By: Professor Janet Mosher, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University

By: Professor Janet Mosher, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University
Welfare Fraud:
The Constitution of Social Assistance as Crime
By: Professor Janet Mosher, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University
and Professor Joe Hermer, Division of Social Sciences, University of Toronto at
July 2005
This paper was prepared for the Law Commission of Canada. The views expressed are
those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Commission.
Table of Contents
Acknowledgements ........................................................................................................ 3
Table of Abbreviations ................................................................................................... 4
Executive Summary ........................................................................................................ 5
1 Introduction............................................................................................................. 10
2 An Overview of Social Assistance Reforms in Ontario ...................................... 15
2.a Re-Conceptualization of Purpose ...................................................................... 18
2.b Benefit Reduction............................................................................................... 19
2.c Workfare ............................................................................................................ 20
2.d New Definition of Spouse................................................................................... 23
3 Welfare Fraud.......................................................................................................... 26
3.a Defining Fraud ................................................................................................... 26
3.b The Extent of Welfare Fraud .............................................................................. 33
3.c Measures to Respond........................................................................................ 38
Fraud Control Policy Directive ..................................................................... 40
Information Sharing Agreements................................................................. 41
3.c.iii Expanded Powers for Eligibility Review Officers ......................................... 41
3.c.iv Verification Procedures ............................................................................... 43
Welfare Fraud Hotlines................................................................................ 45 Bans on Receipt of Benefits - Zero Tolerance Policies ............................... 46
4 Life on O.W.............................................................................................................. 48
5 Circumstances giving rise to rule violations or fraud ........................................ 54
5.a Features............................................................................................................. 54
Complexity................................................................................................... 54
Counter-Intuitiveness................................................................................... 55
5.a.iii Instability...................................................................................................... 56
5.b Undeclared Income............................................................................................ 56
5.c Man-in-the-house............................................................................................... 61
6 Processing of Welfare Fraud Cases ..................................................................... 69
6.a Variation............................................................................................................. 70
6.b Criminal Investigations and Charter Implications ............................................... 72
6.c Consideration of Personal Circumstances ......................................................... 77
6.d Legal Representation......................................................................................... 79
6.e Expert Evidence................................................................................................. 81
7 Sentencing .............................................................................................................. 81
7.a Sentences Imposed ........................................................................................... 82
7.b Justificatory Framework ..................................................................................... 83
7.c Conditional Sentences ....................................................................................... 88
7.d The Relevance of Context ................................................................................. 92
8 Income Tax Evasion ............................................................................................. 101
9 Employment Standards Violations ..................................................................... 113
Conclusion......................................................................................................... 120
Throughout this Report, we draw not only upon our research of the secondary material
but importantly, also upon twenty-three semi-structured interviews with lawyers and
community legal workers in Ontario's community legal clinic system conducted between
July and October 2004. These interviews provided us with a very rich source of firsthand knowledge of both the operation of the welfare fraud regime, as well as its impact
upon the daily lives of low-income people in receipt of welfare. We are very grateful to all
those who generously agreed to meet with us and to be interviewed for the project. We
also wish to thank the Ministry of Community and Social Services and in particular
M.P.P. Deb Matthews and Debbie Moretta, Director of the Ontario Disability Support
We would like to acknowledge the very able research assistance provided by Aida
Abraha, Vanessa Iafolla and Shannon Slattery. We also wish to thank the Law
Commission of Canada for its support of this research project, and in particular, Steven
Bittle. The comments provided by those who reviewed earlier drafts of this work were
extremely valuable and we want to thank all those who provided us with comments.
Table of Abbreviations
C.A.P.A .–Canada Assistance Plan Act
C.R.A.–Canada Revenue Agency
C.R.I.L.F.–Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family
C.V.P.–Consolidated Verification Procedures
E.R.O.–Eligibility Review Officer
E.S.A.–Employment Standards Act
E.S.O.–Employment Standards Officer
F.B.A.–Family Benefits Act
G.W.A.A.–General Welfare Assistance Act
I.T.A.–Income Tax Act
K.P.M.G .–Klynveld, Peat Marwick, Goerdeler
M.P.P.–Member of Provincial Parliament
O.D.S.P.–Ontario Disability Support Program
O.D.S.P.A.–Ontario Disability Support Program Act
O.S.A.P.–Ontario Student Assistance Program
O.W.–Ontario Works
O.W.A.–Ontario Works Act
P.O.A.–Provincial Offences Act
S.A.R.A.–Social Assistance Reform Act
S.A.R.C.–Social Assistance Review Committee
S.T.E.P.–Supports Toward Employment Program
Executive Summary
In the past decade 'welfare fraud' has attracted substantial political and public attention.
In undertaking the most significant reforms to Ontario's social assistance regime in
decades, fighting welfare fraud was expressly identified as a central objective, and a
vast array of new measures were introduced to assist the government to win this battle.
‘Welfare fraud’ is now policed in such a way as to evoke a major crime against the
public, one that is deserving of widespread moral condemnation and intensive policing
and punishment. The impression that there is widespread defrauding of benefits by
recipients has been so successfully installed in public discourse and government policy
that social assistance is now primarily viewed not as a necessary form of support for
those in need, but rather negatively, as a burdensome problem of regulation, policing
and crime control. Those on social assistance, the far majority of them women and
children, are widely viewed as morally suspect persons, criminals in waiting poised to
abuse a public expenditure and trust. But in fact, much of the conduct so frequently
characterized as 'fraud' falls far outside the boundaries of formal criminal law to include
virtually all situations where a rule is breached. Moreover, because the welfare system is
rife with literally hundreds of complex rules, errors on the part of both recipients and
bureaucrats are not only common, but unavoidable. Yet, it is often these unintended rule
violations that are portrayed as the 'fraud' within the system.
In order to fully understand how 'welfare fraud' is presently constituted, we argue that it
is imperative to locate it within a much wider shift that has occurred in how poor people
and poverty are positioned within the character of the ‘reformed’ welfare state. Our
review of welfare reform in Ontario reveals that the ideal of the poor having an
entitlement to assistance based on need has now been widely diminished, and replaced
with a construction of poor people as a public burden who should themselves be held
responsible, and even personally blamed, for their circumstances. The principle of
entitlement has been replaced with a narrow view of the entrepreneurial citizen, who, as
defined by the Ontario Works Act, 1997 is self-reliant, responsible and accountable to
the taxpayers of Ontario. A significant reduction in benefits, the introduction of workfare,
and a revised definition of spouse are each concrete instances reflective of this shift, and
each has significant implications for 'welfare fraud'.
Welfare fraud is frequently characterized as pervasive, although if one considers actual
instances of criminal convictions for fraud, the incidence is exceptionally low: convictions
represented roughly 0.1% of the social assistance caseload in 2001-02, notwithstanding
more than 38,000 investigations being undertaken. The notion that fraud is rampant has
been used to support a wide array of mechanisms to detect and deter fraud. These
include broad consents to the release of personal information, information-sharing
agreements with a host of state and non-state entities, expanded powers for eligibility
review officers, consolidated verification procedures (requiring the extensive and ongoing production and verification of documentation), provincial and local fraud control
units, protocols negotiated with local police and crown attorneys, a toll-free welfare
hotline, and for a period of time in Ontario, a lifetime ban on receipt of welfare if
convicted of welfare fraud. Significantly, notwithstanding that an earlier governmentcommissioned review of social assistance in Ontario concluded that adequate welfare
benefits were the single most important measure to reduce fraud, the Conservative
government of Mike Harris rejected this as an anti-fraud strategy, instead opting to
reduce benefits by 21.6%.
Those who are in receipt of welfare benefits live within the web of surveillance created
by these various measures to detect and deter fraud. They commonly report feeling
distrusted and under suspicion not only in their interactions with the welfare system, but
more broadly with neighbours, landlords, teachers, etc.–that is, with anyone who might
take up the invitation of the government to aid in the fight against welfare fraud by calling
the welfare fraud hotline. The two areas where fraud investigations are most commonly
targeted are the failure to report income, and the failure to disclose that one is living with
a spouse. Several important observations can be made regarding the policing of both
income and intimate relationships. The rules regarding each are complex and often
counter-intuitive and it is frequently difficult to discern when the reporting obligation
arises. Secondly, behaviour which in any other context would never attract criminal
investigation–in fact, behaviour which is frequently lauded–becomes the object of
suspicion, interest, interrogation and potentially sanction: a regular meal at a friend's
house; an evening out on a date or a visit to your home; or the payment of your hydro bill
by your parents. Thirdly, both areas, but especially that of 'spouses', impact most harshly
upon women.
Notwithstanding a Fraud Control directive issued by the Ministry of Community and
Social Services that is to provide the framework for local Ontario Works administrators,
one finds tremendous variation in the processing of welfare fraud cases across the
province. For example, while the directive clearly indicates that the only consideration in
deciding whether the matter should be referred to the police is whether there is sufficient
evidence to suspect intent to commit fraud, many local offices have established a dollar
value threshold, most commonly set at $5, 000. Cases below this amount (the break
point for indictable fraud under the Criminal Code) will not be referred. Some local
offices will consider a host of personal factors–was need the motivation, was there
domestic violence, what will be the consequences of conviction–before referring, while
others refuse to do so.
There are, however, common concerns that emerge across local offices. Perhaps the
most significant of these is the pervasive misapprehension that rule violations of any sort
constitute criminal fraud. As noted above, there are substantial and on-going reporting
requirements, including, for example, the obligation to report a change in circumstances
or the receipt of income. If a recipient has failed to report as required, this is commonly
characterized as fraud. Yet, in a great many of these instances, the conduct falls far
short of what is actually necessary to satisfy the Criminal Code test for fraud. A related
error that is commonly made where a recipient says she didn't know or didn't understand
the rule in issue (for example, that she didn't understand that most loans are considered
income and are thus reportable), is to respond with the invocation that "ignorance of the
law" is no excuse. But this is an incorrect application of the doctrine; her lack of
knowledge of the rules is not being invoked to argue that she did not know the law of
fraud and hence cannot be guilty of fraud, but rather to negate the mens rea of the
offence. Yet, over and over, we heard of instances where recipients were threatened
with fraud charges (and often agreed to terminations and over-payments as a result) or
were charged with fraud and plead guilty in precisely these kinds of circumstances. The
misapprehensions as to what conduct actually constitutes criminal fraud are rife
throughout the social assistance system. And perhaps more distressingly, can also be
found within the criminal justice system itself.
If convicted of welfare fraud, the sentence will be a particularly harsh one. The courts
have long held that general deterrence is the paramount principle and that absent
exceptional mitigating circumstances, a sentence of incarceration is warranted. It is not
at all uncommon to find periods of incarceration being ordered for even relatively small
amounts of fraud (less than $5,000) for a first offender. While the availability of
conditional sentences may appear to ease the harshness of incarceration, this is often
not the case for low income accused, as was made distressingly clear by the death of
Kimberley Rogers, who died while serving a period of house arrest for welfare fraud,
eight months pregnant, permitted to leave her home (a small apartment without air
conditioning) for only three hours per week. Her crime had been to attend college and
receive OSAP, without disclosing it, while in receipt of Ontario Works. The sentencing
judge ordered her to serve her sentence not in jail, but under house arrest, because she
had, in his view, already taken too much from her community. In other words, she was to
fund her own incarceration. At the time the sentence was imposed, she was also subject
to a three-month ban on the receipt of welfare benefits.
In their sentencing decisions, judges commonly characterize welfare fraud as a breach
of trust and as a crime against every member of the community (both are counted as
aggravating factors). Judges are inclined to describe those accused of welfare fraud as
taking from those "genuinely in need", implying that the accused persons before them
were not genuinely in need, and ignoring the reality that in the vast majority of cases
where fraud charges are laid, need was the motivating factor. Judges frequently
describe the accused's poverty as being of her own making, and will rarely find any of
her compelling personal circumstances (the depth of her poverty, her struggle to provide
for her children on an inadequate income, the abuse she may have experienced from an
intimate partner) as mitigating considerations.
The normative character of the ‘crime’ of welfare fraud is also revealed by the disparities
that exist between welfare fraud regulation and other forms of economic misconduct. In
almost every respect ‘tax evasion’ and ‘employee standards violations’ (in particular the
failure of employers to pay wages owing) are viewed in a much less punitive and severe
light in terms of the moral culpability attached to the conduct, the range of detection and
enforcement tools utilized and the penalties that follow upon conviction. This disparity
suggests a clear normative distinction at work, one that is aligned with neo-liberal values
that views poor people as not deserving of support, but rather of intense scrutiny and
inequitable treatment.
We are drawn to the conclusion that the receipt of social assistance itself has become
criminalized through the category of welfare fraud. Simply being on social assistance
results in one being positioned as a penal object in a climate of moral condemnation,
surveillance, suspicion and penalty. This criminalization is particularly gendered in that
the majority of people on social assistance are women, and the majority of them are
single parents. And it is not only the intimate aspect of women’s lives that is utilized as
an area of control in social assistance regulation, but also the social sphere of everyday
life as well. And despite a rhetoric of ‘community responsibility’ in government discourse,
it is the very people that might constitute a support network in the community–
neighbours, family, boyfriends, landlords, school officials–that are either reresponsibilized as agents to snitch on any perceived ‘fraud’, or are possibly complicit in
rule breaking by being supportive, by for example, buying food for a mother and her child
who have exhausted what is a completely inadequate benefit for that month. And the
insidious character of this criminalization completely devalues women as mothers–that,
for example, being a single parent surviving in poverty constitutes simply ‘sitting around’
and ‘doing nothing’. It is no wonder that being on social assistance has been
characterized by an experience of fear, retribution and isolation–qualities that ‘cracking
down’ on welfare fraud intentionally generate.
Welfare Fraud: The Constitution of Social Assistance as Crime
In the past decade 'welfare fraud' has attracted substantial political and public attention.
In undertaking the most significant reforms to Ontario's social assistance regime in
decades, fighting welfare fraud was expressly identified as a central objective, and a
vast array of new measures were introduced to assist the government to win this battle.
‘Welfare fraud’ is now policed in such a way as to evoke a major crime against the
public, one that is deserving of widespread moral condemnation and intensive policing
and punishment. The impression that there is widespread defrauding of benefits by
recipients has been so successfully installed in public discourse and government policy
that social assistance is now primarily viewed not as a necessary form of support for
those in need, but rather negatively, as a burdensome problem of regulation, policing
and crime control. Those on social assistance, the far majority of them women and
children, are widely viewed as morally suspect persons, criminals in waiting poised to
abuse a public expenditure and trust. But in fact, much of the conduct so frequently
characterized as 'fraud' falls far outside the boundaries of formal criminal law to include
virtually all situations where a rule is breached. Moreover, because the welfare system is
rife with literally hundreds of complex rules, errors on the part of both recipients and
bureaucrats are not only common, but unavoidable. Yet, it is often these unintended rule
violations that are portrayed as the 'fraud' within the system.
In order to fully understand how 'welfare fraud' is presently constituted, we argue that it
is imperative to locate it within a much wider shift that has occurred in how poor people
and poverty are positioned within the character of the ‘reformed’ welfare state. Our
review of welfare reform in Ontario reveals that the ideal of the poor having an
entitlement to assistance based on need has now been widely diminished, and replaced
with a construction of poor people as a public burden who should themselves be held
responsible, and even personally blamed, for their circumstances. While the provision of
social assistance has always been a contested role of the state, there has been a
significant hardening of the view that receiving social assistance amounts to getting
‘something for nothing’ by people who are lazy and simply do not want to be responsible
for themselves and their families.
In the place of need-based entitlement, or any principle stating the importance of
providing an adequate level of support to the disadvantaged, is a narrow view of the
entrepreneurial citizen, who, as defined by the Ontario Works Act, 1997 is self-reliant,
responsible and accountable to the taxpayers of Ontario. 1 With the principle of
entitlement removed, these reforms construct a form of contractualism between those on
social assistance and the ‘honest taxpayer’, one that is enforced through the logic of a
narrow economic rationalism. The introduction of ‘workfare’ (a term that tellingly signals
neither employment nor social assistance) is the most dramatic tool that enforces this
contractualism between the taxpayer and those on social assistance, one that ensures
that no one will get ‘something for nothing’.
This shift towards individual responsibility also encompasses a notion of responsibility
for 'family'. In the context of the reforms to welfare, this has been enacted through the
introduction of an expansive definition of 'spouse', wherein co-residency creates a de
facto presumption of spousal status, and disqualifies one from state support as a 'single
person'. The impact of these reforms has been to disqualify very significant numbers of
women, largely single mothers, from eligibility for state economic support, and has
forced them into relationships of economic dependence upon men who frequently have,
at law, no corresponding obligation to support them. Our study reveals that the
surveillance and policing of women's intimate relationships constitutes one of the most
significant pre-occupations of the welfare fraud regime. The policing of welfare fraud
systematically targets the bodies, social relations, and self-identities of women, and
women are far more likely than men to be accused of welfare fraud.
The repositioning of those on social assistance has not just resulted in a diminished
location within a political economy of obligation, but has at the same time resulted in the
poor being made more visible as central targets of what has been characterized as the
entrenchment of the politics of a ‘crime-control’ movement. These circumstances can be
productively contrasted with what David Garland has characterized as a ‘penal-welfare
era’. 2 The penal-welfare era, that peaked in the early 1970’s, was characterized by a
climate wherein the state itself was viewed to have a monopoly on crime fighting, and
generally enjoyed widespread public trust that it could in fact keep crime under control.
Ontario Works Act, 1997, S.O. 1997, c.25 Schedule A, section 1.
This ‘top down’ administration of order constructed the citizen as a passive and trusting
subject, happy to leave crime and punishment in the hands of the professional, that is,
state agents and experts. Spending on social programs (guided, for example, by liberal
notions such as rehabilitation) was viewed as necessary, and as politically feasible at a
time of robust economic performance.
In the last thirty years, there has been a shift that is radical and sweeping. Facilitated by
neo-liberal values that have dominated how the welfare state should be reformed, this
movement has been characterized as a ‘crime control complex’ 3 that has (quite
paradoxically in an era of ‘less government’) vastly expanded the field of social order
which the state can now claim as a legitimate regulatory interest. The encompassing of
vague notions of safety, security and victimization anchored in symbolic appeals to
emotion and sentiment, the targeting of small forms of disorder that are dubiously linked
with serious crime, the mobilization of agents, institutions and mechanisms that are only
tenuously connected to the state and formal legal processes: these are central aspects
of the features of a regulatory network that extend far beyond the traditional targets of
the criminal justice system. One over-arching effect of this shift is that areas of state
interest that were traditionally conceived of as spheres of ‘public policy’ (such as
education, social welfare and immigration) have been translated into problems of crime,
social disorder and regulatory control.
Our study reveals that the network of social assistance regulation now in place to
combat welfare fraud exemplifies the shift that has occurred to a ‘crime-control’ society
in two central ways: first, the major techniques of social assistance regulation are only
tenuously connected to the formal exercise of law and criminal justice institutions; and
second, and closely tied to this, a dispersed network of agents, actors and techniques,
many of which exist outside offices of formal social control, are mobilized to participate in
this regulation. The result, as our study documents, is that those on social assistance
are being policed by an extensive network of regulations made up of a mesh of both
legal and normative forms of control.
David Garland, The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society
(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001).
It should be no surprise that, given the replacement of entitlement with a contractual
notion of exchange in social assistance administration, the primary actors who
administer these goals focus on ‘eligibility review’. Eligibility Review Officers (who
investigate social assistance eligibility) have been vested with extensive powers that go
beyond what we associate with police power. Under the Regulations they can, for
example, compel neighbours to provide information about someone suspected of
‘welfare fraud’, are authorized to conduct searches without a warrant in non-dwelling
houses in the course of an investigation, and with or without notice can conduct 'home
visits'. And these powers are made even more penetrating and extensive when one
considers the mass of vague prescriptions and prohibitions that are now in place which
govern social assistance recipients. Characterized as “kafkaesque” and “fiendishly
difficult", there are some 800 rules and regulations that apply to determine eligibility for
social assistance, many of which are vague and applied at the discretion of local
officials. Our study reveals two areas of regulation that create major spaces for
capricious and extremely intrusive investigations: the resuscitated ‘man-in-the-house’
rule (through the definition of 'spouse') and the definition of 'income'. The Regulations
governing both 'spouses' and 'income' place the recipient (the majority of them single
women, many of whom are single parents) under a climate of almost total surveillance,
where conduct that one would assume to have nothing to do with ‘fraud’, such as a
boyfriend visiting for dinner, or bringing leftovers home from supper at a relative's place,
can become grounds for an accusation of fraud and the withholding or terminating of
This form of regulation is made even more penetrating when one considers that ‘the
community’ is responsibilized to play a civic role in fighting the menace of welfare fraud,
and is given a specific opportunity to do so in the use of the ‘welfare fraud hotline’.
Neighbours, landlords, disgruntled boyfriends, or anyone with a mere suspicion of fraud,
can call the hotline anonymously and accuse someone of being ineligible to be on
assistance. And because the hotline enables one to simply gossip about someone (and
do so anonymously) anyone with a grudge or dislike of a person on assistance can bring
her into the arms of an investigation.
In addition to this mobilization of welfare eligibility agents who rely, in part, on the
participation of the community, is a set of new administrative and bureaucratic features
that allow for another layer of surveillance and accusation. Social assistance recipients
are subject to an extensive information-sharing network across a wide spectrum of state
and non-state entities, and more specifically are targeted by consolidated verification
procedures (C.V.P.). Introduced as part of the larger reform of government called the
“business transformation project” this mechanism flags files for fraud investigation based
on pre-determined risk factors (such as how long one has been in receipt of social
assistance) that assume widespread fraud is present. Given the intense and aggressive
character of this regulation, and the view that ‘welfare fraud’ is a serious and extensive
crime against the public, one would expect that thousands of criminal convictions are
registered every year (or at least offences under the provincial statute). Perhaps not
surprisingly though, what is viewed as the successful catching of welfare fraudsters
almost never involves either criminal or provincial charges; instead people are often
administratively disentitled from assistance by local officers within this extensive maze of
regulation and surveillance. And while few may be formally charged, virtually everyone
on welfare struggles to survive and comply within this intense and unrelenting web of
surveillance, experiencing on-going and profound violations of privacy and living in fear
of a 'fraud' allegation. Moreover, very substantial numbers of recipients are subjected to
fraud accusations and resulting investigations in which they are frequently put in the
humiliating position of having to explain how they are managing to survive on benefits
which are acknowledged to be wholly inadequate.
This report documents in detail how ‘welfare fraud’ is now constituted as a crime against
the public, and more broadly, how the receipt of social assistance is being re-constituted
as itself a crime. We begin by outlining the major reforms to social assistance
undertaken in the past decade, including the reduction of benefits, the introduction of
workfare, and the revised definition of 'spouse'. We note the shifts described above, and
analyze the importance of these shifts in the constitution not merely of welfare fraud, but
of the receipt of social assistance as crime. In Part 3, we examine the lack of definitional
clarity encompassed by the term ‘welfare fraud’ as it is policed as a category of crime. Of
particular interest is the conflation of ‘error’ and ‘misuse’ with a criminal notion of fraud, a
slippage that provokes questions about how the culpability and intent of those accused
are configured within the current regime. The broad array of conduct that is commonly
swept within the rubric of ‘welfare fraud’ is examined further in Part 3.b & c where we
review what is known about the extent of fraud in social assistance regulation, and
summarize the measures that have been mobilized to respond to what is problematically
presented as a major crime problem. We then move on, in Part 4, to outline the
circumstances of those on social assistance, an existence marked by fear, scrutiny and
moral apprehension at the choices that are faced by those in desperate need of
economic and social support. With a sense of what it is like being a recipient of welfare
sketched out, we then turn, in Part 5, to the circumstances that most commonly give rise
to welfare investigations: undeclared 'income’; and living with undeclared 'spouses'. The
processing of welfare fraud cases that stem from these suspicious circumstances is
examined in Part 6, where we focus on the discretionary and often vague administration
of policy that is carried out in local fraud control offices. The tone of moral condemnation
and recrimination which characterizes the aggressive pursuit of social assistance
recipients suspected of fraud is most effectively dramatized in themes that emerge in the
sentences that are given to those relatively few who are actually convicted of criminal
fraud, an area we explore in Part 7. Judges who convict individuals of criminal fraud in
social assistance cases often talk in terms of a violation of public trust and the
deprivation of the truly needy, and frequently misapprehend both the realities of living on
welfare, and the level of benefits provided by our existing welfare system. In Parts 8 & 9
we draw a comparison with two other areas of economic misconduct: income tax
evasion and the failure to respect employment standards and in particular the obligation
to pay wages. The disparities that exist between these two regimes and ‘welfare fraud’
are striking, not only in terms of the formal mechanisms of regulation and punishment,
but also in relation to the normative distinctions that appear to operate in terms of moral
worthiness and ideas of legitimacy in the current political climate. We conclude by briefly
summarizing the points of our discussion, which leads us to the conclusion that receiving
social assistance itself has become criminalized through the regulation of what is
constituted as welfare fraud.
An Overview of Social Assistance Reforms in Ontario
Fundamental reforms to the social assistance system in Ontario were ushered into
existence with the passage of the Social Assistance Reform Act (S.A.R.A.). 4 The
S.A.R.A. contains two schedules, the Ontario Works Act, 1997
(into effect May 1,
Social Assistance Reform Act, S.O. 1997, c.25.
Ontario Works Act, supra note 1.
1998) and the Ontario Disability Support Program Act, 1997 6 (into effect June 1, 1998).
In her closing comments on the third reading of Bill 142 (the S.A.R.A.), then Minister of
Community and Social Services, the Honourable Janet Ecker, highlighted three
objectives of the reforms embodied in the Bill: to meet the unique needs of persons with
disabilities; to make self sufficiency the overriding goal of social assistance; and to fight
welfare fraud. 7 Similarly and more recently, Debbie Moretta, the Director of the Ontario
Disability Support Program (O.D.S.P.), described the Ontario Works (O.W.) regime as "a
labour adjustment program, which provides short-term financial and employment
assistance to persons in financial need while they participate in mandatory activities that
help them take the shortest route to paid employment and financial independence" and
noted that "one of the objectives of the new legislative framework was to address abuse
of the social assistance system." 8 With the passage of the S.A.R.A., fighting welfare
fraud had come to occupy a central place in the new social assistance regime.
In many important respects the reforms embodied in the new legislation reflect a marked
departure from the principles and concrete recommendations arising from what was
perhaps the most comprehensive review of social assistance ever undertaken in
Ontario, Transitions, the report of the Social Assistance Review Committee (S.A.R.C.). 9
Rather, the historical antecedents for the embodied reforms are more dated, reaching
back to the Poor Laws of the seventeenth century and the radical liberalism of the late
19th and early 20th centuries. 10
In our review of the reforms we focus primarily on the O.W. regime. While the Ontario
Works Act (O.W.A.) and the Ontario Disability Support Program Act (O.D.S.P.A.) share
many common features, there is also much to distinguish them. Unlike the former social
assistance framework in which single parents and those with disabilities were
distinguished from the able-bodied 'employable', it is the existence of a recognized
Ontario Disability Support Program Act, 1997, S.O. 1997, c.25 Schedule B.
Ontario Legislative Assembly, Official Reports of Debates (Hansard) 1st Session, 36th Leg., Nov
25, 1997.
Affidavit of Debbie Moretta, sworn August 29, 2003 submitted in Broomer et al. v. Ontario
(A.G.), Toronto 02-CV-229203CM3 (Ontario Superior Court of Justice) at para.8 and 42.
The Social Assistance Review Committee, Chaired by George Thomson, was established in
1986 by the Ontario Government. The Committee's final report, Transitions, was released in
September, 1988. Report of the Social Assistance Review Committee, Transitions (Toronto:
Queen's Printer, 1988).
disability alone that determines whether one falls under the O.W. or O.D.S.P. regimes. 11
Benefits for the able-bodied are significantly less than for those with statutorily
recognized disabilities; and the able-bodied are subjected to a range of rules regarding
employment and employment preparedness that do not apply to those found to be
We have identified five significant reforms, each of which contributes to the constitution
of social assistance as crime: a re-conceptualization of the purpose of social assistance;
a significant reduction in benefit levels; the introduction of 'workfare'; the return of the
'man in the house' rules through a new definition of 'spouse'; and the creation of an
expansive and extremely punitive fraud control regime. While these reforms were
initiated through provincial legislation, it is crucial to note that many of the most
significant reforms were made possible by the federal government's retreat from the
social policy field, most notably through the revocation of the Canada Assistance Plan
Act (C.A.P.A.). 12 The C.A.P.A., and the various federal-provincial agreements negotiated
thereto, provided for federal funding of provincial social assistance programs upon
certain conditions being maintained. Among these conditions was the requirement that
benefit levels be set in a manner that would "take into account" the basic requirements
(defined to include food, shelter, clothing, fuel, utilities, household supplies and personal
requirements) of a person in need. 13 Significantly, in the case of Finlay v. Canada
(Minister of Finance), the Supreme Court of Canada found that this required provinces to
establish benefit levels that were "compatible" with an individual's basic requirements.
This, the Court held, did not require provinces to set benefit levels to "fulfil" or "equal"
basic requirements, but it did require more than a mere "consideration" of these
requirements. While the decision of the court granted provinces considerable leeway in
determining benefit levels, importantly, it did require provinces to set levels that
See Martha T. McCluskey, "Efficiency and Social Citizenship: Challenging the Neoliberal Attack
on the Welfare State" (2003), 73 Indiana Law Journal 783.
Of course, not all disabilities qualify one for assistance under the more generous O.D.S.P.
regime. One must satisfy the statutory definition of 'disability'. The vast majority of applicants do
not qualify at first instance, but for those who access legal representation and pursue an appeal,
the success rates on appeal are extraordinarily high. See Income Security Advocacy Clinic,
Denial By Design (2003), (last accessed, March 29, 2005).
Canada Assistance Plan Act 1966-67, R.S.C. 1985, C-1 revoked April 1, 1996 and replaced by
the Canada Health and Social Transfer.
Ibid, subs. 2 (a) and 6(2) (a).
approximated (were compatible with) basic requirements. 14 Moreover, the Court's
interpretation created a right to benefit levels compatible with basic requirements that
could be asserted by social assistance recipients. C.A.P.A.'s revocation left the door
wide open to provinces to set benefits as and how they pleased, without any necessary
regard for basic needs/requirements. And of course, its revocation signaled the demise
of the right established by Finlay. The revocation of C.A.P.A. also facilitated the
introduction of workfare, another crucial provincial reform. C.A.P.A. had stipulated that
every agreement shall provide that "no person shall be denied assistance because he
refuses or has refused to take part in a work activity project". 15 The C.A.P.A. was
replaced with the Canadian Health and Social Transfer, a block grant for welfare,
education and health combined, and provinces are free to apportion the grant between
these areas as they choose. Moreover, the conditions of funding that accompanied
federal transfers pursuant to C.A.P.A. no longer exist under the Canada Health and
Social Transfer.
Re-Conceptualization of Purpose
Section one of the O.W.A. provides that the purpose of the Act is to establish a program
(a) recognizes individual responsibility and promotes self reliance through
(b) provides temporary financial assistance to those most in need while they satisfy
obligations to become and stay employed;
(c) effectively serves people needing assistance; and
(d) is accountable to the taxpayers of Ontario. 16
This statement of purpose, and the reforms enacted to further that purpose (e.g.
workfare, lifetime bans), reflects a profound departure from the principle of entitlement
that, while never fully realized in practice, nevertheless formed an articulated basis for
both provincial and federal legislation. 17 Indeed, the S.A.R.C., in its review of Social
Assistance in Ontario, identified a rights or entitlement-based approach as a central,
guiding principle of the social assistance regime. The first of its operating principles
provides that, "all members of the community have a presumptive right to social
Finlay v. Canada (Minister of Finance), [1993] 1 S.C.R. 1080.
