does it, for that reason, become unconstitutionally cruel? As for Canadians, a clear majority of them apparently thought the actual death penalty “morally right” just a few years ago. To be clear, this isn’t to say that this majority is itself right. But Justice Huot has no way of knowing that popular opinion has changed. He is, we are afraid, simply making things up.

Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the impression that Justice Huot’s reason for invalidating section 745.51 have to do not so much with the risk of cruelty to the man before him, but with what he regards as “the credibility of the justice system”. [846] Justice Huot is adamant that “a simple period of 25 years of parole ineligibility of 25 years would be utterly unreasonable and disproportionate in the circumstances”. [880] That may be the case (though Parliaments from the 1970s to 2011 had not thought so), but a disproportionately lenient sentence, unlike an excessively harsh one, is not a constitutional violation. The constitution protects individuals from excessive punishment by the state, not society against insufficiently punished offenders. Justice Huot argues that it is imperative “that Parliament leave sufficient discretionary powers to the courts for them to impose on offenders sentences that” [846] will be just in all the circumstances. But, while this this argument may be sound policy, it has nothing to do with preventing cruel and unusual punishments.


Things do not get better as Justice Huot moves on to discussing section 7 of the Charter, which provides that “[e]veryone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice”. There is little question that, by allowing the imposition of addition parole ineligibility, section 745.51 implicates the right to liberty. But is it also not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice?

Justice Huot thinks so. Indeed, he identifies three such principles that he thinks are being infringed. The first one is the prohibition on overbreadth. Section 745.51 is overbroad, says Justice Huot, because it makes it possible for a judge to impose a 50- or 75-year parole ineligibility period on a multiple murderer who would, all things considered, only deserve 30 or 40. Again, Justice Huot insists that not imposing an excessive ineligibility period in such cases is no solution, because “it is simply unrealistic to believe that sentences of 25, 50, or 75 years of ineligibility will always be proportional”. [1051]

Second, Justice Huot says that section 745.51 infringes the prohibition on gross disproportionality, as do all punishments found to be cruel and unusual.

And, not content with these findings, Justice Huot goes on to hold that section 745.51 infringes a third principle of fundamental justice: human dignity. Now human dignity has never been recognized (or, to be fair, rejected) as a principle of fundamental justice for the purposes of section 7 of the Charter. This is no problem for Justice Huot, who breezes through the test for recognizing a new such principle. Dignity, he says, is a legal principle, because it has been recognized as a value underlying the Charter and received “express mentions in the Canadian Bill of Rights and in international agreements”. [1098] Similarly, it is the subject of a broad consensus. And as for whether respect for human dignity is a sufficiently specific criterion to assess infringements of the rights protected by section 7, Justice Huot dismisses the question in a couple of sentences: “Human dignity is a well-known legal principle. It characterizes human beings ‘in their universality’. This concept is sufficiently precise to be considered a ‘manageable standard’.” [721; references omitted].

Justice Huot’s reasoning on overbreadth is dubious, to say the least. Overbreadth more naturally describes the prohibition of conduct that should not be prohibited (because it is unrelated to the prohibition’s purpose) than to excessive punishment, which should be treated under the rubric of gross disproportionality. Moreover, his findings on both of these principles disregard the fact that the issue, under section 7 of the Charter, is whether section 745.51 may force a sentencing judge to deprive an offender of liberty contrary to fundamental justice―not whether it may prevent the judge from imposing a sentence that is exactly proportional to the crime.

But it is the casual recognition of human dignity as a principle of fundamental justice that’s most astonishing. Put to one side the question of whether an underlying or preambular value is properly characterized as a legal principle. Recall, simply, that the Supreme Court struggled for the better part of a decade to integrate human dignity into its equality jurisprudence, and gave up―recognizing in R v Kapp, 2008 SCC 41 [2008] 2 SCR 483 that “human dignity is an abstract and subjective notion”, “confusing and difficult to apply”. [22] Justice Huot, of course, ignores this. To him, the cryptic reference to human universality is guidance enough.    

