Mr. Speaker, I rise again in support of the bill that addresses the urgent need to ensure the proper functioning of our military justice system.
The bill comes to us in the context of two facts that I think all hon. members will recognize. One, a legal circumstance that places additional pressure on all of us to ensure the smooth functioning of our military justice system, one that has served Canada well for decades. We just celebrated the centenary of the Office of the Judge Advocate General without a challenge to its constitutionality. I will come back to that issue and delve into the circumstances that have led to a danger of that happening.
This is a measure that has been considered in the House three times during three previous Parliament when bills were brought forward that provided for exactly the very limited measures that are provided for in this bill. They died on the order paper, despite two days of debate in the House in the last Parliament and five days of debate in committee in the last Parliament. These issues have been thoroughly ventilated among all of us.
They have received the benefit of the views of the members opposite in committee and in the House, and our consultations to date lead us to believe that, on this narrow but important issue of the independence of military judges, there is a consensus among the parties represented in the House to move forward with alacrity and to ensure that trial by court martial in this country's military justice institutions continues to take place in full conformity with the law and the continuing modernization of our civilian, civil and military justice practices.
Ensuring the safety of Canadians requires that members of the Canadian Forces remain in a constant state of operational readiness. In this regard, the military justice system is a critical tool in allowing the chain of command to deal with matters directly related to the discipline, efficiency and morale of the military. Many hon. members on all sides of the House will know first-hand from their experience, and we all know from our observation of the excellence of our Canadian armed forces the importance of morale, the fundamental importance of justice that is swift, justice that is fair, justice that brings together a team that reinforces the cohesion of that team to the smooth operational functioning of a military.
It is not just a question of the institution's effectiveness, it is also a question of our military's ability to reflect the values that we as Canadians hold dear. Any Canadian soldier, private, sergeant or officers, whether they are in Libya or on a peacekeeping mission on the Golan Heights or anywhere else, will tell us that they can only do their job to the extent that they are representing and projecting Canada's values. Those values are built upon a system of law, a system of justice and that system must be fully reflected in the system of military justice that serves our military.
In the absence of such a system, our military men and women would not be able to focus on their top priority—protecting the interests of Canada and its people.
For that reason, the government, the Supreme Court of Canada and even the Constitution have recognized the importance of maintaining a robust military justice system. The military justice system must meet the unique needs of the Canadian Forces and must also be subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The charter guarantees that a person who is charged with an offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty in accordance with the law in a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal.
It is on the issue of independence that I speak to the House today. The independence of the judiciary is a fundamental right of all Canadians, and maintaining that independence is an important responsibility of government. This means ensuring that Canadian courts, including courts martial, are free from real and perceived undue influences and interference.
Judicial independence, or the freedom to deliver a ruling based solely on fact and law, requires that the judge presiding over a trial have a certain level of job security and that his appointment be permanent.
That is the system we have in our civil courts and it is the system we must now have in our military justice system.
On June 2 of this year, the Court Martial Appeal Court made an important decision regarding the security of tenure of military judges. I am referring to the case of Regina v. Leblanc. This ruling assessed that the process by which military judges are appointed, currently on a five year renewable basis, does not satisfy the constitutional requirement for an independent judiciary. Therefore, the court has given Parliament six months, or until December 2, to pass remedial legislation to update the National Defence Act, otherwise, its provisions related to the appointment and tenure of military judges will be declared constitutionally invalid. This is not a new issue.
Since it took office, the government has been actively seeking to make amendments, similar to those I just mentioned, to the National Defence Act.
The enhancement of judicial independence is one issue that the government first attempted to address in 2006 with Bill C-7, which died on the order paper, as I mentioned at the outset. Since then, the government has attempted to amend the National Defence Act on two separate occasions: Bill C-45 in 2008 and Bill C-41 in 2010, both of which died on the order paper as a result of prorogation or the dissolution of Parliament.
