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Evidence of meeting #30 for Public Safety and National Security in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was actually.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

4:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Kevin Sorenson

Good afternoon, everyone.

This is meeting 30 of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security. Today we are commencing our consideration of Bill C-293, An Act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act.

In our first hour today we welcome the member of Parliament sponsoring this bill, Roxanne James, MP from Scarborough Centre.

The members of our committee, Ms. James, certainly want to extend our congratulations for shepherding your private member's bill this far, to the committee stage. It's a significant accomplishment, I think, for any member of Parliament.

First of all, in the number of years that I've been here, I don't think I've ever had a private member's bill drawn. So if you're going to get one drawn to begin with, you're very fortunate. And then to be able to shepherd it this far.... We commend you.

We would invite you to make your introductory statement. After that, if you'd be willing to field some questions from our committee, we would be very appreciative.

Ms. James.

4:30 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Conservative Scarborough Centre, ON

Thank you very much to the committee members, through the chair.

First of all, as you've said, it's extraordinary to be a new member of Parliament and have my number drawn so quickly to be able to present a private member's bill. So I'm very excited to be here.

I'm going to start my comments with generalities, just some background information regarding Bill C-293, An Act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (vexatious complainants).

The purpose of this bill is very simple. It's going to correct a costly problem that currently exists in Canada's correctional system. It's a small loophole, but I think it's a point we need to address. We need to correct it so that the system will run more efficiently and effectively, as it was originally intended.

Some background information: Correctional Service of Canada receives approximately 29,000 grievances a year from various offenders across Canada. Out of a total of approximately 23,000 offenders in CSC custody, a small group of approximately 20 inmates file more than 100 grievances per year. In fact, this group accounts for a whopping 15% of all complaints filed. There are even a few cases where offenders have filed in excess of 500, almost 600, grievances per year.

If you work out some of these numbers, it is approximately 10 complaints per week, or three complaints every two days. These sorts of complaints being filed, in excess of 500, are the ones I'm trying to target in this bill.

The increased volume of frivolous complaints significantly delays the process for other inmates to have their legitimate concerns heard. High complaint volume also ties up resources and has become taxing on our hard-working front-line correctional officers.

Bill C-293 will allow the Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada to label an offender as a vexatious complainant when the offender submits multiple complaints or grievances of a vexatious or frivolous nature and are not made in good faith. I truly believe that this bill will enable the CSC to minimize the impact of those who file such grievances, and it will ensure the grievance process maintains the integrity to accomplish the goals that it was originally intended to.

I'd like next to talk very briefly about the process that currently exists within the complaint process. If you've been in the House, you've heard that there are four levels to the complaint process. Actually, complaints may be resolved at any stage. However, inmates are the ones who get to determine if they are satisfied with the outcome of the decisions made by anyone at any stage.

The first level in the grievance process is called the complaint level. In simple terms, a prisoner fills out paperwork at the individual institution, which is then reviewed by the department or section manager, and if unresolved, it makes its way to the warden of that particular institution. For high-priority cases, the file will be reviewed in 15 working days, or, for regular cases, in 25 working days.

Correctional Service of Canada distinguishes high-priority complaints and grievances as those that have a direct effect on life, liberty, or security of that individual person, or that relate to the griever's access to the complaint and grievance process.

Once a complaint is reviewed, a decision will be made by the warden, who will either approve, approve in part, or deny the inmate's claim in full. Should the prisoner be unhappy with that decision, the prisoner has the right to appeal. This is where we get into the process of going through the different levels of the complaint process.

Where possible, complaint processing will occur at the lowest level. However, this means that the individual process can cascade three times, from the individual involved, to the department or section manager, and then to the warden, if the prisoner continues to appeal the previous resolution to the complaint.

While every effort is made to resolve an offender's grievance, it is apparent that the complaint level of the grievance process requires a great deal of resources to properly administer.

