“Canadian news sources reported today that the federal government is seeking a collection agency to handle the task of collecting some $129 million in unpaid fines. See, for instance, this story in The Globe and Mail.
The part that interested me is that approximately 150 people were sent to jail from April 2010 to March 2011 for refusing to pay federally imposed fines that the government says they have the ability to pay. (See page 14 of the Annual Report of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC), here.) In fiscal 2009-2010, that number was 265 people. In 2008-2009, it was 165.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedomsprotects liberty in section 7. The courts have held that facing imprisonment definitely engages a person’s Charter right to liberty. However, they have also repeatedly held that many other laws do not engage a person’s section 7 rights because the liberty at stake is “mere” economic liberty, since the individual faces nothing more than a fine. For instance, this “reasoning” appeared in the decision of Justice Tetley in his ruling against my client Michael Schmidt (see par. 82 of the decision—PDF copy here).
I have always argued that this restrictive interpretation of section 7 is ridiculous. Whether you are compelled to do something against your will by the threat of fines or the threat of imprisonment, your liberty is still being violated. Section 7 of the Charter should apply to all such violations of liberty. It has always been clear that the threat of incarceration lurks in the background for those who refuse to pay their fines. Besides, having to fork over part of your savings is akin to retroactively forfeiting the portion of your life you spent earning that money, just as if you had been incarcerated…”