Parliament has recently amended the victim fine surcharge section of the Criminal Code of Canada. The victim fine surcharge exists, in theory, to fund victims services. On a superficial analysis, most would agree that this is a good thing. In this vein, Parliament named the new amendments the Increasing Offenders Accountability for Victims Act. This title, as I hope to show you, is quite ridiculous. A more appropriate title might have been The New Housing Plan for the Poor Act, as its net effect will be imprisonment for those who have no ability to pay the fine.
How do these new amendments operate?
The new amendments mandate that a fine of $100 be imposed on any summary offence conviction, or $200 on any indictable conviction. This means that if you plead guilty to your offence, you will owe either $100 or $200 (In fact, there are more nuances within the formula than this, but the basic idea is $100 for summary, or $200 for indictable offences. The full analysis is beyond the scope of this blog). On its surface, most people would probably not have a problem with this proposition. A simplistic uninitiated observer may applaud these amendments and state: you do the crime, you do the time, and if it means paying a fine, so be it. The question that must be asked, is who is bearing the brunt of these victim fine surcharges? As a criminal lawyer, I do not have a particular problem with the imposition of a $200 fine, for a client charged with a large scale fraud, or a complicated impaired driving file, or a sexual assault case, so long as they have the ability to pay. The problem is that the bulk of criminal charges that pass through criminal court are not of the sort that Ive just described. On any given day in the Ontario Court of Justice in Ottawa, numerous accused persons appear, and are impecunious. Specifically, they have absolutely no ability to pay for food, shelter or clothing, let alone some fine that they do not even understand the full scope of. The charges amassed by these clients are often theft of a bottle of liquor, or of chocolate bars, all with a goal of funding an addiction. Their addiction is all consuming. Combine this with a low grade mental illness, and the analysis becomes even more grim. Many of these accused in court in these scenarios have no ability to get a job; they operate in a constant state of needing services to cope with the daily tasks in life that most people reading this blog would take for granted. These clients needs their basic needs are certainly going to come before any victim fine surcharge, and certainly going to come before they begin contemplation of somehow contributing to Her Majestys newly created Let them Eat Cake Fund. The new enactments have taken away all discretion to consider an accused persons ability to pay as a factor before the fine is imposed. Thus, the fine gets imposed on all accused. The bulk of the fines that will be amassed, will NOT be on the large scale fraud artist, or impaired driving client, or sexual predator. The bulk of the fines are going to be on people who are homeless. The most problematic aspect about this, is that by not paying the fine, a person can actually face jail time. This is one small step forward for victims rights, one giant leap backwards into Dickensian era debtors prison. This is why the amendments are ridiculous. The motivation behind the legislation may or may not be good, but the manner in which it was approached by Parliament is profoundly nave.