Bringing the Administration of Justice Into Disrepute

On July 17, 2009, the Supreme Court of Canada released four decisions on the important  question of the circumstances in which evidence obtained by the police in a manner contrary to the Charter of Rights should be excluded from consideration at trial. Section 24(2) of the Charter states “Where, in proceedings under subsection (1), a court concludes that evidence was obtained in a manner that infringed or denied any rights or freedoms guaranteed by this Charter, the evidence shall be excluded if it is established that, having regard to all the circumstances, the admission of it in the proceedings would bring the administration of justice into disrepute.”

The stakes involved could not be higher. On the one hand, the exclusion of evidence can result in the collapse of serious criminal cases. On the other hand, the rights guaranteed under the Charter must be enforced if they are to have meaning. It is left to the judgment of our Courts to strike the proper balance in individual cases.

The starting point is the language of section 24(2). It mandates the exclusion of evidence if, having regard to all the circumstances, the admission of it would bring the administration of justice into disrepute. In trying to give meaning to this broad and general language, the Supreme Court of Canada explained the purpose of section of 24(2) and the factors that judges must consider in deciding whether to exclude evidence obtained in violation of Charter rights:

The words of s. 24(2) capture its purpose: to maintain the good repute of the administration of justice. The term “administration of justice” is often used to indicate the processes by which those who break the law are investigated, charged and tried. More broadly, however, the term embraces maintaining the rule of law and upholding Charter rights in the justice system as a whole.

The phrase “bring the administration of justice into disrepute” must be understood in the long term sense of maintaining the integrity of, and public confidence in, the justice system. Exclusion of evidence resulting in an acquittal may provoke immediate criticism. But s. 24(2) does not focus on immediate reaction to the individual case. Rather, it looks to whether the overall repute of the justice system, viewed in the long term, will be adversely affected by admission of the evidence. The inquiry is objective. It asks whether a reasonable person, informed of all relevant circumstances and the values underlying the Charter, would conclude that the admission of the evidence would bring the administration of justice into disrepute.

Section 24(2)’s focus is not only long-term, but prospective. The fact of the Charter breach means damage has already been done to the administration of justice. Section 24(2) starts from that proposition and seeks to ensure that evidence obtained through that breach does not do further damage to the repute of the justice system.

Finally, s. 24(2)’s focus is societal. Section 24(2) is not aimed at punishing the police or providing compensation to the accused, but rather at systemic concerns. The s. 24(2) focus is on the broad impact of admission of the evidence on the long-term repute of the justice system.

A review of the authorities suggests that whether the admission of evidence obtained in breach of the Charter would bring the administration of justice into disrepute engages three avenues of inquiry, each rooted in the public interests engaged by s. 24(2), viewed in a long-term, forward-looking and societal perspective. When faced with an application for exclusion under s. 24(2), a court must assess and balance the effect of admitting the evidence on society’s confidence in the justice system having regard to: (1) the seriousness of the Charter-infringing state conduct (admission may send the message the justice system condones serious state misconduct), (2) the impact of the breach on the Charter-protected interests of the accused (admission may send the message that individual rights count for little), and (3) society’s interest in the adjudication of the case on its merits. The court’s role on a s. 24(2) application is to balance the assessments under each of these lines of inquiry to determine whether, considering all the circumstances, admission of the evidence would bring the administration of justice into disrepute. These concerns, while not precisely tracking the categories of considerations set out in Collins, capture the factors relevant to the s. 24(2) determination as enunciated in Collins and subsequent jurisprudence.