Petty government action in British Columbia | Kyla Lee
Tuesday, February 02, 2021 @ 8:50 AM | By Kyla Lee
The background to the case is straightforward. A woman was issued a speeding ticket from a red-light speed camera. In British Columbia, the cameras were installed at high-crash intersections to monitor for speeding offences. The tickets are not issued to a driver, as identity cannot be established. Rather, they are issued to the owner of the vehicle.
Zhi Hao Guo was the owner of a vehicle that was measured at a speed that was in excess of 20 kilometres an hour over the speed limit at one such intersection. The prescribed fine under Schedule 3 of the Violation Ticket Administration and Fines Regulation, B.C. Reg 89/97 for that offence is $196. This is a minimum penalty, with the caveat that if Guo had paid the ticket within 30 days of having received it, she qualified for a $26 discount.
Because her vehicle’s speed was alleged to have been 20 kilometres per hour over the speed limit, she faced the elevated fine. Had the vehicle been driving between one kilometre per hour and 20 kilometres per hour over the speed limit, the fine amount would have been $138.
Guo applied to dispute the ticket. There are two mechanisms to dispute a ticket in B.C. One is to challenge the allegation, and the other is to dispute the fine amount or seek time to pay. If a justice is satisfied that the offender cannot pay the prescribed fine, they may reduce the fine. Notwithstanding this, the Offence Act is clear that if a minimum fine is prescribed, there is no discretion to reduce the fine. Guo specifically asked for a fine reduction, indicating her view that the fine amount was excessive.
Even though the justice did not have discretion to reduce the $196 to anything lower, given that the ticket was not paid in 30 days, the justice decided the fine amount should be reduced to the $138. She gave no reasons for her view that the reduction was permissible.
So the dispute in this case ended up being over $58.
Somehow, this came to the attention of the attorney general for British Columbia, who reviewed the fine reduction and determined that the justice had acted without jurisdiction in reducing the fine amount. This is the concerning and wasteful part of the government actions in this case.
The attorney general then retained outside counsel. Despite the fact that the attorney general’s office is the largest employer of lawyers in British Columbia, they contracted the private boutique firm of Lovett Westmacott and retained counsel from that firm to file an application to state a case. Taxpayers paid a government agency with dozens and dozens of lawyers on staff to hire a lawyer from a private firm.
Counsel from that private firm then prepared submissions, researched case law and submitted the application and argument. Because it was an application for a stated case, the matter also had to be served on Guo. And so process servers were hired to serve Guo with the application and time ticked away while the court waited to see if she would file a response.
Similarly, the B.C. provincial court was served with notice of the application and given a chance to respond.
When neither party filed a response, the attorney general’s private taxpayer-funded lawyer then scheduled the matter for a hearing in chambers. The matter required argument from counsel, a judge to consider those arguments and lawyers with other matters that were worth more than $58 to their clients, to wait on the phone while the argument was heard. Court time was occupied on a busy Vancouver chambers list, over this $58 dispute.
In my opinion, the actions of the government in both bringing this case and in retaining outside counsel at great cost to the taxpayer are reprehensible. It was a massive and pointless waste of time, money and court resources. Worse still, the government inevitably shelled out thousands of dollars to collect $58.
This is a horrifying abuse of government power to create and pursue lawsuits, regardless of their value.
Had a client approached experienced civil counsel in order to initiate a lawsuit over $58, they would inevitably be told that the cost of the proceedings would far exceed the amount they would recover and that it would not be worth it to move forward.
It is hard to imagine something more frivolous than a B.C. Supreme Court application over less than 60 bucks. But the government simply instructs counsel and pays. The taxpayers hold the pursestrings but have no say. This is the beauty of having a client with unlimited financial resources, no checks on their power in instructing counse and the only review being when taxpayers find out about it.
There was no good policy reason to bring this lawsuit.
First, the law was already well-settled that the justice did not have jurisdiction to do what she did. The provisions of the Offence Act clearly prohibited her from making the order that she did.
There was no need to clarify the law or decide a complex legal question.
Second, no reasonably informed member of the public would think it worthwhile to bring this action and take $58 more from Guo. Automated speed cameras are offensive enough to the general public but commencing a lawsuit that makes them legitimately appear as nothing more than a cash grab is the exact type of thing the government comes under fire for doing.
Finally, Guo was mailed instructions on how to dispute the ticket which included instructions on how to request a reduction in the fine. Despite the fact that there is no statutory ability to reduce fines for speeding tickets from red-light cameras, the government goads people into filing these applications by instructing them about the exact opposite. If the government’s position is that they think it is wrong for fine reductions to be issued, then they should make it abundantly clear to the people receiving these tickets that fine reductions are not available.
I am horrified as a taxpayer that our government funded this action. I am horrified as a lawyer that this matter proceeded to court. I am horrified as a citizen that a government would not fix its own broken system and instead would come after a woman for $58 by dragging her and the public purse through expensive litigation.
Kyla Lee is a criminal lawyer and partner at Acumen Law Corporation in Vancouver. Her practice focuses on impaired driving. She is the host of a podcast, Driving Law, and a weekly video series Cases That Should Have Gone to the Supreme Court of Canada, But Didn’t! She is called to the bar in Yukon and British Columbia. Follow her at @IRPLawyer.
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