Mr. Speaker, today, I would like to participate in the debate on this bill.
Clearly, this bill would benefit greatly from additional debate in committee. It is very important that all the points that are raised there be debated.
Once again, the Conservatives are trying to pass a bill that will take discretionary power away from judges. We have to ask ourselves why that is. What is the reasoning behind this? What impact will it have?
In court, during the testimony and sentencing, judges are in the best position to understand and to determine the proper sentence for the offence committed. Why is this not being taken into consideration? This bill takes away judges' discretion, and I am very concerned about that.
Canada's legal system allows a judge to clearly understand the testimony, the evidence and the circumstances. The burden is on him to impose a fair and equitable sentence. We in the House of Commons must not think that we know all the facts and that we are always right, when all of this should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
We do not know the circumstances of the crime or the offender's ability to pay the fines. We thus do not know what sentence would be fair and equitable. Let us not forget that the purpose of a sentence should be rehabilitation; it should not encourage the offender to reoffend.
I will come back to that in a moment, but I would first like to share with the House what the Quebec justice minister has to say about fines on his website:
A fine is a sum of money that must be paid to the State by an offender within a time frame determined by the judge.
He then adds the following, and this is the part that seems important to me:
Before imposing a fine, the judge must be satisfied that the individual has the means to pay it.
This is not the first time in Canada's legal history or in our legal system that we have heard this said. In a legal system such as ours, the sentence must fit the crime. In the past, there were debtors' prisons, prisons for people who did not pay their debts. We can impose all the fines that we want on a homeless offender who does not have any money, but that will not change the fact that he does not have any and that he will never be able to afford to pay those fines.
We should not take away from a judge the power to waive a surcharge when he is fully aware that the offender does not have the means to pay that surcharge. The judge knows that because he is the judge of the facts and he is well informed.
Yet, that is what the bill will do. The judge will be fully aware that a fine will never be paid, but he will still have to impose it. It makes no sense. It is absolutely illogical that a judge who knows the facts should have to do that.
There a reason why we have our modern legal system. The trial judge looks at the facts and he is the one who has the responsibility of imposing a sentence, based on the offence and on the offender's ability to serve that sentence.
The sentence should also be an incentive to rehabilitate. I find it hard to believe that imposing a series of fines can lead to rehabilitation.
There is one thing we often hear and cannot ignore: jails are a place where offenders increase their ability to break the law, to remain offenders. Jails are crime schools. We should not feed jails like that. If we create this situation and the offender cannot pay his fine, what are we going to do? Are we just going to ignore the fact that a fine was imposed? No, we cannot do that. The fine exists and the offender must pay it. If he is unable to do so, he will be fined again and this will generate yet another legal process. We are imposing a burden that cannot be supported. It is important to understand that.
The current act already provides for a 15% surcharge on any fine imposed on the offender. If no fine is imposed, the surcharge is $50. That surcharge must be imposed because that is what the law says. Now, we want to increase the burden twofold, from 15% to 30% when a fine is imposed, and from $50 to $100 for offences punishable by summary conviction, when no fine is imposed.
Under the current act, the judge has a discretionary power. Section 737(5) of the Criminal Code reads as follows:
When the offender establishes to the satisfaction of the court that undue hardship to the offender or the dependants of the offender would result from payment of the victim surcharge, the court may, on application of the offender, make an order exempting the offender from the application of subsection (1).
As we can see, the lawmakers who wrote this legislation were wise enough to understand that, sometimes, one is not in a position to pay a surcharge. They even went a little further and said that the court must take into consideration the offender's ability to pay the surcharge. They also thought about a dependent: would imposing a surcharge harm this dependent? A dependent is usually a child, but it could be anyone.
I would point out that in international law and Canadian law, the needs of the child must always be given priority when a bill is drafted. And whenever judges have to interpret legislation, they have a duty, an obligation, to consider the impact it may have on a child. Looking at the bill that is before us, it may be that a judge will have no choice but to impose a surcharge, knowing not only that the burden is too heavy for the offender, but also that it might cause hardship for a dependent child of the offender. What this means is that it would be contrary not only to a number of Canadian laws, but also to international obligations.
It is incomprehensible that we could enact bills in Canada that might impose an unreasonable burden on a child who, clearly, does not have the means to pay a victim surcharge levied against the child's parents. We have to avoid, at all costs, imposing that kind of burden on a child who is an innocent party in the situation. And yet what we are doing is creating a situation that could cause hardship for a child. Frankly, and I will say it again, we would benefit from a longer and more thorough discussion in committee. That is why I will probably vote to send the bill to committee, but that does not mean it would not benefit from being amended.
I also want to note that the popular encyclopedia Wikipedia, which I often find to be an inspiring source, talks about surcharges and fines. This is what it says:
Fines are counter-productive if the offender commits more offences to get the money to pay the fine.
What that means is that there is little point in imposing fines when the person is not able to pay them, because that could actually encourage recidivism. A person who is not able to pay their fines has to get the money somewhere, or they will be charged with another offence. And again, that encourages recidivism. We are potentially creating a vicious circle. I hope that everyone will think carefully about this and there will be a good debate in committee.