When does being cheap become harassment?

When does a man’s imposition of harsh discipline and a frugal lifestyle on his family cross the line to become criminal harassment?

That was one of the questions before an Ontario Superior Court judge in a case that dealt will allegations of emotional abuse, threats, assaults, and criminal harassment by an Ottawa man against his family.

In his ruling in R. v. M.H., regional senior Justice Charles Hackland considered a range of charges — including assault, threatening death, and criminal harassment — against M.H. during the course of his 24-year marriage. The court placed a publication ban on any information that would identify the victims.

“The accused did not like to spend money, never borrowed on credit, and as noted, was a remarkable saver,” wrote Hackland, who noted M.H. paid for the family’s home in cash in 2005.

His supposedly “common sense practices” for saving money included: keeping the heat down to a “very uncomfortable level”; not replacing light bulbs or doing so with 40-watt bulbs; and forcing the family to use two containers of about two litres to wash and rinse themselves rather than taking showers. The accused himself rode his bike to work and showered there. There were also restrictions on flushing the toilet. In addition, he limited the family’s access to the TV and gave them little privacy when it came to things like the phone.

Despite the family’s resentments about their lifestyle, Hackland found “that some of Mrs. H.’s important decisions concerning her married life were hers alone and were entered into freely.” He further noted she had agreed she would be a stay-at-home mom in order to raise their five children.

When it came to the harassment charges, Hackland undertook a lengthy analysis to determine whether M.H. had engaged in threatening conduct that would cause his wife to fear for her own safety or that of anyone known to her. In the end, he found he had.

“I am satisfied that Mrs. H. was treated with a level of ongoing disrespect that jeopardized her well being, particularly psychologically. The accused’s cheapness as she reasonably interpreted it, governed their lifestyle and her efforts to protest or get him to change were rudely and often angrily rebuffed. She was subjected to minor assaults or rough physical behaviour on many occasions. She was shoved and pushed out of the way when she intervened in his discipline of the children. She was called insulting names by the accused when he became angry such as whore, bitch, and fat cow and told she walked like an elephant. She said she ‘froze in the dark’ all winter, which was an exaggeration of the physical facts, but accurately captured her state of mind. She was constantly monitored by the accused and subjected to continual telephone calls from his office. She was deprived of any normal relationship with her parents and her children never saw their grandparents. Subsequent to the birth of their first child, she never took a vacation, apart from a one-day family trip to a zoo in the Montreal area.”

In coming to his conclusions, Hackland noted the wife’s description of her feelings about her life, including how she “used to wait for spring” how she was “sickened” and “very afraid.”

“I am satisfied that Mrs. H. was forced to endure a thoroughly lonely and deprived existence for many years leading to the separation,” wrote Hackland.

“She suffered deprivations in the basic amenities of life like heat and showers, spousal inequality, disrespect, and minor physical and significant emotional abuse. She endured the heartache of seeing her children being subjected to the accused’s unfortunate and controlling parenting and his discipline methods of the children, which were abusive and unlawful. I find that the accused’s conduct was threatening to Mrs. H.’s physical and emotional integrity and her feelings of fear and hopelessness were objectively reasonable. I am of the view that the actus reus of the offence of criminal harassment has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

“As to the mental element of the offence, I am satisfied that this is a case of wilful blindness. Particularly in the final years of his family life, the accused was receiving many complaints about the family rules and the discipline practices, from his children. He knew he was imposing a very difficult lifestyle on his family and he was not interested in hearing any complaints or discussing any changes.”

Besides those conclusions, Hackland found M.H. not guilty of criminally harassing his first son as well as his daughter but did find him guilty of the charge in relation to his second and third sons. In addition, he found him guilty of two assaults against his wife but not guilty on another assault charge and a count of threatening death. He also found him guilty of assaulting his first son but not guilty of a death threat against him. There were further findings of not guilty on charges of assaulting his third son and depriving his wife of her credit and debit cards.

Toronto criminal lawyer Daniel Brown suggests the ruling was a “unique judgment” given that criminal harassment normally involves things like excessively calling a spouse who has left the home or a relationship rather than, as in this case, the defendant’s actions while the family was still together. “There’s nothing preventing you from leaving,” he says.

“It doesn’t sound like a great relationship but it doesn’t sound like criminal harassment either,” he adds.

Other notable elements of the case included the fact there was no counsel acting on M.H.’s behalf listed on the ruling and that there have been no appellate decisions dealing with this type of scenario. As a result, Brown suggests the case represents a “grey area” when it comes to determining what constitutes criminal harassment and notes the case may open the door to more prosecutions for this type of behaviour.

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