Needless to say, Justice Huot’s entire section 7 discussion is an obiter, since he has already found section 745.51 a violation of section 12 of the Charter; the discussion of human dignity, doubly so, since he already finds a section 7 infringement on account of overbreadth. A prudent judge would not venture into uncharted and choppy jurisprudential waters without the need to do so. Justice Huot, however, is not such a judge.


Having (unsurprisingly) found that there is no justification under section 1 of the Charter for what he considers cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of principles of fundamental justice (and made along the way some remarkable comments, to which we shall return), Justice Huot turns to the question of the remedy. This is probably the most astonishing part of his judgment. Without having been asked to do so by either party, and without having given them the opportunity to at least make submissions on the matter, Justice Huot decides not to just invalidate section 745.51 but to re-write it so as to grant judges―starting, of course, with himself―the discretionary power to craft what they see as appropriate sentences with parole ineligibility periods of more than 25 but less than 50 years.

In the section 1 part of his reasons, Justice Huot notes that this very possibility was debated and rejected by Parliament. But he does not think that there is anything wrong with him writing a law that Parliament did not want. Democracy, he says, is not just majority rule: “It implies a legal framework that, like the Charter, protects the rights and liberties of citizens. Hence judicial review must be seen as democracy’s faithful ally. … When they intervene in the name of the Charter, judges do not act against democracy, but in conformity with it.” [1169] Moreover, having rejected Blackstone’s declaratory theory, “our common law tradition favours progressive amendment that support the adaptation of existing legal rules to new views and practices”. [1176] The re-writing of section 745.51 is, all in all, an obvious thing to do, and there is no need to go back to Parliament for its views on the matter.

This is a power grab. Justice Huot claims, in effect, that democracy and a “modern” conception of the common law allow judges to re-write statutes, so long as they do so “in the name of the Charter”. But while judicial review may be consistent with democracy (though certainly not “implied” by it―unless Justice Huot thinks that, for example, Australia and New Zealand, both of which lack strong-form rights-based judicial review, are not democratic countries, and that Canada was not one until 1982), it simply does not follow that democracy justifies whatever a court engaged in judicial review might do. As for the common law, whatever its exact nature (and there is much more to be said for the declaratory theory than Justice Huot is aware of), it provides no authority for judges to re-write legislation, as opposed to developing judicially-articulated legal rules. Besides, Justice Huot’s re-writing of section 745.51 has nothing to do with accommodating “new views and practices”; it simply imposes a view that Parliament considered and rejected.

Now, there is a debate to be had about the appropriate judicial role in the face of unconstitutionally underinclusive legislation. It is at least arguable that courts can (sometimes) remedy underinclusion by making an obvious addition to the statute. But, to repeat, Justice Huot is not here dealing with an underinclusive provision. There is nothing unconstitutional, though there is arguably something unjust, about not imposing longer parole ineligibility terms on those guilty of multiple murders than single ones. Justice Huot’s job was to remedy what he, rightly or wrongly, saw as unconstitutionality―not to rectify injustice. He did what he wanted to do, not what he was appointed to do.


Beyond these specific mistakes, the overall tone of Justice Huot’s reasons deserves some comment. Justice Huot starts off with a reverse bench-slap directed at the Supreme Court and its decision in R v Jordan, 2016 SCC 27, [2016] 1 SCR 631 (is that a reverse bench-slap per saltum?), snidely commenting that “in these times when the abrogation of judicial delays seems to have been exalted to the rank of a cardinal virtue, it is not superfluous to recall that the very idea of ‘justice’ fits poorly with the clamour and the zeitgeist”. [7] He dishes it out to the American legal system for its reliance on life imprisonment without parole and insists that “Canada remains a country proud of its origins and attached to the preservation of its moral, social, and legal values, which differ in many ways from those of other jurisdictions”. [978] But whatever his pride in the Canadian legal system, Justice Huot doesn’t seem to think very highly of his colleagues who, unlike him, have seen it fit to impose consecutive parole ineligibility on multiple first-degree murderers. The accusation of sophistry, referred to above, is levelled at one of them. More generally, Justice Huot’s insistence that the discretionary power not to stack ineligibility periods, which section 745.51 maintains, is not enough to make it constitutional seems to result from his desire to prevent other judges from imposing sentences that he considers unjust, even though they do not.

