The NWT Territorial Court found a provision for sexual assault against a minor under the Criminal Code to breach s 12 of the Charter and therefore declined to apply it and ordered a conditional sentence for an Inuk offender with FASD.
This decision bears in mind the cognitive challenges associated with FASD with the Indigenous accused. It had to balance between the protection of Indigenous victims and the need to implement the Gladue principles for Indigenous offenders. Like provincial courts, the territorial court cannot strike down any provisions but it may become a persuasive precedent for other courts in the territories and elsewhere.
This case involved a single incident, and the victim suffered no apparent injury. This was a bold act, committed on a residential street, in the daytime, as opposed to a surreptitious act committed behind closed doors, on a sleeping victim, or in a context where the victim is physically isolated and cannot get away from the perpetrator. The victim initially did not feel threatened by the accused, because she was familiar with him, and likely because of his diminutive size and almost child-like appearance. But the accused then touched the victim’s body many times and in many places, and he failed to disengage when prompted verbally by her. She had to resort to physical violence to make him stop. This was a crime of opportunity, committed on impulse. The victim was in foster care at the time of the incident. She did not file a Victim Impact Statement, but it is inferred that she is from Inuit ancestry from her name.
Because the mandatory minimum sentence of imprisonment for six months applies to all offenders having committed any form of sexual assault on a victim aged anywhere between 1 day and 16 years, it is vulnerable to Charter scrutiny. Imposing a sentence of six months in jail on this accused who is a first offender when there are many mitigating factors and when the circumstances of the offence, while being serious, are not too egregious, is fundamentally unfair and as a result, disproportionate. As a result, the accused’s right to be protected against cruel and unusual treatment or punishment is infringed by the mandatory minimum punishment found at section 271(b) of the Criminal Code. The provision is not saved by section 1 of the Charter, and accordingly the mandatory minimum punishment is declined.
The presence of an intellectual disability that affects the accused’s cognitive functions makes it difficult to assess the risk to reoffend. Although present, and in light of other circumstances, the risk is not viewed as high, or determinative. However, the offence of sexual assault is prevalent in Northern communities, 5.3 times the national ratio in 2017. The accused’s early guilty plea is highly mitigating, as it spared the victim from having to testify in court.
The personal circumstances of the accused, which include the diagnosis of Alcohol-Related Neuro-Developmental Disorder, suggest a reduced moral blameworthiness. For a first offender, sentencing usually focuses on rehabilitation. There is nothing to say that a community-based sentence would not work for this accused. The risk to reoffend that this accused presents because of the impulsivity associated with his condition, as well as his intellectual limitation, is compensated by the fact that he benefits from family support. He has a home in which supervision may occur, and he has shown that he is able to comply with conditions.
For an offender with challenges to his executive functions, repetition of instructions, structure, and professional follow-up, appear to be key. A carefully crafted conditional sentence order can bring the necessary restrictions to a person’s freedom while providing rehabilitative tools, and thus achieve deterrence.
The Supreme Court of Canada determined that the standard for finding that a sentence represents a cruel and unusual punishment is that it be grossly disproportionate. An option to preserve the constitutionality of offences that cast a wide net is to provide for residual judicial discretion to impose a fit and constitutional sentence in exceptional cases (R v Lloyd, 2016 1 RCS 13).
In this case, the offender presents with cognitive challenges, and is sentenced more than one year after the commission of the offence. The immediate link between consequence and cause may be lost and as a result a sentence of imprisonment may not achieve the necessary deterrence. Reducing the over-incarceration of Aboriginal offenders is as important an objective as that of protecting vulnerable victims, and must be given equal consideration. The accused is to serve a conditional sentence of imprisonment of 120 days, to be followed by a period of probation of 18 months.