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Facing an Uttering Threats Charge During Personal Crisis

Facing an uttering threats charge in the midst of a personal crisis? Reach out for the skilled legal guidance of an experienced criminal lawyer.


We recently represented a young woman who was going through a divorce that she found personally devastating. After one of the couple’s many heated exchanges, her husband went to the police, which led to an uttering threats charge against her. This criminal charge, on top of the woman's personal crisis, was understandably challenging, and in response, we swung into legal action, building her strongest defence and helping her to make the right decisions for her throughout the process. Charges related to uttering threats make for exceptionally challenging cases, which makes having experienced legal counsel in your corner from the outset advised.

The Case at Hand

People who are in the throes of divorce often experience considerable stress that can push them to act in ways they normally wouldn’t, and uttering threats is a prime example. When facing a transition of this magnitude – in which one’s financial and parental rights may hang in the balance, threats can slip out. Often, these threats have no bearing in reality, but the Crown must proceed in accordance with the law, which takes the strong correlation between divorce and increased incidents of domestic violence into consideration.

Uttering Threats

Uttering threats is a Criminal Code offence that is defined as knowingly uttering, conveying or causing any person to receive a threat. The threat itself can involve any of the following:

  • Causing the other person’s death
  • Causing the other person to experience bodily harm
  • Burning, destroying, or damaging the other person’s real or personal property
  • Harming the other person’s animal or bird

The most common allegation is uttering a threat to cause death or bodily harm, and this is the charge our client faced in relation to her soon-to-be ex-husband.

The Elements of the Charge

In order to convict on the charge of uttering threats, the prosecution is called upon to prove both legal elements beyond a reasonable doubt. The first of these is that the accused knowingly uttered the threat in question, and the second is that the threat was to cause death or bodily harm.

Whether or not a statement rises to the level of a threat or not must take the circumstances and context in which it was uttered into account. The matter of whether the utterance – when viewed through the lens of objectivity – would convey a serious threat to a reasonable person must be considered.

Details of the Charge

While an uttering threats charge is often lumped in with other charges, this is by no means always the case. Under Canadian law, the act of uttering threats in and of itself is a serious crime that can lead to serious legal consequences. Because voicing a threat is so closely related to following through with a physical assault, the police do not hesitate to make arrests based on the utterance of a threat alone. Often, the word of an accuser is all it takes.

In Any Manner

The Code refers to threats that are made in any manner, and this means that a threat doesn’t have to be vocalized face-to-face in order to be considered a crime. In fact, any of the following will suffice:

  • Threats that are made over the phone
  • Threats that are made in writing
  • Threats that are posted online
  • Threats that are included in social media commentary
  • Threats that are texted or that are sent by any other electronic means

Under Canadian law, even the classic throat-slashing gesture or making a gun with one’s hand can be interpreted as a credible threat.

Finally, the threat in question needn’t be predicated on a specific condition. For instance, threatening to cause bodily harm if the other person doesn’t do X, Y, or Z isn’t necessary for the charge of uttering threats to apply. When a threat, however, is based on a condition, it doesn't mitigate the threat in any way, and it can support an extortion charge.

Legal Consequences

Threats made against a person are treated much more seriously than threats made against personal property. If you are charged with an indictable offence, it carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. When, on the other hand, the charge is a summary conviction offence, it carries a maximum penalty of two years of jail time and fines of up to $5,000.

The Circumstances Involved

Threats express an intention to do harm, and many are made in the heat of the moment – when there is no actual intention to follow through. Many, many people make idle threats in the course of their lives – or even in the course of a day – and most have absolutely no intention of causing harm.

The law, however, focuses on whether the threat in question was made intentionally, whether the accused understood the threat's meaning, and whether the victim felt truly threatened. In other words, each charge must be carefully considered in relation to the specific circumstances involved.

Important points to keep in mind include that the inability to carry out a threat does not mitigate its seriousness. Further, the prosecution needn’t prove that the accused intended to follow through with the threat in question.

Aggravating or Mitigating Factors

There are several aggravating factors that can make an uttering threats charge more serious and can lead to enhanced sentencing, including the following:

  • The threat was made against a child, an elderly person, a mentally disabled person, or someone who is similarly vulnerable.
  • The threat itself was highly specific or alarming.
  • The threat was made during a domestic dispute against a spouse, a domestic partner, or a romantic partner.
  • The threat was made against a public official or an authority figure.
  • The accused was under the influence of alcohol or drugs when the threat was made, which, in some circumstances, can also work as a mitigating factor.
  • The threat involved extortion or a similar crime.
  • The accused has a prior record of uttering threats or a prior history or conviction of violence.
  • The accused had a weapon – whether legal or not – on them at the time the threat was made.

