Mr. Speaker, Bill C-23 is a series of amendments to the Criminal Code with regard to, primarily, criminal procedure but also with regard to some changes in the sentencing provisions in the code and some, what I would see as improvements in the language rights of people who are accused and appearing before our courts.
I know I sound like a broken record but I will be raising, as I have just about every time I have spoken to a bill, particularly a crime bill from the government, the need for a major overhaul of our Criminal Code. It is long overdue. It is not in the process at all. The government has made no serious attempt to bring the Criminal Code into the 21st century. In some respects, this mini omnibus bill is a reflection of the need we have to reform and, in many respects, rewrite our Criminal Code.
The code contains serious contradictions and gross inconsistencies, both in crimes and the sentencing that we apply to crimes, crimes in some cases where the maximum penalty is way out of line with the seriousness of the offence in the sense that it is either way too low or, in other cases, way too high.
This is not just an academic discussion. The courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court, have made it very clear, particularly with regard to the sentencing provisions within our Criminal Code, that there has to be a reasonable proportionality between the seriousness of the offence and the sentence that is imposed. I believe we are at risk at some point of defence lawyers beginning to consistently challenge, I believe ultimately successfully, a number of provisions within the Criminal Code in that the penalties are widely disproportional to the severity of the crime and grossly inconsistent with other crimes that I believe objectively most people would say are less severe but have greater penalties. That is just one example of the problems in the code as we have it.
We have not had a major revision to our Criminal Code since, I believe, sometime in the 1970s. We are getting on close to 40 years since there was an overall to the code, and even that was not a complete revamping of it.
I compare that to the number of times this has occurred in other common law jurisdictions around the globe. A number of states in the U.S., in England, Australia and New Zealand, countries like that, have all done much better, more efficient and more timely work on their criminal codes than we have.
I believe this problem is heightened now by what happened a week ago when the government, in a very arbitrary manner, decided to kill the Law Commission, which was probably, in my opinion, the only body in the country that could have organized the necessary talent and brought it together. I do not think there is one institution, one law school or even the Law Commission itself that would not have had the resources or the talent, quite frankly, to be able to prepare a draft Criminal Code in order to update it and bring it into the 21st century.
The Law Commission will be gone if the government is successful in its meanspirited approach to that particular institution, an institution that is renowned in the common law jurisdictions around the globe. It is interesting to read the number of commentaries that have come in from our Commonwealth partners in particular about the work the Law Commission has done. It has done cutting-edge work that a number of other countries have looked to and, in some cases, used extensively in revamping various parts of their justice system and their laws.
It will be a real shame if the government is ultimately successful in destroying that institution because with the kind of problems we have with our Criminal Code it will no longer be a resource that is necessary to get the draft of the code in place so that it can be considered by the House at some time in the future.
Some of the changes the Conservatives are proposing in this mini omnibus bill reflect the technological advances that have been made but have not been taken into account. I will use a simple example. Under the Criminal Code, as it is now, we can send documentation by fax machine to other jurisdictions and the document that comes out of the fax machine is sufficient for the court to use as proof of the validity of the document and it can then be used in the court proceedings in the new jurisdiction. However, this cannot be done by telecommunication. An email cannot be sent the same way. The bill, assuming it passes, will allow the criminal justice system to use that advance in telecommunications.
Another provision to which I think we are all sensitive is communication equipment, computers, et cetera, that are used for the purposes of child pornography or luring children. The Criminal Code has no provision for that equipment to be seized after an accused has been convicted. It is just a blank because 10 or 12 years ago the Internet did not exist for mass use and, therefore, there was no need for that provision.
This is yet another example of where we need to update the Criminal Code in order for our courts to be able to adequately deal with convicted persons and dealing not only in penalties of imprisonment or fines but also being able to seize the equipment that they used to perpetrate those crimes. Both of those are clear examples where the Criminal Code has not been able to keep up with technological changes in our society.
Another proposed amendment is to modernize how we deal with betting and bookmaking. As it stands right now in the code, there are quite severe limitations on what that means and a great deal of bookmaking at this point is conducted by way of modern technology, telecommunications, computers, et cetera. As those crimes are now defined in the code, when they are performed that way they are almost certainly not crimes under the code. We need to update that and say that the conduct is the same as it would be if one were running numbers and communicating those by way of a computer over the Internet that would now be a crime. It is not at the present time, which is why the code needs to be updated.
All of those are clear examples of the inadequacy of the Criminal Code in this country at this time and they are a clear reflection of the need for a major overhaul of the code. It is so confusing and so complicated it really impairs our ability to run an efficient justice system.
However, because the government is much more concerned with the hot button items, we consistently see, time after time, very short bills coming through dealing with one hot button crime to draw attention in the electorate, but, quite frankly, in a very cynical way, having no intention of dealing with the problems in this Parliament.
We were doing some scheduling work in the justice committee yesterday and it will not see this bill, assuming it gets through second reading and out of the House, until the fall of next year and it may even be into 2008 before the committee sees it because it is that backlogged. We have many bills and we have been told that we will get two more the week after the break. The list seems to be unending.
