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R v SS – Hearsay: The Consequence of a Careless Analysis

Abby Stein



Introduction

There is a level of truth that often stems from statements obtained outside of court, but danger also exists when allowing this type of evidence, referred to as hearsay, to be admissible. Hearsay is considered to be any form of evidence that was made outside of court and used for the truth of its contents during trial.[1] Generally, such statements are deemed inadmissible and are often excluded.[2] By taking an out-of-court statement at face value, the trier of fact loses the ability to properly assess the contents of the statement and to observe any form of cross-examination.[3] However, the exception to this rule begs the question of the necessity and reliability of the evidence to justify its admissibility.


In R v SS, the admissibility of a young victim’s statement was tested. This blog will balance the decisions of the trial judge and the Ontario Court of Appeal (the “ONCA”) to further understand the principled exception to the hearsay rule and the consequences when it is inadequately applied.[4]


Facts

In early 2015, while on probation, SS (the “Appellant”), lived with his sister and her daughter (the “Complainant”) in a two-bedroom apartment. In March 2015, the Complainant’s mother contacted the Appellant’s probation officer to inform them of her concerns regarding the Appellant’s state of mind, anger, and aggressive behaviour toward the Complainant. These concerns resulted in a representative of a Children’s Aid Society (“CAS”) being sent to the Complainant’s school to speak with her. During this meeting, the Complainant disclosed that the Appellant had assaulted her. That day, the CAS worker brought her to the police station to launch an investigation. There, a recorded police interview was conducted where the Complainant gave an extremely detailed description of the abuse. Following the interview, the Complainant was placed in foster care for 17 months.[5]


In November 2016, at the preliminary inquiry, the now nine-year-old Complainant watched her video interview from the year prior. After promising that she would tell the truth, she stated that she did not remember anything from the video. The Complainant was also interviewed months later by Dr. Louise Sas (“Dr. Sas”), a registered expert and psychologist. Although the Complainant did not disclose details of the abuse, the Complainant admitted that she lied about forgetting everything she claimed in the preliminary inquiry. She was scared that her honesty would result in her being taken away from her family again. With this information,

Dr. Sas testified that the Complainant should not testify at trial due to the trauma that it would inflict.[6] The trial judge applied the tests of necessity and threshold reliability and concluded that the video was admissible. As a result, the Appellant was convicted, and he appealed to the ONCA.


Threshold Reliability – Where Opinions Vary

In terms of necessity, if the evidence could not be obtained in any other way, then it passes this stage.[7] The necessity aspect of this case was found at trial. From the Complainant’s sessions with Dr. Sas, and because the Complainant claimed to have “forgotten” everything, it was clear that she would not be able, or willing, to give worthwhile evidence.[8] The main issue rests upon the Appellant’s assertion that the recorded police interview in March 2015 should not be admitted as it did not meet the threshold reliability aspect of the hearsay exception. The Appellant also stated that the trial judge erred in finding that the Complainant did not have any motive to fabricate evidence which was an aspect used to contribute to threshold reliability.[9] The majority opinion of the ONCA (the “Majority”) agreed with these two assertions and allowed the appeal. However, MacPherson J.A., in dissent, had a different opinion that was in turn followed by the Supreme Court of Canada (the “SCC”). It is quite intriguing to gauge the level at which subjectivity plays into a test with such high standards and such high stakes.


In the trial decision, the threshold reliability was satisfied on two grounds. Firstly, the evidence from Dr. Sas showed that the officer who conducted the Complainant’s police interview in 2015 followed all protocols. This included asking open-ended questions, keeping the Complainant relaxed, and ensuring that she knew the difference between a truth and a lie.[10] Secondly, the trial judge was confident that the Complainant had no motive to lie. With the threshold met, the trial judge admitted the evidence, resulting in a conviction. Although the Majority disagreed, the dissent holds great value.