Words that are spoken in obvious jest or that are clearly intended to be a joke do not qualify as threats under the law, but this isn’t to say that threatening someone in what you consider a joking manner can’t lead to a criminal charge.

Evidence in the Case

Criminal charges, including those related to uttering threats, are resolved in accordance with the available evidence, and when it comes to uttering a threat, the evidence often comes down to the accuser’s word against the word of the accused. Unless there is a recording of the incident or an eyewitness, the judge has nothing to go on but each party’s credibility – along with any relevant prior history.

An uttering threats charge, in other words, can be levied against almost anyone, and the outcome can be difficult to predict. Working closely with a practiced criminal defence lawyer is the surest path forward.

The Consequences of the Charge

It’s important to note that facing a charge of uttering threats as a first offence can lead to serious consequences even if you are ultimately acquitted, including:

  • You may be placed on bail or be required to follow release conditions.
  • You may experience a serious decline in your overall social standing.
  • Your job and your relationship with your family may be affected.
  • Your education may be put on hold.
  • The overall expense of bringing an effective defence can be steep.
  • The charge can interfere with any citizenship or immigration applications.
  • The charge can affect your future plans to travel outside the country.

Common Legal Strategies

Common defence strategies in the face of an uttering threats charge include all the following:

  • Demonstrating that a reasonable person who was fully aware of the related circumstances would not construe the utterance in question as a threat
  • Demonstrating that the accused didn’t have the necessary intention
  • Calling the credibility of the accuser into question
  • Focusing on the ambiguous language used
  • Having a lawful reason for threatening the other person

In certain situations, impairment can also serve as a defence.

Strategizing Our Client’s Strongest Defence

In the case outlined, we immediately set to work on our distraught client’s defence strategy – in focused pursuit of a favourable outcome, such as a withdrawal of the charge. A potential defence to an uttering threats charge is raising reasonable doubt in relation to intent – or knowledge – of wrongdoing, which is referred to as mens rea. The prosecution must convince the court that the accused meant what they said and that they intended it to be taken seriously.

We discussed this defence strategy with our client, explaining that the judge, in her case, would view all the available evidence objectively but would consider the subjective intent behind the actual words she spoke. While lack of intent can be a valid defence, it isn’t necessarily the best defence in an uttering threats case, and we explored all the available options with our client. Ultimately, she chose a different direction.

Our Legal Approach

To build a solid defence in every case we take on, we employ a team effort that harnesses the full force of our imposing experience and legal skill without bulldozing our clients into any specific way of thinking or into any specific legal action. Too many firms and solo practitioners advance flashy or ill-conceived defences that have very little chance of success.

When clients are guided by less experienced counsel – perhaps because they can’t afford a senior partner or because the firm they’re working with wants a junior member to rack up courtroom experience – it generally isn’t in their best interests. The same is true of attorneys who take on the role of legal gladiators. We take a different approach entirely.

Listening to Our Clients

Our experienced criminal lawyers work as a team, and our focus is on providing sound legal guidance that is informed by each client’s personal preferences and priorities. We call upon each of our clients to assess the personal risk involved in their unique case – as guided by our seasoned legal advice – and to proceed accordingly.

We are serious lawyers who take our clients’ charges as well as their preferences seriously. And this reflects our unwavering commitment to every case we handle.

Resolving the Matter

In this case, the uttering threats charge was ultimately withdrawn completely, and our client wasn’t subject to any extrajudicial programs. Instead, she actively participated in her own defence – taking the important steps we advised along the way. As a result, the prosecutor was convinced that there was no public interest in proceeding with the charge.

This was an optimal outcome for a case involving a client whose challenging divorce left her extremely vulnerable, to begin with. Our skilled legal representation allowed her to move forward with the peace of mind that comes from knowing this difficult juncture in her life was well behind her.

Reach Out for the Legal Guidance of an Experienced Criminal Lawyer Today

If you are facing a criminal charge that is related to a personal crisis, such as a divorce, we’re just as committed to your rights and the favourable outcome of your case as we were to the client discussed above. Regardless of the kind of criminal charge you face, your future is on the line, and your case is too important to leave to chance. If you need us, we’re here to help, and we encourage you to reach out and contact us for more information today.

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