R v. Chaulk

[1990] 3 SCR 1303
Download Judgment: English

The appellants were found guilty of first degree murder. At trial, expert evidence was given that the appellants suffered from a paranoid psychosis which made them believe they could rule the world, and in order to achieve this they had to kill. Although they were aware that the laws of Canada existed, the appellants did not believe the laws applied to them.

At trial, the appellants raised the defense of insanity, which the jury rejected. The defense of insanity provided that:

“(1) No person shall be convicted of an offence […] while that person was insane.

(2) […] a person is insane when the person is in a state of natural imbecility or has a disease of the mind to the extent that renders the person incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of an act or omission, or of knowing that an act or omission is wrong.

(4) Every one shall, until the contrary is proved, be presumed to be and to have been sane.”

The appellants argued that section 16(4) constituted an unjustifiable infringement on their right to be presumed innocent under section 11(d) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (“Charter”). Further, the appellants sought clarification as to the meaning of “wrong” in section 16(2). Specifically, the issue was whether “wrong” should be interpreted to mean only “legally wrong”, or if it encompassed both legal and moral wrongs.

The majority of the Supreme Court of Canada held that section 16(4) of the Code violated section 11(d) of the Charter, but that it was saved as a reasonable limit on individual rights and freedoms under section 1 of the Charter. The Court reasoned that, since sanity is essential for guilt, section 16(4) infringed upon an accused’s section 11(d) rights by forcing him or her to disprove an essential element of the offence. In a criminal trial, the burden of proof rests with the government, which must prove all elements of an offence beyond a reasonable doubt. Section 16(4) shifted this burden to the accused, which offended the presumption of innocence. However, the court upheld section 16(4) as a reasonable limit under section 1 of the Charter. The court reasoned that it would be impossible for the Crown to prove sanity.  Section 16(4) was crafted to minimally impair the rights of the accused while still achieving Parliament’s objective of ensuring the government is not required to perform the “impossible task of disproving insanity whenever it is raised” (para 65).

With regards to section 16(2), the majority held that the trial judge erred by instructing the jury that a defense of insanity should be rejected where an accused knew at the time of the offence that his or her conduct was illegal. “Wrong”, in the context of section 16(2), referred to more than merely “legally wrong.” An accused must be capable, at the time of the offence, of knowing that his or her conduct is morally wrong. Accordingly, the court ordered a new trial.

“Section 16(4) allows a factor which is essential for guilt to be presumed, rather than proven by the Crown beyond a reasonable doubt. Moreover, it requires an accused to disprove sanity (or prove insanity) on a balance of probabilities; it therefore violates the presumption of innocence because it permits a conviction in spite of a reasonable doubt in the mind of the trier of fact as to the guilt of the accused.” Para. 43.

“The rationale underlying the defence of insanity in Canada […] rests on the belief that persons suffering from insanity should not be subject to standard criminal culpability with its resulting punishment and stigmatization. This belief, in turn, flows from the principle that individuals are held responsible for the commission of criminal offences because they possess the capacity to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong.” Para. 105.

“A person may well be aware that an act is contrary to law but, by reason of 'natural imbecility' or disease of the mind, is at the same time incapable of knowing that the act is morally wrong in the circumstances according to the moral standards of society.” Para. 107.