Progressive, eh? A review of Professor Sankoff’s s. 276 seminar

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed here are my own. Specific attacks against other academics are also entirely my own. 

I’ve greatly enjoyed Professor Sankoff’s seminars recently – both his free Youtube videos and his affordable (approx. $25 per seminar) online seminars. I watched his s. 276 webinar the other day (part 1 only), and my mind was blown with the sheer quality (and quantity) of information packed into the 90-minute video. Easily the best value I’ve seen for professional development content. In fact, the video is so phenomenal it should be mandatory viewing for all participants in the criminal justice system who may ever deal with a sexual assault matter – specifically all judges, Crowns, defence counsel and academics. I was thrilled with how he does a marvelous job of showing the weaknesses in our Canadian laws around sexual assault (s. 276, myths and stereotypes, and problematic caselaw). I was concerned that I am the only one criticizing some of these aspects of our legal system, and it’s nice to know that it’s not just me. I continue to seek out material of this nature, and if you are aware of any, please let me know (I’m hopeful, for example, that the newly-released 2nd edition of this book contains some criticism). I note that Sankoff’s excellent, recent text, The Law of Witnesses and Evidence in Canada (formerly “Witnesses”) published by Thomson Reuters (Alberta Law Libraries e-book link), also includes criticism of s. 276, 278 and of the recent SCC sexual assault pronouncements that are chock full of rhetoric and extremely weak on substance – Goldfinch, et al. (e.g. in chapters 12 and 17).

He begins his video noting the extreme complexity of s. 276 and the quagmire that is our sexual assault laws, in general. He talks about the new urgency attached to the importance of s. 276, as seen from the SCC’s recent trilogy (Barton, Goldfinch, and RV). He talks about s. 276 “creep”.

He points out plenty of problems with Barton (reasons by Moldaver J.) – the main one being that s. 276 should not apply to the Crown.

He has a lot more to say about Goldfinch. It analogizes s. 276 evidence (i.e. prior sexual history) to bad character evidence of the accused, which is problematic as it is defence evidence. He is greatly concerned about its confusing the test for admissibility – the prejudicial value needs to substantially outweigh the probative value of the evidence – not the other way around, as suggested by Karakatsanis J. in at least one point in the screed judgment. Further, the overall tone is greatly concerning to Sankoff (I agree) – it attempts to “balance” rights between the accused and the complainant (as does Tanovich), when this is extremely dangerous.

RV (also written by Karakatsanis J.) suffers from similar problems, including the probative/prejudicial mistake, as well, which will not help with confusion going forward. This reminds me of a similar “mistake” by Fraser CJ – in dissent at para. 95 of R. v. Ewanchuk, 1998 ABCA 52 (CanLII – before the SCC bought this dissent wholesale in R. v. Ewanchuk, 1999 CanLII 711 (SCC)) – which I point out here. Even Moldaver J.’s approach in para. 95 is criticized for similarly skewing the balance against the accused (the rest of Moldaver J.’s opinion is thought to be reasonable). I’ll also quote Goldfinch at para. 44 (mentioned previously, emphasis added): “Today, not only does no mean no, but only yes means yes. Nothing less than positive affirmation is required”, which blatantly disregards Ewanchuk SCC (but not necessarily Fraser CJ in dissent in Ewanchuk CA) in that conduct is admissible – not only words (not that anyone wants to touch conduct with a 10-foot pole given the prevalence of “myths and stereotypes”).

The seminar really gets interesting when he gets into the scope of s. 276, myths and stereotypes, practical tips, and hypotheticals showing the absurdity of our s. 276 and other “rape shield” laws.

His first hypothetical: does s. 276 apply to charges of prostitution? The answer – extremely unclear. Thanks to some really loose wording in Barton, the law is unclear at the moment. He goes through some recent jurisprudence highlighting the extent of this problem.

His next hypothetical is whether the complainant and accused visiting pornographic websites would qualify as sexual activity for the purposes of s. 276 – it appears to also be unclear on the wording of the statute, and he points to a recent case that suggests the courts will be eager to interpret it broadly: R v DM, [2019] OJ No 3514, 2019 ONSC 3895 – QuickLaw.

His next hypothetical is extremely concerning: whether flirting, kissing or touching that occurred at a bar an hour or so before the alleged sexual assault is sexual activity for the purpose of s. 276 (I note that this is precisely one of the problems dealt with by the original trial judge in Wagar, for which he was pilloried by some academics, the media, and just about everyone else – I discuss this briefly here). While the bulk of recent caselaw suggests that it should be included, it’s not clear from the wording of the statute that it is. Moreso, it should not be included (even if it were explicitly required, I’d add), as it’s simply part of the events – it’s the basic timeline of events per the accused. Certainly, the Crown is not expected to bring a s. 276 application to be able to ask the complainant (in direct examination) to relay the details of how the complainant and the accused met. This is essentially part of the sexual activity that forms the basis of the charge. He brings multiple reasons why this is problematic, including but not limited to: the addition of time consuming, unnecessary, and irrelevant applications, it essentially requires reverse disclosure of the accused’s basic version or timeline of events (not necessarily something Parliament or the courts are terribly concerned about – per s. 278), and it rarely affects the privacy or dignity of the complainant (I’ll add that it’s incredibly patronizing, sexist and disempowering to “protect” the complainant to this extreme and absurd extent, and I’ll also note that the stigma of sexual activity is no longer as strong today as it once was – per para. 45 of Goldfinch). He points out that R. v. C.M.M., 2020 BCCA 56 (CanLII) explicitly points out some of these concerns with applicability of s. 276 (e.g. para. 182), but declined to rule on it.

