Freedom of religion versus Covid 19 restrictions: The law of bail and how it applied to Pastor Coates

James Coates has become the face of the “highest profile and most controversial cases of freedom of religion versus COVID-19 health restrictions in Canada.” You may have heard of him, he is a Pastor at GraceLife church in Sherwood Park and is challenging the constitutionality of the COVID restrictions.

Mr. Coates’s legal battle touches on many complicated issues beyond the scope of this article. Instead, we will use Mr. Coates as a case study of pre-trial issues and procedures.

On February 7 Mr. Coates was arrested and charged for holding church services over the capacity limits set by the Alberta government. This marked his officially entry into the criminal justice system. When a person is arrested and charged, a decision must be made about what restrictions should be imposed until the charges are resolved. The restrictions should ensure that 1) the Accused will not flee, 2) the Accused will not commit any more crimes, and 3) the public would maintain faith in the justice system. In the case of a first-time offender a promise to abide by certain conditions is sufficient to meet that criteria. Mr. Coates was released on an Undertaking requiring him to follow the rules put in place by the government for public gatherings.

Unfortunately, Mr. Coates failed to follow those conditions, and a failure to abide by a Court Order is itself a crime. On February 16 Mr. Coates initiated another round with the criminal justice system and was charged with another set of charges. These new charges triggered a new bail discussion.At the bail hearing the Crown prosecutor requested that Mr. Coates be held in a remand center for reasons 2 and 3 mentioned above. Nevertheless, the Court granted Mr. Coates bail, but only on the condition that he agree to comply with the restrictions. Mr. Coates refused, and stayed in remand.

The issue of bail is not necessarily over once it is denied, if new evidence arises, or if the Court made an error the Accused can appeal the decision. This is what Mr. Coates did on March 4 when he brought an application to have the bail conditions reviewed by the Court of Queen’s Bench. Unfortunately, there was not much in the way of new evidence, or new arguments, and the Justice at the Court of Queen’s Bench dismissed the application.

Once detention has been addressed, we must deal with the charges. Charges are resolved when 1) Crown withdraws them, 2) the Accused pleads guilty, or 3) the Court renders a verdict after trial. Mr. Coates agreed to plead guilty to breaching his Undertaking, and the Crown agreed to withdraw the other charges except one. As punishment for breaching the Undertaking the Crown and Mr. Coates agreed that he would pay a fine of $100.

It is important to note that the Court has the final say on anything that happens in the Courtroom, and a joint submission on sentence can be overruled if the Judge deems it appropriate. That is what happened on March 22 to Mr. Coates. The Judge decided that a $100 fine was not enough of a deterrent and replaced it with a fine of $1,500. Ultimately, the amount of the fine was inconsequential since monetary penalties can be satisfied by incarceration. Mr. Coates’ 35 days in remand was enough to satisfy the penalty and no additional punishment was required.

Mr. Coates is now released from remand and back to holding church services. The pre-trial phase of his criminal justice experience is over, and his outstanding charge is set for trial in May. It is at trial we will hear the constitutional arguments about if and why Covid-19 justifies infringements on individual freedoms.

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