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Evidence - Collateral Fact Rule

R v Pilgrim (Ont CA, 2017)

In this case, without referring to it as such, the court elaborates and applies the 'collateral fact rule' (aka 'collateral evidence rule'), that a witness may not be discredited or prejudiced on facts immaterial to the case [see also R v MacIsaac (SCC, 2017)]:
[55] It did not end there. In his Reasons for Sentence, the trial judge treated the exposure of the children to danger as “a significant aggravating factor.” This was a dominant theme in his reasons. Although the trial judge was “reluctant to find this conduct to have been abuse of a person under 18 within section 718.2(a)(ii.1) of the Criminal Code,” he nevertheless found “the conduct deplorable in the extreme.”

[56] This characterization – “conduct deplorable in the extreme” – may well have been fair. This feature of the case was a significant aggravating factor on sentencing. But this only confirms the seriously prejudicial nature of this evidence at trial.

[57] Relying on R. v. Chambers, 1990 CanLII 47 (SCC), [1990] 2 S.C.R. 1293, at pp. 1310-11, Ms. Shaikh argues that this evidence was admissible and that the trial judge properly restricted its use to merely assessing Mr. Pilgrim’s credibility. See also R. v. S.G.G., 1997 CanLII 311 (SCC), [1997] 2 S.C.R. 716, at para. 63. However, before evidence of this nature may be used for this limited purpose, it must be “properly admissible as part of the narration of the relevant events”: see R. v. Teresinski (1992), 70 C.C.C. (3d) 268 (Ont. C.A.), at p. 278, leave to appeal refused, [1992] S.C.C.A. No. 147. See also R. v. Hogan (1982), 2 C.C.C. (3d) 557 (Ont. C.A.), at pp. 564-65; R. v. Cameron (1995), 1995 CanLII 1283 (ON CA), 22 O.R. (3d) 65 (C.A.), at pp. 72-73; and R. v. Sheriffe, 2015 ONCA 880 (CanLII), 333 C.C.C. (3d) 330, at para. 70, leave to appeal refused, [2016] S.C.C.A. No. 299.

[58] The danger posed to the appellants’ children was not part of the “narration of the relevant events.” It was not relevant to any material issue. It was not probative of whether the drugs were possessed for the purpose of trafficking, as opposed to personal use. Moreover, it was improperly admitted, based partly on the Crown’s desire to cross-examine the appellants on this issue. Throughout the rest of the trial, the child endangerment claim developed into a serious allegation against Mr. Pilgrim, one that he was not charged with.[1]

[59] The Chambers line of cases does not provide a basis for the admission of evidence of discreditable conduct or bad character. It prescribes a specific and limited use for otherwise admissible evidence. A prosecutor’s desire to create fodder for cross-examination is not a legitimate path to admission. Admission of highly prejudicial evidence on this basis may actually have the effect of discouraging an accused person from testifying. Conversely, it may induce an accused person to testify just to explain irrelevant evidence that portrays him or her in an unfavourable light. Either way, it has real potential for unfairness. I cannot say that the admission of this evidence impacted on the decisions of the appellants to testify in this case. However, anticipated cross-examination was irrelevant to the decision to admit the evidence in the first place.

[60] Even if it had been admissible as part of the narration of events, the potential dangers associated with this discreditable conduct evidence were acute, even in a trial by judge alone: see R. v. Villeda, 2011 ABCA 85 (CanLII), 269 C.C.C. (3d) 394, at para. 18. It was essential that the trial judge clearly articulate the limited use he was permitted to make of this evidence – evaluating Mr. Pilgrim’s credibility – and restrict his assessment of that evidence to its limited use. I accept Ms. Shaikh’s submission that the trial judge did not say he convicted Mr. Pilgrim because of this evidence of bad character. One could hardly imagine any judge making such a statement.

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