The appellants were charged under s.172(3) of the Criminal Code by "disturbing an act of solemnity during a service of religious worship". Their church had told its parishioners that they were not to kneel when receiving communion, but the defendants did it anyway. It had been planned ahead, and caused "distress" to the other members of the parish and the priest. The appellants were convicted in the lower courts.
- What is the meaning of "disturb" in s.172(3) of the Criminal Code?
- What were the required elements of the offence?
- Did the appellants meet these requirements?
Appeal allowed, convictions quashed.
Dickson, writing for the majority, says that the required external element of this particular offence is doing anything that disturbs the solemnity of a religious meeting. Therefore the conduct required is simply doing anything, which the appellants obviously did; there is proof beyond reasonable doubt that the appellants did something. You must also prove that the required circumstances were met; was this a religious meeting? Then you must determine if the conduct, in the circumstances, creates the necessary consequences to qualify for the offence. The necessary consequence is that a "disturbance" had to be created.
The lower courts used the dictionary definition of "disturbance" which gave a very broad offence that was obviously committed by the defendants and lead to their conviction. Dickson rejected this method, stating that the literal interpretation is far too broad in this case. Criminal law matters are generally interpreted very narrowly because of their serious implications on people's liberties. He instead looked to the heading of the section in the Code, which is "disorderly conduct" and therefore "disturbance" must be in line with a "disorderly conduct" and no disorder was caused as the commotion was over in a matter of minutes. This conduct (kneeling) was not disorderly in itself. Dickson also says that this was not productive of disorder either, as "annoyances" are not a disorder, and a reasonable person would not be disturbed in this circumstance. If their actions had sparked a riot, then they would have been guilty of producing disorder, but this did not happen. Therefore, the external elements of the offence are not satisfied.
Further, the fault element of "willfulness" is not satisfied. Wilson, in a concurring judgment, held the appellants must have willfully caused the disturbance, not merely willfully have done the action. The act in this case was intentional, but it is questionable whether the disturbance was intended. Either way, the charge cannot succeed because the external elements were not proven.
- Criminal law matters are interpreted very narrowly due to their implications on people's liberties.
- In general, dictionary definitions, while helpful, are too broad for application in the law.
- One method of figuring out the intended definition is looking at to the heading of the section in the statute that the word in question falls under.
- You need to establish both the external and fault elements of an offence for a conviction to occur.
- Do not look to dictionary alone for definitions of legal terms; terms must be defined in line with the pith and substance of the statute.