Therefore, we cannot be taken to task for not having tried to resolve this issue earlier as circumstances literally did not permit us to bring these efforts, which we all have endorsed in one way or another, to fruition. Ideally, Parliament would have passed legislation that would have dealt with the issue of security of tenure in 2006, unfortunately, circumstances were such that this was not the case. Today, with a renewed sense of urgency on this issue, we come before this House with Bill C-16
In order to address the concerns identified in the Leblanc decision, the proposed amendments to the National Defence Act contained in Bill C-16 would provide military judges with security of tenure to the fixed age of 60, subject only to removal for cause based on the recommendations of an inquiry committee established under regulations. This is a procedure that reflects, in the military justice system, the type of removal proceedings that we see in our civilian justice system in extreme cases when it is applied to judges.
The government recognizes that 60 is an earlier age for retirement than most judges in the civilian justice system. However, we must remember that military judges are commissioned officers in the Canadian Forces, colonels and lieutenant colonels at the moment, and that the military must balance the need for an experienced judiciary with the need for physical fitness and deployability in all of its members. It is the principle of universality of service. For this reason, 60 is the maximum prescribed retirement age for all Canadian Forces members, and this must include military judges who are, of course, members of the Canadian Forces.
I would like to close by emphasizing that the government recognizes that the amendments proposed in this bill are technical in nature, but they constitute amendments that are necessary to ensure that the National Defence Act is consistent with the charter and that the military justice system operates in accordance with Canadian legal standards.
We are really talking about the modernization of our military justice system, the obligation we have to ensure that our system reflects developments in the civil justice system. I am not only speaking about our own observation as parliamentarians, as government, that this must take place, but observations that have been endorsed by the Supreme Court of Canada and by a recent decision by the military appeals court that this now take place specifically with regard to the issue of the independence of military judges.
Should Bill C-16 not move forward quickly the ability of military judges to hear cases will be put into question, causing uncertainty within the military justice system. By ensuring security of tenure to the fixed age of 60, Bill C-16 would make a significant contribution toward ensuring the continued independence of military judges within the military justice system.
Let us keep in mind that our military justice system has a long-standing and proud tradition in Canada. The Court Martial Appeal Court was created in 1959 by Parliament. It is a military justice system that is subject to civilian control, civilian supervision and civilian oversight. It is also subject to that oversight in that the Court Martial Appeal Court is a superior court of record with a chief justice of its own. It is composed only of superior court judges appointed by governor in council. Appeals from this court go directly to the Supreme Court of Canada, so our military justice system fits under the charter, under our Constitution, into a system of justice that is overseen ultimately under appeal by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Let us also put the bill into perspective. The full-time military judges of whom we speak and to which this new measure would apply number four in this country at the moment, three of whom are lieutenant colonels and one a colonel. They do handle a large amount of work. The bill really would apply to a relatively restricted field of the military justice system and our military as a whole.
This government recognizes that while urgent, the issue of judicial independence is but one of many aspects of our military justice system that requires updating. Performing a regular review of any legal system is necessary to ensure its continued relevance and effectiveness, which is why the government has also introduced Bill C-15, which proposes implementing many of the recommendations found in the 2003 report by the late chief justice Antonio Lamer.
Together, Bill C-15 and Bill C-16 represent a comprehensive response to the recommendations found in the Lamer report and in Regina v. Leblanc to ensure that our military justice system remains consistent with Canadian values.
I therefore call upon the House to support both of these important bills as they move forward. I also call upon those independent members of the House, some of whom were active in committee in reviewing the provisions now contained both in Bill C-15 and Bill C-16, to join us in moving the bills forward expeditiously in recognizing that the values we all share, the military we all support, deserves to see these technical but important updated measures move forward as quickly as possible.
It is one of our duties to our military. It is our duty to Canadians to move quickly forward on this. We need to ensure that our Canadian Forces are served by the best, the most modern, the most effective military justice system that we can have in this country at this time.