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Evidence - Hearsay - Principled Exception - Corroboration

R v Bradshaw (SCC, 2017)

In this criminal case the Supreme Court of Canada usefully restates the principled exception to the hearsay rule, while considering the extent to which corroborative evidence may be relied upon in aid of the reliability element of the exception [at paras 33-57]:
[1] Hearsay is an out-of-court statement tendered for the truth of its contents. It is presumptively inadmissible because — in the absence of the opportunity to cross-examine the declarant at the time the statement is made — it is often difficult for the trier of fact to assess its truth. Thus hearsay can threaten the integrity of the trial’s truth-seeking process and trial fairness. However, hearsay may exceptionally be admitted into evidence under the principled exception when it meets the criteria of necessity and threshold reliability.

.....

[3] The following issue arises in this appeal: When can a trial judge rely on corroborative evidence to conclude that the threshold reliability of a hearsay statement is established?

[4] In my view, corroborative evidence may be used to assess threshold reliability if it overcomes the specific hearsay dangers presented by the statement. These dangers may be overcome on the basis of corroborative evidence if it shows, when considered as a whole and in the circumstances of the case, that the only likely explanation for the hearsay statement is the declarant’s truthfulness about, or the accuracy of, the material aspects of the statement. The material aspects are those relied on by the moving party for the truth of their contents.

.....

[18] Hearsay can exceptionally be admitted into evidence if it is necessary and sufficiently reliable. This appeal raises the following question: When can a trial judge rely on corroborative evidence to conclude that the threshold reliability of a hearsay statement is established? To answer, I turn to the rationale for the rule against hearsay and for the principled exception to this rule.

(1) The Principled Exception to the Hearsay Rule

[19] The truth-seeking process of a trial is predicated on the presentation of evidence in court. Litigants make their case by presenting real evidence and viva voce testimony to the trier of fact. In court, witnesses give testimony under oath or solemn affirmation. The trier of fact directly observes the real evidence and hears the testimony, so there is no concern that the evidence was recorded inaccurately. This process gives the trier of fact robust tools for testing the truthfulness of evidence and assessing its value. To determine whether a witness is telling the truth, the trier of fact can observe the witness’s demeanor and assess whether the testimony withstands testing through cross-examination (R. v. Khelawon, 2006 SCC 57 (CanLII), [2006] 2 S.C.R. 787, at para. 35).

[20] Hearsay is an out-of-court statement tendered for the truth of its contents. Because hearsay is declared outside of court, it is often difficult for the trier of fact to assess whether it is trustworthy. Generally, hearsay is not taken under oath, the trier of fact cannot observe the declarant’s demeanor as she makes the statement, and hearsay is not tested through cross-examination (R. v. B. (K.G.), 1993 CanLII 116 (SCC), [1993] 1 S.C.R. 740, at p. 764). Allowing a trier of fact to consider hearsay can therefore compromise trial fairness and the trial’s truth-seeking process. The hearsay statement may be inaccurately recorded, and the trier of fact cannot easily investigate the declarant’s perception, memory, narration, or sincerity (Khelawon, at para. 2). As Fish J. explains in R. v. Baldree, 2013 SCC 35 (CanLII), [2013] 2 S.C.R. 520:
First, the declarant may have misperceived the facts to which the hearsay statement relates; second, even if correctly perceived, the relevant facts may have been wrongly remembered; third, the declarant may have narrated the relevant facts in an unintentionally misleading manner; and finally, the declarant may have knowingly made a false assertion. The opportunity to fully probe these potential sources of error arises only if the declarant is present in court and subject to cross-examination. [Emphasis in original; para. 32.]
[21] Given the dangers that hearsay evidence presents, “[t]he fear is that untested hearsay evidence may be afforded more weight than it deserves” (Khelawon, at para. 35). Therefore, while all relevant evidence is generally admissible, hearsay is presumptively inadmissible (Khelawon, at paras. 2-3).

[22] However, some hearsay evidence “presents minimal dangers and its exclusion, rather than its admission, would impede accurate fact finding” (Khelawon, at para. 2 (emphasis in original)). Thus, categorical exceptions to the rule excluding hearsay developed through the common law over time. These traditional exceptions are based on admitting types of hearsay statements that were considered necessary and reliable, such as dying declarations (Khelawon, at para. 42; R. v. Youvarajah, 2013 SCC 41 (CanLII), [2013] 2 S.C.R. 720, at para. 20; J. H. Wigmore, Evidence in Trials at Common Law (2nd ed. 1923), vol. III, at p. 152).

[23] Eventually, a more flexible approach to hearsay developed through the jurisprudence. Under the principled exception, hearsay can exceptionally be admitted into evidence when the party tendering it demonstrates that the twin criteria of necessity and threshold reliability are met on a balance of probabilities (Khelawon, at para. 47).

[24] By only admitting necessary and sufficiently reliable hearsay, the trial judge acts as an evidentiary gatekeeper. She protects trial fairness and the integrity of the truth-seeking process (Youvarajah, at paras. 23 and 25). In criminal proceedings, the threshold reliability analysis has a constitutional dimension because the difficulties of testing hearsay evidence can threaten the accused’s right to a fair trial (Khelawon, at paras. 3 and 47). Even when the trial judge is satisfied that the hearsay is necessary and sufficiently reliable, she has discretion to exclude this evidence if its prejudicial effect outweighs its probative value (Khelawon, at para. 49).

[25] In this case, the necessity of the re-enactment evidence is established because Thielen refused to testify. Thus, its admissibility rests on whether threshold reliability is met.

