Where does S. v. Stinchcombe fit in to Weber’s Typology of Law?

The Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in R. v. Stinchcombe, [1991] was a landmark decision regarding the disclosure of evidence in a trial. William Stinchcombe (who is a lawyer by profession) was charged with theft and fraud. One of they key witnesses for the Crown was a former secretary of Stinchcombe’s who had given evidence that supported the defense in the preliminary inquiry. Furthermore, a statement was taken from an RCMP officer, which the defense was denied access to during the trial. The Crown eventually decided not to use that specific piece of evidence in their case. The defense made a request to the judge that they be allowed access to this statement, but the judge declined. Inevitably, the accused was convicted.

Justice Sopinka writing for a unanimous court came to the conclusion that the judge overseeing the case was wrong for not allowing access to the evidence since the crown is under duty to disclose all evidence. Justice Sopinka goes on to say that
“The Crown has a legal duty to disclose all relevant information to the defence. The fruits of the investigation which are in its possession are not the property of the Crown for use in securing a conviction but the property of the public to be used to ensure that justice is done.” (R. v. Stinchcombe, 1991).
Under section 7 of the Charter, the defendant has the right to full answer and defence. Without having all of the evidence against him, the defendant in this case could not make a proper defence against what he was on trial for. The full decision can be read here.

Now if we were to assess this case through Weber’s perspective, the legal system in Canada has both empirical and logical types of formally rational systems. The system would fit most likely in to the Formally Rational category in that it meets most of the criteria provided by Weber in that type of system. All of the rules in are clearly stated; the law is accessible to everyone, and both the crown and defence had knowledge of it in the Stinchcombe case. Seemingly no external criteria were applied, and the decision seemed very predictable based on the evidence that was presented. At face value, the cases seemed to have held up to the main points associated with the formally rational type.

The two points that seem to be lacking in the Stinchcombe case in relation to the formally rational type are the application of rules to situated cases in and identical manner and the notion that all law is rational to the extent that decisions are based on existing unambiguous rules. The Supreme Court’s original decision on this case does not meet the aforementioned criteria. There was a breach in the legal system when the Crown did not allow the defence access to crucial evidence. Based on the key ideas in this type, “standards used for arriving at a decision, are totally internal to the legal system”, and in this case if this had been followed the defence would have received the suppressed evidence. The legal system in regard to this aspect of the case takes a turn towards substantive irrational type.

The substantive irrational type may not completely fit the Canadian legal system, but many of the failures in the case of Stinchcombe fit into this subsection that Weber has defined. The decision can be seen as made on an “ad hoc” basis where the law was clearly broken, but a decision was still passed. This creates issues in consistency, in which decisions on case-to-case basis do not follow the same precedent, or general rules and norms. By ignoring previous cases and essentially coming to a decision based on that specific case, another criteria of the substantively irrational is met in that each concrete situation determines the decision. There are no rules that are strictly followed. Decisions will only be made on facts based on the case at hand.

Weber would suggest that this case is a perfect example of how the legal system does not strictly fit into one of these formal or substantive criteria types. It is a mixture of each one, in that it strives to strictly follow on rational type but based on the situation, the law can take a different shape. In the case of Stinchcombe, we clearly see both the formally rational and substantively irrational types in the same case. Nevertheless, it is still interesting to think why the evidence was held back in this particular case. Both parties involved were a part of the staff as Weber calls it (the people who hold the power to coerce legal compliance). The defendant himself was a lawyer and he was going up against the staff that has the power to order compliance. One would assume that the process would have been formally rational, since both parties have a full understanding of the law and even the defendant has been on the opposite side of the argument as lawyer making sure all procedures are accurately followed. Nonetheless, the inconsistencies show that there must have been some sort of external thought that affected the outcome of the decision.

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One response to “Where does S. v. Stinchcombe fit in to Weber’s Typology of Law?

  1. This is a well-written post, with a good opening summary of the case.

    You write that:

    “The substantive irrational type may not completely fit the Canadian legal system, but many of the failures in the case of Stinchcombe fit into this subsection that Weber has defined. The decision can be seen as made on an “ad hoc” basis where the law was clearly broken, but a decision was still passed. This creates issues in consistency, in which decisions on case-to-case basis do not follow the same precedent, or general rules and norms. By ignoring previous cases and essentially coming to a decision based on that specific case, another criteria of the substantively irrational is met in that each concrete situation determines the decision. There are no rules that are strictly followed. Decisions will only be made on facts based on the case at hand.”

    This seems to suggest that any departure from formalism might be regarded as substantively irrational. Yet, the rules governing the Canadian court system clearly empower the courts (and especially the Supreme Court) to determine whether and to what extent a given law is compliant with the Charter, and the Charter itself is a legal document. It is perfectly possible for a court decision to create new precedent (as the Stinchcombe decision did), while still conforming to formally rational criteria. Importantly, while the nature of the law regarding evidence was at issue during this case, the Court’s decision established a clear precedent that has subsequently guided decision-making.

    At most, I think that you could argue that the vague nature of the wording of the Charter, and its reference to abstract principles, might place the Court’s decision in the realm of a substantively rational legal form.