Justice? The Defence of Mental Disorder

Written on behalf of Barrison Law
Pocket knife representing the defence of a mental disorder in a murder manslaughter case

Our recent blog posts have featured a series of defences and ways an accused may be able to avoid liability, with recent articles covering necessity and self-defence.

This article continues that trend and looks at the defence of mental disorder, also called the not criminally responsible (“NCR”) defence. Under this defence, if an accused did not understand what they were doing at the time of their relevant actions because of a mental disorder, they are not considered to be criminally responsible.

Below, we look at some of the requirements to qualify for the defence and the implications of doing so, along with a recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in which the accused, a person living with schizophrenia, sought to rely on the NCR defence.

What is the defence of mental disorder?

Most criminal offences require the prosecution to establish some degree of intent on the part of the accused. It is not sufficient for a conviction that the accused performed the relevant acts; the accused also needs to have the requisite state of mind, such as intending to cause harm.

This creates a problem for those with mental disorders that prevent them from, for example, understanding the consequences of their actions. While they might intend to cause harm, they might not know their actions were wrong in the circumstances. It may be unfair to impose criminal liability on those that were not acting autonomously or rationally.

As a result, section 16 of the Criminal Code states:

“No person is criminally responsible for an act committed or an omission made while suffering from a mental disorder that rendered the person incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of the act or omission or of knowing that it was wrong.”

What are the elements of the defence of mental disorder?

In order to rely on the defence, the accused must have a “mental disorder.” This is defined in the Criminal Code as a “disease of the mind,” which is a legal concept to which medical evidence is relevant. It does not include self-induced states, such as those caused by alcohol or drugs.

Secondly, the mental disorder must render the person incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of their act/omission or knowing that the act/omission was wrong.

The Criminal Code presumes that an accused cannot rely on the defence unless the contrary is proved, and the burden of doing so lies with the party that raises the issue.

What happens to an accused that successfully relies on the defence of mental disorder?

The defence of mental disorder recognizes that morally innocent offenders should be treated rather than punished and that the public needs to be protected.

As a result, if the defence is proven, the accused is not convicted. However, they are not acquitted in the typical way. Normally, the accused is diverted to the provincial or territorial Review Board, which assesses the person. The Review Board then tries to develop a disposition that protects the public and treats the accused’s mental disorder.

Accused advanced NCR defence after random stabbing death

Turning to the recent decision in the case of R. v. Snache, the accused, Justice Snache, was charged with second-degree murder after the death of a man in Orillia. The accused was 19 years old at the time and admitted to stabbing the victim on the street.

The defence argued that the accused was not criminally responsible on account of having a mental disorder. He was assessed by a forensic psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with schizophrenia. The accused reported hearing voices that threatened his life, and he believed people wanted to kill him.

The Court noted that:

“[The accused] further reported to [the psychiatrist] that he believed [the victim] wanted to kill him and was going to kill him. He considered the fact that [the victim] made eye contact with him and appeared to be reaching into his pocket to be threatening. While he considered turning around and going the other way or walking around [the victim] to avoid him, he did not think those actions would be enough to save his life.”

Judge found that the accused performed the acts and had the intention for second-degree murder

Justice Boswell accepted that the accused stabbed the victim and was also prepared to find that he knew the consequences of stabbing someone in the chest would likely be death. His Honour decided that the accused intended to cause bodily harm that was likely to kill.

The key issue, in this case, was whether the NCR defence was proven. As the parties agreed that the accused had a disease of the mind at the time of the offence, namely schizophrenia, the Court had to decide whether the accused had the capacity to understand that his actions were wrong.

The accused met the requirements for the NCR defence

The judge warned that:

“There is always a risk that an accused facing a sentence of life imprisonment may fake or exaggerate symptoms of a mental illness in support of an NCR defence.”

However, his Honour decided that the accused was not criminally responsible for the murder. The medical evidence showed the accused had a number of prior emergency room visits, which demonstrated that he was suffering significantly from the disease. The judge was satisfied that the symptoms of the disease impaired his capacity to appreciate the legal and moral wrongfulness of his actions.

As a result, the accused will remain under the care of a psychiatric facility until the Ontario Review Board holds a hearing to decide on his supervision and treatment.

Contact the Criminal Defence Lawyers at Barrison Law in Oshawa to Build Your Defence Against Serious Charges

The skilled criminal defence lawyers at Barrison Law have extensive experience defending clients who have been charged with a range of serious offences, including murder and manslaughter. Our lawyers work closely with clients to understand their circumstances in order to provide them with a strategic defence. We also provide prospective clients with a free initial consultation, and we offer a 24-hour emergency phone service for urgent situations. Please call us at 905-404-1947 or contact us online to speak with a member of our team.