The SCC in R v J.J.: Upholding the Constitutionality of Criminal Code Reforms which Remove Barriers that Deter Sexual Assault Complainants from Reporting

By: Caitlin Salvino

On June 23rd, 2022 the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) released its decision in R v J.J..[1] This 6–3 ruling upheld the constitutionality of recent amendments to the Criminal Code that remove barriers for complainants within the sexual assault trial processes. This piece provides an overview of the history of sexual assault provisions in the Criminal Code and the SCC’s decision in J.J..

History of Sexual Assault Criminal Code Provisions

In 1983, the Criminal Code was reformed to narrow the provisions of “rape” and “indecent assault” into three levels of sexual assault.[2] The 1983 reforms also removed exemptions for marital rape and prohibited evidence on the complainant’s sexual history, subject to  limited exceptions.[3] Following the 1983 Criminal Code reforms, the constitutionality of limits on complainant sexual history evidence was challenged in R v Seaboyer.[4] In Seaboyer, the SCC struck down the Criminal Code provisions related to sexual history, finding that they excluded relevant evidence that would interfere with the accused’s right to make a full answer and defence.[5] The SCC held that these provisions were overbroad as they did not minimally impair the accused’s procedural rights.

In response to Seaboyer, Parliament re-introduced Criminal Code provisions that limited complainant sexual history evidence. These reformed sexual history provisions were deemed constitutional by the SCC in R v Darrach[6] and remain in place today under section 276 of the Criminal Code. These section 276 protections, also known as the “rape shield law”, establish that evidence related to the complainant’s sexual history is inadmissible if it supports assumptions that the complainant is: (1) more likely to have consented to the sexual activity at issue during the trial or (2) less worthy of belief.[7] Section 276 creates an exception to the prohibition of evidence related to sexual history, that requires four criteria to be met: (1) the evidence is not being introduced for the above mentioned assumptions (consent and belief), (2) the evidence is relevant to an issue at trial, (3) the evidence is of specific instances of sexual activity, and (4) the evidence has significant probative value that is not “substantially outweighed by the danger of prejudice to the proper administration of justice”.[8] Section 276(3) lists numerous considerations that judges must take into account during a sexual history evidence admissibility hearing, including society’s interest in encouraging reports of sexual assault and the potential bias against the complainant’s dignity and privacy.[9]

2018 Legislative Reforms to Sexual Assault Evidence Admissibility

Despite the existing rape shield law protections, barriers remain within the criminal justice system for individuals who experience sexual assault. Only 5% of all sexual assaults are reported to police.[10] There is attrition of sexual assault cases at all levels of the criminal justice system. Data from Statistics Canada found that “an accused was solely identified in three in five (59%) sexual assault incidents reported by police; less than half (43%) of sexual assault incidents resulted in a charge being laid; of these, half (49%) courted; of which just over half (55%) led to a conviction; of which just over half (56%) were sentenced to custody”.[11]

In response to the low levels of sexual assault reporting, Parliament in 2018 enacted further reforms to sexual assault trial procedures. Under sections 278.92 and 278.94 of the Criminal Code, Parliament passed amendments creating new procedures for screening complainant evidence to be introduced in a trial.[12] Prior to these amendments there were no procedures for the admissibility of complainant records held by the accused.[13] However, there were procedures for the admissibility of evidence related to the complainant’s prior sexual history under section 276 of the Criminal Code and there were procedures for the admissibility of complainant records held by third parties under section 278 of the Criminal Code. In relation to the latter, the defence can request access to third party records of the complainant to use as evidence in criminal trials.[14] This evidence includes records from medical and counselling centres, child welfare agencies, residential and public schools, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres, immigration services, and sexual assault crisis centres.[15] The constitutionality of the third-party records processes under section 278 of the Criminal Code was upheld in R v Mills.[16]

The 2018 Criminal Code reforms sought to address this gap in the sexual assault legislative scheme and create processes governing the admissibility of complainant private records held by the accused. The twin Criminal Code provisions of sections 278.92 and 278.94 create a two-stage process for the introduction of records in sexual assault trials, with a focus on increasing the participation of sexual assault complainants. At the first stage, per section 278.93(2), the accused must submit an application to the judge that “set[s] out detailed particulars of the evidence that the accused seeks to adduce and the relevance of that evidence to an issue at trial”.[17] Subsequently, the judge will review the application considering the threshold tests under sections 278.92(2)(a) and (b) and depending on the type of evidence will also consider the factors laid out in sections 276(3) or 278.92(3) of the Criminal Code. If the judge determines that the application meets the threshold evidence requirements, they will proceed to stage two.[18]

