Liability in international criminal law – exclusion from refugee status

International criminal law may contain wider complicity provisions than exist in domestic law. Different standards for decision making can also exist. These points are illustrated by JS(Sri Lanka) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2010] UKSC 15 (17 March 2010).

“serious reasons for considering”, Lord Brown, with whom the other Justices agreed, held (para 39)”

“…obviously imports a higher test … than would, say, an expression like “reasonable grounds for suspecting”. “Considering” approximates rather to “believing” than to “suspecting”. I am inclined to agree with what Sedley LJ said in Yasser Al-Sirri v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2009] EWCA Civ 222, para 33: “[the phrase used] sets a standard above mere suspicion. Beyond this, it is a mistake to try to paraphrase the straightforward language of the Convention: it has to be treated as meaning what it says.”

The Convention under consideration here, the Refugee Convention, excludes from refugee status any one in respect of whom (Art 1F(a)):


“there are serious reasons for considering that (a) he has committed a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity, as defined in the international instruments drawn up to make provision in respect of such crimes”.

The focus here is on the acts of the applicant for refugee status. The Court stressed that mere membership of an organisation that commits war crimes is not enough to establish serious reasons for considering that he has committed such crimes.

The wide definition of complicity in international law must be applied, and here Articles 12(3) and 25(3) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court were relevant. In summary (38), extended complicity here includes

” … wider concepts of common design, such as the accomplishment of an organisation’s purpose by whatever means are necessary including the commission of war crimes. Put simply, I would hold an accused disqualified under article 1F if there are serious reasons for considering him voluntarily to have contributed in a significant way to the organisation’s ability to pursue its purpose of committing war crimes, aware that his assistance will in fact further that purpose.”

The Court held that it is wrong to try to place the relevant organisation at some point on a continuum ranging from the (in my terms) relatively benign to the relatively malevolent, as was done in Gurung v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2003] Imm AR 115. There are (32) too many variable factors in war crimes cases, and the proposed continuum included irrelevant considerations:

” … Whether the organisation in question is promoting government which would be “authoritarian in character” or is intent on establishing “a parliamentary, democratic mode of government” is quite simply nothing to the point in deciding whether or not somebody is guilty of war crimes. War crimes are war crimes however benevolent and estimable may be the long-term aims of those concerned. And actions which would not otherwise constitute war crimes do not become so merely because they are taken pursuant to policies abhorrent to western liberal democracies.”

Instead, the focus is on what the individual applicant for refugee status actually did and actually believed.

This leads me to the question (in criminal law, including the law of evidence) of when conceptual modelling may appropriately involve the use of a continuum in analysis. One can imagine that a Canadian court might have been tempted to apply a “decision tree” type of approach to classifying terrorist organisations, by analogy to its approach in the unrelated field of improperly obtained evidence in R v Grant, discussed here on 18 July 2009 (twice) and on 19 July 2009. That case came down to what I think is one-dimensional continuum analysis. Continua in two dimensions can assist in admissibility decisions where the degree of official impropriety must be balanced against the public interest in admitting improperly obtained evidence. In rare cases the actus reus may be held to exist after a balancing of rights, for example disorderly behaviour: Brooker v R, discussed here on 4 May 2007. But in cases like JS(Sri Lanka) the focus on the applicant’s acts and beliefs makes weighing inappropriate. Either there is an actus reus and mens rea, or there is not. They are either established to the necessary standard or they are not. There are no variables to measure and weigh against each other.

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Fundamentals of secondary liability and wilful blindness

A useful reminder of the meanings of aiding, abetting, and wilful blindness has been given by the Supreme Court of Canada in R v Briscoe [2010] SCC 13 (8 April 2010). Charron J, for the Court, noted that the actus reus of aiding is assisting or helping the principal offender, and abetting is encouraging, instigating, promoting or procuring the commission of the offence (para 14).

The definition of secondary liability in s 21(1)(b) and (c) of the Criminal Code will be familiar everywhere:

“21. (1) Every one is a party to an offence who

(a) actually commits it;

(b) does or omits to do anything for the purpose of aiding any person to commit it; or

(c) abets any person in committing it.”

The mens rea element has two components: purpose or intention of assisting (which does not require a desire that the offence should be committed), and knowledge of the principal offender’s intention to commit the offence (para 16, 17).

In some jurisdictions inciting, counselling, and procuring are included with aiding and abetting, but in Canada counselling is dealt with in s 22 of the Code and is defined there to include procuring, soliciting or inciting.

Wilful blindness is a substitute for actual knowledge. It is not the same as recklessness. It is a subjective state of mind: seeing the need for further inquiries but deliberately choosing not to make them. Wilful blindness could more aptly be called “deliberate ignorance” (para 20, 21, 24).

The Court in Briscoe approved Glanville Williams’s description, in Criminal Law: The General Part (2nd ed, 1961) at p 159, of wilful blindness being equivalent to knowledge. This could be a little confusing, because if it is equivalent to knowledge, and if recklessness is the unreasonable taking of a known risk, then wilful blindness should constitute the knowledge required for recklessness. We are left clear on what wilful blindness is, but confused about why its distinction from recklessness is important. Williams was, as the passsage quoted at para 23 of Briscoe makes clear, concerned to distinguish wilful blindness from civil negligence (in relation to the failure to perceive what a reasonable person would have perceived). A negligent failure to be suspicious could not amount to wilful blindness, but – I suggest – recklessness involves an actual suspicion and could be wilful blindness. Acting in the face of a suspicion is not far removed from acting while not wanting to know if the suspicion is true.

These considerations prompt us to ask whether the mens rea for a secondary party should necessarily be stricter than that for a principal offender. However, no new law was established in Briscoe. The alleged secondary party had to know that the principal had the necessary state of mind to be guilty of the offence, and here the trial judge should have considered whether Mr Briscoe had been wilfully blind so as to have this knowledge imputed to him. The appeal was dismissed, so that the Court of Appeal’s order for a retrial stood.

Notional even-handedness?

Who can more easily adduce hearsay evidence – the prosecution or the defence? Or are they equal?

In Morgan v R (criticised here recently) the majority of the Supreme Court held that the Crown could adduce evidence that the accused when in a cell had confessed to his cell-mate who was now a hostile witness. This hostility was the route through which the evidence came in, but in reality the position was the same as if a reliable witness had been called to say that the cell-mate had previously said that the accused had confessed. This is, in effect, like the use of a “notional witness” who gives hearsay evidence.

One would think, by analogy, that the defence could call a reliable witness to say that another person – not the present accused – had confessed. But in R v Key [2010] NZCA 115 (31 March 2010) the Court of Appeal refused to allow the defence to ask a police officer whether he had made a note of his conversation with the mother of a witness, who said that the witness had confessed to her. The witness in evidence had denied making such a confession to his mother, and the mother was not available to testify. The reason the evidence from the police officer was not admissible was because there was insufficient assurance of reliability as is required by s 18(1)(a) Evidence Act 2006.

It seems odd that there was insufficient assurance of reliability where (1) a mother told the police what her son had said; (2) where the son had spoken against self-interest; (3) where a police officer investigating the case noted the conversation. Where were the sources of error in these against-interest communications? Furthermore, in contrast to Morgan, in Key the confession contained information that only a guilty person would know and that was corroborated by other witnesses.

I was not involved in either case, and it may be that on careful scrutiny of the evidence Key can be justified. But these are the sorts of cases that make observers most anxious about the even-handedness of the application of the law.

Slaves to the system?

For refusal of counsel’s application for leave to withdraw from acting, see R v Cunningham [2010] SCC 10 (26 March 2006).