By Suzanne Bouclin, PHD Associate Professor, University of Ottawa's Faculty of Law, Canada
The Ticket Defence Program (TDP), reinstated in 2014 as a community-campus partnership based out of the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law, offers free legal assistance in both official languages (French and English) to homeless and other street-involved people charged with provincial or municipal offences within the province of Ontario. Our client base is made up of a diverse group of people facing shared socio-economic challenges including extreme poverty, un/under-employment, insufficient access to health and social programs, lack of access to harm reduction or drug treatment programs, and a lack of appropriate, stable housing. The challenges our clients face are often compounded by personal experiences of violence, post-traumatic stress, racism, intergenerational trauma resulting from the residential school system, problem gambling and associated debt, and a cycle of criminalization, incarceration/institutionalization and release/deinstitutionalization without appropriate social support.
In Ottawa, as in many other jurisdictions across Canada and the global West, street-involved people experience harassment and intimidation at the hands of police for engaging in survival strategies associated with life on the street. Such harassment and intimidation often take the form of municipal or provincial offences for panhandling, having open liquor in a public place, disposing of needles from injection drugs, jaywalking, not having the right tags on a companion animal, failure to provide proof of purchase for public transportation, failure to wear a bicycle helmet or to have proper brakes or lights on a bicycle, public intoxication, sleeping in parks, trespassing on property, and creating disruptive noise. Such tickets range from $90 (about 60 euros) to $500 (about 350 euros); some of our clients have received over 50 such tickets.
Some street-involved people simply ignore these tickets. Nevertheless, these charges have a very real, ongoing impact on an already vulnerable segment of the population, as the vast majority of street-involved people who ignore their tickets are found guilty in absentia (they are not present at trial) and are convicted by default. These fines accrue interest and, as a consequence, many street-involved people carry debt loads of thousands of dollars in unpaid fines. Others, especially those trying to secure social housing, to enter addictions programs, to return to school, or to obtain official documentation (such as a driver’s licence), do want to contest these charges. However, these people face systemic and social barriers that render the exercise of their legal rights next to impossible. Most obviously, street-involved people cannot afford legal representation, and legal aid or duty counsel services are not available for provincial offences when (as in the majority of cases) there is no direct threat of jail time. Further, many street-involved people have experienced intimidation and harassment at the hands of police; consequently, the thought of having to testify in court against a police officer can be extremely intimidating, and a client may opt to drop the matter out of fear of reprisal should they encounter that officer on the street. In addition, physically attending court, several kilometres from the neighbourhoods in the downtown core where street-involved people receive the most tickets, is difficult for street-involved clients with limited mobility or for those who simply cannot afford bus fare. Finally, some street-involved people have a negative assessment of their own ability to acquire the appropriate dress for a courthouse, or they lack the legal literacy and confidence to navigate the legal system.
Ottawa’s Ticket Defence Program assists in three ways. First, our core mandate is to provide legal representation before the provincial court for homeless or other street-involved people facing poverty-related charges. The most frequent outcome in these matters has been the withdrawal of the charges against our clients. In the rare cases in which our clients have been found guilty, we have been successful at having their sentences suspended. To date, out of the 47 clients we have represented at trial, only one has had to pay the fine, and even this was reduced by several hundred dollars. Second, should clients wish to self-represent, our mandate includes accompanying clients to the courthouse, providing legal research and assistance in developing their legal arguments, and coaching them on legal procedure and process. Finally, in cases where street-involved people have legal questions beyond the scope of the TDP's mandate, we make direct referrals to lawyers or community clinics who can assist them.
Our model is client-centred and community-driven. We hold regular drop-in hours at one of our many community partners, including community health centres, shelters, and day centres. We also do direct outreach through ‘pop-up’ legal clinics, such as the one held in a park this past summer as part of Support. Don’t Punish, a global campaign for more just, humane drug policies and public health initiatives. The event facilitated access to a lawyer and to law students for those street-involved people for whom attending drop-in hours is challenging; it was also an effective teaching and learning moment through which members of the general population learned about the social profiling of the street-involved.
Since re-launching as a university initiative, the TDP has collected over 410 tickets and helped 47 clients, reducing many of their debt loads by thousands of dollars. By challenging these tickets, the TDP assists these individuals in alleviating the burden they face in escaping their cycle of poverty, placing them one step closer to securing the resources they require to live healthy, fulfilling lives.
Read Suzanne Bouclin's research here
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