Plea Discussions

AuthorDavid Layton; Michel Proulx
Aside from instances where t he prosecution stays or withdraws all
charges, every accused person shares a common experience: enter ing a
plea of guilty or not guilty in court. The large preponderance of these
individuals plead guilty.1 For them, the plea has an immed iate and dra-
matic impact on the proceedings. A conviction is recorded, there is no
trial on the issue of culpability, and the matter proceeds to sentencing.
Deciding how to plead in response to a ch arge is thus the key decision
for many, many accused, and not surprisingly t he law accords them
total freedom of choice in this regard.
Defence counsel almost always plays a central role in advising
the accused with re spect to the plea. A common and crucial aspect of
counsel’s role in this regard is participation in resolution discussions
with the Crown, al so sometimes known as plea di scussions or plea
bargaining. The vast majority of cr iminal cases are resolved through
resolution discussions.2 It is not going too far to say that “[i]n today’s
crimina l justice system . . . t he negotiation of a plea bargain, rather
1 See Ontar io, Report of the Criminal Justice Revie w Committee, by Hugh Locke,
John D Evans, & Murr ay D Segal (Toronto: At torney General of Ontar io, 19 99)
at 55–56 [Criminal Justice Review Re port].
2 See R v Nixon, 2011 SCC 34 at para 47 [Nixon].
than the unfolding of a tr ial, is almost always t he critical point for a
de fe nd a nt .”3
In conducting plea discussions, defence counsel must respect the
client’s freedom of choice in entering a plea yet also fulf‌ill the profes-
sional obligation to provide the client with competent advice. The very
essence of the client-lawyer relationsh ip is caught up in this mix and
permeates any analysis of counsel’s ethical duties when engaging in
plea discussions. Coun sel walks a f‌ine line in undertaking plea discu s-
sions and advising the client. She must not dominate the client and
impose a course of action without regard for the client’s wishes. Nor
should counsel act as a “dump truck,” enabling rote and rushed justice
by facilitating a guilty plea that is contrar y to the client’s best interests.
Rather, the lawyer’s duty is to support the cl ient’s freedom of choice
through the provision of quality legal advice.
A potentially confusing feature of the literature on plea discussions is
the failure to articu late exactly what process is bei ng studied. More-
over, certain phrases tend to ra ise the public’s hackles, especi ally those
employing the term “bargain ing,” and have thus taken on a distaste-
ful meaning in some qua rters. We will follow the lead of the Martin
committee and use the term “re solution discussions” to refer to “any
discussions between counsel aimed at resolving issues that a criminal
prosecution raises.4 The scope of resolution discussions is very w ide,
encompassing not only negotiations concerning a po ssible plea of guilty
but almost any other aspect of the cri minal proceeding, including an
agreement to admit evidence, the adoption of an informa l discovery
process, or the scheduling of the tr ial itself. The primary focus of this
chapter is plea discussions, or plea negotiations, by which we mean
discussions d irected towards a plea of guilty by the accused in return
for the prosecutor agreeing to take or refrain from taking a particular
course of ac tion.5 We are therefore conf‌ining ourselves to a part icular
aspect of resolution discussions.
3 Missouri v Frye, 132 S Ct 1399 at 1407 (2012) [Miss ouri].
4 Ontario, Rep ort of the Attorney General’s Advi sory Committee on Charge Screen-
ing, Disclosure, and Resolution Di scussions (Toronto: Attorney General of Ontar io,
1993) (Chair: G Ar thur Martin) at 282 [Martin Com mittee Report].
5 This def‌inition is a dapted from the Law Reform Comm ission of Canada, Plea
Discussions and Agreeme nts (Working Paper 60) (Ottawa: The Commission,
1989) at 40, recommendations 1 & 2 [Plea Discussion s and Agreements].
Plea Discus sions 429
While our focus is often on instances where negotiations occur be-
tween lawyers for the defence and the Crown, many of the obligations
discussed i n this chapter apply whenever an accused is consider ing
whether to plead guilty. That is to say, the bulk of the duties discussed
apply any time an accused person pleads guilty or considers doing so,
whether or not plea discussions have occur red between the defence
and the Crow n.
An accused who pleads guilt y is formally and publicly admitting to t he
crime.6 There will b e no trial on the general issue of culpability, the
Crown will not be required to make its case on a stand ard of proof be-
yond a reasonable doubt, and the accused will relinquish many proced-
ural rights, including s ome that are constitutionally enshr ined.7 The
accused no longer asserts t he right to make full ans wer and defence,
abandons the rights to si lence and non-compellability as a w itness, and
forgoes the presumption of innocence.8 A guilty plea thus operates to
waive many of the most sacrosanct rights afforded an accused.9
Flowing naturally from these observations is the proposition that
the accused has complete control and freedom of choice over the deci-
sion whether to enter a guilty plea. This proposition is well-e stablished
by Canadian c aselaw.10 It also has constitutional dimen sions, derived
from the fundamental pr inciple of justice that accords an accused the
6 See R v Gardiner (1982), 68 CCC (2d) 477 at 514 (SCC) [Gardiner]; R v Parris,
2013 ONCA 515 at para 121; R v Eizenga, 2011 ONCA 113 at para 43 [Eizenga];
R v Le, 2013 BCCA 455 at para 18; R v Duong, 2006 BCCA 325 at para s 9–10 [Duong].
7 See R v RP, 2013 ONCA 53 at para 39, leave to appeal to SCC refu sed, [2013]
SCCA No 133 [RP]; R v DMG, 2011 ONCA 3 43 at para 41 [DMG]; Eizenga, above
note 6 at paras 43 and 70; R v RT (1992), 17 CR (4th) 247 at para 13 (Ont CA)
[RT]; Duong, above note 6 at p ara 12; R v Hoang, 2003 ABCA 251 at para 17
[Hoang]; R v Messer vey, 2010 NSCA 55 at para 56 [Messerve y]; R v Brown, 2006
PESCAD 17 at para 37 [Brown].
8 See DMG, above note 7 at para 41; Brown, above note 7 at para 37; R v Adgey
(1973), 13 CCC (2d) 177 at 182– 83 and 190 (SCC) [Adgey].
9 See RP, above note 7 at para 39; Eize nga, above note 6 at par a 43; RT, above note 7
at para 13.
10 R v GDB, 2000 SCC 22 at para 3 4 [GD B]; R v Murray, 2000 NBCA 2 at para 10;
R v Laperri ère (1996), 109 CCC (3 d) 347 (SCC) [Laperrière], aff’g the dissent
of Bisson JA in (1995), 101 CCC (3d) 462 at 470–71 [para 69] (Q ue CA); R v
Lamoureux (1984), 13 CCC (3d) 101 at 105 [par a 24] (Que CA) [Lamoureux];
DMG, above note 7 at para 109; RT, above note 7 at para 16.

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