"So many dreams at first seem impossible. And then they seem improbable. And then when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable."
~ Christopher Reeve

Monday, June 25, 2012

"Bring Unto Me the Little Children"?

As I said about the SCC decision in R. v. D.A.I. that we were discussing the other day ... good news. But, maybe, just maybe, some bad news, too.

Although the decision of the SCC was not unanimous (two of the seven judges "dissented", meaning they reached a different conclusion), that's not a problem, per se, from a legal point of view. There's very little point in appearing in (any) court and arguing for whatever a minority of the SCC had to say in any given case; the majority decision will carry the day.

But what I found interesting is the minority's analysis of the meaning (and effect) of the majority's decision.

The minority judges correctly noted that s. 16(2) provides that, if the challenged witness is able to communicate the evidence and understands the nature of an oath or a solemn declaration in terms of ordinary, everyday social conduct, he or she can testify (as a typical witness) under oath or solemn affirmation. However, if the challenged witness is able to communicate the evidence but does not understand the nature of an oath or a solemn affirmation, s. 16(3) provides that he or she may provide unsworn testimony on promising to tell the truth. But if the challenged witness does not satisfy either criteria, s. 16(4) provides they cannot testify.

Although the minority agreed with the majority that promising is an act aimed at bringing home to the witness the seriousness of the situation and the importance of being careful and correct, they disagreed with the proposition that a trial judge is not allowed to try to determine — in concrete everyday terms — whether, in reality, this actually occurs in the case of a particular witness whose mental capacity has been challenged. They reasoned that if such a witness was so disabled as not to understand the seriousness of the situation and the importance of being careful and correct, the fair trial interests of the accused are unfairly prejudiced.

In 2005, the following provisions were added to the Canada Evidence Act with respect to child witnesses.
16.1 (1) A person under fourteen years of age is presumed to have the capacity to testify.

No oath or solemn affirmation
(2) A proposed witness under fourteen years of age shall not take an oath or make a solemn affirmation despite a provision of any Act that requires an oath or a solemn affirmation.

Evidence shall be received
(3) The evidence of a proposed witness under fourteen years of age shall be received if they are able to understand and respond to questions.

Burden as to capacity of witness
(4) A party who challenges the capacity of a proposed witness under fourteen years of age has the burden of satisfying the court that there is an issue as to the capacity of the proposed witness to understand and respond to questions.

Court inquiry
(5) If the court is satisfied that there is an issue as to the capacity of a proposed witness under fourteen years of age to understand and respond to questions, it shall, before permitting them to give evidence, conduct an inquiry to determine whether they are able to understand and respond to questions.

Promise to tell truth
(6) The court shall, before permitting a proposed witness under fourteen years of age to give evidence, require them to promise to tell the truth.

Understanding of promise
(7) No proposed witness under fourteen years of age shall be asked any questions regarding their understanding of the nature of the promise to tell the truth for the purpose of determining whether their evidence shall be received by the court.

Effect
(8) For greater certainty, if the evidence of a witness under fourteen years of age is received by the court, it shall have the same effect as if it were taken under oath.
You will note that s. 16.1(7) prohibits asking a child witnesses “any questions regarding their understanding of the nature of the promise to tell the truth”. As the minority pointed out, the empirical evidence before Parliament when this amendment was made related exclusively to children; no such studies were carried out with respect to adults with mental disabilities. A “don’t ask” provision was neither proposed nor adopted with respect to adults with intellectual disabilities. In other words, as in so many other areas of criminal law, this population simply wasn't considered.

The minority agreed with the majority that the words “on promising to tell the truth” in s. 16(3) had the same meaning as “to promise to tell the truth” in s. 16.1(6). But that being the case, the minority believed that the majority must have read the s. 16.1(7) “don’t ask” rule [applicable only to children) into s. 16(3) [applicable only to mentally challenged adults] in order to read down the words “promising to tell the truth” in s. 16(3), and thus treated adults with mental disabilities as equivalent to children without mental disabilities.

The minority went on to find that just because psychiatrists speak of persons with mental disabilities in terms of mental ages does not mean that an adult with mental age of six is on the same footing as a six‑year‑old child with no mental disability whatsoever as a six‑year‑old with the mental capacity of a six‑year‑old does not suffer from a mental disability. No evidence had been provided to the court to suggest this equivalence and a court can only take "judicial notice" of alleged “facts” that are either notorious or easily verifiable from undisputed sources.

