HomeCase Commentary“Clear and Definitive”: The Offence of Bestiality and the Rules of Statutory Interpretation

“Clear and Definitive”: The Offence of Bestiality and the Rules of Statutory Interpretation

Last month, the Supreme Court of Canada heard oral arguments in the case R. v. D.L.W.  The issue for appeal is not exactly garden variety. The Supreme Court has been asked to determine whether the offence of “bestiality” in the Criminal Code requires penetration.



The facts are not in dispute and are disturbing to say the least. The accused respondent committed various sexual assaults on his two minor step-daughters over a ten-year period. This included, but was not limited to, applying peanut butter to the vagina of his step-daughter and then filming the family dog lick it off.

The respondent was charged with 14 separate Criminal Code offences, including two counts of sexual assault, two counts of sexual interference, two counts of invitation to sexual touching, four counts of sexual exploitation, making child pornography, possession of child pornography, bestiality and compelling a person to commit bestiality. At trial before Justice Romilly of the British Columbia Supreme Court, he was found guilty of every offence except compelling bestiality.  The respondent was sentenced to 16 years in prison, which included 2 years for the crime of bestiality. He appealed the bestiality conviction to the B.C. Court of Appeal seeking to have his total sentence reduced from 16 to 14 years.


At the B.C. Court of Appeal

The three-member panel of the Court split 2-1 on whether the crime of bestiality requires penetration. But both the majority and the dissent based their reasons on the original meaning of “bestiality” as it appears in the Criminal Code.

The majority began its analysis by citing the “well-established interpretive principle that the words of a statute are to be construed as they would have been the day after the statute passed.” Working from this premise, the majority noted that penetration had always been an element of bestiality at common law.  The offence was incorporated into the first Criminal Code in 1892, which prohibited “buggery, either with a human being or any other living creature.” There was no dispute that “buggery” required penetration. In 1954, the Criminal Code was amended by introducing the term “bestiality” and removing the phrase “either with a human being or any other living creature.” In 1985, two separate offences were created, one for “anal intercourse” and the second for “bestiality.”

Based on this statutory history and contemporaneous literature, the majority concluded that bestiality never ceased to require penetration. There was no evidence that the 1954 amendment had sought to create a new offence, only to reword an old one. “Bestiality” was essentially “buggery with an animal” and there was no dispute that buggery required penetration. Had Parliament intended to expand the scope of the offence “one would have expected it to do so directly, using clear and specific language” especially in the context of criminal lawwhich requires “clear and definitive language” for conduct to be outlawed. The majority thus concluded that the meaning of bestiality in the Criminal Code had always (and thus continued) to require penetration as an element of the offence. As such, the accused’s conviction on that count was overturned.

Chief Justice Bauman dissented.  Bauman C.J.B.C. agreed that the words of a statute must be construed “as they would have been the day after the statute passed,” but took a different view of the original meaning. In Bauman C.J.B.C.’s opinion, the 1954 amendment removed the penetration requirement implicitly. It did so by creating two separate offences: buggery and bestiality. If bestiality simply meant “buggery with an animal” – in other words if bestiality was merely a subset of buggery – then the inclusion of the term bestiality would have been superfluous since it would already have been captured by “buggery.” Applying another well-established principle of statutory interpretation – that “no legislative provision should be interpreted so as to render it mere surplusage” –  Bauman C.J.B.C. reasoned that bestiality must be distinct from buggery in that it does not require penetration.

Bauman C.J.B.C. also accepted the Crown’s argument that requiring penetration would lead to an “absurdity,” since the Criminal Code outlaws sexual touching of a minor, but would not, on the majority’s reading, prevent an adult from having a dog lick his genitals in the presence of a minor, or from inciting a minor to have oral sex with an animal. Since Parliament would clearly not have intended these results, Bauman C.J.B.C. reasoned, it follows that bestiality must not require penetration.



The Supreme Court is faced with two distinct issues: 1) what is the meaning of bestiality as it appears in the 1954 and 1985 versions of the Criminal Code? And  2) should the original meaning govern, or should the Court adopt a “progressive” interpretation?

The Original Meaning of “Bestiality”

In determining the meaning of bestiality at the time of the relevant amendments, the Supreme Court will have to decide who got it right at the B.C. Court of Appeal: the majority or the dissent.

The Court of Appeal’s decision demonstrates that a proper textual analysis requires far more than ‘looking up words in a dictionary’; it requires judges who are trained and well-versed in the principles of statutory interpretation to apply and, in some cases, balance those principles. Both the majority and the dissent should be lauded for delivering well-reasoned and persuasive opinions that dispassionately rely on the statutory context and history, along with relevant extraneous sources.

