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Is Verbal Assault a Crime in Canada?

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Everyone knows that the childhood adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” isn’t exactly true. Words can hurt, and even though they can’t break the skin and injure you like sticks and stones, they can take an emotional toll. In Canada, speaking or otherwise communicating some hurtful words might lead to criminal charges.

Under Canada’s Criminal Code, you can be charged with an assault offence if your words constitute a threat to another person’s life, health or property. The Code does not contain any provisions that make it illegal to verbally assault someone, so you can legally cuss people out and say mean things to them. However, if the verbal assault includes threats, it’s likely grounds for an assault charge termed “uttering threats.”

Uttering Threats Can Result in Severe Penalties

Section 264.1 (1) of the Code states that “[e]very one commits an [assault] offence who, in any manner, knowingly utters, conveys or causes any person to receive a threat

  • “(a) to cause death or bodily harm to any person;
  • “(b) to burn, destroy or damage real or personal property; or
  • “(c) to kill, poison or injure and animal or bird that is the property of any person.”

An indictable offence conviction for uttering threats carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison when the threat involves death or bodily harm to a person. If the threat is against property, the maximum sentence as an indictable offence is two years in prison. In either instance, if charged as a summary conviction offence, the maximum penalty is two years in jail.

Crown prosecutors handle most uttering threats cases as summary judgement offences and rarely seek the harshest penalties for convicted offenders. However, aggravating factors could make the Crown seek stiffer penalties for convicted offenders. Aggravating factors include:

  • Threats made against anyone considered vulnerable (children, elderly, disabled)
  • Threats made in the presence of children
  • Threats against public officials or authority figures
  • Threats made in relation to alcohol or illegal drug circumstances
  • Threats made in context with other criminal activity, such as extortion
  • Threats made in a domestic context
  • A history of making threats
  • An existing criminal record
  • Presence of a weapon
  • Specific elements of the threat, if warranted

Even with a lenient sentence, such as probation, a conviction comes with a criminal record. Thus, anyone facing uttering threats assault charges should consult with an experienced criminal trial assault lawyer to strategize the most effective defence.

Ontario Police Take Uttering Threats Seriously

The Toronto-area criminal defence assault lawyers at Mass Tsang will tell you that Ontario police take complaints of uttering threats seriously and will lay charges even with limited evidence. They likely take this approach to ensure that a verbal altercation does not turn more serious by leading to death, injury or property damage. Our lawyers have represented numerous Toronto-area clients who were surprised that they faced assault charges because of something they had said. Most cases seem to arise from domestic or interpersonal altercations, and many clients charged with uttering threats have never been arrested before.

Because the Criminal Code’s description of the charge includes the verbiage “conveys and causes,” uttering threats assault charges can also arise via other forms of communications, whether phone conversations, emails, text messages, social media or other online media. In fact, Ontario police appear to be making a more concerted effort to investigate online threats in the face of rising vitriol over political issues such as COVID-19 mandates. Written threats, it should be noted, often present a more significant challenge for mounting a legal defence.

Assault Charge Defence Strategies

If you’re charged with assault by uttering threats in the Greater Toronto Area, an experienced criminal defence lawyer has numerous options to pursue in seeking a favourable resolution. Upon arrest, your first consideration should be to consult with a defence lawyer, who will undoubtedly advise you to refrain from discussing the charges with police. To gain a conviction, the Crown has the burden of proving that you made the threat. Any information you provide them—such as admitting that you made the threat—makes it easier for them to secure a conviction.

Mass Tsang defence lawyers are highly adept at developing effective criminal defence strategies designed to secure the best possible outcome for their clients. The onus is on the court to prove that:

  • The threat was actually made
  • The defendant specifically intended to make the threat
  • That the words of the threat were meant in all seriousness and were not a joke

If the Crown’s case seems weak and lacking evidence to support these contentions, criminal defence lawyers can often work with prosecutors to get the charges dismissed or withdrawn, or negotiate another resolution—reduced charges, conditional or absolute discharge—to negate a conviction that carries a criminal record.

For uttering threats charges that go to trial, effective criminal lawyers will work on raising reasonable doubts about the evidence supporting the alleged threat. Doubts can be raised about the defendant’s true intent behind the threat or whether intent had been misinterpreted. In many cases, the primary evidence is witness testimony, which means challenging the witness’s credibility. Among other things, witness credibility can be weakened by challenging their state of mind during the incident (did it happen during an altercation, or was the witness drinking or using drugs when the threat was made). Credibility can also come into play if the witness has anything to gain from the defendant’s arrest and/or conviction. For example, if the alleged threat arose in context with the legal resolution of an ongoing domestic dispute.

Naturally, if the threat was in writing or the defendant admitted making the threat to police, raising reasonable doubt is typically more challenging. That said, the crucial component of intent is still open to interpretation, as is the meaning of the words used.

Consult with Mass Tsang for your Ontario Assault Defence

If you face assault charges in the Toronto area for uttering a threat, the criminal trial lawyers at Mass Tsang can help you secure the most favourable resolution possible. Mass Tsang lawyers successfully defend dozens of Toronto-area assault cases every year. If you or someone you know has been charged with any type of assault in the GTA contact the assault defence experts at Mass Tsang today for a free consultation.



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