Current & Curious: Threats Redux

Today the Supreme Court released its decision in O'Brien: 2013 SCC 2. Yesterday I posted about this case and commented on the possible impact of the Court's ruling: Finding fear in all the right places.

Two aspects of the ruling are interesting. First, the legal analysis. Fish J, for the majority held that "it is not an essential element of the offence under s. 264.1(1)(a) that the recipient of the threats uttered feel intimidated by them or be shown to have taken them seriously" [para 13]. Rothstein J, for the minority agreed. As I noted in my post yesterday, this is an interesting point. That all members of the Court agreed, and with little real analysis, that the subjective view of the recipient of the threat is not determinative is somewhat notable. It has been held and accepted by many that this is not only an important but fundamental aspect of a threats charge. Regardless, as I noted in my earlier post - whether it was always the law or is now the law - this is a beneficial and legally sound view of the elements of a threats charge.

Second, the dispute between the majority and minority relates to the interpretation of the trial judge's ruling. The trial judge held as follows:

So I have to consider the evidence of Ms. [W] when I consider the mental element or the mens rea.  Normally the mens rea is taken from the words of the accused, absent any explanation from the accused, and as I pointed out at the outset you have chosen not to testify, as is your right.  But the evidence in this case is somewhat unusual in the sense that Ms. [W] has told the court that she was not concerned about the threats, that you shoot your mouth off, if I can use the vernacular, that she did not want you charged, she did not take the threat seriously.  And so it is incumbent, and the court is required, to consider the words in the context of the evidence of Ms. [W], and when I do so, despite the fact that I am actually quite concerned about the actus of the offence, the comments, the words, I must say that I do have a reasonable doubt about the mental element of the mens rea of the offence because of the evidence of Ms. [W], the fact she did not take them seriously, and as I pointed out at the outset it is incumbent upon the Crown to prove all elements of the case beyond a reasonable doubt.  So despite my concerns I am entering an acquittal on the charges of utter threats, …


While the majority found that it was open to the trial judge to consider W's perception, the minority felt the trial judge asked the wrong question - and acquitted on the basis of W's perception. With respect, it looks like that is exactly what the trial judge did. Perhaps, in fairness, the learned trial judge was of the same view as many others, that the recipient's view is highly probative and indeed, determinative. At any rate, that is not the law - at least not any more.