New & Notable: Clarifying and Safeguarding Crown Discretion

Frederick Anderson was charged with over 80. He pleaded guilty. Prior to his plea he was served with a Notice of increased penalty. At sentencing the Crown intended to prove that Notice was served; the result being that Anderson would be subject to a minimum sentence of 120 days (Anderson had four prior convictions). 

Anderson sought to challenge the filing of notice alleging it breached section 7 of the Charter. In particular, he alleged that the Crown was obliged to consider his Aboriginal status. The Crown’s position was that the filing of Notice was a matter of prosecutorial discretion reviewable only through a finding of abuse of process. The matter ultimately made its way to the Supreme Court: 2014 SCC 41.

In considering the appeal the Court considered two issues. First, is the Crown required to consider the Aboriginal status of the offender in filing Notice of increased penalty. Second, whether filing the Notice is a matter of “core” prosecutorial discretion and on what basis can the exercise of Crown discretion be reviewed.

With respect to the first issue, the Court rejected the notion that the Crown was required to consider Aboriginal status for two reasons.

First, consideration of the Gladue principles is the responsibility of the judge not the Crown:

Importantly, both Gladue and Ipeelee speak to the sentencing obligations of judges to craft a proportionate sentence for Aboriginal offenders. They make no mention of prosecutorial discretion and do not support Mr. Anderson’s argument that prosecutors must consider Aboriginal status when making a decision that limits the sentencing options available to a judge. Mr. Anderson’s argument in effect equates the duty of the judge and the prosecutor, but there is no basis in law to support equating their distinct roles in the sentencing process. It is the judge’s responsibility to impose sentence; likewise, it is the judge’s responsibility, within the applicable legal parameters, to craft a proportionate sentence. If a mandatory minimum regime requires a judge to impose a disproportionate sentence, the regime should be challenged [para 25].

Second, the argument that Aboriginal status must be considered by the Crown relies on a principle of fundamental justice that the Court held is not valid: “The principle contended for by Mr. Anderson does not meet the second requirement that it enjoy consensus as a principle that is fundamental to the way in which the legal system ought to fairly operate” [para 30]. In concluding on this point the Court noted that accepting this principle would significantly impact on the role of the Crown and “hobble” them in their decision making processes:

We must begin by acknowledging that the principle advanced by Mr. Anderson would enormously expand the scope of judicial review of discretionary decisions made by prosecutors. In doing so, it puts at risk the adversarial nature of our criminal justice system by hobbling Crown prosecutors in the performance of their work and by inviting judicial oversight of the numerous decisions that Crown prosecutors make on a daily basis [para 31].

With respect to the second issue, the Court addressed two points.

First, the Court considered the scope of Crown discretion. In doing so it held that there has been a lack of clarity in the law regarding the scope of Crown discretion. The development of “core” discretion is not helpful and should be eliminated. In its place, the Court held that all discretionary decisions are to be treated equally and, importantly, the list of such decisions are not closed or fixed:

In an effort to clarify, I think we should start by recognizing that the term “prosecutorial discretion” is an expansive term that covers all “decisions regarding the nature and extent of the prosecution and the Attorney General’s participation in it” (Krieger, at para. 47). As this Court has repeatedly noted, “[p]rosecutorial discretion refers to the discretion exercised by the Attorney-General in matters within his authority in relation to the prosecution of criminal offences” (Krieger, at para. 44, citing Power, at p. 622, quoting D. Vanek, “Prosecutorial Discretion” (1988), 30 Crim. L.Q. 219, at p. 219 (emphasis added)). While it is likely impossible to create an exhaustive list of the decisions that fall within the nature and extent of a prosecution, further examples to those in Krieger include: the decision to repudiate a plea agreement (as in R. v. Nixon, 2011 SCC 34, [2011] 2 S.C.R. 566); the decision to pursue a dangerous offender application; the decision to prefer a direct indictment; the decision to charge multiple offences; the decision to negotiate a plea; the decision to proceed summarily or by indictment; and the decision to initiate an appeal. All pertain to the nature and extent of the prosecution. As can be seen, many stem from the provisions of the Code itself, including the decision in this case to tender the Notice.

In sum, prosecutorial discretion applies to a wide range of prosecutorial decision making [paras 44-45].

Second, the Court considered the issue of when and how the exercise of Crown discretion may be reviewed. In doing so, it noted that “[m]anifestly, prosecutorial discretion is entitled to considerable deference” [para 48]. The review of prosecutorial discretion, the Court held, is reviewable only for abuse of process – which “refers to Crown conduct that is egregious and seriously compromises trial fairness and/or the integrity of the justice system” [para 50]. In stressing this point the Court noted that to the “extent the Gill test suggests that conduct falling short of abuse of process may form a basis for reviewing prosecutorial discretion, respectfully, it should not be followed” [para 51].

Having set the standard for review, the Court also noted that before the Crown is required to reply to such allegations, an evidentiary basis must be established [para 55].

In conclusion, the Court held:

Parliament has expressly conferred on the Crown the discretion to tender the Notice at the sentencing hearing through the governing provisions of the Code. This discretion is consistent with our constitutional traditions. As the Crown points out, tendering the Notice is not simply a decision as to what submissions will be made at a sentencing hearing (A.F., at para. 119). Tendering the Notice fundamentally alters the extent of prosecution — specifically, the extent of the jeopardy facing the accused. In this respect, the Crown’s decision to tender the Notice is analogous to the decision to proceed with charges that attract a mandatory minimum sentence when other related offences have no mandatory minimum sentence; the decision to proceed by indictment rather than summary conviction when different mandatory minimum sentences are involved; and the decision to proceed by indictment rather than by summary conviction when that decision precludes certain sentencing options.

For these reasons, I conclude that tendering the Notice is a matter of prosecutorial discretion. As a result, it is reviewable only for abuse of process.  In the complete absence of any evidence to support it, Mr. Anderson’s abuse of process argument must fail [paras 62-63].

Anderson is a very helpful decision beyond the specific issues it addresses for a number of reasons.

First, it has clarified the scope of Crown discretion. It has done away with the “core” dichotomy and it has recognized there is not a closed list of discretionary powers or decisions.

Second, it has held that review of such discretion is only permitted for abuse of process.

Third, it has held that an evidentiary basis is required before the Crown needs to respond to challenges to the exercise of its discretion.

Fourth, the Court recognizes that to the extent a regime results in a disproportionate sentence it can be challenged – short of which it must be applied.