The Canada Supreme Court held that a criminal law provision authorizing sentence of imprisonment for life without a realistic possibility of parole is unconstitutional.
"By stipulating that a court may impose consecutive 25-year parole ineligibility periods, the impugned provision authorizes the infliction of a degrading punishment that is incompatible with human dignity", the Court unanimously observed.
The court held that every inmate must have a realistic possibility of applying for parole, at the very least earlier than the expiration of an ineligibility period of 50 years.
On January 29, 2017, 46 people were gathered in the Great Mosque of Québec for evening prayer. Alexandre Bissonnette opened fire on the worshippers, causing the death of 6 people and seriously injuring 5 others. He pleaded guilty to the 12 charges laid against him, including 6 counts of first degree murder.
As per the Canadian penal law, an accused who is convicted of first degree murder will receive a minimum sentence of imprisonment for life and will be eligible for parole only after serving an ineligibility period of 25 years. He therefore received that sentence automatically. The State also asked that s. 745.51 of the Criminal Code be applied. This provision authorizes a court to order that the periods without eligibility for parole for each murder conviction be served consecutively rather than concurrently. In the context of first degree murders, the application of this provision allows a court to add up parole ineligibility periods of 25 years for each murder.
Bissonnette thus challenged the constitutionality of s. 745.51. The trial judge held that this provision infringed the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment and the right to liberty and security of the person guaranteed by s. 12 and s. 7 of the Charter, respectively, and that the provision could not be saved under s. 1. To remedy the unconstitutionality of the provision, the trial judge applied the technique of reading in and interpreted s. 745.51 as granting courts a discretion to choose the length of the additional ineligibility period to impose on an offender. He ordered that B serve a total ineligibility period of 40 years before being able to apply for parole. The Court of Appeal allowed B's appeal and declared s. 745.51 invalid and unconstitutional on the basis that it was contrary to ss. 12 and 7 of the Charter. It accordingly ordered that Bissonnette serve a 25-year parole ineligibility period on each count before being able to apply for parole and that these periods be served concurrently.
While dismissing the appeal filed against this judgment of the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court made the following observations:
Devastating effects on offenders, who are left with no incentive to rehabilitate themselves
"Not only do such punishments bring the administration of justice into disrepute, but they are cruel and unusual by nature and thus contrary to s. 12 of the Charter. They are intrinsically incompatible with human dignity because of their degrading nature, as they deny offenders any moral autonomy by depriving them, in advance and definitively, of any possibility of reintegration into society. Sentences of imprisonment for life without a realistic possibility of parole may also have devastating effects on offenders, who are left with no incentive to rehabilitate themselves and whose incarceration will end only upon their death."
Must not be seen as devaluing the life of each innocent victim
The conclusion that imposing consecutive 25-year parole ineligibility periods is unconstitutional must not be seen as devaluing the life of each innocent victim. Everyone would agree that multiple murders are inherently despicable acts and are the most serious of crimes, with consequences that last forever. This appeal is not about the value of each human life, but rather about the limits on the state's power to punish offenders, which, in a society founded on the rule of law, must be exercised in a manner consistent with the Constitution
Case : R. v. Bissonnette 2022 SCC 23