Homelessness and Imprisonment: Quebec Calls Municipal Courts to Order

Spread the love

Homelessness and imprisonment: Quebec calls municipal courts to order

Last December, more than 364 warrants of imprisonment were ready to be executed against people who had given as their address the Gîte ami, the main refuge in Gatineau. (File photo)

While warrants of imprisonment for non-payment of fines continue to target homeless people in Gatineau, the Quebec Ministry of Justice wrote last month to the Association des greffiers de courts municipales du Québec (AGCMQ ) to call them to order.

This letter […] is intended to inform all municipal court clerks in Quebec of the recent amendments to the Code of Penal Procedure , which amend the rules applicable to imprisonment for non-payment of fines, can be read in the letter dated December 15, 2022, which Radio-Canada recently obtained.

The document is signed by Me Audrey Turmel, Director of Adaptability and Restorative Justice Programs at the Department of Justice.

On December 14, Radio-Canada reported that more than 364 Imprisonment warrants were currently ready to be executed against people who had given as their address the Gîte ami, Gatineau's main refuge. However, since 2020, a person who has a reasonable excuse for having failed to pay a fine cannot be sentenced to imprisonment.

The shelter of Gîte Ami, in Gatineau (File photo)

The letter clearly states that a person's homelessness constitutes a reasonable excuse, since the June 2020 legislative amendment.

“This amendment aims to end imprisonment for non-payment of fines for vulnerable people, including, but not limited to, people who are homeless.

— Me Audrey Turmel, Director of Adaptability and Restorative Justice Programs at the Quebec Department of Justice

The Department of Justice declined the request for Radio-Canada interview.

On the other hand, Isabelle Boily, spokesperson for the ministry, indicated in writing that the bill having been presented and adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic, a reminder of the legislative modification and the intention of the legislator has been done. All with the objective of ensuring the understanding and uniform application of these provisions throughout Quebec.

An access to information request was sent at the beginning of the year by Radio-Canada to the Quebec Ministry of Justice to obtain any exchanges or directives from the ministry for municipal prosecutors and/or courts. municipalities with regard to the new provisions of the Code of Penal Procedure of Quebec. Only the letter sent to the AGCMQ emerged.

The letter sent to the AGCMQ is dated December 15, 2022, the day after the broadcast of the Radio-Canada report on imprisonment for non-payment of fines in Gatineau. The organization indicated by email that it had sent the letter to all of its members, but did not agree to give an interview on the subject.

In a written statement, the City of Gatineau confirms that the clerks of its Municipal Court have indeed received the correspondence sent by Quebec last December.

The City's Communications Department thus let it be known that an interview had taken place with a representative of the Ministry on the issue of imprisonment for non-payment of fines.

Discussions would be underway to standardize the ways of doing things with the various judicial stakeholders in agreement with the Department of Justice. The statement does not, however, specify the measures that will be put forward to implement this standardization.

Me Marie-Ève ​​Sylvestre, Dean of the Faculty of Law of the University of Ottawa, is adamant that actors in the justice system should be aware of the new rules of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

To not pay attention to legislative changes is a bit surprising. It is the responsibility, it seems to me, of the judicial actors, launches Me Sylvestre in an interview.

Me Marie-Eve Sylvestre, Dean of the Faculty of Law, Civil Law Section, at the University of Ottawa (File photo)

According to the law, it is the judge to be satisfied that the defendant is incapable of paying a fine for a violation of a municipal by-law. As a corollary, the defendant must himself prove this incapacity.

It seems to me that when asked to issue a warrant of imprisonment with the Gîte ami as the address; when, on the other hand, we see that all the other measures of the Code [of criminal procedure] have been exhausted without success, including seizure, [and] compensatory work […], when we look at all the measures and that we combine that with [the address of the Gîte ami on the report], there are in my opinion enough reasons for the judge not to be convinced that the defendant has not provided a reasonable excuse within the meaning of the law, adds Mr. Sylvester.

Without calling jail warrants for homeless people illegal, Mr. Sylvestre probably sees an error of law in the interpretation of the law.

“If I were a defense attorney, I would challenge this warrant of imprisonment.

— Me Marie-Ève ​​Sylvestre, Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa

I would demand, for example, that the defendant be heard to that he can demonstrate that he does not have the means to pay, she maintains.

The lawyer hopes that the letter from Quebec bears fruit.

What this letter indicates is that when there was the legislative change, it was clear that the objective was to put an end to the imprisonment for non-payment of fines for people experiencing poverty and homelessness. […] This is what transpires from parliamentary work. […] It is a reminder that it is in this sense that the municipal courts should govern themselves, concludes Me Sylvestre.