Thursday, January 30, 2014

"R v. Labrosse" (1987)

R v. Labrosse, [1987] 1 S.C.R. 310.

Labrosse is the only case I'm aware of where a charge under a witchcraft or fortune-telling statute reached a country's highest court.  Unfortunately, it's rather brief and not extremely helpful in understanding the scope of the law.

The case involves a woman who told the fortune of a police officer for her normal fee of $ 15.  She was charged with violating Section 323(b) of the Criminal Code, which states in part that "Everyone who fraudulently . . . undertakes, for a consideration, to tell fortunes . . . is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction."  At trial, the fortune-teller claimed that she actually had special powers to tell the future.  The trial judge convicted her nonetheless, stating that he didn't believe that she believed that, and that even if she did believe it, it was irrelevant to the charge.

The Supreme Court was thus asked to decide whether Section 323(b) allowed for a defence of "honest belief."  That is, does a fortune-teller "fraudulently" tell fortunes if he or she sincerely believes they have a supernatural power to do so?  The Court, however, disposed of the case without ruling conclusively on the issue, stating that because the trial judge made a factual finding that "[t]he accused knows full well that she has no basis for her claim to be able to predict what will happen in people's future" then "the defence of honest belief is not open on the facts of this case."

From this, however, (and not having read the trial court's ruling) it's not clear to me that the trial judge actually found that the defendant did not sincerely believe she could predict the future.  His statement that she knows "she has no basis for her claim" sounds more like a finding that she had no logical or evidentiary foundation to support such a belief as opposed to a factual finding that she was lying about her belief.  Thus, the trial judge's ruling was not on point to the question of whether the statute allows for an honest belief defence.  This ambiguity, however, is not noticed or discussed by the Supreme Court.

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