Most remarkable, however, is Justice Huot’s attitude towards Parliament. It is not just that, as explained above, he deliberately re-writes the law he has found unconstitutional in a manner that was specifically put before, and rejected by, the legislature. More than that, he comments on what various members of Parliament said in the course of this debate, in a manner that sits uneasily, to put it mildly, with article 9 of the Bill of Rights, 1688, which provides “[t]hat the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament”. This is usually known as the foundation of the rule that what is said in Parliament cannot be made subject to criminal or civil liability, but Article 9 has broader separation of powers implications too. As the New Zealand court of Appeal put it in Attorney-General v Taylor [2017] NZCA 215, [2017] 3 NZLR 24, “courts scrupulously avoid” “consider[ing] questions of adequacy, accuracy or propriety in the proceedings of Parliament”. [124] Canadian courts, it is fair to say, have long been less scrupulous than they might be about this. Still, Justice Huot’s play-by-play commentary on Parliamentary debate, praise for “[o]pposition members [who] did their job”, [1146] denigration of a government member’s answer as being of “dubious intelligibility” [1137] and of the Parliamentary majority as a whole for its “wilful blindness” [1146] in the face of opposition warnings are quite beyond the pale.

And in addition to denigrating others, Justice Huot devotes a rather unseemly amount of energy to puffing himself up. He discusses and critiques Kant and Bentham, Beccaria and Blackstone―the latter based entirely on secondary sources―and misses no opportunity to wax eloquent. When the Crown points him to cases where his colleagues imposed consecutive ineligibility periods, he retorts that “such a mathematical reasoning can only lead us to the bounds of immoderation, or even a litany of jurisprudential precedents each as aberrant as the next in their repudiation of the most elementary rules of logic”. [640] The prospect of an offender never being able to seek parole is tantamount to “exile … in a prison environment, outside any civilized society”. [1073] But perhaps the best (if that’s the word) such passage comes, predictably, when Justice Huot discusses human dignity, and informs us that

In a foreseeable future, courts will have to confront especially sensitive questions, such as euthanasia, medical assistance in dying, genetic manipulations, and other bioethical questions. Science progresses at meteoric speed and ceaselessly presents new challenges to philosophers, legislators, and lawyers. Any analysis requiring reflection on the essence of human beings and their rights to life, liberty and security inevitably requires taking into account their dignity, lest it dehumanize them. [1100]

This is reminiscent of the notorious musings of Justice Kennedy, another human dignity devotee, on “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”. But Justice Huot’s reasons, which begin with a supposed Confucius quotation as an epigraph, bring to mind notorious line from a US Supreme Court’s decision―Justice Scalia’s quip about “the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie”.

No Big Deal?

I wrote recently about a decision of the Ontario Court of Justice, R. v. Michael, 2014 ONCJ 360, which held that the “victim surcharge” imposed in addition to any other punishment on any person found guilty of an offence is, in its current, mandatory, form unconstitutional, because it amounted to a cruel and unusual punishment for those unable to pay it and thereby discharge their debt to society. That decision, I thought, was absolutely right. Shortly thereafter, in R. v. Javier, 2014 ONCJ 361, a different judge of the same court refused to follow Michael, declaring himself unpersuaded by it and finding that the surcharge is constitutional. In my view, however, Michael remains the right decision.

Justice Wadden’s reasons in Javier are a bit schizophrenic. The greater part of them is devoted to arguing that, contrary to what Justice Paciocco found in Michael, it is (almost) always possible to sentence an offender to a fine in addition to jail and probation, so that the option of imposing a nominal fine, which results in the surcharge, calculated as a percentage of the fine imposed, if any, also being nominal and thus constitutionally acceptable. It is always possible, in other words, to get around the rule making the surcharge mandatory ― a move which, we should remember, Crown prosecutors have described as a form of “insurrection.”

