A driver’s failure to wear a seat belt, which is an offence under the Ontario Highway Traffic Act, is not an “absolute liability” offence. Rather, “due diligence” is an available defence, the Ontario Court of Appeal has decided.

A police officer saw a driver, one Wilson, stop his vehicle at a stop sign. The officer noticed Wilson’s seatbelt hanging by his shoulder, and charged Wilson with failing to wear a seat belt, contrary to the Highway Traffic Act.  Wilson argued that he had removed his seat belt after stopping at the stop sign, because he noticed that his coffee in a cup holder in the backseat was spilling on his laptop.

“Absolute liability” offences involve automatic liability if the defendant did the prohibited act (here, failed to wear a seat belt), without any consideration of the person’s state of mind or degree of fault.  “Strict liability” offences, on the other hand, are a “half-way house” in which the person can avoid conviction by proving that he or she exercised “due diligence” (took reasonable care to avoid the prohibited act).  For example, a driver may have taken reasonable steps but the seatbelt did not close properly or had come undone.

The court quoted a previous decision which suggested that the default is that an offence is strict liability, so that the defendant may argue due diligence: “If the legislature wanted to impose the serious consequences that flow from the creation of an absolute liability offence, the means for so doing would have been known and available.” Clear wording was required to create an absolute liability offence.

Most Occupational Health and Safety Act offences are strict liability offences.  This decision, although not an OHSA case, shows that courts will default to an offence being strict liability – meaning the due diligence defence is available – unless the legislation clearly shows that absolute liability applies.

R. v. Wilson, 2014 ONCA 212 (CanLII)