Illegal Suites and Liability

Jail Time For Toronto Landlord!

Here’s a question I get all the time: “If I have an illegal suite and there is a fire or accident that injures my tenant, am I liable?” Let’s look at an example to illustrate how bad this could be.

Jasvir Singh was convicted in April 2015 of a number of charges including criminal negligence causing death. The trial judge gave him three years. Following are the basic facts from the case.

From the judgement:

On March 6, 2011, there was a tragic fire at a home at 73 Humber College Boulevard in Toronto. One of the occupants of the home, Karnail Singh Dhaliwal, died in the fire and another, Harbir Singh Bhinder, was badly injured. Two other occupants, Mandeep Sidhu and Rajesh Bassi, were awoken while sleeping and forced to run through the fire to escape.

 Jasvir and Sukhwinder Singh owned 73 Humber College Boulevard on March 6, 2011. It is the Crown’s position that the Singhs knowingly operated 73 Humber College Boulevard as a rooming house in an unsafe manner, despite explicit warning and direction from the Toronto Fire Service that the home could not be operated as a rooming house without substantial changes being made to bring the home into compliance with the Fire Code, O. Reg. 213/07. The Crown alleges that the fire occurred shortly after Mr. and Mrs. Singh received this direction from the Toronto Fire Service.

Only Jasvir Singh was convicted. He appealed his conviction arguing that there was no evidence for his negligence being the legal cause of the tenant’s death.  The Ontario Court of Appeal (the most senior court in Ontario and very influential across Canada) disagreed.  Here’s what the Ontario Court of Appeal said.

  1. there were no smoke alarms in each upstairs bedroom; 
  1. the appellant knew that Mr. Dhaliwal [the tenant who died] cooked in his room but failed to take effective measures to prevent this; 
  1. the appellant knew that Mr. Dhaliwal was a serious alcoholic who was very often drunk, while in his room in the property; 
  1. the appellant knew that the smoke alarms that were in the house were not working; 
  1. when the appellant was advised that he was in breach of the Fire Code, he failed to complete the required upgrades, thereby risking the lives and safety of his individual tenants; 
  1. the appellant deliberately deceived the fire inspector into believing that a group of tenants, living as a family, occupied the second floor of the property and he did so to avoid the costs of bringing the premises into compliance; 
  1. had the required interconnected smoke alarms and pull system been installed, they would have been activated within seconds of the fire starting, even before there were flames; and, 
  1. the required smoke alarm system would have provided the occupants with the crucial time needed to avoid injury.

When all was said and done, the Court of Appeal said the judge was right when she found that if the landlord Mr. Singh had made the Fire Code upgrades, the tenants would have had warning of the fire before it was too big to put out.

Therefore, Mr. Singh’s conviction was upheld, and he is guilty of criminal negligence causing death.

Read the complete Court of Appeal decision in the CANLII database at 2015 ONCA 855.

Where Does That Leave Us? We have to look at this from a couple of angles.

  1. Insurance Coverage

    First, let’s start with a related issue. If you have an illegal suite and there is a fire, will your insurance company cover you? We believe in full disclosure so if you have an illegal suite, tell your insurance company. Anecdotal comment says the insurance company doesn’t really care if it’s legal or illegal. On the other hand if a fire occurs, they will only rebuild the suite to what would be legal. That might mean everything but the kitchen. Different insurance companies will look at this differently, so be sure to discuss it in detail with your insurance agent.

  1. Criminal Negligence

    Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, if your suite is illegal and a fire injures the tenant, are you going to be arrested? I think the answer is that it doesn’t matter whether your suite is legal or illegal, what matters is whether or not the suite was safe and what you knew about the safety issues. A legal, properly permitted suite could have fire safety issues known to and ignored by a landlord. A fire that injures a tenant in the face of ignoring fire safety issues has a good chance of resulting in a criminal negligence charge.

  1. Illegal, but Safe

    On the other hand, an illegal suite might be a suite that lacks the proper permits but would meet all safety and fire code issues. A fire causing tenant injury in these circumstances would likely not cause a criminal negligence charge to be laid even though the suite is illegal. At most, the municipality might issue an order to shut down the suite.


Overall, landlords are best served by full disclosure to their insurance companies and making their suites—legal or illegal—as safe as possible, including meeting all fire and safety code requirements.


Contact Barry McGuire now. Alberta real estate needs an Alberta lawyer.

ShadowRidgeRoadFire.jpg” image by LukeBam06 used under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0.