Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Mandatory Payments for Minor Offences Unconstitutional, Top Court Rules

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Mandatory Payments for Minor Offences Unconstitutional, Top Court Rules

Article excerpt

Supreme Court strikes down victim surcharges

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OTTAWA - The Supreme Court of Canada has struck down a law that forced people convicted of crimes to pay surcharges that help victims, saying the mandatory fee amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

In a 7-2 decision delivered Friday morning in Ottawa, the Supreme Court found the mandatory victim surcharge puts a crushing financial burden on poor people and places them under constant threat of being arrested and jailed if they do not pay.

"Judges have been forced to impose a one-size-fits all punishment which does not take into account the individual's ability to pay," Justice Sheilah Martin writes in the majority's decision.

For disadvantaged offenders, a high proportion of whom suffer from addiction and mental-health problems, the surcharge levied on top of a sentence results in a "grossly disproportionate public shaming," she added. "It is what most Canadians would call an abhorrent and intolerable punishment."

The victim surcharge has existed since 1988, but five years ago, Stephen Harper's Conservative government removed the ability of judges to waive or lower the fees, making them mandatory in every case. The amount of the surcharge is 30 per cent of any fine, but with a minimum of $100 for lower-severity offences and $200 for more serious ones if no fine is imposed.

The change elicited rare judicial backlash, with judges in a number of provinces either refusing to impose the surcharge in some cases or making the fee so small as to be inconsequential. These decisions were later overturned on appeals.

The case brought to the Supreme Court was that of Alex Boudreault, a high-school dropout who had never held a steady job and who pleaded guilty in September 2013 to four counts relating to breaches of probation orders.

A few months later, the Quebec man pleaded guilty to several other counts, including breaking and entering, possession of stolen property and assault with a weapon. …

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