The Supreme Court of Canada Friday ruled that extreme intoxication is a valid defense to criminal charges like murder and rape, overturning section 33.1 of the Criminal Code. The court upheld a lower courts’ ruling in R. v. Sullivan, which also found the extreme intoxication law unconstitutional, and overturned lower courts’ rulings in R. v. Chen and R. v. Brown.
Parliament passed section 33.1 in 1994 in response to R. v. Daviault. In Daviault, the court ruled that a man who raped an elderly woman could use intoxication as a defense because he was in a “state akin to automatism.” On Friday, the court held that section 33.1 violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“Section 33.1 trenches on fundamental principles at the core of Canada’s criminal law system, creates a liability regime that disregards principles meant to protect the innocent, and communicates the message that securing a conviction is more important than respecting the basic principles of justice,” Justice Nicholas Kasirer wrote in the opinion for a unanimous court. “Its impact on the principles of fundamental justice is disproportionate to its overarching public benefits. It should therefore be declared unconstitutional and of no force or effect.”
The court explained that the provision violates the Charter because an accused party could be convicted without any proof that the party intended to commit a criminal act.
Some legal scholars saw value in the law, especially as a method of reducing sexual violence. Michael Plaxton and Carissima Mathen read the court’s series of cases on intoxication as a acknowledgement that sexual assault prevention “could not be achieved if defendants’ self-induced intoxication was treated as an exculpatory consideration.”
In a press release, the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) emphasized that the ruling “requires a person to be so intoxicated that their actions are not voluntary or something they can control” in order to use intoxication as a defense. Kat Owens, LEAF Project Directer, stated, “[d]runkenness has never been, and is not now, a defence to sexual assault.”