I find this analysis particularly interesting because one of the points made in an analysis of this decision by Laurie Letheren, a staff lawyer at the ARCH Disability Law Centre, is how inappropriate it was that throughout the history of R. v. D.A.I. the witness and other adults with intellectual disabilities were compared to children. She uses the example of the court accepting, without question, the evidence of the psychiatrist (who never even met the witness) that she “possessed the mental age of a three- to six-year-old”.

To me, this is wrong at so many levels, but Ms. Letherin comments on its inappropriateness, given that the young woman in question had attended high school, was involved in her community and had 19 years of lived experience, noting that such characterization of adults with intellectual disabilities needs to be challenged if the criminal justice system is to be truly inclusive.

I can certainly agree with Ms. Letherin that the 19-year-old witness could not, mentally, be the same as a three to six-year-old because she had had the life experiences of a 19-year-old, not a six-year-old; no matter the mental level those experiences had been processed at.

However, it strikes me that if we choose to look at this case through that lens, we can't ignore what is essentially the same issue (in a slightly different context) as that pointed out in the minority decision.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

"Can You Promise to Tell the Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth?"

Long-time readers might recall a post from way back in the way back where I compared the right and ability of individuals with mental illness to represent themselves in court, the right of an accused with schizophrenia to  represent himself at trial and the appropriateness of guardianship.

What do these various subjects have in common?
To me, they both examine the question (albeit in different contexts) as to whether and how much it is acceptable for society to act to "protect" individuals with disabilities. And although not so many years ago, that would have been hailed by most as a lofty goal, it seems to have fallen into disrepute more recently. As if attempts to "protect" the disabled, much like we attempt to attempt to "protect" our children, is somehow insulting and degrading to them.

And yet, although the concept of protecting disabled person from both themselves and others, so to speak, will no doubt be quite off-putting to some, I have to think that it does have a valid place in certain contexts and certain circumstances. Admittedly, in an ideal world, such a thing might well be not necessary. But who amongst us will really argue that we live in an ideal world?

Whether we are considering a defendant's right to represent himself in court or when (if ever) a guardianship order might be appropriate, we are really talking about the same thing. Do we treat individuals with disabilities like everyone else? Do we accord them special 'privileges'? Or do we place special 'burdens' or 'restrictions' on them?

And more importantly, can those questions be answered, can all the above examples be analyzed in a logically consistent way? Or is better to proceed with a haphazard, whatever 'feels right' approach?
Wherever you might come down on those particular issues, a recent decision from the Supreme Court of Canada has certainly advanced the rights of people with intellectual and mental health disabilities to more fully access the criminal justice system.

The case involved a young woman with an intellectual disability who had accused her mother’s partner of sexually abusing her. Although at trial the young woman demonstrated that she could communicate the evidence and promised to tell the truth, the trial judge questioned her on her understanding of the nature of truth and falsity, of moral and religious duties, and of the legal consequences of lying in court. [Can you say abstract?} Unsatisfied with her answers to these questions and relying on the opinion of a psychiatrist who had never even spoken to the young woman, the court found that she could not give her evidence and the case against the accused was dismissed.

To give a better understanding of what happened here, I am going to provide you with the relevant sections of the Canada Evidence Act. Pay particular attention to s. 16(3):
16. (1) If a proposed witness is a person of fourteen years of age or older whose mental capacity is challenged, the court shall, before permitting the person to give evidence, conduct an inquiry to determine
(a) whether the person understands the nature of an oath or a solemn affirmation; and
(b) whether the person is able to communicate the evidence.

Testimony under oath or solemn affirmation
(2) A person referred to in subsection (1) who understands the nature of an oath or a solemn affirmation and is able to communicate the evidence shall testify under oath or solemn affirmation.

Testimony on promise to tell truth
(3) A person referred to in subsection (1) who does not understand the nature of an oath or a solemn affirmation but is able to communicate the evidence may, notwithstanding any provision of any Act requiring an oath or a solemn affirmation, testify on promising to tell the truth.

