R v. Williams – A Lawful Application of s. 215 of the Criminal Code - Bob Smith
The case of R. v. Williams, coming out of the Manitoba Court of Appeal, is a clear example of a lawful application of section 215 of the Criminal Code. While there is generally no duty to rescue in Canada, except potentially in Quebec, section 215 states that “everyone is under a legal duty to provide the necessaries of life to a person under their charge” when that person is too young to provide themselves with those necessities. 1 This case is an example involving a contravention of this section and the subsequent denial of the appeal to the accused.
In this case, the accused, Mr. Williams, was present on several occasions when his 21-month-old daughter was abused by her mother over a period of one year prior to her death. 2 It was determined at trial that malnourishment and previous injuries contributed to her death. 3 Although the accused was not present when the mother inflicted the fatal injuries, it was determined that he had not provided the necessaries of life to the baby by “failing to provide her with nourishment; failing to provide her with medical attention; and failing to protect her from abuse at the hands of her mother.” 4 He appealed his conviction of manslaughter on three grounds: the objective foreseeability of harm, the lawful excuse defense, and causation. After going over how the appeal judge dismissed these arguments, this article will analyze two important features of this case: the objectivity in a section 215 test and the length of time over which this crime occurred.
For objective foreseeability, the accused first argues that the trial judge should have told the jury that the child’s murder was not objectively foreseeable. This argument was struck down since the accused need not reasonably foresee a murder specifically for the mens rea requirement of manslaughter to be met; there simply needs to be objective foreseeability of bodily harm that is neither trivial nor transitory. 5 He further argues that the trial judge did not instruct the jury about how objective foreseeability was based on how much the accused knew of the situation and how he interpreted the explanations for the injuries that were provided by the mother. In this regard, it was determined that the trial judge had sufficiently instructed the jury to consider what a reasonable person with that information would have thought. 6
For the third argument, the accused argued that the trial judge failed to instruct the jury to consider the mother’s explanations for the child’s injuries. In essence, he argues that the mother’s attempts to hide the cause of the injuries from him gave him a lawful excuse not to provide the necessaries of life. This was also soundly struck down since subjective awareness is not a part of the lawful excuse defense. 7
Finally, he argued that since expert testimony confirms that the child could have died from the mother’s final attack even without the previous beatings and abuse, the trial judge made an error in not telling the jury that the accused’s actions were not a significant contributing factor in the death. On the contrary, this was only half the story, because the expert evidence continued to explain that the previous injuries and malnourishment made the baby more vulnerable to an assault. To add, while the judgment does not mention this fully, it was established in R v. Smithers that the Crown only needs to establish that the acts of the accused were at least a contributing cause of the death outside of the de minimis range, even if they did not cause the death themselves. 8 This meant that the actions of the father are a contributing cause of death and this argument failed as well. After determining that the trial judge made no errors in her judgment, the appeal was dismissed, and the trial judgment of manslaughter was upheld.
This case reaffirms the importance of objectivity in confirming criminal responsibility under section 215. The accused’s second argument for objective foreseeability seems to be a misconception on their part that the test of foreseeability in a situation such as this is a subjective one. His argument seems to be the following: based on the information he had, he personally did not know that the child was being chronically abused. He then extends this to his third argument to state that he was not subjectively aware of the injuries, and therefore he had a lawful excuse for not providing the necessaries of life. Fortunately, this was not the test applied, otherwise it would be extremely difficult to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a situation such as this, where the accused simply turned a blind eye to the abuse rather than commit it themselves. People of different circumstances and capacities process information in different ways. With the same amount of information, someone may be able to discern the signs of abuse, while others may truly remain oblivious to them. An important authority on this is R. v. Naglik, which clearly states that objectivity is the test to be applied in section 215 and that a lack of subjective awareness does not satisfy the lawful excuse defense. 9 While it may seem unfair to convict on this standard, and courts have tried to incorporate allowances for different capacities and circumstances, objective fault is a necessary part of criminal law in scenarios such as this one. 10
Aside from the aforementioned objective test, a big feature in this case that led to the guilty conviction of the accused is how much time he had to act and simply did nothing. The evidence in this case indicates that the mother had abused the victim for a period of one year before she died. In this time, evidence points to the accused knowing of the injuries and not taking the child to get medical attention. 11 The large period in which the child was left without medical attention is likely a reason that the accused failed the reasonable person test, and why this was upheld on appeal. It is interesting to draw a contrast with the case of R. v. Palombi. In this case, even though the parents did not take their child to get medical attention after noticing an injury, they were not charged with not providing the necessaries of life because they only waited two days before taking the child to a doctor. 12 It could not be proven that the risk of bodily harm was foreseeable to a reasonable person in this case. 13 This shows the kind of situation wherein the accused may be acquitted of charges of not providing the necessaries of life. But, what if a more subjective test that takes account of a specific person’s circumstances and capacity was applied in this situation as Mr. Williams would have liked? Without a doubt, this situation is so outrageous that it makes the Crown’s job all that much easier to confirm blameworthiness under either test. There is substantial evidence against the accused, including testimony from an adult sister who lived in the household, that Mr. Williams was unlikely to succeed in his appeal anyways.
This case is an all-around sad situation, and while it does not bring the child back, the courts have punished both perpetrators who failed to provide the necessaries of life to their defenseless child. The system works, and while some people may see the objective test as being unfair, it keeps individuals who use unreasonable excuses held accountable for their crimes.14 One would hope that at the very least, cases as this one can deter parents from doing the horrible things that these parents did to their child.
1 Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46, s. 215(1).
2 R. v. Williams, 2020 MBCA 72, 2020 CarswellMan 275 at para 6 [Williams 2020].
3 Ibid at para 10.
4 Ibid at para 15.
5 Ibid at para 21.
6 Ibid at para 22.
7 Ibid at para 23.
8 R v Smithers,  1 SCR 506 at 508 [Smithers].
9 R v Naglik,  3 SCR 122 at para 54 [Naglik].
10 David M Paciocco, “Subjective and Objective Standards of Fault for Offences and Defences” (1995) 59 Sask L Rev 271 at 284 (WL Can).
11 Williams 2020, supra note 2 at para 13.
12 R. v. Palombi, 2007 ONCA 486, 2007 CarswellOnt 4224 at para 15 [Palombi].
13 Ibid at para 38.
14 Williams 2020, supra note 2 at para 6.