Ontario law firm offering free legal services to people caught stealing groceries
A shopper checks eggs before she purchases at a grocery store in Glenview, Ill., Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Published Friday, January 20, 2023 2:35PM EST
An Ontario law firm is offering pro bono services to first-time offenders who have been arrested for stealing groceries.
On Monday, We Defend You Legal Services shared an Instagram post saying they will defend those who have been arrested for shoplifting food from a grocery store at no cost.
“My thing is people who are not motivated by greed or gain, if it’s for necessity, if you’ve just fallen on hard times, just had a horrible day, or just made a bad mistake, we’re going to defend you pro bono,” licensed paralegal, Frank Alfano, told CTV News Toronto Friday.
“We’re not going to charge money for someone who stole a carton of eggs or a loaf of bread. If they can’t afford the eggs or the bread, they can’t afford us, and they’re the ones who need the help the most.”
First-time offenders in the GTA are the only ones who can qualify for these pro bono services, and the total value of goods stolen has to be less than $5,000.
As per Canada’s Criminal Code, those who are found guilty of theft under $5,000 can serve up to two years in prison.
To avoid jail time, Alfano says those charged can complete diversion programs in lieu of formal prosecution, like making a charitable donation, completing community service, or writing an apology letter since this theft is considered “minor in nature.
“Once they’ve completed the requirements of their diversion program, the case is withdrawn," he said. “It’s a way of diverting the case out of the court system. It’s recognition that we’re treating the offender, not punishing the crime.”
While the Instagram post is new, Alfano says he has been offering pro bono services for this type of charge for years.
“The reason I’ve been doing them for free is that when I was a teenager [..] with a motorcycle, I got a lot of tickets – I was lucky to have a lawyer help me out," Alfani said. "He basically trained me and gave me an opportunity I wouldn’t have otherwise had,” he said.
"I do these types of cases for that reason -- to remember where I came from and to give something back," he added.
Dr. Richard Leblanc, professor of law and ethics and York University, told CTV News Toronto that the bar is set “very high” to prove this kind of theft was made out of necessity.
“Is it ethical to steal? No. Is it legal to steal? No, but there are exceptions. They’re very narrow for necessity,” Leblanc said. “The bar for that is very high, and the lawyer could argue it. You could offer restitution, there are programs in place for individuals and people who have fallen on bad luck, and you really do need legal advice for that.”
Leblanc stresses theft is unethical and illegal, but there is also a public policy reason in play here.
“We don’t want people dying because of a lack of food, but people can feel like they’ve got no other choice, and that’s where necessity might come in,” he said.
RISING COST OF GROCERIES
Typically, Alfano sees about 20 to 30 grocery shoplifting cases per year and says he hasn’t seen a rise in them lately despite the rising costs of food and inflation at grocery stores.
Food prices across the country are expected to continue to rise, according to the 13th edition of Canada’s Food Price Report.
For a family of four, the total annual grocery bill is expected to cost $16,288 in 2023, which is $1,065 more than what it cost in 2022.
As per the report, many factors could influence food prices this year, including rising energy costs, climate change, geopolitical conflicts and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- With files from The Canadian Press