C.A.P.A. supra note 12, in particular subs. 15(3) (a). For a discussion of the gendered impact of
C.A.P.A's revocation see, Shelagh Day and Gwen Brodsky, "Women and the Equality Deficit: The
Impact of Restructuring Canada's Social Programs", Status of Women Canada, March 1998.
O.W.A., supra note 1, section 1.
C.A.P.A., supra note 12, preamble.
assistance based on need" and the S.A.R.C. further observes that, "the support that
society provides is not to be understood as a gift or privilege, nor as charity to the
disadvantage. Rather, it represents a right to which all members of society are
entitled." 18
The statement of purpose in Section 1 of the O.W.A. suggests that the government of
the day had been persuaded by a competing line of thinking that maintained that it was
"critical that this standard [of need in the C.A.P.A.] be removed, and replaced with a
more general standard which makes explicit that the receipt of income security benefits
in Canada is a privilege, not a right, and that appropriate behaviour and certain
responsibilities are expected of recipients in return, both in terms of honesty and
movement towards independence as rapidly as possible." 19
In the view of many, the statement of purpose of the Act reflected a momentous
redrawing of the social contract, from an understanding of that contract in which the
unemployment endemic to a capitalist economy created an obligation on the part of the
state to provide for those whom the market would not or could not employ, to one where
the unemployed and the unemployable are obliged as a condition of benefits, "to
become and stay employed". For others, cast slightly differently, the historical
compromise between capital and labour that had resulted in at least limited forms of
social rights after the Second World War was coming unraveled. 20
Benefit Reduction
Shortly after being elected in 1995 on its promise of a ‘common sense revolution’, the
Conservative government introduced a 21.6 percent cut in benefit levels, effective
October 2, 1995. There had been no increase in benefits until the spring of 2004, when a
3 percent increase was announced by a recently elected Liberal government. With a rate
of inflation of 12.8 percent in the intervening years, the total decline in purchasing power
S.A.R.C. supra, note 9 at pp 10 & 11.
C.A. MacDonald & Associates, Reducing Fraud and Waste in Income Security Programs in
Canada (Edmonton: C.A. MacDonald & Associates, 1995) at pp. 16-17.
Edward Broadbent, "Citizenship Today: Is There a Crisis?", in Dave Broad & Wayne Antony,
eds., Citizens or Consumers? Social Policy in a Market Society (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing,
between 1995 and 2002 was a staggering 34 percent. 21 Prior to the 3 percent increase,
a single person in Ontario received $520/month (comprised of a shelter allowance of
$325 and a basic needs allowance of $195); a single parent with one child, a total of
$997/month. Single persons in Ontario received benefits in 2003 that equaled only 35
percent of the poverty line; a single parent with one child, 56 percent. 22 The
diminishment of welfare rates to a level which places recipients (many of them single
mothers with children) into the conditions of abject poverty has been justified by a
political discourse that in an era of the goals of a ‘debt free’ government, those on social
assistance are getting a ‘free ride’ and getting ‘something for nothing’. Growing social
assistance caseloads and corresponding costs were clearly understood to play a
significant role in creating government debt and thus reducing caseload numbers and
the costs for those remaining on the rolls was of central importance. 23 Here too, one
sees a marked departure from the findings of the S.A.R.C. that rates were wholly
inadequate. In the analysis of the S.A.R.C., inadequate rates hindered the transition to
employment and self-sufficiency; in the view of the Conservative government, 'generous'
rates [its characterization] create dependency and operate as a disincentive to work. 24
The O.W.A. conditions the receipt of benefits upon participation in paid work or in
activities to increase the likelihood of becoming and staying employed, and as such,
introduced the practice of what is commonly called 'workfare'. 25 Adult beneficiaries are
required to enter into a 'participation agreement' with the Ministry, spelling out the
'employment assistance' activities that they will undertake. Employment assistance
activities include 'community participation' and any of the following 'employment
measures': job searches; literacy screening, testing, assessment, or programs; basic
education and job-specific skills training; employment placement; screening for
Income Security Advocacy Centre, Ontario Works Basic Needs Allowance, (accessed October 6, 2003).
National Council of Welfare, Welfare Incomes 2003 (Ottawa: National Council of Welfare,
spring 2003) at p.28. Note as well that until December 2004, sponsored immigrants whose
sponsorship had broken down were subjected to an automatic $100/mn deduction unless they
could prove the breakdown was a result of family violence.
See for example, MacDonald supra note 19, Hansard, supra, note 7.
Disturbingly, in defending the rate cuts the Minister of Community and Social Services at the
time, the Honourable David Tsubouchi, indicated that people could get by through measures such
as negotiating for discounts on things like dented tins of tuna or buying food in bulk. He also
maintained that because those on welfare had been given three months notice of the rate cuts,
they had adequate time to prepare for the cuts. Hansard, supra, note 7, Oct. 2 & 3, 1995.
substance addiction; or participation in a program to complete high school or to develop
parenting skills. In addition, every participant has an obligation to make reasonable
efforts to accept and maintain employment "for which he or she is physically capable";
and if employed part-time, to find full-time employment; if employed and still eligible for
assistance, to find employment to increase his or her income. The failure to comply or to
make reasonable efforts will result in the cancellation of benefits for a three or six month
period (depending upon the circumstances). 26
State discourse regarding workfare represents to the public that the poor lack a proper
work ethic and, for their own good, work must be mandated as a condition of benefit
receipt. Implicit is the assumption that withholding benefits from what is, after all, a
residual, end-of-the line program–in other words the threat of absolute destitution–is the
only method by which those on welfare will take up paid employment and leave the
welfare rolls. Implicit as well, and on occasion explicitly vocalized, is the assertion that
those on welfare are, in fact, "doing nothing". Rather they are, as noted above, getting
"something for nothing". Indeed Premier Harris, in defending the rate cuts and the
announced plans to introduce workfare, maintained that "we're paying a significant
number of people, over a million, by the way, of families, 300,000 to 400,000 to sit home
and do nothing. … This [the Conservative's approach] is breaking new ground. This is
not easy. This is something that is a different philosophy. There is a philosophy, create a
cycle of dependency, pay people more money to stay home and do nothing versus give
people an opportunity, give them training, give them work experience, give them jobs". 27
Or as the then Minister of Community and Social Services put it, "[p]eople have got to
learn again to take responsibility for themselves and their families and not leave it to
everyone else to do." 28
The explanation for poverty in this conceptualization is purely individualistic; individuals
are poor because they are lazy, dependent, undisciplined and lack an ethic of work.
From a neo-liberal vantage point, welfare benefits undermine economic performance by
blunting incentives to work; people choose welfare over work, or are so embedded in a
culture of dependency that they cannot even appreciate that paid employment is an
O.W.A., supra note 1, s.4.
O. Reg. 134/98, sections 26-33.
Hansard, supra note 7, September 28, 1995.
Hansard, supra note 7, September 28, 1995.
option. 29 Because in the neo-liberal view welfare benefits undermine work incentives,
they represent a threat to the public. One can also anticipate how readily the stereotype
of welfare recipients as lazy, undisciplined and wanting "something for nothing" can
incorporate as well, a characterization of recipients as potential criminals.
The border that separates the virtuous and the deviant, the full citizen and the secondclass citizen, has particularly profound implications for women. As feminists have argued
for decades, much of women’s labour is done in the home, uncompensated,
unacknowledged and devalued. Much feminist theorizing and activism has attempted to
make this labour visible and to accord it value, including through the provision of
adequate state benefits to single mothers. 30 Significantly, as noted above, welfare
reform in Ontario erased the prior distinction between family benefits (paid to single
parents (overwhelmingly mothers) and those with disabilities) and general welfare
assistance (paid to the able-bodied unemployed). The O.W.A. redefines most single
mothers as workers; women are only exempted from workfare until their children reach
school age (age three or four). 31 The very substantial numbers of single parents rearing
children on social assistance (in 2003, 59 percent of O.W. recipients were women, and
women constitute 94percent of single parents on O.W.) are in the words of the former
Premier of Ontario, "doing nothing". The message is very clear; a job, any job, is a more
important contribution than rearing children and raising children with an income
substantially below the poverty line is a cakewalk.
Andrew Jackson argues that the neo-liberal view here is factually ungrounded. He notes that
there was no link between relative economic growth in the 1990s and levels of public provision.
Andrew Jackson, "Social Citizenship, Social Justice and Economic Efficiency", accessed December 4, 2003.
Linda Gordon, Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare, 1890-1935
(New York: The Free Press, 1994); Margaret Little, No Car, No Radio, No Liquor Permit: The
Moral Regulation of Single Mothers in Ontario 1920-1996 (Toronto, Oxford University Press,
1998); Pat Evans and G. Wekerle, editors, Women and the Canadian Welfare State: Challenges
and Change, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997); Carole Pateman, “The Patriarchal
Welfare State”, in The Disorder of Women: Democracy, Feminism and Political Theory
(Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989).
For an interesting discussion of how workfare in the United States is enforcing a masculine
worker-citizen subject through the deployment of various discursive strategies see Anna C.
Korteweg, “Welfare reform and the subject of the working mother: “Get a job, a better job, then a
career”, (2003) 32 Theory and Society 445.
Study after study has concluded that the overwhelming majority of welfare recipients are
anxious to find work and get off welfare. 32 And contrary to the assumptions of workfare,
substantial numbers of welfare recipients are employed, part-time and full-time and
Workfare also operates from the pretence–a pretence essential to the neo-liberal
construction of poverty as an individual failing–that there exists not only employment for
all, but also employment that would enable one to escape poverty. Given an
unemployment rate as of February 2005 of seven percent 33 , a lack of access to decent
childcare, and in Ontario, a minimum wage that represents only a fraction of the poverty
line even for a single person employed full-time, all cannot rely upon labour market
participation to meet their needs. While workfare was sold to the public as a hand up,
much of the evidence to date suggests that few are in fact offered that hand up and that
in many cases workfare has been counter-productive. 34
New Definition of Spouse
The gendered character of workfare which marginalizes the social lives of women while
at the same time harnessing historically prejudicial stereotypes of them as ‘bad mothers’
is made even more insidious with the re-introduction of the ‘spouse in the house’ rules.
Based upon the patriarchal character of poor relief which elevated the male ‘breadwinner’ as the primary hinge upon which welfare assistance should be administered, the
use of the presence of a 'spouse' acts as a powerful point of control to order the social
and intimate lives of women.
The 'man-in-the-house' rules have a lengthy history in Ontario, and certainly historically
women's entitlement to benefits was strongly tied to judgements about their moral
Hartley Dean, "Undermining Social Citizenship" a paper presented to the ISSA Second
International Research Conference on Social Security, Jerusalem, 25-28 January, 1998. In
Dean’s research three-quarters were anxious to work and valued work primarily as a means to
self-esteem. See also Mosher et al, Walking on Eggshells; Abused Women's Experiences of
Ontario's Welfare System (Woman Abuse and Welfare Research Project, 2004) available at
Statistics Canada, (last accessed March 29, 2005).
See Dean Herd and Andrew Mitchell, Discouraged, diverted and disentitled: Ontario Works
New Service Delivery Model (Toronto: Community Social Planning Council of Toronto and the
Ontario Social Safety Network, 2002); Deb Matthews M.P.P., Review of Employment Assistance
Programs in Ontario Works & Ontario Disability Support Program, Ministry of Community and
Social Services, December 2004; and Walking on Eggshells, supra note 32.
character and in particular, their sexual chastity. 35 In the period preceding 1987, a single
recipient risked having her (the regime impacted almost exclusively upon women)
benefits terminated if a conclusion was made that she was living in a "marriage-like"
relationship. Needless to say, the concept of a marriage-like relationship was vague and
ambiguous. Frequently, determinations of the nature of the relationship in issue turned
on evidence of sexual intimacy. 36 The practices of welfare officials in enforcing the manin-the-house rules were vigorously and thoroughly critiqued by feminists and equality
activists, because such practices not only ignored women's privacy interests, but forced
women into relationships of economic dependence with men who had, at law, no
obligation to support them. In 1987, the definition of 'spouse' for welfare purposes was
dramatically altered, so that it would largely track the Family Law Act definition.
Importantly, this meant that couples could live together for three years before they would
be deemed to be spouses for social assistance purposes, and when in fact, legal
obligations of support would arise. This was incredibly important for women, because it
meant that they could continue to receive welfare benefits in their own right as 'singles'
or as 'sole support mothers'.
Even prior to the introduction of the Social Assistance Reform Act, the Conservative
government acted in October of 1995 to amend the regulatory definition of 'spouse' for
social assistance purposes. This definition (a definition that has been modified
somewhat on a handful of occasions subsequently) treated persons of the opposite sex
presumptively as spouses if they shared a common residence. As such the definition
tracked much more closely the pre-1987 definition. The new definition resulted in 10,013
people being cut off social assistance; of these, 89 percent were women and 76 percent
were single mothers. 37
At present, a 'spouse' is defined as:
(a) a person of the opposite sex to the applicant or recipient, if the person and
the applicant or recipient have together declared to the administrator or to the
Director under the Ontario Disability Support Program Act, 1997 that they are
Little, supra note 30. Often the phrase 'spouse in the house' is used; we prefer to use the
phrase, 'man in the house' as the impact of the rules continues to be decidedly gendered.
Little, ibid.
Falkiner et al v. Ontario (Ministry of Community and Social Services), 2002 CanLll 44902
(On.C.A.); Court Docket C35052, C34983, Date 20020513.
(b) a person of the opposite sex to the applicant or recipient who is required
under a court order or domestic contract to support the applicant or recipient or
any of his or her dependants,
(c ) a person of the opposite sex to the applicant or recipient who has an
obligation to support the applicant or recipient or any of his or her dependants
under section 30 or 31 of the Family Law Act, whether or not there is a domestic
contract or other agreement between the person and the applicant or recipient
whereby they purport to waive or release such obligation to support, or
(d) a person of the opposite sex to the applicant or recipient who has been
residing in the same dwelling place as the applicant or recipient for a period of at
least three months, if,
(i) the extent of the social and familial aspects of the relationship between the two
persons is consistent with cohabitation, and
(ii) the extent of the financial support provided by one person to the other or the
degree of financial interdependence between the two persons is consistent with
(2) for the purpose of the definitions of "spouse" and "same-sex partner", sexual
factors shall not be investigated or considered in determining whether or not a
person is a spouse or same-sex partner. 38
The definition of 'spouse' introduced in 1995 was constitutionally challenged in the case
of Falkiner et al v. Director, Income Maintenance Branch, Ministry of Community and
Social Services and Attorney General of Ontario. 39 Significantly for our discussion of
welfare fraud, the Court of Appeal of Ontario found the definition to be overly broad–
capturing relationships which do not resemble marriage-like relationships–and deeply
ambiguous (since adjudicative Boards had come to different findings regarding whether
the degree of financial inter-dependence had to be more than trivial). The government of
Ontario abandoned its appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada (leave had been
granted) in October 2004 and introduced a new definition (above) which in most
respects, mirrors its predecessor and which arguably fails to comport with the ruling of
the Court of Appeal.
The definition of 'spouse' and the operationalization of the concept of 'living with' (itself
deeply ambiguous) play significant roles in the deployment of the welfare fraud regime. It
is telling to observe that in 1981-82, 84 percent of welfare fraud charges were based
upon an allegation of an undeclared spouse, resulting in 200 charges, 161 convictions,
O.Reg. 134/98, section 1, as amended. The category of "same-sex partner" was introduced as
a result of the Supreme Court of Canada's decision in M. v. H., [1995] 2 S.C.R. 3. The Ontario
government responded to the Supreme Court's ruling by introducing an omnibus piece of
legislation to add the category of "same-sex partner" to several pieces of legislation, including the
O.W.A. and the O.D.S.P.A.
Falkiner, supra note 37.
and jail in 42 percent of those cases. Both Gutierrez and the Canadian Research
Institute for Law and the Family (C.R.I.L.F.), in their background reports for the S.A.R.C.,
observed that the definition of 'spouse' introduced in 1987 (tracking the Family Law Act)
resulted in dramatic reductions to these very high rates. 40 The creation of a presumption
of spousal status in 1995 signaled a renewed state interest in surveilling women's
relationships with men.
Welfare Fraud
'Welfare fraud' occupied a central position in the social assistance reforms of the mid1990s. In political discourse and in the public imagination, abuse of the social assistance
system was understood to be widespread. The government pointed to "strong public
concern that the problem of welfare fraud was not being adequately addressed" 41 in
introducing a host of new measures to prevent, detect and punish welfare fraud. Yet this
claim might well position the cart before the horse, since the political discourse of parties
of all stripes was unified in its portrayal of welfare fraud as a problem of grave concern
and that more, and tougher, measures were needed to address it; a discourse which no
doubt helped to shape the predominant public view.
Defining Fraud
Problematically, an enduring feature of discussions about welfare fraud is the lack of
definitional clarity and precision as to just what one means by the term 'welfare fraud'. 42
Some commentators include, for example, not only instances of what might properly be
characterized as 'fraud' as defined by the Criminal Code, but all instances of rule
violations, irrespective of the presence of mens rea. Others go further still to include all
over-payments, including those arising from bureaucratic error. Some seek to
differentiate 'fraud' and 'abuse' /'misuse'; including in the former situations where mens
rea exists, and in the latter, situations where actions of the recipient may not "go the full
Anne Marie Gutierrez, The Interaction of Criminal Law and the Income Maintenance System in
Ontario, research report for the Social Assistance Review Committee, May 1987 at pp. 17 and
28; the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family (Jean E. Wallace, M.L. McCall &
Joseph H. Hornick), "A Literature Review of Welfare Fraud: Nature, Extent and Control", report
for the Social Assistance Review Committee, July 1987 at p.17.
Moretta, supra note 8 at para. 27.
The S.A.R.C. observed that many lump together administrative error, overpayments and
mistakes together in the category 'fraud'; supra note 9.
distance" in making out the necessary intent. 43 While the defining characteristics of the
category of 'abuse' or 'misuse' are far from clear, the terms do infer some degree of
wrongdoing and moral culpability on the part of the recipient.
Our research suggests that a view of welfare fraud that includes all breaches of any of
the mass of complex, often contradictory and frequently counter-intuitive rules that
constitute the social assistance system is pervasive. This tendency to label all rule
infractions as 'fraud' is disturbingly present throughout the O.W. system (impacting on
whether referrals are made to an Eligibility Review Officer (E.R.O.), whether an E.R.O.
recommends referral to police, etc). More disturbingly, while one would expect the
characterization of conduct as 'fraudulent' to be applied narrowly and in accordance with
relevant jurisprudence within the criminal justice context, this is all too often not the case.
The O.W.A. creates an offence within section 79, which itself includes a subjective
element; thus even the Act itself does not contemplate a strict liability regime:
79. (1) No person shall knowingly obtain or receive assistance to which he or she
is not entitled under this Act and the regulations.
(2) No person shall knowingly aid or abet another person to obtain or receive
assistance to which the other person is not entitled under this Act and the
(3) No person shall obstruct or knowingly give false information to a person
engaged in investigations for the purposes of section 57 or 58.
(4) A person who contravenes subsection (1), (2) or (3) is guilty of an offence and
on conviction is liable to a fine of not more than $5,000 or to imprisonment for a
term of not more than six months or to both. 44
The Criminal Code, by contrast provides,
380. (1) Every one who, by deceit, falsehood or other fraudulent means, whether
or not it is a false pretence within the meaning of this Act, defrauds the public or
any person, whether ascertained or not, of any property, money or valuable
security or any service,
(a) is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to a term of imprisonment not
exceeding fourteen years, where the subject-matter of the offence is a
testamentary instrument or the value of the subject-matter of the offence exceeds
five thousand dollars; or
(b) is guilty
This is how Debbie Moretta explained the difference, Interview with Debbie Moretta, Dec. 22,
Ontario Works Act, supra note 1, section 79.
(i) of an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding
two years, or
(ii) of an offence punishable on summary conviction,
where the value of the subject matter of the offence does not exceed five
thousand dollars. 45
In practice the offence provisions contained in section 79 of the O.W.A. are virtually
never resorted to. Only one of the respondents we interviewed had heard of a
prosecution under the Provincial Offences Act (P.O.A.) for a violation of section 79; the
one respondent who had observed that several years ago, prosecutions under the
P.O.A. were sometimes agreed upon as part of a plea bargain to a Criminal Code
charge. Another respondent noted that advocacy efforts with a local welfare office to try
to persuade it to use section 79 rather than proceed by way of Criminal Code
prosecutions were completely futile. Indeed the Ministry's Controlling Fraud Policy
Directive provides that where there is "sufficient evidence to suspect an intent to commit
fraud the case must [bolded in the original] be referred to the police for investigation
under the Criminal Code." 46 Thus, infractions of the administrative regime created
through the O.W.A. are invariably treated as Criminal Code matters. 47
What then must one establish in order to make out the Criminal Code offence of fraud?
The Supreme Court of Canada's jurisprudence on fraud has identified the actus reus of
fraud as containing two elements: the prohibited act (of "deceit, falsehood or other
fraudulent means"); and deprivation caused by the prohibited act (deprivation need not
entail actual loss, putting pecuniary interests at risk may be sufficient). With respect to
the first of these, the Supreme Court has identified deceit, falsehood and fraudulent
means as three separate heads, but has also noted that the real core or nub of the
offence of fraud is dishonesty. 48 Whether an act is appropriately characterized as
Criminal Code of Canada, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-46, s. 380 as amended by Bill C-13. Until the
provisions of C-13 came into effect in September 2004, the maximum penalty was ten years. Bill
C-13 addresses, in a variety of ways, criminal conduct in relation to insider trading.
Controlling Fraud Policy Directive #45, Ministry of Community and Social Services, January
Often the reason given for this is the six-month limitation period under the Provincial Offences
Act (R.S.O. 1990, c.P.33). But more consistent with other government rhetoric on welfare fraud is
the view that cases are prosecuted criminally as part of a "get-tough" approach to welfare and
welfare recipients. For a critique of the claim that the six-month limitation period is the reason for
this approach see Dianne Martin, "Passing the Buck: Prosecution of Welfare Fraud: Preservation
of Stereotypes" (1992), 12 Windsor Y.B. Access Just. 52. Also note that the S.A.R.C.
recommended increased use of the Provincial Offences Act.
J. Douglas Ewart, Criminal Fraud (Toronto: Carswell Legal Publications, 1986).
dishonest is to be determined not by reference to the accused's subjective mental state
(whether the accused subjectively believed the act in question to be dishonest) but
whether the reasonable person would stigmatize the act in question as such. The Court,
in R. v. Olan, noted that while 'dishonesty' was difficult to define with precision, it does
connote an underhanded design, is discreditable, and perhaps unscrupulous. The Court
also noted that mere negligence would not suffice. 49
In 1993 the Supreme Court released two significant decisions on the mens rea of fraud,
R. v. Theroux and R. v. Zlatic. 50 Madame Justice McLachlin, as she then was, noted in
Theroux that the mens rea of criminal offences refers to the 'guilty mind', to a wrongful
intention. Its role in the criminal setting is, as she notes, to prevent the conviction of the
morally innocent, whose moral innocence may lie in the fact that she did not understand
or did not intend the consequences of her action. With respect to the mens rea required
for a conviction of fraud, the Supreme Court has identified two elements: subjective
knowledge of the prohibited act (the act which, based upon a reasonableness standard,
is appropriately stigmatized as dishonest); and subjective knowledge that the prohibited
act could have as a consequence the deprivation of another. "Did the accused
subjectively appreciate that certain consequences would possibly follow from her acts?”
There must be a subjective awareness that undertaking the prohibited act (of deceit,
falsehood or other dishonest means) could cause deprivation. In their dissenting
judgement in Theroux, Mr. Justice Sopinka and Chief Justice Lamer (as he then was),
while agreeing with the majority, took care to point out that it is important to distinguish
between the conclusion that an accused's belief that his act is honest will not avail, if
objectively the act in question is dishonest, from the situation where the accused's belief
in facts, which if true, would deprive the act of its dishonest character. This distinction is,
we argue, a crucial one in the context of welfare fraud.
Perhaps the most thorough treatment of fraud in the social assistance context is that
found in the decision of Mr. Justice Weagant in the case of R. v. Maldonado. 51 Mr.
Maldonado was in receipt of General Welfare Assistance (the precursor to Ontario
R. v. Olan, [1978] 2 S.C.R. 1175.
R. v. Theroux, [1993] 2 S.C.R. 5; R . v. Zlatic, [1993] 2 S.C.R. 29.
R. v. Maldonado, [1998] O.J. NO. 3209 (Prov. Div.) (QL); see also an important Supreme Court
of Canada decision, R. v. Parise, [1996] 3 S.C.R. 408 and from the Ontario Court of Appeal, R. v.
Wakil (2001), 150 O.A.C. 194.
Works benefits). He had been told that he must report any change in income. When his
wife obtained part-time employment, it was dutifully reported. But when he began
attending school and obtained a student loan he did not report it. When subsequently the
Ministry learned that Mr. Maldonado was in receipt of a loan, he was charged with fraud.
His evidence was that he did not think a loan was income, because it had to be repaid,
so he had never contemplated that it need be reported. He did not know that the
regulations treated student loans as income and that therefore, the loan ought to have
been reported. Nor did he know that had it been so reported, a reduction in his benefits
would have followed. Based on Supreme Court jurisprudence, it will not matter if Mr.
Maldonado subjectively believed his actions to be honest. The question is, can his
actions be appropriately stigmatized as 'dishonest', not merely negligent, but as an
underhanded design, or as unscrupulous? To invoke Mr. Justice Sopinka’s query, is
there here a belief by the accused in a set of facts (a loan is not income and need not be
reported), which if true, would deprive the act of its dishonest character? The answer
given by Mr. Justice Weagant is affirmative; indeed he is loath to characterize Mr.
Maldonado's actions as even negligent. When one considers Mr. Maldonado's state of
mind, while he had knowledge of the prohibited act (the non-disclosure of the loan); his
belief that a loan was not income and hence not reportable deprived the act of its
dishonest character. Moreover, given his belief in this set of facts, he lacked the
subjective knowledge that the non-reporting could have as a consequence the
deprivation of another. Mr. Justice Weagant concludes:
Not only do I have a doubt that Mr. Maldonado did not have the subjective
knowledge of the possibility of deprivation, I am quite sure he did not…I would
not be surprised if Mr. Maldonado, even if given a copy of the Regulations to
read for himself, were unable to glean the true meaning of "income" or "change
of circumstances". The Regulations are extremely complicated and difficult to
read. … my own experience of wading through the Regulations leads me to
believe their inaccessibility plays a major role in the scenario under
consideration. The Regulations governing the question of entitlement are
fiendishly difficult to understand… the sense or structure of the policy which
might help a person on welfare to determine when he or she is breaking the law,
is not apparent on the face of the Regulation. Why would a student loan be
income, but a grant not? At first blush, one would think the opposite would be
true…if during a one month period a welfare recipient took a loan from a friend
on a grocery shopping trip and repaid the loan to the friend when they reach the
recipient's place of residence the very same day, the welfare benefit for that
month should be proportionately less to reflect the amount of the loan. Yet no
person with an ounce of sense would think that he or she would be obligated to
report the amount of the loan. What is Kafkaesque about this scheme, to use
Justice Campbell's word, is that the person who does not report the short-term
loan from a friend might very well be prosecuted for fraud in the Province of
Ontario… Surely this is an example of something that Madame Justice McLachlin
would put in the category of behaviour that does not warrant criminalization. 52
Consider also the case of R. v. Bond, a case we would argue was wrongfully decided in
relation to the mens rea of the accused. 53 Ms. Bond was a single mother with two
children who scrupulously saved every penny she could–baby bonus, child tax credits,
etc. –and put this money in trust for her children, both of whom experienced health
problems and who would, she wisely discerned, require financial support in the future.
She disclosed all of this as 'income' when she received it. The savings account held in
trust for her children accumulated and she purchased bonds. Ultimately she held an
asset (the bonds) that substantially succeeded her asset level (present asset levels are
the equivalent of one month's benefits). She did not disclose the bonds held in trust. Mr.
Justice Kurisko observed that Ms Bond never bought anything unless on sale, she never
ate out or took a holiday, she purchased her food in bulk, had no car, didn't drink and
didn't smoke. Her evidence was that she honestly believed that she did not have to
report these savings because they were for the kids (and note as well that all of the
money invested had been disclosed when it was received). Mr. Justice Kurisko goes on
to note that, "I reserved my decision as to guilt because I was very impressed by the
sincerity and achievement of the accused and troubled by the paradox of criminalizing
the actions of this woman who scrimped as a hedge against the future financial and
health needs of her children… If she had spent this money on drinking or, drugs, or in
any other irresponsible way, there would be no basis for any criminal charge. The
conviction seems to send the message it was wrong to be conscientious about the
welfare of her children and foolish to be frugal.” He reviews the relevant Supreme Court
of Canada jurisprudence and continues, "I have struggled to circumvent the Catch 22
circumstances of this case. But the law does not permit me to do so. The issue is
whether her statement that she honestly believed she did not have to tell authorities
about the savings account, can, in law raise a reasonable doubt as to the commission of
the offence. This must be determined on an objective basis. Deceit is the concealment of
the truth in order to mislead. A reasonable person in the circumstances of the accused
Maldonado, supra note 51, para. 40, 41 & 43. Mr. Justice Weagant's reference to Madame
Justice McLachlin arises from her caution that because the Supreme Court had cast the net of
'fraud' rather widely, it was important to ensure that fraud was not interpreted so widely as to
capture behaviour that does not warrant criminalization.
would know there was a duty to disclose the savings account and that failure to do so
was misleading and therefore deceitful. Judged on this objective standard, the accused
is guilty of offence as charged." 54
Mr. Justice Kurisko makes several errors here. That a 'reasonable person' would know
that a savings account had to be disclosed is not a relevant consideration; rather that the
accused did not know (and this belief the trial judge found to be an honest one) suggests
that it would be inappropriate to taint her conduct with the label of 'dishonesty'.
Moreover, given the trial judge's acceptance of the honesty in her belief that she did not
have to disclose the accumulated savings, it is hard to know how then the trial judge
could conclude that she engaged in the act for the purpose of deceiving the government.
As the Supreme Court of Canada observed in R. v. Parise, the trial judge's acceptance
of the accused’s evidence that she honestly believed that her circumstances had not
changed to affect her eligibility negated an essential element of the mens rea of fraud;
she honestly did not believe that she was defrauding the Department. 55
The decision in Bond is representative of a misapprehension that pervades both the
social assistance and criminal justice systems. As in Bond, frequently the accused's lack
of knowledge of the "fiendishly difficult" requirements of welfare law and regulations is
wrongly assumed to be irrelevant to the question of whether a 'fraud' has been
committed. In addition to the manner of reasoning one sees in Bond, another way in
which this misapprehension manifests is in the frequent invocation of the principle, now
enshrined in section 19 of the Criminal Code, that "ignorance of the law is no defence" to
a criminal charge. The line of reasoning that is employed is that one is assumed to know
the law and ignorance of the law is no excuse, hence lack of knowledge of the detailed
requirements of the social assistance regime is irrelevant to the determination of criminal
liability. 56 One respondent described to us how O.W. caseworkers in his district always
rely on this line of reasoning: "you're required to disclose everything and if you don't
you're guilty of fraud; ignorance of the law is no excuse–everyone is deemed to know the
law, therefore you are guilty". This respondent went on to observe that, "[i]f anyone was
R. v. Bond, [1994] O.J. No. 2185 (Gen. Div.) (QL)
R v. Parise, supra, note 51.
