moved that Bill C-17, An Act to amend the Judges Act and certain other Acts in relation to courts, be read the third time and passed.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to debate the third reading stage of Bill C-17, which is an important piece of legislation.
Entitled, an act to amend the Judges Act and certain other acts in relation to the courts, Bill C-17 proposes to amend the Judges Act to implement the government's response to the report of the 2003 Judicial Compensation and Benefits Commission. The bill also proposes some technical amendments of a court related nature to other federal legislation.
Section 100 of the Constitution requires that Parliament and not the executive alone establish judicial compensation and benefits following full and public consideration and debate. In addition to the protections of section 100, the Supreme Court of Canada has established a constitutional requirement for an independent, objective and effective commission to make non-binding recommendations to government.
The government must publicly respond within a reasonable period of time to the commission report. Any rejection or modification of a commission recommendation must be publicly justified based on a standard of rationality. I will say something about this standard in a few moments.
The Judges Act was amended in 1998 to strengthen the existing commission process in keeping with the constitutional requirements identified by the Supreme Court of Canada. At the federal level, the Judicial Compensation and Benefits Commission is the name of the independent, objective and effective commission that makes recommendations to the government.
The commission convenes every four years to conduct an inquiry into the adequacy of judicial compensation and to deliver a report with its recommendations. The most recent commission completed its work when it delivered its report in May 2004. Sadly, implementation of the commission's recommendations languished under the former government. I will explain.
The commission fulfilled its role by conducting an inquiry and delivering a report with its recommendations. The former government responded to that report and introduced Bill C-51 to implement its response. However, despite an introduction date of May 20, 2005, Bill C-51 never proceeded beyond first reading and died on the order paper when the federal election was called in November 2005.
When Canadians voted for change on January 23 of this year, they voted for a government that was willing to recognize its responsibilities, make the decisions that needed to be made and moved forward with implementing those decisions. This government believes strongly in the principle of judicial independence. One of my priorities upon assuming office of justice minister was to review the commission report. This government recognizes that the integrity of this entire process is dependent in part on timely passage of implementing legislation.
The government is firmly of the view that we had a responsibility to take the time to consider the report and recommendations in light of the mandate and priorities upon which we were elected. However, we undertook our review as quickly as reasonably possible.
This government provided its response to the commission report on May 29, 2006, followed almost immediately by the introduction of Bill C-17 on May 31, 2006. The bill was referred after first reading to the committee on June 20. The Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights began its consideration of the bill on October 24 and tabled its report in the House on November 1, approving the bill with some minor technical amendments.
I am sure hon. members appreciate the critical importance of completing the final stage of the 2003 quadrennial cycle through the passage of legislation. The credibility, indeed, the legitimacy of this constitutional process requires it, especially since the next quadrennial commission process is due to commence in less than one year.
Bill C-17 proposes to implement virtually all of the commission's recommendations. The exceptions are the commission's recommendation of a 10.8% salary increase and the representational costs proposal. Instead, the government is prepared to support a salary increase of 7.25% and to increase reimbursement of representational costs to 66% from the current level of 50%. The fully developed rationale for these modifications can be found in our government's response.
I know the hon. members have read the government's response, which fully explains the rationale for the modification of the commission's salary recommendations. I, therefore, intend to just briefly summarize our thinking on this important issue.
Before doing so, however, I think it is important to speak to the standard of rationality against which any modification of the commission's recommendations by Parliament will be assessed.
It is necessary to displace some of the misconceptions that are at play in this area and, in particular, suggestions that respect for the constitutional judicial compensation process and for judicial independence, broadly speaking, can only be demonstrated through a verbatim implementation of commission recommendations. That is a clearly wrong interpretation.
To ensure public confidence in the process, I think it is absolutely critical that we have a shared appreciation and understanding of the very balanced guidance that has been provided by the Supreme Court of Canada in the key cases of the P.E.I. judges' reference case and the Bodner decision.
In both decisions, the court has quite rightly acknowledged that allocations of public resources belongs to legislatures and to governments. A careful reading of both cases clearly indicates that governments are fully entitled to reject and modify commission recommendations, provided that a public, rational justification is given which demonstrates overall respect for the commission's process.
I would say here, as we did in the response, that the government is confident that we have fully met this requirement.
The effectiveness of the commission is not measured by whether all of its recommendations are implemented unchanged. It is measured by whether the commission process, its information gathering and analysis, and its report and recommendation played a central role in informing the ultimate determination of judicial compensation.