Procedural and Substantive Reliability

When examining the trial judge’s decision, the Majority looked at both procedural and substantive aspects of threshold reliability. On the procedural level, there must be a substitute for a court-given oath, or a cross-examination, to ensure that the truth is being told.[11] Substantively, there must be certain indicators that the statement in question can be trusted.[12] Although the trial judge was of the opinion that cross-examination was not as important at this stage, the Majority agreed with the Appellant that downplaying cross-examination was a substantial procedural error and paying little mind to the Complainant’s sincerity and perception was substantively flawed.[13]


In MacPherson J.A.’s view, procedural reliability was met by the fact that the Complainant’s interview with the officer was recorded and that the Complainant promised that she would tell the truth. This promise, under section 16.1(6) of the Canada Evidence Act, is sufficient to substitute as an oath for any child under the age of 14.[14] The Complainant also corrected the officer multiple times during the interview when he misinterpreted any facts.[15] Substantive reliability is met in this regard and met again based on the fact that the Complainant not only gave physical descriptions specific to her uncle, but descriptions that were nowhere near her stage of development.[16] As stated in R v Khan, young children are not likely to use reflective powers they have to make up lies, meaning that truth often lies in the details they provide.[17]


Motive to Lie

This is an interesting aspect of the analysis. Where the Majority believed that the Complainant had a motive to lie, the trial judge, MacPherson J.A., and the SCC held a different view. The Majority stated that the evidence in this case was either “misapprehended or ignored” by the trial judge if he truly thought she had no motive to lie.[18] This accusation stemmed from the fact that the Complainant stated that she did not want to live with her uncle, that her mother had testified that the Complainant loved him and they had a good relationship and that the mother said that the Complainant made up lies based on things that she learned from kids at school.[19] This is absolutely absurd. The mother was a defence witness for her brother and, therefore, little weight should be given to her testimony regarding the love that her daughter had for the Appellant. If anything, the Complainant had more motive to lie in favour of the defendant to stay on her mother’s good side. If her mother admitted to lying about believing the abuse allegations just to get her daughter back, any further statements from the Complainant should be taken with a grain of salt given the influence her mother could have had while she retained custody.


MacPherson J.A., in contrast, correctly believed that the view of the Majority was extremely narrow and that only minor discrepancies and concerns regarding the Complainant’s statement existed.[20] The view of the Majority focuses exclusively on the Complainant stating that she had lied in the police interview a year prior, but it fails to focus on what happened to this little girl as soon as she told the truth. She had already endured an extremely traumatic experience only to be taken away from her mother for almost two years after merely telling the truth. Further, the Majority failed to consider what occurred when the Complainant was returned to her mother, who was clearly standing behind her brother. As stated by MacPherson J.A., the Complainant’s words prove that her distaste for her uncle stemmed from more than a general dislike. She used words such as “nasty” and “gross” to describe him which are clear indicators that she did not have ulterior motives for not liking the Appellant.[21]


Conclusion

Although the SCC did allow the final appeal and restore the conviction, it is discomforting to know that things could have easily gone very differently. Everything this little girl went through was horrifying and traumatic—all of which was dismissed by her mother. Whether it is a slightly different analysis of hearsay and its exceptions, or a less stringent approach to the intricate details of the case, it is a terrifying realization that her experience could have also been buried by the courts, rendering her helpless under the entire justice system.

 



[1] What is hearsay evidence” (8 July 2018), online: Provincial Court of British Columbia <www.provincialcourt.bc.ca/enews/enews-07-08-2018>.

[2] R v Evans, 1993 CanLII 86 (SCC).

[3] R v Khelawon, 2006 SCC 57.

[4] R v SS, 2022 ONCA 305 [SS].

[5] Ibid at para 19.

[6] Ibid at paras 20-22.

[7] R v Smith, 1992 CanLII 79 (SCC).

[8] SS, supra note 4 at para 27.

[9] Ibid at para 36.

[10] Ibid at para 28.

[11] Ibid at para 44.

[12] Ibid at para 45.

[13] Ibid at para 52.

[14] Ibid at para 94; Canada Evidence, RSC 1985, c C-5, s 16.1(6).

[15] SS, supra note 4 at para 95.

[16] Ibid at para 99.

[17] R v Khan, 1990 CanLII 77 (SCC).

[18] SS, supra note 4 at para 68.

[19] Ibid at paras 69-70.

[20] Ibid at para 105.

[21] Ibid at para 113.

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