Yet towards the end of his (rather brief) reasons Justice Wadden also adds that he is “[f]undamentally … not persuaded that imposition of the victim surcharge, even in the form of hundreds of dollars as contemplated in Michael, would meet the high threshold set for a declaration of invalidity pursuant to s. 51 of the Charter.” (That would be s. 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982, your Lordship.) Justice Wadden explains that

For the truly impecunious, there is no risk of being sent to jail as a result of not paying the surcharge, as a court cannot issue a warrant of committal for non-payment if the offender is truly unable to pay … When considering whether the imposition of the victim surcharge is a punishment “so excessive as to outrage standards of decency” of Canadian society I consider that there are many people in society who are in the unfortunate situation of suffering economic hardship and loss. In the context of the criminal justice system, we frequently see victims of crime who have suffered financial loss in the form of medical costs, lost wages, stolen property or the expense associated with attendance at court. Although the financial stress of paying the victim surcharge may be onerous for some offenders I am not persuaded that it is cruel and unusual punishment that would result in a declaration of the invalidity of this legislation. The effect of such a declaration would be that the victim surcharge could not be imposed on any offender, even those who clearly have the means to pay.

I could be wrong, but to me, it sounds that this is the real reason why Justice Wadden finds the surcharge constitutional ― not the possibility to minimize it by imposing a nominal fine. The surcharge, in his view, is simply no big deal, compared to the hardships of crime victims. Here, at last, is a judge who buys into the federal government’s approach.

Yet Justice Wadden does little to rebut Justice Paciocco’s arguments. In Michael, Justice Paciocco detailed the negative consequences of offenders being indebted for the amount of the victim surcharge, even if they could not be imprisoned for failing to pay it. Collection agencies, to which the government assigns the debt, could still attempt to enforce it; the offenders would need to go to court ― probably without the assistance of counsel ― to show their inability to pay; and most importantly, these offenders’ symbolic debt to society, as well as the pecuniary one, would go unpaid, preventing their rehabilitation. Justice Wadden does not even try to seriously consider the position of such offenders, the consequences for whom go well beyond mere “financial stress.”

Instead, he is concerned with the situation of crime victims. It is a laudable concern but, however much the current government might wish the contrary, one that cannot displace the judge’s duty fairly to consider the rights of the offender who stands before him. Indeed, it is worth highlighting that the offender before Justice Wadden was being sentenced for a paradigmatic victimless crime, the simple possession of a prohibited drug. Furthermore, as I have argued here,

to the extent that offenders are, on average, poorer than the victims of crime … the “surcharge” effectively operates as a wealth transfer from the poor to the better-off.

Furthermore,

even by the usual standards of government redistribution from the poor to the well-off, a particularly unjust measure. … [T]he surcharge is arbitrary because the amount … imposed on an offender bears no relation to the “quotient of accountability” that ought to be imposed on them. It varies only according the number of counts of which a person is found guilty, the imposition or not of a fine, and the status of the offence as an indictable one or one punished by summary conviction. A person found guilty of two counts of assault will pay more than one guilty of a single count of first-degree murder. How that is supposed to foster accountability for crimes, or give any sort of relief to crime victims is beyond any conceivable rational explanation.

Finally, Justice Wadden is surely wrong to say that finding the current surcharge provisions unconstitutional would mean that the surcharge could not even be imposed on those who are actually able to pay it. Admittedly, that would be the consequence of Justice Paciocco’s ruling, and perhaps he ought to have given more consideration to the remedy he granted. Instead of simply invalidating the surcharge provisions, it should would, I think, be possible to read in a judicial discretion not to impose the surcharge on offenders unable to pay it (which existed prior to recent amendments to the Criminal Code). It seems a safe bet that Parliament would have preferred imposing a surcharge with such a discretionary safety valve to not imposing one at all. In any case, Parliament remains free to enact such provisions even if the courts simply invalidate the existing ones.

Contrary to what Justice Wadden suggests, it is not true that the “victim surcharge” is no big deal. But perhaps his poorly reasoned and unpersuasive decision is. One can hope that it is Justice Paciocco’s cogent ruling in Michael that will be followed in future cases.

H/t: Elizabeth LeReverend, via CanLII Connects.

Cruel

Apologies for my prolonged absence. I’m back. (I think.) And a pretty good place to start is a recent decision by Justice David Paciocco of the Ontario Court of Justice striking down the “victim surcharge” imposed on persons convicted of any offence, regardless of the nature of the offence in question and ― since the enactment of amendments to the Criminal Code as part of the federal government’s “tough on crime” agenda ― of the offender’s ability to pay. The ruling, R. v. Michael, is available here thanks to Michael Spratt, who also has some thoughts on it on his blog.

