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Liability for criminal conduct requires an intent to cause harm. An important question in criminal law is the degree to which lesser states than actual knowledge can form the basis for a criminal conviction. In the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Briscoe, 2010 SCC 13 released today, the Court makes some important observations about the concept of wilful blindness:

Wilful blindness does not define the mens rea required for particular offences. Rather, it can substitute for actual knowledge whenever knowledge is a component of the mens rea. The doctrine of wilful blindness imputes knowledge to an accused whose suspicion is aroused to the point where he or she sees the need for further inquiries, but deliberately chooses not to make those inquiries. See Sansregret v. The Queen, [1985] 1 S.C.R. 570, and R. v. Jorgensen, [1995] 4 S.C.R. 55. As Sopinka J. succinctly put it in Jorgensen (at para. 103), “[a] finding of wilful blindness involves an affirmative answer to the question: Did the accused shut his eyes because he knew or strongly suspected that looking would fix him with knowledge?”

Courts and commentators have consistently emphasized that wilful blindness is distinct from recklessness. The emphasis bears repeating. As the Court explained in Sansregret (at p. 584):

. . . while recklessness involves knowledge of a danger or risk and persistence in a course of conduct which creates a risk that the prohibited result will occur, wilful blindness arises where a person who has become aware of the need for some inquiry declines to make the inquiry because he does not wish to know the truth. He would prefer to remain ignorant. The culpability in recklessness is justified by consciousness of the risk and by proceeding in the face of it, while in wilful blindness it is justified by the accused’s fault in deliberately failing to inquire when he knows there is reason for inquiry. [Emphasis added.]

It is important to keep the concepts of recklessness and wilful blindness separate. Glanville Williams explains the key restriction on the doctrine:

The rule that wilful blindness is equivalent to knowledge is essential, and is found throughout the criminal law. It is, at the same time, an unstable rule, because judges are apt to forget its very limited scope. A court can properly find wilful blindness only where it can almost be said that the defendant actually knew. He suspected the fact; he realised its probability; but he refrained from obtaining the final confirmation because he wanted in the event to be able to deny knowledge. This, and this alone, is wilful blindness. It requires in effect a finding that the defendant intended to cheat the administration of justice. Any wider definition would make the doctrine of wilful blindness indistinguishable from the civil doctrine of negligence in not obtaining knowledge. [Emphasis added.]

(Criminal Law: The General Part (2nd ed. 1961), at p. 159 (cited in Sansregret at p. 586.)

Professor Don Stuart makes the useful observation that the expression “deliberate ignorance” seems more descriptive than “wilful blindness”, as it connotes “an actual process of suppressing a suspicion”. Properly understood in this way, “the concept of wilful blindness is of narrow scope and involves no departure from the subjective focus on the workings of the accused’s mind” (Canadian Criminal Law: A Treatise (5th ed. 2007), at p. 241). While a failure to inquire may be evidence of recklessness or criminal negligence, as for example, where a failure to inquire is a marked departure from the conduct expected of a reasonable person, wilful blindness is not simply a failure to inquire but, to repeat Professor Stuart’s words, ‘deliberate ignorance’.