Note that Mr. Justice Weagant, in Maldonado, supra note 51, effectively deconstructs this
genuinely trying to assess if this person intended to defraud the government that would
be a very different case than the ones we see presented.” Or as another respondent put
it, "the fact that the accused couldn't understand the tome [the complex regulations]
doesn’t get you to first base."
In their background reports for the S.A.R.C., the C.R.I.L.F., K.P.M.G. and Gutierrez all
make this error. 57 The C.R.I.L.F., for example, maintains that "it is not necessary to find
deceit… even in light of the complexity of welfare regulations, recipients are not exempt
from the legal principle that states that ignorance of the law is not a defence to criminal
charges… nothing prevents charges from being laid even in the face of an obvious
misunderstanding, since there is a general rule of criminal law which provides that
ignorance of the law is not an excuse for breaking it." 58
The confusion and resulting error stem from the failure to appreciate that the lack of
knowledge or understanding of the underlying rules of the administrative regime negates
mens rea (one didn't intend deprivation as a consequence of one's actions) and/or
renders the quality of the act in issue one which is not appropriately stigmatized as
dishonest. One is making an argument based on 'mistake of fact', not an argument that
because the accused did not know that his act constituted fraud he is therefore innocent.
The Extent of Welfare Fraud
Not surprisingly, given the lack of definitional clarity regarding 'fraud', reports on its
incidence vary dramatically. The only hard evidence that exists is the number of
convictions for fraud. The first year for which province-wide statistics are available for
fraud convictions is 1997-98 (as a result of the implementation of a new welfare fraud
control database); prior to that time, statistics, if gathered at all, were gathered at the
municipal level only. 59 The most recent year available is 2001-02. All of the statistics
As we discuss infra, we did not come across a single example of this error in the context of
prosecutions for tax evasions. To the contrary, resources for lawyers such as Carwell's looseleaf
Tax Evasion, by William I. Innes (Toronto: Carswell, 2003), explain how ignorance of the relevant
tax law may negate mens rea.
C.R.I.L.F., supra note 40 at p. ix and at p.26; Peat Marwick and Partners (K.P.M.G.), Welfare
Fraud and Overpayment: Final Report, September, 1987, research report for the Social
Assistance Review Committee at p.37; and Gutierrez, supra note 40 at p.34 & p.37.
Moretta, supra note 43.
below show the cumulative data from the O.W. and O.D.S.P. systems. 60 In addition to
the number of convictions, it is important to observe the very substantial numbers of
fraud investigations.
Table 1:
O.W. and O.D.S.P. Welfare Fraud Convictions, by year
Convictions Total Fraud
S.A. Reduced or
Investigations Terminated
The number of convictions for 2001-02 (393 convictions) is roughly equivalent to 0.1
percent of the combined social assistance caseload and one percent of the total number
of allegations. Statistics from the Municipality of Toronto for 2001 provide a similar
picture: 80 percent of 11,800 allegations made against recipients were found to be
untrue, in 19 percent of the remaining allegations there was no intent to defraud, 117
cases were referred to the Fraud Review unit, of these 116 were reviewed by a special
review committee, 95 were referred on to the police and charges were laid or pending in
91 (less than one percent of the total allegations).
The K.P.M.G. report on welfare fraud prepared for the S.A.R.C. concluded that accurate
information about the extent of fraud is not available and noted that reliable data are not
routinely collected and definitions of fraud vary widely.
The K.P.M.G. report
extrapolated from an Alberta study in offering an estimate that funds lost to fraud
constituted at least 2.59 percent to 3.66 percent of total payments. 62 Both K.P.M.G. and
the C.R.I.L.F. concluded that there existed little reliable and objective research
measuring the extent of welfare fraud, noting that the few reliable studies turned up
estimates ranging from 1 percent to 10 percent. 63
Ministry of Community, Family and Children's Services, Welfare Fraud Control Report 20012002.
K.P.M.G., supra note 58 at p.3.
Ibid, at p.17.
Ibid, at pp. 14 & 19.
The Welfare Fraud Control Reports, issued in Ontario annually from 1997 to 2002,
portray quite a different picture. The Welfare Fraud Control Report 2001-2002 is
pervaded with the language of 'fraud'; reference is made to the Welfare Fraud Hotline, to
the fraud control database to track fraud investigations, to "anti-fraud measures [that]
help catch welfare cheats and deter others from thinking about cheating" and to welfare
fraud as a crime that the government is cracking down on through the introduction of a
zero tolerance policy. And while the Report refers occasionally to "fraud and misuse", as
they appear in the report they seem to represent interchangeable terms rather than
carefully delineated categories. The report claims "over $49 million was identified in
social assistance payments that people were not entitled to receive and an estimated
$12 million in avoided future costs." 64 Given the general thrust of the report, one might
be forgiven for concluding that these dollars are directly attributable to welfare fraud. But
a closer examination reveals a different picture; in 2001-02 there were 393 convictions
for welfare fraud and there were 12,816 cases where assistance was reduced or
terminated as a result of eligibility assessments. It is not entirely clear whether the 393
convictions (where benefits are likely to have been reduced or terminated) are included
among these 12,816 cases, but in either event, in more than 12,000 cases welfare
'fraud' has not been established; no crime has been proven. Some of the 12,000 may
represent a modest number of instances where prosecution was not recommended even
though there existed a strong case; but the vast majority are likely to be instances where
a 'rule' was broken, but without the requisite mens rea to constitute criminal fraud–in
other words as a result of client misunderstanding, error, or oversight. Indeed given the
complexity of the rules, as Mr. Justice Weagant noted, one could readily anticipate very
large numbers of inadvertent rule breaches. M.P.P. Deb Matthews, in her recent report,
captures well the complexity of the system, concluding that there is a need to move from
a system "so mired in a labyrinth of rules around financial eligibility, to a system where
the rules are simple, clear, well-communicated and focused on helping people improve
their circumstances and opportunities for success."
She further observed that,
there was probably nothing I heard about more than the need to simplify the
rules… There are now approximately 800 rules and regulations within the system
that must be applied before a client's eligibility and the amount of their monthly
cheque can be determined. Many of those rules are punitive and designed not to
support people, but rather to keep them out of the system. Because there are so
Welfare Fraud Control Report 2001-2001, supra note 60.
Matthews, supra note 34 at p.4.
many rules, they are expensive to administer and often applied inconsistently
from one caseworker to another, even within the same office. Further, the rules
are so complicated that they are virtually impossible to communicate to clients,
and it takes years to train a caseworker. 66
There is, however, a school of thought that maintains the distinction between 'fraud' and
'error' has little relevance. In their report for the Fraser Institute, CA MacDonald and
Associates argue, for instance, that,
[t]here is no clear-cut delineations [sic] of fraud and error in the sense that the
dividing line, where error crosses into fraud, is based on the psychological
construct of intent [emphasis in original]. And fraud is a legal term which applies
when intent [emphasis in the original] can be proven in a court of law. There are
many cases investigated in which the investigator is sure that fraud occurred,
however the strict rules of evidence may prevent the case from being proven in
court. This category could be referred to as ‘program abuse’… All of the
categories of error and fraud overlap, and it is often a matter of convenience or
legal requirements which determine how a particular case is labeled… ‘client
error’ is often the administrator's way of saying that intent to defraud could not be
easily proven in court. 67
The analysis of CA MacDonald and Associates is deeply flawed; it presupposes that
client error is inevitably 'fraud'–the rules of evidence just get in the way of proving it. This
view is, however, completely incompatible with what is known about how the system and
its 'clients' interface. As noted above, the complexity of the system and the difficulties of
adequately communicating the rules make client error–and we hasten to add, significant
system error–unavoidable. Moreover, the analysis simply disregards the importance of
the construct that lies at the heart of criminal liability; the 'guilty mind'. If all rule
breaches, irrespective of intent, are characterized as 'fraud', every recipient who,
through inadvertence, lack of knowledge/information, mental or cognitive disability, or
misunderstanding breaches a rule is tainted with the moral brush of criminality. The
language of the Welfare Fraud Control reports does precisely this: all are cheats and
criminals. In turn, this conflation of rule violation with welfare fraud is significant for how
we think about issues of system 'integrity' and public confidence in the social assistance
system. 'Crack-downs' on welfare fraud, and harsh sentences meted out by judges
(described infra), are frequently justified by the need to preserve public confidence in,
and thus support for, the social assistance system. If the public is given to understand
that 'fraud' is pervasive (e.g. we're dealing with 12,000 instances, rather than 393), it
Ibid at p.25.
MacDonald, supra note 19 at p.7 & p.8.
might well lose confidence and support such measures. But if the public is given to
understand that in fact, huge numbers of both client error and bureaucratic error occur
because the rules are complex, voluminous and as we note below, frequently counterintuitive and often in flux, the public may lose confidence and question the integrity of the
system; but for profoundly different reasons and with different consequences. It would be
the system that would be the subject of critical interrogation and reform, rather than its
recipients. As K.P.M.G. notes in its report to the S.A.R.C., it is the total [emphasis
added] dollar amount of welfare fraud, unintentional overpayment and underpayment
that is significant and which undermines the overall integrity of the social assistance
system. But, as its authors also importantly observed, the stigma of welfare recipients
diverts attention from administrative error and underpayments; low benefit levels; lack of
inflation proofing; lack of attention to tax evasion; and the abuse of welfare claimants
and their rights. 68
The deployment of the language of 'fraud' to cover a wide range of non-criminal conduct
builds upon and further entrenches the stereotype of social assistance recipients as
criminals, who prefer to exploit the system rather than work for a living. 69 As both
K.P.M.G. and the C.R.I.L.F. noted in their reports for the S.A.R.C., this stereotype serves
as a "convenient political scapegoat which results in … keeping pay rates below the
poverty line; enabling cut-backs; and supporting intrusive practices towards welfare
recipients." 70 More recently, M.P.P. Deb Matthews observed in her report on O.W., "[a]t
the foundation of all the changes recommended in this report is the fundamental need to
change internal and external attitudes about who social assistance recipients are, why
they are on social assistance and what they have to offer society. For the past several
years, government leaders have made deriding social assistance recipients a core
component of their political strategy. Their ideology has driven the entire system–the
rules, the attitudes, and the administration." 71 Minister Pupatello, in a press release of
December 15, 2004, similarly noted that it’s time to “break down the old stereotypes.” 72
K.P.M.G., supra note 58 at p15.
This stereotype was noted in several of the background reports commissioned by the S.A.R.C.
and by the S.A.R.C. in its final report.
C.I.R.L.F, supra note 40 at p.36.
Matthews, supra note 34 at p.29.
Ministry of Community and Social Services, Backgrounder, December 15, 2004, "Improving
Ontario's Social Assistance Programs", (last accessed
January 24, 2005).
And it is this broad sweep of ‘fraud', to capture over-payments and rule violations made
without criminal intent, that supports the characterization of welfare fraud as rampant
and which no doubt fuels the widespread misconception held by the general public about
its incidence. 73 While we may not know the exact prevalence of fraud in the social
assistance system, it is rather striking to note that of 38,452 cases investigated in 200102 only 393 resulted in convictions. Below we detail the many measures in place to
prevent and detect welfare fraud. As we note, the surveillance of those in receipt of
assistance is extensive; and substantially more extensive and intrusive than a decade
ago. Of course even the most extensive, intrusive and finely honed systems for detecting
fraud will never uncover every case. But given the large number of measures now being
deployed and the very substantial number of investigations, one might reasonably
surmise that much of the fraud within the system is, in fact, being detected.
Measures to Respond
To respond to the 'serious' problem that welfare fraud was portrayed to be, a broad array
of measures was introduced by the Conservative government as part of its social
assistance reforms. Before turning to these it is important to return first to the
recommendations of the S.A.R.C. The Committee, citing the work of Gutierrez, endorsed
the view that in this area, "perception may be more important than reality", referring to
the widely held public perception that 'fraud' or 'abuse' was widespread. 74 It went on to
note that while there was no evidence that fraud was more widespread than in systems
such as income tax or unemployment insurance, nevertheless, because of the
importance of maintaining public confidence, it was prepared to accept that measures to
control fraud may need to be more extensive than in other systems. The Committee also
explicitly acknowledged that measures to reduce fraud would come at a cost–the
violation of the Committee's own statement of principles. The Committee noted that,
[o]ne of the first questions the committee had to answer in deciding upon
appropriate measures to reduce fraud was the extent to which we were prepared
In a 1982 poll, 34 percent of those polled reported that the 'abuse' of the social assistance
system was widespread; Table 2, S.A.R.C., supra note 9 at 381. K.P.M.G., in its report, noted
that "public perceptions of the extent of welfare fraud are usually overestimated, especially when
downshifts in the economy have resulted in a notable increase in the number of "employables"
receiving social assistance", K.P.M.G., supra note 58 at p.52.
S.A.R.C., supra note 9 at p.380.
to violate our other stated principles. Measures that are highly intrusive and
stigmatizing or that constitute major violations of individual rights are never
justifiable. However, lesser interferences with our principles might be justifiable if
it is clear that the technique adopted is effective in reducing the amount of
fraud. 75
As Dianne Martin noted several years ago in her work on welfare fraud, this was an
"unfortunate" direction, based on "fallacious reasoning", that continued the perpetuation
of harmful and degrading stereotypes of welfare recipients. 76 Although the Committee
identified the public perception of fraud's prevalence to be distorted, and fueled by
inaccurate media reporting and government statements, and notwithstanding its own
articulated analysis of the importance of eradicating the deeply negative stereotypes that
informed both public opinion and public policy, it nevertheless was prepared to build its
recommendations upon this deeply flawed (in its own assessment) foundation. And while
the Committee acknowledged that current attempts to detect fraud were already quite
"intrusive" (undermining recipients' dignity, privacy and autonomy–interests that its
guiding principles sought to preserve and protect), additional measures were deemed in
The S.A.R.C. believed that many of its other recommendations would reduce the
incidence of fraud. Significantly, it identified the "move towards adequacy [as] the single
most important weapon in the fight against fraud in the system". 77 Also important was its
identification of the definition of 'spouse' (it endorsed defining 'spouse' to track the
Family Law Act) and the amount one could retain from earnings, as key fraud prevention
reforms. But in addition, it recommended the creation of a fraud control unit to determine
the extent of fraud and to establish consistent policies and procedures for investigations,
an expanded role for Provincial Offences Act prosecutions, and the use of information
sharing agreements. The Committee noted that in pursuing these reforms it must be
borne in mind "that the intent is not to build the whole social assistance system around
an assumption of widespread abuse." 78
While some of the reforms to address fraud introduced by the Conservative government
in the mid-1990s align with those recommended by the S.A.R.C., several others depart
Ibid at pp. 382-83.
Martin, supra note 47 at p.54.
S.A.R.C., supra note 9 at p.384.
in significant measure. As noted earlier, benefits were not increased, but radically
decreased; and the definition of spouse returned to its pre-1987 model. In addition, the
government introduced a wide array of measures to crack-down on welfare fraud,
frequently deploying derogatory stereotypes of welfare recipients and misrepresenting
the extent of fraud in the system in order to justify these measures. Below we describe
these measures and then turn to consider their impact on those in receipt of social
Fraud Control Policy Directive
The O.W.A. provides legislative authority for the Director to establish a social assistance
fraud control unit and for each delivery agent to establish a local fraud control unit to
investigate the eligibility of present and past applicants and recipients regarding possible
violations of the O.W.A., O.D.S.P.A., F.B.A., G.W.A. and V.R.S.A. (Vocational
Rehabilitation Services Act). 79 Both central and local fraud control units have been
created. The central "Income Support, Compliance and Fraud Control Unit" is "mandated
to provide leadership to the fraud control function. The Unit serves as a provincial
resource and central point of contact for policy issues. It is responsible for providing
policy analysis and advice, and for liaising with other programs and jurisdictions
regarding fraud control matters." 80
Directive 45, "Controlling Fraud", provides the policy framework in which delivery agents
of O.W. (most of whom are municipalities) are to develop their local fraud control
protocols and practices. 81 Every administrator is required, under the directive, to "consult
with the local police services and the Crown Attorney's Office to develop a written
protocol for the effective investigation and prosecution of cases of suspected social
assistance fraud.” The local protocols are to spell out respective responsibilities for
various stages of the investigation including the collection of information, the securing of
evidence and the preparation of a Crown brief. 82
Ibid at p.384.
O.W.A., supra note 1, subs. 57(1) and (2)
Controlling Fraud Directive 45, supra note 46.
O.W. is delivered by “Delivery Agents” most of whom are municipalities, some are First
Nations. There are 47 consolidated municipal service managers and First Nations delivery
agents. O.D.S.P. by contrast is not delivered by municipalities, but by the Province.
While we understand from the Ministry that all delivery agents have negotiated such local
agreements we were unable to secure copies of any; the Ministry does not have copies of these
The directive requires that all allegations of fraud, from both internal and external
sources, be assessed in a timely manner. The directive provides that in cases where it is
suspected that an individual is receiving assistance that they are not entitled to, a
referral to an Eligibility Review Officer (E.R.O.) should be made. An E.R.O. is to conduct
a "comprehensive investigation" and prepare a written report for an E.R.O. supervisor,
including a recommendation regarding on-going eligibility, any over-payment and
whether to refer to the police. The Directive was revised in January 2004, at the same
time as the life-time ban on eligibility was revoked (see below), to provide that "[w]here
sufficient evidence exists to suspect intent to commit fraud, the case must (bolded in
original) be referred to police for possible criminal prosecution." 83
Information Sharing Agreements
In keeping with the recommendations of S.A.R.C., the O.W.A. creates legislative
authority for the pursuit and use of information sharing agreements with other provinces,
federal and Ontario ministries and agencies. As of 2002, agreements had been
negotiated with the Ministries of Training, Colleges and Universities, Public Safety and
Security, the Attorney General, and Transportation, as well as with social service
departments in other provinces and territories and with the federal department of Human
Resources Development Canada (Employment Insurance) and Citizenship and
Immigration. Agreements were expected to be finalized with the Canada Pension Plan
and the Old Age Security Program in 2003-04. 84
3.c.iii Expanded Powers for Eligibility Review Officers
The O.W.A. expanded the powers available to E.R.O.s in their investigations of welfare
fraud. Pursuant to section 58 of the O.W.A. the Director or an administrator may
designate a person as an Eligibility Review Officer to investigate a person's past or
present eligibility, and for that purpose has the prescribed powers, including the authority
to apply for and act under a search warrant. 85 In 1987, according to the K.P.M.G. report
for the S.A.R.C., there were 35 E.R.O.s in the social assistance system. In 2002-03,
agreements; none of the legal advocates we spoke with had ever seen a local agreement; and
time did not permit us to try to track these down through the various municipalities.
Controlling Fraud Directive 45, supra note 46.
O.W.A., supra note 1, section 71; Moretta, supra note 8 at para. 58.
there were approximately 280 (50 for O.D.S.P. and 230 for O.W.). 86 Pursuant to section
of 65 Regulation 134/98 an E.R.O. may,
(a) subject to subsection (2), enter any place that the officer believes on
reasonable grounds contains evidence relevant to determining a person's
eligibility for payments under an Act set out in subsection 58(2) of the O.W.A.
(b) inquire into all financial transactions, records and other matters that are
relevant to the investigation; and
(c) demand the production for inspection of anything described in clause (b).
(2) An officer shall not, without the consent of the occupier, exercise a power to
enter a place that is being used as a dwelling except under the authority of a
search warrant.
(5) If an officer makes a demand, the person having custody of the things shall
produce them to the officer.
(11) An officer may require information or material from a person who is the
subject of an investigation under this section or from any person who the officer
has reason to believe can provide information or material relevant to the
Subsection 79(3) of the O.W.A. makes it an offence to obstruct or knowingly give false
information to a person engaged in an investigation under section 57 or 58. Thus, if an
E.R.O. wishes to question a neighbour or relative about someone suspected of breaking
the regulations, the person being questioned risks being charged with an offence if she
or he does not co-operate. Significantly, as well, the regulations provide that an E.R.O.
may require [emphasis added] information or material from the person who is the
subject of an investigation, a point to which we return in our discussion of the Charter
issues that may arise in relation to E.R.O. investigations.
In the course of their investigations, E.R.O.s will often seek information from landlords,
neighbours, teachers and others who may know something of the circumstances of the
recipient under investigation. A copy of a routine form letter, in the particular instance
mailed out to make inquiries about a neighbour, was provided to us. The letter explains,
"We are conducting inquiries relating to an Ontario Works recipient and require
information with respect to the above address. If you have any information regarding the
tenants of the above address i.e.: number of occupants, sexes, names, employment,
O.W.A., ibid, s.58; although the power to apply for a search warrant exists we have been told
by the Ministry that this power has, to date, never been utilized; Moretta, supra note 43.
K.P.M.G., supra note 58 at p.31; Moretta, supra note 8 at para. 64.
length of residency, any other relevant information please do not hesitate to contact me.
Your anonymity can be assured in responding to this inquiry.” The letter then goes on, in
fine print, to note the statutory authority for collecting personal information. As one can
see, the breadth of the information requested is quite sweeping. The person who
provided the letter to us also explained that in his/her experience, persons who receive
these letters feel obliged to respond and to provide what information they can.
3.c.iv Verification Procedures
A significant development in the arsenal of measures to combat welfare fraud was the
introduction of first ‘enhanced verification’, and then ‘consolidated verification
procedures’ (C.V.P.). The starting point here is to consider the initial application for
assistance. At the time of applying one is required to sign a "Consent to Disclose and
Verify Information" form. Clause one of the form grants a sweeping and generic consent
to the collection and release of information by an O.W. delivery agent (for O.W.) or the
Ministry (for O.D.S.P.) for the purpose of determining or verifying eligibility and
administering social assistance. More specific consents follow: to the release of all
information held by financial institutions; to the disclosure of personal information about
oneself and one's children; and to the exchange of information among government
agencies within and beyond Ontario.
Enhanced verification was introduced in 1994 with an increased emphasis on
documentation/verification and accuracy of information recorded on update reports. The
consolidated verification procedure followed in 1997. 87 C.V.P. has, note Herd and
Mitchell, changed both the frequency and nature of file reviews. Previously reviews were
time based, with a review occurring usually every 12 months. In the C.V.P. environment,
priority-ranking factors, based upon an assumed 'risk' of fraud, are used to determine
when a review will occur. High risk factors include: high accommodation costs (equal to
or greater than 80 percent of the participant's net revenue); receipt of social assistance
more than 36 months; or it has been eleven months or more since the last C.V.P.
review. Medium risk factors include: another person resides at the participant's address;
the S.I.N. begins with a 9 or is blank (a '9' indicates a person without permanent
residence status who is permitted to work in Canada); accommodation costs equal 75-
Moretta, supra, note 8 at para. 34 & 40.
79 percent; or in receipt of social assistance 24-35 months. 88 C.V.P. is part of a broader
project undertaken by the Ontario government, called the 'Business Transformation
Project', a project intended to "modernize technology and business practices in the
welfare delivery system to reduce fraud, improve the efficiency of its operations and
save taxpayers money."
In other words, the operating system for the delivery of
benefits is centrally concerned not with meeting needs and providing support to
autonomy (as the S.A.R.C. envisioned) but reducing fraud, and 'protecting' the money of
The amount of information required to be provided at the time of applying and during
regular or risk-determined reviews can be overwhelming and 'mind-boggling'; among
other things one need provide documentation to verify: birth; marital status; support;
immigration status; income; property; debts; S.I.N.; health card; sponsorship; bank
accounts; receivables; funds in trust; boarder; accommodation; school attendance for
dependent children; employment; and education status. 90 As Debbie Moretta outlines,
checks with Employment Insurance, Equifax Credit, and Canada Customs and Revenue
Agency are mandatory and checks are made with the Ontario Student Assistance
Program, the Ministry of Transportation, and M.E.C.C.A. (enforcement of support orders)
as appropriate, depending upon the circumstances. 91 The sweeping consent signed as a
pre-condition to receipt of benefits, together with the extensive and on-going reporting
requirements, permit the Ministry to gather and share vast amounts of information about
those in receipt of social assistance.
The regulations also authorize random 'home visits', with or without notice, to verify
eligibility. 92 Although in theory consent is required before entering the home, the
Herd and Mitchell, supra note 34 at pp. 34 - 37.
Moretta, supra note 8, at para. 38. The Office of the Auditor General of Ontario noted in its
2002 Report that most of the expected benefits of the Business Transformation Project were yet
to be realized, and notwithstanding a payment cap of $180M recommended by the Standing
Committee, was millions of dollars over budget at $400M, (Office of the Auditor General of
Ontario, Annual Report, 2002, chapter 3.01). For a Ministry concerned about over-payments,
errors and reducing costs, the Auditor-General's conclusion that the Ministry "had not
demonstrated due regard for economy and efficiency in the contract terms agreed to or in the
administration of the work" surely suggested that it was not leading by example.
Herd and Mitchell, supra note 34 at pp 38-39.
Moretta, supra note 8 at para. 41.
O.Reg. 134/98, section 12. The respondents in our interviews reported that home visits were
being conducted far less frequently in recent years, and they surmised that this was due in large
measure to the costs of undertaking such visits. Also, on occasion, home visits are arranged at
withholding of consent may result in termination of benefits or denial of eligibility unless
the state is satisfied that there was a reasonable basis to withhold the consent. Given
the coercive power of the state, backed by the threat of the denial of benefits, it is hard
to imagine that consent is being volitionally given. Home visits are restricted to observing
what is in 'plain view' and are, according to the policy directive on home visits, not to be
used for the purpose of investigating a specific participant because of a fraud
suspicion. 93 The directive does provide, however, that C.V.P. criteria may be "helpful in
determining where random home visits are required" and goes on to note that a home
visit can be made with a participant because s/he randomly falls within a specific group.
This suggests that the risk factors for fraud used within the C.V.P. system can then be
used to identify 'groups' to be targeted for home visits; surely not disconnected from the
broadly articulated goal of 'cracking down' on fraud.
Welfare Fraud Hotlines
In addition to E.R.O.s, the ‘public’ too is charged with a responsibility–a civic duty–to
engage in the project of surveilling and scrutinizing welfare recipients. As noted above,
the public is told that welfare fraud is rampant, that people not genuinely in need are
taking money from the pockets of the hard-working taxpayer. One way to discharge this
civic duty is to call a toll free welfare fraud hotline (6,527 people did in 2001-02, down
from 9,348 in 2000-01). 94 Introducing the welfare fraud hotline on October 2, 1995 then
Minister of Community and Social Services David Tsubouchi proclaimed in the House
that, "[w]elfare fraud is a problem that hurts the most vulnerable people in our society.
Every cent that is paid to the wrong person through fraud is help taken from the needy.”
He noted that experience had shown hotlines to be an effective device to ensure that
does not happen, projected savings of $25 million per year and invited the people of
Ontario to call 1-800-394-STOP to help "stop fraud and to protect the system for people
who really need help." 95 With respect to virtually no other 'crime' that we can identify,
has there been such a vigorous effort to bring the public so actively into the task of
surveillance and denunciation.
the request of the applicant/recipient where, due to exceptional circumstances, s/he is unable to
attend at an O.W. or O.D.S.P. office.
O. Reg. 134/98 section 12(3); Ministry of Community and Social Services, Policy Directive #
12 Home Visits.
Welfare Fraud Control Report, 2001-2002, supra, note 60.
45 Bans on Receipt of Benefits - Zero Tolerance Policies
A very significant development in the welfare fraud control regime was the introduction of
additional penalties upon conviction: the government first introduced a three-month ban
on receipt of welfare for a first conviction, six months for subsequent convictions; and
later introduced a lifetime ban (for crimes committed after April 1, 2000). 96 Thus, upon
conviction for welfare fraud, one was automatically banned for life from receipt of social
assistance. The constitutionality of the lifetime ban was under challenge when the
Liberal government announced the repeal of the lifetime ban in December 2003. 97
In the course of the litigation regarding the constitutionality of the lifetime ban, the
government argued that despite its many initiatives to combat welfare fraud, it
nevertheless continued to be a serious problem. In our interview with Debbie Moretta,
Director of the O.D.S.P., and one of the deponents for the government in the litigation,
she noted that the government's claim was not that fraud was a widespread problem, but
rather was a serious problem; serious because the existence of fraud undermines public
confidence. In her affidavit for the litigation, Moretta details several initiatives undertaken
by government and offers the conclusion that "despite initiatives to combat welfare fraud,
it has remained a serious problem and was seen by the public to be insufficiently
addressed by government. The zero tolerance policy is intended to deter welfare fraud,
to ensure effective management of public funds and to restore public confidence in the
welfare system.” She noted as well that "the new zero tolerance policy was a key step in
Ontario's welfare reforms. It was one of the key measures introduced by the Ontario
government in an effort to eliminate misuse and abuse of the social assistance
system." 98
Certainly, reading Moretta's affidavit without the explanation of 'seriousness' she
provided to us, one could walk away from having read her affidavit with a picture of fraud
within the welfare system as widespread. It is also interesting to observe that it is
asserted both that other measures have failed to address the problem and that a lifetime
ban on eligibility will. Given what we know generally about deterrence theory, there
Hansard, supra note 7, 2 October 1995.
O.Reg.134/98, section 36 as amended by O.Reg. 227/98; O.Reg.48/00; O.Reg. 314/01; and
O.Reg. 456/03.
Broomer et al v. A.G. Ontario, supra note 8; O.Reg. 456/03.
Moretta, supra note 8 at para 6 & 46.
certainly seems not to be a strong footing for the assertion that a zero tolerance policy
will ensure compliance and provide deterrence. 99 But then, given Moretta's explanation
that 'serious' refers not to the extent of fraud, but rather to loss of public confidence, one
wonders what the whole exercise is really all about.
Several municipalities (delivery agents for O.W.) opposed the lifetime ban and in
addition to formally voting to express their disapproval, adopted a variety of strategies to
avoid it where possible. Some municipalities stopped referring to police any case where
less than $5,000 was involved, others changed their referral practices opting to refer
few, if any, cases to the police and at least one municipality created a diversion project
of its own. The controversy over the lifetime ban was certainly evident when the newly
elected leader of Ontario's Conservative Party, John Tory, vowed to reinstate the lifetime
ban if his government were elected to power. The Honourable Sandra Pupatello,
Minister of Community and Social Services, responded with a stinging rebuff, in the form
of an open letter in which she rhetorically queried, "How dare you use the most
vulnerable members of our community as a sop to your party's right-wing extremists." 100
It is interesting to note that in her affidavit Moretta echoes a concern expressed by the
S.A.R.C.; that is, that the social assistance system cannot be built around an assumption
of widespread fraud. Moretta observes that,
while fraud detection and prevention mechanisms are in place, the entire system
cannot be built around the assumption that applicants/recipients are out to
defraud the system. It would not be feasible for a welfare system to be managed
on such an assumption. Such a system would be overly cumbersome, costly and
intrusive. A fair, efficient, and responsive system must balance various
interests…. Finally, it cannot be over-emphasized that an increased focus on
fraud detection would likely come at a significant cost to the interests of honest
recipients. More intrusive questioning, increased home visits, searches, or
surveillance would not only be expensive, but also would be seen by recipients
as an invasions [sic] of their privacy and likely be perceived with hostility by the
recipients and public. If more reliance is placed on detection, then the privacy
interests of honest claimants/recipients could be detrimentally affected.
Deterrence by the zero tolerance policy avoids inflicting these consequences on
honest recipients." 101
See for example Kimberly N. Varma and Anthony N. Doob, "Deterring Economic Crimes: The
Case of Tax Evasion" (April 1998) 40:2 Can. J. Crim. 165.
Open letter to John Tory from Sandra Pupatello, September 14, 2004.
