Ontario’s top court issued a withering verdict in R v Sliwka this week, calling Justice Susanne Goodman to task for failing to provide reasons for her acquittal of Stanislaw Sliwka, who stood accused of repeated and violent physical and sexual assaults. Writing jointly for the Ontario Court of Appeal, Justices David Doherty, Jean MacFarland, and David Paciocco quashed the acquittals, ordered a new trial, and admonished the trial judge in unequivocal terms. Following the ruling, the Canadian Judicial Council announced it was investigating.
Justice Goodman, of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, presided over the Sliwka trial without a jury. The trial ended on March 1, 2016, and Justice Goodman entered acquittals on all charges ten days later. In her oral statement at the time, she said that she would provide “detailed written reasons” by the following Monday. When she failed to release the reasons by that date, Crown counsel made a series of inquiries through her assistant. Each time, the assistant provided dates for when the “comprehensive reasons” would be released, and in each instance the reasons never materialized.
Crown counsel eventually wrote directly to the judge, informing her of their intent to proceed on the basis that there were no further reasons. Justice Goodman never responded to Crown counsel’s letter or (as of the date of the appeal hearing over a year after the trial) released her reasons.
The Ontario Court of Appeal did not mince words in its’ assessment of Justice Goodman’s failure to provide reasons for her decision:
“Trial judges must give reasons for their verdicts. Reasons that explain to the parties and the public the result arrived at by the trial judge are crucial to maintaining the proper level of transparency and accountability essential to the maintenance of the integrity of the trial process and public confidence in that process. Reasons for judgment allow the parties to know that their claims have been heard, understood and adjudicated upon in an objective and reasonable fashion that accords with the applicable legal principles.”
The court noted that the criteria for an appeal that is made on the basis of a judge’s failure to give reasons is whether “the reasons permit meaningful appellate review of the trial decision”. If they sufficiently serve that purpose, then the situation will not warrant appellate intervention. If they instead serve to “frustrate meaningful appellate review”, then they constitute an error in law and are subject to appeal.
In weighing Justice Goodman’s comments from the bench, the court noted that they “do not analyze any part of the evidence”. As a result, the court concluded that the comments fell into the second category: “[t]hey are not reasons that in any way explain that decision or expose it to proper appellate review”. Because they provided “no way of knowing how the trial judge arrived at her verdicts”, Justice Goodman’s failure to elaborate on her comments meant that “the Crown’s right of appeal from the acquittals is rendered illusory”. The court therefore quashed the acquittals and ordered a new trial.
In a postscript, the court expressed its’ displeasure with the outcome and with Justice Goodman’s behaviour specifically:
“Our order directing a new trial is a terrible result for everyone involved in this proceeding. The trial judge’s failure to give reasons, despite her repeated promises to do so, has frustrated the proper administration of justice. Nor is this the first time that this trial judge’s failure to provide reasons has required this court to order a new trial. It must be the last time.”
Picking up where the Ontario Court of Appeal left off, the Canadian Judicial Council (CJC) told CBC News that it had initiated a complaint against Justice Goodman. The CJC is a federal body that oversees federally appointed judges in Canada. Its’ sole power is to recommend to Parliament that a judge be removed from office.
The CJC typically reviews complaints within three to six months. There is no specific timetable for the complaint about Justice Goodman.
This blog post was written by a CCLA summer student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the view of the CCLA.