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Quebec coroner says judges should take alcohol withdrawal into account when sentencing

Homes face the Hudson Bay in Inukjuak, Que. on Thursday, May 12, 2022. A Quebec coroner's report recommends that people who receive alcohol conditions in sentencing should report to the health centre to be monitored.  (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Homes face the Hudson Bay in Inukjuak, Que. on Thursday, May 12, 2022. A Quebec coroner's report recommends that people who receive alcohol conditions in sentencing should report to the health centre to be monitored. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)

A Quebec coroner says judges should take alcohol withdrawal into account when imposing sentencing conditions on offenders not to consume alcohol.

Éric Lépine made recommendations in a coroner's report published in December that looked into the death of 31-year-old man from Inukjuak in Nunavik. The man died in March last year.

The man had pleaded guilty to criminal offences and had been sentenced to house arrest with a condition not to drink alcohol. He had been living with a serious alcohol condition at the time of his sentencing, Lépine wrote.

Determined to respect his conditions, the man went off to live with a friend to get away from the alcohol that had driven him to drink in the first place.

The same evening, after his court appearance, the man's friend prepared dinner for him but the man could not eat because his tremors were so severe. Still, he told his friend he felt fine and went to bed.

Later in the evening, his friend noticed the man was unconscious in his bed. He was rushed to the health centre where he was pronounced dead.

An autopsy later confirmed he died from complications associated with acute alcohol withdrawal.

Quitting alcohol suddenly can cause mild symptoms like tremors and discomfort, but can also lead to death in some cases, Lépine wrote. The man did not have any medical help in quitting alcohol, he said.

A preventable death 

Lépine said the man should have been medically assessed before sentencing to make sure he could respect the no alcohol condition he was given.

His alcohol dependency was also well-known to the judge, having been talked about at length by his defence lawyer during sentencing. During the nine minutes he was in court, the man was shaking and was visibly in withdrawal, according to this lawyer.

"He was not questioned about his medical condition and his real ability to maintain sobriety without medical assistance," Lépine wrote.

Lépine said the man's death could have been avoided if he had been medically monitored during the first few days of his withdrawal. Lépine's report recommended when judges impose alcohol conditions, they should also impose a condition to report to the health centre.

He also recommended making judges and lawyers aware of the effects of alcohol withdrawal.

Catherine Claveau, president of the Quebec Bar Association, said her teams are already working to develop training that will be presented to its members next spring.

"For Indigenous people, that means: adapting our justice system to their reality, therefore collaborating with them. All those involved in the bar, namely the prosecutors, the lawyers who work in youth protection, in private practice, we all have this concern," Claveau said. "We will try to improve things as much as possible."

For its part, the Quebec Judicial Council says it is evaluating how it can apply the coroner's recommendations.

"Not only do we take note of it, but we will follow up on it, that's certain," said the Quebec Judicial Council secretary Annie-Claude Bergeron.