Moretta, supra note 8 at para 63 & 69.
But as our review of life on O.W. below reveals, the system that Moretta says is to be
avoided is, in fact, the system as experienced by many, if not most, O.W. recipients
today. The present system is highly intrusive, surveillance and suspicion are structured
into its very core. It is a system that is experienced as fundamentally disrespectful of
privacy, dignity and autonomy; a system that is demeaning and humiliating. The small
incursions upon the dignity and privacy interests that the S.A.R.C. was prepared to
accept have grown exponentially, fuelled by derogatory stereotypes of those in receipt of
social assistance. Sweeping informational demands and broad, generic consent forms
authorizing disclosure of information about oneself and lifetime bans on benefits are
practices reminiscent of the 1834 Poor Law pursuant to which the needs of the poor
would be met only if the claimant forfeited his civil and political liberties; if he ceased to
be a citizen. As T.H. Marshall himself noted, the Poor Law “treated the claims of the
poor, not as an integral part of the rights of the citizen, but as an alternative to them–as
claims which could be met only if the claimants ceased to be citizens in any true sense
of the word.” 102
Lastly, these measures come not only at a cost to personal dignity and well-being, but to
the 'taxpayer'–whom defenders of zero tolerance and get tough policies are so eager to
protect. For the year 2002, based upon Moretta's "conservative" estimate, fraud
detection initiatives cost $18.7 million: $18.03 million on E.R.O.s; $0.54 million on
Corporate Support (Hotline Support, Analyst, Manager); and $.13 million on the welfare
fraud hotline. 103
4 Life on O.W.
In our interviews with advocates on the frontlines providing legal services to persons in
receipt of social assistance, we were interested to hear about how persons experienced
living on O.W. on a day-in, day-out basis. While we were curious to learn about
situations where persons had been investigated and/or charged with fraud, we were also
interested to learn how the various measures described above–measures which we
describe collectively as constituting the 'welfare fraud regime'–impacted on recipients.
Across the interviews several key themes emerged; themes that resonate strongly with
As cited and discussed in Martha McCluskey, supra 10.
Moretta, supra note 8 at para 25.
other research documenting experiences on O.W.
Recipients are struggling to make
ends meet, often going without adequate food, shelter and/or clothing. The challenge of
meeting basic needs for themselves and their children often places recipients in the
grips of difficult moral binds, where none of the choices are 'good' choices. Recipients
feel under constant scrutiny and that they are never trusted; the feeling that one is being
treated like a 'criminal' is commonly voiced. Fear is pervasive: fear of violating a rule and
being cut off and/or charged with fraud; fear of someone snitching; fear that a
relationship might be deemed to be 'spousal'; and fear of not being able to adequately
provide for one's children (and risk losing custody to the state).
Several of those we interviewed described the C.V.P. environment as analogous to
"living under a microscope"; to having "one's life gone through with a fine tooth comb";
and to having one's "life micro-managed". Everything in one's life is open to question;
there is no privacy. For many, compliance with all of the demands of C.V.P. is timeconsuming and very stressful. We were told that not uncommonly, the O.W. office is in a
position where it could quickly access the information (because of the consent form or
an information sharing agreement), yet nevertheless requires recipients to obtain the
documentation. For recipients, accessing the required documentation can be anything
but quick: they may have to deal with an unyielding bureaucracy; or make repeated
visits; and/or incur transportation, childcare and other costs.
Often recipients are required to provide the same documentation on multiple occasions,
an experience described as demeaning and degrading. Also, because C.V.P. flags
recipients for fraud 'risk' factors, persons who are summoned for a meeting are often put
in the position of explaining how they are managing to survive on so little money without
breaching the rules, again something that is experienced as profoundly demoralizing.
One respondent described how recipients sometimes feel ambushed, having to months
after the fact and without warning, account for every single entry in their bankbooks. As
one respondent explained, "it is made clear to people that you're in our scopes because
we know you're doing something… this leaves people on tender hooks all the time".
One respondent described a client who was receiving $520/month. His rent was $500.
Paying more than 80 percent of his income on rent, he was identified as a 'high priority'
Herd and Mitchell, supra note 34, Matthews, supra note 34, Mosher et al, supra note 32.
for risk of fraud through the C.V.P. He was called in and asked to explain how he
survived on $20/month. He explained that he received some food from his grandmother,
and other friends and family members. He was required to itemize exactly what he
received. The items were assigned a cost based on local grocery flyers and assessed a
total value of $70. He was then deemed to be in receipt of $70 income/month and this
was deducted from his benefits, and as a result, he was no longer able to pay his rent.
Herd and Mitchell report a similar incident occurring to 'K', a recipient interviewed for
their study. 'K' asks, "Do you know what my worker told me? She is not giving me
enough money to make it on a monthly basis so she knows that I'm defrauding them, but
just hasn't figured out how yet. I get $1106 a month and between my rent, heat and
hydro which is all in one, it's $950. So she knows I'm defrauding them, she just hasn't
figured out how and because of that, and because of the new government standards,
they can actually call me in every month for an update." 105
Recipients fear the consequences that may befall them if they are unable to provide the
requested documentation. As Herd and Mitchell have observed, recipients are under the
constant threat and fear of cheques being suspended or cancelled. 106 This fear derives
from a material reality; subsection 7(3) of the O.W.A. provides that no person is eligible
unless s/he provides the information and verification of the information required to
determine eligibility. Similarly, and more expansively, section 14 of the O.W. General
Regulation provides that the administrator "shall [emphasis added] determine that a
person is not eligible for income assistance if the person fails to provide the information
the administrator requires to determine initial or ongoing eligibility for income
assistance.” This information includes such things as new or changed circumstances,
participation in employment assistance activities, and the receipt of income or "some
other financial resource." 107
Respondents explained that in their experience, cheques were often held until
information was provided. Some noted that they have seen cases where the recipient
was simply notified by letter that his/her cheque was being held until the required
Herd and Mitchell, supra note 34 at p.48; note that subs. 14 (2) of O. Reg. 134/98 permits the
Administrator to require a member of the benefit unit to provide monthly reports.
Herd and Mitchell, supra note 34.
Section 14, O.Reg. 134/98.
information was provided, without the letter specifying what information was, in fact,
required. Many would characterize the practice of holding cheques in such
circumstances as a form of bureaucratic disentitlement; a case management tool to cut
people off assistance and reduce caseloads. Some suggested to us that the withholding
of a cheque is sometimes employed for a further purpose: as a 'scare tactic' to extract
admissions (of over-payments in particular). 108 They described instances where their
clients, desperate for their monthly cheques, simply signed documents–including
statutory declarations–without understanding the content of the document or the
implications of signing.
Herd and Mitchell's finding that the climate is permeated with suspicion and hostility is
consistent with what respondents reported to us. As Herd and Mitchell describe, "[t]he
new system is more concerned with surveillance and deterrence, than it is with assisting
people to find employment. What is new is the intensity of surveillance and the
technologies employed, the importation of private sector methods and standardized
business practices…[o]verall the mood of the focus groups was that the new system was
inspiring a greater degree of suspicion and hostility… more concerned with constant
surveillance and treating ‘everybody like they're cheating the system’". 109 One of our
respondents summed it up very effectively with the observation that hardly any of her
clients now refer to their welfare workers as their 'social workers' as they did formerly;
rather welfare workers have become much more closely associated with police officers.
Fraud is now the focus of the system, explained another of our respondents.
Respondents also described how intensely scrutinized their clients’ lives are by nonstate agents: present or current abusive boyfriends or spouses, landlords and
neighbours appear to have all taken up the government's invitation to participate in the
surveillance project. In many instances, calls are made to the welfare fraud hotline; in
others, calls are made directly to a local O.W. office. Respondents pointed out to us that
when these calls form the basis of the allegation it is usually difficult to respond because
the subject of the allegation is not told who made the allegation and often not told
precisely what the allegation is. The allegation is 'in the wind' so to speak, and thus is
One respondent questioned whether there is any statutory authority for the withholding of
cheques. Sections 7 and 14 suggest that one is eligible or ineligible; not that one can occupy
some middle territory where one is 'on hold'.
Herd and Mitchell, supra note 34 at pp. 8, 9 & 33.
difficult to pin down and answer. We also heard of many instances where allegations
were reported to welfare for purposes completely extraneous to preventing or detecting
fraud. Abusive men make false reports to O.W. to further their power and control over
women; landlords make false reports to facilitate the eviction of a tenant; and vindictive
neighbours or other acquaintances make false or misleading reports simply out of
spite. 110 Two of our respondents also noted how the snitch lines in particular encourage
gossip which is very destructive in smaller rural communities and on First Nations
reserves. Yet, it seems, none of these abuses of, and harms created by, the welfare
system enter political discourse as matters of public concern, let alone are raised to the
level of charges for mischief.
Several respondents also observed how stereotyping plays into calls made. So, for
example, class and race stereotypes of racialized women portray them as bad and
potentially dangerous; as likely criminals. Dominant stereotypes also caricature
aboriginal people as "living off the system", too lazy to get a job; and single mothers–
especially those with children by more than one father–as promiscuous, having children
to increase welfare dollars, and likely to be hiding men in their homes. Under the gaze of
surveillance by 'concerned citizens' who harbour these stereotypes, virtually any
racialized woman, any single mother, or any aboriginal person is a person suspected of
fraud, who ought to be investigated. Thus, not surprisingly, many respondents
expressed the view that the sweep and impact of surveillance by non-state actors
impacts differentially on particular groups of recipients: racialized peoples generally,
women, and most pervasively, upon racialized women.
It is important to emphasize how pervasively fear permeates the lives of those in receipt
of O.W. The fear has multiple sources: fear of not being able to meet the basic needs of
one's children; fear of losing custody; fear of declining health; fear of social exclusion
and discrimination; and fear "that no matter what choice you make, it will be the wrong
choice and the axe will fall". 111 The constant surveillance by not only the state, but
neighbours, landlords, shopkeepers, etc. generates fear as well–fear that virtually
whatever one does might lead to an allegation that one has broken a rule or is guilty of
'fraud'. Fear is also connected to the reality that recipients are often in a position where
We heard this over and over in the interviews.
Interview Respondent.
there is simply no one that they feel they can trust with information; they have no control
over who will use it and for what purpose. One respondent noted that some recipients
respond by withholding information, even harmless information, because they simply
don't know what will happen as a consequence of sharing the information. Yet this can
land recipients in difficulty, for if the information is subsequently discovered, the failure to
provide it may result in termination of benefits, an assessment of an overpayment,
and/or a fraud charge.
The uncertainty that recipients experience is often created by the O.W. system itself;
virtually everyone with whom we spoke observed that because of the complexity of the
rules, it is very hard to get a straight-forward answer to any question quickly, or in some
instances, at all. Moreover, many reported experiences of being given inconsistent
answers by different workers (even within the same office) and of workers simply not
knowing the answers to questions posed. An additional feature of the system that
contributes to the uncertainty is the amount of discretion that exists; one cannot know in
advance how that discretion will be exercised and contemplating disclosure can feel like
a game of Russian roulette.
The poverty, insecurity, degradation and fear exact a toll upon the mental and physical
health of recipients. 112 Respondents variously described the experience of being on
welfare as soul destroying, dehumanizing, emotionally taxing, destructive of selfconfidence and as reaching into someone's core and ripping out her/his self-respect.
Several respondents noted that within the O.W. caseload, significant numbers of
recipients experience cognitive and/or mental health disabilities. The very high
correlation of poverty and depression means that for many on O.W., pre-existing mental
illness may be exacerbated and for others, the experience of poverty may itself be the
trigger for depression or other mental health issues.
Another feature of life on welfare is the lag time in the system's response to information
that is, in fact, provided. Various respondents noted that when changes in circumstances
regarding income or living arrangements are reported, there is often a lag time of several
weeks before the system responds. So, for example, if employment income is reported,
See Dennis Raphael (ed.) Social Determinants of Health: Canadian Perspectives (Toronto:
Canadian Scholars Press, 2004).
it will be deducted and benefits reduced accordingly. If the employment is temporary,
and in a subsequent month, one has no employment income, it may take weeks before
the adjustment is made to benefits. 113 A similar situation can occur with respect to the
variable payments of support orders, or with changes in the de facto custody of children.
One respondent noted that once child dependents are removed from the cheque, "it can
be hellish to get them back on". Wilkie, commenting on the Australian social security
system, notes how time lags of this sort create built-in "disincentives to scrupulous
honesty for people dependent on the regularity, both as to [the] amount and date of
payment, of subsistence income support." 114
Circumstances giving rise to rule violations or fraud
It is within this larger context of struggling to get through the month, under constant
surveillance, often experiencing ill health, and with pervasive fear that both volitional and
inadvertent rule violations occur. In this section, we focus on the sorts of circumstances
that most commonly give rise to allegations of 'fraud': the non-disclosure of 'income'; and
the non-disclosure that one is living with a 'spouse'. But before we turn to these specific
circumstances, we identify three characteristics common not only to the rules regarding
'income' and 'spouses', but to the rules of the system more generally. These three
characteristics–complexity, counter-intuitiveness, and instability–are crucially important
to any analysis of 'fraud'.
As we noted earlier in our report, the social assistance regime is hugely complex. Mr.
Justice Weagant's characterization of the regulations as fiendishly difficult to
comprehend, Mr. Justice Campbell's descriptor of "Kafkaeque", or M.P.P. Deb
Matthews' as "mired in a labyrinth of rules" are indeed apt. The C.R.I.L.F. in its report to
the S.A.R.C. noted that it is "extremely difficult for the clients and the workers to
Matthews, supra note 34 at p.14 observes that "the 6 week delay between the time earnings
are reported and the time funds are deducted from social assistance payments, [create] large
fluctuations in monthly income. The delay is confusing, makes it difficult for people to budget,
creates hardship, and thus acts as another disincentive to work."
Meredith Wilkie, Women Social Security Offenders: Experiences of the Criminal Justice
System in Western Australia (Nedlands, Australia: University of Western Australia Crime
Research Centre, 1993) at p88.
understand the implementation of the regulations", adding that "[o]ften regulations
governing the provision of social assistance are almost impossible to interpret". 115
K.P.M.G. in its report speculated that complexity and lack of information were significant
causes of fraud and overpayment. 116 All of the respondents in our interviews noted not
merely the complexity of the rules, but also the enormous volume of them. One
respondent observed that even experts in the system are unable to answer many of the
questions presented to community legal clinics by clients. Others noted that so too,
many O.W. workers have no idea of the correct answers to questions posed by
recipients and frequently provide inaccurate information. All respondents felt the
complexity of the rules get recipients into trouble.
Respondents also noted the general difficulty recipients have in accessing information.
While often a package of information is given at the outset, many described this as
"information overload" and totally ineffective in communicating rules, obligations and
importantly, entitlements, clearly. Many noted the disparity between the hue and cry over
recipients not sharing information and the withholding of information from recipients–
about entitlements in particular–by O.W.
Importantly as well, recipients stressed the prevalence of mental health issues and
cognitive disabilities among the O.W. caseload and expressed concern that in many
cases, there simply was no ability to comply with the rules. One respondent observed
that workers often are not even aware of mental health issues and cognitive
impairments, let alone of how these might impact upon the recipient’s ability to comply
with the rules.
In addition to their complexity, many of the rules are counter-intuitive. So, for example,
as we review in more detail below, the rules regarding 'income' (which must be
disclosed) define 'income' to include loans and credit card advances. And while student
loans are considered 'income', grants by the Ministry of Education and Training to a
student in post-secondary education are not. Additionally, there are situations in which
one is deemed to be in receipt of 'income', irrespective of whether an actual payment is
C.R.I.L.F.,supra note 40 at p.13 and p.40.
K.P.M.G., supra note 58, at p.69.
received by the social assistance recipient. For example, if one has a boarder, the
boarder is deemed to be contributing $100/month. 117 Similarly, until very recently, a
sponsored immigrant in situations of sponsorship breakdown was deemed to be
receiving $100/month and her monthly benefit cheque would automatically be reduced
by $100. 118
5.a.iii Instability
The third feature of the rules is that they are frequently subject to change, so that what
might be permissible one day, becomes impermissible the next. Changing definitions of
'spouse', and of 'income', as we review below, provide two examples of this. Another–
which has attracted several fraud charges–are the changes in the rules regarding the
simultaneous receipt of student loans and social assistance. As recently as December
2004 these rules changed yet again with the government's announcement that "it will no
longer treat grants, bursaries or R.E.S.P. funds obtained to cover costs of education as
income and or assets." 119
Undeclared Income
As noted earlier, subsection 14(1) provides that "the administrator shall determine that a
person is not eligible for income assistance if the person fails to provide the information
the administrator requires to determine initial and ongoing eligibility for income
assistance including information with respect to … d) the receipt or expected receipt of
income or some other financial assistance.” Policy Directive #16, Income, instructs
workers that they must advise applicants or participants that all income received must be
reported. And in the "Rights and Responsibilities" form, signed at the time of applying,
among the 14 listed responsibilities is the responsibility to "report all available income;
each month you will receive an income reporting form that is used to report all changes
to your income". But what is 'income' and when might the failure to report it give rise to
an allegation of fraud?
O.Reg. 134/98, section 50.
The government announced in December 2004 that sponsored immigrants will no longer face
an automatic $100 deduction; Ministry of Community and Social Services, Backgrounder,
December 15, 2004, "Improving Ontario's Social Assistance Programs", (last accessed
January 24, 2005).
The definition of 'income' for social assistance purposes is detailed, lengthy and in many
respects, so counter-intuitive that one would never advert to the need to report. Pursuant
to the regulations 'income' is determined by adding, "all payments of any nature paid to
or on behalf of or for the benefit of every member of the benefit unit.” This calculation is
to include the "monetary value of items and services", as well as "amounts deemed
available" (such as income from boarders and from sponsorship agreements). 120 The
regulations then provide a list of payments that are to be exempted, for example,
donations from religious or charitable organizations, portions of loans approved by the
administrator for very specific purposes, certain provincial and federal payments, and
casual gifts or casual payments of small value. Thus loans–except those exempted for
limited purposes–and cash advances from a credit card or line of credit are considered
income and as such result in a dollar for dollar deduction in the amount of benefits
payable. 121
The complex, by times counter-intuitive, and changing nature of the rules regarding what
constitutes income creates certain common problems for recipients. Not surprisingly,
situations will arise where some 'payment' (in cash or in kind) has not been reported
because the recipient had no inkling that the obligation to disclose had been triggered. In
an analysis of fraud, these are cases where, accepting the testimony of the recipient,
there exists either no act that might appropriately be described as dishonest and/or no
intent to deprive. Yet, we heard over and over from respondents that the mere failure to
disclose information that a welfare worker says ought to have been provided, gives rise
to allegations, investigations and sometimes, fraud prosecutions and convictions.
Several respondents noted that once accused of 'fraud', and acknowledging that they
had not reported something, many recipients simply accept that they are guilty of fraud.
Even those cases which appear to be relatively straightforward in terms of their fraud
analysis often are not. Consider for example the person working 'under the table' and
being paid wages for his work who knows that he is obliged to report this as income.
While he may have the requisite mens rea, one component of the actus reus may be
absent; there may be no deprivation. This is because, while income is usually deducted
dollar for dollar, within O.W. there exists a program known as S.T.E.P. (Supports Toward
O.Reg. 134/98, section 48.
Income, Policy Directive #16, Ministry of Community and Social Services, Sept. 2001.
Employment Program), pursuant to which one is entitled to retain money from
employment and to deduct employment related expenses, such that a possibility arises
that had the disclosure been made, benefits would not have been reduced. 122 Thus,
there would have been no deprivation.
An additional observation about the S.T.E.P. rules is in order. The rules are, in
Matthews' words, "complicated, punitive and counter-productive. They take a long time
to explain and are very difficult to understand". As Matthews found, "[c]onfusion about
the rules and the administration of earnings exemptions creates fear for clients of
inadvertently breaking the rules and losing their benefits." 123 One consequence of this
fear of an inadvertent rule violation may be silence. But there will also be situations
where the obligation to report income is known, understood and intentionally violated
and there may well be sufficient evidence to support a fraud conviction. This may occur,
as noted earlier, because of the lag time in benefit adjustments to reflect earnings that
fluctuate. And it may occur because one may simultaneously recognize the importance
of obtaining employment and indeed, is desirous of work, yet experiences how the O.W.
rules regarding the treatment of earnings and expenses related to earnings may actually
put one in a worse financial position than had one not taken up work at all. 124 The
system, in fact, creates conflicting obligations for some: make all reasonable efforts to
obtain employment; and comply with all the rules (rules which themselves impede
obtaining employment).
Another very problematic dimension of the 'income' rules relates to "casual gifts or
casual payments of small value". Directive 16 provides that,
[a]pplicants or participants may receive occasional financial help from relatives
and friends while in receipt of assistance. Casual gifts and payments of small
value are normally exempt from income. However, any income from a person
who has an obligation to support the applicant or participant will be deducted at
100 percent unless the gift or payment is tied to a special occasion such as
Christmas or a birthday.
O. Reg. 134/98, section 49.
Matthews, supra note 34 at p.13.
Although ostensibly designed to facilitate the transition to paid employment, many have
observed how the rules can operate in fact to create obstacles and disincentives to work. In some
circumstances one is no further ahead, and may well be worse off, if paid work is obtained.
Delivery agents may exercise their discretion when determining whether or not
gifts or casual payments are chargeable as income. There are occasions where
an applicant or participant may be faced with an immediate financial crisis. Help
may be obtained from family, friends, or another third party. When making a
determination, the delivery agent must consider the source, amount and
frequency of the gift or casual payment and the opportunity to resolve the crisis.
Exercising discretion should be in favour of applicants or participants to assist
them to manage their financial circumstances…
Examples of casual gifts and payments of small value may include items such as
clothing, meals at family members' homes and the occasional purchase of items
such as food. Gifts tied to a special occasion are generally exempt. Casual
payments are considered infrequent payments. Continuous payments of small
value are non-chargeable up to six months. After six months they are no longer
considered casual and therefore are considered income to be charged at 100
percent. 125
The discretionary and complex nature of the rules makes it exceedingly difficult for
anyone in receipt of welfare to know if and when gifts or casual payments will be
deducted. If reported, and discretion is not exercised in your favour, your benefits will be
reduced dollar for dollar. On the other hand, if you fail to disclose, you risk being cut off
and charged with fraud, and the reality is, sometimes even in situations where if you had
disclosed, the ‘income’ would not have been deducted. These are the kinds of situations
that create difficult moral binds for recipients. Take, for example, $100 given to you by
your boyfriend to help you get by. Even with this $100 you don't have enough to
adequately feed and clothe your children. If you disclose the $100 it may or may not be
deducted dollar for dollar from your welfare cheque; if it is, you're obviously no further
ahead. If you don't disclose and it is later discovered (perhaps because he, in fact,
reports it to welfare) what will follow? Section 14 indicates that you shall be found to be
ineligible for financial assistance, as you have failed to disclose income. You may well
be cut off and while you can re-apply, there will likely be a period of time when you are
without assistance. You will probably be assessed with an over-payment of $100.00, and
there is always the possibility of being charged with fraud.
Of course, another common situation is that one simply doesn't know anything at all
about the rules regarding casual gifts or payments of small value. One respondent
described a client, struggling to survive, who undertakes odd jobs in exchange for meals
or a small supply of groceries. This respondent questioned whether it would ever cross
Income, Policy Directive #16, supra note 121.
this client's mind that this may be characterized as a "casual gift or payment of small
value" that is reportable and which could potentially be deducted from his cheque and
lead to termination, or even a fraud charge.
In our interviews we heard that generally casual gifts or payments of small value do not
give rise to fraud charges, but rather to over-payments and terminations. However, one
respondent reported that since the change to the Controlling Fraud Directive in January
2004–which now requires that where sufficient evidence exists to suspect intent to
commit fraud, the case must (bolded in original) be referred to the police for possible
criminal prosecution–casual gifts or small payments are being referred to the police. 126
Others observed that such cases may be referred, in particular where the payments or
gifts continue beyond the six month time period and become automatically deductible.
But even in circumstances where no referral is made to police, the giving of assistance
(often but not always compassionately motivated) is often overlaid with a discourse of
fraud and abuse. One respondent described the case of a client on O.W. who, during a
home visit, opened her refrigerator to show her O.W. worker that her son had given her
food. Her worker (kindly) advised her not to “show me your fridge again". (Note that a
'home visit' is limited to what is in plain view so there is no legislative authority for a
worker to open a refrigerator). The respondent who shared this story noted that this was
a compassionate worker and that other workers in the region would pounce on this–the
pounce could include assigning a dollar value and assessing an over-payment (so that
its value would be deducted dollar for dollar from her welfare cheque), termination for
failure to disclose and/or a fraud charge. But note that even the compassionate
response of, "don't show me your fridge again" carries with it a message that someone is
up to something s/he shouldn't be.
M.P.P. Deb Matthews reports a case described to her where the value of leftovers from
Sunday dinner at a parent's house was deducted from the social assistance cheque. 127
And one of the persons interviewed by Herd and Mitchell described her situation as
Controlling Fraud Directive, supra note 46.
Matthews, supra note 34 at p.28 fn 30.
[I had] a form of what was considered a gift that had to be reported. Shoes, and
various items like that, you were supposed to report at dollar value. You were
allowed a birthday gift and a gift at Christmas. One of the things that I always
remembered on that list was that if you were invited to somebody's house on a
regular basis for a meal, that meal is a reportable item. Like if every Sunday you
went to your Moms for dinner, you were supposed to say to them, "I had dinner
at my Mother's 3 Sundays this month and the value of the meal was $8.95 or
whatever.” If you got taken to a restaurant on a regular basis, that was a
reportable item… One of the few things that was excluded was gifts from the
church, like from the food bank, but you were allowed one visit a month and no
more than a certain dollar value. (J, Scarborough) 128
Another of our respondents described a situation where parents of a social assistance
recipient, after reading about some welfare fraud cases in the newspaper, came into the
office to inquire as to whether they had committed fraud because they had been giving
their daughter money each month to help her get by.
As noted earlier, a new definition of 'spouse' was introduced in 1995 that treated persons
of the opposite sex presumptively as spouses upon taking up co-residency. While the
definition of 'spouse' (and now also 'same sex partner') has been modified subsequently,
most recently in the fall of 2004, it remains vague and ambiguous, falling to be
determined in many instances upon an assessment of whether the 'social and familial
aspects of the relationship' and the 'degree of financial interdependence' are consistent
with cohabitation and whether, if 'spouses', they are 'residing in the same dwelling'. The
Co-residency Policy Directive #19 lists a variety of factors to consider when determining
whether co-residency exists: a statement from a landlord that the recipient lives with
another person, or that another person is listed on the lease; driver's license history;
employment records; and credit checks are among the factors to be considered. There is
no formula that weighs these various factors to determine whether the applicant/recipient
is 'co-residing'. 129 Not surprisingly then, there is little consistency–even at the appeal
level before the Social Benefits Tribunal–as to what combination of factors will lead to a
determination of co-residency. Respondents pointed out to us that in some cases a
determination of co-residency is made on very little evidence. One respondent told us of
a case in which a finding of co-residency was made–and upheld at the Tribunal–on the
basis of a common address on their respective drivers' licenses. Respondents also
Herd and Mitchell, supra note 34 at p.48.
Co-Residency Policy Directive #19, Ministry of Community and Social Services.
observed that many of the factors often considered as indicative of co-residency need to
be re-evaluated in the context of the lives of persons who are living in poverty. For
example, frequently co-signatures are required on a lease, or to secure credit, if one
does not have the financial means to qualify on one's own. So too, low income people
without a fixed address may use the address of a friend or acquaintance when applying
for employment, a license, or any number of other things for which an address is
requested or required. These, and a range of other circumstances, represent forms of
survival strategies that low-income people must engage in to get by. But such
arrangements will often be viewed out of context and assumed to be evidence of coresidency.
In addition to the consideration of co-residency, a determination also must be made as
to whether the persons in issue are 'spouses'. In some instances, this is answered
readily if, for example, there is an existing obligation of support under the Family Law
Act. But in other cases the determination will turn on a consideration of financial, social
and familial factors. While here too the policy lists a host of factors to be considered,
again there is no formula that permits any predictability as to the circumstances in which
a 'spousal' determination will be made. And, as with determinations of co-residency,
decisions regarding spousal status are "all over the map.” Indeed, as noted earlier, the
vagueness and ambiguity of the definition was based on which the Ontario Court of
Appeal struck the definition down as unconstitutional. 130
Although the Co-Residency Policy Directive provides that during the intake verification
interview, during an annual financial assessment review, or at any time an applicant or
participant declares a co-resident, the worker must: explain the spousal/same-sex
partner criteria; provide the co-resident information sheet (which is to be signed
indicating that its contents have been explained and a copy provided); and complete the
co-resident questionnaire, recipients are frequently (and understandably) uncertain as to
just what might get them into trouble.
Several themes emerged from our interviews about the manner in which the definition of
'spouse' was being deployed in practice; many of these themes can be tied to problems
that arise through the imposition of a static nuclear family model onto relationships that
are anything but static and nuclear. Several respondents noted that many of the
relationships of their clients are 'fluid', not static. They may move in and out of
relationship with a single partner, or with other partners. This fluidity of relationships may
be tied to economic needs, to ebbs and flows in emotive relationships, or any number of
other factors. Frequently women do not benefit financially from such relationships (or
even from more static relationships for that matter). The assumption made within the
nuclear family model of a male breadwinner who provides materially for his dependent
wife is profoundly out-of-step with the realities of the lives of many. We also note here
that many respondents indicated that a similar problem arises in relation to the custody
of children. In First Nations communities, for example, traditional child-rearing practices
differ from those of the dominant North American culture. Children are not reared
exclusively within a nuclear family, but rather will spend extended lengths of time with
others, including Aunties and Uncles. When children who are reflected as dependents in
the benefit calculation of a recipient spend relatively extended periods of time with other
extended family members, if these absences are not reported, problems–including fraud
charges–can arise.
Intimate relationships give rise to a wide range of situations in which 'fraud' is alleged to
have occurred. If a woman is claiming benefits as a single person or sole support parent
and it is determined that she is residing with a spouse, then she is ineligible for benefits.
She and her 'spouse' may, however, apply as a couple. This option, as the Court of
Appeal in Falkiner noted, can be deeply problematic for women, but the important point
to observe here, is how such an option ties into the analysis of fraud. 131 Assume for a
moment a situation where the man with whom she is 'residing' and who has been found
to be a 'spouse' has no income and no assets. Were they to apply as a couple, their
combined income and assets would be assessed to determine the total benefits. In this
hypothetical, as a couple they would in fact receive more benefits than she would have
been receiving as a single person. There is then a strong argument that the state has
not been deprived; there is, on the facts, no actus reus. Situations also exist, not
surprisingly, where a woman either does not know or does not understand the rules re
'spouses' or does not believe that her relationship is 'spousal, so does not report a
'change in circumstances' to her welfare worker. In these situations, there will be a
Falkiner, supra note 37.
sound argument that even if there has been deprivation (because the state would define
the relationship as spousal and he has income or assets), there may be no objectively
dishonest or deceitful act, and/or no mens rea (since she had no subjective knowledge
of potential deprivation). 132 As with the income cases however, there seems to be a
tendency to label the failure to disclose an intimate relationship, and nothing more, as
Wilkie also appropriately argues that it is highly problematic to "label conduct criminal
when not only is the categorization of that conduct highly subjective and discretionary
but when…different legally-qualified tribunals come to opposing views on the same
facts." 133 She goes on to describe a case where the benefits tribunal had concluded on a
balance of probabilities that there was not a spouse; while a criminal court on the same
facts found that there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt there was a spouse. Wilkie
questions the competence of courts to determine whether a 'spousal' relationship existed
at all. But it also raises the question of the very nature of the criminal act that is in issue.
