Mandatory Victims’ Surcharge Quashed by Supreme Court

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

The Supreme Court of Canada, the highest court in Canada, has eliminated mandatory victim surcharges for convicted criminals.

The Supreme Court, in a 7-2 ruling, held that the surcharge amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. The court stated that making the victim fine mandatory does not allow sentencing judges to consider mitigating factors, ignores the goal of rehabilitation, and undermines the intention of the government to address the problem of indigenous overrepresentation in prison.

WHAT IS THE MANDATORY VICTIM SURCHARGE?

The victim surcharge, which was established in 1988, is a monetary penalty that is automatically imposed on those convicted in Canada at the time of sentencing. Five years ago, the government removed the ability for judges to waive or lower this fine and made them mandatory in all cases.

The victim surcharge can be found under section 737 of the Criminal Code. The surcharge is calculated at 30% of any fine imposed. If no fine is imposed, the surcharge is $100 for lower-severity offences and $200 for more serious offences. If the offender has the financial means and the court considers it appropriate, the offender may be ordered to pay a higher amount.

The money collected from victim surcharges was intended to be used by the government to make offenders more accountable and help fund programs and services for victims of crime.

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE SUPREME COURT OF CANADA?

Alex Boudreault (“Boudreault”), a Quebec man, pleaded guilty to several counts related to breaches of probation orders, breaking and entering, possession of stolen property, and assault with a weapon.

Boudreault, a high-school dropout who was unable to hold a steady job, was sentenced to 36 months in prison and ordered to pay a victim surcharge of $1,400 by a court in Quebec. At that time, Boudreault argued that the victim surcharge infringed his Charter rights guaranteeing him freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. These arguments were rejected by the court.

Boudreault appealed this ruling, which was dismissed by the Quebec Court of Appeal.

The Supreme Court of Appeal agreed to hear Boudreault’s appeal, along with six other similar cases. In all seven cases, the offenders argued that they were living in poverty and suffered from physical and mental illnesses, struggled with addiction in some cases, and could not afford the victim surcharges.

The Crown argued that the fines were not unacceptable as the offenders could ask for more time to pay and that the money collected was put towards improving the lives of the victims. For example, in Ontario, these funds are used to support 39 sexual assault and rape centres and the Ontario Child Witness Project (designed to help children and adolescents who are called to testify as victims or witnesses in court).

The appellants argued that the surcharges were a violation of section 12 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment. They argued that the surcharge was grossly disproportionate to the crime committed.

The majority of the Supreme Court agreed with the appellants and struck down the entire section of the Criminal Code pertaining to victim surcharges and it was “declared to be of no force and effect immediately”.

The judgment reads:

The surcharge constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and therefore violates s. 12 of the Charter, because its impact and effects create circumstances that are grossly disproportionate to what would otherwise be a fit sentence, outrage the standards of decency, and are both abhorrent and intolerable.

 Justice Sheilah Martin, writing for the majority decision, also stated:

Judges have been forced to impose a one-size-fits-all punishment which does not take into account the individual’s ability to pay. In this context, the resulting indeterminate punishment results in a grossly disproportionate public shaming of disadvantaged offenders.  It is what most Canadians would call an abhorrent and intolerable punishment.

Although this decision eliminates all fines owed by the seven offenders and no future victim surcharges can be imposed in any circumstances, it does not eliminate outstanding victim surcharge orders. Those offenders who owe these fines, must seek relief in the courts on an individual basis.

The Liberal government is now left to determine the future of the surcharge. There is currently drafted legislation awaiting passage by the Senate giving judges the discretion to waive or apply the victim surcharge. A spokesperson for Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has advised that she is reviewing the Supreme Court decision “to assess the appropriate next steps”.

We will continue to follow any developments or changes in the law as they become available, and will provide updates in this blog.

In the meantime, to speak with an experienced criminal defence lawyer about any charges laid against you or your legal rights, please contact Affleck & Barrison LLP online or at 905-404-1947. We offer a free consultation and are available to help you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We are available when you need us most.