The Supreme Court of Canada has ordered a new trial for Patrick Goldfinch (“Goldfinch”), and in doing so sent out a warning to judges in Canada when allowing evidence of past sexual history in the case of sex assault trials.
Goldfinch was charged in 2014 with sexually assaulting a woman he had previously dated and had once lived with. The two had broken up, but remained friends. The woman would occasionally visit Goldfinch’s home and stay the night.
On the evening of May 28, 2014, the complainant contacted Goldfinch, who proceeded to pick her up at her house and bring her back to his residence. Goldfinch testified that this was a “typical evening” in that the complainant “would call in the middle of the night, want to come over, and we’d end up going to bed together”. The two shared a consensual kiss and Goldfinch suggested that they go to bed.
According to Goldfinch, they went into his bedroom and each removed their own clothing, engaged in consensual foreplay and brief intercourse. Goldfinch testified that he fell asleep and was later woken by the complainant who stated that he had struck her on the head in his sleep. He got annoyed and called her a taxi using her phone.
The complainant testified that she told Goldfinch she did not want to have sex and he proceeded to grab her arm and drag her by her hair into the bedroom. She testified that she became scared and removed her clothes at his direction. He proceeded to push her onto the bed, hit her in the face and had sexual intercourse with her without her consent. She got dressed and called a taxi from her cell phone, and then contacted the police shortly after returning home. Two officers who met the complainant at the hospital confirmed swelling on her left cheek and elbow.
During the trial, the judge allowed evidence to be admitted regarding a “friends with benefits” type of relationship between the complainant and Goldfinch. The judge regarded this evidence as “relatively benign” and reasoned that keeping it from the jury would harm the accused’s right to make full answer and defence.
At trial, Goldfinch was acquitted by a jury.
The trial decision was appealed and the majority of the Alberta Court of Appeal allowed the Crown’s appeal and ordered a new trial for Goldfinch in finding that the trial judge had erred in admitting the “friends with benefits” evidence.
THE DECISION BY THE SUPREME COURT OF CANADA
In a 6-1 decision, the highest court in Canada ruled that evidence regarding the sexual relationship between Goldfinch and the alleged victim should not have been heard by the jury. This evidence was found to be a “reversible error of law” as allowing the evidence showed no other purpose than to “support the inference that because the complainant had consented in the past, she was more likely to have consented on the night in question”.
The court found that the evidence in question suggested that the alleged victim was likely to have consented to sex because she had done so in the past. This is the type of evidence that the “rape shield” law found in the Criminal Code is intended to prevent.
This case serves as a powerful illustration of how a trial can go off the rails where sexual activity evidence is admitted without being anchored to a specific, legitimate purpose.
Justice Andromache Karakatsanis, writing for the largest number of judges, concluded that evidence of past sexual relationships must be handled with care, “even relatively benign relationship evidence” during a sexual assault trial. If such evidence is allowed, the jury must be instructed by the trial judge that details regarding previous sexual interactions are not relevant in determining whether the complainant had consented to the sexual intercourse that formed the basis of the trial. She wrote:
No means no, and only yes means yes: even in the context of an established relationship, even part way through a sexual encounter, and even if the act is one the complainant has routinely consented to in the past.
Joanne Dartana, Alberta Crown prosecutor, stated that the Supreme Court decision “reaffirms the principle that stereotypical reasoning regarding sexual assault victims has no place in a criminal trial and this principle is no less important where the accused and the complainant had a pre-existing relationship”.
The one dissenting judge, Justice Russell Brown, concluded that the evidence was admissible and that the trial judge had made correct evidentiary rulings and had properly instructed the jury.
If you have been charged with a sexual offence or a related charge or have any questions regarding your legal rights, please contact the experienced criminal lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP online or at 905-404-1947. We have a 24-hour phone service for your convenience. We are available when you need us most.