In these cases, how ought we to think about the 'prohibited act' of "deceit, falsehood or
other fraudulent means"? Take an easy case where there is no factual contestation
whatsoever regarding spousal status nor co-residency. A couple is married and
cohabiting; she has applied for O.W. as a single person and has not disclosed that she
is married, nor that she is cohabiting with her spouse. Her husband is employed and
earning enough income that they would not qualify as couple were they to apply to O.W.
as such. The prohibited act on these facts is the failure to disclose that she is cohabiting
with her spouse; her behaviour may well also be appropriately characterized as deceitful
or as a falsehood, and there seems little doubt that viewed objectively, her behaviour
would be appropriately characterized as dishonest.
But try moving away from this kind of clear-cut factual situation. A single mother on O.W.
meets a man and they begin to date. Over the next several months he begins to spend a
great deal of time at her home, and shares in a lot of the household tasks. They regularly
go out together, so many people in their neighbourhood will see them together. He may
move some of his clothing into her place and he spends a few nights each week there.
What she (or anyone for that matter) is unable to predict is at what point the relationship
R . v. Parise, supra note 51.
Wilkie, supra note 114 at p.44.
would be considered 'spousal'. When then, does she engage in the prohibited act of
deceiving O.W. about the 'true' nature of the relationship–that she is co-residing with a
spouse? As Gutierrez observes, given that the determination of 'spouse' is a mixed
question of law and fact, it is often exceedingly difficult to know whether one is a
'spouse'. 134
One common response to this is to say that she does not have to make this
determination, O.W. will. Her only obligation is to report any change in circumstances;
O.W. will then decide if the change in circumstance renders her a spouse. During our
interview with Debbie Moretta, she suggested to us that while the rules may be complex,
what is asked of recipients is really quite simple; report changes in their circumstances.
Similarly, in her affidavit in the Broomer case Ms Moretta observes that "the system is
designed so that recipients make full disclosure of any changes in their circumstances to
the program; individuals are not required to make any self-assessment of eligibility". 135
Indeed, this approach seems to underlie many cases where fraud charges are laid;
again based on the fundamental mistake that the failure to report any information that
O.W. now says it ought to have constitutes fraud. Moreover, O.W. legislation itself does
not require the reporting of all changes in circumstances; but rather changes in
circumstances relevant to eligibility. The Rights and Responsibilities Form, for example,
states "you are responsible for following the rules of the O.W. program, including honest
reporting of all circumstances that affect eligibility" [emphasis added]. Similarly, in the
application form, the applicant acknowledges that "I/we will notify the Administrator, the
Director, or his/her representative as the case may be, of any change of relevant
circumstances [emphasis added] of any beneficiary of the allowance/assistance to be
provided, including any change in circumstances pertaining to assets, income, living
arrangements and my/our participation in Ontario Works activity as set out in the
participation agreement. So we're back at square one; what is relevant to eligibility?
Moreover, consider the implications for women's privacy, dignity and autonomy were the
requirement such that one had to report every change in circumstance. Is a woman
required to report each time her boyfriend visits? Each time they go out together? Each
Gutierrez, supra note 40 at p.39.
Moretta, supra note 8 at para. 54.
time he cares for her children? Each time they have sex? Each time he buys her coffee?
Each time he helps out around the house?
It is also very significant to appreciate how the forming of an intimate relationship–
something which society encourages, particularly if a heterosexual relationship that
leads to marriage–quickly becomes an object of surveillance for potential criminal
charges. 136 The inquisitiveness of front line workers, the policing powers of E.R.O.s and
the wide net of intrusive surveillance cast by measures like the snitch lines are deployed
to scrutinize and regulate the intimate lives of women (women constituted 59 percent of
the O.W. caseload and 94 percent of single parents on O.W. were women in December
2003). 137 As noted earlier, stereotyping of poor, single, and especially racialized women
make them particularly vulnerable to this kind of scrutiny. As Cook argues, single
mothers on benefits are seen to have transgressed borders of acceptable behaviour;
they are neither good mothers, good wives, good workers nor good consumers. 138 Their
intimate relationships are regarded with acute interest, suspicion and often open
hostility; they are, in fact, everybody's business.
Most of our respondents also observed that there are many situations they see where
women have little control over whether and when an intimate partner (past or present)
comes and goes. This is especially true where a partner is abusive. The difficulty abused
women have of getting their abusers out of their lives is extremely well documented;
abusers are threatened by the loss of power and control her departure signals and will
go to great lengths in order to maintain their power and control. The misassumption is all
too commonly made that women can simply leave an abusive relationship. Not only are
there frequently no viable options for women, but often when a woman does leave, her
abuser follows, stalks, and continuously re-asserts his presence and his control. Leaving
can be extremely difficult, and is the time when women are at the greatest risk of
violence, including lethal violence. 139
In the United States, including in context of welfare benefits, a large number of measures have
been introduced recently to encourage marriage. Even the S.A.R.C. took explicit care to avoid
creating disincentives to marriage within welfare policy.
Ministry of Community and Social Services, 2003.
Dee Cook, "Women on Welfare: In Crime or Injustice?" in Pat Carlen & Anne Worrall (eds.)
Gender, Crime and Justice (Milton Keynes: Open University Press Press, 1987).
See for example, Maria Crawford & Rosemary Gartner, Woman Killing: Intimate Femicide in
Ontario 1974-1990 (Toronto: Women We Honour Action Committee, 1992); Ellen Pence and M.
Here too, these kinds of circumstances are importantly relevant to both the
determination of eligibility and to an analysis of fraud. If a man comes and goes of his
own accord, despite a woman's efforts to rid of him, surely there is an argument that a)
she is not his spouse; b) she is not residing with him; c) she harbours no intention of
depriving the Ministry; and/or d) there has been no deprivation.
In the reported decisions, the outcome of the fraud analysis seems to turn very much
upon whether, and to what extent, the trier of fact actually understands the realities of
the lives of abused women. Consider for example the case of R. v. Lalonde. 140 While the
legal analysis here is not as careful as it might be, Mr. Justice Trainor seems to clearly
have understood that 'leaving' for Lise Lalonde was no simple matter. Her abusive
partner, Peter Van Deyl, was described as a possessive and jealous man who stalked
her and threatened her with death. Mr. Justice Trainor concludes that often Van Deyl
was only there because Lise Lalonde did not know how to extricate herself from him.
Indeed, it may well have been that there simply was no safe option. Importantly as well,
he observes that Van Deyl made no economic contribution and was, in fact, a burden.
He astutely observed that they could have applied as a couple–and received greater
benefits–but that was not a viable option for Lise Lalonde, as the cheque would have
gone to Van Deyl as the head of the household. On these facts, there was a good
argument that there was no deprivation of the state. Mr. Justice Trainor invokes the
defence of necessity, concluding that Lise Lalonde had no other viable or reasonable
choice in the circumstances. He also concludes (problematically, without much, if any,
evidence on this point) that Lise Lalonde suffered from battered woman syndrome and
that this negated mens rea (also a problematic legal conclusion). Though his legal
analysis calls out for improvement, what is significant is his appreciation of the incredibly
constricted world of 'choice' in which Lalonde had to exercise judgement. He understood
that VanDeyl asserted his presence and that there was little, if anything, Lalonde could
do to control his comings and goings. He understood that VanDeyl (though welfare
would have assumed him to be the head of the household, and the male breadwinner)
was a burden, a financial drag, and not a contributor.
Paymar Power and Control: Tactics of Men Who Batter (Duluth: Duluth Minesota Program
Development Inc. 1986).
In sharp contrast to Mr. Justice Trainor's decision in Lalonde is the decision of Mr.
Justice Daniel in R. v. McGillivray. 141 McGillivray was charged for failing to disclose a
common law relationship; her 'common law' partner was in receipt of a student loan. The
judge notes that by all accounts, she was "an emotionally abused, battered wife who is
very much manipulated by her boyfriend" and that she had been "unsuccessful" in
ending the relationship because he threatened her into returning. He observes that "[t]his
offence apparently resulted from her feeling that she had no other available choices to
her in order to support herself and her children.” His use of "apparently" reveals his
deeper skepticism regarding how little control and choice McGillivray had. While
acknowledging that she may have been manipulated "to some extent", he notes that her
boyfriend was "certainly not standing over her shoulder when she made false
applications at the Welfare Office," as if he had to be physically present in order to
exercise his power and control. 142 In the course of sentencing Ms McGillivray to six
months’ incarceration and one year of probation for a fraud of $23,000 Mr. Justice
Trainor quoted favourably from another case in which the court had observed that
"…many would consider this the most despicable form of theft." 143
Respondents consistently reported to us that in the vast majority of cases where findings
that one is co-residing with a spouse are made and an over-payment assessed, or fraud
charge laid, men simply walk away–with no over-payment, no criminal charges, and no
threat of a criminal record. In the overwhelming majority of cases, it is only women who
are charged with fraud and/or assessed with overpayments and not the men who are
allegedly their spouses with whom they are residing. Across all of our interviews, less
than a handful of cases were identified where men had been charged with fraud in manin-the-house cases. As one respondent described it: "she's barely surviving, the debt is
hers, she has a criminal record, and he's just moved on". And in a zero tolerance
regime, she is also banned from the receipt of benefits for life. Another respondent
described frustrating and ultimately futile efforts to convince a local welfare office to
recommend to police the laying of charges against men as well. In our interview with
R .v. Lalonde (1995), 22 O.R. (ed) 275 (Gen. Div.).
R. v. McGillivray, [1992] A.J. No. 886 (Prov. Ct. Crim. Div. ) (QL)
One woman interviewed for the Walking on Eggshells Report described how her husband
severely beat her and then told her to apply for welfare, tell them her husband had kicked her out
and not to come back until she had received it. She did as her husband said and lived in constant
fear that she would be charged with fraud and he would walk away. Mosher et al, supra note 32.
R. v. McGillivray, supra note 141.
Debbie Moretta she indicated that this issue has been discussed within the Ministry and
that the advice the Ministry has received is that a fraud conviction cannot be sustained
against the person who is not the applicant (usually the man). Our view is that this
advice may be misguided; while it may well be more difficult to secure a conviction
against him, the fact that he is not the applicant for benefits does not render him immune
from a prosecution for fraud. In particular, there seems to be a good argument that in
many circumstances, he may aptly be characterized as a 'party' to the offence, having
either aided or abetted in its commission. 144 Section 79(2) of the O.W.A. expressly
provides that, "no person shall knowingly aid or abet another person to obtain or receive
assistance to which the other person is not entitled under the Act and the regulations. In
addition, the Ministry has a civil remedy under the O.W.A. which it undoubtedly could
pursue, but which it seems not to. Pursuant to subsection 21(4), "if a recipient had a
dependent spouse or same-sex partner when an overpayment was incurred, the
administrator may give notice in writing to the spouse or same-sex partner respecting
the overpayment". Once notice has been given the overpayment becomes enforceable
as if it were an order of the Ontario Court (General Division). 145 In short, legal
mechanisms clearly exist through which 'spouses' not in receipt of assistance may be
prosecuted provincially or under the Code for fraud. Rather, what appears to be lacking
is the will to do so.
Processing of Welfare Fraud Cases
As noted earlier, a substantial number of allegations of welfare fraud are communicated
to the Ministry each year, and these allegations come from a variety of sources. Table 2
below, prepared by the Ministry, notes these various sources and the numbers of
complaints each source generates. 146
Criminal Code, supra note 45, section 21, in particular b) and c).
O.W.A. supra, note 1, section 21.
Welfare Fraud Control Report 2001-200, supra note 60. One might query whether the
precipitous decline in allegations in 2001-2001 might be attributable to the introduction of the
lifetime ban.
Table 2: Source of Welfare Fraud Complaints
Welfare Fraud
Information –
al Offices
In many instances the matter can be resolved by a front line caseworker. But if a
concern exists regarding eligibility the allegation will be referred to an E.R.O. for a
comprehensive eligibility investigation (respondents noted that the comprehensiveness
of investigations varies considerably). Directive #45, "Controlling Fraud" requires the
E.R.O. to prepare a written report for an E.R.O. supervisor, including recommendations
regarding on-going eligibility, assessment of any overpayment and whether a referral to
the police is warranted. In some municipalities an additional layer of decision-making
occurs; a special review committee will review cases before a decision is made
regarding referral to police.
In our interviews with respondents the picture which emerged was one of tremendous
variation in the nature of cases which would give rise to referrals to the police, and
variation among police departments and Crown Attorneys as to whether referred cases
would go forward. 147 One of the clearest variations exists around dollar value: in some
parts of the province a threshold of $5,000 is employed for referral to the police; one
respondent indicated that the threshold in her/his region seemed to be $10,000; and
others indicated that no dollar thresholds were applied at all and cases–even those for a
few hundred dollars–would be referred. No one with whom we spoke had seen these
various income thresholds in writing; rather the thresholds were observed as a matter of
practice. From a review of the record in the Kimberley Rogers inquest it would appear
that as a result of the lifetime ban, more municipalities moved to the adoption of a
Dianne Martin found similar variations in her work on welfare fraud in the late 1980s, see
Martin, supra note 47.
$5,000 income threshold. A police officer testifying at the inquest also noted that in
Sudbury, the police department had been overwhelmed with the number of welfare fraud
referrals. The department decided not to take cases below $5000 and this reduced the
number of cases significantly. 148
As described earlier, Directive #45 was revised in January of 2004, at the same time as
the lifetime ban on eligibility was revoked. The prior directive stated that, "the
administrator must determine if there are reasonable grounds to suspect that fraud may
have occurred. Where this is the case, the matter must be referred to the police for a
possible criminal investigation." 149 The emphasis, more so than the content, has
changed in the revised directive: "where sufficient evidence exists to suspect intent to
commit fraud, the case must (bolded in original) be referred to police for possible
criminal prosecution." 150 Both versions employ the mandatory language of 'must', but the
mandatory nature of the requirement is clearly emphasized in the revised version of the
Directive. In our interview with Debbie Moretta she explained to us that the Directive
creates a framework within which municipalities are expected to operate, but within that
framework there is scope for regional variation. But given the mandatory nature of the
requirement to refer to police which is, itself, part of the framework provided, one would
have thought that the amount of money alleged to have been fraudulently received could
not be employed by local O.W. offices in decision-making regarding referrals. The
revision to the Directive emphasizes this requirement through the use of bold typeface.
Yet, at least from the respondents that we have interviewed, it would appear that
practices regarding referrals have, in the main, continued as before. 151
Variations also exist regarding the types of circumstances that may give rise to a referral
to police. Student loans, casual gifts of small value beyond six months and spouses are
treated differently in various parts of the province; in some parts of the province they do
give rise to over-payments but virtually never to fraud charges. Respondents reported
that variations also depend upon who the recipient is. Whether they like you; whether
you're contrite, whether you're able to explain what's happening in a way they can
Transcript of evidence of Constable Sheldon Roberts, Oct. 28, 2002, Inquest into the Death of
Kimberly Rogers.
Controlling Fraud, Policy Directive #45, September, 2001.
Controlling Fraud, Policy Directive #45, supra note 46.
understand; your family's reputation; how you look; how you talk; and what stereotypes
inform how you are judged are all factors that were identified as influencing the decision
as to whether the matter would be referred to police.
Criminal Investigations and Charter Implications
There is also an important question regarding the inter-relationship of the E.R.O.
investigation and criminal liability. E.R.O. investigations will often include an interview
with the person who is the subject of the investigation, and recall that an E.R.O. has the
power to "require information or material from a person who is the subject of an
investigation" and that it is an offence under the O.W.A. to obstruct an E.R.O. in his/her
investigation. 152 Two important questions arise: when, if at all, does an obligation to
advise of Charter rights arise during the course of the E.R.O. investigation; and when, if
at all, can information and documents that are statutorily compelled be used in evidence
against the accused? While these questions have attracted little attention in the welfare
context, they have been extensively litigated in the income tax context. 153
The recent decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Jarvis and R. v. Ling,
(both income tax evasion cases) provide useful guidance for an evaluation of the
processing of welfare fraud cases. 154 In Jarvis, Revenue Canada received a tip that the
The directive does not impinge upon the decision-making authority exercised by the police and
by Crowns regarding what cases they are prepared to take on.
O.W.A, supra note 1, subs. 79(3) and O.Reg. 134/98, section 65.
We did locate however two welfare fraud cases that bear on these questions. In R. v Coulter
the Accused failed to report income from employment; when this was discovered he signed an
agreement to repay with the understanding that a clause in the agreement to the effect that the
Ministry would not pursue full legal remedies meant that there would be no criminal proceedings.
A year later charges were laid against him and Mr. Coulter argued that it would be an abuse of
process to proceed. The court agreed, noted that in signing the agreement and making
acknowledgements, he was conscripting evidence against himself to someone in authority for any
subsequent criminal proceeding and that this had been done without concern for his Charter
protections. In R. v D'Amour the court was asked to consider whether all of the documentation
gathered by social assistance authorities could be available for a criminal prosecution. Some of
the documents had been provided by the accused at the time of applying for benefits, and others
after a concern regarding undisclosed income resulted in welfare officials requesting that she
provide additional documentation of past income. Madame Justice Epstein concluded that all of
the documents were in hand well before there was any prospect of a criminal investigation and
moreover, that in applying for benefits she relinquished her right to having the information
protected from use by the state. The decision predates Jarvis and fails to address the question of
whether the inquiry had at some point de factor become a criminal investigation. Also, in our view,
Madame Justice Epstein misconstrues the role of E.R.O.s when describing their function as
solely to determine eligibility. R. v. Coulter, [1995] O.J. No. 645 (Prov. Div.) (QL) and R. v.
D’Amour. [2000] O.J. No 5122 (Sup.Ct.) (QL)
R. v. Jarvis, [2002] 3 S.C.R. 757, R. v. Lee, [2002] 3 S.C.R. 814.
accused had not reported sales of his late wife's art in his tax returns. Revenue Canada
sent a letter to Mr. Jarvis advising him that his file had been selected for an audit and
requested certified books and records. Subsequently the auditor phoned Mr. Jarvis, and
a few weeks later met with him. On both these occasions the auditor obtained additional
information and documents and on neither of these occasions was Mr. Jarvis cautioned.
Shortly thereafter the auditor referred the file to the Special Investigations Unit to
determine whether a charge of tax evasion was warranted. A search warrant was
subsequently obtained and executed and a charge of tax evasion was laid under s.239
of the Act.
Not at all unlike the O.W.A. scheme, section 231.1(1) of the ITA empowers 'authorized
persons', for the purposes of the administration and enforcement of the Act, to enter any
premises or place of business except a dwelling house to examine any books and
records and may require persons (including the taxpayer) to give all reasonable
assistance and to answer all proper questions relating to the administration or
enforcement of the Act. 155 Section 232.1(1) provides, again for the purpose of the
administration and enforcement of the Act, that the Minister may require any person to
provide, upon proper notice, any information or document.
In Jarvis the Court considered two questions: at what point in the audit/investigation
process does the obligation to caution the taxpayer arise; and whether documents or
information compelled pursuant to the powers granted by sections 231.1(1) and 231.2(1)
could be used as evidence against the accused at his criminal trial. The Court rejected
the characterization of the ITA as a purely regulatory statute, noting that while much of
its content could be appropriately characterized as regulatory, it simultaneously contains
provisions (such as the offences and penalties found in s.239) which bear the hallmarks
of criminal legislation. As such, the legislation attracted a higher degree of Charter
scrutiny than would a statute that was solely regulatory in nature.
The Court found that section 7 of the Charter–the right to life, liberty and security of the
person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles
of fundamental justice–to be engaged by the introduction at trial of information statutorily
compelled pursuant to sections 231.1(1) or 231.2(1). The Court observed, however, that
section 7 does not preclude the use in all contexts of information that has been
statutorily compelled. Rather the principle against self-incrimination (the principle of
fundamental justice at play here) is to be balanced against the principle that all relevant
evidence should be available to the trier of fact. In finding that balance, the Court
distinguished the auditing and investigative functions exercised by Revenue Canada.
Where 'auditing' is undertaken to ensure compliance with the Act–including the meting
out of penalties under the Act–the taxpayer's Charter rights are not engaged. However,
once an adversarial relationship develops between the state and taxpayer–a relationship
the Court says arises where the predominant purpose of the inquiry is to determine
penal liability–Charter rights are triggered. The Court held that the predominant purpose
is determined contextually, having regard to a variety of factors, including: did authorities
have reasonable grounds to lay charges; was the general conduct of the authorities
consistent with a criminal investigation; did the auditor transfer the file to the investigator;
and did investigators intend to use the auditor as their agent?
The balance to be struck between the principle against self-incrimination and the
principle that the trier of fact should have all relevant evidence before it, lies in permitting
the introduction of evidence gathered under 231.1(1) and 232.1(1) prior to the point in
time when an inquiry’s dominant purpose becomes that of determining penal liability.
Sections 231.1(1) and 232.1(1), the Court reasoned, are available for the administration
and enforcement of the Act, and not for the prosecution of section 239 offences. Thus
sections 231.1(1) and 232.1(1) cannot be used to aid an investigation into penal liability.
But where information has been properly gathered under these provisions for the
administration and enforcement of the Act, such information can be passed on to
investigators (in other words, where the evidence was generated before the adversarial
relationship between the individual and state arose). There must be, the Court ruled,
some separation between auditing and investigative functions to protect the accused’s
section 7 interests.
What are the implications then of the decision in Jarvis for the role of E.R.O.s and the
processing of welfare fraud cases? Given Jarvis’ attention to context-specific factors it
may not be possible to fully discern its application in the abstract, yet several general
observations about its application to welfare fraud investigations can be discerned. One
Income Tax Act, R.S.C. 1985, c.1 (5th Supp.), section 231.1.
might argue that the O.W. regime is purely regulatory; that it does not contain provisions
akin to the s.239 offences of the I.T.A. And indeed, the E.R.O. training materials that we
have reviewed characterize the E.R.O. function in this manner, as purely regulatory. 156
But in our view the claim that their role, and the Act, are only regulatory in nature, must
fail. First, matters are referred to E.R.O.s once there is an allegation of fraud and an
E.R.O. report must contain a recommendation regarding possible referral to police for
criminal charges, as well as a recommendation regarding eligibility and any possible
over-payment. Pursuant to the Controlling Fraud Policy Directive, the E.R.O. is to turn
his/her mind to whether there is sufficient evidence to suspect the intent to commit fraud.
An E.R.O. also completes a Form 1005, “Alleged Fraud Case Outline” before a referral
is made to the police. Moreover, each delivery agent much develop a local fraud control
protocol with local police services and Crown Attorney's office for the "effective
investigation and prosecution of cases of suspected social assistance fraud." 157
Second, both Ministry policy and practice show not merely the favouring of resort to the
Criminal Code offence of fraud over the offence provisions contained in the O.W.A., but
in fact, virtually exclusive use of the former. 158 Thirdly, it is important to appreciate that in
many instances the only investigation conducted is the investigation undertaken by an
E.R.O. Consistent with what we heard from the respondents in our interviews was
evidence on this point from Constable Sheldon Roberts, a police officer who testified at
the Rogers Inquest; police departments, particularly in non-complex cases, often rely on
the E.R.O.’s investigative report. Roberts' evidence on this point was that he and a
partner had instructed E.R.O.s in different parts of the province on how to put together
files for police so that there would be a minimal amount of police work required after the
point of referral. 159 One respondent in our interviews noted that in his district the Crown
Attorney's office has recently refused to accept any welfare fraud cases unless there is a
thorough and independent investigation conducted by the police. The practice had been
for the police department to simply forward to the Crown files in which the investigative
work had been conducted exclusively by E.R.O.s. In the Crown's view, the E.R.O.
investigations proceeded on an assumption of guilt, with inadequate attention paid to the
Ministry of Community and Social Services, Provincial Training Unit, Management Support
Branch, Draft ERO Core Training: PDSPB Revisions – June 27,2001.
Controlling Fraud Policy Directive #45, supra note 46.
We do not mean to imply by this that the Charter would not apply to offences under the
elements of a criminal fraud charge, and for this reason, insisted upon an independent
police investigation.
Finally, given the absolute pervasiveness of the language of ‘fraud’ that shapes the
entire investigative process, an argument that E.R.O.s are merely engaged in the
administration and enforcement of the O.W.A., a purely regulatory Act, and are not
engaged in the investigation of penal liability, simply cannot be maintained.
There is not, as far as we are able to discern, any clear separation of the auditing
(enforcement of the Act) and investigative (assessing penal liability) functions within
O.W. It would seem that evidence that is statutorily compelled, even after an inquiry’s
dominant focus is penal liability, is used against the accused in her criminal trial. And our
research to date suggests that E.R.O.s do not provide a Charter caution when they meet
with subjects of the inquiry. It will be a mixed question of law and fact as to whether, at
the time of the meeting, the predominant purpose is to determine penal liability such that
the obligation would arise. But in our view, there will be situations where that is, indeed,
the predominant purpose of the interview.
We also note with interest Wilkie's description of the explicit attention paid to the
separation of the review/overpayment processes from investigation and prosecution
processes within Australia's welfare system. As with the O.W. regime, Department of
Social Security officials have the statutory power to compel answers. It seems, however,
to be commonly accepted that these compelled answers cannot be used in subsequent
criminal prosecutions (note this is not precisely on all fours with the Supreme Court's
ruling in Jarvis). Rather, the Prosecution/Control section conducts a separate, cautioned
interview. 160 While Wilkie's research is somewhat dated (1993), and we do not have
information as to whether her description of the separation of functions reflects current
practices, we raise it here because it does offer an alternative approach to welfare
administration compatible with the Supreme Court's ruling in Jarvis.
Wilkie also raises concerns we heard reflected in our interviews regarding the
investigative interviews that are conducted. As with our respondents, Wilkie queries
Roberts, supra note 148.
Wilkie, supra note 114 at p. 64-66.
whether people appreciate the full import of these interviews and whether confessions
are made as a result of intimidation or duress, and in particular, a fear of being cut off
benefits. She also suggests that given the human dynamics at play, any confession
given is likely to be unchecked and untested–even, possibly, by defence counsel. 161
An additional and related concern is that fearing a possible criminal charge, and within a
broad context where 'fraud' language is pervasive and recipients are constantly
dehumanized, those accused (even inferentially) of fraud agree all too readily to
administrative sanctions such as terminations or over-payments. 162 McKeever, in her
analysis of British reforms advanced in the late 1990s to make detection, prosecution
and punishment of benefit fraud more effective, raises concerns about the proposed
provisions for financial penalties as an alternative to prosecution for less serious
fraud. 163 Suspicions of fraud, she reasoned, would be played off against a fear of court
proceedings, and recipients would ‘agree’ to penalties where there were insufficient
grounds for a prosecution. Interestingly, she also worries that the new offence provisions
to tackle minor fraud would “blur the line between dishonesty and oversight or ignorance
so that every overpayment comes to equal fraud”, precisely the problem that exists in
Consideration of Personal Circumstances
A controversial issue in the processing of welfare fraud cases is whether, and if so,
when and by whom, ‘personal circumstances’ should be considered. This issue
was very much at play in the inquest into the death of Kimberly Rogers, who died
while serving a period of house arrest upon a conviction of welfare fraud, eight
months pregnant, a history of depression, subject to a three month ban on
eligibility (an injunction was subsequently obtained to lift the ban), during a heat
wave in August of 2001. From a review of the transcripts of evidence at the
Inquest, it appears that virtually everyone involved in the decision-making
process–from the E.R.O., to police, to the Crown–passed the buck of considering
Ibid at pp. 72-76.
The Canadian Institute for Research on Law and Family raised this concern in their work for
the S.A.R.C. They expressed concern that terminations were happening in instances where there
was nothing more than a ‘suspicion’ of abuse. C.R.I.L.F., supra note 40 at p.19.
It is significant to note that less serious fraud is understood in this debate as things such as
undisclosed income, or undisclosed spouses. Grainne McKeever, “Detecting, Prosecuting and
her personal circumstances along; until it stopped with defence counsel and his
submissions to the Judge on sentencing. In essence the testimony of each was
that a consideration of extenuating circumstances, the mental health of the
accused, or the impact of a ban on eligibility was not part of their respective jobs.
While Mary Nethery, Director at the time of Criminal Law Policy for the Attorney
General of Ontario, noted that a general Crown charge screening policy that
existed required a consideration of the public interest and that this included a
consideration of the accused’s personal circumstances such as age and health,
the Crowns involved in the actual case testified that they had very little information
about Kimberly Rogers’ personal circumstances and were not in a position to
assess the impact of the ban. Investigation of her personal circumstances and
arguments about its impact, they suggested, were appropriately tasks for defence
counsel. 164 Implicit in the recommendations of the Coroner’s jury is the conclusion
that consideration of personal circumstances need occur much earlier in the
process, and in particular before a referral is made to the police. The jury
recommended the establishment of a committee to develop a model to be used
throughout the province for the assessment of whether cases involving allegations
of welfare fraud should be referred for prosecution. In the jury's view, the model
would allow for the "full appreciation of the person's life circumstances and the
impact of the consequences of a fraud conviction".
Further to this recommendation the Ontario Municipal Social Services Association
(OMSSA) struck a Fraud Referral Task Force. The Task Force released its
recommendations in November 2003 articulating as one of its guiding principles that
decisions regarding referral take into account the impacts of a conviction for the
individual, the family and the community. The Task Force identified a range of case
specific factors (e.g. how the payment in excess of O.W. entitlement occurred, the
amount of the excess payment, and the complexity of legislation or recent policy
changes), and factors relevant to personal circumstances (e.g. health, comprehension of
Punishing Benefit Fraud: The Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act 1997” (1999) 62:2 Mod.
L. Rev. 261.
Transcripts of the evidence of Philip Zylberberg and Alex Kurke, Inquest into the Death of
Kimberley Rogers.
responsibilities, domestic violence, adequacy of benefits versus need, and impact of
conviction) that ought to be considered in making a referral to police. 165
While we do not have system-wide information about each Delivery Agent, from our
interviews it appears that the recommendations of the Task Force have not been widely
implemented, if at all. The Ministry did not participate in the O.M.S.S.A. Task Force
process, and has neither endorsed its recommendations, nor revised its Policy Directive
to enshrine it. 166 In fact, the recommendations of the Task Force stand in stark contrast
to the revision of the Policy Directive that in fact occurred: all cases where there is
reason to suspect intent to commit fraud must be referred. The only consideration
permissible within the framework of the Policy is suspicion of intent to commit fraud.
Legal Representation
Once a fraud charge has in fact been laid, a further issue in the processing of welfare
fraud cases arises in relation to legal representation. Most of our respondents expressed
grave concern about access to legal representation and about the uneven quality of
criminal defence representation that is, in fact, provided. While clearly there are
instances of defence counsel who are knowledgeable about the welfare system and its
myriad of complex rules and who are thus able to provide effective representation, many
defence counsel have little, if any, knowledge of welfare law. As noted earlier, welfare
law is tremendously complex and it is difficult and time-consuming to learn the statute,
regulations and policies, let alone have an up-to-date familiarity with the current
jurisprudence of the Social Benefits Tribunal (whose decisions are unpublished) and
local practices.
Almost all of our respondents expressed concern that guilty pleas were being
encouraged in some cases where a strong defence existed because defence lawyers
did not have sufficient knowledge of welfare law to advance these defences. All too
often, many felt, cases were just not being subjected to the necessary rigour of analysis,
especially in relation to the mens rea component of fraud. One respondent summed up
the quality of defence representation as "tragic".
Ontario Municipal Social Services, Fraud Referral Task Force Report, November 2003.
Moretta, supra note 43.