Rather than dealing with this in a reasonable fashion and recognizing that it has to stop playing politics with crime, the criminal justice system and policing in this country, the government moved to do an omnibus review of the Criminal Code and brought back a whole new code to Parliament. As long as the present government is in power, which, hopefully, will not be for too long, we will continue to see consistently small bills coming through addressing hot button items that will have no chance of ever being dealt with by Parliament simply because the justice committee is so backlogged already.
With regard to the balance of the bill, I want to address some comments to the sentencing provisions generally, but the specific concern I have is with the increase in the fines for summary conviction offences. Those are the lower offences in terms of seriousness as opposed to indictable offences.
Fines used to be $1,000 and then they were increased to $2,000 back some time in the 1970s or 1980s, about 20 or 25 years ago. The government is now proposing to increase the $2,000 fine by a multiple of five to $10,000.
The concern I have is that those summary conviction offences tend to be the lower end ones. They tend to involve, in a vast majority of cases, individuals who are at the lower end of the socio-economic levels in our society and who would be most affected negatively in terms of their ability to pay fines. It appears, whether it is intended or not, and with the present government we never know for sure given some of the vindictiveness in its cuts last week, that the government is intentionally targeting that lower socio-economic group within our society.
However, whether it is intentionally targeting that lower socio-economic grouping within our society or not, we will end up, almost certainly, with more people from that lower socio-economic grouping being incarcerated in our provincial prisons.
This would have a double impact. It, obviously, would have a very negative impact on those particular individuals, and unfairly so compared to people who have a better economic status, but it is also a form of downloading responsibility on to the provinces. The federal government is attempting to pass a law that will require the provincial governments to increase the number of cells they have because of the number of people they will now have incarcerated in their prisons because of these new offences. If those individuals cannot pay the fine they will be going to provincial prisons, not federal prisons.
We know, from all sorts of evidence that we heard fairly recently at the justice committee, that our provincial jails are way overcrowded. There is not one province in this country that does not need additional cells. In some cases, particularly in the provinces where there is less wealth, there is a very strong need for their prisons to be expanded. This would only dump more people into those provincial jails with the end result being that the provinces will need to find ways to pay for it.
This is a double whammy because our provincial jails have no more capacity. Not only will we have an increase in the yearly administration costs, because so many more people will be incarcerated, but the provinces will need to move out substantial amounts of capital dollars to build additional prisons at the provincial level. With those huge amounts of capital dollars that will go out, there will be substantial increases in their yearly administration and operation costs for those same jails.
There was no proposal in the last budget, and no proposal with regard to this legislation or any of those other crime bills we have seen, for the federal government to give any additional money to the provinces to respond to the need that is going to be created by the federal government but dumped on them, leaving them the responsibility to find dollars in order to be able to house these additional convicted criminals in a prison setting.
We need to take a very close look at this when it gets to committee, assuming it gets there, as to whether the fine should be increased to $10,000 or to an amount that is perhaps more in keeping with inflation since the last time the amendment was made to the level of fines for summary convictions.
I am conscious of the time. If I have time, I will come back to the sentencing issue in a few minutes, but I do want to speak about two other issues.
One issue is procedural. It is with regard to these relatively minor but important changes that need to be made when we are selecting juries. Basically what is happening is that if a juror is being challenged for what we say is “cause”, the cause being some declared bias either against the accused who is before the courts or the Crown, that juror can be challenged in appropriate circumstances. It has been difficult in the past to determine how we decide whether the evidence we are getting from that prospective juror is sufficient to show a conflict and a bias to the extent that he or she would be excluded.
The amendment being proposed, which I think is a good one, is that if jurors are already selected, we would allow two jurors to make a determination, a finding, in effect, taking the place of the judge, as to whether the person has a clear bias and should be excluded from the panel.
If we do not have sufficient jurors already on the panel, then two would be picked at random from the general panel sitting in the courtroom at the time. They would be sworn in and would be required to make a decision as to the bias of the juror in question and determine whether the juror is to be excluded or included in the panel.
I think that is a major step forward in the jury selection process. I think it makes it more credible. It makes it more accountable to the panel of jurors that is there.
There are some additional provisions to clarify the availability of a person's right to use the alternate official language from the one that is customarily used in the court. There have been some problems with that as to when it is available. Oftentimes it crops up when there are co-accused, each of whom has as his or her primary language one of the official languages but not the same one. There is clarification in this bill, which I believe will go some distance toward rectifying some of the problems our judges have had in determining how extensively available trials in both official languages are in this country. That is a major change, one that would be welcome.
With regard to a number of other criminal procedural matters, again, it is a criticism of both the previous government and the current one that we have not done these before. They are quite straightforward. They should have been done a long time ago. In some cases, these problems were identified as long as 10 to 12 years ago and we are just now getting around to it. We have no way of knowing whether we are actually going to get through this bill, as I said earlier, but it may be some time down the road.
Let me conclude, in my last minute, by saying that we badly need a total revamp of our Criminal Code. This bill is a clear example of all sorts of corrections to the code, corrections that have been needed for a long time. We are probably not going to get to them in this Parliament. I keep emphasizing the need for this major revamp and reform so that our Criminal Code is in the 21st century, not back in the 1900s.