The seminar gets even better when he talks about rape myths, or “forbidden inferences”. The amount of butchering done in this area by judges, Crowns and academics alike is simply legendary. He notes the important distinction between twin myths (inadmissible) and myths and stereotypes (admissible – but may not have sufficient probative value to be helpful). If used to show something specific (i.e. consent or inconsistency in testimony), it may be helpful.

He gives an excellent example – continued contact with the accused to show that the alleged abuse did not happen (or that it was not abuse). This evidence is not automatically inadmissible – it simply needs to be weighed carefully with a mind to not overgeneralizing in the analysis. Certainly, in certain circumstances, it can be convincing or persuasive to the trier of fact. In others, not as much. It’s not black-and-white, contrary to what your average Crown and judge are led to believe by irresponsible academics (like Craig).

He gives the example of R. v A.R.D., 2017 ABCA 237 (CanLII) – appeal to SCC dismissed (para. 39, emphasis added):

The more important question is what, if anything, can evidence of a lack of avoidant behaviour by a complainant tell a trier of fact about a sexual assault allegation? The answer is simple—nothing.

This case makes this point even more explicit later – at para. 57. This is extremely problematic and also incorrect. A far better approach, he points out, is R. v. J.M., 2018 ONSC 344 (CanLII) – wherein Harris J. says overgeneralization is the problem – but the evidence is not inadmissible (para. 66, emphasis added, referring to A.R.D.):

If what was meant is that generalizations have no place in analyzing this type of evidence, I agree.  If, on the other hand, a rigid rule of irrelevancy was proposed, I do not think that is correct. There can be no blanket rule: each case must be looked at on its own footing. Of course, after the fact association with the accused can, in some instances, weigh against the complainant’s credibility: see R. v. L.S.2017 ONCA 680, [2017] O.J. No. 4586, at paras. 88-89 per Doherty J.A. Care must be taken to ensure that shattering myths and developing new understandings does not swing the pendulum to the other extreme out of a perceived duty of political rectitude.

Of course, post-offence conduct that’s consistent with the Crown’s theory (i.e. distress, crying, etc.) can be admissible, whereas conduct that’s not “Crown-friendly,” some (for instance, Alberta’s highest court in A.R.D., uncontradicted by the SCC) would like us to believe is entirely inadmissible. If this doesn’t formally reverse the burden of proof, what does? For example, see para. 34 of R. v. M., 2020 ONSC 3636 (CanLII – emphasis added):

There is a well-established body of jurisprudence that evidence of post-offence demeanour or emotional state of a sexual assault complainant may be used as circumstantial evidence to corroborate the complainant’s version of events: R. v. J.A.A. 2011 SCC 17 (CanLII), 2011 S.C.J.  17 at paras. 40-41R. v. Mugabo2017 ONCA 323 at para. 25R. v. J.A, 2010 ONCA 491; reversed on other grounds 2011 SCC 17;  R. v. Varcoe2007 ONCA 194 at para. 33.

Harris J.  also points out the analogous issue of delayed disclosure (in para. 67) – I’ve briefly discussed it before, and noted Martin J.’s direct misquote of R. v. D.D., 2000 SCC 43 (CanLII) on a very critical point, at para. 73 of R v CMG, 2016 ABQB 368 (CanLII). The point is the same – evidence of delayed disclosure is admissible, as well, with the trier of fact needing to be careful in terms of how much weight to apportion it (of course, it will vary by the circumstances).

Sankoff also mentions R. v. Diabas, 2020 ONCA 283 (CanLII), where the ONCA appears to appreciate nuance in terms of continued contact (e.g. para. 39).

He doesn’t get into the expectation that a “true victim would fight back” or scream, for example, but I’d suggest that the analysis is the same. Despite the horrified pushback defence counsel and/or accused persons can anticipate from the judge, the Crown and likely the complainant, as well – if attempting to point to any of this evidence, this evidence is not irrelevant or inadmissible – it just needs to be dealt with very carefully.

He points out that specific inferences (directly related to the evidence in the case) should usually be allowed – not general inferences. Credibility, as well. Whether or not a s. 276 application would be required in these cases is not clear – I’m assuming it’s better safe than sorry, for defence.

I’ll contrast Sankoff’s points with Craig’s triumphalist horses**t (at p. 39 of Section 276 Misconstrued: the Failure to Properly Interpret and Apply Canada’s Rape Shield Provisionslink, emphasis added) :

With Parliament’s enactment of Bill C-49 in 1992, Canada’s rape shield regime became the most progressive legislation of its kind in the common law world. Properly interpreted and applied, it removes inferences and reasoning likely to distort the truth seeking function of the trial, and provides significant protections for sexual assault complainants from irrelevant and unnecessary attacks on their privacy and dignity. It does this without unduly compromising the critically important due process rights of the accused.

Progressive, eh?

As I’ve mentioned previously, this legislation and the jurisprudence surrounding it is ripe for review at the Supreme Court, and I hold out some hope that 30 years of hand-wringing and blustery rhetoric will finally be looked at critically, for a change. To the extent that these laws continue to be butchered by our courts across this country at all levels, they continue to contribute to wrongful convictions on a daily basis (as I’ve noted), which should hopefully concern some of us – particularly those of us interested in critical race theory (the SCC appeared to embrace this in its recent decision of R. v. Ahmad, 2020 SCC 11 (CanLII), and the ONCA likely did, as well, in R. v. Sharma, 2020 ONCA 478 (CanLII) – the ABCA certainly did not, though, in R v Hills, 2020 ABCA 263 (CanLII) at paras. 288-289, and R v Perrot, 2015 ABCA 209 (CanLII) at para. 9). Hopefully, our highest Court is up for the challenge.

Published by Efrayim Moldofsky

I am a junior criminal defence lawyer in Calgary, Alberta. Read my observations here.

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