Supreme Court of Canada clarifies courts have an obligation to follow decisions of courts at the same level in most cases
May 13th, 2022
The Supreme Court of Canada released a decision today (R. v. Sullivan 2022 SCC 19) dealing with an important issue relating to the constitutionality of a provision of the Criminal Code relating to self-induced intoxication and the automatism defence. The R. v. Sullivan decision also provided some much more far-reaching directions regarding the precedential value of prior decisions of courts of coordinate jurisdiction (i.e., the same level of court). In particular, it directed that prior decisions must be followed other than in three very narrow situations:
- The rationale of an earlier decision has been undermined by subsequent appellate decisions;
- The earlier decision was reached by inadvertence (failed to consider a binding precedent or relevant statutory provision);
- The earlier decision was not fully considered, e.g. taken in exigent circumstances.
Of course, if a case is factually distinguishable, a prior precedent may not be applicable. But it is not open to a Superior Court judge to consider afresh a legal issue if that issue has already been decided by a brother/sister judge of that same bench. Even if the judge thinks that the earlier decision is wrong, they are bound to follow it.
This is a pretty significant change to the way most lawyers understand how stare decisis operates. It will be interesting to see how this decision reverberates.