Pleading not guilty for having one too many

Every day in Canada, intoxicated men terrorize and brutalize the women, children. and animals in their lives. Often, the violence leads to death.

Between 2016 and 2020, 761 women and girls were killed – an average of one every 2.5 days. Sexual violence against women, particularly Indigenous women remains tragically common and has devastating consequences. It’s no secret that these statistics represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gender violence. And it’s no surprise that much of the violence is closely linked to excessive alcohol and drug use.

This is the backdrop to a troubling ruling issued by the Supreme Court of Canada this week that upheld the right of criminal defendants to use of a defence known as self-induced extreme intoxication. In other words, men (more than 90 percent male in such cases) can avoid accountability for their violence if they can prove they were too drunk or high to control their actions. And not because someone forced the mind-altering substances down their throats. And even though they imbibed said substance of their own free will.

The high court rejected the arguments of feminist lawyers from the Legal Education and Action fund (LEAF) that letting men off the hook in such ‘tragically common’ cases only exacerbates the inequality experienced by women and girls. Unless men are made to assume accountability for actions, this inequality will continue to have a “shattering impact on women, children, and communities.”

Surely, the rights of vulnerable groups like women and children to security and equality should be a higher priority than the right of individuals who choose to get dangerously intoxicated. But focusing on principles of fundamental justice, the high court decided it would be wrongheaded to deprive someone of their liberty for acts committed in “a state akin to automatism.”

Crimes of violence and sexual assault against women are already woefully underreported. Now, this mens rea loophole will do nothing to encourage more women to come forward.

The Court stressed that the self-induced extreme intoxication offence would not be available for most crimes involving intoxication. Anyone know a good lawyer?

Let’s hope the federal government moves quickly to legislate a clear definition of self-induced extreme intoxication and some seriously narrow criteria for when it can be used as a defence. Surely we want to be going in the direction of holding men who commit violent acts more accountable rather than less.


Imagery courtesy of Istock