Mistake of Law and Obstruction of Justice: A 'Bad Excuse' ... Even for a Lawyer!

University of New Brunswick Law Journal, Vol. 50, pp. 171-186, 2001

University of New Brunswick Law Journal, Vol. 51, pp. 309-310, 2002

18 Pages Posted: 5 Dec 2009 Last revised: 1 Aug 2011

Date Written: 2001


In Regina v. Murray, (2000, Ont S.Ct.J.) the learned trial judge, Justice Gravely, errs in his interpretation and application of the law of mens rea in the offense of willfully attempting to obstruct justice under section 139(2) of the Criminal Code of Canada. In view of his findings of fact and law, including the determination that the accused knowingly and intentionally committed the actus reus of the offense and the absence of any suggestion that he lacked awareness of any relevant facts, there is no question in law but that Kenneth Murray was liable to be, and actually should have been, convicted. Nonetheless, the trial judge concluded that Murray’s alleged belief, that his actions were required by his duty to his client, raised a reasonable doubt about his intention to obstruct justice and entitled him to be acquitted. In his reasons for judgment, the trial judge analyzes mens rea as if there is a “color of right” defense to the offense of obstruction of justice. In law, however, no such defense exists to this offense. Consequently, even if Mr. Murray did “honestly believe” that he had a duty to his client not to disclose the existence of the video tapes, that belief could not provide him with an exculpatory defence. In Canada, pursuant to common law and section 19 of the Criminal Code, mistakes of law do not excuse accused persons from responsibility for criminal conduct in the absence of a statutory exception. No exception exists for the offense of obstruction of justice. Yet the Crown did not choose to appeal and thereby signaled its acceptance of the legal analysis adopted by the trial judge. By contrast, if the analysis proposed in this piece had been adopted, the Crown should have prevailed at trial and, if unsuccessful at trial, would have had a right of appeal on a question of law.

At least two tendencies converge as significant influences shaping the outcome in the Murray case. The central tendency, discussed in Part I of this article, is the trial judge’s treatment of the accused’s alleged mistake about his legal duty as if it were a mistake about a question of fact which therefore could give rise to a reasonable doubt about intention or culpable awareness. This approach to mistaken beliefs ignores the distinction between mistakes of law and mistakes of fact, and then characterizes all mistakes as mistakes of fact. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon in the case law. In recent years however, as explained below, the judiciary has rejected that approach in a number of leading cases and ruled that mistakes which are actually mistakes about the meaning, scope, or application of the law are subject to the general rule and do not provide an accused with an exculpatory defense. The relationship between mistake of law and mens rea in Canadian criminal law has also been the subject of critical scholarly comment in Canada in recent years. The Murray decision provides evidence that, despite clarification by the Supreme Court, in some lower courts the unrefined approach to mistaken belief continues to shape the legal analysis of criminal culpability, even when the mistaken belief is overtly a belief about the law. This will not change until the proper characterization of mistaken beliefs as legal or factual becomes a deliberate and common-place aspect of case analysis at the trial court level.

The other tendency, discussed in Part III of this article, is one that often appears as a companion to the first - the judicial tendency to perceive and invoke analytical legal ambiguity in favour of accuseds more readily in cases in which the impugned conduct involves the discretionary exercise of authority which, when used appropriately, is fully legitimate and essential to the normal functioning of the existing socio-legal order. Of course, courts are strongly influenced by the arguments put to them by counsel. And counsel, acting on behalf of client groups with particular group interests may, consciously or unconsciously, favour the development of those lines of analysis which are protective of that interest or associated institutional interests. One of the reasons for scrutinizing the Murray case is that it provides a concrete context for discussion of those issues in relation to an actual decision made by Crown prosecutors. The case provides an occasion to examine a specific example of the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, its implications for the administration of criminal justice, and its broader potential impact on the public interest.

Keywords: mistake of law, prosecutorial discretion, mens rea, excuse, obstruction of justice

JEL Classification: K14, K42

Suggested Citation

Vandervort, Lucinda, Mistake of Law and Obstruction of Justice: A 'Bad Excuse' ... Even for a Lawyer! (2001). University of New Brunswick Law Journal, Vol. 50, pp. 171-186, 2001, University of New Brunswick Law Journal, Vol. 51, pp. 309-310, 2002, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1518689

Lucinda Vandervort (Contact Author)

University of Saskatchewan ( email )

Saskatoon, SK S7N 5A6
(306) 966-5889 (Phone)
(306) 966-5900 (Fax)

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