Ontario Legal Clinic Challenges Aggressive Panhandling Law

Staff at the Fair Change Community Legal Clinic in Toronto is pursuing a constitutional challenge against Ontario’s Safe Streets Act, which criminalizes “aggressive panhandling” in the province.

This is the second legal challenge to the law since it was enacted in 1999. The previous challenge failed,  but the latest case has a broader focus and incorporates more evidence of the effects of the law over the past 18 years.

The Safe Streets Act

The Safe Streets Act was conceived by the former Premier Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative government in 1999. It came in response to complaints about the behaviour of so-called ‘squeegee kids’ in Toronto, referring to homeless panhandlers who clean the windshields of vehicles stopped at red lights and demand payment from drivers for the unsolicited service.

This manner of panhandling has long been a source of tension in Toronto. Some drivers complain about homeless youth with squeegees moving in and out of busy traffic and the “aggressive” manner in which they solicit payment. There have been at least two violent incidents between drivers an squeegee kids since 1999.

The law makes it illegal to:

  • Threaten a person with physical harm for failing to respond to a solicitation
  • Block the path of someone during or after solicitation
  • Use abusive language during or after solicitation
  • Follow someone after they reject a solicitation
  • Solicit while under the influence of drugs and alcohol
  • Persistently solicit after being rejected
  • Solicit someone using or waiting for an ATM, public toilet, payphone, taxi, or transit
  • Solicit someone stopped on a roadway

Criticism of the Act

Joanna Nefs, the executive director of the Fair Change Community Legal Clinic, argues the Safe Streets Act is too vague, too broad, and infringes on peoples’ freedom of expression and equality rights under the Charter.

In a Toronto Star editorial, Nefs writes the Act, “criminalizes the poor for being poor, compounding inequality, clogging up the already overburdened court system and draining public coffers in the process.”

She says the Act, which has cost Toronto Police over $1 million to enforce between 2000 and 2010, disproportionately impacts people who have mental health or addiction issues, or who are aboriginal or visible minorities. These groups are all protected under s.15 of the Charter.

The previous legal challenge to the Safe Streets Act occurred in 2001. This case focused on the impact of the law on squeegee kids, advanced on behalf of 13 people charged under the act. The Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that although the act did breach their Charter rights to freedom of expression, the breach was justifiable in the interest of public safety.

Nefs says the new challenge has a chance of success because of its broader focus and evidence of the act’s effects on vulnerable populations in Ontario. It also argues the s.15 equality rights angle, noting that the Liberal government amended the act in 2005 to allow solicitation on behalf of registered charities. This, she argues, is an arbitrary distinction that triggers s.15 protection.

There is also a bill to repeal the Act making its way through the Ontario legislature. New Democratic MPP Cheri DiNovo introduced the bill earlier this year. The bill is through first reading, but the Ministry of the Attorney General has so far declined to comment on whether the government will support it.

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