Thank you very much.
I'm pleased to have been invited to speak with you today about the portions of Bill C-75 that deal with removing the outdated provisions in the Criminal Code, specifically those that have actually been struck down by courts, as opposed to simply being out of step with the times.
This is an issue that I've been concerned with for decades and about which I've been advocating with the Department of Justice for several years now. We do seem to be on the verge of action being taken, finally, long overdue action. I am, of course, in favour of that. Indeed, it's difficult to imagine any basis upon which anyone could be opposed to doing this.
In September 2016, a trial judge in Alberta, as all of you will know, convicted Travis Vader of murder, relying on the offence set out in section 230 of the Criminal Code. Of course, section 230 of the Criminal Code is part of the constructive murder provisions and it was struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada 25 years ago. Unfortunately, despite its presence in the Criminal Code, it's not part of the criminal law of Canada.
This was exactly one of the flaws in the Criminal Code that a large group of criminal law academics pointed out to the Minister of Justice in a letter in December 2015. It was the same failure to update the code to remove constructive murder that led the British Columbia Court of Appeal to observe, in a 2010 decision:
I cannot leave these reasons without wondering why steps have not been taken to amend the Criminal Code to conform to the now 20-year-old decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in Martineau determining that language in s. 229(c) is unconstitutional. The law that is recorded in the statute, on which every citizen is entitled to rely, is not the law of the land. An issue such as arose in this case should not occur. It creates the risk of a miscarriage of justice and the potential need to incur significant costs addressing an error in an appellate court with the possible costs of a new trial, assuming one is practical. In my view, failure to deal appropriately with such matters by updating the Criminal Code to remove provisions that have been found to offend the Constitution is not in the interests of justice.
As I say, that's a 2010 decision called Townsend. They reached that conclusion by citing other judgments in which exactly the same thing had happened, ranging from 1997 on to 2008, in which juries had been told that the law around murder was what was set out in the Criminal Code, when of course, it's not. That seems like a glaringly obvious point but it's worth stressing it.
Section 19 of the Criminal Code says that ignorance of the law is no excuse. We rely on the fiction that every member of the public actually knows the law, but that's really only justifiable if it's possible for a person to find out the law. One of the key principles of fundamental justice, guaranteed by section 7 of the charter, is the principle of legality, the notion that the law must be knowable. It's why we have the strict construction rule of statutory interpretation. It's why section 9 of the Criminal Code abolished common law crime. It's the reason that laws can be struck down for being vague. If it's not clear enough what the law is, we say, then the law is unconstitutional.
We have all sorts of fundamental and important rules insisting on the language of the Criminal Code being as clear as it can possibly be, and yet, in that context, we have provisions that unambiguously state as the law what is unambiguously not the law, and we allow that to continue for decades. That is, frankly, dumbfounding.
The trial judge in the Vader case received a certain amount of criticism. At some level, that's understandable. We expect judges to know the law more than ordinary people do, but the general public doesn't have access to an annotated Criminal Code. The general public will go online. They're going to go to the Department of Justice's website, the official Government of Canada website, and they will look up the Criminal Code and it will lie to them about what the law is.
Of course, it's not just the general public; it's the police. The police should be able to look at a statute that actually reflects the law of Canada. When that's not the case, then of course we get the situation that we have faced in Canada, with dozens of people criminally charged with an offence that does not exist—the prohibition on anal intercourse in section 159.
Of course such charges are eventually thrown out, but that's of very little solace to the person who has been caused the embarrassment and expense of going through that procedure. We can say, “Well, you know, the police should have known better than to believe that the criminal law was what the Criminal Code said it was,” but that hardly seems like an answer.
Let's think again about the blame given to the judge in the Vader case, in not knowing that section 230 had been struck down. Okay, yes, he should have known.
On the other hand, all it means is that he failed to evade a trap that had been set for him. Surely a legitimate question to ask is why we are setting traps for our judges. If someone falls because they don't notice that their shoelaces have been tied together, a lot of the blame has to go to the person who tied the shoelaces together. If a judge doesn't notice a trap, which was set in the law, a good part of the blame has to go to the person who set the trap. In this case, that's Parliament. It's you. There is no good reason that this situation should have been allowed to continue for decades, but Parliament has allowed it to do so.
How much work would it have taken to avoid the pitfall that arose in the Vader case and the ones that can potentially arise from the other unconstitutional provisions? Realistically, a summer student in the Department of Justice, spending two hours some afternoon, could have headed this off. It's hard to see how the drafting or passing of such a bill could have occupied any real legislative time since the Supreme Court of Canada has already done all of the policy work of deciding that the provisions are unconstitutional.
Now it's fair to respond that not every situation is the same. When the constructive murder provisions were struck down, it was clear that nothing needed to be put in their place. When loitering, in paragraph 179(1)(b) was struck down, the Supreme Court provided some guidance as to what a constitutional law would look like, so you would have needed a bit of time to draft a new bill that was constitutional. When the abortion provisions were struck down in 1988, the Supreme Court didn't actually say that no abortion provisions could exist, just that these ones were no good, so yes, some time might have been needed to decide whether we would do something else instead, and if so, what.
The key point to note here, though, is that it only means that the second step might vary. The first step, invariably, is unchanging and utterly non-discretionary. The existing law is no law, and it has to be removed from the Criminal Code. Whatever might happen after that, there is no reason not to do that in the short term.
This leads, I have to say, to my major concern here today. As I've said, there is no conceivable reason, finally, after decades, no to remove these unconstitutional provisions from the Criminal Code. We nonetheless seem to be faced with the real possibility that this Parliament will not do it.
The provisions dealing with the removal of unconstitutional provisions used to be in their own bill. It used to be Bill C-39. For some reason, that bill, which contained nothing else and had no real possibility of attracting any controversy, and those sensible and uncontentious provisions have now been placed in Bill C-75, which contains many sensible and many contentious provisions.
Personally, I think some of those other proposals are very good, and some, I think, have just not been thought through, so it's difficult to actually tell whether they are wise or unwise. This bill needs to be thoroughly debated and passed through both Houses with barely a year left until the next election. It won't be surprising if that doesn't happen.
That means that we're faced here with the choice between rushing through potentially far-reaching reforms without adequate consideration as the price for solving a long-standing and fundamental problem, or allowing that long-standing and fundamental problem to continue as the price for not creating further and bigger ones. That's not an easy choice, and it is not in the least apparent as to why we should have been forced to it, or why Bill C-39 couldn't have been proceeded with on its own.
Ultimately, I do commend to you the portions of Bill C-75 that do the sensible thing of removing these unconstitutional provisions, and I hope there is some fashion in which that can happen, whether the rest of this bill goes forward or not.