Madam Speaker, I am pleased to lead off the debate on Bill C-26, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (citizen's arrest and the defences of property and persons). Bill C-26 was first introduced in the last Parliament as Bill C-60. The bill is a responsible expansion of the citizen's power of arrest and also includes a long overdue simplification and clarification of the law on self-defence and defence of property.
Prior to the introduction of former Bill C-60, the issue of citizen's arrest had been subject to two private member's bills and numerous discussions in parliaments, newspaper and, no doubt, in coffee shops across the country. So the straightforward reform proposed for the law of citizen's arrest in the bill is well understood and well supported by all parties. I will speak to it only briefly today.
The proposed reforms to the defences of property and persons have different histories and goals. Some members were surprised by the inclusion of these reforms in Bill C-60 when it was introduced. I would like to start by explaining why these reforms were presented together.
While defence of property and the power to make a citizen's arrest are separate legal concepts, in the real world, these concepts can sometimes overlap. For example, imagine a security guard who discovers an intruder in a building who is heading to the door with a laptop in hand. The security guard can apprehend the thief and then call police so that the thief can be charged. That is an example of a citizen's arrest. That is the typical situation in which citizens make the arrest themselves and then call the authorities.
In this emergency situation, the law authorizes the security guard to make the arrest, in the place of the police, but the security guard could also use a minimal amount of force against the thief. For example, the guard could grab the thief's arm while trying to grab the laptop. Because the intent is different, this action could be considered defence of property—the laptop, in this case. If the thief resisted or responded with force, it would be a matter of self-defence if the guard had to defend himself.
While there are three distinct legal mechanisms, they are all directly relevant to the broader question of how citizens can lawfully respond when faced with urgent and unlawful threats to their property, to themselves and to others.
Our government recognizes that all of these laws, any one of which may be pertinent to a given case, must be clear, flexible and provide the right balance between self-help and the resort to the police. That is why all these measures are joined together in Bill C-26.
I will now to turn to a brief description of the proposed citizen's arrest reforms and to devote the rest of my time to the reform of the defences.
On the question of a citizen's arrest, no one can dispute the fact that arrests are primarily the responsibility of the police. This will remain their responsibility and there is no change in that regard. However, in recognition of the fact that the police are not always present when a crime is committed, the Criminal Code has long authorized citizens to arrest other citizens in narrowly defined situations, including where an offence is committed on or in relation to property.
Section 494(2) of the Criminal Code currently allows for an arrest only where a person is found committing an offence. That said, there have been occasions recently where a citizen effected an arrest a short while after the crime was committed because that was when the opportunity arose. These cases have raised questions about whether the scope of the existing arrest power is appropriate.
Our government believes that it is reasonable to extend the period of time allowed for making a citizen's arrest by allowing arrest within a reasonable time after the offence is committed.
To discourage vigilantism and to ensure that citizens only use a slightly expanded power of arrest in cases of true urgency, Bill C-26 also includes a requirement that the arresting person reasonably believes that it is not feasible in the circumstances for a peace officer to make the arrest. These are reasonable and responsible reforms and all members are urged to support them.
Although our citizen's arrest reforms are rather simple, the changes that they will mean for defence of the person and defence of property need more detailed explanations.
The provisions on defence of the person and defence of property, as they are currently written, are complex and ambiguous. Existing laws on self-defence, in particular, have been the subject of decades of criticism by the judiciary, including the Supreme Court of Canada, as well as lawyers, academics, lawyers' associations and law reform organizations. Much of the criticism has to do with the fact that the existing law is vague and hard to enforce. It is fair to say that reform in this area is long overdue.
These kinds of defence were included in the very first Criminal Code. The wording of this part of the legislation has remained very similar since the original Criminal Code was written in 1892. Defence of property was covered in nine separate provisions containing a number of subcategories and other very complex provisions that have become obsolete and unnecessary.
Professor Don Stuart of Queen's University, whose textbooks on criminal law are widely used by first year law students in this country, has written:
The defences of person and property in Canadian law are bedeviled by excessively complex and sometimes obtuse Code provisions.
