While criminal harassment may not seem like a severe charge on its face, it can be. It carries the possibility of a very lengthy prison sentence. Hiring a lawyer can help you avoid this prison sentence altogether.
What is criminal harassment?
Criminal harassment, under section 264(1) of the Criminal Code of Canada, is knowingly and without authority, engaging in conduct that makes someone either fear for their own life or safety or fear for the life or safety of someone known to them. These behaviours tend to be obsessive and repeated over and over again. These behaviours must also be unwanted by the complainant.
The Crown will need to prove a few things:
- That you were repeatedly following or communicating with the victim OR were watching their home or place of work OR engaged in threatening conduct;
- That the complainant must also have felt harassed and made fearful by the conduct, and the fear was reasonable; and
- That you knew that your conduct would make the complainant feel harassed or were, at the very least, reckless as to whether your conduct made the complainant feel harassed.
Examples of criminal harassment:
- Stalking or repeatedly following the complainant;
- Attempting to communicate with the complainant against their wishes;
- Watching the complainant’s home or workplace; and/or
- Engaging in threatening conduct against the complainant’s family member(s).
What does harassment mean?
Harassment does not mean that you actually caused the complainant any injury or bodily harm. It also does not mean that you actually threatened the complainant. Instead, you must have tormented, troubled, worried, or badgered the complainant with your actions and behaviours. It is more than merely annoying the complainant and less than actually threatening them. The behaviour also needs to be repeated and ongoing.
Arrest and bail:
When you are arrested, officers must tell you of your right to counsel. This right allows you to speak to and retain a lawyer following arrest. It is always a good idea to exercise this right and obtain legal advice before speaking to police.
You may be released directly by police, or you could be held for a bail hearing, depending on the circumstances of the offence as well as your own personal circumstances (e.g. if you have a criminal record). The police have a few mechanisms for release, which all require you to attend court as specified. If you are released by police, there are likely to be conditions attached to it through what is known as an undertaking. These conditions can be, for example prohibitions against contacting the victim or attending a certain location.
Although criminal harassment is a hybrid offence (i.e. the Crown has the ability to choose whether to proceed summarily or by indictment), all hybrid offences are considered indictable until the Crown elects. As such, you will be asked to attend a police detachment for fingerprinting ahead of your first court appearance.
If you are held for bail, you will be brought in front of a judicial official within 24 hours of your arrest. Not only will a lawyer tell you what to do and what not to do when interacting with police, they can also start working on your release if you are being held in custody.
If you are brought to court for bail, a lawyer can speak to the Crown about what is required to secure your release and can propose a bail plan. The plan often involves one or more people called “sureties.” A surety is someone you know who agrees to take responsibility for your release into the community. They pledge to pay a certain amount of money if you do not follow your conditions of release. Being a surety is a huge responsibility, and a lawyer can explain their role and adequately prepare them for court.
Everyone has a constitutional right to reasonable bail with respect to the amount of money sureties pledge and the conditions imposed on you. Reasonableness also includes the fact that you should not be denied bail without “just cause.”
The Crown may consent to your release based on the plan. If they have concerns about the plan, the nature of the harassment, your chance of reoffending, your ability to follow conditions (especially if you have breached bail before), et cetera, they may contest your bail. A contested bail results in a bail hearing (also known as a “show cause” hearing). In line with the principles of reasonable bail, the Crown must “show cause” as to why it is in society’s best interest for you to be detained—although there are certain circumstances that require the accused to demonstrate why their detention is not justified.
There are three grounds of detention upon which you can be denied bail. The Crown will state on which grounds they are seeking detention, which consider:
- Whether you are a flight risk (primary ground);
- Whether you pose a threat to the public (secondary ground); and
- Whether your detention is required to maintain confidence in the administration of justice (for example, due to the seriousness of the allegations and/or the strength of the Crown’s case) (tertiary ground).
The court will look at factors, such as your ties to the community, your personal situation (including the presence of a criminal record), the offence itself, and the strength of a proposed bail plan and adequacy of sureties, when considering these grounds.
As part of considering your release, the court will determine whether conditions should be imposed and what they should be to mitigate concerns, such as ensuring that you attend court and do not commit any further offences. These bail conditions can be stringent and restrictive and may include, but are not limited to:
- Supervision through sureties;
- Curfews or house arrest, including ankle monitoring;
- Refraining from use of drugs and alcohol;
- Mandatory counselling;
- No contact with certain individuals, such as the victim; and/or
- Restrictions on where you can travel.
