Former homeless man's £38,500 fines quashed by court in Canada


A court in Ontario has agreed to quash $65,000 Canadian dollars (£38,500) worth of tickets racked up during one man’s nine-year stint living on the streets, in a case that has sparked debate on the effectiveness of legislation that criminalises .

Gerry Williams spent years trapped in a cycle of alcoholism and homelessness. Encounters with the police often left him with a battery of tickets for non-criminal offences, from drinking in public to loitering. At the time, he paid little attention.

But later, when he was sober and off the streets, the tickets – 450 of them – came back to haunt him. As he fought to make a clean break with his past, hoping to find work in the restaurant industry or helping others struggling with addiction and homelessness, collection agencies began to hound him for the thousands of dollars he owed.

“I’ve been stuck in limbo,” said a softly spoken Williams, who has been off the streets for more than two years. “They were holding me back from obtaining my Ontario driver’s licence and they were also holding me back on my credit rating, which I want to start building up for future loans.”

Last year, the 45-year-old enlisted the help of Fair Change, in Toronto. “When he came in with this stack of paperwork, my eyes widened as I realised just how big his appeal was going to be,” said Daniel Ciarabellini, a third-year law student at Toronto’s York University and a director at Fair Change.

The number of tickets would add up to more than 100 hours of work, said Ciarabellini. Twelve volunteers were brought in to help the clinic’s handful of students tackle the case. “It took us months to finish this paperwork, even with everybody doing a slice of it,” he said.

In her decision this week, Justice Katrina Mulligan waived most of the tickets. One charge remains, with Williams sentenced to 156 hours of community service for aggressive begging. Williams owes a further C$5,000 in tickets for federal offences, which must be appealed against separately.

Law student Daniel Ciarabellini, left, is thanked by his client Gerry Williams outside Old City Hall court after having about C$65,000 in fines reduced to zero. Photograph: Chris So/Toronto Sta/Getty

The decision, resulting from a deal struck between the crown and defence, came as a relief to Williams. He said: “I thought ‘finally’. I was happy the courts acknowledged these matters.”

In most cases Fair Change has seen like this, the outcome is similar, said Ciarabellini. Often his group is able to get the amount owing to within 10-15%. “It is very much a formality,” he said of the court process.

Apart from the amount he owed, there was little that made Williams’ case exceptional, said Ciarabellini. “Pretty much every homeless person that you pass by in Toronto owes money to the city,” he said, citing several people he had met who owed up to C$20,000.

He described it as an invisible problem stemming from the various laws that seek to criminalise homelessness. “When you live on the street you are constantly receiving tickets, five to 10 a day,” he said. “You develop this cycle of just always being out in public space, because you don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Williams’ case has prompted around panhandling and homelessness. A study by Toronto’s York University in 2014 looked at legislation introduced by the province in 1999 to deter panhandling and estimated it had cost nearly C$1m in police time to hand out at least C$4m of tickets over an 11-year period. About 99% of the tickets went unpaid, the study found.

A petition, and individuals, calls on Ontario to repeal its legislation targeting panhandlers.

These laws often trap people who are homeless, severely disadvantaged and who struggle with mental illness and addiction, said Ciarabellini, along with being costly and ineffective.

“I don’t believe anyone in the process believes at any point that all these tickets are going to get paid,” he said. “You impose a monetary penalty on people who have no money – it doesn’t take a genius to predict what’s going to happen.”