It is important to be clear, however, that the criticisms of the law do not pertain to its substance but rather to how it is drafted. Self-defence and defence of property are and have always been robust in Canada. There has been a lot written in newspapers about the right to self-defence and protection of one's property, some of which suggests that these rights have been diminished or are inadequately protected. This is untrue. The law is robust, despite the fact that the rules as written in the Criminal Code suffer from serious defects, and despite the way the media have portrayed these issues in recent times.
Parliament has a duty to ensure that laws are clear and accessible to Canadians, criminal justice participants and even the media. That is exactly what we are proposing to do in Bill C-26, even though the actual rights of Canadians are robust and upheld in Canadian courts on a daily basis. When the laws which set out these rules are confusing, we fail in our responsibility to adequately inform Canadians of their rights. Obviously, unclear laws can also complicate or frustrate the charging provisions of the police who themselves may have difficulty in reading the Criminal Code and understanding what is and is not permitted. Bill C-26 therefore proposes to replace the existing Criminal Code provisions in this area with clear, simple provisions that would maintain the same level of protection as the existing laws but also meet the needs of Canadians today.
How are we proposing to do this? I will start with the defence of the person because it arises more frequently than does the defence of property, because calls for reform have focused on this defence, and because of the fundamental importance of the right of self-preservation in Canadian criminal law.
If we were to ask ordinary Canadians if they think self-defence is acceptable, they would say that it is acceptable when their physical integrity or that of another person is threatened. I think they would also say that the amount of force used should be reasonable and should be a direct response to the threat.
The reforms proposed in Bill C-26 are centred on those basic elements. Because of the general nature of these ideas, one law based on these fundamental principles should be able to regulate all situations that arise involving defence of the person. We simply do not need different regulations for every set of circumstances. All we need is a single principle that can be applied to all situations.
Under the new defence, a person would be protected from criminal responsibility if there are three conditions which are met: one, the person reasonably believes that he or she or another person is being threatened with force; two, the person acts for the purpose of defending himself or herself or another person from that force; and three, the person's actions are reasonable in the circumstances. Let me clarify a few salient points.
First, unlike the current law which creates different defences for different circumstances, the new law would cover both self-defence and defence of another. The same criteria govern defensive action in both situations.
Second, with regard to the defender's perception of threat to himself or herself or another, members should know that a person is entitled to be mistaken about his or her perception, as long as his or her mistake is reasonable. For instance, if a drunken neighbour walks into the wrong house at 3 a.m., the homeowner may well be reasonable in perceiving a threat to himself and his family, even though there was in actual fact no threat at all, just a tired, drunken neighbour in the wrong house.
The law must still allow people to use defensive force where they make a mistake that any reasonable person could make. Unreasonable mistakes, however, are not permitted. If a person seeks to be excused for the commission of what would otherwise be a criminal offence, the law expects the person to behave reasonably, including in the person's assessment of threats to himself or herself, or others.
Third, the defender's purpose is paramount. If a person acts for the purpose of defending himself or herself or another, the defence is available. Defensive force cannot be available as a disguise for what is actually revenge. Conduct for any purpose other than protection falls outside the bounds of defensive action and the person stands to be convicted for it.
Fourth, if the other conditions are met, then the defender's actions must be reasonable in the circumstances. What is considered reasonable in the circumstances depends entirely on the circumstances of each specific case, as assessed by the reasonable person test. The question is: would any reasonable person in the defender's situation have done what the defender did? There is not just one reasonable response for every situation. The important thing to know is that the defender behaved in a way that the judge considers reasonable in those particular circumstances.
The list of factors that may be relevant in determining whether the act of defence was reasonable is far too long to be included in the Criminal Code. Nonetheless, to facilitate the deliberation process, without limiting the nature and scope of the factors that could be taken into consideration, the proposed reform provides a list of well-recognized features of many self-defence situations presented before our courts. This list will guide judges and juries in their application of the new legislation, and confirms that current case law on self-defence continues to be applicable.
Factors that are on the list and likely to be relevant include the nature of the threat and the response to it. For instance, was the attacker threatening to break a finger or to kill? Another factor is whether weapons were present. Another factor is the relative physical abilities of the parties, such as their age, size and gender. Naturally, a petite, elderly woman and a fit, young man may have different options available to respond to the same threat. Another factor is whether there were any pre-existing relationships between the parties, including any history of violence and abuse.