Cases were described to us where all players in the criminal justice system–Crowns,
defence lawyers and judges–failed to challenge the position taken by social assistance
authorities that the failure to disclose information is, alone, sufficient to ground a
conviction for fraud. Others gave examples of lawyers who, during the period of the
lifetime ban, were providing representation on guilty pleas without knowing that the
lifetime ban was even in place (the ban being a mandatory consequence of criminal
conviction). 167 A further example of concern provided by one of our respondents related
to the calculation of the amount of fraud in issue. In at least some parts of the province,
the position is taken that the amount of 'fraud' in issue is the total of all benefits received
during the period in which the fraud was being perpetrated. So, for example, if one failed
to report employment income for an eight-month period and on the facts, criminal fraud
was established, the amount of the fraud would be the total benefits received over the
eight months. But assume this is a person, who had he disclosed, would have been
eligible in accordance with S.T.E.P., to continue to receive benefits (although a reduced
amount). The competing argument is that the amount of 'deprivation'–thus the amount of
the fraud in issue–is the difference between what he did receive and what he would have
received had he made the disclosure. As one respondent pointed out to us, in cases
where the fraud has occurred over a lengthy period of time, these two methods of
determining the amount of fraud in issue generate dramatically different answers. 168 It is
therefore crucially important that defence counsel advance the latter argument. In the
experience of one of our respondents, defence counsel simply never make this
argument and at least one Community Legal Clinic has tried to work with the local
criminal defence bar so that this analysis will be advanced in the defence of those
accused of welfare fraud.
Several of the respondents we interviewed faulted Legal Aid Ontario and the funding
structure for certificates, as in many of these cases, accused persons are not able to
access legal aid funding. But even when they do, lawyers are not paid enough to cover
the hours they need to master welfare law. Those who cannot access legal aid are
rarely, if ever, in a position to be able to pay for counsel.
See also the affidavits of the applicants in Broomer v. Ontario (A..G.), supra note 8; two of the
applicants report that their defence lawyers had not told them of the lifetime ban.
It also seems entirely plausible to conclude that the amount of an assessed over-payment may
differ from the amount of fraud in issue, because the former does not turn on the notion of
Expert Evidence
Respondents observed that in many cases, it is not only defence counsel, but judges
and Crown prosecutors as well, who do not understand social assistance law. Again, we
do not know how widespread the practice is, but in some parts of the province, in order
to address this knowledge gap, judges permit front line welfare workers to be qualified
as expert witnesses to offer opinion evidence as to the governing law. One respondent
who has observed this practice noted that often in their testimony, welfare workers give
incorrect evidence regarding the legislation. So, for example, they will often say that the
legislation requires that the recipient must report virtually everything and welfare
authorities will decide whether or not it is relevant. As noted earlier, this is a common
misapprehension regarding what the legislation requires of recipients. The respondent
who described this to us also reported that in his experience, he has never seen a
defence lawyer object to the expert qualifications of the worker put forward by the
Crown, nor an objection to the content of the evidence proffered. Of course it is deeply
problematic if incorrect evidence is being tendered regarding the requirements of the
social assistance legislative regime, but it is also problematic–indeed remarkable–that
front line workers should be accepted as experts and permitted to offer opinion evidence
on the requirements of the substantive law. Not only is it difficult to discern how a front
line welfare caseworker might meet the criteria laid down by the Supreme Court of
Canada in Mohan to be a "properly qualified expert" in an area/field of recognized
expertise widely accepted by the relevant scientific community, but that the 'field' she
should be permitted to offer an opinion on is substantive law is more remarkable still. 169
The harsh treatment of those accused of welfare fraud have been noted by many,
including the respondents in our interviews. Our review of the reported cases and our
interviews confirm this assessment. Dianne Martin noted in her work on welfare fraud in
the early 1990s that the sentencing principle dominating welfare fraud cases for the prior
20 years had been that of general deterrence. Little has changed since that time;
general deterrence continues to be the paramount principle in sentencing in welfare
R.. v. Mohan, [1994] 2 S.C.R. 9.
fraud cases and in many cases, the sole principle considered. 170 Often citing the
decision of the British Columbia Court of Appeal in R. v. Frieson, it is widely accepted
that welfare fraud is a “form of crime in respect of which there is a real chance that
substantial penal consequences will deter.” 171
Sentences Imposed
The paramountcy of general deterrence and the characterization of welfare fraud as a
serious crime involving a breach of trust have supported a de facto presumption of
imprisonment as the appropriate sentence. R. v. Thurotte, a 1971 decision of the Ontario
Court of Appeal, has long been regarded as a leading case on this matter. In Thurotte
the court observed that, “although this case is pitiful in many respects, this court is
unanimously of the opinion that the paramount consideration in determining the
sentence is the element of deterrence. Welfare authorities have enough difficulties
without having to put up with persons who set out to defraud them. This is one such
instance, and others who are similarly minded must be warned that these offences will
not be treated lightly.” The trial court had ordered five months imprisonment for a fraud
of $1,700 and the Court of Appeal affirmed that a period of incarceration of anywhere up
to five months would be an appropriate sentence. A series of cases thereafter in several
provincial jurisdictions confirmed (and continue to confirm) that absent unusual or
exceptional mitigating circumstances, a period of incarceration was (is) warranted. 172
Of the fifty cases reviewed by Martin in the early 1990’s, a jail sentence was ordered in
80 percent. 173 Mary Nethery, then Director of Criminal Law Policy, Ministry of the
Attorney General, in her evidence at the Rogers Inquest, noted that prior to the 1996
sentencing reforms, "it was not unusual to see jail terms.” 174 Perhaps more accurately, it
was unusual not to see jail terms. In the 1995 case of R. v. Bunde, the court observed
that counsel for the accused was not able to refer to a single case of welfare fraud where
See for example R. v Bunde ,[1995] O.J. No. 213 (Gen. Div.) (QL).; R. v. Cameron (1999),
241 A.R. 87 (Q.B.); R. v. Durocher (1992) , 100 Sask. R. 108 (C.A.); R. v. Friesen, [1994] B.C.J.
No. 374 (C.A.) (QL); R. v. Gallagher, [1996] O.J. No. 4761 (Prov. Div. ) (QL); R. v. McIsaac,
[1998] B.C.J. NO. 1946 (S.C.) (QL); R. v. Sedra, [1996] O.J. No. 1482 (Prov. Div.) (QL).
R. v. Friesen, supra note 170.
R. v. Cameron, supra note 170; R. v. Hunt [2000] S.K. No. 161 (Q.B.) (QL); R. v. Bunde,
supra note 170.
Martin, supra note 47. By contrast, in Wilkie reports that 18.8 percent of social security
offenders nationally, in Australia, resulted in imprisonment. Wilkie, supra note 114.
Mary Nethery, transcript of evidence, Inquest into the Death of Kimberly Rogers.
a jail term was not imposed. 175 Counsel may not have done an exhaustive search,
because clearly such cases did exist, but from the materials that we have reviewed,
certainly non-custodial sentences were much more the exception than the rule.
Of the 58 welfare fraud sentencing decisions that we reviewed for this report, covering
the period 1989-2002, jail was ordered in 33 cases (57 percent); of these 6 occurred
after conditional sentences were introduced in 1996. In our sample, there were 15
conditional sentences (a form of incarceration, which when combined with the jail terms,
gives a rate of 83 percent for sentences entailing incarceration), 8 suspended
sentences, 1 conditional discharge, and 1 case where a fine was ordered. In 30 of the
cases restitution or a compensation order was ordered and in 13, community service,
ranging from 100-300 hours, was ordered in addition to other components of the
sentence. The severity of the sentences imposed in welfare fraud cases is dramatically
out of step with infractions that occur in other administrative regimes and out of step with
other Criminal Code offences. As one respondent put it to us, for a first offence of theft
under $5,000 (the break point for summary and indictable theft) an accused without a
criminal record is several steps away from a custodial sentence. Yet a first offender
accused of welfare fraud (even fraud under $5,000) is at serious risk of incarceration.
The decision in R. v. Cameron, in noting that absent unusual mitigating or aggravating
factors, welfare fraud over $5,000 warranted a sentence of 12 months' incarceration, is
reflective of common sentencing approaches. 176
Justificatory Framework
Several common tropes invoked by Crown counsel and judges provide the justificatory
framework to support imprisonment as the ‘appropriate’ sentence in cases of welfare
fraud. These tropes are certainly not unique to the criminal justice system, but mirror
tropes pervasive in both political and public discourse. One of the most common of these
is for the court to personalize the state; judges are at pains to point out that a crime has
been committed not against some faceless, amorphous entity but against every citizen
of the community. Commonly, welfare fraud is described as, “depriving all citizens of the
province” or as a “crime against every member of the community". 177 It is rendered a
R . v Bunde, supra note 170 at para. 27.
R. v. Cameron, supra note 170.
See for example R. v. McIsaac, supra note 170; R. v. Gallagher, supra note 170; R. v. Reid
(1995), 137 N.S.R. (2d) 293 (C.A.).
crime of colossal proportions; unlike a simple theft from a single individual, the
pocketbooks of every citizen are alleged to have been robbed. While the Nova Scotia
Court of Appeal rejected the trial court’s characterization of the crime of Ms Reid (failing
to disclose $5,545 in motor vehicle accident benefits), absent the gun metaphor invoked
in the quote below from the trial judge, the view therein appears commonly in sentencing
decisions. Noting that welfare fraud is becoming more prevalent the trial judge added
that it,
is a rather serious offence, because what the offender is doing is stealing from
the pockets of his fellow citizens, he's stealing from his fellow taxpayers of the
Province of Nova Scotia in this case, just the same as if he took a gun and held
them up and stole $5,000. by that means, it's the same difference, it comes out of
the pockets of all of his fellow community members. [The original sentence of 9
months incarceration was reduced to time served (50 days) on appeal.] 178
Commonly judges also scold the accused for having taken from those genuinely in need,
inferring that the accused is herself not genuinely in need and obscuring the reality that
in the overwhelming majority of these cases, need and desperation motivated the
actions in issue. 179 This trope also commonly attributes to those recipients who ‘abuse’
the welfare system responsibility for the difficult circumstances of others on welfare in
both direct and indirect ways. Directly, they are responsible for any inadequacy of benefit
levels for ‘legitimate’ recipients because for every extra penny in their pockets, a penny
is stolen from the pockets of those ‘genuinely in need’; it’s an absolute zero-sum game in
this portrayal. Indirectly, they alone are held responsible for the erosion of public support
for welfare programs. In this characterization, the system’s ‘abuse’ by ‘undeserving’
people, stealing from those ‘genuinely in need', erodes the public’s willingness to have
their tax dollars used to fund the system. Consider for example, the judicial discourse in
the cases of R. v. Leaming and R. v. McGillivray. In R. v. Leaming, the accused, a
mother of four, was sentenced to 18 months' incarceration for failing to disclose a
spouse. The $70,000 received from welfare authorities was undisputedly used for basic
household expenses. 180 Mr. Justice Fradsham had this to say,
Ms Leaming used the fraudulently obtained funds for household expenses… In a
very general sense, that is to her credit but one must stop short of giving the
accused credit for being in difficult financial circumstances. While all right thinking
R. v. Reid, supra note 177.
See for example R. v. Durocher, supra 170; R. v. Hunt, supra note 172; and R. v. Jantunen,
[1994] O.J. No. 933 (Gen.Div.) (QL) and [1997] O.J. No. 1369 (C.A.) (QL)
R. v. Leaming, [1992] A.J. No. 1033 (Prov. Ct.) (QL).
persons would have great sympathy for her financial position, one must be
careful to distinguish between that which is worthy of sympathy and that which
goes to the credit the accused in matters of sentence. By definition, all persons
who find themselves requiring social assistance are in very difficult financial
situations. When Ms Leaming defrauds the system, she defrauds all other people
in like situations. There is only so much money that may be made available for
social programmes such as welfare. It is illogical to assume that those who
depend upon such programmes will not bear some burden because of the
actions of Ms Leaming and those who follow her footsteps.
Accordingly, while one naturally feels compassion for the plight in which Ms
Leaming found herself, that plight is not a matter of mitigation. If she had not
been in the difficult position to begin with, she would not have been able to
practice the fraud. ….what must not be forgotten in the quite proper sympathy for
the accused, is that welfare fraud is a very serious crime… in some respects
welfare fraud is more serious than other forms of fraudulent activity. I have
already noted the effects that it has upon others who depend upon the social
assistance safety net. Those are persons least able to absorb further shocks.
There is yet another reason that welfare fraud is particularly serious. It weakens
the public's faith in the benefit system itself… there is concern expressed in some
quarters of the general public about the benefits paid to those on social
assistance…examples of flagrant abuse of the system only serve to exacerbate
the tensions that sometimes exist between some members of the general public
and those receiving benefits.
In R. v. McGillivray, briefly discussed earlier, Mr. Justice Daniel sentenced the accused
to six months' incarceration and one year of probation for a fraud of $23,263. She had
not disclosed her common law relationship with a man whose only income was a student
loan. The court found that by all accounts, "she was an emotionally abused, battered
wife who is very much manipulated by her boyfriend", yet quoted favourably from
another case in which welfare fraud was described as,
… the most despicable form of theft. There is only a certain amount of money
available for people in need. And as the fund is abused by people who are not
entitled to it, there is less money to go around, and others who possibly need
more help simply don't receive it… So theft of this nature is, when you analyze it,
really a theft from the poorest people of the community. And that is one of the
major reasons that this type of offence must be treated very, very seriously by
the Courts.
Mr. Justice Daniel added that,
… it is commonly the case that offenders of this type present themselves as quite
sympathetic figures. They have usually had a difficult life and their circumstances
are often pitiful. But, they are not unlike the thousands of others who find
themselves driven to depend on the largesse of the Welfare System. Given the
absolute necessity for honesty on the part of welfare applicants it is evident the
Courts have time and time again stressed deterrence both for the individual and
the public at large must be the paramount consideration in these types of
sentencings. 181
Judges are also given to characterizing welfare fraud as a violation of trust, and thus a
serious matter (and an aggravating factor relevant to sentencing). 182 It is important to
interrogate this idea of a violation of trust. One way of understanding the nature of the
‘trust’ in issue is that the welfare system, judges are prone to point out, depends upon
self-reporting (while this is true in one sense it obscures the enormous amount of active
surveillance that happens as detailed earlier). The system's functioning and integrity are
portrayed as being dependent upon recipients' candour and honesty; it turns upon just
how trustworthy recipients are. But one also has a sense that the nature of the ‘trust’ and
of the 'violation' in issue may well be something quite different. These cases are
frequently characterized by a tone of abundant self-righteousness in which the
contributions of the generous taxpayer must be dutifully respected and gratefully
appreciated. Reading some of these cases brings to mind Oliver Twist and his request
for more, "how dare you ask for more”–and more plaintively still, "how dare you take
more!". This sentiment is most vociferously expressed in cases involving an accused
who has immigrated to Canada.
Both explicitly in their remarks, and more commonly implicit in their failure to
acknowledge the circumstances of these ‘crimes’, judges project a particular view about
the welfare state. In this view, the welfare state provides a finely woven web of
protection, ensuring that no one goes without adequate shelter or food. One of the
respondents in our interviews also noted that judges are inclined to assume that the
state does not make mistakes, and that the welfare system is both functional and
adequate. In R. v. Kems, a case involving an accused who had come to Canada from
Nigeria in 1988 as a refugee claimant and who had embarked on a sophisticated
scheme using thirteen fictitious names, the court had the following to say about our
welfare system.
R. v. McGillivray, supra note 141.
R. v. Anderson [2000] O.J.No. 1485 (Ct. Jus.) (QL); R. v. Friesen, supra note 170; R. v
Hughes, [1998] S.J. No. 420 (Prov. Ct.) (QL).; R. v. Leaming, supra note 180; R. McGillivray,
supra 141; R. v. Obazee, [1995] O.J. No. 4113 (Gen.Div.) (QL); R. v. Sedra, supra note 170; R. v.
Sewilam, [2000] O.J. No. 5489 (Ct. Jus.) (QL).
Our current welfare system is the envy of many in the world and acts as a safety
net of last resort for people in need. The vast majority of people on welfare are
legitimate recipients of public funds. The monies they receive are not largesse
but needed resources to allow them to survive until they are in a position to
become self-sufficient. With today’s desperate economy, our welfare system is
over-burdened with applicants in need. Those who manage the claims are taxed
with administering and monitoring an ever increasing caseload. It is not
surprising that taxpayers voice concern about the growing demands on welfare.
However, in a caring society, the welfare system is recognized as a means to
help those less fortunate. When incidents such as we have before the court
surface, the legitimate recipients of welfare are unfairly subjected to the suspicion
of the general public. 183
Similarly, in R .v. Obazee, also a case involving an accused who had come to Canada
as a refugee claimant, but who was at the time of sentencing a Canadian citizen, the
court commented thus,
That is $24,000 paid out to the accused for the benefit of him and his family to
assist them in their economic difficulties, not by the government because the
government doesn’t make money, but by the people of Ontario, the people of
Canada. This is roughly the equivalent of the full-time earnings of two average
people when, after taxes, they take home this amount of money to pay for the
needs of their wives and their children, who have to be fed and clothed, educated
and entertained. That is where the money comes from. It does not grow on a
tree. It does not grow up from the ground. It is not made by selling off portions of
the country. It comes from the work of productive people…. There is a great deal
of publicity about welfare fraud and the burden of welfare on the community. As
far as I am concerned the average citizen appreciates how fortunate we all are
that when someone is in difficulty – economic difficulty, he does or she does not
have to go out with a tin cup begging, that this is a rich enough country,
productive enough country, that people can afford to assist their fellows through
difficult times … The average citizen does so willingly and is proud to be able to
do so, and not to have to see other fellows degraded by begging, or
impoverished to the extent they cannot have a roof over their head or have food
on the table. 184
In R. v. Bunde (aka Rabarison) the accused was a refugee claimant from Uganda with
six children. He had been severely tortured in Uganda. He had no right to work upon
R. v. Kems [1992] O.J. No. 1724 (Prov. Div.) (QL); see also R. v. Aigbokhae (1992), 54 O.A.C.
72 where a joint submission for a suspended sentence and probation was rejected; the accused
was sentenced to 6 months imprisonment, 2.5 years of probation and restitution of $100/month,
and the judge made a strong recommendation for deportation for a fraud of $2,472. While the
Court of Appeal reduced the sentence of incarceration to 60 days, it agreed that welfare fraud is a
serious property offence which in the circumstances was aggravated by the fact that having been
in Canada a “mere three months… he knowingly took advantage of the generosity and goodwill of
the country he wished to make his home.”
R. v. Obazee, supra note 182.
arrival in Canada and there was a five-year delay, that was not of his making, before he
received a work permit. He secured employment within two days of receiving his work
permit. During the time he was unable to work, he used two names to collect welfare.
The court characterized his crime as,
…a breach of trust against the citizens of Canada, those to whom Mr. Rabarison
had turned for help, for refuge, for a better future for him and his family… He
devised and implemented a plan to steal from the Canadian taxpayers, who work
hard to fund a system that, while perhaps imperfect, at least provided him and his
family with a level of economic support during his term as a refugee claimant. 185
Conditional Sentences
A significant development in the sentencing of welfare fraud cases was the introduction
of the conditional sentence in 1996. Pursuant to section 742.1 of the Criminal Code,
where convicted, except where the offence is one punishable by a minimum term of
imprisonment, and the court a) imposes a sentence of imprisonment of less than two
years and b) is satisfied that serving the sentence in the community would not endanger
the safety of the community and would be consistent with the fundamental purpose and
principles of sentencing set out in sections 718-718.2, the court may order that the
offender serve the sentence in the community subject to complying with the conditions
under section 742.3. 186
An early line of welfare fraud cases ruled that conditional sentences were simply
unavailable as a disposition; that presumptively welfare fraud warranted a jail sentence.
However, in R. v Francis, the Ontario Court of Appeal found the trial judge to have erred
in concluding that a conditional sentence was not available in cases of welfare fraud,
and that the "presumption of custody" approach constituted an error in principle. Yet the
de facto presumption of custody in a penal institution appears to continue to operate in
some parts of the province. One respondent reported to us that in the region of the
province where he practices, judges routinely sentence those accused of welfare fraud
to jail time of at least 30 days and refuse to even consider a conditional sentence.
In other cases, courts have concluded that conditional sentences are inadequate to
accomplish the general deterrent effect that jail sentences are assumed to possess. For
R. v. Bunde (aka Rabarison), supra note 170.
Criminal Code, supra note 45, section 741.2.
example, in R. v Stapley, Mr. Justice Byers concluded that it would be no punishment at
all to say well, "go home and continue to collect your benefits.” 187 Other courts have
found conditional sentences to be inappropriate where local police resources are not in
place to meaningfully enforce them. 188 For example, in R. v. Anderson the accused was
found guilty of fraud for having failed to disclose $5,679 in unemployment insurance
benefits. The Court, while noting that the funds were used for normal living expenses
and to assist his ill wife, reasoned that, "[b]ecause this is a fraud of public funds and a
breach of trust, there must, in my view, be a custodial sentence to reflect deterrence and
denunciation". Holding that because no effective system of monitoring was in place for
conditional sentences, a conditional sentence would be a mere token and would bring
the administration of justice into disrepute. The accused was sentenced to 90 days in jail
to be served intermittently, 2 years probation, 100 hours of community service and a
compensation order for $5,463.93 was issued.
While the availability of conditional sentences may at first blush appear to have eased
the harshness of sentencing in welfare fraud cases, upon further examination it is not
clear that this has been the effect. Are judges now more inclined to find that a sentence
of imprisonment would be warranted because they know that actual jail time can be
avoided through a conditional sentence? While the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v.
Proulx made it clear that courts must first determine that the sentence of imprisonment is
appropriate given the gravity of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the
accused, there nevertheless remains the worry that conditional sentences may be
imposed because they are frequently viewed as less severe than incarceration. 189 While
a comparison of the outcomes of the cases we reviewed with those reviewed by Martin
would suggest that this has not been the case, more data are needed to draw a firm
conclusion one way or the other. However, one respondent did note that in the area
where s/he practiced, prior to 1996 welfare fraud cases were routinely screened for
suspended sentences (a practice that would have been out-of-step with other areas in
the province). Post-1996 this no longer occurs and the Crown now seeks conditional
R . v. Stapley [1997] O.J. No. 3235 (Gen. Div.) (QL); see also R . v. Oliynk ( 2002) Sask. R.
270 where the Court of Appeal found that a conditional sentence failed to emphasize
denunciation and deterrence.
R. v. Anderson, supra note 182.
R. v. Proulx, [2000] 1 S.C.R. 61.
sentences in cases that previously would have been considered for suspended
Without doubting the gravity of the deprivation of liberty imposed by a period of
incarceration in a custodial facility, it is imperative to consider the impact of a conditional
sentence upon a low income person. As ably illustrated by the intervenor factum of the
Charter Committee on Poverty Issues, and supporting affidavit of Bruce Porter in the
case of R. v. Wu, and by the troubling circumstances in which Kimberley Rogers died, a
conditional sentence will often have a disproportionately negative effect upon low
income people. Confinement to one’s home, if that home is over-heated (as in the case
of Kimberley Rogers), under-heated, infested with cockroaches or rodents, overcrowded, covered in mildew or shares any of the characteristic features of much lowincome housing, will have significant and deleterious effects on both physical and mental
health that will not exist for a person adequately housed. So too, trying to acquire the
other material necessities of life often requires much more time for the low-income
person than for the person with adequate financial means. For many, trying to access
food means visiting multiple food banks and/or other charities and/or buying products at
several stores (where one can get the best buy), rather than a single stop at a
supermarket. Similarly acquiring clothing and other necessities is often time-consuming
and complicated. Trying to find these necessities will often require long absences from
the home; the three-hour window provided in, for example, the case of Kimberley
Rogers, would be manifestly inadequate.
Another problematic feature of conditional sentences is compliance with the terms
attached, and the risk of breach thereof (where breach will land one in prison). So, for
example, reporting obligations will create problems for persons without access to phones
or adequate transportation. So too, community service orders that commonly
accompany conditional sentences can create enormous compliance problems. It is not
at all unusual to see 150-250 hours of community service ordered. Performing this
service will often require access to transportation (and this will cost money that the
recipient may simply not have) and for single mothers in particular, access to childcare
(again something that may be extremely difficult to arrange, and will often cost more that
a recipient can afford). A case in point is that of Paulette Duke, one of the applicants in
Broomer et al. v. Attorney-General of Ontario. 190 She was 22 with three children, one an
infant. Her landlord served her with notice to vacate, she had trouble finding housing,
and her father had arranged with her grandmother for her to move in with her
grandmother. Ms Duke prepared a rent receipt showing how much she would pay her
grandmother and signed her grandmother’s name. At the last moment, her grandmother
changed her mind, and Ms Duke moved in with her father. She did not disclose this to
welfare. She was charged with fraud under $5,000 (a summary conviction offence), was
convicted and sentenced to two years probation, $1,022 restitution (the total amount of
the fraud) and 100 hours of community service. She was also subject to the lifetime ban.
Not surprisingly her expenses exceeded her income. In her affidavit she described her
difficulty in feeding her children, in obtaining the medical prescriptions she required, in
getting her daughter’s asthma medication, which was not covered, in getting her
daughter to Toronto to see a specialist, and in fixing her own broken teeth. With three
young children and desperately short of money, it is not the least bit surprising that she
was unable to complete the 100 hours of community service because she could neither
obtain nor pay for childcare. She was charged with breach of probation.
As many of our respondents pointed out, community service orders can be very difficult
for low- income people to comply with. Both the time and money required to participate
are in very short supply. Problematically, it seems that often many judges share the view
espoused by former Premier Mike Harris, that those on social assistance are at home
doing nothing. They fail to understand how time-consuming living in poverty is in fact,
and the tremendous work entailed in trying to meet basic needs from day to day. 191
Also implicit is the view that low-income people do not give to their communities, but only
take from them; community service–giving to their communities–must be mandated. But
again, this is a mischaracterization of the lives of the vast majority of low-income people.
Many are actively involved in their communities as volunteers, and many make a
contribution to their communities through their work in rearing and caring for children.
The view of welfare recipients as 'takers', not 'givers' pervades many of the sentencing
Broomer supra, note 8.
See Karen Swift and Michael Birmingham (2000), “Location, Location, Location: Restructuring
and the Everyday Lives of ‘Welfare Moms’" in Restructuring Caring Labour: Discourse, State
Practice and Everyday Life, ed. S. Neysmith (Toronto: Oxford,) 93; also Mosher et al, supra note
cases. Disturbingly, in R. v Rogers the characterization of Kimberley Rogers as a 'taker'
was used by the sentencing judge to justify a conditional sentence rather than a jail term.
Mr. Justice Rodgers, in sentencing Kimberley Rogers, admonished her in the following
terms; "[t]his is how serious the matter is, Ms. Rogers. There is a jail term that is going to
be involved, it just happens to be a jail term that will be served in your home, and not at
the expense of the community. You have taken enough from the community.” Jail would
have provided adequate food and shelter for Kimberley Rogers; house arrest did not. In
Mr. Justice Rodgers' view, Kimberley Rogers was so dehumanized that even jail was too
good for her.
Restitution orders also create incredible burdens for low-income people. Many of those
convicted of welfare fraud are in receipt of social assistance at the time of sentencing.
Their benefits will be reduced by 5-10 percent to collect the monies owing. Given that
existing benefit levels are already below what is required for subsistence, taking more
money away means further reducing the ability to meet basic needs. This will have
deleterious health consequences. Moreover, because in many instances it was ‘need’
that led to the ‘crime’ in the first place, deepening the need without providing more
choice in how one could provide for those needs, tightens the knot of the moral double
bind. As observed in R. v Johnson on a motion for interim relief pending a constitutional
challenge to the lifetime ban, "[f]rom a realistic point of view it appears that we are back
in the conditions of England of the 1840s… it appears that jail will once again provide the
service which Scrooge contemplated when he asked those soliciting funds for the poor
"What, are there no jails?” Mr. Johnson had been granted a suspended sentence on the
condition that he pay $175/month. 192 But Mr. Johnson was in no position to comply with
this condition. At best he would have been in receipt of benefits of $520. Given his
accommodation costs of $400/month, he certainly was in no position to pay $175/month.
And of course, in light of the application of the lifetime ban he was without any income at
The Relevance of Context
A common feature of many of the reported cases and an observation made by several
respondents in our interviews is the failure of decision-makers to in any meaningful way
engage with the realities of life on welfare; rather they construct, demean, and devalue
the ‘other’ who is all that they are not. While some aspects of the context of the life of the
accused may be described in the decision, as in the quote from Leaming above, that
context is quickly discarded as irrelevant, rather than mitigating. So too, that context–
though often described as ‘pitiful’–is taken to be of the accused’s own making. The
appeal court said of Ms Durocher,
There is a great deal to be said for the personal circumstances of the appellant, a
divorced mother of six, struggling to get by. With perseverance and despite
enormous hardship, she has managed over time to better her conditions, enrich
her education, and improve her ability to provide for herself and her children…
were one to approach the matter compassionately, with her and her family's
interests solely in mind, or were one to have regard alone for her rehabilitation,
one would not incarcerate her. But considerations personal to her must be
balanced against others, impersonal, in finding a fit sentence. This is our duty.
[The court continues with a discussion of the importance of general deterrence.]
…ensuring that scarce financial resources find their way to those genuinely in
need of them, and in preserving the community's willingness to continue to
support those in their midst who, through no real fault of their own, must have the
help of the community. [The Court of Appeal then cites several cases where 5-6
months' imprisonment was ordered, in each case in the face of compelling
personal circumstances. Her 8-month sentence was reduced to 5 months.] 193
In sentencing Kimberley Rogers–whose crime was attending a post-secondary institution
without permission of Ontario Works, and failing to disclose $13,000 in student loans
received over a three year period–Mr. Justice Rodgers reprimanded her with the
following words:
Ms Rogers, I am really concerned about the amount and the manner in which it
was taken. You are obviously intelligent. You are involved in post-secondary
education, and you knew that you were receiving some assistance from the
OSAP program, and you did not disclose that to the welfare office, and you
received their benefits when you were not entitled to it. I am also concerned
about the amount and how long this went on. I see almost four years of
deception and dishonesty. I am satisfied you were not living an opulent lifestyle,
even with these two sources of income, but welfare is there for people who need
it, not for people who want it; who want things and who want money. It is there
for people who are at their lowest and who cannot survive without it. You were
bright enough to be able to go to school, and you were fortunate enough to get a
loan or a grant to do that. You got yours. You got that lawfully. But, it was not
enough. You wanted more, and you were prepared to lie, and cheat, and
essentially steal from your own community, people who work hard to pay taxes to
make those funds available to people who need it. Along you come and you take
it through deception. What you did was wrong, and you are doing it while you are
Johnson v. Ontario (A.G.) (2003), 110 C.R.R. (2d) 155 (Sup. Ct.).
