Casual Legal: Bribe or Gift? An important distinction

By Mitchell R. Hayward
Reynolds Mirth Richards Farmer LLP
Alberta Municipalities Casual Legal Service Provider

Government officials are generally permitted to receive gifts of a small value from members of the public. However, the distinction between and a bribe and a gift can be unclear. If a government official accepts a benefit from a member of the public (when the benefit is a bribe, instead of a gift) there may be severe consequences – including jail time.

Under section 121(1)(a) of the Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46, every government official who either, directly or indirectly, accepts a “benefit of any kind” as cooperation or assistance in connection with a transaction of business relating to the government is guilty of a criminal offence of bribery.

There is a three-part legal test to determine if a government official is to be found guilty of an offence under this section:

  1. The accused must be an official and know that they are an official
  2. They must intentionally accept, or demand, a loan, reward, advantage or benefit of any kind for themselves or another person
  3. The accused must know that the benefit is in consideration for cooperation, assistance or exercise of influence in connection with the transaction of business relating to the government.

Unfortunately, there is no clear distinction on what constitutes “a benefit.” Elected officials have been charged with bribery in instances when they have accepted: CFL football tickets, NHL hockey tickets, gift cards with a significant dollar value, payment for travel and donations to public officials’ spouses.

Courts have also determined the following do not constitute a benefit for the purposes of bribery: coffee, Christmas gifts of low value, inexpensive promotional items or moderately priced meals.

The next time you receive a benefit, it may be worth asking yourself what, if any, expectations come with it.

To access Alberta Municipalities Casual Legal Helpline, Alberta Municipalities members can call toll-free to 1-800-661-7673 or send an casuallegal [at] (email) to reach the municipal legal experts at Reynolds Mirth Richards and Farmer LLP. For more information on the Casual Legal Service, call 310-MUNI (6864) or send an riskcontrol [at] (email) to speak to Alberta Municipalities Risk Management staff. Any Regular or Associate member of Alberta Municipalities can access the Casual Legal Service.

DISCLAIMER: This article is meant to provide information only and is not intended to provide legal advice. You should seek the advice of legal counsel to address your specific set of circumstances. Although every effort has been made to provide current and accurate information, changes to the law may cause the information in this article to be outdated.