Combatting Stereotyping & Facilitating Justice: McLachlin's Vision for the Law of Evidence
Gruben, Vanessa & Mayeda, Graham (eds), Controversies in the Common Law: Tracing the Contributions of Chief Justice McLachlin (2020)
18 Pages Posted: 6 Sep 2019 Last revised: 9 Sep 2019
Date Written: 2019
Beverley McLachlin is the architect of a flexible, socially conscious and principled approach to evidence admissibility in Canada. Her jurisprudence has infused the law of evidence with tools that enable it to adapt to new situations, to be aware of and reflect concerns for systemic issues all with an eye to ensuring it can fulfill its regulatory purpose of facilitating justice. I call this the McLachlin principle. This chapter explores the foundations of that approach in two early McLachlin decisions: R v Khan; R v Seaboyer; and then, as Chief Justice, in Mitchell v MNR where she set out, for the first time in a Supreme Court decision, a theory of evidence admissibility.
After examining this evidence trilogy, the chapter will consider the application of the McLachlin principle in the context of defence applications to limit cross-examination of an accused on their prior criminal record under R v Corbett. Section 12(1) of the Canada Evidence Act permits all witnesses, including an accused, to be cross-examined on their criminal record and our common law has, for the most part uncritically, accepted that a criminal record is relevant to a witness’s credibility and whether they are prepared to abide by their oath or affirmation. In Corbett, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the constitutionality of section 12(1) by reading into the provision a judicial discretion to prohibit or limit cross-examination on a prior record.
Corbett was decided in 1988 and since then we have become more aware of the existence and manifestations of systemic racism, particularly as it relates to Indigenous and Black communities and the criminal justice system. Chief Justice McLachlin recognized this social reality in both Sauvé v Canada (Chief Electoral Officer) and R v Williams. Despite this consciousness, little, if any, attention has been given in our trial and appellate courts to how social conditions and bias are relevant in thinking about admissibility under Corbett. Enter the McLachlin principle.
The chapter examines how it can be used to impact Corbett applications and stimulate future consideration of how evidence law can adapt to better facilitate justice in cases involving Indigenous and racialized participants.
Keywords: Systemic racism, discretion, Chief Justice McLachlin, evidence law, R v Corbett, cross-examination, criminal record, Charter, Canada Evidence Act
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