The Supreme Court of Canada ruled Friday that a Crown prosecutor was not acting maliciously when he prosecuted 12 members of a Saskatchewan family in the early 1990s after three foster children accused them of sexual abuse and bizarre satanic ritual abuse.
The ruling — which clarifies standards for when wrongly accused individuals can sue for malicious prosecution — overturns two earlier decisions in the Saskatchewan courts that found Matthew Miazga liable for building a case against foster parents Dale and Anita Klassen and members of their extended family.
The Saskatchewan government has supported Miazga in his lengthy court battle, asserting that a ruling against him could have a chilling effect on prosecutors, causing them to err on the side of caution in pursuit of wrongdoing to the detriment of public safety.
The Supreme Court unanimously concluded that the case against Miazga did not meet the stringent standards, set out by the court 20 years ago, for suing Crowns for maliciously prosecuting innocent people.
Mr. Miazga, who had been a prosecutor for 12 years, was accused of pressing the case forward despite a lack of evidence and little chance that the foster parents – Anita and Dale Klassen – would ever be convicted.
The trial judge who heard the lawsuit against Mr. Miazga concluded that the allegations had been so incredible that Mr. Miazga could not have genuinely believed that there were reasonable and probable to carry out the prosecution.
“It is apparent that the trial judge’s conclusion on liability was based on his view that the children’s allegations were so unbelievable as to be patently absurd, such that no reasonable person would have believed the accusations against the respondents without corroborating evidence,” Madam Justice Louise Charron said yesterday.
“The trial judge pointed to the ritualistic and satanic aspects of the allegations, the rote manner in which the children recalled the abuse, and the fact that, if the children’s stories were accepted, twelve individual adults, many with young children of their own, were routinely abusing the R. children in the same fashion in different houses, while other adults were present.”
In a 2-1 decision, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal upheld the trial judge’s finding.
Today, Judge Charron said that in order to find malice, a plaintiff must show that a prosecutor willfully perverted or abused the office of the Attorney General or the process of criminal justice.
“By requiring proof of an improper purpose, the malice element of the tort of malicious prosecution ensures that liability will not be imposed in cases where a prosecutor proceeds, absent reasonable and probable grounds by reason of incompetence, inexperience, poor judgment, lack of professionalism, laziness, recklessness, honest mistake, negligence, or even gross negligence,” she said.
“In the context of a case against a Crown prosecutor, malice does not include recklessness, gross negligence or poor judgment.”
Judge Charron said that there are times when a prosecutor must actually pursue a case despite harbouring personal doubts, and simply leave it up to a judge and jury to decide on guilt or innocence.
Sean Dewart, a lawyer for the Criminal Lawyers Association, said in an interview today that wrongful convictions could be reduced were Crown prosecutors held accountable by the same standards that are applied to other professionals.
“Given this ruling, the ongoing problem of wrongful convictions will have to be addressed in other ways,” Mr. Dewart said. “We are hopeful that governments will now step forward with meaningful initiatives. The proper funding of legal aid would be a good first step.
Miazga, police officer Brian Dueck, and child therapist Carol Bunko-Ruys were all accused of malice in the 1991 case against the Klassen and Kvelo families based on complaints from three children.
The children told police that they had been sexually abused and forced into satanic rituals including the mutilation and killing of animals, dismemberment of babies and drinking of human blood.
The charges were all stayed after the children admitted to making up the accusations.
The families sued for malicious prosecution and won.
The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal later threw out the case against Bunko-Ruys, but found Miazga and Dueck liable.
Dueck didn’t appeal; Miazga did.
In 2004, the Saskatchewan government paid the plaintiffs in the malicious prosecution suit $2.46 million in a settlement while withholding some additional money pending the outcome of the legal process.
Justice Charron said the sex abuse accusations had to be put in the context of the early 1990s.
At the time, the rules of evidence had changed, eliminating the requirement for corroboration of unsworn evidence of children.
“There was also a prevailing and pervasive doctrine, now debunked but popular among child psychologists at the time, that ’children don’t lie’ about abuse.”
The original criminal case was a media sensation in Saskatchewan as allegations emerged about satanic rituals and dead babies in secret rural locations.
In 1991, police and prosecutors decided to arrest 16 people and press more than 70 charges of sexual assault. Among those charged were biological parents, foster parents and extended family.
As the criminal cases worked through the court system, many charges were stayed or dismissed after a preliminary hearing. Ultimately, only a few convictions were secured.
The three children later recanted their stories. Many of the accused, however, were devastated by the allegations.
“There is no question that the respondents were the victims of a clear miscarriage of justice which undoubtedly had a devastating effect on their lives,” Charron wrote in the top court’s decision. “Especially in the absence of an acquittal, it is often difficult for people wrongly accused of such crimes to fully regain their positions in society and free themselves from the stigma and trauma of those false allegations.”
The Saskatchewan government negotiated a settlement with Klassen and the other members of the lawsuit in 2004.
The province agreed to pay compensation of $2.8 million “in recognition of Justice [George W.] Baynton’s declaration the plaintiffs are innocent, and recognizing the pain and suffering and expense resulting from the prosecution and the civil action,” according to a release at the time.