Fines, tickets and justice

Guest author Michele Leering, Executive Director of CALC

Guest author Michele Leering, Executive Director of CALC

While in Melbourne, Australia as part of a sabbatical to study and learn about issues affecting vulnerable people and legal service delivery in different countries, I had an insightful conversation with Lucy Adams from the Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic, a community legal clinic that helps clients dealing with “public space offences” or offences directly related to homelessness. These include begging, littering, minor theft and sleeping in one’s car.

The majority of the clinic’s work focuses on the direct effects of “anti-social behavioural statutes” on homeless people. As part of this work, they’ve developed a “legal health check” tool intended to help pro bono lawyers and front-line workers detect legal issues in order to refer their clients for appropriate help.

When in Australia, I found myself slightly incredulous at the focus on “infringements” and “fines”. People seemed to get fined for everything. Was this unique to Australia as the vestiges of its past as a penal colony for people convicted in the United Kingdom (often of petty crimes)? Was it an historical hangover of an overactive attempt to control its citizens’ behaviour? Or, as an Australian colleague speculated, was it related to a past government attempt to privatize services or a money grab?

However, at the time of my visit, I hadn’t realized that this was also a major issue in some parts of Ontario – working at a legal clinic serving small urban, rural and remote areas, “anti-social behaviour citations” were not on my radar. So I was surprised to learn when doing background research for this post that this is an increasingly serious issue in large urban areas here. According to a study published in the Canadian Public Policy Journal, there was a 2000% increase in tickets issued under the Safe Streets Act between 2000 and 2010 – most being issued in downtown Toronto to homeless individuals.

The authors of the study argue that the Safe Streets Act is a “misguided public policy response to the visibility of homelessness.” According to their research, the sharp increase in tickets issued during the first decade of this century did not result from increasing crime rates, increases in aggressive solicitation practices, widespread complaints from businesses or the public, or police responses to gangs. Nor, apparently, was the end goal raising revenue – because the people being ticketed could not afford to pay.

I’ve also since learned that this issue is indeed on the radar of some Toronto-area legal clinics. Mary Birdsell, of the Justice for Children and Youth Legal Clinic, said the Act is “a primitive and degrading response to homelessness….It is mean, it is bullying, and it is beneath us” in a recent Toronto Star article calling for the repeal of the Safe Streets Act.

Through the Toronto Star article, I also learned about a legal clinic in Toronto called Fair Change Community Legal Services that has been doing amazing work helping homeless people who have faced thousands of dollars in fines. In addition to providing direct service to clients, Fair Change offers legal information sessions to community agencies on ticket issues.

Have you noticed an increase in these types of tickets within your client community?

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