When making this consideration, the Crown and the court are bound by the “ladder principle.” This principle means that when it comes to imposing conditions, the least restrictive conditions must be imposed unless the Crown can show that the less restrictive conditions are not appropriate in your case. The Supreme Court of Canada’s 2017 decision in R. v. Antic reinforced this principle. A number of courts, however, seem to have forgotten this obligation. A lawyer can help the court recognize that your detention is not necessary and can remind the court why less strict bail conditions are appropriate.
If you are denied bail, you will remain in custody until your trial or resolution, although it is possible to ask for a bail review at the Superior Court. Obtaining bail can be an uphill battle. Hiring a lawyer maximizes your chances of being released.
It is important to recognize that breaching the terms of your bail conditions can result in further charges against you and the revocation of your bail.
Once you are released by police or a bail hearing is conducted, a lawyer can start preparing a successful defence for your case.
A lawyer will ask the Crown for the disclosure of all relevant evidence against you. The Crown is obligated to disclose evidence about your case to your lawyer, regardless of whether or not that evidence will be used by the Crown in court. This disclosure is a fundamental feature of our criminal justice system. It helps to ensure that you have a fair trial and that you have the information needed to provide a full answer and defence. Having a lawyer by your side can be an advantage, as there are certain items of disclosure that the Crown will only release to counsel. If you do not have a lawyer, you may have to make arrangements with the Crown to review this evidence, which can be extremely time-consuming.
In some cases, disclosure can include hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of pages of documents, as well as hours of police interviews and surveillance footage. A lawyer will review these documents and can use them to effectively advocate for you.
A lawyer will then take steps to move the case along. Once disclosure is reviewed, a Crown pre-trial (CPT) is typically scheduled. The CPT allows the defence and the Crown to discuss issues in the case, as well as the Crown’s position. The CPT can be a springboard for further discussions and negotiations with the Crown. Depending on the case and how it proceeds, a judicial pre-trial (JPT) may also take place. The JPT allows a judge to weigh in and provide guidance in a more informal setting.
If you have retained a lawyer, you will not be present at the CPT or JPT. A lawyer’s expertise and experience can be invaluable at this stage. If you do not retain a lawyer, you most likely will have more difficulty speaking to the Crown, and your JPT will take place in open court instead of the judge’s chambers. You will be responsible for advocating for yourself, which can be an unnecessary stress added to an already challenging experience.
There can be a number of court appearances before a case is set down for trial or a plea is entered. A lawyer can explain the purpose of these appearances and even appear on your behalf, so you have one less thing to worry about.
If the Crown chooses to proceed by indictment, and the case goes to trial, there will come a time when you will be asked to make an election regarding your mode of trial. You will have the option of being tried by a provincial court judge, a judge alone in the Superior Court, or a judge and jury in the Superior Court. Making your election is a strategic decision. You will no doubt benefit from the support of a lawyer advising and guiding you through this lengthy and complicated process.
Consequences if found guilty:
Legislators have sent a strong message with this offence, as the penalty if the Crown proceeds by indictment is up to 10 years in prison. If the Crown proceeds summarily, you can face a sentence of up to two years less a day in prison and/or a fine of up to $5,000. There are alternative, more lenient sentences available for this offence, as well as resolution mechanisms, such as a peace bond (which, if followed, results in the charges being withdrawn).
A lawyer can help you understand the potential consequences of the charge and advocate on your behalf to obtain the best possible outcome.
It’s vital to hire a lawyer
Being charged with a criminal offence, such as criminal harassment, is a stressful and tolling experience. It is important to seek professional advice from a lawyer about your rights from the beginning.
A lawyer can also do much more. They can:
- Work to secure your release with the most favourable conditions;
- Help you navigate the criminal justice system;
- Ensure that the Crown meets its disclosure obligations;
- Identify systematic or administrative errors in the criminal process, including Charter rights violations;
- Speak to the Crown on your behalf, negotiate, and advise you of your options;
- Assess all the evidence against you and build a strong defence, so the charges are withdrawn or you are acquitted;
- Gather further evidence to support your version of the events and to question the complainant’s reliability and credibility;
- Obtain a more lenient sentence in the event a guilty plea or conviction is entered.
All criminal cases are complex and fact specific. We have provided general information about how criminal harassment cases are handled. Hiring a lawyer provides your best chance at mounting a successful defence. For more information about how we can help, please contact our team.