Supreme Court of Canada Renders Controversial Decision in Spousal Abuse Case
One of the sad realities of Family Law practice is to realize that not only are some relationships dysfunctional or simply not viable, but some are downright abusive. Physical and emotional harassment and abuse is part of some failing relationships, unfortunately, and can prompt desperate behaviour on the part of the victim. This in turn gives rise to some complicated legal issues.
This was precisely the scenario with Nicole Ryan, a Nova Scotia teacher who this past week had her controversial case heard on appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. After an R.C.M.P. sting operation Nicole had been arrested for hiring a hit-man to kill her abusive husband, Mark. He was a retired former soldier who had perpetrated various abusive acts against her, including throwing things at her, pushing her against a wall and squeezing her neck, repeatedly holding a gun to her
head, and threatening to kill her and their daughter by burning down the house around them. Once, he apparently drove them to a remote, forested area and told them he planned to bury their bodies there.
Nicole had been acquitted by several provincial courts on the basis that she had been motivated by the extreme duress she suffered in the circumstances.
On subsequent appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, the court started by pointing out that “[t]he trial judge had no difficulty in concluding that Mr. Ryan was a manipulative, controlling and abusive husband who sought to control the actions of the respondent, be they social, familial or marital.”
However, the Court nonetheless overturned Nicole’s acquittal, ruling that the lower courts had applied the law incorrectly. Canadian law allows for a defence of “self-defence”, but does not recognize “duress” as a justification for criminal behaviour. (Nicole had not argued “self-defence” at her provincial court trials). But the Supreme Court of Canada also took an additional step – which it termed “exceptional” – and ordered a halt to all current and future proceedings against her, essentially allowing her to go free and build a future without being hampered by a criminal record of any sort. It also extinguished the possibility that Nicole would have to face a new trial, which the court found would be “unfair.”
With its controversial judgment, the Supreme Court put an end to five years of trials and appeal proceedings. It also remarked that it was “disquieting” that the police had quickly arrested Nicole after the sting, yet had repeatedly failed to come to her assistance on at least nine separate occasions when she complained to police of her husband’s year-long “reign of terror over her.” (She also called victim’s services 11 times, and dialled “911” on one occasion).
For the full text of the Supreme Court of Canada, see:
R. v. Ryan, 2013 SCC 3 http://canlii.ca/t/fvp4h