Two Kamloops lawyers have won a case in the Supreme Court of Canada that will require judges to accept joint submissions from defence and prosecutors when a guilty plea is entered.
Micah Rankin and Jeremy Jensen represented Matthew Anthony-Cook, who pleaded guilty to a manslaughter charge stemming from a fight in February 2013.
Michael Gregory, a volunteer at the Kettle Society drop-in centre in Vancouver, died after being punched twice in the head. The second blow knocked him out and he fell back on the pavement, fracturing his skull.
Anthony-Cook's lawyer struck a deal with the Crown for a guilty plea to manslaughter and avoid a trial. The joint submission to B.C. Supreme Court by Crown and defence called for an 18-month jail sentence. Anthony-Cook had spent 11 months in custody awaiting trial.
The sentencing judge, however, rejected that submission. Instead, he increased the penalty to two years less a day and added a three-year probation term.
The higher sentence was appealed to the B.C. Court of Appeal, but B.C.'s highest court sided with the sentencing judge's tougher sentence.
The Supreme Court of Canada reversed that decision, saying only in the rarest circumstances can judges alter a deal crafted by defence and Crown.
"Crown and defence counsel are well placed to arrive at a joint submission that addresses the interests of both the public and the accused," the court wrote in its judgement. "Trial judges should not reject a joint submission lightly."
The country's highest court said judges should reject or alter a joint submission only when the proposed sentence "would be viewed by reasonable and informed persons as a breakdown in the proper functioning of the justice system."
In an interview, Rankin said plea bargains are essential to the functioning of the criminal-justice system because they drastically reduce the amount of court time required to deal with accused persons. Those accused who plead guilty, and in return are told by their lawyer as well as the Crown what their sentence should be would be, are less likely to enter deals if judges could easily reject them.
"I think what the Supreme Court of Canada is saying is unless it's way out of the ballpark, you shouldn't intervene," said Rankin, who is also a professor of law at Thompson Rivers University.
"Sometimes the judge will simply supply additional conditions. The court says it's as-is."
Anthony-Cook has already served his sentence, so the victory is one of principle and guidance for judges.
Rankin said it's rare that judges will not accept a joint submission from defence and Crown.
The Supreme Court also said judges who do not accept a joint submission based on a finding it is not in the public interest must also offer the accused person a chance to withdraw his or her plea.
"Traditionally in Canada, it's virtually impossible to withdraw a guilty plea," Rankin said, noting the decision will place Canada more in line with practice in the United States, he added.