Giving victims a voice in the criminal justice system Giving victims a voice in the criminal justice system Giving victims a voice in the criminal justice system Giving victims a voice in the criminal justice system

Ottawa judge strikes down mandatory victim fine surcharge

At the end of July, an Ottawa judge struck down the government’s mandatory victim surcharge as unconstitutional.  Andrew Seymour of the Ottawa Citizen reported…In a carefully reasoned, 31-page decision, Ontario Court Justice David Paciocco found that a reasonable person who was properly informed would find $900 in mandatory victim surcharges for addicted, impoverished and troubled Inuit offender Shaun Michael so grossly disproportionate that it would outrage the standards of decency.

Paciocco found the surcharge amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

The 26-year-old Michael was facing the fines after a series of what the judge described as “nuisance” crimes committed while he was extremely intoxicated. Michael stole a bottle of rye from a downtown LCBO and then kicked a loss prevention officer and police officer, confronted a snowplow operator and broke a shelter window, and lashed out at police after being stopped wandering down the middle of a busy street.

Each of the nine offences Michael pleaded guilty to carried separate $100 surcharges.

Michael, who grew up in group homes and on the street, survives below the poverty line on a street allowance of $250 a month. Each of the $100 victim surcharges amounted to 40 per cent of his monthly income and the total was an “otherworldly sum” that Michael was never likely to repay, the judge said.

“This is a crushing amount for him, beyond his foreseeable means. It is a sum that, in relative hardship, is many multiples of what a moneyed offender would have to pay,” Paciocco wrote. “Simply put, Mr. Michael is being treated more harshly because of his poverty than someone who is wealthy.”

Paciocco’s decision is the latest blow for the mandatory surcharge, which has been the target of ire for defence lawyers and some judges since the amount was doubled and made mandatory in October of 2013. Michael was the first offender in Ottawa to formally argue the constitutionality of the surcharge, although more legal challenges are expected this fall. Several other judges have declared the provision unconstitutional, although several of those decisions were made without hearing proper legal arguments.

The government made the surcharge mandatory after complaints by victims groups that judges weren’t imposing the measure properly. Judges routinely waived the fee when offenders were sentenced to jail or without inquiring about their ability to pay the surcharge, which funds victim services.

In his decision, Paciocco — who has authored books on criminal law and is considered one of Canada’s foremost experts on evidence — dismissed Crown arguments that the surcharge wasn’t a punishment so therefore couldn’t be found to be cruel and unusual.

“All extrinsic sources confirm that the victim surcharge was enacted to make offenders pay for their crimes,” wrote Paciocco. The name of the law, the Increasing Offenders Accountability to Victims Act, and statements made by the justice minister and other politicians are “situating this legislation among tough-on-crime initiatives” designed to deter offenders and hold them responsible for their actions.

An offender’s ability to apply for an extension of time to pay the surcharge doesn’t reduce its disproportionate impact, Paciocco found.

The judge also took aim at the government’s decision to remove the judicial discretion that once allowed judges to waive the surcharge in cases where it would cause undue hardship.

“Making the victim surcharge mandatory is one solution to the failure of judges to impose it where it should be imposed. Another, one that keeps the baby after the bathwater has been thrown out, is for the Crown to appeal or seek to review decisions where the victim surcharge is inappropriately waived,” Paciocco wrote.

Michael’s lawyer, Stuart Konyer, called the decision “a victory for the rights of impoverished accused persons.  “Given the number of different courts across the country which have now declared the victim surcharge amendments to be unconstitutional, it is time for the federal government to rewrite this law in a manner that complies with Charter standards,” said Konyer, who is also the president of the Defence Counsel Association of Ottawa.

The CRCVC is left wondering what the government will do to address proper funding for victim services in Canada. Is legislation the best response given the number of courts who have now found that a mandatory fine is unreasonable for many offenders who live in poverty? Perhaps it is time for all three levels of government in Canada to substantially fund support services for victims from their annual justice and corrections budgets instead of relying on measures such as fines that few can pay. Don’t the people who have been harmed by crime and violence deserve this much? We dedicate billions in budgets annually in response to those who commit crime whether it is via policing, criminal trials or prison budgets.  It is time to stop funding victim serving agencies on scraps or leftovers and ensure that persons harmed by crime have access to stable, consistent and properly-funded support.

Supreme Court protects sexual assault complainants’ privacy

July 9, 2014 – The Globe and Mail’s Sean Fine reports on the Supreme Court of Canada ruling that sexual assault victims cannot have police records used against them in court when those records are not related to the case in question.

Fine wrote, the SCC judges noted Parliament intended to protect the rights of sex-assault victims when it passed a rape-shield law in 1997.  The court’s unanimous ruling in favour of victims’ rights to protection from highly intrusive cross-examination said that unrelated “police occurrence reports” should as a general rule be kept from an accused person and his lawyer.  These occurrence reports could include anything from the reporting or witnessing of other crimes to non-criminal matters such as suicide attempts or family disputes.

“Given the sensitive nature of the information frequently contained in such police occurrence reports, and the impact that their disclosure can have on the privacy interests of complainants and witnesses, there will generally be a reasonable expectation of privacy in such reports,” Justice Andromache Karakatsanis wrote.

Vincent Quesnelle was convicted four years ago of sodomizing two women – one a prostitute, the other a drug addict – in a Toronto laundromat in 2006 and 2007.  He was sentenced to six years in jail.  But the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned that ruling and ordered a new trial, saying that he had been wrongly denied access to police records in unrelated matters involving the alleged victims.  The Supreme Court restored the conviction, while allowing Mr. Quesnelle to continue his appeal of his sentence at the Ontario Court of Appeal.

Under federal law, defence lawyers have limited access to the medical records of sex-assault victims, but are given access to records that are made by police investigators or the Crown. But the court said this access should be given only when the records involve the offence in question.

Unrelated occurrence reports could reveal private information such as previous sexual assaults suffered by the victims, Justice Karakatsanis wrote, which would harm their “dignity rights” and discourage women from reporting sexual violence.

Jonathan Dawe of Toronto, who represented the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, said the ruling could put some accused in an unfair situation. “Imagine a case where the complainant alleges he or she was assaulted, and identifies a cut on their arm from the accused. And there are reports showing the complainant has a prior history of self-inflicted injuries.”

The problem for the defence, he said, is that the Crown might recognize the relevance of those records, but be unable to disclose them; and the defence would have to demonstrate the relevance of records it hasn’t seen to be allowed to see them.

Amanda Dale, executive director of the Barbra Schlifer Clinic for women, said the ruling protects sex-assault victims from being discredited by the frivolous use of police documents. “We would have seen an increased reluctance to contact the police in cases of violence,” if the ruling had gone the other way.

Sonia Lawrence, who teaches at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, said the court interpreted the law in light of Parliament’s purpose: “The government didn’t want judges and juries relying on myths and stereotypes about sex assault complainants.”

The CRCVC is very pleased with the court’s ruling in this case, as it recognizes the privacy interests of victims and protects their unrelated personal information from the defence.  Women have long feared that their private information will be disclosed to the men who have assaulted them. This continues to be a major reason why women do not report sexual assault in Canada.  Victims do not want to endure being re-victimized in court through the exposure of their personal lives and private records.  Congratulations to the Barbra Schlifer Clinic who intervened in this case!

The Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime works to ensure the equitable treatment of crime victims by providing support and advocacy to survivors.

What's New