At twilight on June 13, 1833, in a wet field on the outskirts of Perth, Ont., 20-year-old John Wilson raised a pistol and shot his 19-year-old friend and fellow law student, Robert Lyon, to death. Now, more than 150 years after that last known fatality in a Canadian duel, the Law Reform Commission of Canada will recommend dropping Criminal Code Section 72, which calls for a two-year prison term for convicted duelists. And as part of a review ordered by the federal department of justice in 1979, the commission will recommend cutting other anachronistic and unused laws—including fraudulently practising witchcraft and unlawfully drilling private armies—from the 772 sections of the federal code. Said Earl Levy, president of the Toronto-based Criminal Lawyers’ Association: “Historically,
the law has always been behind reality. It takes time to catch up.”
Indeed, the current Criminal Code is based on a British model that the Canadian government adopted in 1892. Until then, English law applied to residents such as Wilson, who was acquitted of a charge of murder and later went on to become a member of Parliament and a Supreme Court of Ontario justice. And despite the dramatic social, technological and economic changes that have occurred since then, the code has never been fundamentally overhauled. To be sure, Parliament adds new laws and amendments every year to cover areas of concern un-
known in 1892—among them aircraft hijackings and the theft of computer data. Said Levy: “We are all anxious to see the law simplified. Hopefully it will be more in tune with what’s happening today.”
To that end, the Law Reform Commission—a five-member independent body—started its exhaustive review by seeking advice and information from those most familiar with Canada’s cumbersome code—police chiefs, criminal lawyers, law professors, judges and citizens. And according to commission president and Supreme Court of Ontario Justice Allen Linden, the number of sections in the code may be halved as a result. Indeed, duelling is adequately covered by laws governing restricted weapons, assaults and homicides. And while the code currently deals with the theft of lumber, cattle and other forms of property in separate sections, Linden said the new code should contain a single, all-encompassing “thou shall not steal” section.
The commission plans to submit the new code in two installments—October and December—to Parliament. And Linden hopes that Parliament will adopt a complete made-in-Canada code by 1992—the 100th anniversary of the original statute. Said Linden: “We think it is an important step in establishing a Canadian identity. Next to a charter or constitution, criminal law says a lot about its people.”
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