R. v. Durocher, supra note 170.
purporting to become a social worker. You are there with a goal, with a dream to
help people, and in order to realize that dream you are stealing. One takes away
from the other…I hope you raise your child in a way that will instil [sic] the values
that you appear to be missing, at least during this period of time...There will be a
conditional sentence. This is how serious the matter is, Ms. Rogers. There is a
jail term that is going to be involved, it just happens to be a jail term that will be
served in your home, and not at the expense of the community. You have taken
enough from the community. There will be six months jail to be served
conditionally, followed by 19 months probation. will be required to remain
at your place of residence at all times, except for medical purposes; except for
religious purposes; except for the shopping for the necessities of life, groceries,
clothes for you and for your child; and, except to report to your supervisor… [At
the request of the Crown this was amended to restrict shopping for life
necessities to Wednesdays between the hours of 9:00am and noon]. There will
be a restitution order made in the amount of $13, 372.67. 194
In R. v. Jantunen there was no dispute that the accused had been abused by her
common law partner, who had manipulated and exploited her for his own personal gain
and that she derived little or no financial gain from the relationship. Mr. Justice Kurisko
concluded, however, that jail must be imposed (while acknowledging some unfairness in
the fact that her abuser was walking away as a free man without any financial or legal
liability). She is clearly blamed for having ‘chosen’ the wrong partner, and for her failure
to end the relationship when the judge observes that, she "entered into the relationship
of her own free will fully aware of the advantages and risks involved.” 195 Noting that she
is a “good mother to her children … who will be deprived of her love and guidance” and
“with the children foremost in my mind”, Mr. Justice Kurisko sentenced her to four
months in jail. While noting the “exemplary” pre-sentence report–in addition to being a
good mother, she worked part-time, volunteered, and had no record–Mr. Justice Kurisko
added that this must be considered alongside what he described as her “propensity to
place her personal interests ahead of truth when it suits her advantage.” 196 She was
ordered imprisoned for four months (on appeal, conditional sentences having been
introduced in the interim, the remainder of her term of imprisonment was to be served
under a conditional sentence, together with an order for restitution, six months' probation
and 200 hours of community service).
R. v. Rogers, [2001] O.J. No. 5203 (Ct. of Jus.) (QL).
Jantunen, supra note 179.
These cases stand in stark contrast to the decision of the Prince Edward Island Superior
Court, Appeal Division, in R. v. Laybolt and Laybolt. 197 Noting that the accused had six
children, experienced many family difficulties, engaged in no elaborate plan (the male
accused sometimes drove a garbage truck–openly in the community–and this income
was not disclosed), and used the money to get by, the trial judge refused to incarcerate
the accused. "Considering the information from the pre-sentence report, I think with
these two particular accused their whole life of misery, ignorance, poverty and underprivilege, has, in itself, amounted to worse prison than any court can impose and it is
one which unfortunately there seems little prospect of their escape.” The Appeal Court
affirmed this view, adding that a sentence of short duration would be of no deterrence to
anyone. Unlike other jurisdictions where incarceration has been the presumptive
outcome, the question which arose in Prince Edward Island, in Dunn et al, was whether
the Court of Appeal, in Laybolt and other decisions, had indicated that those convicted of
welfare fraud should only receive suspended sentences and probation. The Appeal
Court answered that this was an incorrect interpretation; rather a fit sentence must be
one that considers all aggravating and mitigating factors. 198 But clearly what stands out
in the approach in Prince Edward Island–in addition to the rejection of the claimed
deterrent effect of custodial sentences–is how an engaged consideration of personal
circumstances of low income persons on welfare results in far less punitive sentences.
But in the vast majority of decisions we have seen, personal circumstances rarely have a
mitigating effect, and are often characterized as of the recipient’s own making. There
are, in our view, several strands in the judicial analyses that lead to this result. One of
these proceeds from the assumption that the circumstances of the accused, while
‘pitiful’, are circumstances widely shared among those on welfare. Material discomfort, ill
health, forced relationships, etc. are endemic and therefore can never constitute
exceptional circumstances that would justify a departure from the presumption of
incarceration as the appropriate result. What is left unquestioned is the general
presumption of incarceration itself, and the underlying assumption of the validity of
general deterrence theory in this context. A related analytical thread is the notion that
because many others apparently manage on the system, the accused could have, but
R. v. Laybolt & Laybolt (1985), 20 C.C.C. (3d) 263 (P.E.I.C.A.); note that two of the judges on
appeal found the entire proceeding to be a nullity, reasoning that the Crown was required to
proceed under the offence provisions of the provincial social assistance legislation.
R. v Dunn et al (1993), 105 Nfld. & P.E.I.R. 18 (P.E.I.C.A.).
chose not to. The accused’s actions then become associated with 'greed' rather than
'need'. A third feature is the tendency to blame the recipient for her own predicament,
ignoring the ways in which social structures, institutions and ideologies construct and
limit the choices available to her. The ‘self’ in these decisions is a starkly liberal self:
atomistic; self-interested; and self-made. 199 In all, these features combine to create an
‘other’, someone who is by all measures, unlike the decision-maker; or as is commonly
articulated in the cases, unlike the honest, hard-working taxpayer.
What emerges quite strikingly in many of the welfare fraud cases, as in much of the
government discourse on welfare fraud, are simplistic, uni-dimensional stories of villains
(welfare recipients) and heroes (taxpayers); of outsiders and insiders; of 'them' and 'us'.
In these stories 'the welfare recipient' is cast as a liar and cheater, as a lazy, ungrateful
parasite. She is a non-citizen, whose greed and self-interest deprive genuine citizens of
their due. She is cast as a threatening outsider; she is not a good consumer, not a good
worker, and if a single mother, not a good mother or wife. She is invariably compared to
her foil, the honest, generous, hard-working, trustworthy, employed taxpayer. 200 The
welfare recipient is cast as the 'other'; all that the taxpayer (the judge, the politician) is
not. Perhaps her negation is critical to his claim to a normatively positive identity. For
were he to genuinely acknowledge the realities of her life, many assumptions critical to
his own identity would be shaken: the assumption that he is generous, caring and
compassionate; that welfare recipients abuse the system, not that the system abuses
them; that hard work, determination and a strong work ethic are guarantors against
poverty and destitution; and that poverty is the result of personal failing.
As many of our respondents observed, most judges do not identify with people on social
assistance. People on social assistance are cast so negatively that indeed, most of
those in receipt of social assistance are reluctant to claim that identity and often go to
some length to distinguish themselves from ‘other’ recipients. Judges, like each of us,
face the challenge of trying to move beyond the boundaries of their own social existence
Susan Sherwin, "A Relational Approach to Autonomy in Health Care", in The Feminist Health
Care Ethics Research Network, The Politics of Women's Health: Exploring Agency and Autonomy
(Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1998) 19-47.
These constructions of the welfare recipient and the taxpayer are also very much at play in the
differential approaches to dealing with welfare fraud and tax 'evasion' cases–a theme we pick up
in order to grapple with the reality of the lives of others who occupy profoundly different
social locations. Without genuine interest and engagement, the vast majority of judges
will exercise judgement without an inkling as to the daily grind of life on welfare. They will
not understand the pervasive fear, the struggle to provide for oneself and one’s children,
the need to lie on occasion in order to survive, the structures and attitudes that constrain
choice and produce horrendous moral double binds. Imagine, for a moment, a different
judgement that could have been rendered in the case of Kimberley Rogers, by a judge
who had made a genuine effort to understand her reality. Perhaps this is what such a
judge might have said,
Ms Rogers, we have failed you. We have placed you in an untenable position
where you were to be damned whatever you did. You are an astute woman. You
rightly observed that in order to adequately provide for yourself and the child you
are expecting you needed to upgrade your education. Without that education
your chances of finding non-poverty wage employment were exceedingly limited.
With an infant and later a young child, you will need to pay for childcare in order
to work. We appreciate that poverty wage work will certainly not permit you do
this. The Ontario Works system clearly creates an obligation for you to seek and
maintain employment–employment at a wage where you will no longer qualify for
O.W. benefits. So important is this, that this obligation appears in the statement
of principles guiding the Act. You took this seriously; you had a plan, and that
plan appropriately required post-secondary education. Not so long ago, in fact,
the social assistance system encouraged recipients to do precisely this, with a
long-term view to maintaining recipients’ self-sufficiency. The legislation now
asks you to become self-sufficient, but denies you the means to do so. I suspect
that you are also acutely aware of the stigmatization that attaches not only to
those on welfare, but those who are unemployed. I can only begin to imagine
how deeply you wished to avoid this for yourself and for your child. Moreover,
paid employment, for many, is essential to a sense of dignity and self-esteem,
and this may well have been something that you were seeking as well.
Some may say that you have been greedy, taking more than your fair share. You
have lived on $520/month from Ontario Works; your rent has been $450 (an
amount which I shall judicially notice is a very reasonable market rent). The math
is not complicated–you had $70/month to live on. I make two observations about
the money that you have received in the form of a student loan: first, it is a loan–
a liability that you have an obligation to repay; secondly, this money went largely
to pay for your tuition and your school-related expenses. The money has all been
spent on your basic sustenance and in pursuing a solid plan for your future
economic well-being. While many of my brethren have found spending on
necessities not to mitigate sentence–while spending on ‘luxuries’ will be
considered an aggravating factor–this is not my view. While on the facts before
me you are guilty of fraud, you are to be granted an absolute discharge.
The role of ‘need’ in welfare fraud cases is a matter of some controversy. Often because
others are assumed to be managing on benefits and because it is further assumed that
the welfare state provides enough for adequate food and shelter, the deduction follows
that those accused of fraud are motivated by ‘greed’, wanting more than their fair share.
Earlier in the report we outlined how very inadequate rates are to meet basic needs.
Additionally, it is important to appreciate that the ability to get by on benefits will turn on
a huge variety of factors: shelter costs (which vary considerably); access to food banks
and other charities; supportive friends and family; discretion exercised around gifts and
payments of small cash value; and a myriad of other life details. That Jane can get by
really is not very telling about whether Veronica can do so as well. One of the significant
variables is simply that of how long one has been on welfare. As time unfolds, debts
accumulate, the six-month window for casual gifts or payments of small value passes,
and it becomes harder and harder to meet basic needs without ‘fiddling’. It is perhaps
telling that the C.V.P. identification for fraud priority includes length of time on benefits
(the more time on benefits, the higher the risk). So too are the stories shared by many
recipients who have been accused by their workers of being "up to something", since it
is increasingly difficult with the passage of time to survive on existing benefit levels.
Virtually all of the respondents in our interviews reported that where fraud (intentional
deprivation) occurred it was almost always motivated by ‘need’ rather than ‘greed’. All
respondents acknowledged cases of more complex ‘scams’ that were elaborately and
consciously planned, but they suggested these constituted only a tiny fraction of the
cases where fraud is investigated and/or charged. 201 Rather, in most instances, people
were struggling to simply get by, and make do. As a few of our respondents pointed out,
often the ‘fraud’ is incremental in nature. So, for example, a mother might not disclose a
wee bit of money she made cleaning someone's house, and she realizes, "My God, I
was able to pay for my kid's pizza day at school.” And over time, additional small
amounts of money are not disclosed.
Others too have observed that the profound inadequacy of benefit levels means that
surviving sometimes requires not telling everything. 'Fiddling' may be, as Dee Cook
suggests, one of very few 'choices' for getting by. Do your children go without adequate
food or do you not disclose the $50 you made last week babysitting? Another choice for
women is to find a man, any man–including an abusive man–in order to get off welfare.
As the Walking on Eggshells report notes, women are sometimes told explicitly that they
should find a man; other times, realizing how constrained their choices are, finding any
man looks like a better bet than staying on welfare. And several of the women
interviewed for that study returned to, were contemplating returning to, or had stayed in
abusive relationships because all in all, for them the abusive relationship was better than
life on welfare. 202 In theory, another option would be to find a job, but in many cases this
is not a realistic option. Moreover, the job is often any job, no matter how exploited are
those who undertake it. One is pressured (by welfare rules, employment insurance rules,
changes to employment standards, etc.) to 'get a job, any job, no matter how bad' in
much the same manner that women are encouraged to 'get a man, any man, no matter
how abusive'. As Laureen Snider has argued, a new consensus has emerged about
permissible standards of exploitation. 203 While Snider makes this argument in the
context of the retrenchment of minimum standards of protection in employment, changes
to welfare policy invite a similar critique.
The findings from studies in other jurisdictions, as well as those commissioned by the
Social Assistance Review Committee, mirror what we heard from respondents during the
interviews; inadequate rates and desperation force some recipients to take steps that
they know violate the rules (not reporting small amounts of income in particular) but
which are essential for their own preservation and for the preservation of their
children. 204 As we noted much earlier in the report, the Social Assistance Review
Committee (S.A.R.C.) identified a correlation between benefit rates and fraud, and
offered the view that the provision of adequate benefit rates is the single most important
means to prevent fraud in the system.
The C.R.I.L.F., in its report to S.A.R.C., argued that the combination of very low rates
and very low earnings exemptions tempts recipients to conceal casual earnings or gifts.
In the Broomer litigation, the circumstances of the applicants that gave rise to fraud charges
differ dramatically from the cases contained in the affidavit of Debbie Moretta, supra note 8 at
para. 26
Mosher et al, supra note 32.
Laureen Snider, "Relocating Law: Making Corporate Crime Disappear" in E.Comack (ed),
Locating Law: Race/Class/Gender Connections (Halifax: Fernwood Press, 1999).
Similarly K.P.M.G. reported that all of the submissions to the Committee emphasized the
inadequacy of rates; they "fail to meet basic human needs and tempt people to 'cheat' by
not reporting income, for example, in order to survive." 205 Gutierrez noted that some
recipients feel forced to engage in theft, shoplifting and prostitution because of the
inadequacy of benefits and that others engage in 'legal behaviour' (e.g. babysitting) but
do not report it. 206 Gutierrez concludes that the motivation for fraudulent activity arises
for persons where the need for additional funds outweighs their commitment to
accountability and morality. We would suggest, somewhat differently than Gutierrez, that
fraud often arises not where the need for money to meet basic needs outweighs one’s
commitment to morality, but rather arises through the resolution of a profound moral
dilemma, where one’s moral commitments are in conflict. When ought one’s moral
commitment to the truth outweigh one’s moral commitment to care for a child, to
preserve one’s health and life or the health and life of another?
Some argue that there is no evidence that raising rates will rid the welfare system of
fraud. 207 While it may well be the case that there are no empirical studies that establish
this, there is a substantial body of evidence that fundamentally questions the proposition
that harsh penalties have a deterrent effect. 208 Moreover, there is research which
reveals that those convicted of welfare fraud, and those on the system who acknowledge
fraudulent activity but have not been caught, consistently report that their actions were
motivated by need–and most often, by the needs of their children. They do not report
that they engaged in the 'fraudulent' conduct because they thought that they could do so
without being caught or because the penalties were insignificant. 209 As Wilkie astutely
observes, the vast majority of those engaged in welfare fraud have not "leapt a chasm
into criminality". They are people who properly qualify for benefits, who when they
cannot make ends meet because of the inadequacy of benefits, must find ways to
provide for themselves and their children. In a social context of constrained options,
sometimes the only way to get by is to 'fiddle'.
John Gilliom, Overseers Of the Poor: Surveillance, Resistance and the Limits of Privacy
[Chicago: University of Chicago Press]; and Cook, supra note 138.
K.P.M.G., supra note 58.
Gutierrez, supra note 40 at pp.4 & 5.
Debbie Moretta made this point during our interview, Moretta, supra note 43.
Varma & Doob, supra note 99.
Cook, supra note 138; Wilkie, supra note 114; and Gilliom, supra note 204.
8 Income Tax Evasion
While we do not purport to offer here a full-blown description and analysis of the income
tax system and of income tax evasion more specifically, we do want to highlight the
parallels and contrasts between tax evasion and welfare fraud. While the similarities they
share–a reliance upon self-disclosure and the depletion of a collective/public asset–
might invite correspondingly similar responses, what this comparison reveals is marked
differences in public attitudes, in the scope of surveillance in place to detect wrongdoing, in the processing of suspected cases, and in the sentencing of offenders.
Income tax evasion is defined by subs.239(1)(d) of the Income Tax Act (I.T.A.) as the
willful evasion or attempt to evade compliance with the Act or payment of taxes imposed
by the Act. 210 Prosecution may be either by summary or indictment, and virtually always
proceeds pursuant to the I.T.A., rather than the 'fraud' provision of the Criminal Code.
Upon summary conviction, the accused is liable to a mandatory fine of not less than 50
percent and not greater than 200 percent of the amount of the tax that was sought to be
evaded, or to both such a fine and imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years. At
the election of the Attorney General of Canada (with advice from the Canada Revenue
Agency (C.R.A.)), subs. 239(1) offences may be prosecuted by indictment. If convicted
of an indictable offence, the accused is liable to a mandatory fine of not less than 100
percent and not more than 200 percent of the amount of tax that was sought to be
evaded and imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years. Subsection 239(1)(d) and
other 239(1) offences have been found by the Supreme Court of Canada to be criminal
in nature and as such, have been construed as full mens rea offences. 211 The I.T.A. also
contains several regulatory offences, as well as provisions for civil consequences for
non-compliance with various of its requirements.
The income tax system is largely based upon the candour of taxpayers in the full and
honest disclosure of income. While for many taxpayers taxes are deducted at source–
thus leaving little room for hiding income–it is often those with larger incomes, where
taxes are not deducted at source, wherein the greatest opportunities exist to evade
taxes. In 1989/90, an estimated four million people were not subject to deduction of tax
Income Tax Act, R.S.C. supra note 155, subs. 239(1)(d). Note that subs. 239(1) contains
various other offences, including making a false statement in a return and altering books or
Knox Contracting Ltd. v. Canada, [1990] 2 S.C.R. 338.
at source, and given the growth in self-employment through the 1990s, this number is
likely to have increased significantly. 212
The precise amount of income not disclosed to the C.R.A., either as a result of taxpayer
error (similar to welfare law, tax law is extremely complex, and errors are likely to be
common) or due to willful evasion, is unknown. 213 Reporting on the lack luster
performance of the C.R.A. in addressing the underground economy (a significant source
of willful evasion) the Auditor General's office estimated that the underground economy
constituted 4.2 to 4.5 percent of G.D.P. Assuming a rate of 4.5 percent, in 1997 this
amounted to $38 billion, and a loss of tax revenues of $12 billion. 214 Lorne Sossin, in his
work on tax evasion, reports a significant increase in the quantity and frequency of tax
evasion during the 1990s. He cites survey data for 1994-95 that show 50-60 percent of
respondents had avoided taxes either a lot or a fair amount.
In a telephone survey
undertaken by Varma and Doob, 18.4 percent of respondents admitted evading tax on
one or more measures. 216 Data from the 2002-03 C.R.A. tax compliance survey of 2,732
Canadians, suggests that roughly 25-30% percent engage in, and rationalize, various
forms of tax evasion. 217
The Auditor General has noted that because the costs of enforcement are borne by
taxpayers, voluntary compliance would be in the public interest; "[y]et academic studies
have shown that many people view even willful non-compliance with income tax laws as
a victimless and not particularly serious crime. To some extent, this public attitude has
shaped the way tax administration operates in Canada, as evidenced by low rates of
1990 Report of the Auditor General of Canada (Ottawa: Office of the Auditor General of
Canada, 1990) at 24.30; on the rise of self-employment see Judy Fudge, Eric Tucker and Leah
Vosko, The Legal Concept of Employment: Marginalizing Workers", prepared for the Law
Commission of Canada, October 25, 2002, (last
accessed January 24, 2005).
Ibid, 1990 Report of the Auditor General at section 24.6.
1999 Report of the Auditor General of Canada (Ottawa: Office of the Auditor General of
Canada, 1999) at 2.14 and the Opening Statement to the Committee on Public Accounts:
Revenue Canada - Underground Economy Initiative (Chapter 2, April 1999 Report), May 11,
1999, (last accessed January 24,
Lorne Sossin, "Welfare State Crime in Canada Revisited: The Politics of Tax Evasion in the
1980s and 1990s" (Autumn 1999) The Tax Forum 1 at p1.
Varma and Doob, supra note 99at p.186.
Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, Compliance, Tax Cheating and Social Change in
Canada in 2002-03.
enforcement coverage and the relatively lenient treatment of tax evaders." 218 The low
rates of enforcement are reflected in prosecution and conviction statistics. In 1984-85
there were a total of 163 completed prosecutions and in 1989-90, only 123. 219 In 19992000 there were 240 charges of income tax evasion. The C.R.A. currently posts on its
web site convictions obtained. For Ontario, in the period of August '04 to January '05,
there were a total of 18 convictions obtained for income tax evasion and of these, only
one jail sentence imposed. 220
The widespread evasion of taxes is rationalized by reference to a range of claims: the
system is too complex; tax administration is unreasonable; no real harm comes of
it/there is no victim; the tax burden is too heavy; government mismanages its spending
of tax dollars; others are doing it; there is little risk of being caught; and penalties are
minimal. 221 In addition, the line between tax 'avoidance'–which is not merely condoned
but celebrated and heavily resourced through the professional assistance of lawyers,
accountants and other experts–and tax 'evasion' is often a blurry one, making it easy to
regard tax evasion not as criminal conduct and the tax evader not as a 'criminal', but as
a minor technical breach by a hard-working, contributing citizen. Sossin concludes that
tax evasion, while a species of fraud, may be "better understood as a product, rather
than a violation, of the income tax system." 222
Indeed one can readily find not only rationalized non-compliance, but active
encouragement, to disregard tax obligations. The C.R.A., on its website, warns
Canadians against tax myths, cautioning that "[t]here are groups and individuals in
Canada who claim that people can lawfully refuse to pay taxes or file a tax return" and
that "a number of individuals and groups are actively promoting claims that there are
lawful ways to declare oneself exempt from tax." 223 Moreover there are those who seek
not only to justify tax evasion, but to laud it. Consider, for example, Pierre Lemieux's
Auditor General's Report, supra note 212, at section 24.17.
Ibid at section 24.26.
Canada Revenue Agency, "Ontario Prosecutions", (last accessed January 15, 2005).
Report of the Auditor General of Canada, supra note 214; see also Lorne Sossin, supra note
215; Neil Brooks, "The Challenge of Tax Compliance" in Chris Evans & Abe Greenbaum (eds)
Tax Administration: Facing the Challenges of the Future (New South Wales: Prospect Media,
1998); Cook, supra note 138; Varma & Doob, supra note 99, Compliance Survey, supra note 217.
Sossin, supra note 215 at p12.
editorial in the Globe and Mail, arguing that tax evasion is a response to tax invasion. In
his characterization, the underground economy represents a "peaceful tax revolt… a
useful restraint on Leviathan, and a benefit to all taxpayers." 224
The wide public acceptance of tax evasion stands in sharp contrast to public sentiments
regarding welfare fraud and welfare recipients. Note too how the rationalizations that are
regularly invoked to justify tax evasion are not used to justify welfare fraud. For welfare
fraud, the amorphous state is transformed into millions of innocent victims; all are
expected to know, understand and comply with the admittedly complex rules; and the
inadequacy of benefit levels in no way mitigates the crime. As Uglow has observed, the
tax evader is looked "upon indulgently, as a person "entitled" to retain what is his own.”
By contrast, the welfare claimant is demonized, "informed upon by neighbors, all the
circumstances of his life are under public scrutiny. The claimant may also carry a "moral
taint" as a person unable to earn a living." 225
One also observes dramatic differences in the web of surveillance, and the range of
detection tools employed to catch tax 'evaders', by contrast to welfare 'fraudsters'. Under
the I.T.A. the audit is used to detect instances of the failure to comply with the provisions
of the Act. 226 In 1989/90 your chances of being audited were less than 2 in 1,000
individual returns. 227 In a very significant sense, virtually every social assistant recipient
is under the equivalent of a constant audit. The S.A.R.C.'s conclusion that the Income
Tax Act operates in a different and less intrusive way than the social assistance system
is even more apt today, given the dramatic increase in surveillance and scrutiny under
the social assistance system and no corresponding development on the income tax
side. 228 Similarly the K.P.M.G. report for the S.A.R.C. contrasted the high degree of selfreporting and privacy in income tax returns with the personal and continuing scrutiny for
Canada Revenue Agency, "The CRA warns Canadians against tax 'myths'", (last accessed January 24, 2005).
Pierre Lemieux, "A Few Words in Support of Tax Evasion", Globe and Mail, January 31, 1994.
Steve Uglow, "Defrauding the Public Purse: Prosecuting in Social Security, Revenue and
Excise Cases" (1984) Crim. L.R. 128 at p128; and also by the C.R.I.L.F supra note 40 at pp.10 &
See Van Der Hout et al for a fuller description of the powers under section 231.1, "Taxpayer
Information: Administration and Enforcement Procedures Under the Income Tax Act (Canada)"
(2000) 23 Advocates Q. 84. See also IC73 - 10R3 Tax Evasion, February 13, 1987.
Auditor General's Report, supra note 212 at section 24.30.
S.A.R.C. supra note 9 at p.383.
clients applying for social assistance. 229 Importantly, within both the social assistance
and tax systems, various investigative and monitoring tools are justified by reference to
the need to maintain public confidence in the integrity of the respective systems, both of
which depend (though to varying degrees) upon self-reporting. However, substantially
more extensive scrutiny and accompanying incursions upon the privacy of welfare
recipients are assumed to be necessary to maintain public confidence.
One will also find an army of expert resources that those with money can draw upon, to
protect and guard the privacy interests of the taxpayer (interests that are less threatened
in the tax context than in the welfare context). As discussed earlier, there has been a
significant amount of litigation challenging the powers of Revenue Canada to investigate
the taxpayer, and some of that litigation has resulted in a diminution of those powers.
Van Der Haut's argument that "even in a self-assessing system, where fair disclosure is
critical, there must be clear limits to and tangible protections for taxpayers, their advisors
and other third parties in the course of the audit or investigation, even where that
exercise is not criminal in nature" is widely accepted. 230 Taxpayers, and those advising
them, are encouraged to know the permissible limits of the C.R.A.'s powers; to invoke
solicitor-client privilege to protect information against disclosure; to realize the potential
to sue if an audit is conducted with malice; and to understand the Charter remedies
available to protect the 'target' of an audit. 231 The point here is not to say that the advice
is ill-founded but rather to note just how very different the context is from that of welfare
fraud. On the income tax side, the arguments proceed on the assumption that the
taxpayer is a full citizen, worthy of respect, whose interests (privacy, liberty, autonomy)
ought to be zealously guarded from incursions by the state. In addition, the wellresourced taxpayer is able to pay for the development of a battery of legal
argumentation by lawyers and other experts and over time, a substantial body of expert
resources contained in treatises and elsewhere has been generated. By contrast, the
starting assumption for the welfare recipient is that she is undeserving and unworthy of
respect; her privacy interests are scarcely acknowledged, let alone respected. 232
K.P.M.G., supra note 58 at p.60.
Van Der Haut, supra note 226 at p.89.
Janet Mosher, "The Shrinking of the Public and Private Spaces of the Poor" in J. Hermer and
J. Mosher, Disorderly People: Law and the Politics of Exclusion in Ontario (Halifax: Fernwood
Press, 2002) and Elizabeth MacFarlane, "No Lock on the Door: Privacy and Social Assistance
Recipients" (1995), 1 Appeal 1-9.
Welfare recipients, with little or no access to the best legal talent in the country, do not
have access to an accumulated body of expert legal argumentation. One can readily find
several published resources to facilitate the provision of sound legal advice and
representation of the person accused of tax evasion; but not for the person accused of
welfare fraud.
In addition, advice and guidance is available from the C.R.A. itself, as a form of immunity
from prosecution. The C.R.A. offers a 'voluntary disclosure program'. 233 Four conditions
determine whether a 'voluntary disclosure' exists: it was made before the client had
knowledge of an audit, investigation or other enforcement action; the client provides a
complete disclosure; the disclosure involves a penalty; and it includes information that is
more than one year past due. Clients, representatives and agents who are unsure about
whether they should make a voluntary disclosure can discuss their situation on a noname basis with an officer responsible for handling voluntary disclosures. If a voluntary
disclosure is made and outstanding taxes (together with interest) are paid, civil and
criminal liabilities under the I.T.A. will be avoided. Nothing of this sort exists with the
welfare system.
Also of potential benefit to the taxpayer are the "fairness provisions", which provide for
the cancellation or waiver of penalties and interest if, for example, they arise from,
among other circumstances, those wherein the client experienced serious emotional or
mental distress. Interest may also be forgiven if a client has been unable to pay because
of circumstances beyond her/his control, including the loss of employment. 234
The C.R.A. has what may be described as a very low-key 'snitching' program; but it is
certainly not advertised and trumpeted in the manner that Ontario's welfare snitch line
has been. On its website, under 'investigations' there is a sub-file, entitled, "What to tell
us", which instructs those with "information about a suspected violation of any tax law" to
contact the nearest CRA tax investigations unit. 235
C.R.A. policy IC00 - 1R; a similar program of voluntary disclosure also exists with respect to
Ontario provincial taxes.
Canada Revenue Agency, "Fairness Provisions", (last accessed January 24, 2005).
If, in the course of an audit, evasion is suspected the matter can be referred to 'special
investigations'. The 1994 Report of the Auditor General noted with concern that since
1990 the number of referrals to Special Investigations had decreased by 50 percent;
from 1000 to 500/year. Contrast this with the number of referrals to Eligibility Review
Officers where an allegation of fraud has been made; which in 1997-98 was over 53,000.
There are, no doubt, differences in the thresholds used for referral to Special
Investigations and E.R.O.s, but even bearing this in mind, the difference is striking.
Indeed the number of fraud investigations by E.R.O.s more closely tracks the total
number of audits undertaken by C.R.A. for the entire country in a given year. 236
The decision of whether to proceed by way of summary or indictment, as noted earlier,
rests with the Attorney-General of Canada (the Department of Justice in practice), on the
recommendation of the C.R.A. The policy, noted by the Auditor General, was not to
recommend prosecution by indictment unless the case involved evasion of at least
$100,000 or other aggravating factors. 237 As the Auditor General observed at the time,
the break point for indictment for fraud under the Criminal Code was $1,000 (now
$5,000), exposing the accused to jail time of up to ten years. "Setting a $100,000
threshold for prosecutions by indictment in tax evasion cases means that most tax
evaders face a much lower chance of being incarcerated than those convicted of other
types of frauds." 238
Upon conviction, as noted earlier, the I.T.A. imposes a mandatory minimum and
maximum fine. In addition, both for summary conviction and conviction by way of
indictment, jail may also be imposed. Our review of the literature and of the reported
cases suggests, however, that a jail term is rarely imposed. Jail appears to be reserved
for those cases where the accused is, for example, a person who prepares tax returns
for others and has facilitated the evasion of taxes by multiple taxpayers (several
hundred); or where, in addition to the charge of tax evasion, the accused has also been
Canada Revenue Agency, "Investigations: What to tell us", http: (last accessed January 24, 2005).
While a bit dated, the S.A.R.C. noted that for 1986, 16 million people filed returns, there were
40,000 audits, 1,000 were referred to special investigations, 500 were considered for prosecution
and 130 were prosecuted for tax evasion; supra note 9 at p.383.
Similarly, Innes notes that proceedings by indictment are relatively uncommon, reserved for
very serious offences or second offenders, supra note 53 at pp.1-16.
Report of the Auditor General, supra note 212, at section 24.23.
charged with fraud upon a public benefits program. 239 In R. v Silvestri, a 2001 decision,
the court observed that neither the Crown nor defence counsel were able to point to a
similar case–an uncomplicated case of tax evasion involving a first offender who had
evaded tax in the range of $50,000–where incarceration was found to be appropriate in
addition to the fine as required by the Act. 240
Several authors, and the Auditor General (on multiple occasions) have commented on
the relatively insignificant penalties imposed for tax evasion. Sossin has argued that tax
evasion is treated as a "minor regulatory infraction rather than as a violation of any
esteemed social values." 241 While the Auditor General's office has explicitly refrained
from suggesting that the penalties for tax evasion are inadequate, successive Auditor
Generals have certainly invited the government to consider the value judgement
reflected by weak enforcement and light penalties 242 and to consider sending a message
to Canadians that tax cheating is unacceptable (a message not presently being
conveyed). 243 Indeed, the repeated message in successive Auditor Generals' reports
has been that tax evasion ought to be considered a serious crime, and to articulate
reasons why it ought to be regarded as such. The 1994 Report of the Auditor General,
for example, observed that, "[t]ax evasion is a serious criminal offence. It results in a
loss of revenue; it shifts the tax burden from dishonest taxpayers to honest taxpayers;
and it creates unfair competition between businesses that abide by the law and those
that don't." 244 Similarly, the 1998 Report of the Technical Committee on Business
Taxation characterized tax evasion as a persistent phenomenon, now being impacted by
the globalization of business activities and new electronic technologies, and urged a
more rigorous approach to tax evasion, including more resources for enforcement and
greater use of prison terms. 245
See for example, R .v Sparks [1995] O.J. No. 3041 (Prov. Div.) (QL); R. v. DiPalma, [2002]
O.J. No. 2684 (C.A.) (QL); R. v. Lacroix, [1999] O.J. No. 5704 (Sup. Ct.) (QL); R. v Lang &
Stance (1989), 90 D.T.C. 6151 (B.C. Prov. Ct.).
