credibility

Ontario’s First Criminal Trial Since Courts Close Takes Place Over Zoom

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

On March 17, 2020, the courts in Ontario shut down to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.  As time passed, the courts began to hear bail hearings, appeals, motions and some sentencing hearings using a combination of telephone, video and only a few in-person hearings.  All trials were on placed on hold for nearly four months as measures were developed to contain the deadly virus and decisions were made as to how to safely proceed with re-opening the courts.

The lives of many Ontarians have been put on hold awaiting trial, whether in jail or those released on strict bail conditions.  Witnesses and victims have also been placed in a holding pattern with many likely suffering from anxiety and stress of not knowing when and how their proceedings will be handled.

Those trials that were scheduled for the spring of 2020 have been re-scheduled.  Courts are now proceeding with trials and preliminary hearings that were already scheduled in July and August. 

Recently, Ontario courts began resuming operations with strict health and safety protocols in place.  In Ontario, the first criminal trial was finally successfully held in provincial court through video conferencing.

TRIAL BY ZOOM

The first and only trial to be conducted through video conferencing in Ontario took place between June 8 to 12.  This was the only trial to take place in Ontario during the province wide court shutdown due to COVID-19.  The case was R. v. S.L..  Both parties requested that the trial take place over Zoom and also requested that the judge provide written reasons allowing such proceeding to take place for the benefit of all parties as the pandemic continues to affect criminal justice in our country.

Justice Lemon agreed with counsel that the case before him was an appropriate trial to be held by video conferencing, along with the assistance of counsel, the parties and the court staff. 

The case took place over 5 days on the Zoom platform (4 days of trial and 1 day or argument) with no significant technological issues.  The lawyers did not wear the customary black robes and the judge did not wear his sash.  There were only two witnesses and a mid-trial voir dire to address the issue of opinion evidence. 

The accused had signed a “Waiver and Consent” to allow for a virtual trial.  Justice Lemon relied upon section 650(2)(b) of the Criminal Code to grant him the jurisdiction to allow the trial process to proceed in the absence of the accused, on consent, subject to appropriate terms and conditions.

Justice Lemon noted that this was an appropriate case to proceed by Zoom as the charge against the accused allowed for trial by judge alone, there were only a few witnesses involved, a few documents and a few issues before the court.  Furthermore, all parties were agreeable to proceed by Zoom and were experienced with the process.  Justice Lemon did not have any concerns with his ability to assess credibility over Zoom. 

Justice Lemon permitted the trial to proceed with the accused “out of the court” with the following conditions:

  1. The accused must participate in the trial using video conferencing software for the entirety of the proceedings; and
  2. The accused must alert the court or his counsel if he is unable to see or hear  the trial proceedings.

WHAT HAPPENED AT TRIAL?

Sherman Lai was charged with sexually assaulting D.H., who was 22 years old at the time, in 2005 when she was a patient at his Traditional Chinese Medicine clinic.  S.L. testified that she attended the clinic as she was suffering from digestive issues causing bloating and gas and she was concerned about facial acne.  She alleged that at her last appointment Lai performed a vaginal exam on her at his clinic.

Although Justice Lemon found S.L. to be a credible witness, he found her to be unreliable due to changes in her testimony.  He found that there were several inconsistencies between S.L.’s statements on the stand and the information that she gave prior to the trial regarding the year of the incident and her initial reasons for visiting Lai.

The Crown provided an expert witness to prove that internal vaginal exams were not part of the practice of traditional medicine.  However, Justice Lemon questioned the breadth of the expert’s knowledge and stated that the testimony did not account for the entirety of traditional Chinese practices.

The question before Justice Lemon was whether what occurred in the exam room was part of Traditional Chinese Medicine.  If it was not, was the physical contact by Lai of a sexual nature. 

Justice Lemon stated:

[T]here may be circumstantial evidence of a sexual assault, but the totality of the evidence leaves open the reasonable conclusion that what S.L. did was perform Traditional Chinese Medicine.  Other than the part of the body touched, there was nothing to suggest other than a clinical practice.

Justice Lemon was not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that S.L.’s treatment by Lai was contrary to Traditional Chinese Medicine and therefore found Lai not guilty of the charge against him.

We will continue to follow the government’s response to the pandemic and how it will affect the Canadian justice system and will provide updates in this blog.

If you have been charged with a criminal offence or have any questions regarding your legal rights, it is recommended that you contact an experienced criminal defence lawyer.  The lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP have many years of experience defending a wide variety of criminal offences.  Contact our office today online or at 905-404-1947.  We offer a 24-hour phone service to protect your rights and to ensure that you have access to justice at all times.

Changes Coming to Sexual Assault Provisions in the Criminal Code

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

We have blogged extensively about sexual assault, as public debate about this offence continues to rage in light of multiple newsworthy events in recent years, and as the law evolves in recognition of changing norms.

Earlier this week, Canada’s Justice Minister introduced Bill C-51, which seeks to remove 20 criminal offences that are currently outdated or have been invalidated by court decisions, and clarify other exisitng provisions, including sexual assault provisions. The move is the Liberal government’s efforts to clean up the Criminal Code and other laws to accurately reflect changes in our understanding of critical issues.

Among the expected changes is an amendment that will explicitly state that a sexual assault complainant cannot consent to sex if they are unconscious, and that sexts or photos or videos cannot be used to discredit a complainant.

What Does This Mean?

Consent

The amended sexual assault provisions will not define or answer the question “how intoxicated is ‘too intoxicated’ to consent to sex”- that determination will remain in the hands of judges who will continue to make decisions on a case by case basis.

Currently, case law states that consent requires the ongoing, conscious agreement of both parties engaging in sexual activity while that activity is taking place. This should be clear, but unfortunately, it is not always, and consent or the credibility of one or both of the parties becomes the primary issue in sexual assault proceedings.

Rape Shield Provisions

Additionally, under current rape shield provisions, a complainant’s private medical records are not admissible at trial, unless the accused can establish that the records are critical to disproving the allegations, or vital to the accused’s constitutional right to a fair trial. However, the medical records cannot be used to support an accused’s claim that the complainant is somehow blameworthy in the alleged assault, more likely to have consented to sexual activity, or less credible.

The proposed changes would add emails, texts, other communications, as well as other personal records (e.g.: diaries, counseling records) to the list of records that are inadmissible under rape shield provisions.

The proposed changes would also clarify that sexting as well as emails, pictures, or videos with sexual content sent before or after an alleged assault could not be used against a complainant, and would also be subject to rape shield provisions.

Legal Counsel for Sexual Assault Complainants

The Bill also provides that sexual assault complainants have a right to their own legal counsel where rape shield questions are at issue. A judge would have to inform the complainant of that right and be required to consider their objections to having their private records and communications heard in court.

“Mistaken Belief”

The proposed changes would also codify existing restrictions on when an accused can use the defence of an “honest, but mistaken belief” that the complainant consented to sex. For instance, it is not legally possible to claim that the complainant’s failure to resist or protest meant that there was consent. Similarly, an accused cannot claim ignorance of the law or misunderstanding of what consent entails.

We will continue to follow the progression of this Bill and will blog about updates as they become available. In the meantime, if you have been accused of sexual assault or any related charges, contact the Oshawa criminal defence lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP online or at 905 404 1947. We offer 24-hour phone services and a free confidential consultation and we are available when you need us most.

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