by Marc Motiejunas, Thompson Rivers University

shutterstock_521761819What is a victim fine surcharge? Well, upon being found guilty of a crime, the guilty party may be required pay a monetary fine to the court. The amount of the fine is $100 for each summary offence and $200 for each indictable offence.

This money goes towards provincial programs such as victim services and counseling programs. There is controversy in regards to the surcharge, however. Individuals convicted of crimes may be impoverished and while $100 for an offence may seem insignificant to some, this amount is often devastating to those in such a position.Certain judges in Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia have opposed the regime and attempted to avoid imposing the surcharge, resulting in backlash from the Department of Justice. Although judges do not have discretion regarding whether to apply the surcharge, they do have discretion as to the time period over which the charge will be paid. Thus, some judges have demonstrated their opposition to the regime by giving the offender a very long time, sometimes upwards of 99 years, to pay the surcharge.

While such a surcharge can help pay for important services, imposing such a fine is a figurative “kick while you are already down” to those convicted of crimes.

The victim fine surcharge was challenged in the case of R v Michael. There, the convicted 26-year-old offender, was subject to $900 in surcharges on top of his sentence. The trial judge, found this to be a form of cruel and unusual punishment and thus against the offender’s Charter rights.

Two important cornerstones to our criminal justice system are that the sentences must be proportional to the offence committed and that rehabilitation for offenders should be available where possible. As the Court states in the aforementioned case:

“Exposing those who are poor such as Mr. Michael to perpetual, unsatisfied sentencing obligations also deprives them of the ability to repay their debt to society. Because they do not have the means to repay, they lose the opportunity to be restored. He will be indebted to society, with all the stigma and stress that causes.”[1]

This is the exact sentiment that the criminal law is supposed to avoid. Sentencing is meant to pay a debt to society, rehabilitate the individual and allow them move on. These fines may be taking the “debt to society” angle too far. While it is important to implement programs such as victim services, it is unclear that the responsibility should be placed on already-destitute individuals wrapped up in the justice system.

[1] R v Michael 2014 ONCJ 360 at para 75.