Supreme Court of Canada holds trial judges can only depart from plea bargains/joint submissions when they would bring the administration of justice into disrepute or would otherwise be contrary to the public interest.
23, October 23, 2016 - Filed in: Court Cases
"A‑C attended a drop‑in centre which provided assistance to people suffering from mental health and addiction problems. He had a long‑standing mental health disorder and substance abuse issues. On February 9, 2013, A‑C punched a regular volunteer at the drop‑in centre, G, who fell, hit his head on the pavement, and died. A‑C was 28 years old and had a prior criminal record. After his arrest, he was taken to a mental health facility. Following his discharge, A‑C breached his bail conditions and was held in custody thereafter until his sentencing hearing, a period of approximately 11 months. After several days of trial, A‑C pleaded guilty to manslaughter for his role in the death of G. The Crown and the defence made a joint submission on sentence, proposing a further 18 months’ in custody with no period of probation to follow. The trial judge applied a “fitness test” to the joint submission and rejected it. He concluded that an appropriate sentence was two years less a day, factoring in deductions for pre‑sentence custody, and added a three year probation order. The Court of Appeal unanimously dismissed A‑C’s sentence appeal on the basis that the sentence imposed was fit in the circumstances."
The S.C.C. (7:0) allowed the appeal, varied the sentence to bring it into conformity with the joint submission.
Justice Moldaver wrote as follows (at paras. 3-6, 31-34, 40-42, 49, 51-53, 58-60, 67):
"...joint submissions on sentence are not sacrosanct. Trial judges may depart from them. That is what happened here. The appellant, Mr. Anthony-Cook, entered a plea of guilty to manslaughter on the basis of a joint submission as to sentence. The trial judge rejected the joint submission and imposed a longer custodial sentence than the sentence proposed by Crown and defence counsel. He also imposed a probation order for three years, even though the joint submission did not contemplate a period of
The narrow issue before us is whether the trial judge erred in departing from the joint submission proposed by the parties. The broader issue concerns the legal test trial judges should apply in deciding whether it is appropriate in a particular case to depart from a joint submission.
... I am respectfully of the view that the trial judge in the present case applied a less stringent test than he should have in choosing to depart from the joint submission — and in doing so, he erred in principle. The test he applied was a “fitness of sentence” test. The test he should have applied is whether the proposed sentence would bring the administration of justice into disrepute, or would otherwise be contrary to the public interest.
In view of the trial judge’s error, deference is not owed and we can look at the matter afresh, using the correct test to determine whether the joint submission on sentence should have been accepted. Applying that test, I am satisfied that the sentence proposed by the parties did not, in the circumstances, warrant a departure from the joint submission. Accordingly, I would allow the appeal and vary the sentence to bring it into conformity with the joint submission.
...I believe that the public interest test ... is the proper test. It is more stringent than the other tests proposed and it best reflects the many benefits that joint submissions bring to the criminal justice system and the corresponding need for a high degree of certainty in them. Moreover, it is distinct from the “fitness” tests used by trial judges and appellate courts in conventional sentencing hearings and, in that sense, helps to keep trial judges focused on the unique considerations that apply when assessing the acceptability of a joint submission. To the extentDouglas holds otherwise, I am respectfully of the view that it is wrongly decided and should not be followed.
Under the public interest test, a trial judge should not depart from a joint submission on sentence unless the proposed sentence would bring the administration of justice into disrepute or is otherwise contrary to the public interest. But, what does this threshold mean? Two decisions from the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal are helpful in this regard.
In Druken, at para. 29, the court held that a joint submission will bring the administration of justice into disrepute or be contrary to the public interest if, despite the public interest considerations that support imposing it, it is so “markedly out of line with the expectations of reasonable persons aware of the circumstances of the case that they would view it as a break down in the proper functioning of the criminal justice system”. And, as stated by the same court in R. v. B.O.2, 2010 NLCA 19 (CanLII), at para. 56, when assessing a joint submission, trial judges should “avoid rendering a decision that causes an informed and reasonable public to lose confidence in the institution of the courts”.
In my view, these powerful statements capture the essence of the public interest test developed by the Martin Committee. They emphasize that a joint submission should not be rejected lightly, a conclusion with which I agree. Rejection denotes a submission so unhinged from the circumstances of the offence and the offender that its acceptance would lead reasonable and informed persons, aware of all the relevant circumstances, including the importance of promoting certainty in resolution discussions, to believe that the proper functioning of the justice system had broken down. This is an undeniably high threshold...
