New & Notable: 278.1 Restored

The Supreme Court today released its ruling in Quesnelle addressing the scope of section 278.1 and discussing the privacy rights of victims of crime: R v Quesnelle, 2014 SCC 46. The Court unanimously overturned the Ontario Court of Appeal’s ruling (2013 ONCA 180). Two aspects of the ONCA ruling were, in my view, troubling. I commented on them in a blog at the time: A Drastic but Unfortunate Shift in the Law of Disclosure. First, the ONCA’s ruling that there were no privacy interests in police occurrence reports was flawed; and second, the ONCA’s ruling that police reports made in relation to other occurrences were not captured by the exclusionary clause of 278.1 (in other words, other occurrence reports were “records” and subject to privacy protections). The Supreme Court agrees with me (or at least that is how I see it).

In its unanimous ruling, authored by Karakastanis J, the court reviewed section 278.1 and outlined the issue on appeal as “whether these provisions apply to police occurrence reports prepared in the investigation of previous incidents involving a complainant or witness and not the offence being prosecuted. The question is whether these unrelated police occurrence reports count as “records” as defined in s. 2781. Such that the statutory regime limits apply” [para 1]. In short, the Court answered this issue as follows:

I conclude that the Mills regime applies to police occurrence reports that are not directly related to the charges against the accusedPrivacy is not an all or nothing right. Individuals involved in a criminal investigation do not forfeit their privacy interest for all future purposes; they reasonably expect that personal information in police reports will not be disclosed in unrelated matters.  Moreover, while the regime exempts investigatory and prosecutorial records, that exemption applies only to records made in relation to the particular offence in question.
Accordingly, I agree with the trial judge that the unrelated police occurrence reports at issue were “records” within the definition of s. 278.1  and thus subject to the Mills regime.  The trial judge was entitled to conclude that the reports should not be disclosed.  I would allow the appeal, set aside the order for a new trial, and restore the conviction, remitting the sentence appeal to the Court of Appeal. [Emphasis added]; [paras 2-3].

In the analysis of this issue the Court discussed two areas: (i) principles governing disclosure; and (ii) whether “unrelated” police occurrence reports are “records”.

With respect to the principles, the Court noted Stinchcombe, McNeil and O’Connor and then offered the following comments on the Mills regime:

The regime reflects Parliament’s intention to accommodate and reconcile the right of the accused to make full answer and defence with the privacy and equality rights of complainants in sexual offence cases.  In the words of Professor Lise Gotell, the regime was created in order to “to limit what it is that a woman/child complainant must be forced to reveal at trial as the price of her access to the criminal justice system” (When Privacy is not Enough:  Sexual Assault Complainants, Sexual History Evidence, and the Disclosure of Personal Records, (2006) 43 Alta. L. Rev. 743, at p. 745.).  That approach was upheld by this Court in R. v. Mills, [1999] 3 S.C.R. 668, and its constitutionality is not challenged in this appeal. [Emphasis added]; [para 14].

After discussing the procedural aspects of 278.1 the Court noted that the “mere fact that a police occurrence report concerns a complainant or witness is not enough to make the report relevant to an otherwise unrelated prosecution.  The Mills provisions echo this Court’s frequent warnings against relying on myths and stereotypes about sexual assault complainants in assessing the relevance of evidence in the context of sexual assault trials [para 17].

Turning to discuss the impact of McNeil, the Court noted that

The Mills regime governs the disclosure of “records” in sexual offence trials, but does not displace the Crown’s duty to make reasonable inquiries and obtain potentially relevant material (or the police duty to pass on material to the Crown) under McNeil.  As an officer of the court and Minister of Justice, the Crown is duty-bound to seek justice, not convictions, and to avoid wrongful convictions, in the prosecutions of all offences, including sexual offences.  The Mills regime simply replaces the obligation to produce relevant records directly with an obligation to give notice of their existence. [Para 18].

With respect to whether unrelated occurrence reports are “records” in 278.1, the Court considered two issues: first, whether the records carry a reasonable expectation of privacy; and second, whether they “fall into the exemption for investigatory and prosecutorial documents”.