The issue effectively boils down to whether the 1954 amendment to the Criminal Code created a new offence or simply reworded an old one. To this end, the majority at the Court of Appeal relied on the canon that new offences must be created in “clear and definitive language”, while the dissent relied on two canons: a) that Parliament is presumed not to employ superfluous language, and b) that the text should be interpreted so as to avoid absurdities.  Each canon must be examined to determine whether it is actually applicable in the present case, and if so, how it ought to be balanced against a competing applicable canon.

With respect to the first canon, there can be no doubt of its applicability to the present case. We are dealing here with a criminal offence and thus with an individual’s liberty. It is a basic principle of any free society that everything is permitted except that which is proscribed by law. There can be no doubt that, prior to 1954, bestiality required penetration. To abandon this requirement in 1954 would be tantamount to creating a new offence that had never before existed at law or under the Criminal Code. The majority is absolutely correct that absent “clear and definitive language” to the contrary,  the nature of the offence does not change.  And insofar as there is any ambiguity, the related ‘rule of lenity’ states that the ambiguity should be resolved in favour of the accused, whose liberty is at stake, as opposed to the state.

The canons cited by the dissent are, by contrast, of very questionable utility to the present case. With respect to the presumption against surplusage, it is far from clear that reading bestiality to require penetration would render it “mere surplusage.”  In light of the statutory history, the contemporaneous external sources, and the principle that Parliament does not create new offences except through clear and definitive language, the much more plausible reading of the 1954 amendment is that it was the meaning of buggery, not bestiality, that underwent a change. Buggery initially meant any form of “unnatural” penetration, which would have included anal sex with a human or anal or vaginal sex with an an animal. By the time of the 1954 amendment, however, it would appear that buggery had been confined to unnatural (anal) sex with a human; hence why a distinction was drawn between buggery and bestiality. This interpretation is consistent with the 1985 amendment, which removed the word buggery altogether and inserted the words “anal intercourse” in its place – the clear implication being that the term “buggery” in the 1954 version was also confined to “anal intercourse” with another human.

Moreover, even if the dissent is correct that requiring penetration creates superfluous language, the majority’s construction should still be preferred. The presumption against surplusage is just that: a presumption. The courts must “endeavour, where possible, to attribute meaning to each word employed by the Legislature in the statute” (Morguard Properties Ltd. v. Winnipeg (City), [1983] S.C.J. No. 84 (Emphasis Added)). However, if in doing so, the court runs afoul of the “clear and definitive language” rule and the rule of lenity, then that presumption should be rebutted. In other words, it is more plausible to conclude that Parliament mistakenly inserted superfluous language than it is to suppose that Parliament mistakenly created a new and ambiguous offence.

The dissent’s reliance on the rule against absurdity is also misplaced. This rule must be interpreted relatively narrowly, lest “absurdity” come to mean any “undesirable” result (as defined by the court). There will almost always be cases on the margins that escape the law’s grasp, just as there will often be cases that are brought within the law’s ambit despite being disconnected from the law’s purpose. The “absurdity” litmus test must be that no “reasonable legislator” would have enacted the provision. The court should examine absurdities that are apparent on the face of the text itself, rather than “absurdities” resulting from the text’s application to a specific factual scenario.

The dissent’s argument that certain conduct would remain legal under the majority’s construction does not create an absurdity in law. It is certainly a strong argument in favour of enacting new criminal laws; but it does not rise to the level of a textual absurdity. The ‘reasonable legislator’ may very well have wanted to limit bestiality to penetrative acts for any number of reasons. Indeed, prior to 1954, there is no dispute that the offence was limited to penetration and had been since time immemorial.

The dissent is also incorrect in suggesting that an adult who has a dog lick his genitals in the presence of a minor would currently escape prosecution. That adult would be rightly charged and convicted with exposing himself to a minor.

In sum, the canons of construction relied upon by the dissent are either misplaced or misapplied. The most relevant interpretive principle in this context is that new offences must be created through clear and definitive language.  Conduct that is outlawed must be unambiguously proscribed by law, and the accused must be afforded the benefit of the doubt wherever possible. There can therefore be no doubt that a proper application of the rules of statutory interpretation supports the majority’s conclusion. The offence of bestiality requires penetration.


Should the Original Meaning Govern?

Both the majority and dissent were in agreement that the court’s proper role was to expound the meaning of bestiality at the time of the 1954 and 1985 amendments.  They differed as to that meaning, but were in complete agreement as to the applicability of the original meaning canon. Before the Supreme Court, however, the intervener, Animal Justice, argued that the meaning of bestiality must be based upon “contemporary Canadian values” which take into account 1) the need to protect vulnerable animals, and 2) the wrongfulness of sexual conduct involving the exploitation of non-consenting participants. In effect, Animal Rights is calling for a “progressive” interpretation of bestiality, not unlike the constitutional “living tree” doctrine.