In addition to the many benefits that joint submissions offer to participants in the criminal justice system, they play a vital role in contributing to the administration of justice at large. The prospect of a joint submission that carries with it a high degree of certainty encourages accused persons to enter a plea of guilty. And guilty pleas save the justice system precious time, resources, and expenses, which can be channeled into other matters. This is no small benefit. To the extent that they avoid trials, joint submissions on sentence permit our justice system to function more efficiently. Indeed, I would argue that they permit it to function. Without them, our justice system would be brought to its knees, and eventually collapse under its own weight.
But as I have said, for joint submissions to be possible, the parties must have a high degree of confidence that they will be accepted. Too much doubt and the parties may choose instead to accept the risks of a trial or a contested sentencing hearing. The accused in particular will be reluctant to forgo a trial with its attendant safeguards, including the crucial ability to test the strength of the Crown’s case, if joint submissions come to be seen as an insufficiently certain alternative.
Hence, the importance of trial judges exhibiting restraint, rejecting joint submissions only where the proposed sentence would be viewed by reasonable and informed persons as a breakdown in the proper functioning of the justice system. A lower threshold than this would cast the efficacy of resolution agreements into too great a degree of uncertainty. The public interest test ensures that these resolution agreements are afforded a high degree of certainty.
Finally, I would offer some brief guidance to trial judges on the approach they should follow when they are troubled by a joint submission on sentence.
First, trial judges should approach the joint submission on an “as-is” basis. That is to say, the public interest test applies whether the judge is considering varying the proposed sentence or adding something to it that the parties have not mentioned, for example, a probation order. If the parties have not asked for a particular order, the trial judge should assume that it was considered and excluded from the joint submission. However, if counsel have neglected to include a mandatory order, the judge should not hesitate to inform counsel. The need for certainty in joint submissions cannot justify failing to impose a mandatory order.
Second, trial judges should apply the public interest test when they are considering “jumping” or “undercutting” a joint submission (DeSousa, per Doherty J.A.). That is not to say that the analysis will be the same in either case. On the contrary, from the accused’s perspective, “undercutting” does not engage concerns about fair trial rights or undermine confidence in the certainty of plea negotiations. In addition, in assessing whether the severity of a joint submission would offend the public interest, trial judges should be mindful of the power imbalance that may exist between the Crown and defence, particularly where the accused is self-represented or in custody at the time of sentencing. These factors may temper the public interest in certainty and justify “undercutting” in limited circumstances. At the same time, where the trial judge is considering “undercutting”, he or she should bear in mind that the community’s confidence in the administration of justice may suffer if an accused enjoys the benefits of a joint submission without having to serve the agreed-upon sentence (see DeSousa, at paras. 23-24).
Third, when faced with a contentious joint submission, trial judges will undoubtedly want to know about the circumstances leading to the joint submission — and in particular, any benefits obtained by the Crown or concessions made by the accused. The greater the benefits obtained by the Crown, and the more concessions made by the accused, the more likely it is that the trial judge should accept the joint submission, even though it may appear to be unduly lenient. For example, if the joint submission is the product of an agreement by the accused to assist the Crown or police, or an evidentiary weakness in the Crown’s case, a very lenient sentence might not be contrary to the public interest. On the other hand, if the joint submission resulted only from the accused’s realization that conviction was inevitable, the same sentence might cause the public to lose confidence in the criminal justice system.
Fourth, if the trial judge is not satisfied with the sentence proposed by counsel, “fundamental fairness dictates that an opportunity be afforded to counsel to make further submissions in an attempt to address the . . . judge’s concerns before the sentence is imposed” (G.W.C., at para. 26). The judge should notify counsel that he or she has concerns, and invite further submissions on those concerns, including the possibility of allowing the accused to withdraw his or her guilty plea, as the trial judge did in this case.
Fifth, if the trial judge’s concerns about the joint submission are not alleviated, the judge may allow the accused to apply to withdraw his or her guilty plea. The circumstances in which a plea may be withdrawn need not be settled here. However, by way of example, withdrawal may be permitted where counsel have made a fundamental error about the legality of the proposed joint submission, for example, where a conditional sentence has been proposed but is unavailable.
Finally, trial judges who remain unsatisfied by counsel’s submissions should provide clear and cogent reasons for departing from the joint submission. These reasons will help explain to the parties why the proposed sentence was unacceptable, and may assist them in the resolution of future cases. Reasons will also facilitate appellate review.
I would allow the appeal, and vary the appellant’s sentence to bring it into conformity with the joint submission, namely, that the appellant serve an additional 18 months in custody, with no period of probation to follow. The sentence jointly proposed by the Crown and defence was not one that would bring the administration of justice into disrepute, nor was it otherwise contrary to the public interest."
Note: The summary and body are drawn from Eugene Meehan’s SupremeAdvocacy Weekly Updates for the Law Community.