OTTAWA – Justice Minister Peter MacKay is deflecting criticism of a new, mandatory victim surcharge, saying judges opposed to the measure will eventually “see the wisdom” of making sure victims of crime receive proper help.
MacKay was responding Monday to reports that say judges in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta have either refused to order criminals to pay the surcharge or found ways to make it impossible for authorities to collect the fee.
Some judges and justice critics have said the surcharge places an unfair burden on those who don’t have the means to pay.
MacKay said the money gathered from the surcharge is used to help victims with counselling and other services.
“I think you’ll see that over time judges will see the wisdom in putting victims in a better place and respecting their right to be compensated,” he said in an interview.
“A $200 to $300 compensation being applied in these cases, we believe, is proportionate. We believe it is also part of the administration of justice and it reflects society’s condemnation of those acts against the law, against society and against individuals.”
As well, the minister noted that most provinces still have the option of ordering impoverished criminals to perform community service to pay their debt to society.
Until October, sentencing judges had the discretion to waive the surcharge if payment would cause undue hardship to the offender. The amended legislation removed the waiver option and doubled the surcharge as part of the Conservative government’s tough-on-crime agenda.
The new law requires either a 30 per cent surcharge on any fine levied, or a flat fee of $100 or $200 — depending on the seriousness of the offence — if no fine is set.
In Ontario’s Waterloo region, provincial court Judge Colin Westman described the surcharge as an unrealistic and arbitrary “tax on broken souls.”
Anthony Moustacalis, president of the Toronto-based Criminal Lawyers Association, said enforcing the mandatory surcharge will cost more than the fee will bring in.
If a criminal can’t pay up after a certain amount of time, the presiding judge has to dispatch an officer to haul the offender back to court to make arrangements for payment, he said.
“Politics aside, it’s just not a cost-effective way to collect money from somebody who doesn’t have it,” Moustacalis said.
“If you’re on welfare, or you’re mentally ill or have a disability, you’re not going to be able to pay this. So why not figure that out at the beginning rather than drag someone in at the cost of $1,000.”
Moustacalis said it’s no secret that poverty and crime go hand in hand. In Ontario, for example, 55 per cent of those charged with a criminal offence qualify for legal aid. Under provincial rules, a single person with no dependents must earn less than $10,800 annually to be eligible, he said.
As for MacKay’s assertion that the surcharge is used to help victims, Moustacalis said the money is actually funnelled into Ontario’s general revenues.
“It doesn’t get earmarked,” he said, adding that most provinces already have effective laws to go after the proceeds of crime.
“There are a lot of tools to get more money from criminals and tax evaders, but they don’t use them,” he said. “This (surcharge) is an attempt to get money from people who don’t have it. … That tells you it’s just a political statement.”