Politics

Trudeau grab an assault? Maybe technically, but PM unlikely to be charged

Following the fracas on the floor of the House of Commons Wednesday night, opposition members of Parliament have taken turns scolding Justin Trudeau for his behaviour, with some even suggesting that the prime minister might be guilty of a crime.

Crown unlikely to take prime minister to court over conduct in House of Commons

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for his conduct following an incident in the House Wednesday in which he grabbed the arm of one MP and elbowed another in the chest. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Following the fracas on the floor of the House of Commons Wednesday night, opposition members of Parliament have taken turns scolding Justin Trudeau for his behaviour, with some even suggesting that the prime minister might be guilty of a crime.

NDP MP Niki Ashton said that "physical violence" had taken place in the House and that "people would call what happened here assault." Conservative MP and deputy justice critic Michael Cooper suggested that Trudeau's physical encounters with two MPs could be defined as "criminal assault." And Tory MP Mark Warawa tweeted that Trudeau was guilty of "physical assault."

And technically speaking, they might have a point. 

In a still image from the House of Commons television feed, Trudeau is seen near Opposition whip Gordon Brown on Wednesday. The footage showed Trudeau wading into a clutch of MPs, mostly New Democrats, and pulling Brown through the crowd in order to get a vote started. (Handout/House of Commons/Canadian Press)

Ahead of a vote to limit debate on the government's doctor-assisted dying bill, Trudeau walked across the aisle and took Conservative Party whip Gord Brown by the arm while inadvertently elbowing NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau in the chest. Trudeau has apologized repeatedly for the incident and said his behaviour was "unacceptable."

Assault definition is broad

But the act of taking Brown by the arm and ushering him to his seat, "in the most technical sense … probably meets all the requirements for assault," said Toronto lawyer Daniel Lerner, who was a former Ontario Crown prosecutor. 

"The basic definition of an assault is if a person intentionally uses force on another person without their consent."

(Brown said he told the prime minister to let go of him.)

But that definition is broad and "can capture quite a lot," Lerner said. 

CBC’s Catherine Cullen walks through what happened on Parliament Hill – and how people are reacting. 3:39

If incidents similar to that which occurred in the House of Commons were the standard by which people were charged, thousands of daily encounters involving physical contact could wind up in court. For example, someone pushing their way through a crowded bus or elbowing their way through a crowd at a baseball game could also, technically, be guilty of assault.

"That's not the type of behaviour meant to be captured by criminal law," Lerner said. "If it's just to grab a person's arm without really much in the way of force behind it, then it would never really capture the criminal justice system's attention."

Ottawa lawyer Michael Spratt agreed, saying that while, technically, it's an assault, the legal system calls for discretion and restraint when it comes to applying that law so it would likely not be concerned with incidents as trivial as Trudeau's grabbing of Brown's arm.

"I think it would make a true ass out of the law to say that this kind of conduct — momentary physical contact that doesn't leave any injuries — in a situation like this would ever be charged or prosecuted," Spratt said.

"It would be my hope that any police officer who was looking at this, Crown who was screening it or judge who was adjudicating it would have the good sense to see that it was momentary, on the low end of the spectrum with respect to any force, and that it's something that shouldn't be dealt with criminal law."

In the unlikely event that a charge was laid, Lerner said, "it would be moved out of the criminal justice system by the Crown so quickly, I doubt it would make it to the first appearance."

"We would look at it and say, 'Why are we here?'"

Elbowing no offence

Lerner and Spratt also agreed that the elbowing of Brosseau does not meet the definition of assault, even in the technical sense, because that requires intentional use of force.

If someone was engaging in morally reckless behaviour and their negligence resulted in serious injury, then they could be charged with criminal negligence causing bodily harm. That is not the case with the elbowing of Brosseau. 

"Even if she got bruised or something like that, it wouldn't meet the definition of criminal offence," Lerner said. "If his elbow accidently hits her when walking past her, you can't really say that's a crime."

Political panel discusses potential fallout from House of Commons fracas 12:55

Criminal defence lawyer Karen McArthur said that if Brown or Borsseau wanted to lay charges, they could appear before a justice of the peace, who in theory could say there is enough evidence to lay an assault charge.

"What would happen? Very quickly the Crown attorney would take a look at it and say, 'We're going to peace bond this or we're going to withdraw it based on [Trudeau's] immediate apology and remorse. Our criminal courts do use common sense."

McArthur said placing Trudeau's actions in the context of assault minimizes the real and bigger problem of violence and violence against women.

"You are doing a disservice to women and their children who have to drag themselves out of their homes with broken bones and broken souls," she said.

About the Author

Mark Gollom

Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

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