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We can all think of examples, whether at home or abroad, of high
profile criminal trials that generate significant public and media
interest. Often, it appears that strong opinions are formed about
the matter long before the details of what happened are known and
long before the evidence is assessed at trial. Rather, positions
are taken much earlier after an attention-grabbing news story or
social media post. People are seemingly encouraged from that point
forward to choose one corner or the other. They are to cheer on
their side to victory while the facts remain largely unknown and
the evidence remains untested.
This approach is problematic because criminal trials are not
championship sporting events and should not be treated as such.
While in sports, there is no apology necessary for rooting for your
team to win no matter the cost, and despite any irregularities in
the process. For example, if the Saskatchewan Roughriders happen to
make the Grey Cup this year, and in that game they are the
beneficiaries of a missed pass interference call by the referees
that results in the Riders getting the winning touchdown, very few
(if any) in Rider Nation are going to spend much time worrying
about it. Instead, we are going to celebrate the victory as we
should! It is the result that we, as fans, were seeking from the
beginning and deserve.
While there is no real harm done by taking that approach with a
sporting event, the same cannot be said for a criminal trial.
Canada’s criminal justice system is the envy of many other
countries in the world. This is not because of the result in any
particular case, but rather for the substantial safeguards that
remain in place to protect the procedure, which ensures the
fairness of the proceeding. It is the process that is the key, not
the result. If a particular result, whether an acquittal or
conviction, was reached based on an error in the decision, it is
problematic as it means that the integrity of the process could
have been jeopardized. Fortunately, we have appeal Courts available
to correct those errors.
To society at large, the success or failure of a criminal trial
should not be determined by the resulting conviction or acquittal,
but rather whether or not we can state that the accused received a
fair hearing before an independent Judge or jury, and whether the
result arose from a decision that was rendered after a
determination of the facts based on the evidence presented in
court. If sufficient evidence is provided to secure a conviction
without procedural missteps or legal errors, we as a society have
decided that guilt must be found and that a sentence must be
imposed. If insufficient evidence is presented to prove an offence,
or if an accused does not receive a fair trial, we as a society
have decided it is not in our collective interests to convict that
person. The high threshold needed for a conviction and the
requirement of a fair trial are for all of our benefit. The results
of a particular high-profile case pale in comparison.
The next time you see a report in the news about a high profile
criminal trial, we would encourage you to read the Judge’s
written decision in the matter to facilitate an understanding of
the case itself as well as our judicial system. These decisions are
usually thorough. They typically provide an in-depth summary of the
evidence presented at the trial, a discussion of the applicable law
and how it applies to the evidence. The Judge will then provide his
or her reasoning in arriving at his or her decision.
In criminal trials, the evidence and facts found by the judge
matter. A lot. Until the trial, we don’t know what evidence
will be presented and what facts will be found. We should exercise
some caution and humility before forming a strong opinion on any
matter before it has been decided.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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