This last factor is particularly important in cases where a battered spouse must defend against an abusive partner. As the Supreme Court has noted in the landmark case of Lavallee, it is sometimes difficult for a jury of citizens to understand how a battered spouse might stay in an abusive relationship or how the person might come to understand the patterns of violence of the person's partner. These cases do not arise often but when they do, sensitivity to these factors is crucial.
The reasonableness of the response must take into account the nature of the relationship and the history between the parties in arriving at a just result.
The proposed law would establish a simple and meaningful framework for decision-making. The relevant facts must be determined first, and then the rule can be applied. Police and prosecutors, in assessing whether a charge should be laid, should gather all the facts and then assess them against the criteria set out in the defence to determine whether there is a reasonable prospect of conviction and whether charges are in the public interest. If charges are laid and the defence is advanced, the trier of fact will be asked to determine, based on his or her assessment of the facts presented at trial and his or her own experience and common sense, whether the actions taken were reasonable in response to the threat.
I want to bring one small change to the attention of the hon. members. The use of force is permitted under current legislation only in the defence of a person. Essentially, violent behaviour against the attacker is permitted in the defence. Bill C-26 broadens the defence in order to recognize the fact that in emergency situations, a person might use other forms of behaviour in self-defence such as breaking and entering into a building to seek refuge or even stealing a car in order to flee.
In parallel to the changes to the self-defence provisions, Bill C-26 would replace all the existing provisions for defence of property with one single criterion. It encompasses these essential components and maintains the same level of protection as under the current legislation.
There are three primary conditions to the proposed defence. First, the defender must reasonably perceive that someone else is about to or has just done one of the following things: enter property without being legally entitled to, or take, damage or destroy property. Second, the defender must act for the purpose of preventing or stopping the interference with property. Third, the actions taken must be reasonable in the circumstances.
As with the case of defence of the person, a person can make a reasonable mistake about a threat or interference with property and still have access to the defence. The defender's purpose must be defensive. Defence of the property is not a disguise for revenge. The overarching question for the trier of facts will be whether the actions taken by the defender were reasonable in the circumstances.
It is also imperative to appreciate the defence of property is different from and more complicated than the defence of the person in one important respect. Every person has the right to decide who can touch him or her and how he or she wishes to be touched, and it is very clear when the trigger of non-consensual threat to bodily integrity arises.
Property is very different from the human body in this respect. There can be overlapping interests in the same piece of property which can lead to disputes as to the degree and nature of those interests. Therefore, the defence of property must be guided by the realities of property law in addition to its other basic conditions.
The result as far as the criminal law is concerned is that the defence of property has an additional pre-condition; namely, that the person who claims the defence must have been in peaceable possession of the property at the time of the interference.
The concept of peaceable possession of property is present in the current law and is included in these reforms. This term has been interpreted by our courts to mean that the person must be in actual physical possession of, or in control over, the property at the time of the threat or interference, and that the possession itself must be unlikely to lead to a breach of the peace and is not contested by others. This is the way in which possession must be peaceable; it must not be contested or risk violence or public disorder.
For instance, protesters occupying a government building and criminals who are safeguarding stolen goods are not in peaceable possession of property, and therefore they cannot benefit from the defence if someone else tries to take or enter property.
Law-abiding citizens going about their business, on the other hand, will almost certainly be in peaceable possession of their property. If they reasonably believe that someone is threatening their possession, for instance, a thief is trying to pick their pocket or an intruder is trying to break into their house in the middle of the night, and if they act for the purpose of protecting the property from that threat, they will be excused from criminal responsibility for any actions they take that are reasonable in the circumstances.
We can see why threats to ownership rights do not justify responsive actions that might otherwise be criminal. Ownership and many other legal interests in property are matters of property law, and must be decided by the civil courts if the parties cannot agree among themselves.
Only actual real-time threats to physical possession of property allow a person to respond in a way that would otherwise be criminal. The overarching function of the criminal law is to promote public order and public peace. The law therefore cannot sanction the use of force to protect property in any circumstances other than where a present lawful situation is threatened in a manner such that seeking civil recourse at some later date creates the risk of permanent deprivation of property.
The law allows people to preserve the status quo, not to solve ongoing disputes with violence.
In closing, I invite all hon. members to support this bill. These changes are long awaited and are a reasoned and measured response to very complex legal situations.