The second level in the grievance process occurs at the regional level. At this level, a grievance from the complaint level will be sent to the appropriate regional office where it will be assessed by the regional deputy commissioner. And again, the offender can appeal the decision if he does not like the answer.

The third level in the grievance process occurs at the senior regional level. Upon continued appeal, the senior regional deputy commissioner will review the grievance. This third stage requires that the senior regional deputy commissioner assess the original grievance and both first and second level appeals as well as the responses provided at the first and second levels of complaint.

I'd like to point out—because I think this is very significant to note—that grievances have been processed three times, with repeated and often redundant review, because prisoners control this entire appeal process. At this stage, grievances can be in the system for up to 150 working days and, as you can imagine, cause a significant administrative burden on our hard-working correctional officers.

The final level in the grievance process is the fourth-level grievance. If a decision is once again appealed, a grievance reaching level four means that the prisoner's claim will be sent to the commissioner of CSC. At this stage, grievances will again be approved, approved in part, or wholly declined. This will be a much shorter review because the commissioner's office will receive summaries from all other levels to assist in making a final decision. Furthermore, this timeframe is shorter because the commissioner's office has more staff and expertise at its disposal.

At this point I'd like to actually outline some of the problems our current system has.

First and foremost, the current system does not require that grievances are filed in good faith. I'd like to actually point to section 90 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act that states:

There shall be a procedure for fairly and expeditiously resolving offenders' grievances on matters within the jurisdiction of the Commissioner.

I really think this is important to point out because a system that requires all complaints to be processed, regardless of merit, and allows the prisoner to control that system actually contradicts the original purpose of section 90, which is obviously to do a fair and quick resolution of legitimate complaints. If we want to make sure section 90 is effective, we need to make sure we can close this loophole.

Amending section 91, the labelling of vexatious complainants, as I've outlined, will improve offender access to section 90 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, fair and timely resolution, which is central to the purpose of this bill.

Second, I'd like to point out that the current system is really a financial burden on the taxpayer. An incredible amount of resources and tax dollars are wasted when inmates are able to control a system that moves through four reviews and up to 150 days of processing time. We're all sitting here as taxpayers. I think we would want a system that works effectively, as was intended originally.

Another point is that allowing prisoners to file numerous frivolous complaints actually detracts from their ability to focus on what they're there for, which is their rehabilitation. I really believe that inmates should be focused on their correctional plan, the end result of which will mean their more effective reintegration into our society. Making a hobby of filing meritless grievances, I believe, makes a mockery of our correctional system and the entire grievance process.

Last, I'd like to point out that the present system creates a negative impact on the morale of staff involved in managing the grievance process. If you can imagine, inmates are continually filing grievances to cause trouble. You can imagine how people feel who have to deal with this on a daily basis, when they know their purpose is to actually deal with legitimate complaints.

I actually had an opportunity to tour and visit, with this bill, and front-line prison staff actually described the challenges of spending their time processing meritless complaints. It's also important to note that they truly believe that the complaint process, as it was intended, is absolutely a necessity within the prison system. Again, this bill is aiming to target just the frivolous, vexatious complaints, not the legitimate complaints that need to be heard.

When we talk about how we're going to fix the current system, I'd like to be very clear that this bill is, again, to target a very small number of inmates. It's not for the entire population, obviously.

Basically, in a nutshell, Bill C-293 allows the commissioner of Correctional Services Canada, or his assigned representative, to designate an offender as a vexatious complainant. Once this has occurred, the offender would be held to a higher standard of proof for future claims.

Again, this is going to target a small group of inmates.

Once an inmate is designated as a vexatious complainant, future complaints could be stopped at the first stage of the four-level process if the institution decided that the claim was vexatious and not made in good faith. In this regard, I believe that Bill C-293 will considerably improve how grievances are processed in our correctional system and it will allow legitimate complaints to be heard in a timely manner.

I also believe that Bill C-293 would help to make offenders more accountable, ensure greater respect for taxpayers, and take the unnecessary burden off the hard-working front-line correctional officers.

