Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the subject of Bill C-52, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (sentencing for fraud). This bill contains a number of provisions that are designed to ensure that people who devise and carry out serious fraud offences receive tougher sentences.
The objective of this bill is clear and simple. It would amend the Criminal Code to improve the justice system's response to the sort of large-scale fraud we have been hearing about so much lately.
The bill would send a message to those who think they can outsmart Canadians and dupe them into handing over their hard-earned savings. It would make clear that fraud is a serious crime for which there are serious consequences.
It is also designed to improve the responsiveness of the justice system for victims of fraud. These proposed measures would send a strong message to the victims of fraud that the crimes committed against them are serious and the harms they suffer will be taken into account and addressed to the greatest degree possible.
Overall, the measures in this bill would do much to increase Canadian's confidence in the justice system.
Before I describe the measures in the bill, it is worthwhile to consider the current state of the law. The Criminal Code already addresses all known forms of white collar crime, from security related frauds, such as insider trading and accounting frauds that overstate the value of securities issued to shareholders and investors, to mass marketing fraud, theft, bribery and forgery, to name a few of the offences that may apply to any given set of facts.
The maximum penalties set out in the code are high. In particular, for fraud with a value over $5,000, the maximum term of imprisonment is 14 years. This is the highest maximum penalty in the code, short of life imprisonment, obviously.
Also, mandatory aggravating factors for fraud offences are already in place. They require sentencing courts to increase the penalty imposed to reflect, for example, where the value of the fraud exceeds $1 million, the offence involves a large number of victims and, in committing the offence, the offender took advantage of the high regard in which he or she was held in the community.
Our courts have clearly stated that for large scale frauds, deterrents and denunciation are the most pressing objectives in the sentencing process. The courts have been clear that a serious penitentiary sentence must be imposed in large scale frauds. We routinely see sentences in the four to seven year range for large scale frauds. Most recently, of course, Vincent Lacroix was given a 13-year sentence for the massive security fraud he perpetrated in my province, Quebec, just a few years ago.
The courts are starting to take these frauds seriously, but this government believes that still more can be done to strengthen the Criminal Code's responses in these cases to send a clear message that Parliament is in agreement with this trend toward tougher sentencing.
To this end, Bill C-52 proposes reforms that are designed to ensure that sentences imposed in these cases adequately reflect the severe impact they have on the lives of the victims, many of whom have lost their life savings or retirement savings.
One measure in this bill that is particularly significant is a new mandatory minimum penalty of two years for large scale frauds. As I mentioned, more and more courts across the country are recognizing the devastation that can be caused by large scale frauds and have emphasized that deterrents and denunciation must be front and centre in sentencing offenders in these cases.
The government wants to carry this message forward and clearly establish a minimum penalty for frauds with a value over $1 million. Many frauds cheat Canadians out of significantly more than $1 million. We have read recently of frauds in the hundreds of millions, such as the case in Alberta.
But the line must be drawn somewhere, and this government believes that if a person orchestrates and carries out a fraud of at least $1 million, this is a very serious crime that demands a term of imprisonment of at least two years.
Of course, this two year mandatory jail term is a floor, not a ceiling. If Parliament declares that a $1 million fraud must result in at least two years in prison, then, naturally, larger frauds will result in even higher sentences. The application of aggravating factors to the sentencing process will also help guide the process for determining the ultimate sentence.
The Criminal Code already contains several aggravating factors that can be applied to a fraud conviction to enhance the sentence.
The bill would add several more aggravating factors, such as: if the fraud had a particularly significant impact on the victims taking into account their personal characteristics such as age, financial situation and health; if the fraud was significant in its complexity or duration; if the offender failed to comply with applicable licensing rules; and if the offender tried to conceal or destroy documents which recorded the fraud or the disbursements of the proceeds.
These aggravating factors reflect various aspects of fraud that are deeply troubling. The clearer Parliament can be with the courts about what these factors are, the more accurately sentences will reflect the true nature of the crime.
Another important measure in the bill is the introduction of a power which would enable the sentencing court to order that a person convicted of fraud be prohibited from having control or authority over another person's money or real property. This prohibition order can be for any duration the court considers appropriate. Violating a prohibition order will be an offence.
This measure is aimed at preventing future crime. The idea is to prevent the offender from having the opportunity to commit another fraud. There are several prohibition orders already in the Criminal Code, such as the one which can be imposed on individuals convicted of sexual offences against children, prohibiting them, among other things, from working in schools or other places where they would be in a position of trust or authority over young people.
I would like to devote a few minutes to the proposals in the bill which address the specific concerns of victims of fraud. Consideration of, and support for, victims of crime has been a hallmark of this government, and this legislation is no exception.
There are two measures in the bill that touch directly on the interests of victims: our proposals on restitution and on community impact statements.
