The 180

Duelling, witchcraft, and Dick Tracy: is it time to rewrite the Criminal Code?

Calgary lawyer Lisa Silver argues the Criminal Code of Canada is long overdue for a rewrite - and points to an old court case involving a Dick Tracy comic as proof.
This Dick Tracy comic was at the centre of a 1953 court case in Manitoba. (Provided by Lisa Silver)

In 1953, a Manitoba comic book vendor was convicted for selling a "crime comic" — the Vol. 1 #62 issue of Dick Tracy. 

Sixty-three years later, the section making it illegal to print, publish, distribute or sell comics depicting crime is still in the Criminal Code. So are sections about duelling, pretending to practice witchcraft, and procuring a feigned marriage. 

Calgary lawyer Lisa Silver says the Criminal Code, which turns 125 next year, needs to be rewritten. She argues the code is confusing, poorly-structured, and full of sections that reflect outdated science or morality. 

163 (1) Every one commits an offence who...(b) makes, prints, publishes, distributes, sells or has in his possession for the purpose of publication, distribution or circulation a crime comic.(7) In this section, "crime comic" means a magazine, periodical or book that exclusively or substantially comprises matter depicting pictorially(a) the commission of crimes, real or fictitious; or (b) events connected with the commission of crimes, real or fictitious, whether occurring before or after the commission of the crime.- Criminal Code of Canada 

Many of those sections seem funny today, but Silver believes there's a larger problem: since Section 19 of the Criminal Code says "Ignorance of the law by a person who commits an offence is not an excuse for committing that offence," a confusing Criminal Code puts society at risk. 

"Every one of us, all the citizens in Canada, have to know what behavior is appropriate and not appropriate under the law," says Silver. "And how can we do that, how can we articulate that, if we don't have a Criminal Code that speaks to us now?" 

Silver argues small edits to improve the way the Criminal Code is organized would be a good start, but bringing it into the 21st century will require a full-scale rewrite. She wants the new government to resurrect the Law Commission of Canada and take a serious look at reforming the code. 

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365. Every one who fraudulently(a) pretends to exercise or to use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration,(b) undertakes, for a consideration, to tell fortunes, or(c) pretends from his skill in or knowledge of an occult or crafty science to discover where or in what manner anything that is supposed to have been stolen or lost may be found,is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction.- Criminal Code of Canada