In closing, basically this bill is going to close a loophole, a costly loophole, in our Corrections and Conditional Release Act that has existed for a period of time. I think that once we close this loophole, the system is going to work much more efficiently and effectively, and as it was originally intended.

At this time, through you, Mr. Chair, I'd like to thank those members present who supported this bill and moved it to committee. As I said at the beginning, I'm quite excited about it, and I would now welcome any questions from the floor.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Kevin Sorenson

Thank you very much, Ms. James.

We'll move into our first round of questioning. On the government side, we look to Ms. Young, please.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Wai Young Conservative Vancouver South, BC

Thank you so much, Ms. James, for that excellent presentation outlining the various aspects of your new bill.

Congratulations, again, for being able to present such a new bill so early in your tenure as a member of Parliament.

I wanted to say that it's quite disturbing to me, and I think to most Canadians, to realize that 29,000 grievances are filed each year. You went through some of these statistics quite quickly, so let me just recap to see if I heard correctly. Twenty inmates are responsible for 120 complaints each year.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Conservative Scarborough Centre, ON

Actually, that small group of inmates, roughly 20, can file in excess of between 500 and 600 complaints per year. The majority of them are filing over 100 complaints. I just want to really stress that there are a few who are actually filing more than 500 complaints per year. That's important to note.

4:40 p.m.

Conservative

Wai Young Conservative Vancouver South, BC

We have small numbers of people, inmates, about 20, who are filing up to 500 or 600 complaints each year. By doing so, they're obviously clogging up the whole appeals and complaints system, as you so rightly outlined. This is a fairly extensive four-level complaints system.

I'd like to ask you how long this system, this complaints process, has been in place. Has it been in place for 20 years or 30 years, or whatever it happens to be?

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Conservative Scarborough Centre, ON

It's been in long enough for people to realize that there's a loophole that exists, and we need to close that loophole.

I went on with my speech for 10 minutes, but there are really a few key areas we need to look at. First and foremost, this bills deals with offender accountability. It's important to note that people who are paying a debt to society need to be accountable for their actions. They need to focus on their rehabilitation plans, and they really need to not be making a game of the system. Whatever the reason may be, they're making a mockery of the system. This bill is intended to close the loophole that currently exists. And I think it's important that through this committee, we get that process so that we can get this legislation to help our front-line, hard-working correctional staff.

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Wai Young Conservative Vancouver South, BC

I wanted to ask questions about two different areas. One is the process. As we know, we are modernizing many different appeals processes and different things that have been in place within government operations and systems for a long, long time. Perhaps in this modern day and era there are more efficient and effective ways of doing that. That's one part.

The second part, then, is on the vexatiousness, I guess, of these.... What we're looking at is a small group of people who are being impacted by your bill. It's not that we're taking the whole complaints process apart or that inmates won't have a complaints process that is obviously still fairly extensive.

Can you describe that a bit more? I understand that you were able to visit a facility and talk to the inmates and the corrections staff about this.

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Conservative Scarborough Centre, ON

Yes, I did, and thank you for the question.

I think it's important to note, and I mentioned it in my speech, that the staff I spoke to, the warden and assistant warden at the one particular institution, actually believe in and back this particular complaints process system. They understand that it serves its purpose and is absolutely needed, and they welcome the opportunity to resolve the grievances or the legitimate complaints. But they're very concerned, very concerned, about the fact that a small number of inmates actually abuse that system. They abuse that system and take away the opportunity to have other legitimate complaints heard and processed in an effective and efficient manner.

Again, this bill is not targeting the whole population. The intent of this bill is to target the 20 inmates who are actually submitting these frivolous complaints on a regular basis.

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Wai Young Conservative Vancouver South, BC

How much more time do I have, Mr. Chair?

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Kevin Sorenson

You have two and a half minutes.