The commission's work and analysis have been critical in the government's deliberations, which is not critical of but critical in the government's deliberations. Our response respectfully acknowledges the commission's efforts and explains the government's position in relation to the two modifications to the commission's proposal.
In justifying our proposed modification of the salary recommendation, as reflected in Bill C-17, we gave careful consideration to all of the criteria established by the Judges Act and to two of these in particular: first, the prevailing economic conditions in Canada, including the cost of living and the overall economic and financial position of the federal government; and, second, the need to attract outstanding candidates to the judiciary.
With respect to the first of those, we concluded that the commission did not pay sufficient heed to the need to balance judicial compensation proposals within the overall context of economic pressures, fiscal priorities and competing demands on the public purse. In essence, the government ascribed a different weight than the commission to the importance of this criterion.
In terms of attracting outstanding candidates, we took issue with the weight that the commission placed on certain comparator groups against which the adequacy of judicial salaries should be assessed. The government recognizes that the task of establishing appropriate comparators for judges has been a perennial challenge for past commissions as well as parliamentarians given the unique nature of judicial office.
We acknowledge that the commission carefully and thoroughly considered a range of comparative information, including the incomes of senior public servants, governor in council appointees and private practice lawyers. Our key concern was the fact that the commission appeared to accord disproportionate weight to incomes earned by self-employed lawyers and, in particular, to those practitioners in Canada's eight largest urban centres. In addition, there was an apparent lack of emphasis given to the value of the judicial annuity.
As the response elaborates, the government believes that the commission's salary recommendation of 10.8% overshoots the mark in defining the level of salary increase necessary to ensure outstanding candidates for the judiciary.
The government is proposing a modified judicial salary proposal for puisne judges of $232,300, or 7.25%, effective April 1, 2004, with statutory indexing to continue effective April 1 in each of the following years, with proportionate adjustments for chief justices and justices of the Supreme Court of Canada.
The one other proposed modification relates to the commission's recommendation that the judiciary be entitled to an increased level of reimbursements for costs incurred through the judges' participation before the commission. It recommended increases from 50% to 66% for legal fees and from 50% to 100% for disbursement costs.
I note, as a matter of information, that disbursement costs in relation to the commission include, not just photocopying and courier services, but in particular, the cost of substantial contracts for the retention of expert compensation consultants and related matters.
In our view, reimbursement at 100% of disbursement costs would provide little or no financial incentive for the judiciary to incur costs prudently. Accordingly, Bill C-17 would increase the current level of reimbursement for both legal fees and disbursements from the current 50% to 66%.
Our response also underscores that it will be parliamentarians, not this government, to decide which proposal to implement, be it that of the commission, the government or, indeed, a third proposal entirely.
Bill C-17 was carefully reviewed by the justice committee. The justice committee heard directly from the commissioners of the Judicial Compensation and Benefits Commission. Representatives of the Canadian Bar Association also appeared before the committee, as did Professor Garant, to shed light on this constitutional process from the academic perspective.
Ultimately, the justice committee approved Bill C-17 with some minor technical amendments. Despite an express invitation by the parliamentary secretary that any recommendation by the committee to amend the salary proposal would be seriously considered by the government, the committee did not include such a recommendation in its report but rather approved the bill on division.
Accordingly, the time for this House to vote on the bill is drawing near. I would like, however, to ensure that the House is aware that Bill C-17 also implements a number of other important compensation amendments. These amendments concern such matters as retirement eligibility, eligibility for supernumerary office and other minor changes to allowances.
Bill C-17 also includes a long overdue proposal aimed at levelling the playing field for partners of judges in the difficult circumstances of relationship breakdown by facilitating the equitable sharing of the judicial annuity. The judicial annuity is currently the only federal pension that is not subject to such a division despite the fact that the judicial annuity represents a very significant family asset.
The proposed annuity amendments essentially mirror the provisions of the federal Pension Benefits Division Act. Like that act, these provisions uphold the overarching principles of good pension division policy allowing couples to achieve a clean break, certainty and portability.
These provisions are also consistent with both the objectives of probative retirement planning and the constitutional requirement of financial security as part of the guarantees of judicial independence. While on its face, extremely complicated, the policy objective of this mechanism is very simple. It is to address a long outstanding equity issue in support of families undergoing breakdown of the spousal relationship.
I will wrap up and hand Bill C-17 over to the House for debate. I invite all parliamentarians to carefully discharge their important responsibility in light of the governing constitutional and statutory principles. In doing so, the members of the House will help ensure that Canada continues to have a judiciary whose independence, impartiality, commitment and overall excellence not only inspires the confidence of the Canadian public but is envied around the world.