MONTREAL – The staggering number of student protest-related arrests in Quebec — 2,500 and counting — is about to add costs and delays to an already overburdened justice system.
The historic number has prompted two questions: what is the short-term impact on the system and what is the long-term impact on those rounded up?
Some of the accused will face lengthy waits to actually get to trial, while others will encounter similar delays fighting their fines.
Constitutional challenges are inevitable against some of the laws used to end protests, and some people will face the prospect of a criminal record that could hang over them for years.
The end result will be more pressure on the justice system, even though authorities appear confident they can deal with the numbers.
In Montreal, where most of the marches have taken place, a spokesman for the director of criminal prosecutions says 53 cases are before the courts for criminal infractions since February 2012.
“That doesn’t include cases that could be transferred to us eventually,” says Crown spokesman Jean-Pascal Boucher, whose office prosecutes the most serious cases.
“The director of criminal prosecutions has the human resources and manpower necessary to deal with these cases.”
Three people were hit with criminal charges following rioting in Victoriaville at a recent Quebec Liberal party meeting and three other cases remain pending in that file.
But Boucher says no criminal cases have been reported in the province’s other major jurisdictions of Sherbrooke, Quebec City and Gatineau.
While there are no firm tallies, at least 2,500 people have been arrested and fined since the student demonstrations began three months ago.
That number includes 518 arrests in Montreal on Wednesday night. With further arrests in Sherbrooke and Quebec City, the final number that night swelled to about 700.
Since this February, Montreal alone has had more than 1,500 arrests, according to police figures. The majority have been ticketed and given hefty fines for violating the province’s highway safety code and municipal bylaws.
But it’s obvious many are unclear on the ticketing process. One exasperated defence lawyer told Twitter followers on Thursday not to call her in the middle of the night.
“We don’t call legal aid, or a lawyer in the middle of the night because we were issued a ticket,” tweeted Veronique Robert. “A little calm despite the context, please.”
Some in Montreal have been charged under a new anti-mask bylaw that results in fines for demonstrators who cover their faces during public protests.
Quebec’s controversial Bill 78, emergency legislation designed to severely undermine the ability of student groups to impose school shutdowns at faculties, has been used sparingly as authorities try to figure out how to apply it.
The use of the safety code has already been contested in court and a Montreal civil rights lawyer says the anti-mask bylaw and Bill 78 could also be challenged.
Julius Grey says it’s a good thing students are being ticketed and not charged criminally.
“I prefer them using this rather than using the Criminal Code because it doesn’t create a criminal record for people,” Grey said in a phone interview.
“A criminal record is an absolutely devastating thing, nothing is ever forgotten and 30 years later people will be coming up (listed) as a convicted criminal.”
“I still think it’s terrible but I think it’s very important not to give criminal records to idealistic students.”
The mounting number of fines and arrests is a cause for concern, according to student leader Leo Bureau-Blouin.
“In three months: 2500 arrests / Night of May 23: 450 arrests – worrisome arrests that show how improvised Bill 78 is,” Blouin wrote on Twitter.
Many of the fines levied in recent weeks are expected to be contested. While they won’t have a lasting effect on a permanent record, the cases promise to clog up Quebec’s municipal court system.
Emmanuel Hessler, 31, an independent filmmaker, was on his way to join the protest on Wednesday when he was caught in the police operation.
After six hours of detention and being photographed, he received a $634 fine — a ticket he plans to contest. He says others he was with were simply trying to get home when they were rounded up by police and held.
Hessler said he’s a little apprehensive about heading back out but is determined as ever.
“(The ticketing) is certainly unjustified and it only makes people more frustrated,” Hessler said.
Criminal lawyer Steven Slimovitch says people don’t always grasp the kind of problems that come with having a criminal record.
“It’s there (the record) and I can assure it doesn’t help you,” said Slimovitch, adding it’s common to have problems travelling or even applying for work in some professions.
And it’s no longer easy to erase a record. The Conservative government has quadrupled the cost of getting a criminal pardon, now called a “record suspension.”
“We are quickly moving towards a society where there will be two classes of people — those with criminal records and those without,” said Grey.
“It’s not that the students don’t understand, but I think our whole society doesn’t know just how serious criminal record-keeping is and how important it is to move towards a system where things can be expunged.”
Cases can already take years to snake through the system to trial. Quebec court and municipal courts are the venue for most non-major crimes. A spokesman for Montreal’s municipal court says they are prepared to add more help if necessary.
City spokesman Gonzalo Nunez says there is no foreseeable congestion or overflow because the municipal court already processes nearly 1,000 criminal cases a week.
“We already have the necessary resources in terms of prosecutors and judges,” Nunez said in an email, adding the first cases would only be heard in early 2013.
The courts have already been used readily during the protest — mainly by students attempting to gain injunctions to allow themselves to gain access to class.