Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to speak today to Bill C-75. Like other members of the House, I am very appreciative of the study undertaken by the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights and the many witnesses who gave helpful testimony on various aspects of this bill. I would like to use my time today to discuss the jury amendments proposed in Bill C-75.
As members know, jury reform is an area of shared jurisdiction. While Parliament is responsible for the criminal law and the rules in the Criminal Code setting out the legal framework for in-court jury selection, the provinces and territories are responsible for determining, for example, who is eligible for jury duty and the process by which the jury roll is compiled.
Bill C-75 proposes several reforms to the in-court jury selection process. One of the significant changes that I would like to start with is the proposal to abolish peremptory challenges.
The committee heard from several witnesses who testified on jury reforms, all of whom shared an understanding of the importance of representative juries. Their views differed on whether or not peremptory challenges contribute to or undermine that objective. However, several legal experts and advocates, and most notably Professor Kent Roach, expressed very strong support for their elimination, which would finally put an end to the discriminatory exclusion of jurors. Any tool that can be used to effectively undermine the participation on juries of persons of a particular race or ethnicity contributes to a perception of mistrust and lack of confidence in the justice system.
Jonathan Rudin, the program director for Aboriginal Legal Services, also gave compelling testimony before the committee that the use of peremptory challenges has had a corrosive impact on efforts to encourage indigenous people to act as jurors. Discrimination in the selection of juries has been documented for decades. Concerns about the discriminatory use of peremptory challenges and its impact on indigenous people being under-represented on juries were raised back in 1991 by Senator Murray Sinclair, then a judge, in the report of the Manitoba aboriginal justice inquiry. More recently, we heard from retired Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci, who studied these issues in his 2013 report on first nations representation on Ontario juries.
I agree with Professor Kent Roach who, in his written brief to the committee, characterized jury reforms in Bill C-75 as being “long overdue”.
Having read these reports and hearing from many experts on the topic, I am confident that Bill C-75 proposes the right approach in abolishing peremptory challenges. It is a simple and effective way to prevent deliberate discrimination and the arbitrary exclusion of qualified jury members.
Furthermore, to bring greater efficiencies to the jury selection process and to make it more impartial, the bill proposes to empower the judge to decide whether to exclude jurors challenged for cause, such as because they are biased by either the defence or the prosecution. Currently, such challenges are decided by two lay people, called “triers”, who are not trained in the law. This process has been problematic, causing delays in jury trials even before they begin, and appeals resulting in orders for a new trial. The proposal would shift the responsibility for such challenges to judges who are trained adjudicators and therefore better placed to screen out impartial jurors. The proposed change reflects the recommendation made in 2009 by the Steering Committee on Justice Efficiencies and Access to the Justice System, a group established by the federal-provincial-territorial ministers of justice and comprising judges, deputy ministers of justice from across Canada, defence lawyers, representatives of the bar associations, and the police. It is also consistent with what has been done in other common law countries, such as England, Australia and New Zealand. I am confident that this change in procedure will make improvements to the overall efficiency of our jury trials.
There are also several proposed changes to modernize and update the challenge for cause grounds. Notably, the proposed change to reduce the number of jurors with criminal records for minor offences from being challenged and excluded for jury duty would help address concerns that excluding individuals with minor criminal records disproportionately impacts certain segments of society, including indigenous persons, as noted by Justice Iacobucci. It would also assist with improving broader participation on juries, and thus jury representativeness.
While a few witnesses before committee said they would like to see this ground removed so that anyone with a criminal record could not be challenged for cause, I am mindful of the fact that permitting a juror with a serious criminal background to serve on a jury and make the decision as to the guilt or innocence of the accused could greatly undermine public confidence in the administration of justice. I would also note that provincial and territorial jury legislation also specifies who is eligible for jury duty and is, in many respects, reflected by what is in the Criminal Code.
Bill C-75 would also allow a judge to continue a trial without the jury when the number of jurors falls below 10 and where the Crown and the accused agree. This change would promote efficiencies because it would avoid mistrials when the jury is reduced to fewer than 10 jurors due to illness or some other reason.
Another key change proposed in Bill C-75 is to allow judges to stand aside a potential juror while other jurors are selected, in order to maintain public confidence in the administration of justice, for example, to support the establishment of an impartial, representative jury. The change recognizes the important role that judges can play in improving jury selection at the outset. I believe that the use of this power, where deemed appropriate, would help improve the diversity of jurors during the in-court selection process, particularly in cases where public confidence in the administration of justice would be undermined if the jury were not more diverse.
With respect to the representativeness of juries, there is certainly work that remains to be done, especially given the important role played by both the federal government and the provinces and territories in the jury selection process. I am greatly encouraged by the fact that jurisdictions are collaborating to examine a wide range of jury-related issues, and undertaking important work to find further ways to improve our jury selection system in Canada, including to enhance representation on juries.
In closing, I would like to emphasize that the jury reforms in Bill C-75 mark critical progress in promoting fairness, diversity and participation in the jury selection process. These improvements would also enhance efficiencies, as well as public confidence in the criminal justice system.
I call on all members of the House to support this transformative bill. I thank the justice committee for its work, and the witnesses committee members heard from in bringing forward this important legislation, including the amendments they proposed.