First, the Court concluded unrelated occurrence reports do carry with them a reasonable expectation of privacy. Such privacy interests must be assessed in relation to the “totality of the circumstances” and are not limited to “trust-like, confidential, or therapeutic relationships” [para 27]. Privacy interests are not “an all or nothing concept”. The Court went on to discuss the “information” in these reports and the “price of disclosure” and concluded:

People provide information to police in order to protect themselves and others.  They are entitled to do so with confidence that the police will only disclose it for good reason.  The fact that the information is in the hands of the police should not nullify their interest in keeping that information private from other individuals.
Fundamentally, the privacy analysis turns on a normative question of whether we, as a society, should expect that police occurrence reports will be kept private.  Given the sensitive nature of the information frequently contained in such reports, and the impact that their disclosure can have on the privacy interests of complainants and witnesses, it seems to me that there will generally be a reasonable expectation of privacy in police occurrence reports. [Paras 43-44].

Second, the Court rejected the notion that unrelated occurrence reports are exempt as prosecutorial and investigative documents in 278.1. Interpreting the section leads to the conclusion that the exempting clause only applies to the records made in the course of the investigation in question. In making this point the Court offered the following practical comments:

If Parliament wanted to exempt unrelated police and prosecution documents from the Mills regime, it is hard to see why it would have excluded only those documents made by some police departments and not others.
This would mean that an accused whose case was investigated by a large police force would be more likely to get easy access to occurrence reports than if the case was investigated by a small force.  For example, where the RCMP is involved in an investigation, the Court of Appeal’s interpretation of the exemption would waive the Mills regime for RCMP occurrence reports from across the country [paras 57-58].

I agree – I similarly noted this anomaly would follow from the ONCA ruling in my 2013 blog:

There is nothing in the language of this exclusionary portion of 278.1 that suggests it should apply as broadly as suggested by MacFarland JA. Indeed, if it did, it would create possible odd and unfair results. Consider whether the records held by other police agencies, not those “responsible” for this investigation, but nonetheless in possession of such information would be subject to 278.1.

In concluding on the point that unrelated occurrence reports are “records” the Court rejected the position of the Criminal Lawyer’s Association of Ontario and the respondent that this interpretation of records would impact on trial fairness – in part, this argument pointed out that the Crown and defence would be on unequal footing in access to such material:

The principles of fundamental justice and trial fairness do not guarantee defence counsel the right to precisely the same privileges and procedures as the Crown and the police (Mills, at para. 111).  Nor is the right to a full answer and defence a right to pursue every conceivable tactic to be used in defending oneself against criminal prosecution.  The right to a full answer and defence is not without limit. [Para 64].

In my 2013 blog on the ONCA ruling I concluded with these thoughts:

Section 278.1 should apply to police occurrence reports. The section is broad enough to capture those reports and the exclusionary clause does not apply.
Ironically, MacFarland JA noted the following – from the preamble of the Bill to introduce the 278.1 provisions – as the “intent” of Parliament.
In the preamble, Parliament recognizes that the compelled production of personal information in accordance with ordinary disclosure principles may deter victims of sexual offences from reporting and seeking “necessary treatment, counselling, or advice”. It also acknowledges that such unconstrained disclosure may detrimentally affect the work of those who provide services and assistance to complainants of sexual offences [emphasis added]; [para 28]. 
If this truly was Parliament’s intent – and it seems quite reasonable to so conclude – it is unlikely to be furthered by this ruling. Indeed, this ruling is likely to have a chilling effect of reporting. If every complainant knew that everything they tell the police and hand over to the police will thereinafter be provided to every accused person on every cause in which she is a witness or victim, it is not hard to imagine some hesitation or concern may arise.
The 278.1 regime is not overly onerous. It does, however, provide a valuable and important level of protection. That protection should apply to police occurrence reports.

With its ruling today the Court has addressed these concerns. The privacy rights of victims and witnesses sought to be protected by 278.1 has been restored.