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Wai Young Conservative Vancouver South, BC

Opposition members have stated that your bill will punish offenders and at the same time will give corrections staff too much discretionary power. I would think that taxpaying Canadians would want to support our efforts to streamline the process and unclog the process, so to speak. In fact, I would think that some of the other inmates, who may be waiting in line to get their true complaints looked at, would be very supportive of this too. It must be very frustrating for them to be in a long line of 500 complaints or 150 days, etc.

Can you tell us your response to the opposition members' perspective?

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Conservative Scarborough Centre, ON

It's important to note that we're not penalizing anyone who is using the system for what it was intended to do. The purpose of the complaint process is for legitimate complaints. It's not to be used as a game by certain offenders. It's not to be used to cause undue administrative hardships. The purpose is not for that. To say that we're penalizing inmates is not the case. We're actually ensuring that legitimate complaints that are filed through this process are actually heard. We're actually benefiting the majority of the population currently in our institutions to make sure the complaints are heard and are resolved in a timely fashion.

With regard to your comments about taxpayers, I have to tell you that once I prepared this bill and had my first and then my second reading, I actually received many calls and e-mails from constituents in my riding in support of this bill. Anything that stands up for the real victims of crime or anything that makes sure the rehabilitation process is there for inmates to reintegrate into society...most constituents, I found, were in support of that.

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

Wai Young Conservative Vancouver South, BC

Did you find, in terms of talking to your constituents, that most Canadians understand that these vexatious complaints place a very real and significant burden on Canadian taxpayers, and in fact that translates to time, resources, and funds that are not going towards programs or other supports within the correctional system?

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Conservative Scarborough Centre, ON

It's an interesting question, because I think most Canadians would not realize that there was a complaint process at all for inmates to actually use to resolve their issues within the prison system. Obviously, once I introduced this bill and started talking to my constituents and put the information out in my householders and so forth, I had questions concerning this that they did not know. If there was a loophole and it was a burden to the taxpayer, then it should absolutely be amended to correct that loophole.

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Kevin Sorenson

Thank you both very much.

We'll now move to Mr. Chicoine.

You have seven minutes.

4:50 p.m.

NDP

Sylvain Chicoine NDP Châteauguay—Saint-Constant, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Ms. James, thank you for coming to talk to us about your bill today.

With this bill, you seem to want to deal with vexatious complainants. Are the individuals affected the ones who repeatedly make unfounded complaints and want to discredit the correctional authority?

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Conservative Scarborough Centre, ON

When we talk about vexatious complaints, it could be one of the components of it. Someone who is a vexatious complainer is doing it for a purpose. They're not doing it to resolve a particular issue. It's a frivolous complaint that's intended to either harass or cause trouble within the grievance process, to clog up the system. I know that was a concern during my first and second reading, the terminology in regard to vexatious.

I want to expand on this a bit because I think there's been some misinterpretation between the term “vexatious complainant” and a “multiple griever”. A “multiple griever” is someone who can submit multiple grievances or complaints through the process. It does not necessarily mean they're a vexatious complainant. It just means they have multiple grievances that they filed, and each and every one of them could be a legitimate complaint. Again, the vexatious complainant is someone who is doing it wilfully to abuse the system, to cause an undue hardship. They're making a game out of the entire complaint process.

March 13th, 2012 / 4:50 p.m.

NDP

Sylvain Chicoine NDP Châteauguay—Saint-Constant, QC

I share your opinion to a certain extent. It would be wise to exclude people who make frivolous complaints. However, we have some reservations about your bill because, among other things, it does not contain specific criteria for identifying a vexatious complainant. Consequently, the Commissioner could perhaps abuse this power.

People from the Office of the Correctional Investigator and some correctional officers have mentioned that more educated inmates are submitting a large number of complaints on behalf of other inmates. The fact that these inmates are considered to be vexatious complainants because they are filing grievances on behalf of others poses a problem.

Are you not concerned that, without specific criteria for identifying vexatious complainants, the Commissioner may deem them to be vexatious complainants? They do make many complaints, and they may be frivolous at times, but they are doing it on behalf of other inmates.

