Entitlement to preliminary inquiry in (a somewhat) Historical Sexual Assault Case – a recent decision from the Court of Appeal.

Published On: Jul 22,2021

The Court of Appeal considered the entitlement to a preliminary hearing under Section 535 of the Criminal Code of Canada in Regina v. S.S., 2021 ONCA 479.  The Court upheld the order of the review judge, who allowed an application for certiorari from the order of the application judge, who found that the accused was entitled to a preliminary inquiry pursuant to s.535 of the Criminal Code. The court agreed with the review judge that the accused was not entitled to a preliminary inquiry. The accused was charged with one count of sexual assault on a person under the age of 16 and one count of sexual interference.  The indexed offences were alleged to have occurred between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2010. At the time that the offences were alleged to have occurred, the maximum penalty for both offences was ten (10) years of jail.  There was an increase to the maximum penalty for the offence of sexual assault on a person under the age of 16 was increased to 14 years, if the Crown proceeds by way of indictment, as it had in the instant case in 2005. The maximum penalty for the offence of sexual interference was also increased to 14 years.  On September 19, 2019, s.535 was amended to restrict the right to a preliminary inquiry to persons charged with an indictable offence that is punishable by imprisonment for 14 years or more.  In December 2020, the accused elected a trial in Superior Court by judge and jury. He requested a preliminary inquiry.

The court concluded that the accused was not facing a punishment of 14 years or more in this case. Therefore, he was not entitled to a preliminary inquiry pursuant to s.535. The court stated (at para. 16) that, in reaching this conclusion, it did not need to “decide whether an accused person can waive their rights under s. 11(i) of the Charter. Even if they can, s. 43(d) of the Interpretation Act would preclude a court from imposing a sentence of more than 10 years.” The court noted that its conclusion in this regard was also consistent with the conclusion reached in Tran v. Canada (Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness), [2017] 2 S.C.R. 289 where the Court averred:

17]      My conclusion in this regard is also consistent with the conclusion reached in Tran v. Canada (Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness), 2017 SCC 50, [2017] 2 S.C.R. 289. In that case, the issue was the immigration consequences of a person convicted of an offence where the maximum penalty was, at the time of the commission of the offence, seven years. However, before conviction, the penalty was raised to 14 years with the result that a conviction for the offence would fall within the definition of serious criminality for immigration purposes. The immigration authorities began proceedings to remove the accused from Canada on the basis that he had been convicted of an offence involving “serious criminality” within the meaning of s. 36(1)(a) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, S.C. 2001, c. 27(“IRPA”). The accused sought judicial review of the decision to refer his case for an admissibility hearing under the IRPA. In the end result, the Supreme Court of Canada found that the immigration authorities could not rely on the serious criminality provision in part because the maximum sentence for the accused’s offence at the time he committed it was seven years. In reaching that conclusion, Côté J. said, at para. 35:
Turning to the interpretation of “punishable by a maximum term”, in my view, a contextual reading of s. 36(1)(a) [of the IRPA] supports only one conclusion: the phrase “punishable by a maximum term of imprisonment of at least 10 years” refers to the maximum sentence that the accused person could have received at the time of the commission of the offence. [Emphasis added].
[18]      The appellant attempts to counter this interpretation by submitting that it looks at the circumstances of the offender rather than at the offence itself and thus offends the point made in Windebank, at para. 36: “In my view, the flaw, both in the respondent’s argument and in the decisions below, is that they confuse the seriousness of the offence with the seriousness of the offender, that is, their individual circumstances.”
[19]      I do not agree. The situation here and the one in Windebank are not comparable. Here we are dealing with the maximum punishment that was stipulated for the offence at the time that the offence is said to have been committed. Thus, the issue in this case does not involve the personal characteristics of the appellant, in the sense that those personal characteristics might drive the appropriate sentence, such as the possible application of the dangerous offender provisions. Rather, it involves the penalty that can be imposed on the appellant, and anyone else in the same situation, arising from the timing of the offence, as the key for determining the seriousness of the offence for the purpose of s. 535. The personal characteristics of the appellant are not engaged in this analysis. The only connection to the appellant in his personal capacity is that it is the timing of his alleged actions leading to the offence that are of importance.
[20]      Further on this point, in Tran, the court supported its conclusion that the timing of the offence determined the maximum sentence for the purpose of s. 36(1)(a) of the IRPA, in part, based on the presumption against retrospectivity, which applies independent of s. 11(i) of the Charter: at para 43. In words that are apt to the situation here, Côté J. said, at para. 43: “The purpose of this presumption is to protect acquired rights and to prevent a change in the law from ‘look[ing] to the past and attach[ing] new prejudicial consequences to a completed transaction’ (Driedger (1983), at p. 186).”

If you have been charged with a sexual assault and seek to determine your procedural rights (i.e. preliminary hearing), contact Mr. J.S. Patel, Barrister at 403-585-1960 for a consultation.