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Manslaughter and Mental Health in Toronto: The Insanity Defence

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What Should You Know About the Insanity Defence?

If you are charged with manslaughter or another serious crime in Ontario, should your Toronto criminal defence lawyer offer insanity as your defence? How frequently is the insanity defence offered in criminal cases in Ontario? How often does the insanity defence prevail?

The insanity defence attempts to establish a relationship between mental illness and criminal responsibility. It’s the claim that a mental illness is the reason a criminal defendant was, at the time of the crime, incapable of knowing that what he or she did was a wrongful and criminal act.

If you have been charged with manslaughter or any other serious crime in or near Toronto, and especially if you have a history of mental illness, you should discuss and consider the insanity defence with your Ontario criminal defence lawyer as early as possible in the legal process.

How Often is the Insanity Defence Used?

Some believe that the insanity defence is used too frequently by defendants in the Canadian criminal courts, but insanity is claimed in only about one percent of the criminal cases in this nation, and only about one in four defendants who claim insanity actually prevail with the claim.

Although some people believe that lawyers tell clients to pretend to be insane in order to win cases, this rarely if ever happens. Insanity claims in criminal cases are thoroughly evaluated by medical experts, and a lawyer would face serious disciplinary action for offering such advice.

While there is no doubt that some defendants only pretend to be insane, the majority of criminal defendants who claim the insanity defence are in fact genuinely lacking in mental capacity. Many such defendants have in their pasts at least one hospitalization for mental illness.

What Does the Law Say Regarding the Insanity Defence?

The law in Canada has allowed the insanity defence in criminal cases since 1892, and the original legislation has been amended several times since then. Here is a summary of Canada’s current insanity defence laws as of 2024:

  1.  No one may be held criminally responsible for an action or failure to act if the person was suffering from a mental illness that made the person incapable of understanding the nature of the action or omission or of knowing that the action or omission was wrong.
  2.  No one is presumed by the court to suffer from a mental illness, and thus to be exempt from criminal responsibility, until that person is proved, on the balance of probabilities, to suffer from a mental illness.
  3.  The burden of proof for the claim that the defendant was suffering with a mental illness at the time of the offence, and thus has no criminal responsibility, is on the party that raises the mental health issue.

The Supreme Court of Canada has held (in R. v. Chaulk, 1990) that the use of the word “wrong” in Canadian law not only means legally wrong but also means morally wrong.

What Happens When the Insanity Defence Prevails?

Criminal defendants in Canada who are deemed to be “unfit to stand trial” or found “not criminally responsible” (NCR) are placed under the authority of a provincial review board that determines whether the defendant should be considered a “significant” threat to the public.

On the basis of that finding, the law requires the review board to impose on the defendant the “least onerous” restrictions necessary to protect the general public while providing appropriate mental health services to the defendant.

The Ontario Review Board (ORB) is an independent body established under the Criminal Code of Canada to oversee those in Ontario who are deemed unfit to stand trial or found not criminally responsible. As of 2023, more than 1600 individuals were under ORB jurisdiction.

In the most serious cases, such as manslaughter cases, a review board may impose the maximum legal restriction allowed and order the defendant to be placed involuntarily in a mental institution for a duration of time dependent upon regularly scheduled reviews by the board.

What is Required to Prove the Insanity Defence?

If you plead not criminally responsible, and you claim the insanity defence to a manslaughter charge or another serious criminal charge, the burden is on you and your Toronto criminal defence lawyer to prove that claim in court:

  1.  First, you and your defence lawyer must prove that you were suffering from a mental disorder when the crime was committed.
  2.  Secondly, you and your lawyer must prove that the disorder rendered you incapable of understanding what you were doing or knowing that what you did was illegal or wrong.

How Does a Lawyer Present the Insanity Defence?

An insanity defence depends on testimony or sworn statements from psychiatric and medical authorities to establish the details of the defendant’s mental illness and the extent to which that mental illness hindered the defendant’s understanding of his or her actions.

If you claim the insanity defence in your own case, your Ontario criminal defence lawyer may introduce additional evidence – medical records, for example, or the testimony of other witnesses – to prove that you did not understand what you were doing and why it was wrong.

Of course, you may expect that the Crown prosecutor will call different expert witnesses and introduce different evidence in order to cast doubt on the credibility of your insanity claim.

Put Your Case in Our Hands at William Jaksa Criminal Litigation

If you are charged with manslaughter or with another serious crime in or near Toronto, William Jaksa Criminal Litigation will represent you, protect your rights, and if necessary, determine if the insanity defence is the appropriate defence in your own criminal case.

With nearly twenty years of criminal defence experience, Toronto lawyer William Jaksa will develop an effective defence strategy on your behalf, cast doubt on the Crown prosecutor’s case, and fight for the justice you need.

The William Jaksa Criminal Litigation team will make sure the court hears and understands your side of the case, and we’ll provide the advice and defence representation that you deserve and need. You can schedule a legal consultation now by calling our Toronto offices at 647-951-8078.

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