N.S. Court of Appeal Upholds Acquittal of Wife who Plotted to Kill Abusive Husband

by John McKiggan

While this blog is normally dedicated to cases and news involving sexual abuse, I thought a recent decision of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal merited comment.

Landmark Decision

In a ground breaking decision, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal has upheld the acquittal of school teacher Nicole Ryan who had been charged with trying to arrange for the murder of her abusive husband. Ryan was charged after hiring an undercover police officer to kill her estranged husband.

Chief Justice Michael MacDonald wrote the unanimous decision. The court recognized that the ruling was going to be controversial because it:

“Extends the boundaries of self defence in a manner that has never been recognized in Canadian jurisprudence.”

However, the court felt that the extreme circumstances of Ryan’s case merited application of the self defence doctrine. Justice MacDonald stated:

“Ms. Ryan was compelled to take the action she did by normal human instincts and self preservation…it would be inappropriate, under these circumstances, to attribute criminal conduct to her.”

Self Defence and Duress Defence

Self Defence

More than 20 years ago the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in R. v. Lavallee that a woman who shot her abusive husband after he threatened to kill her had acted in self defence. The Lavallee case is frequently referred to as the “battered woman” defence.

However, Justice MacDonald on behalf of the unanimous Court of Appeal distinguished the Lavallee case. MacDonald J. felt that Ms. Ryan’s situation was not one of self defence but rather that she acted under duress.

Duress Defence

Justice MacDonald stated:

“The rational for the defence of duress is quite different…it involves excusing a wrongdoing in circumstances where the accused is left with no other alternative. Therefore, unlike self defence, it is not the type of action society would support let alone applaud.”

The description of the life that Ms. Ryan had to endure with her husband makes for chilling reading. The Court of Appeal found that Ms. Ryan had been living in a “state of terror” from almost the moment she and her husband were married.

She had reported her abusive husband’s conduct to the police several times. Ryan’s husband had an explosive temper and regularly sexually assaulted her and threatened her life. Ryan finally undertook her desperate measures after her husband threatened to kill their daughter.

Limited Circumstances

The Court of Appeal was careful to point out that the defence of duress will only apply in very limited circumstances:

“The accused should be expected to demonstrate fortitude to put up a normal resistance to the threat…the threat must be to the personal integrity of the person. In addition, it must deprive the accused of any safe avenue of escape in the eye of a reasonable person, similarly situated.”

What Do You Think?

Most of my abuse claims involve representing people who are victims of historical abuse. In many cases, their abuser is dead. However, I have, from time to time, been contacted by desperate people, usually women, who are being subjected to brutal acts of abuse on a regular basis.

It appears that the Court of Appeal has recognized that, in some very extreme circumstances, the courts may not provide the victims with “any safe avenue of escape”.

What do you think?

One Response to “N.S. Court of Appeal Upholds Acquittal of Wife who Plotted to Kill Abusive Husband”

April 15, 2011 at 9:11 pm, Veronica said:

I would like to applaud judges MacDonald, Saunders, and Oland for upholding the acquittal of Nicole Ryan.

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