In a recent decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal, R. v. Jacques, Justice Lauwers correctly applied the law despite his understandable reservations about the outcome.
Mr. Jacques had been convicted before the Provincial Offences Court on two counts of driving without automobile insurance and one count of driving with a suspended license. His convictions were upheld on appeal before the Ontario Court of Justice, but the total fines payable were reduced to approximately $10,000. More than six years later, Mr. Jacques decided he would seek leave to appeal his conviction to the Ontario Court of Appeal. He brought a motion to extend his time to file a notice of motion to seek leave. The motion came before Justice Lauwers who correctly concluded that the applicant was out of time to appeal – indeed, transcripts of the trial were no longer available due to the passage of time – and upheld his conviction.
Mr. Jacques was a self-represented litigant and came to court to “beg for mercy.” He testified that he had been an alcoholic at the time of his first appeal and was not able to “comprehend, or fully participate, in the appeal process because of my mental state.” He has since turned his life around, but has been unable to pay off his fines, and those amounts that have been paid off have caused him significant financial distress. Justice Lauwers sympathized with Mr. Jacques’ situation, but explained there was nothing he could do. The provisions of the Compulsory Automobile Insurance Act, under which Mr. Jacques had been convicted, are crystal clear and impose mandatory minimum sentences of $5,000 and $10,000 for the first and second convictions respectively (and the court had already taken his plight into consideration by reducing his sentences by one-third on appeal, below the mandatory minimum).
Justice Lauwers concluded his decision by suggesting that the Province of Ontario should implement a quasi-bankruptcy scheme to help individuals who have no prospect of paying crippling fines. However, in the absence of such a scheme, Justice Lauwers readily acknowledged that it was not for the court to grant this relief, even for someone who “plainly deserves it.”
Applying the law can be a thankless task, especially when the only immediate outcome is financial hardship for a sympathetic individual. But in reality, it is decisions like these that ensure a functioning legal order based on clear rules and predictable outcomes. Justice Lauwers’s decision is also a commendable exercise in the humility of judicial restraint. His Honour undoubtedly has his own views of what the law should be, but he also recognizes that his views are not infallible. Requiring all motorists to be insured has long been an important public policy objective of the Ontario legislature. Whether and to what extent certain individuals who have failed to adhere to that legal requirement should have their sentences commuted is an important debate to be sure, but one that belongs in the Legislative Assembly, not the courts.