Vulnerable Calgarians facing bylaw tickets get support instead of fines at city's new Community Court

Vulnerable Calgarians fined for bylaw offences can now see their tickets withdrawn if they participate in a new local initiative called Community Court.

The concept for the diversion-style court is to connect people with assistance from local organizations in order to unlock even more help from City of Calgary prosecutors who have the power to withdraw bylaw tickets.

The goal is to break the cycle of social disorder, says Edith Thai, a lawyer and homeless outreach coordinator with Calgary Legal Guidance (CLG), which worked with the City of Calgary to launch Community Court last week.

Community Court's target demographic are people experiencing homelessness, poverty, addiction or other trauma who have been ticketed for minor infractions like smoking where prohibited, urinating in public or riding the c-train without paying.

'We're here for you'

'Graduating' from Community Court could be as simple as seeing a doctor, connecting with a food bank, getting a piece of identification or meeting with an Indigenous elder.

"A lot of individuals do feel that they are kind of disconnected from the community," said Thai.

"And so we kind of want to reintegrate them and bring them back together and say 'we're here for you' and 'don't give up.'"

The project is the brainchild of Thai and her husband Ben Leung, a prosecutor with the city.

The pair spent years dreaming of a courtroom situation where they could help some of the city's most vulnerable in a space often associated with intimidation and fear.

"It just so happened that currently with our roles… we are actually able to bring it to fruition," said Thai. "It's actually a little bit surreal."

Defence lawyer Ben Leung is trying to get the government to fund counsel for youths who are facing charges after a teenager sat in jail for four days because he was forced to represent himself.
City of Calgary prosecutor Ben Leung helped found Community Court, which launched last week. (Meghan Grant/CBC)

So often, Thai says, police, transit and bylaw officers issue tickets to people who have no means of paying their fines.

It's money the city will never see.

"The fines just add up. They add up, they add up and the underlying challenge that they're facing never gets addressed," says Thai.

Looking 'beyond' the offence

A soft launch of the project played out in Calgary courtroom 907 on Wednesday, June 26, at the inaugural sitting of Community Court.

A white paper sign taped outside the courtroom was the only indication something different was happening inside.

"This isn't a process to be feared or worried about," Leung told Justice of the Peace Mathieu St. Germain that Wednesday.

St. Germain, who called the initiative "a really good project," is one of three justices of the peace who will preside over Community Court, scheduled for the last Wednesday of every month.

He explained to one man facing bylaw offences that the program "looks beyond the circumstances of the offence and looks at your own personal circumstances."

Sebastian: 63 tickets

CBC News is not using the last names of the people who participated in the initial session of Community Court as they were there for minor, non-criminal infractions.

Sebastian was facing 63 fines for bylaw offences like panhandling and loitering, mostly accumulated while he was experiencing homelessness.

Court heard that Sebastian has been sober for the last two years and now has housing.

In exchange for accessing dental care and attending addictions counselling, arranged through a local non-profit, all of Sebastian's tickets will be withdrawn when he's back in court to give an update on his progress in two months.

"It seems like you're taking steps in the right direction," St. Germain said to Sebastian.

"I'm happy to hear the steps you're taking toward counselling; best of luck to you sir."

William: 'I appreciate you guys'

William appeared in court Wednesday to deal with a ticket for smoking and vaping where prohibited.

He expressed interest in participating in Community Court and made plans to do an intake assessment with CLG.

"I appreciate you guys helping me out," he said.

St. Germain heard about another man facing a bylaw ticket named Kent, who suffers from mental health issues and a brain injury.

Kent stood in the courtroom quietly as Leung outlined his personal circumstances.

Kent: Bouncing between shelters

Leung told the court that Kent is homeless and has been "bouncing from shelter to shelter" because he struggles to find a place he feels safe.

Kent has completed an intake with Wood's Homes which will set him up with immediate counselling.

One of the last people to appear in Community Court on Wednesday was a man who told St. Germain: "it's the first time someone listened to me about what I had to deal with."

The process to participate in Community Court is simple. CLG first completes an intake, meeting with the person facing tickets.

As part of that process, a CLG staff member listens to the person's story and together, the two come up with a plan for accessing support, tailored to the individual's needs.

'Rehabilitation and stabilization'

The individual then attends court with a CLG representative who presents their personal circumstances and support plan to the court.

Once the person has completed their agreed-upon tasks, the matter comes back before the justice of the peace for an update at which time, the Crown applies to have the tickets withdrawn.

The city and CLG have teamed up with a number of local non-profits to help make these connections.

For many, bylaw convictions and unpaid tickets are a barrier to accessing other services.

For that reason, Community Court will also help those who face bylaw convictions because they failed to show up for their court appearances.

"Our goal is to set these individuals on a path toward rehabilitation and stabilization," said the City of Calgary in a statement provided to CBC News.

A person interested in Community Court can show up on the last Wednesday of every month to meet with CLG.

The city says anyone facing vulnerabilities charges under any municipal bylaw is welcome to attend.