R v. Silvestri, [2001] O.J. No. 3694 (Ont. Sup. Ct.) (QL).
Sossin, supra note 215 at p.1.
Report of the Auditor General, supra note 212, at section 24.24.
Opening Statement, supra note 214.
1994 Report of the Auditor General Canada (Ottawa: Office of the Auditor General of Canada,
Technical Committee on Business Taxation, Report of the Technical Committee on Business
Taxation, Chapter 10, 1998.
Problematically the political, social and personal morality arguments that support the
paying of taxes are often absent from the debate–although clearly some segment of the
population, as reflected by the tax compliance surveys, is guided by these
considerations. These arguments are well-articulated by Neil Brooks in his work: the
political argument is grounded in the principle of democratic representation–one is
obliged to pay taxes since it is, on this basis, self-assumed; the social argument is that
each of us must pay in order to create the most basic conditions necessary for social life;
and the individual morality argument rests upon a fiduciary obligation that we expect
from others and should willingly discharge ourselves. "Those who evade taxes have
broken one of the most basic elements of trust reposed in them as a member of a
democratic society." 246
In comparing the welfare fraud judicial decisions to those rendered in relation to income
tax two striking differences appear: the attention given to mens rea; and the discourse
invoked to support sentencing outcomes. On the first of these, it appears that in the
processing of tax evasion cases–both within the Canada Revenue Agency and
throughout the criminal prosecution–the slippage from rule violation to guilt, that is so
pervasive in the welfare system, does not occur. Resources available to counsel detail
the many defence arguments that will successfully negate mens rea; including mistake
of law. We located not a single example of the error that so commonly appears in the
welfare context in the invocation of the doctrine, "ignorance of the law is no excuse.”
Indeed it is assumed that mistake of law is particularly significant in fiscal prosecutions,
especially where the conduct "lies on the boundary between evasion and aggressive tax
planning" or needs to be assessed by reference to complex provisions or applications of
the Act. 247 Lack of knowledge of the admittedly complex tax regime is regularly invoked
to negate mens rea. Indeed, even sophisticated businessmen with an advanced grasp of
tax law and able to access expert assistance have successfully invoked lack of
knowledge of the I.T.A. to negate mens rea. Consider, for example, the following two
Brooks, supra note 221 at p.25.
Innes, supra note 55 at pp.6-11.
In R. v. Chusid, the accused was charged with willful evasion and the making of false or
deceptive statements. 248 Mr. Chusid had failed to disclose a $1 million commission in the
year it was received (when it ought to have been disclosed); but did disclose it later
(when he knew he was under investigation). The court stressed that mere carelessness
or inattention is not enough; but rather there must be proof beyond a reasonable doubt
that his actions were undertaken for the express purpose of evading taxes. That the
accused was an experienced businessman, with an advanced grasp of taxation, who
should have known of his obligation to report the commission was not enough, the court
pointed out. The court noted that he was careless in his bookkeeping and his failure to
disclose could have resulted from simple carelessness, thus raising, in the judge's mind,
the benefit of a doubt and Mr. Chusid was acquitted.
In R. v. McGuigan, the accused was similarly charged with willfully evading taxes and
making a false or deceptive statement. 249 The case turned on whether Mr. McGuigan
honestly believed that the stock options which were in fact taxable in 1996 and not
disclosed by him, were not taxable in 1996 but rather in 1997 and that it was his intent to
disclose them in 1997. The court noted that the law is complex, the treatment of stock
options in this regard perhaps counter-intuitive, and that the law had changed. And while
Mr. McGuigan had been the president of a company with sales of $500 million and vicepresident of a company with sales of $5 billion, there was, to quote the trial judge, "no
evidence of any financial sophistication or knowledge outside his sphere.” He had
recently been terminated from work, and no doubt experienced shock and disorientation;
apart from the act itself there was no evidence to infer mens rea (debts, gambling
problems, living beyond his means), and his character evidence from witnesses
(including a former Assistant Deputy Minister of National Defence) was strong. The trial
judge concluded, "there was a genuineness in his testimony", "something that made me
believe him". He too, was acquitted.
We raise these cases not to suggest that the results were incorrect, but again to
highlight some of the contrasts with the treatment of mens rea in the welfare fraud
context. While there are clearly exceptions, as we noted earlier, welfare recipients–those
with very limited, if any, access to expert advice and assistance–are very commonly
R. v Chusid, [2002] O.J. No. 4644 (Ont. Sup. Ct.) (QL).
R. v McGuigan, [2002] O.J. No. 3989 (Ont. Sup. Ct.) (QL).
imputed with knowledge of the complexity of the rules and regulations surrounding
Ontario Works. The complexity of the regulatory regime has shown little purchase power
in defending against an allegation of fraud. The opposite seems to hold true regarding
the regulation of the income tax regime; notwithstanding that persons under suspicion in
this context are very often those who have–and who can continue to access–expert
advice and guidance. It may also be the case that a reasonable doubt is created in the
mind of the judge much more readily in the income tax context than in the welfare
context. There may well be–and this would not be surprising in the least given the
correlation of their respective social positions–an ability on the part of judges to much
more readily imagine how a million dollar commission might be 'carelessly' missed in
reporting taxes, or to believe that termination from prestigious employment could be
devastating and distracting than it is to imagine that one cannot escape from an abusive
partner, the destitution of poverty, or that one could sign a document without
understanding its import.
The discourse supporting sentence outcomes, as noted above, also differs significantly
from that found in the welfare context. Again, while there are certainly exceptions, one
generally does not see the same tropes invoked by the judiciary in order to justify
significant sentences. So, for example, in the cases we reviewed, while judges observe
from time-to-time that the income tax system is dependent upon taxpayer candour and
honesty, income tax evasion is not commonly labeled a breach of trust. Recall that this
characterization is extremely common in welfare fraud cases, and is employed–together
with the characterization of the crime as one against the public purse–to not only
warrant, but to indeed require, incarceration. The income tax system is, in fact, more
dependent upon the candour and honesty of taxpayers than is the welfare system (in
large measure because the former are assumed to be honest and the latter not; a
troublesome assumption in light of the data regarding acknowledged evasion).
Moreover, the evasion of taxes is also a fraud upon the public purse. But what one
absolutely does not see in the tax cases is the conclusion that because of the breach of
trust and the crime against the public purse, incarceration is the appropriate sentence.
Indeed, we found not a single case where this logic was employed to support a
presumption of incarceration.
Also, we did not often see tax evasion characterized as a crime against every member of
the community used to support a custodial sentence. One important exception, however,
is the case of R. v. Ayling, a case much more compatible with decisions commonly found
in the welfare fraud context. 250 This was a case where the accused was in the business
of preparing false tax returns for others, and one wherein the only financial benefit to her
was an increased volume of business. Here the court stressed the importance of general
deterrence, adding that "this is a crime that makes everyone in society a victim as a
result of those who don't pay their fair share of taxes; the burden is left on the other
taxpayers to make up that amount. So, in effect, the crime that you commit is a crime
against every Canadian and it is necessary to deter others who would endeavour to do
what you did.” She was sentenced to a fine of $143,000 and 2 years less a day
Finally, one also observes in the income tax cases how the fall from a position of
elevated social status is used to justify lighter sentences. Again, while there are
exceptions, the accused's high status in the community and his good character and
reputation–all somewhat tarnished by the prosecution–are considered relevant to
sentencing. The stigma, sometimes personal financial bankruptcy, and more generally
the loss of status, are regarded as dimensions of punishment already inflicted upon the
accused. The welfare recipient, by contrast, is unable to invoke these badges of social
esteem that are soiled by the criminal prosecution.
Sentencing patterns indicate much harsher sentencing outcomes for those convicted of
welfare fraud than those convicted of tax evasion. Those convicted of having evaded
tens of thousands of dollars in taxes are likely to receive only a fine; those convicted of
defrauding welfare of even a few thousand dollars are likely to face a sentence of
incarceration (served either in jail or under house arrest). Clearly, welfare recipients are
not in a position to pay substantial fines, and one might query whether it is the inability to
do so which results in what is acknowledged to be a more punitive sentence–that of
incarceration. As such, might this constitute a form of systemic discrimination against
low income people in relation to criminal sentencing, as was the finding in R. v. Wu
where, because the accused was impecunious and unable to pay a mandatory fine, the
R. v. Ayling, [1998] O.J. No. 6428 (Gen. Div.) (QL).
trial judge ordered the fine, gave on time to pay, and upon default, imposed a conditional
sentence of 75 days. 251
Employment Standards Violations
Another area of regulation which provides interesting points of comparison with social
assistance is that of employment standards. 252 Within the employment standards regime
in Ontario, many shifts in the statutory regime and in enforcement practices over the
past decade mirror those in the social assistance regime. One sees, for example, a shift
away from public/social responsibility to maintain and enforce minimum standards within
the workplace, towards increased scope for individual contracts of employment that may
permissibly derogate from the ostensibly 'minimum' statutory standards. The shift from
public/social responsibility for maintaining minimum conditions of employment is also
reflected by the current enforcement regime, a regime that is both under-resourced and
almost entirely reactive, placing responsibility for enforcing standards onto individual
employees. The cumulative impact of many of the changes (together with the increase in
contingent work) has been to worsen the conditions of work for many employees: many
are working longer hours; not being compensated for over-time; and for some, not being
paid at all for work done.
The deterioration in the conditions of work developed at roughly the same time as the
introduction of workfare, wherein welfare recipients were being required to find a job, any
job, that would get them off welfare (or would reduce their welfare benefits). Given the
changes within the social assistance regime, more and more employees were/are forced
to accept jobs where the conditions of work fall below–often far below–statutory
minimum standards. This is both because of the new scope for contracting out of those
minimum standards, and more importantly, because of the lack of enforcement of the
statutory standards. Not only is the system almost entirely reactive, but even where an
employee lodges a complaint and is successful, the record of the Ministry in enforcing
Orders to Pay made against employers is abysmal. Additionally, notwithstanding that the
conduct of many employers could be characterized as criminal fraud, not only does one
never see fraud charges laid against employers in these circumstances, but almost
R. v. Wu, [2003] 3 S.C.R. 530.
Certainly yet another area is that of medicare fraud; as revealed by the work by Professor
Joan Brockman there are striking contrasts in the regulation of welfare fraud and medicare fraud.
without exception, the Ministry does not use its powers under the Employment
Standards Act to prosecute employers who are in violation of the Act. The situation is
such that an employer can flagrantly disregard the Act, with little possibility that she will
be ordered to pay; with a fair measure of confidence that even if an Order to Pay is
made it will not be successfully enforced; and with an abundance of confidence that s/he
will not be prosecuted criminally or provincially.
Employment standards evolved historically in an effort by workers to establish a social
floor of standards required of all employment. While in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, the ideology of ‘freedom of contract’ governed employment relationships,
gradually the state was persuaded by workers to introduce legislated minimum
requirements. Constraints on freedom of contract in employment were first introduced to
protect women and children, primarily because they were viewed as less than fully
autonomous, rational actors and who thus required the paternalism of the state. State
intervention to regulate conditions of employment for men, on the other hand, was
understood to constitute an indefensible infringement of liberty. The actual conditions of
grave inequalities of bargaining power and the exploitation of working class labour this
permitted were simply ignored. 253 But gradually, workers were successful in securing
legislated minimum standards of protection. In an important sense, legislated minimum
standards–if enforced–limit the exploitation of workers, and help to offset the inequalities
of bargaining power between employees and employers. 254 Minimum standards include
such important terms of work as the minimum wage, the maximum hours of work,
entitlement to leave, vacation pay, and termination pay. Judith Fudge has observed that
in Ontario, these minimum standards–contained in the Employment Standards Act,
2000–have never been particularly generous, yet they do, in theory, create a common
floor. 255
The Conservative government of Mike Harris introduced a series of reforms to the
employment standards regime, culminating with a new Act, the Employment Standards
See Martha T. McCluskey, supra note 10.
United Steelworkers of America, Time for Change: Ontario's Employment Standards
Legislation: Consultation Paper (Toronto: United Steelworkers of America, September 2000).
Judy Fudge, "The Real Story: An Analysis of the Impact of Bill 49, the Employment Standards
Act, upon Unorganized Workers", July 1996 (paper on file with the authors) at p.3.
Act, 2000, proclaimed September 2001. 256 Without reviewing the reforms and the
existing regulatory regime in detail, three areas invite interesting comparisons with that
of the social assistance regulation: the diminution of the public/social responsibility for
minimum standards of employment in favour of individual contracts and individual
responsibility; the approach to enforcement; and the specific practices around the failure
of employers to pay their employees.
The language of ‘self-reliance’, much like in the social assistance context, permeates
government rhetoric surrounding the reforms. More concretely, several of the reforms
introduced through the Employment Standards Act, 2000, under the rubric of increased
‘flexibility’, enable workers to contract out of the minimum standards of work. For
instance, while section 17 of the Act limits hours of work to 8 hours/day and 48
hours/week, an employee may agree to work beyond both these levels (if greater than
60 hours/week, approval of the Director is required). 257 An employee may also agree, for
the purposes of determining overtime entitlement (ordinarily payable beyond 44
hours/week) to average hours over a two-week period (and hours can be averaged over
additional weeks, with approval of the Director). 258 Of course, in many instances,
employees simply have no real choice as to whether to agree to these agreements, and
the language of freedom of contract is once again used to obscure the actual (and
increasing) inequalities of bargaining power in the workplace.
On the enforcement front, it has long been observed that the employment standards
regime suffers from inadequate enforcement; it is primarily reactive (responding to
individual complaints) and does a poor job of recovering money found to be owing to
individuals whose complaints have been successful. The more recent reforms–while on
the one hand holding out the promise of more meaningful enforcement through the
introduction of increased fines and jail terms, as well as new protections against
reprisal–create additional hurdles to pursue money owing.
Employees are encouraged to reach an agreement with their respective employers, and
if unsuccessful to pursue a formal claim. But even if fully pursued and successful, with
Bill 49 Employment Standards Improvement Act, 1997; Employment Standards Act 2000, S.O.
2000, c.41.
E.S.A. 2000, section 17.
Ibid, section 22.
an “Order to Pay” issued against one’s employer, recovery of money owing is still very
tenuous. Orders to pay go to private collection agencies, and as discussed below,
Orders are often simply ignored by employers. An Employee Wage Protection Program,
formerly in place to provide a safety net for employees to recover unpaid wages, was
first capped and then eliminated by the Conservative government. In Judy Fudge’s
assessment, the overall import of the changes has been to make it easier for employers
to avoid their legal obligations. 259 The shift of responsibility for enforcement onto
individual employees and private collection agencies, as well as the elimination of the
Employee Wage Protection Program represent additional instances of the decline of the
social in the regulation of work.
While the legislation contains several enforcement tools including provision for pro-active
investigations or audits, as well as a range of investigative powers and penalties, the
system is, as noted, primarily reactive (responding to an individual’s complaint) and
many of the powers and penalties available seem to hardly be utilized at all. The basic
complaint process works as follows: an employee who is aggrieved completes a written
claim form, s/he is encouraged to reach a resolution with the employer, but where no
resolution is possible, the matter is referred to an Employment Standards Officer
(E.S.O.) for an investigation. An E.S.O. enjoys many of the same powers as E.R.O.s and
those conducting tax audits: the power to enter and inspect any place other than a
dwelling; the power to require production of a record; and the power to question any
person on matters relevant to the investigation. 260 Often the investigation will include a
‘fact-finding’ where the employee and employer will be required to attend a meeting with
an E.S.O. 261 Unlike an E.R.O, an E.S.O. has the power to issue a decision, and if in the
employee’s favour, to issue an “Order to Pay” against an employer, an order which
becomes final and binding after 30 days. 262 The E.R.O. can decide to expand the scope
of the inquiry beyond the individual complaint before him or her to examine the
employer’s practices more broadly through an audit. Data from the Ministry suggests,
however, that this is rarely done (See Table 3).
Table 3: Number and Percentage of E.R.O. Investigations, by year
Fudge, supra note 255.
E.S.O. 2000, supra note 256, sections 91 & 92.
Ibid, Section 102.
Ibid, section 103.
# of proactive
% proactive
that include
% complaints
where audit
% ESO time
In addition to the ability to issue an “Order to Pay”, an E.S.O. may also issue a
compliance order (an order to comply with a particular standard, and which has no
monetary consequence), or a notice of contravention, which includes a penalty. 263
Anecdotal evidence suggests that compliance orders and notices of contraventions are
not commonly issued. Finally, there also exists the possibility of a prosecution. 264
Penalties were increased under the new legislation: a maximum penalty for an individual
on first conviction of a fine of up to $50,000 and/or twelve months jail and for a
corporation on first conviction, up to $100,000. 265
The Ministry’s prosecutions policy indicates the purpose of prosecution is to promote
compliance through the general and specific deterrent effects of prosecution. The policy
directs that consideration be given to the employer's failure to comply with orders or
notices of contravention and repeat violations. Additionally, the policy lists a of variety of
factors to consider in the process of deciding whether to prosecute: the gravity of the
offence; any mitigating or aggravating factors; the availability of effective alternatives;
public confidence in the legislation; history of compliance; and the strength of the
evidence and of defences. By contrast to the processing of welfare fraud cases, note the
consideration in particular of mitigating factors prior to prosecution. The policy also
clearly provides that where an E.S.O. has reasonable and probable grounds to believe
an offence has been committed; is considering proceeding by way of prosecution, is
considering laying charges; or wishes to speak to the individual being considered for
prosecution, s/he must read a Charter caution to the individual employer, and follow
other procedures, such as continuity requirements for seized evidence. Here too, note
Ibid sections 108, 113 & 141.
Ibid, see generally sections 131-139.
Ibid, section 132.
the contrast with E.R.O. investigations wherein a Charter caution seems generally not to
be given. 266
Notwithstanding the availability of prosecutions and substantial penalties upon
conviction, prosecutions are extremely rare. 267 In 2001 the Ministry of Labour reports a
total of 37 convictions but none of these were for E.S.A. violations; in 2002, 49
convictions only one of which was for an E.S.A. violation; in 2003, 38 convictions of
which two were for E.S.A. violations. In sum, there were only three convictions for E.S.A.
violations over a three-year period. Adams, reviewing much earlier data, notes that in the
period 1978-79 there were some 60 active prosecutions, but that since 1982/83 there
have been no more than four per year. 268 The Minister of Labour at the time of writing,
the Honourable Chris Bentley, in a press announcement of April 26, 2004, stated, “[l]ast
year, there were more than 15,000 claims against employers and only one prosecution
was started. Starting today, enforcement is back in style.” 269 But unless there are
substantial changes, it is clear that employers can violate the Act with a tremendous
sense of security against prosecution; they are given expansive scope for even flagrant
violations of workers’ rights.
On the collections side, once an Order to Pay has been issued, as briefly noted above, it
will go to a private collection agency contracted by the Ministry of Labour to collect both
the amount owing to the employee, as well as a reasonable fee. 270 The legislation also
authorizes the collector to agree to a settlement with the person from whom he or she
seeks to collect money. If the agreement is for less than 75 percent of the Order, but
only then, written approval of the Director is required. In other words, the private
collection agency is authorized to agree to settle what is an Order of the state; an Order
that ostensibly reflects a social consensus about the statutory minimum standards of
Ontario Ministry of Labour, Employment Standards, Procedures Manual, Chapter 7,
"Enforcement and Collections", section
Requests to the Minister made by various community legal clinics to prosecute repeat
offenders constantly fell on deaf ears. See Scott Bergman, "A New Strategic Vision for the
Workers Rights Division at Parkdale Community Legal Services: Putting the Money in the Hands
of our Clients" (Toronto, April 2003) (paper on file with the authors).
Roy J. Adams, "Employment Standards in Ontario: An Industrial Relations Systems Analysis"
(1987) 42:1 Relations Industrielles 46 at p.54.
Ministry of Labour, News Release April 26, 2004.
E.S.O., supra note 256, sections 127-130.
employment. Thus, private agreements can be made–without the employee’s approval–
to move the protections of the employee below the statutory floor.
Equally disturbing are the numbers of outstanding Orders to Pay and the enormous amount of
monies owing to employees – more than $16 million in 2002/03. The Ministry’s Annual Fiscal
Reports (Table 4) reveal the following composite:
Table 4: Ministry of Labour–Annual Fiscal Report
# of claim file % in
% of
completions violation
collected on
(Partially & fully)
15, 078
% of assessed Uncollected
These numbers only reflect the situation for those employees who have filed a formal
complaint, thus the total amount of unpaid wages is likely to be many times the amounts
reflected in these statistics. While the data that Adams draws upon is dated, it does help
give us some sense of how that total picture might look; the overall compliance rate with
respect to the payment of minimum wage in 1979 was 55 percent, reflecting some
55,000 workers. From 1981-85 collections were made for 900 employees through the
Employment Standards branch procedures, thus correcting the situation for less than 2
percent of those affected. 271 This general lax state of enforcement stands in marked
contrast to the enforcement of the social assistance regulatory regime.
Adams divides delinquent employers into three groups: the sulkers, the shysters, and
the bankrupted. The shysters in his topology are those who deliberately set out to
defraud employees. A common pattern, Adams explains, for this kind of employer is to
set up a summer business and then, towards the end of the summer stop wage
payments and simply disappear. He notes as well, that the present system is one in
which the potential criminal has little reason not to commit the crime. 272 Which leads us
to the final comparison we wish to make. A substantial number of employers regularly
Adams, supra note 268 at p.58.
Ibid, at p.54.
violate not only the E.S.A. but the Criminal Code as well. There is an extremely low
probability of prosecution under either–really virtually unheard of under the latter,
notwithstanding that the behaviour of some employers (particularly of ‘shysters’) does
satisfy the Criminal Code definition of fraud. 273 State Orders to Pay are routinely ignored
without consequence. There is a virtual vacuum of state enforcement of its own laws.
Moreover, the political discourse surrounding employment standards violations is void of
the language of ‘fraud’ or criminality. Employers, even those who hire intending not to
pay their employees, are not labeled as criminals. There is no outrage expressed about
the theft of the labour of employees by unscrupulous employers; none of the kind of
moral outrage expressed about welfare ‘fraudsters’. Adams' use of the terms ‘crime’ and
‘criminal’ in relation to employment standards violations is utterly exceptional. Snider
suggests that the “ideological processes that shape society's distribution of blame have
exonerated these kinds of harmful acts and actors responsible for them.” 274 At the same
time, these same ideological processes have not exonerated, but inculpated and
demonized low-income people in receipt of social assistance.
10 Conclusion
Our analysis of welfare fraud reveals a disconcerting picture. The discourses and
practices regulating welfare fraud operates in tandem with other features of Ontario's
reformed social assistance system (e.g. benefit reductions, workfare, the definition of
spouse) to re-constitute the receipt of welfare benefits as a morally suspect activity.
Those in receipt of benefits are viewed as at worst criminals, and at best, deviants
deemed to be lacking the virtues essential to the good neo-liberal citizen: a strong work
ethic; a sense of responsibility for self and family; and sustained employment. Those in
receipt of O.W., as they struggle to get by on benefit levels that fail to "take into account
their basic requirements" (as the C.A.P.A. formerly stipulated), are expected to know and
comply with an enormous number of complex rules. They are acutely aware that they
are being constantly monitored and snitched upon by a vast array of both public and
See Shannon Slattery, "The Criminal Law and the Employment Relationship: A New
Perspective on Enforcing the Employment Standards Act" (Toronto, 2004) (Paper on file with the
authors). Slattery identifies a wide array of not uncommon employer practices that might satisfy
the test for criminal ‘fraud’, including lying to an employee about the terms or quantum of
payment; hiring new employees when previous employees are still owed wages; hiring new
employees when the business is about to go bankrupt; hiring a new employee with no intention to
pay wages.
Snider, supra note 203 at p.201.
private actors. They experience not only material destitution, but fear, shame, humiliation
and a profound sense that they are 'others'; not full citizens, but outsiders who are
perceived as threatening and who are not to be trusted.
For many observers, the post-War period reflected the evolution of pan-Canadian social
rights of citizenship, including, importantly, access to social assistance benefits. In this
view, citizenship in Canada had evolved such that the collective provision of social
security (education, health, minimum standards for work, fulfillment of basic needs) was
regarded as one of its core elements–people expected this from the state by virtue of
their status as citizens. 275 Others are skeptical of this claim, preferring instead to
characterize these social policies as reflective of historic compromises necessary to
preserve the interests of capital. 276 But whether viewed as the recognition of social rights
or expedient historical compromise, what is clearly evident in the past decade is a
retraction from any notion of entitlement to social assistance. Rather than being
regarded as a route to full citizenship, or as an indicia of one's citizenship or member
status, it is clear that increasingly welfare recipients are being re-positioned as partial or
failed citizens; as outsiders; as 'them' not 'us'.
As discussed earlier, entitlement to social assistance has been replaced by a contractual
notion of exchange. One consequence of this is that the receipt of social assistance,
framed within the rationalism of the free market, is now frequently viewed as 'taking' from
the public by those who have chosen to get a ‘free ride’ by ‘doing nothing’ with their
lives. Philosopher Alan Shrift has noted how these neo-liberal reforms have allowed a
narrow self-interested form of reciprocal return to dominate current discourses on how
the state collectively organizes our obligations to each other. "One must wonder,” Schrift
what sorts of assumptions regarding gift giving and generosity are
operating in a society that views public assistance to its least advantaged
members as an illegitimate gift that results in an unjustifiable social
burden that can no longer be tolerated while at the same time viewing
corporate bailouts and tax breaks for its wealthiest citizens as legitimate
investments in a nation's future. 277
See the collection by Dave Broad and Wayne Antony, Citizens or Consumers? Social Policy in
a Market Society (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1999).
Broadbent, supra note 20.
A.D. Schrift, "Introduction: Why Gift?" in A.D. Schrift (ed.), The Logic of the Gift: Towards an
Ethic of Generosity" (New York: Routledge, 1997) at p.19.
Portrayed and understood to be threatening outsiders, as persons lacking neo-liberal
virtues who desire something for nothing, who 'take' rather than 'give', who 'misuse' and
'abuse' the welfare system, claims voiced by welfare applicants for state assistance are
regarded with intense suspicion; as potentially fraudulent and certainly not to be trusted.
As a consequence, as our study has revealed, benefits are administered within an
environment of intense and unrelenting scrutiny and frequently, hostility. Extensive
reporting and disclosure requirements, exceptionally broad consents to the disclosure of
personal information, home visits, snitch lines, invasive interrogations, and demeaning
interactions constitute the lived reality of those in receipt of O.W. Abuse, misuse and
fraud of the system are assumed to be flagrant, and thus, those in receipt of benefits are
constantly assumed to be "up to something."
As our report has documented, much of what is frequently called ‘welfare fraud’–and
policed as such–is far removed from activity that is the object of criminal law. Criminal
convictions for fraud involving social assistance are, as we have discussed, exceedingly
rare, representing in 2001- 02 a mere 0.1 percent of the social assistance caseload. Our
analysis suggests that ‘welfare fraud’ as it is now constituted involves all breaches of any
of a mass of complex, often contradictory, and frequently counter-intuitive rules that
govern social assistance administration. And as we have detailed, many of these rules
and regulations are so vague and confusing that they seem intentionally designed to
make receiving social assistance an ungovernable activity that inherently involves rule
breaking, and thus the committing of ‘welfare fraud’. As should be clear from our
discussion, regulation that revolves around ‘undeclared income’ and ‘man in the house’
in particular is so capricious and vague that no reasonable person could conduct herself
in a way that would not put her in jeopardy of an accusation of ‘fraud’ in receiving social
assistance. This is particularly so when one considers the extensive and often arbitrary
powers of Eligibility Review Officers, the ambiguity of how officials apply rules and
regulations in local settings, and the use of the ‘welfare fraud’ hotline which translates
what can often be malicious gossip into official action. It is the highly informal policing of
this network, fueled by prejudicial stereotypes of those on social assistance, which
results in termination of benefits, assessments of over-payments, accusations of fraud,
and formal fraud charges.
The normative character of the ‘crime’ of welfare fraud is generated not just by the
complexity and vagueness of the rules and regulations that govern social assistance, but
also by the disparities that exist between welfare fraud regulation and other forms of
economic misconduct. As we have noted, in almost every respect ‘tax evasion’ and
‘employee standards violations’ are viewed in a much less punitive and severe light in
terms of the moral culpability attached to the conduct, the range of detection and
enforcement tools utilized and the penalties that follow upon conviction. This disparity
suggests a clear normative distinction at work, one that is aligned with neo-liberal values
that views poor people as not deserving of support, but rather of intense scrutiny and
inequitable treatment. This brings us to a troubling paradox that the constitution of
welfare fraud as a crime provokes: despite being depicted as a serious threat to the
public, and despite being the subject of significant changes in law and legal processes,
this mode of regulation appears extra-legal, not only in the highly informal ways in which
regulation is carried out, but also in how it frequently positions those on social assistance
as outside the usual safeguards and principles of criminal justice administration. For
example, a basic aspect of culpability in law, that of mens rea, is often not adequately
interrogated in the determination of guilt. Similarly, well-established legal distinctions
between ‘error’ and ‘fraud’ that are present in income tax evasion jurisprudence are often
not even made in the cases where recipients are informally disentitled under the
auspices of committing welfare fraud.
We are drawn then to the conclusion that the receipt of social assistance itself has
become criminalized through the category of welfare fraud. Simply being on social
assistance results in one being positioned as a penal object in a climate of moral
condemnation, surveillance, suspicion and penalty. This criminalization is particularly
gendered in that the majority of people on social assistance are women, and the majority
of them are single parents. Prejudicial, historically embedded views of single women and
single mothers–that they are irresponsible, sexually loose, lazy and ‘need a man’ to
support them–pervade stereotypes about those on social assistance, and are implicitly
re-enforced in the regulation of the ‘man in the house rule’ in particular. And it is not only
the intimate aspect of women’s lives that is utilized as an area of control in social
assistance regulation, but also the social sphere of everyday life as well. Despite a
rhetoric of ‘community responsibility’ in government discourse, it is the very people that
might constitute a support network in the community–neighbours, family, boyfriends,
landlords, school officials–that are either re-responsibilized as agents to snitch on any
perceived ‘fraud’, or are possibly complicit in rule breaking by being supportive, by for
example, buying food for a mother and her child who have exhausted what is a
completely inadequate benefit for that month. The insidious character of this
criminalization completely devalues women as mothers–that for example being a single
parent surviving in poverty constitutes simply ‘sitting around’ and ‘doing nothing’. It is no
wonder that being on social assistance has been characterized by an experience of fear,
retribution and isolation–qualities that ‘cracking down’ on welfare fraud intentionally
Table of cases
Welfare fraud
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General Fraud
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