At the second stage, the judge will hold a hearing to determine if the evidence should be admitted under the test set out in section 278.92(2) of the Criminal Code. The section creates differing admissibility tests for section 276 evidence and private records evidence. First, as already discussed, section 276 evidence applications must meet the conditions under section 276(2) and judges must consider the factors laid out in section 276(3).[19] Second, private records applications undergo the admissibility test laid out in section 278.92(2)(b).[20] This provision requires that the evidence meets two conditions: (1) the evidence is relevant to an issue at trial, and (2) the evidence has significant probative value that is not substantially outweighed by the danger of prejudice to the proper administration of justice.[21] These two conditions must be examined with consideration of the factors listed in section 278.92(3).[22] At the second stage of the evidence admissibility process, the Criminal Code provisions permit the complainant to appear at the hearing and make submissions with assistance of counsel. The complainant’s participation does not extend to the trial and is limited to a victim’s impact statement at sentencing.[23]

The Constitutionality of the Complainant Records Admissibility Processes

Shortly following the passing of the 2018 Criminal Code amendments, their constitutionality was challenged. Two individuals charged with sexual assault (J.J. and Shane Reddick) argued that sections 278.92 and 278.84 of the Criminal Code violated their Charter rights, including the right to silence and the privilege against self-incrimination under sections 7 and 11(c); their right to a fair trial under sections 7 and 11(d); and their right to make a full answer and defence under sections 7 and 11(d).[24] The SCC majority decision, written by Chief Justice Wagner and Justice Moldaver, held that the 2018 amendments to the Criminal Code were constitutional.

First, at the outset, the SCC dismissed the claim that the evidence admissibility process engages the right to silence and the privilege against self-incrimination under sections 7 and 11(c) of the Charter.[25] The SCC made this finding on the basis that during the evidence admissibility processes the accused is not compelled to testify.[26]

Second, the SCC rejected that the evidence admissibility provisions infringe the accused’s right to a fair trial under sections 7 and 11(d) of the Charter. To begin, the SCC affirmed that in the context of the right to a fair trial, sections 7 and 11(d) must be assessed together because they are inextricably intertwined.[27] The SCC held that fair trial rights are not infringed because the evidence admissibility procedures reaffirm the fundamental principle of evidence law that only relevant evidence is admitted. The right to a fair trial does not extend to an unlimited right to have all evidence admitted. Instead, the accused’s Charter rights are only infringed when they are not able to admit relevant evidence.[28]

Third, the SCC held that the sexual assault complainant’s participation in the second stage of the evidence admissibility process does not infringe the rights of the accused to make a full answer and defence under sections 7 and 11(d) of the Charter. The SCC determined that the complainant’s participation does not impact the accused’s disclosure rights or undermine prosecutorial independence.[29] Further, the SCC rejected that the accused’s right to make a full answer and defence is undermined by the complainant learning of the evidence to be admitted before the trial. The SCC held that this right does not include having the complainant’s initial emotional reaction to introduced evidence occur during the trial.

Due to the determination that the evidence admissibility procedures for sexual assault do not infringe any Charter rights, the SCC declined to conduct a section 1 analysis to determine if a Charter infringement is demonstrably justified.[30]  

Looking Ahead

The Criminal Code provisions related to sexual assault have undergone extensive reform and litigation over the past forty years. The creation of admissibility procedures for evidence in sexual assault trials and the inclusion of complainant participation options is the most recent legislative reform enacted by Parliament to remove barriers to reporting sexual assault. The SCC in J.J. upheld the constitutionality of the sexual assault evidence admissibility procedures.[31] In doing so, the SCC recognised continued barriers to reporting for individuals who experience sexual assault and held that “more needs to be done”.[32]

Caitlin Salvino is a JD Candidate at the Faculty of Law and is the Asper Centre’s 2022 summer Research Assistant.


[1] R v J.J., 2022 SCC 28 [J.J.].

[2] The Criminal Code of Canada classifies sexual assault into three different levels: Level 1: (s. 271 – Sexual Assault) Any form of sexual activity forced on another person (i.e., sexual activity without consent), or non-consensual bodily contact for a sexual purpose (e.g., kissing, touching, oral sex, vaginal or anal intercourse). Level 1 sexual assault involves minor physical injury or no injury to the victim. Conviction for a level 1 sexual assault is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Level 2: (s. 272 – Sexual Assault with a weapon, threats to a third party or causing bodily harm) A sexual assault in which the perpetrator uses or threatens to use a weapon, threatens the victim’s friends or family members, causes bodily harm to the victim, or commits the assault with another person (multiple assailants). Conviction for a level 2 sexual assault is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Level 3: (s. 273 – Aggravated sexual assault) A sexual assault that wounds, maims, or disfigures the victim, or endangers the victim’s life. Conviction for a level 3 sexual assault is punishable by up to life in prison. See Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c. C-46, ss 271-273; Martha Shaffer, “The impact of the Charter on the law of sexual assault: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” (2012) 57 SCLR 354.