(2) Threshold Reliability

[26] To determine whether a hearsay statement is admissible, the trial judge assesses the statement’s threshold reliability. Threshold reliability is established when the hearsay “is sufficiently reliable to overcome the dangers arising from the difficulty of testing it” (Khelawon, at para. 49). These dangers arise notably due to the absence of contemporaneous cross-examination of the hearsay declarant before the trier of fact (Khelawon, at paras. 35 and 48). In assessing threshold reliability, the trial judge must identify the specific hearsay dangers presented by the statement and consider any means of overcoming them (Khelawon, at paras. 4 and 49; R. v. Hawkins, 1996 CanLII 154 (SCC), [1996] 3 S.C.R. 1043, at para. 75). The dangers relate to the difficulties of assessing the declarant’s perception, memory, narration, or sincerity and should be defined with precision to permit a realistic evaluation of whether they have been overcome.

[27] The hearsay dangers can be overcome and threshold reliability can be established by showing that (1) there are adequate substitutes for testing truth and accuracy (procedural reliability) or (2) there are sufficient circumstantial or evidentiary guarantees that the statement is inherently trustworthy (substantive reliability) (Khelawon, at paras. 61-63; Youvarajah, at para. 30).

[28] Procedural reliability is established when “there are adequate substitutes for testing the evidence”, given that the declarant has not “state[d] the evidence in court, under oath, and under the scrutiny of contemporaneous cross-examination” (Khelawon, at para. 63). These substitutes must provide a satisfactory basis for the trier of fact to rationally evaluate the truth and accuracy of the hearsay statement (Khelawon, at para. 76; Hawkins, at para. 75; Youvarajah, at para. 36). Substitutes for traditional safeguards include a video recording of the statement, the presence of an oath, and a warning about the consequences of lying (B. (K.G.), at pp. 795-96). However, some form of cross-examination of the declarant, such as preliminary inquiry testimony (Hawkins) or cross-examination of a recanting witness at trial (B. (K.G.); R. v. U. (F.J.), 1995 CanLII 74 (SCC), [1995] 3 S.C.R. 764), is usually required (R. v. Couture, 2007 SCC 28 (CanLII), [2007] 2 S.C.R. 517, at paras. 92 and 95). In this respect, I disagree with the Court of Appeal’s categorical assertion that safeguards relevant to assessing procedural reliability are only “those in place when the statement is taken” (para. 30). Some safeguards imposed at trial, such as cross-examination of a recanting witness before the trier of fact, may provide a satisfactory basis for testing the evidence.

[29] However, jury warnings about the dangers of hearsay evidence or Vetrovec testimony do not provide adequate substitutes for traditional safeguards. Instructing a jury on how to evaluate a statement that it lacks the means to evaluate does not address the hearsay dangers that underlie the exclusionary rule. Furthermore, Vetrovec warnings are designed to address concerns about a witness who is inherently untrustworthy, despite the opportunity to cross-examine in court. They are not tools for assessing the truth and accuracy of a hearsay statement in the absence of contemporaneous cross-examination.

[30] A hearsay statement is also admissible if substantive reliability is established, that is, if the statement is inherently trustworthy (Youvarajah, at para. 30; R. v. Smith, 1992 CanLII 79 (SCC), [1992] 2 S.C.R. 915, at p. 929). To determine whether the statement is inherently trustworthy, the trial judge can consider the circumstances in which it was made and evidence (if any) that corroborates or conflicts with the statement (Khelawon, at paras. 4, 62 and 94-100; R. v. Blackman, 2008 SCC 37 (CanLII), [2008] 2 S.C.R. 298, at para. 55).

[31] While the standard for substantive reliability is high, guarantee “as the word is used in the phrase ‘circumstantial guarantee of trustworthiness’, does not require that reliability be established with absolute certainty” (Smith, at p. 930). Rather, the trial judge must be satisfied that the statement is “so reliable that contemporaneous cross-examination of the declarant would add little if anything to the process” (Khelawon, at para. 49). The level of certainty required has been articulated in different ways throughout this Court’s jurisprudence. Substantive reliability is established when the statement “is made under circumstances which substantially negate the possibility that the declarant was untruthful or mistaken” (Smith, at p. 933); “under such circumstances that even a sceptical caution would look upon it as trustworthy” (Khelawon, at para. 62, citing Wigmore, at p. 154); when the statement is so reliable that it is “unlikely to change under cross-examination” (Khelawon, at para. 107; Smith, at p. 937); when “there is no real concern about whether the statement is true or not because of the circumstances in which it came about” (Khelawon, at para. 62); when the only likely explanation is that the statement is true (U. (F.J.), at para. 40).

[32] These two approaches to establishing threshold reliability may work in tandem. Procedural reliability and substantive reliability are not mutually exclusive (Khelawon, at para. 65) and “factors relevant to one can complement the other” (Couture, at para. 80). That said, the threshold reliability standard always remains high — the statement must be sufficiently reliable to overcome the specific hearsay dangers it presents (Khelawon, at para. 49). For example, in U. (F.J.), where the Court drew on elements of substantive and procedural reliability to justify the admission of a hearsay statement, both cross-examination of the recanting witness and corroborative evidence were required to meet threshold reliability, though neither on its own would have sufficed (see also Blackman, at paras. 37-52). I know of no other example from this Court’s jurisprudence of substantive and procedural reliability complementing each other to justify the admission of a hearsay statement. Great care must be taken to ensure that this combined approach does not lead to the admission of statements despite insufficient procedural safeguards and guarantees of inherent trustworthiness to overcome the hearsay dangers.


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