The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that defendants charged with violent crimes such as homicide and sexual assault can use self-induced extreme intoxication as a defence, striking down a federal law backed by women’s advocacy groups .
The Supreme Court said on Friday that a law passed by Parliament in 1995 that bars the defense was unconstitutional and violates the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“Its impact on the principles of fundamental justice is disproportionate to its overriding public benefits. It should therefore be declared unconstitutional and of no force or effect,” writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, Justice Nicholas Kasirer said of the law.
At issue was whether defendants charged with a violent crime in criminal court can raise extreme intoxication – known as “non-mental disorder automatism” – as a defence.
By doing so, the defendants can claim that their actions were involuntary due to the use of drugs or alcohol and, therefore, they cannot be held criminally responsible for their actions.
The court said it is the law in Canada that intoxication unless automatism is no defense for the kind of violent crime at issue.
Canadian courts are divided on the issue, while women’s advocacy groups have said the law is needed to protect women and children because violence disproportionately affects them.
Four out of five victims of domestic violence were women, and women were five times more likely to experience sexual assault in 2019, according to Canadian government data.
The issue came to the Supreme Court last fall when the justices heard arguments about the law’s constitutionality in three separate cases. In Friday’s ruling, the court said a trial could be ordered in one of the cases while reinstating an acquittal in another.
The third case involved David Sullivan, who attempted suicide on December 1, 2013 by taking a prescription drug known to cause psychosis. In a psychotic state, he stabbed his mother, who he thought was an alien. Sullivan was convicted of aggravated assault and assault with a weapon after the judge ruled he could not use an extreme intoxication defence.
The appeals court, however, declared the Extreme Intoxication Act unconstitutional and acquitted Sullivan on both counts. Prosecutors appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which upheld his acquittal in Friday’s ruling.
Kasirer wrote that there are other avenues for parliament to achieve its goals of addressing extreme drunken violence.
In 1994, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of an extreme intoxication defense by a suspect accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a wheelchair while intoxicated.
In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, the Parliament of Canada passed a law prohibiting defendants from using extreme intoxication as a defense in violent crime cases.