Jul 3, 2012 / 5:00 am
Ever wonder about the power of a criminal court to issue a fine and what happens when an offender doesn’t pay that fine? This column attempts to shed some light on these and other related issues.
To start, section 734 of the Criminal Code allows a court to impose a fine on an offender. A fine can be an offender’s only sentence or it can be imposed in addition to a jail term or probation. The maximum fine for summary conviction offences is $2,000.00, unless otherwise said in the Code. Summary conviction offences are those offences that are ‘relatively’ minor. For indictable offences (more serious offences), there is no limit on the amount of the fine (that can be given). Except for mandatory minimums, fines are imposed after the court reviews the offender’s ability to pay.
Offenders can be given more than a year to pay, which shouldn’t be surprising or troubling because A LOT of offenders come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds or, in other words, are poor.
Ever wonder what happens when an offender doesn’t pay the fine? Well, believe it or not, they can be sent to jail. An offender can be sent to jail for default in payment if their non-payment is willful. This won’t really occur, though, if person cannot pay a fine for financial reasons.
So, what is the formula for determining how long someone will spend in prison for defaulting on payment? The formula is set out in section 734(5) of the Code. Put simply, it is the amount of the unpaid fine and any transport costs associated with putting the offender in prison divided by an 8 hour working day at the provincial minimum wage.
Consider this basic example: in B.C., a person earning minimum wage ($10.25/hour) would earn $82.00 a day, working 8 hours. If someone has an unpaid fine of $820.00 and it costs $0 to transport them, then that person would spend 10 days in prison. And before you think that people could spend years and years in prison for an unpaid fine, there are (reasonable) limits on the amount of time that someone can be jailed (section 734(5)(b)).
Also know that before someone can be sent to jail, they will be subject to other enforcement methods. For instance, there can be a refusal to issue provincial licences or permits. Also, the government can try to get a civil judgment (and then enforce it) against the offender, like a typical creditor.
In addition to the ‘typical fine’ (described above), courts can impose ‘victim fine surcharges’ (VFS) on (all) offenders (section 737). Parliament created the VFS in an attempt to direct money towards programs for victims of crime.
The amount of the VFS is set out in section 737(2), which states that the VFS is 15% of the fine that is imposed or, if no fine is imposed, $50.00 for a summary conviction offence and $100.00 for an indictable offence. A court can increase the VFS if the offender is able to pay it and the court deems it appropriate. On the flip side, the court can also waive the VFS if the offender is financially destitute.
Also, criminal courts can make an order that an offender compensate a victim for an ascertainable amount of money; this is referred to as ‘restitution’. This amount, unlike a fine, goes directly to the victim. This can include such things as payment for property loss or damage, medical costs or loss of work (that result from the offence), or moving costs (when a spouse/child must leave the offender’s home). The restitution award is just that: restitution for the victim. It is not used as a way to punish the offender.
And now you know.
**The information contained in this column should not be treated by readers as legal advice and should not be relied on without detailed legal counsel being sought.
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