Lisa Christian is a criminal defence lawyer and former crown prosecutor, with over 30 years of experience in Ottawa. Her clients are often people with no criminal records, who find themselves in situations that could affect their employment, mobility, reputation, education, or liberty. Her website is CriminalLawInOttawa.ca
Breaking the Law in Canada
Breaking the law – you may be doing it right now. There are a number of reasons for this, most of which are out of your control. Every person in Canada faces the same challenges in remaining law abiding. Allow me to explain.
Eight challenges for everyone in getting it right
- There are too many laws for one person to know about. That is why lawyers specialize. I focus on criminal, driving, and tax offences, though I’ll also help with other matters if appropriate.
- Even if you know the laws, they are open for interpretation. Yours might not match that of the prosecuting authorities. You can protect yourself as much as possible by relying on a legal opinion.
- Just when you learn a law, it changes. If you aren’t hooked in to the right information sources, you may not know it changed.
- Laws can be too onerous to comply with. Common sense tells you that it is completely out of proportion to do what you have to do to comply with certain laws. This is rarely a defence, however.
- Laws are often created in a vacuum for very particular purposes. I call this the Dyson effect. Because of this, laws can conflict with each other. This is especially common if you are dealing with multiple legal or geographic jurisdictions.
- The government cannot legislate in a way that will apply to billions of people and result in the same impact on each person. Laws will therefore have unintended consequences. There are those who benefit from the laws, and also those who are impacted in an unfortunate way – they suffer the unfairness of cookie-cutter legal approaches.
- There can be contradictions with the wording of a particular piece of legislation and how the courts interpret it. Depending on the circumstances, and the location and level of the court, the judge’s opinion might supersede what the legislation says. You cannot simply rely on the wording of the law.
- Occasionally the legislation has even been struck down by the courts, but still the government re publishes that same legislation as if it was current law. Even judges sometimes make decisions based on laws that are no longer in force – one reason you need sharp defence counsel.
Consequences of unknowingly breaking the law
Some say that there are universal laws based on a common morality, and that these should supersede society’s laws. But that won’t stop you from being investigated and/or charged when you run afoul of a human-made law.
Protect Yourself, sort of
You can protect yourself from inadvertently breaking the law by receiving practical and reliable advice from a lawyer who has expertise in the laws relevant to you. If you feel uncertain about taking certain actions, get a legal opinion in which you can have confidence and that will give you a measure of peace.
However, remember that legal advice is applicable only for a point in time. It is based on the law that is current at that time, including its judicial and administrative interpretation. After that, the law continually changes, at times retroactively(!), and may result in unintended or unforeseen consequences. Should you wish an update on the legal advice, the onus is on you to contact a lawyer for an update. Stay vigilant to avoid future problems with authorities.
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