By Wei Yang
On June 25, 2021, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) released its reasons for judgement in R v Chouhan,1 a case that the Asper Centre intervened in last year.
Mr Chouhan was charged with first-degree murder and was thus entitled to a trial by jury. His trial date was scheduled for September 19, 2019, the same day that legislation eliminating peremptory challenges and substituting the trial judge as the trier for challenges for cause took effect.2 Prior to the new law, a limited number of peremptory challenges were available for both the accused and the Crown to dismiss potential jurors without cause.3 Challenges for cause used to be heard by lay triers instead of the trial judge.4
The federal government introduced this legislation in response to the trial of Gerald Stanley, who was charged with murder in the death of Colten Boushie, an Indigenous man. Mr Stanley was acquitted by a jury composed of zero Indigenous persons – a result of Mr Stanley’s peremptory challenges against five Indigenous prospective jurors.5
Mr Chouhan argued before his trial that the elimination of peremptory challenges violated his ss. 7, 11(d), and 11(f) Charter rights.6 If the amendments were constitutional, Mr Chouhan argued that they applied prospectively and not to his trial.7 The trial judge determined that there were other sufficient jury selection protections and the amendments were purely procedural.8 Therefore, the law was constitutional and applied to all trials after entering into force, including Mr Chouhan’s; neither party was entitled to peremptorily challenge any prospective jurors. Mr Chouhan was convicted.
At appeal, the Court of Appeal for Ontario rejected Mr Chouhan’s constitutional arguments, echoing the trial judge’s finding that other jury-related protections such as representative jury rolls, judicial excusals, and challenges for cause sufficiently preserved Mr Chouhan’s ss. 11(d) and 11(f) rights.9 However, the Court of Appeal held that his substantive right to peremptory challenges was nevertheless affected.10 Therefore, the amendments applied prospectively and Mr Chouhan was entitled to peremptory challenges.11
At the Supreme Court of Canada
The Crown appealed on the temporal applicability issue and Mr Chouhan cross-appealed on the constitutional question.12 The Supreme Court of Canada released its decision from the bench: Wagner CJ declared that a majority of the Court believed that the amendments were constitutional and purely procedural. The appeal was allowed, the cross-appeal was dismissed, and the conviction was restored.
The SCC released its divided reasons eight months later. Writing the joint reasons for judgement (alongside four other sets of reasons) Wagner CJ, Moldaver and Brown JJ held that s. 11(d) does not entitle anyone to a particular jury process.13 The question to be asked on a s. 11(d) challenge is “whether a reasonable person, fully informed of the circumstances, would consider that the new jury selection process gives rise to a reasonable apprehension of bias so as to deprive accused persons of a fair trial before an independent and impartial tribunal”, citing Valente v The Queen.14 They agreed with the lower courts that representative jury rolls, the randomness of jury selection, unlimited challenges for cause, and the judge’s power to excuse (or stand aside) prospective jurors protect the independence and impartiality of the tribunal and thus the amendments were constitutional.15 In addition, the changes were purely procedural and applied retrospectively.16 The justices found that abolishing peremptory challenges will likely increase the representativeness of the jury.17 The justices specifically noted, however, that jury diversity is not constitutionally required.18
Wagner CJ, Moldaver and Brown JJ proceeded to define the scope of the existing protections. First, trial judges should consider issuing jury charges and instructions to militate against unconscious bias.19 With challenges for cause, jurors should be asked relevant questions related to circumstances of the case and whether they can set aside compromising beliefs.20 However, the questions must respect juror privacy.21The judge can exercise their discretion to exclude prospective jurors since it is unlikely that individuals will openly admit to their biases.22 Judges can also stand aside prospective jurors if doing so would uphold public confidence.23
Karakatsanis, Martin and Kasirer JJ agreed with the final disposition and the need for robust jury instructions, but cautioned against Wagner CJ, Moldaver and Brown JJ’s description of the scope of the existing jury procedures.24 They opined that it should be left for the lower courts to decide how to interpret and apply the new amendments.25 In addition, one must not rely too heavily on the randomness of jury selection since random selection within an “unequal society” does not eliminate systemic bias.26
Rowe J, in another separate concurring opinion, agreed with the disposition but cautioned against interpreting this judgement as constitutionalizing these jury selection procedures.27 Interpreting these statutes as constitutional requirements would create the absurd consequence of eliminating Parliament’s ability to repeal their own laws, undermining the principle of parliamentary sovereignty.28
Abella J agreed that the amendments were constitutional but dissented on its temporal applicability. In opposition to Wagner CJ, Moldaver and Brown JJ’s more conservative approach, Justice Abella held that as long as judges “vigorously exercise their authority” by using their stand aside power to increase jury diversity and jurors are asked more probing questions when challenged for cause, the accused’s s. 11 rights are sufficiently protected.29 However, the abolition of peremptory challenges still affected a substantive right; the ability for an accused to participate in the empanelment of a jury they themselves view as representative and impartial is a substantive right even if it is not a constitutional one.30 The amendment, therefore, was not purely procedural and did not apply to Mr Chouhan’s trial.31
Côté J, in dissent, claimed Wagner CJ, Moldaver and Brown JJ attempted to create a new jury regime to disguise the fact that the existing one is inadequate.32 The abolition of peremptory challenges creates a gap in the system, violating Mr Chouhan’s s. 11(f) Charter right.33 Stand asides do not sufficiently preserve impartiality because they do not completely eliminate the possibility that the prospective juror will be empanelled.34 Jury rolls are not necessarily representative: when they are sourced from municipal assessment rolls, it prevents some Indigenous persons from being selected.35 Those who have committed certain provincial and criminal offences are also omitted from the jury roll, which excludes many Indigenous and Black persons who are disproportionally represented in the criminal justice system.36 Finally, without peremptory challenges, there is no assurance that jurors will share similar life experiences to the accused, affecting the common sense, competence, and fact finding ability of the jury.37 This infringement cannot be saved under s. 1 of the Charter: it is not rationally connected to the objective of combatting jury discrimination and promoting jury diversity, nor is it minimally impairing (peremptory challenges ought to have been regulated, not eliminated).38 In the alternative, the abolition applied prospectively.39
The Asper Centre is pleased to see that a majority of the Court shared our view that the amendments were constitutional. The majority of the Court also recognised the reality of unconscious bias, as we stated in our submissions, in addition to affirming the Asper Centre’s argument that peremptory challenges were only one component of a jury selection system that otherwise provides sufficient protections for an accused person.40 However, we recognize the differing views on peremptory challenges in relation to jury representativeness.
Nader Hasan, co-counsel for the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association and the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers (and adjunct professor at UofT Law and Asper Centre’s Fall 2020 constitutional litigator-in-residence), who intervened to support Mr Chouhan’s cross-appeal, lauded Côté J’s dissent.41 Despite the Court’s disposition, Hasan noted that this decision will empower defence counsel to more aggressively challenge for cause prospective jurors.42
R v Chouhan continues the Supreme Court of Canada’s pattern of divided opinions.43 Although the judgements on the constitutional question and temporal applicability were relatively clear, this decision nevertheless produced five distinct sets of reasons, none of which represented a plurality or majority of the Court. This division likely reflects the diverse views on the effectiveness of peremptory challenges on jury representativeness, as demonstrated by the parties’ submissions. Ultimately, however, this outcome leaves Canadians and lower courts with a clear conclusion but without decisive directions.
Wei Yang is an incoming 2L JD student at the Faculty of Law and is currently one of the Asper Centre’s summer research assistants.