When a trial is before a judge and jury, it is the judge’s responsibility to instruct the jurors. He must provide explanations concerning the significant elements of the offences, as well as the rules of law. In addition, the judge must ensure that all other questions concerning the case may be adequately answered. This responsibility is essential because the trial equity depends on a properly instructed jury. When the victim saw him with the gun in his hand, he suddenly moved in his direction. The appellant, while backing up, bumped into the couch and accidentally fired the gun. He latter testified that he did not want to pull the trigger or shoot the victim. He added that he want aware that the gun was loaded and add that the gun did not have a trigger guard.

“There is in the task that falls to the judge an educational exercise, eminently pedagogical, which requires structure, clarity, coherence and objectivity, but also a certain ability to popularize without betraying the requirements of the law: ‘Clarify and simplify,’ wrote Chief Justice Lamer in Jacquard, to offer a presentation “both complete and understandable”, added Justice Modalver in Rodgerson.”

R v. Primeau, 2021 QCCA 544

The Facts

At the time of the offence, the appellant was living in the basement of his brother, the victim Richard Primeau, with his son Pascal. The appellant learns that the victim had made death threats against him and he became furious. He grabbed his rifle and went upstairs to join the victim. At his trial, the appellant pleaded the defence of accident denying the actus reus, which refer to the material element or the guilty act. In other words, he alleged that he did not pull the trigger intentionally, thereby raising a doubt as to whether the act was necessarily voluntary. In the alternative, he argues that he did not have the intention to cause the death and therefore invokes the defence of accidental death, which denies mens rea, which refer to the guilty intention. The appellant was found guilty, by a jury, of second degree murder. He appealed the verdict, arguing that the trial judge made several errors in the instructions given to the jury.

The Judgment

The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and a new trial was ordered.

In a jury trial, it is the duty of the judge to instruct the jurors on the issues in the case, the law relating to the charges, and the evidence relevant to answering those issues. The purpose of these instructions is to equip the jurors to analyze the evidence submitted and to address with the facts in accordance with the law. However, at Primeau’s trial, the trial judge failed to do so. The initial instructions regarding the defences of accident negating actus reus and accident negating mens rea were found to be inadequate and confusing by the Court of Appeal. Indeed, the instructions were found to be problematic in that they failed to distinguish the difference between the two defenses of accident. The judge’s instructions were particularly deficient regarding the defence of accident negating actus reus. In addition, the judge did not adequately address the impact of this defense on manslaughter.

It is clear that the judge’s original explanations were inadequate and misunderstood as the jury made multiple requests for additional instructions on central matters. The pedagogical dimension of the instructions is all the more important when, following the initial instructions, the jury requires the judge’s assistance for subsequent questions. The answers given by the judge must be clear and complete, because only they can clear up any confusion. The insufficient answers provided were not enough to clarify the initial guidelines, which were themselves deficient.

The rambling explanations did not allow the jurors to untangle the various concepts presented to them. Therefore,  the Court concluded that “there is a reasonable possibility that the jury was misled on central aspects of the case and that it vitiates the verdict.”[translated]

Published on 7/05/2021