Inability to testify
(4) A person referred to in subsection (1) who neither understands the nature of an oath or a solemn affirmation nor is able to communicate the evidence shall not testify.>

Burden as to capacity of witness
(5) A party who challenges the mental capacity of a proposed witness of fourteen years of age or more has the burden of satisfying the court that there is an issue as to the capacity of the proposed witness to testify under an oath or a solemn affirmation.
You will notice that under s.16(3) [above], if a person’s capacity to give evidence is challenged and the judge finds that person does not understand the nature of an oath or solemn declaration, they can still give evidence if they can communicate the evidence and promise to tell the truth. The problem is that the courts have routinely gone beyond that requirement and established a practice of placing an additional burden on witnesses whose capacity is challenged, requiring them to demonstrate that they understand what it means to promise to tell the truth by explaining such abstract terms as “truth” or “lie”.

Fortunately the matter eventually made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) , where the majority of the Court found that the trial judge had erred when he required the young woman to demonstrate that she understood the nature of a promise to tell the truth. The majority of the Court concluded that when a witness’ capacity to testify is challenged there are only two requirements that the witness must meet:
  1. the ability to communicate the evidence and
  2. promising to tell the truth.
Additionally, in determining the proper steps that a judge is to take in such circumstances, the SCC set out a very common sense (and disability-friendly) process to be followed, including that:
  •  the primary source of evidence for a witness’s competence is to come from the witness, herself;  
  • questioning an adult with mental disabilities requires consideration and accommodation for her particular needs, with questions to be phrased patiently in a clear, simple manner; 
  • given that persons familiar with the proposed witness in her everyday situation will understand her best, they may be called as fact witnesses to provide evidence on her development; 
  • although expert evidence can be adduced, preference should always be given to expert witnesses who have had personal and regular contact with the proposed witness; and
  • the inquiry into the witness’s ability to communicate the evidence will require a trial judge to explore in a general way whether she can relate concrete events by understanding and responding to questions and it may be useful to ask if she can differentiate between true and false everyday factual statements.
So, good news, that. Progress is, after all, progress.

But, unfortunately, like so many things in life, there's both "good news" and "bad news" to be found in this decision.

The "good news" is, I believe, pretty clearly set out above. The 'bad news" is only found by digging a little deeper and touches more on a philosophical point. But I do believe you might be better served if I leave that discussion for another day.

For now, let's just sit with our victory.*



* Without commenting on the fact that it's pretty sad when what constitutes a "victory" merely sets individuals with intellectual disabilities on the same playing field as every other citizen in this country.

** By the by, and just as another aside, I might point out that out of the Justices involved in this decision was our old friend, Justice Cromwell. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Oldies But Goodies

Check out this list of  Psychology For You* parenting videos available from the IWK.

And don't forget to check out their list of Upcoming Presentations!

  • An Overview of a Treatment Approach for Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (Feb 9/09)
  • Parenting the Young Worrier: Tips and Strategies (Jan 12/09)
  • Parenting Youth with Chronic Illness (Nov 24/08)
  • Early Detection and Treatment of Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (Oct 6/08)
  • Too Scared to Speak: Helping Your Child Overcome Shyness or Selective Mutism (Sept 22/08)
  • Helping Children Cope with Anxiety and Fears
  • How To Talk To Teens About Weight in a Weight Obsessed World (Dec 7/07)
  • Seeking Common Ground: Managing Challenging Adolescent Behaviour (Nov 20/07)
  • Hands-On Strategies for Helping Children who have ADHD (Oct 23/07)
  • Getting Your Children to School when they Refuse to Go (Sept 18/07)
  • Stress Management and Relaxation (Jun 12/07)
  • The Stepparent - Stepchild Relationship: Strategies For Helping Youth Adjust To A New Family (Apr 17/07)
  • "Mom, My Stomach Hurts!": Helping Children With Recurrent Pains (Jan 16/07)
  • Navigating the School System: The Art of Advocacy for Parents of Children with Special Needs (Oct 3/06)
  • When Your Children Fight (Sep 12/06)
  • Parenting Children With Behavioural Difficulties (Apr 25/06)
  • Eating Disorders: Why Treat Children Differently Than Adults (Feb 28/06)
  • Treating Childhood Obesity: What Parents and Professionals Can Do To Help (Jan 10/06)
  • Sleep During the Early Years: Common Difficulties and Strategies to Help (March 2009) 

* Psychology for You is an education series provided by IWK Psychologists as a free, public service to the Maritime Community. The videos above are recordings of previous presentations from January 2006 - March 2009.