Access to Justice

What is Civil Forfeiture?

Written on behalf of Barrison Law
coins stacked on a table


A new report by the Canadian Constitution Foundation and Institute for Liberal Studies says the civil forfeiture laws are cash grabs for provincial governments, which have collected millions of dollars in assets as proceeds of crime.

Under Ontario’s Civil Remedies Act, the government has had the power since 2001 to seize property deemed to be a proceed or instrument of crime, even without any conviction or charges. According to the Ministry of the Attorney General of Ontario, since November 2003, Ontario has seized $48.6 million worth of property. Any property that is not cash is liquidated, and the proceeds and any cash seized are deposited into an account. Victims of the crime that led to forfeiture may submit a compensation claim from those funds. The funds are also distributed to government and law enforcement agencies in the province.

In recent weeks, Bill 139 has made its way before Ontario legislature. The legislation seeks to provide financial incentives to police forces who make contraband tobacco busts and has raised concerns amongst activists.

In criminal cases, a judge or jury must find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But the same standard does not apply in civil cases, including civil forfeiture. The standard in civil cases is the balance of probabilities. These cases are of further concern because the province does not have to provide property owners with a lawyer as would be the case in criminal proceedings. Someone who is completely innocent of any wrongdoing but unable to afford a lawyer would have no way to defend him- or herself against the seizure of his or her house, car, cash or other property. Even in cases where someone is able to afford a lawyer, it may not be worth it because the legal fees will likely cost more than the value of the property being seized.

Civil forfeiture is problematic because it  goes against a fundamental principle of our justice system: the right to be presumed innocent, and treated as such, until found guilty by a court of law.

To speak to an experienced criminal defence lawyer in the Durham region, please contact Affleck & Barrison online or at 905-404-1947.