Ryan: A Troubling and Doctrinally Meandering Case Sets the Stage for the Law Reform Process and an Independent Inquiry

Document Type

Response or Comment

Publication Date



R v Ryan, Duress, Abusive Relationships, Intimate Partner Abuse, Criminal Code, Critique


R. v. Ryan has followed a twisted path. At trial and at the first level of appeal, the accused successfully advanced what should have been a plainly untenable defence of duress. Given the admitted commission of the elements of the offence and the absence of any viable excuse, a more predictable outcome would have been a guilty plea and then a challenging sentencing. Instead, after the Nova Scotia courts returned a not-guilty verdict, the accused's involvement with the justice system concluded in the Supreme Court of Canada with a result that is tantamount to an acquittal.

The decision in Ryan will be accompanied by a spectrum of reactions, including many sighs of relief, notably from the accused who will not have to face another trial for her three attempts to hire a contract killer. Despite the determination by the Supreme Court to deprive her of duress as "a legally available defence on these facts," and the unpropitious circumstances surrounding her culpability, she was provided with the rare remedy of a stay of proceedings, as the majority were persuaded that this was "an exceptional situation that warrants an exceptional remedy.” Those who hoped for a generalized liberalization of duress for women living in abusive relationships as an adjunct to the shield offered by modern cases such as R. v. Lavallee and possibly R. v. Ruzic will have a more muted reaction, albeit being comforted by the outcome. Expectant law reformers will be mildly heartened by the "recapitulation," "reappraisal" and "adjustment" of the law of duress, although frustrated by the limits on doctrinal development imposed by the factual constraints of the case. Some observers of the judicial process will be confounded by the eagerness with which two prior levels of court were willing to radically reconfigure the settled principles of duress. Many police officers and Crown attorneys will be wincing and wary after the rebuke by the majority who were disquieted that the "authorities were much quicker to intervene to protect Mr. Ryan than they had been to respond to [Ms. Ryan's] request for help in dealing with his reign of terror over her." In the end, the case will not likely be accorded much precedential value, but many aspects of it will remain contentious and its sequelae may well serve the public interest.

In this comment the nature of intimate partner abuse and possible methods of remediation within the criminal justice system will be reviewed, with incidental attention to the subsidiary role of criminal law in combating this resistant societal problem. A brief assessment of the modest contribution of Ryan to the law of duress will be tendered. The urgent need for law reform will be highlighted in the wake of a case which has made the inadequacies of the mélange of the Criminal Code and the common law even more apparent. The perplexing extension of a judicial stay of proceedings will be evaluated. Some of the many unanswered questions of Ryan arising out of its critique of the justice system will be canvassed, with the suggested implication that further inquiries are required.