4:50 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Conservative Scarborough Centre, ON

Thank you for that question.

I just want to go back to the definition of “vexatious”. I'm actually going to read you the definition of vexatious, so maybe that will help to clarify the parameters in regard to someone who makes a complaint. These are basically complaints that are not made in good faith. They could be done “to harass; to pursue purposes other than a remedy for an alleged wrong; or to disrupt or denigrate the complaint and grievance process”. Those are the parameters for a vexatious complainant.

I also want to point you to proposed section 91.1 of the bill itself and to some of the changes with regard to this particular bill that I'm proposing, Bill C-293. I'm going to read this for you, because I want to reiterate that the commissioner is not going to be able to just designate someone. Things have to be written down. This has to be communicated back to the offender.

The steps include ensuring that, one, the offender receives written notice of the consideration; two, the offender is provided with all of the information reviewed by the commissioner of CSC; and three, the offender is given the opportunity to rebut the designation or present an alternative plan to address his or her needs.

I want to make it clear once again that this bill is only going to target a small number of offenders who are abusing the system. It is not intended to be and will not be used by the commissioner in any other fashion. I hope that has answered your question.

I know that you also actually mentioned someone filing complaints on behalf of others. As well, this should not impact that, because even though someone may be filing the complaint, the complaint should be logged under the original complainant or the offender who has raised that issue.

4:55 p.m.

NDP

Sylvain Chicoine NDP Châteauguay—Saint-Constant, QC

An individual could make a frivolous complaint believing that it is legitimate. They could also make many complaints. We are concerned by the absence of fixed criteria for identifying who is a vexatious complainant. When referring to multiple complaints, does that mean 200 complaints? There are no criteria.

Would you not prefer to specify criteria, such as the number of complaints made, for clearly identifying these complainants rather than being vague and giving the commissioner complete discretion?

4:55 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Conservative Scarborough Centre, ON

I think it's important to note that it's not necessarily the number of complaints that are logged; it's the intent or the content itself of the complaint that is logged. It would be hard to put an actual number on it, for various reasons.

Again, I want to reiterate that under proposed section 91.1, the offender is going to receive written notice of the consideration, and please keep in mind that someone who is labelled as a vexatious complainant has filed probably several complaints. In many cases, they've been declined at the first level, then probably appealed, and declined at the second level, and then probably appealed. All of that information is recorded. It's kept on file. When the commissioner sees that information, he actually has all of that in front of him to make the proper determination. It's not just on a whim that he's giving this discretionary vexatious complaint label. He has the information to back up that decision.

4:55 p.m.

NDP

Sylvain Chicoine NDP Châteauguay—Saint-Constant, QC

You mentioned in your presentation that the complaint process takes up many resources at the second and third levels. Could there be a lack of resources at these levels, which prevents the quick and effective resolution of the complaint?

4:55 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Conservative Scarborough Centre, ON

I think the bulk of the complaint processing is actually done at the first level, in many cases. Actually, in one of my speeches in the House on this I talked about the informal process of dealing with complaints themselves. Within the institutions, inmates will be hired to deal with complaints on a very informal basis. So a lot of the complaints, instead of actually making it to the actual complaints process—going through the paper- and computer-based system—will actually be dealt with on an individual, on-the-ground level.

Also, the correctional staff who I spoke to when I visited the institution indicated that in many cases they as well will deal with the issues to assist the inmate. So when we talk about going to the second and third levels, there is not necessarily as much paperwork and administration required. They're reviewing it, but again, a lot of the complaints are actually dealt with at the very first level, and a lot of them are sorted out and resolved.

Again, this bill deals with those complainants—a handful of 20 inmates—who are abusing the current system and trying to take it right through to the top to bog down the system.

4:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Kevin Sorenson

Thank you very much, Ms. James and Mr. Chicoine.

We'll now go back to the government side.

Ms. Hoeppner, please, for seven minutes.