Legality, morality and two court decisions

In Canada vs. Bedford, the court made a decision taking into account the context under which prostitution occurs and dealt at length with issues pertaining to the safety and security of women involved in the sex trade.  It did not let a moral decision about whether or not women “chose” or “should choose” to engage in the sex trade side track it from its concern for the women’s safety when they did.  Yesterday, in the wake of the ice storm and a power outage at our home, I had time to de-clutter our basement. This also gave me the quiet time to mentally review recent court decisions and realised that we often think of morality in a linear and limited fashion.   We are full of absolute “dos” and “donts”, “right” and “wrong”.  We blindly go along with socially accepted mores because it makes us uncomfortable to question them or go against the grain .  But then morality should not be determined by an act, but in how the act itself is carried out, whether selfish or selfless, voluntarily or involuntarily.  This in turn is determined by context.  However, we interpret morality focusing on the act as “thou shall not kill” with the emphasis on “kill”, independent of its context.  When we do not take context into account then important legal decisions, which impact society’s moral code, do not come out right.

A recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) in R v. Ryan set off this chain of thought.  Here a woman and her child were battered for many years by her spouse.  She went to the police and victim services several times asking for help, only to be rebuffed.  She hired someone to kill her husband.  However, the “hit man” ended up being an RCMP officer and so she was charged with counselling the commission of an offence.   The court found her guilty.  In the earlier case, R. v. Lavallee, a battered spouse who had killed her husband coming from behind him, when he was apparently unsuspecting, had been found by the SCC to have acted in self-defense and therefore not guilty.  There they had given explicit recognition to her context and held that the temporal connection between the abuse and the act committed in self defense were irrelevant in the case of “battered wife syndrome”.   In that seminal case, the court had taken the context into account in determining that the killing was an act of self-defense, even though there was no provocation in that moment.  In R v. Ryan where the defendant used “duress” the court found against her.  So which court got it right both legally and morally and why? I consider these two decisions important because they were precedent setting for both law and morality in this society.   Question then is this – when an individual acts out of duress or self-defense is t gruesome act murder and therefore immoral?   Notwithstanding the context of abuse, the need for self- preservation could be construed as the ultimate act of selfishness.  And yet, it does not make sense to deem the acts in both cases criminal or immoral.  I would argue that here there is an abdication of a person’s sense of self.  There is the disintegration of the accused women’s identity to the point of their believing they had no options.  The acts in that sense were involuntary and therefore not born out of selfishness.  Also proof positive that following Lavallee a decision which came out 20 years ago, victims of abuse have not gone out on a rampage of killing.  It is sad therefore that in R v. Ryan a ruling of the SCC that came out earlier this year, the court abdicated its sound reasoning based on the context of abuse that it laid out in Lavallee.  Sadly, the act was judged independent of its context to be criminal and therefore immoral.


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