Mr. Chairman, I want to express my appreciation to my NDP colleague for bringing this motion forward.
Members of the committee will note that I have had an interest in this whole question of section 4.1 of the Department of Justice Act not only in terms of my responsibilities as a former minister of justice and attorney general—it falls on any minister to have that concern—but prior to that even, during my years as a law professor and being particularly involved in constitutional law and charter concerns.
Accordingly, on November 6 of last year, when the current Minister of Justice was before this committee, I put questions to him on the standard being applied to prospective legislation with regard to section 4.1 review. The minister responded: ...the standard is that we comply with all the constitutional documents, be it the charter or the Canadian Bill of Rights. We satisfy ourselves that all legislation is in compliance.
As members may recall, I found the answer at that point to be insufficient and therefore asked more questions about the particular standard of review. Regrettably, the minister did not further enunciate the particular standard that he and the department applied to legislation.
I believe it's important for both parliamentarians and the public to know the scope and the nature of the review that is conducted on bills put forward by the minister and department before they are tabled in Parliament, for a number of reasons.
I'll try to be brief in this regard, Mr. Chairman.
First, there are serious cost implications when the government enacts a statutory scheme that may be challenged before the courts. While there are certainly costs to defending any government legislation, we ought not to be inviting complex and protracted constitutional litigation at great cost to the taxpayers, particularly since as parliamentarians we have not only an important role to play but I would say an important constitutional responsibility in the oversight of the public purse, let alone in the oversight as well of the constitutionality of legislation.
Second, and in a related fashion, we need to be concerned with the existing strain on our already, at times, overtaxed legal and judicial resources. While the government, as I've said before, should be assisting those who have legitimate claims to bring before tribunals—and I would be remiss if I did not parenthetically note my regret about the cancellation of the court challenges program—we don't want to be inviting litigation simply because we adopted legislation that has not been properly constitutionally vetted.
The third consideration relates to the aphorism that not only must justice be done, but it must be seen to be done. It's an oft-abused cliché, but one that still has relevance. The government has, if you will, somewhat of an attendance problem when it comes to the charter.
For example, when it came to the 30th anniversary of the charter, for the most part—and I can say this as somebody who participated in a good number of the commemorative initiatives with respect to the 30th anniversary of the charter—regrettably the government that should have been at the forefront of that commemoration, that should have been celebrating the 30th anniversary of the charter, was very often simply missing in action.
It's not clear, when one looks at these things, whether the government, in looking at the charter, sees it as something that deserves the compelling respect and responsibility that we owe to adhere to it, or whether it sometimes sees it as something of an impediment to pursuing its agenda, or worse, as something unnecessary or unimportant.
I say that, Mr. Chairman, because if one looks at the record, one will see that not only has there been a series of legislative initiatives that have invited constitutional challenges that could have been in my view avoided with a proper due diligence and vetting, but that in fact courts have, in a series of judgments, whether of the Federal Court or the superior courts or even the Supreme Court of Canada, such as in the Insite case, found to be unconstitutional.
The last concern, and I'll touch on this briefly, is how a department allocates its resources in these matters.
In other words, if a charter analysis is at an extreme end an automatic process, a kind of rubber-stamp process, then how many civil servants are involved in that process, and how many are in fact needed, and at what cost to taxpayers?
Conversely, if it is, as I believe it to be, a more complex and protracted process, we might ask ourselves whether we have enough people assigned to the task, a task which, as I say, goes to the whole question of public oversight.
In returning to the matter before us, you can properly put the question to me, and it would be deservedly put to me, whether or not, when I was Minister of Justice, we in fact engaged in that kind of approach. I think, Mr. Chair, if you will look at the record, I said as I wrote before becoming minister, but even at the time of being a minister, that I regarded that as an ongoing superintending responsibility and priority for the Minister of Justice, and that, before we tabled any legislation, we had to be sure that it had what I called the good housekeeping seal of constitutional approval.
The question then becomes, what is the standard to be used? The thing that concerns me at this point is there is now a statement of claim before the court that has made some reference—and I'm not going into any of the matters regarding the merits of the claim or anything of that regard—but the question is that the standard of legislative review being applied by the department is whether “some argument can reasonably be made in favour of its consistency, even if all arguments in favour of consistency have a combined likelihood of success of 5% or less...”.
Mr. Chairman, I regard that as a very low standard and, indeed, a standard that would be inappropriate for Parliament and the public to adhere to.
Let me just close by saying that a question can be put to me, “Did you ever table any legal opinions when you were the minister?” I have questioned the present minister as to why he has not tabled any legal opinions, and that properly could have been put to me as well.
My answer would be twofold in that regard. Number one, we operated at such a high level of superintending review that, in fact, the whole objective was to ensure that we would not be tabling any legislation that might be suspect from a constitutional point of view, for all the reasons I mentioned. And when an issue did arise where I thought there might be a constitutional concern and where the standard of review would thereby be engaged that had to do with the prospective same-sex legislation, we referred the matter to the Supreme Court for an advisory opinion so we would not have to get into protracted litigation of a constitutional character at multiple levels in different provinces in that regard.
It would seem to me that this question is something that we ought to address and review in terms of should we perhaps have more by way of a reference to the courts with regard to that issue. What in particular should be the standard for review? How do we ensure there will be appropriate compliance with the directive authority in section 4 of the Department of Justice Act?
Thank you, Mr. Chair.