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Summaries Sunday: Supreme Advocacy

One Sunday each month we bring you a summary from Supreme Advocacy LLP of recent decisions at the Supreme Court of Canada. Supreme Advocacy LLP offers a weekly electronic newsletter, Supreme Advocacy Letter, to which you may subscribe. It’s a summary of all Appeals, Oral Judgments and Leaves to Appeal granted from June 22 to July 19, 2023 inclusive.

Appeals

Criminal Law: Jury Instructions; Criminal Organizations
R. v. Abdullahi, 2021 ONCA 82; 2023 SCC 19 (40049)

Appellate courts should adopt a “functional approach” to the review of jury instructions for legal error. This respects the jury’s role as the trier of fact while enabling effective review of the trial judge’s duty to ensure the jury understands the law that it is to apply, and supports the function of jury instructions: to equip the jury properly to decide the case according to the law and the evidence. The meaning of “properly” equipping a jury is therefore essential to understanding the appellate court’s task of identifying legal error in jury instructions. Such errors have been described using a variety of terms in the jurisprudence, notably “misdirection” and “non-direction”. Similarly, it is helpful to understand the concept of “non-direction” in terms of whether the instructions would have equipped the jury with a sufficient understanding of the law to decide the case. These concepts direct the appellate court’s focus to the function of the instructions and the overall understanding of a given issue in the mind of the jury. Thus, a properly equipped jury can be understood as one that is both accurately and sufficiently instructed to decide the case.

A criminal organization is one that by virtue of its structure and continuity poses an enhanced threat to society. This requirement distinguishes criminal organizations from other groups of offenders who act in concert; it also helps guard against improper reasoning, notably reliance on stereotypes, as a basis for identifying a criminal organization. Without an explanation of this requirement in the judge’s instructions, the jury here was not sufficiently instructed on the legal standard to apply to the evidence in concluding that a criminal organization existed. The evidence at trial, the closing arguments of counsel for the parties, and the lack of objection to the charge by defence counsel could not make up for this error by the trial judge.

Although the silence of counsel can be a relevant consideration, it should be recalled that the responsibility for the jury charge lies with the trial judge, not counsel. The silence of counsel is simply one of many considerations under a functional approach. Counsel’s silence may be particularly relevant as to whether a contingent instruction was required, and may be particularly significant where there are indications that it was a tactical decision. Counsel cannot withhold an objection at trial and save it for an appeal. Appellate courts may also be called on to consider whether counsel’s silence is relevant to the curative proviso.

Criminal Law: Mandatory Minimums; Pre-Sentence Driving Prohibition
R. v. Basque, 2021 NBCA 50; 2023 SCC 18 (39997)

Granting driving prohibition credit based on the common law discretion recognized in Lacasse is perfectly consistent with the application of the minimum prohibition in s. 259(1)(a) and with the rule requiring that a sentence commence when it is imposed in s. 719(1). It was therefore open to the sentencing judge to take into account the period of 21 months already served, as this would not undermine Parliament’s intent. In short, no conflict arises from the concurrent application of s. 259(1)(a) and the common law rule that allows credit to be granted. At the time of sentencing, the court is required to impose the one year mandatory minimum punishment, but there is nothing in the statute that prevents it from then granting credit. Similarly, granting credit is not contrary to the requirement set out in s. 719(1), because only the sentence has to commence when it is imposed, not the one year minimum punishment served under s. 259(1)(a). These statutory provisions therefore do not displace the discretion of sentencing judges that was recognized in Lacasse.

Leaves to Appeal Granted

No leaves granted during this time period.

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