B.C. man charged with driving offence can have trial in French: Supreme Court

Anyone charged with a provincial offence in British Columbia has a right to a trial in English or French — just like a criminal trial, the Supreme Court of Canada says.

Éric Bessette, a francophone man living in B.C., was charged in 2014 under the Motor Vehicle Act for driving while prohibited. Before his trial began, he asked to have it conducted in French.

His trial has been paused as his request wound its way through the courts.

Under Canada’s Criminal Code, accused have the right to a trial in English or French. 

The provincial court rejected Bessette’s request, saying that in B.C., trials for provincial offences had to be conducted in English. 

On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned that ruling clearing the way for Bessette to now have his trial in French. 

The court noted B.C.’s Offence Act — which sets out the rules on how trials for provincial offences should be conducted in B.C. — does not explicitly mention language rights.

The court wrote that in case of gaps, the act says the Criminal Code would apply.

“The plain intent of s. 133 of the Offence Act is to allow for incorporation of certain Criminal Code provisions in broad and general terms,” the decision stated.

The court said that if you used the language provisions stated in the Criminal Code to fill in the gap, trials for provincial offences should also be allowed in either language.

Impact beyond B.C.

The case could have an impact beyond British Columbia in provinces with similar gaps in their legislation, said Alexandra Heine, a Franco-Albertan and clerk at the Court of Queen’s Bench in Alberta who has followed the case closely.

“It’s extremely important,” Heine said. “Because we are a country with two official languages, in my opinion, we should have the right to have any trial heard in French with a French judge, a French clerk, and a French prosecutor.”

She says it will still take some time before the other provinces line up.

“Just because B.C. can now do it [doesn’t mean] that Alberta can,” Heine said, adding it depends on what existing legislation exists. 

With this Supreme Court of Canada decision, however, she says the precedent is to favour trials in both official languages.

“The Supreme Court has spoken, so we know now in those provinces where there is a gap in the legislation, you will be able to have your trial heard in French,” she said.

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