The hidden cost of a criminal record

  • July 27, 2020
  • Cydney Kane

Imagine you have been working at a job you enjoy for a short period of time. Suddenly, you are being fired because the employer has discovered that you have a criminal record. You are unable to find another job that you are qualified for and that does not require a clean record check.

The record causing you so much trouble? It has only one conviction: stealing a bottle of pop, twenty years ago.

This is the reality for a client participating in the Record Suspension and Vital Statistics Clinic hosted by the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia. The Clinic is staffed exclusively by law student volunteers from Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law. We support women through the process of applying for a record suspension from the Parole Board of Canada. Once granted, a record suspension (formerly known as a “pardon”) separates a criminal record from the regional police level and returns a clear criminal record check. The requirements include completing a waiting period of either 5 or 10 years depending on whether the offence is summary or indictable, evidence of rehabilitation, and completing an application with the accompanying fee.

A purported goal of the criminal justice system is rehabilitation. A sentence is imposed upon offenders with the idea that it is the punishment for their wrongdoing, allowing the offender to rehabilitate and reintegrate into society after the sentence has been completed. The attachment of a criminal record to your identity, however, is permanent unless a criminal record suspension can be obtained.

The consequences of a criminal record are profound and far-reaching. The Canadian Bar Association’s 2017 report Collateral Consequences of Criminal Convictions: Considerations for Lawyers illustrates that it can affect all aspects of one’s life, from employment to personal relationships, and can actually prevent successful rehabilitation back into society.

Conversely, the opportunities and increased quality of life that a record suspension can provide are equally as powerful. A record suspension enables women to re-enter the workforce, pursue higher education, provide for their families, and re-integrate fully into society. These are pursuits which may otherwise be unattainable.

The cost of applying for a record suspension is $644.88. This application fee does not include associated costs such as fingerprinting, obtaining record checks and court information sheets, or postage. In total, we ask the Clinic’s clients to budget for $1000 to complete the process. The expense of this process acts as a barrier for many of our clients who are without regular income. There are no sources of external funding or grants to support prospective applicants.

A vicious cycle is created; an individual is unable to obtain employment because of their criminal record, but unable to afford a criminal record suspension due to lack of income.

I began volunteering with the Elizabeth Fry Society in 2018 and now am a co-coordinator for the Clinic. I have been touched by the stories of our clients, coming to us in the hopes of gaining new opportunities through a record suspension. “C” works for a non-profit organization but is ineligible to apply for a promotion because of her record. “T” has been unable to volunteer at her children’s school or obtain gainful employment. “N” has struggled to support her family without stable work because of a shoplifting conviction. None of these women have the regular income or savings to afford the exorbitant record suspension application fee and associated costs.

It was while listening to these stories that I realized that we could be doing more to help our clients. While we were able to provide procedural and emotional support through the application process, our clients also need financial support to be able to access a record suspension. For that reason, I have been leading our dedicated team of law student volunteers in a fundraising project to raise money to sponsor record suspension applications for women in need of this support. This has included writing letters soliciting donations, outreach on social media, and presenting at local law firms.

Through our Clinic’s work and fundraising efforts, we have submitted record suspension applications for all three of C, T, and N. N’s application was recently approved, and her record has been successfully suspended. Our fundraising efforts continue so that we can support our new clients like “M”, whose job applications have been turned down because of a single DUI from more than a decade ago.

If you would like to help people like our clients, please support legislative reform that would decrease or eliminate the application fee for criminal record suspensions in Canada. You can donate to our project online – be sure to include “record suspension” in the Message field. If you are a member of a law firm or other organization interested in learning more, our team would be happy to come and speak about the effects of a criminal record on someone’s life, the benefits of a record suspension, and our Clinic.

A criminal record continues to oppress its holder long past the completion of a sentence. To those unable to obtain a record suspension because of the cost, there is no being rid of even a single charge for stealing a bottle of pop. With support from the community, we hope to change this for our clients.

If you or someone you know is looking for support to apply for a criminal record suspension or to change your vital statistics designation, contact the Record Suspension and Vital Statistics Clinic at or (902) 454-5041.

Cydney Kane, who received her J.D. from Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law, is a member of the CBA’s Law Students Forum. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.