The vague, subjective, and indeterminate nature of Canadian obscenity law has been called “the most muddled law in Canada.” Recognizing that consistency and objectivity are important aspects in the running of any successful legal system, the Supreme Court of Canada has attempted to systematically clarify and modernize obscenity law. The ruling in R. v. Butler marked the transformation of the law of obscenity from a "moral-based" offence to a "harm-based" offence. The courts are now asked to determine, as best they can, what the community will tolerate others being exposed to, on the basis of the degree of harm that may flow from such exposure. Harm, in this context, means the predisposition to antisocial conduct. When probing beyond superficial appearances, it is clear that the modernizing moves made by the Canadian judiciary, in introducing the community standard of harm test to enforce obscenity law, are mere rhetorical covers for the continued protection of conventional morality. The determination of “community standards” is left primarily to the subjective judgment and hunches of criminal justice personnel. In this context, the standard to which obscenity laws are based can be uncertain and ill defined, making it very difficult to ensure consistency in the application of the obscenity law and to ask the public to abide by standards that are not clearly demarcated in the first place. This is a disturbing state of affairs for any criminal offense. This essay will firstly demarcate the roles in which judges currently play in deciding upon the nature of crime. Secondly, with the use of previous rulings on obscenity by the Supreme Court of Canada, the evolution of Canadian obscenity law will be analyzed. Thirdly, the involvement of the community standard of tolerance within the current obscenity definition will be flagged as prejudiced against non-mainstream minority representations of sex and sexuality. Fourthly, the Butler decision will be analyzed within the gay and lesbian context. Finally, the three inherent flaws of the current Butler definition of obscenity will be discussed; the vague definition of harm, the problematic categorization of “degrading and dehumanizing sex” and the overemphasis placed on heterosexual norms.
The current roles in which judges play in deciding upon the nature of crime.
Frey v. Fedoruk (1950), a decision made by the Supreme Court of Canada, is viewed as a very successful step in the courts’ quest for objectivity. This supposed milestone case marked the end of the courts’ ability to invent new crimes at common law and essentially appointed ultimate power of the Criminal Code to the federal government. Frey was accused of peeping into the window of a changing woman. The courts recognized that peeping was clearly morally objectionable, but the Court also noted that peeping was "not otherwise criminal and not falling within any category of offences defined by the Criminal Law." It went on further to say that “if any course of conduct is now to be declared criminal, which has not up to the present time been so regarded, such declaration should be made by Parliament and not by the Courts."[i] This case essentially set the precedent that no person could be charged with an offence that was not previously stipulated in the Criminal Code. This case illustrates an evident shift in regards to the role judges play in the justice system; however, it is questionable if this shift is as substantial as originally perceived.
Something that is often forgotten by those who stress the sovereign aspect of the criminal law is that Parliament does not have direct control over the enforcement of their own texts. Judges cannot directly contradict or invent new laws, but they can endlessly reinterpret them. Furthermore, in interpreting the criminal law, judges do not have control over the way in which fellow criminal justice personnel will reinterpret their interpretations. For example, due to the vagaries...
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