The application of the living tree doctrine to the Criminal Code would be extremely unwise.  The Supreme Court has drawn a bright line distinction between ordinary statutes on the one hand and the Constitution on the other. Only the latter is subject to a progressive interpretation; the former is guided by the rules of statutory interpretation, including the original meaning canon. The reason for the different treatment is that, unlike a statute, the Constitution “cannot easily be amended when it becomes out of date…” (see Peter Hogg, Constitutional Law of Canada (3rd ed. 1992), pp. 413-14).  And where the law in question is a criminal statute, the courts have repeatedly affirmed that it should be given a narrow rather than liberal interpretation. In the case of Edwards v. Attorney General, the very case that coined the term “living tree”, the Privy Council explicitly distinguished between the B.N.A. Act, which garnered a “large and liberal” interpretation, and the “strict construction” afforded to “a penal or taxing statute.”

True, the Supreme Court in R v. Butler took into consideration modern “community standards,” but that decision is easily distinguishable. The Court in Butler was interpreting the provisions in the Criminal Code dealing with obscenity, and specifically the phrase “undue exploitation.” This phrase, unlike bestiality, has no “long understood meaning in Canadian Criminal law” (D.R.W. B.C.C.A., para. 38). It is a concept that has meant different things at different times, appealing far more to conceptions of morality than to law, and is therefore inherently subjective. While the Court did not adopt this reasoning explicitly, it is plausible that Parliament intended for the term to reflect evolving standards, since the term “undue” invariably requires a fact specific inquiry that, like the term “reasonable,” cannot be divorced from modern standards and conceptions.  Finally, the reliance on more modern community standards in Butler benefited the accused, not the state. In the face of an ambiguous meaning, the Court rightly adopted the less intrusive option.

As should be evident, this issue is about far more than the meaning of bestiality. It is fundamentally about how we as Canadians are to be governed. If the courts are permitted to “read in” new offences into the Criminal Code (or read down existing offences) they will have usurped the legitimate role of Parliament. And unlike the Constitution, which contains a complex amendment process, Parliament can easily amend the Criminal Code tomorrow. There is therefore no justification in law or policy to grant the courts this wide discretion.

A “progressive” interpretation of the Criminal Code would also severely undermine certainty and predictability in the law. Every defendant must know the case that he or she has to meet and lawyers must be able to properly advise their clients regarding what is permissible and what is prohibited. Ignorance of the law is no defence, but that maxim can only hold true when the law is knowable. If the meaning of bestiality, or any other provision of the Criminal Code, is not fixed and is instead subject to “contemporary Canadian values” (as determined by the court), then the liberty of all Canadians will be subject to little more than judicial whim.



Hard cases do indeed have a tendency to make bad law. The respondent, D.L.W., should have no one’s sympathy. He committed heinous acts that warrant serious punishment. But in the face of such depravity, it is all the more important that we do not lose sight of the rule of law. The respondent was charged and convicted with twelve offences aside from bestiality and he will be justly punished for those crimes. There is enough law on the books already to deal with his disturbing conduct; little is gained and much is lost by expanding the criminal law through judicial legislation.

The bestiality conviction would have added two years to his sentence, but these two years (and more) could have easily been added to his other twelve convictions (indeed, the trial judge reduced his sentence from 18 years to 16 years based on the principle of totality). There is certainly a good policy argument that individuals such as D.L.W. should spend more than 14 years in prison, but this could have been accomplished without the bestiality conviction.

To be sure, society’s conception of sex has changed a great deal since 1954, and even since 1985. So too has the concept of animal rights. Should Parliament feel that those changes warrant an amendment to the Criminal Code, it is at liberty to change the law. It may seem trite to say, but that is how a democracy works.  

Until such time as the Criminal Code is amended, the courts must continue to apply the Code’s existing provisions in a relatively narrow fashion, resolving ambiguities in favour of accused individuals. These are not simply principles of proper statutory interpretation; they are principles that govern a free and democratic society. We can only hope that the Supreme Court of Canada sees fit to agree.



  1. Excellent discussion, Asher. I was particularly impressed by: “As should be evident, this issue is about far more than the meaning of bestiality. It is fundamentally about how we as Canadians are to be governed. If the courts are permitted to “read in” new offences into the Criminal Code (or read down existing offences) they will have usurped the legitimate role of Parliament. And unlike the Constitution, which contains a complex amendment process, Parliament can easily amend the Criminal Code tomorrow. There is therefore no justification in law or policy to grant the courts this wide discretion.” Progressive “interpretation” essentially emasculates the legislature by allowing courts to legislate at whim. Well done!


  2. I am a retired lawyer. The Supreme Court of Canada granted leave to hear an appeal from the Court of Appeal decision. My question is: where in this case is there an issue of national importance that warrants the limited time and attention of the Supreme Court of
    Canada. I do not see one. I am sure there were at least ten other cases more deserving of leave.