Supreme Court grants individuals with mental health disabilities the right to testify
The Supreme Court of Canada has made a landmark ruling that has allowed an individual with a mental health disability the right to testify in court.
In Canada, the Canada Evidence Act imposes restrictions on individuals with mental disabilities during the court process. This Act allows those charged with a criminal offence the right to challenge the competency of the accuser. As such, the judge presiding over the case would then examine the individual to determine whether he or she understood the obligation to tell the truth, and individuals who failed this test would be denied the right to testify. This situation occurred in a case in Ontario.
According to the Supreme Court of Canada, the Crown alleged that the complainant, a 23 year old woman with a mental health disability, was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her mother’s partner during the four years that he lived in the home. The Crown wanted to call the complainant to testify about the alleged assaults. The trial judge had called on a test to determine the complainant’s capacity to testify, and the trial judge found that she had failed to show that she understood the duty to speak the truth.
The trial judge also excluded out of court statements made by the complainant to the police and her teacher on the grounds that the statements were unreliable and would compromise the accused’s right to a fair trial. While the remainder of the evidence raised some serious suspicions about the accused’s conduct, the case collapsed and the accused was acquitted.
The case was appealed at the Ontario Court of Appeal and the decision was upheld. However the Supreme Court of Canada has overruled this decision, and determined that the appeal should be allowed, the acquittal should be set aside and a new trial should be ordered.
The ruling written by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin states, “Those with mental disabilities are easy prey for sexual abusers.” To prevent them from testifying because they cannot explain the nature of the obligation to tell the truth “is to exclude reliable and relevant evidence and make it impossible to bring to justice those charged with crimes against the mentally disabled.”
To access the Supreme Court ruling, visitscc.lexum.org/en/2012/2012scc5/2012scc5.html.
See article “Supreme Court ruling gives Canadians with mental disabilities full equality in court,” Toronto Star, February 14, 2012 atwww.thestar.com.