Justice Paciocco had convicted Mr. Michael of a total of nine summary conviction offences, ranging from some breach of previously-imposed conditions to (fairly minor) assaults, which meant that he ought to have imposed a 900$ surcharge in addition to whatever combination of jail time and probation was a fit sentence under the principles set out in the Criminal Code. But Mr. Michael is alcoholic and destitute, splits time between living on the street or in shelters and staying with (equally destitute and troubled) relatives, and his income consists of welfare payments of 250$ a month. He has, Justice Paciocco found, no means to pay the 900$ at present, and no reasonable prospects for doing so in the foreseeable future, if ever. The 900$ is not just all he has ― it is much more than he ever had or likely ever will have. Requiring him to pay the “surcharge,” Justice Paciocco holds, amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by s. 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The first issue he had to address in arriving to this conclusion was whether the “surcharge” was a form of punishment at all. Justice Paciocco rejected the Crown’s arguments to the effect that it was not. The “surcharge,” he found, “functions in substance like a fine” (par. 16), which is a paradigmatic form of punishment. Furthermore, its “proclaimed purpose, holding offenders to account, falls squarely within the purposes of sentencing” recognized by the Criminal Code and the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence (par. 10). However different it is from the usual forms of punishment under the Criminal Code, the “surcharge” is a punishment too.

The test to determine whether a punishment is “cruel and unusual” within the meaning of the s. 12 of the Charter is whether it is “so excessive as to outrage standards of decency” ― a standard “intended to reflect deference to Parliament’s legislative authority” (par. 18). In assessing whether the “surcharge” meets this test, one question is whether one ought to look at the amount imposed for each offence or at the amount imposed on an offender. Pointing to the principle of totality, which requires combined sentences for multiple offences not to become disproportionate to an offender’s guilt, Justice Paciocco chose the latter course.

In his view, the effect of imposing the equivalent of a 900$ fine on a destitute person not likely to be able to pay it is grossly disproportionate to the penological effects at which it aims. The costs of the “surcharge” are onerous. Even if the Crown does not attempt to collect the “surcharge” (and it is not clear that it, or more likely collection agencies to which it would assign the right to do so, would not), such a person could be prosecuted for failure to pay and would have to argue that the failure is due to inability rather than unwillingness. Perhaps most importantly for Justice Paciocco, an unpaid “surcharge” is an unpaid debt to society; so long as it is due, even if it cannot be collected, an offender cannot be fully reconciled to society. Underscoring the point, the time required for him or her to apply for a “record suspension” (formerly a pardon) does not begin to run until the “surcharge” imposed is paid in full. Giving such a person more time to pay the surcharge would do nothing to solve all these problems.

The “surcharge”‘s benefits, by contrast, are elusive. Even accepting that it serves to provide additional “accountability,” it is disconnected from the usual principles of sentencing, being entirely unconnected to the circumstances of the offender or the offence. Parliament chose to make the “surcharge” mandatory and remove the judges’ discretion not to impose it on offenders to whom it would pose “undue hardship” because this discretion was, in its view, too often exercised. But there would have been any number of ways to limit the number of cases in which the “surcharge” was waved, by making the criteria for such a waver more precise, without altogether removing the discretion and imposing the “surcharge” on those genuinely unable to pay it.

The Crown’s final gambit in its defence of the “surcharge” was to argue that Justice Paciocco could avoid imposing it by adding a nominal fine to Mr. Michael’s sentence. When a fine is imposed, the surcharge must amount to 30% of the fine; if the fine is nominal, so is the surcharge, and disproportionality is avoided. Justice Paciocco himself had taken that course in other cases, as had other judges (including Justice Healy of the Court of Québec in R. v. Cloud, 2014 QCCQ 464, which I discussed here). But under binding Ontario precedent, such this manoeuvre is not open in all cases. And because the unconstitutional effects of the “surcharge” cannot always be avoided in this way, it is itself contrary to s. 12 of the Charter. Nor can it be saved by the Charter’s s. 1. In Justice Paciocco’s view, a violation of s. 12 never can be, because it entails disproportionality, whereas s. 1 is a proportionality test.