Let me begin with restitution. Restitution is defined as the return or restoration of some specific thing to its rightful owner. It is distinct from compensation which, in the Canadian legal system, is a scheme of payments managed and made by provincial or territorial governments to assist victims of crime.
Restitution is the payment by the offender of an amount established by the court. The Criminal Code currently provides for restitution for criminal offences including: damages for the loss or destruction of property, bodily or psychological harm, bodily harm or threat to a spouse or child.
An order for restitution is made during the sentencing hearing of a convicted offender. It is part of the overall sentence provided to an offender as a stand-alone measure or as part of a prohibition order or a conditional sentence.
Restitution orders are particularly appropriate in the case of fraud offences. In several recent high-profile cases, we heard media accounts of thousands of dollars taken by offenders. These shocking cases of duplicity have deprived many innocent Canadians of hard-earned savings, and in truly awful cases, of retirement funds. It will be the judge's decision in each trial as to whether restitution is appropriate.
Our proposals provide that in the case of fraud, the sentencing judge must consider an order of restitution as part of the overall sentence for the offender.
The court must inquire of the Crown if reasonable steps have been taken to provide victims with the opportunity to indicate whether they are seeking restitution. This step will ensure that sentencing cannot happen without victims having had the opportunity to speak to the Crown and establish their losses.
To further assist victims, our proposals include an optional form to assist victims in setting out their losses. The form identifies the victim and their losses and clarifies that the victim needs to provide receipts, bills or estimates in order to assist the court in making the restitution order. In all cases, these losses must be readily ascertainable. The courts have found that it is not possible to make an order when the amount is not readily ascertainable or when it is difficult to apportion the amount among several victims.
Taken together, these proposals would increase the likelihood of orders of restitution being made. It is our hope that these proposals will increase the responsiveness of the legal system to victims of fraud.
I would note that the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime recommended improvements to the restitution scheme in one of his first recommendations to the Minister of Justice. These proposals, while not as exhaustive as those the ombudsman urged, are steps along the road to improving the experience of victims in the justice system.
The second element of the bill relating to victim issues is the proposal to create community impact statements.
The Criminal Code currently provides that judges may consider a statement made by a victim of a crime, which is known as a “victim impact statement”. The purpose of this provision is to provide the sentencing judge with additional information on the harm or loss suffered as a result of the offence. This statement is delivered in the context of a convicted offender's sentencing hearing. Jurisprudence has indicated that the victim impact statement serves three purposes: to educate the offender on the consequences of her or his actions, which may have some rehabilitative effect; to provide a sense of catharsis for victims; and to provide sentencing judges with the information on the impact or effect of the offence. The provisions in this bill to create a community impact statement for fraud offences share these three purposes.
The Code indicates that the victim impact statement should describe the harm done to or loss suffered by the victim. The Criminal Code details the procedure for presenting the victim impact statement, which includes a requirement that the statement be in writing and be shared with the Crown and the defence.
The victim impact statement provisions of the Code also provide that the court shall consider any other evidence concerning the victim for the purpose of determining the sentence. The courts have given the term “victim” a broad interpretation, so that people other than the direct victim, including communities, can provide victim impact statements. Victim impact statements made on behalf of communities that have been considered by the courts include: a victim impact statement made by a synagogue on behalf of the congregation in an arson case and a victim impact statement from a first nations band describing the impact of the theft of band money and the murder of a first nations child on a first nations community. These cases and others offer examples of the courts' recognition that communities are affected by crime.
Our proposal would make the recognition clearer in the law. We are proposing that, when a court is sentencing an offender for the offence of fraud, the court may consider a statement made by a community describing the loss or harm to the community. The statement must be in writing, identify the members of the community, specify that the person can speak on behalf of the community and be shared with the Crown and the defence.
It is our view that these community impact statements will affirm several principles of sentencing that are laid out in the Criminal Code: denunciation, deterrence and rehabilitation.
A community impact statement will allow a community to express publicly, and to the offender directly, the loss or harm that has been suffered to allow the community to begin a rebuilding and healing process. It will show the community denunciation of the conduct of the offender. It will assist offenders in their rehabilitation to understand the consequences of their actions.
In sum, this bill would help to improve the responsiveness of the criminal process for victims of fraud. It would require the sentencing court to consider if restitution should be ordered and it would permit the court to receive a community impact statement in cases where a community, in addition to individuals, has suffered from the fraud.
This bill represents an important step forward toward improving the current criminal justice system response to serious fraud. By creating a mandatory minimum sentence for fraud over $1 million, adding aggravating factors for sentencing that highlight the serious consequences of fraud, introducing a prohibition order as part of a sentence, and requiring mandatory consideration of restitution for victims, this bill represents a complete package of reforms to reflect the seriousness of fraud offences for communities and individuals.
For these reasons, I urge that all members support this bill. This bill offers members an opportunity to show their unequivocal support for victims of fraud crimes. Victims of crime deserve no less than the respect of the House. I urge all members to support this bill and send it to committee for study.