[3] Shaffer, supra note 2 at 337-338.

[4] R v Seaboyer, [1991] 2 SCR 577, 83 DLR (4th) 193.

[5] Ibid at 582-585.

[6] R v Darrach, 2000 SCC 46.

[7] Criminal Code, supra note 2, s 276 (1).

[8] Ibid at s 276 (2).

[9] Ibid at s 276 (3)

[10] Department of Justice Canada, “Sexual Assault – JustFacts”, (31 January 2017), online:

[11] Statistics Canada, “From arrest to conviction: Court case outcomes of police-reported sexual assaults in Canada, 2009 to 2014”, (26 October 2017), online:

[12] An Act to amend the Criminal Code and the Department of Justice Act and to make consequential amendments to another Act, SC 2018, c 29.

[13] J.J., supra note 1 at para 4.

[14] Criminal Code, supra note 2, s 278.3(2) – 278.3(5)

[15] Karen Busby, “Discriminatory uses of personal records in sexual violence cases” (1996) 9:1 CJWL 148 at 149.

[16] R v Mills, [1999] 3 SCR 668, 180 DLR (4th) 1.

[17] Criminal Code, supra note 2, s 278.93 (2).

[18] J.J., supra note 1 at para 28-29.

[19] Ibid at para 31.

[20] Ibid at para 32.

[21] Criminal Code, supra note 2, s 278.92(2)(b)

[22] The factors to consider include society’s interest in encouraging the reporting of sexual assault offences and the potential prejudice to the complainant’s personal dignity and right of privacy. For an exhaustive list, see ibid at s 278.92(3).

[23] J.J., supra note 1 at para 33.

[24] Ibid at para 112.

[25] Ibid at paras 148-150.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid at para 114.

[28] Ibid at paras 125 and 129.

[29] Ibid at paras 151 and 176.

[30] Ibid at para 191.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid at para 2.

R v Chouhan: The Supreme Court of Canada finds room for disagreement


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.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.

1. R v Chouhan, 2021 SCC 26 [Chouhan].
2. Ibid at para 1, citing Bill C-75, An Act to amend the Criminal Code, the Youth Criminal Justice Act and other Acts and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, 1st Sess, 42nd Leg, 2019, c 25.
3. Chouhan, supra note 1 at paras 10, 13.
4. Ibid at para 27.
5. Ibid at para 41.
6. Ibid at para 3.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid at para 4.
9. Ibid at paras 6, 35.
10. Ibid at para 6.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid at para 7.
13. Ibid at para 31.
14. Ibid, citing Valente v The Queen, [1985] 2 SCR 673, 1985 CanLII 25.
15. Ibid at paras 33–36.
16. Ibid at para 90.
17. Ibid at para 41.
18. Ibid at paras 43, 74 (citing Abella J at para 164), 79.
19. Ibid at para 49.
20. Ibid at para 64.
21. Ibid at para 66.
22. Ibid at para 67.
23. Ibid at paras 70–71.
24. Ibid at paras 109–111.
25. Ibid at paras 111–112.
26. Ibid at para 114.
27. Ibid at para 126.
28. Ibid at paras 141–142.
29. Ibid at paras 159–161, 165.
30. Ibid at paras 167, 189, 194, 204–205.
31. Ibid at paras 165, 220.
32. Ibid at para 267.
33. Ibid at paras 260, 267.
34. Ibid at para 269.
35. Ibid at para 272.
36. Ibid.
37. Ibid at paras 275–277.
38. Ibid at paras 288–291.
39. Ibid at para 293.
40. Ibid (Asper Centre’s factum at paras 2, 3, 20).
41. Nader Hasan, “The Côté J dissent in #Chouhan is [three consecutive fire emojis]. The lead decision, on the other hand, suggests that we can deal with potentially racist jurors with a mid-trial instruction ‘don’t be racist’. [Quote Tweet]” (25 June 2021 at 11:10), online: Twitter <>.
42. Nader Hasan, “On the plus side, the Chouhan decision as a whole is a clarion call to defence counsel to be aggressive with their challenge-for-cause and stand-aside applications. There is at least some recognition that an important tool has been lost with the abolition of peremptory challenges [Reply Tweet]” (25 June 2021 at 11:10), online: Twitter <>.
43. Cristin Schmitz, “Supreme Court of Canada Hits Record Low 40% Unanimity Rate in 2019; Many Appeals Came from Quebec” (20 January 2020), online: The Lawyer’s Daily <> (last modified 21 January 2020).