This seems quite right. Justice Paciocco’s opinion is persuasive if a bit fastidious. And Mr. Spratt, in the post linked to above, is right to call out the Crown for its hypocrisy in trying to save the “surcharge” by inviting the court to avoid it in move which in other cases it describes as a form of “insurrection.” But, as Mr. Spratt notes, the hypocrisy only underscores the senselessness of the “surcharge” as it now exists. I have argued elsewhere that the surcharge is also violation of property rights (which unfortunately are not protected by the Charter), and an especially odious form of redistribution from the poor to the well-off. But it is quite fair to describe it as vicious and cruel. Unconstitutionally so.

Misfiring

Almost exactly two years ago, I blogged about a challenge by an Ontario couple whose immense firearms collection was confiscated after they failed to convince the courts that the Criminal Code‘s firearms provisions were unconstitutional. This time, they argue that the Code‘s provision requiring the forfeiture of the guns and ammunition involved in the firearms offences of which they were convicted ― after deliberately letting their firearms licenses and registration certificates expire ― is itself unconstitutional or inoperative. At trial, their argument was mostly based on paragraph 1(a) of the Canadian Bill of Rights, which provides that deprivations of property require “due process of law.” On appeal, the main argument was rather that the forfeiture was a form of “cruel and unusual treatment or punishment” prohibited by section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Last week, in R. v. Montague, 2014 ONCA 439, the Ontario Court of Appeal rejected that claim.

The Court began by disposing of some preliminary objections by the Crown to its jurisdiction to hear the appeal, of which it is perhaps interesting to note the claim that the Crown was prejudiced by the s. 12 issue being raised for the first time on appeal. Not so, the Court found,

in the particular circumstances of this case because of the way in which s. 12 challenges must be addressed: by using the facts of the case as well as reasonable hypotheticals. If the high value of the appellants’ firearms could not be established, that high value could still form the basis of a reasonable hypothetical on which the court could assess the constitutionality of the provision.

In effect, the Supreme Court’s approach to s. 12 renders the facts of the case superfluous. If they can bring out the disproportionate character of the sentence, so much the better, but if not, that doesn’t matter. Since s. 12 cases are mostly decided on “hypotheticals”, the absence of a debate about the facts at first instance doesn’t matter for the appeal. (Par. 31)

On the merits, the Court concluded that the weapons forfeiture order is not grossly disproportionate, either in the case of the appellants or in any of the hypotheticals they came up with, and thus not “cruel” in the meaning of s. 12. Fundamentally, the impact on the person whose weapons are confiscated is proportional to the severity of his or her offence, since the weapons in question are the object of the offence, rather than some extraneous property. The appellants lose a great deal of property ― their life savings, they say ― because they chose to involve all of it in their civil disobedience. In the Court’s view,

it is most unfortunate for the appellants that they chose to challenge the firearms licensing laws by putting all their firearms at risk. However … the fact that it was their deliberate action that put so much property at risk is not the full reason why its forfeiture does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. It is because the forfeiture consequences cannot be viewed as grossly disproportionate or even disproportionate at all. The forfeiture of any one firearm is not going to be an overly serious consequence in comparison to the gravity of any one offence. What the appellants deliberately did in this case was put a large number of firearms constituting a significant amount of their property at risk. That choice does not affect the constitutionality of the forfeiture consequence. (Par. 51)

By contrast, a farmer whose gun is taken away because he is unfamiliar with the licensing requirements (one of the appellants’ hypotheticals) will only lose that one weapon. The impact of the forfeiture provision on him will hardly be shocking by its magnitude.

I think that this makes perfect sense. Although their sincerity in wishing to challenge what they they took to be an unconstitutional firearms law seems to be unquestioned, the appellants chose a very high-risk strategy for doing so. They should have known what the consequences of this strategy’s failure were going to be. These consequences were easily avoidable. They might be harsh, but not cruel.

Even worse for them, the Court of Appeal allowed the Crown’s cross-appeal against the trial judge’s decision that their ammunition was not to be forfeited. Not only their overall litigation strategy, but also their decision to appeal the forfeiture order ended up misfiring badly.