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Author: Michael Plaxton
Date: Mar. 2020
From: McGill Law Journal(Vol. 65, Issue 3)
Publisher: McGill Law Journal (Canada)
Document Type: Article
Length: 13,174 words
Lexile Measure: 1770L

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Appellate courts have frequently held that the ambit of criminal offences is more restricted than a plain reading of their text would suggest. In doing so, they have not relied on the canon of strict construction or the doctrine of de minimis non curat lex. They have instead applied what I have elsewhere called a "presumption of restraint"--a rebuttable presumption that offences provisions should not be read in such a way that they criminalize courses of action that are widely regarded by the public as benign or laudable.

Drawing on the work of Lon Fuller, I argue that the presumption of restraint is compatible with parliamentary sovereignty and purposive interpretation, and that it reflects ideas about the circumstances under which legislation is capable of providing guidance to the public.

Les tribunaux d'appel ont souvent juge que la portee des infractions criminelles est plus restreinte que ne le laisserait supposer une simple lecture de leur texte. Ce faisant, elles ne se sont pas appuyees sur le canon de l'interpretation stricte ou sur la doctrine de minimis non curat lex. Ils ont plutot applique ce que j'ai appele ailleurs une << presomption de retenue >>--une presomption refutable voulant que les dispositions relatives aux infractions ne soient pas interpretees de maniere a criminaliser des actions qui sont largement considerees par le public comme benignes ou louables.

En m'appuyant sur les travaux de Lon Fuller, je soutiens que la presomption de retenue est compatible avec la souverainete parlementaire et l'interpretation teleologique, et qu'elle reflete une vision des circonstances dans lesquelles la legislation est capable de guider le public.

Introduction I. The Presumption of Restraint II. Strict Construction by Another Name? III. The Paradoxical Presumption IV. The Common Law Constitution? V. The Internal Morality of Criminal Offences A. Fuller and the Internal Morality of Self-Executing Guidance B. The Theoretical Shallowness of the Presumption C Fuller on the Significance of Interactional Expectancies Conclusion


On several occasions, the Supreme Court of Canada has suggested that courts should apply what I have elsewhere described as a presumption of restraint when interpreting criminal offences; that courts should presume that Parliament did not intend the offence in question to prohibit conduct that is widely accepted as benign or laudable. (1) This presumption is often expressed as if it were simply an instantiation of the broader principle that legislation should not be interpreted in an "absurd" fashion. Construed in such a way, however, the presumption is in grave tension--or flatly inconsistent--with other foundational separation of powers principles and canons of statutory interpretation. Chiefly, it might seem to suggest that it is open to the courts to narrow the scope of criminal offences simply on the basis that they regard them as overinclusive on policy grounds. Such an approach would be difficult to square with the notion of parliamentary sovereignty, or the idea that statutes should be interpreted in a purposive manner. Yet, in the modern era, the Supreme Court has consistently taken the view that criminal offences should be construed...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A658229755