Mr. Speaker, on October 7, 2011, the Minister of National Defence introduced Bill C-15, An Act to amend the National Defence Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts. Bill C-15 amends the National Defence Act to strengthen and alter military justice following the 2003 report of the former chief justice of the Supreme Court, the right hon. Antonio Lamer, and the May 2009 report of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.
Among other things, the bill would provide greater flexibility in the sentencing process and additional sentencing options, including absolute discharges, intermittent sentences and restitution. It would modify the composition of a court martial panel according to the rank of the accused person and modify the limitation period applicable to summary trials. It would also allow an accused person to waive the limitation periods. The bill would clarify the responsibilities of the Canadian Forces provost marshal and, finally, it would make amendments to the delegation of the Chief of Defence Staff powers as the final authority in the grievance process.
New Democrats believe that Bill C-15 is a step in the right direction to bring the military justice system more in line with the civilian justice system. However, it falls short on key issues when it comes to reforming a number of required aspects of the military justice system, including the summary trial system, the grievance system and the Military Police Complaints Commission.
I will provide some background. In 2003, the right hon. Antonio Lamer, former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, presented his report to the independent review of the National Defence Act. The Lamer report contained 88 recommendations pertaining to military justice, the Military Police Complaints Commission, the grievance process and the provost marshal. Bill C-15 is the legislative response to these recommendations, but thus far only 28 of those recommendations have been implemented in legislation, regulations or via changes in practice.
This bill has appeared in earlier forms. First, Bills C-7 and C-45 died on the order paper due to prorogation by the Conservative government in 2007 and an election in 2008. In July 2008, Bill C-60 came into force simplifying the structure of the court martial system and establishing a method, which was more closely aligned with the civilian system, for choosing the type of court martial. In 2009, the Senate committee consider Bill C-60 and provided nine recommendations for amendments to the National Defence Act. In 2010, Bill C-41 was introduced to respond to the 2003 Lamer report and the Senate committee report. It outlined provisions related to military justice, such as sentencing reform, military judges and committees, summary trials, court martial panels, the provost marshal and limited provisions related to the grievance process and the Military Police Complaints Commission.
In essence, Bill C-15 is similar to the version of Bill C-41 that came out of committee in the previous Parliament. There are a number of amendments that carry over, which include the court martial composition, military judges' security of tenure and provisions relating to the appointment process and the age of judges. However, other important amendments that passed at committee stage at the end of the last parliamentary session are not included in Bill C-15. These include the following, which were also presented by the New Democrats as amendments to that piece of legislation.
What is missing from this bill is the authority of the Chief of Defence Staff in the grievance process, which responds directly to Justice Lamer's recommendation; changes to the composition of the grievance committee to include a 60% civilian membership; and finally, a provision to ensure that a person who is convicted of an offence during the summary trial is not unfairly subjected to a criminal record. It is this last point that causes particular concern to all Canadians who care about the justice system in this country.
There are many important reforms in this bill and the NDP supports the long overdue update to the military justice system. Members of the Canadian Forces are held to an extremely high standard of discipline and they, in turn, deserve a judicial system that is held to a comparable standard. The NDP will be opposing this bill at second reading. However, there are shortcomings in this bill that we hope can be addressed at the committee stage if, in fact, it gets that far. Here are some of the amendments that we hope to see passed.
The amendments in Bill C-15 do not adequately address the unfairness of summary trials. Currently, a conviction of a service offence from a summary trial in the Canadian Forces may result in a criminal record. Summary trials, though, are held without the ability of the accused to consult counsel. There are no appeals or transcripts of the so-called trial, and the judge is the accused person's commanding officer. This causes undue harshness on certain members of the Canadian Forces who can be, and are, convicted of very minor service offences, offences that would not otherwise be criminal offences.
For example, some of these minor service offences include insubordination, quarrels, disturbances, absence without leave, drunkenness and disobeying a lawful command. These could be matters that are extremely important to military discipline, but they are not necessarily worthy of a criminal record. Certainly drunkenness is not a criminal offence, and many members of the House would probably attest to that.
Bill C-15 also makes an exemption for a select number of offences if they carry a minor punishment, which is defined in the act, or a fine less than $500 to no longer result in a criminal record. This is one of the positive aspects of the bill but it does not, in our opinion, go far enough.
At committee stage last March, the NDP amendments to Bill C-41 were carried to expand this list of offences that could be considered minor and not necessarily worthy of a criminal record. We would increase that number from five specified offences to 27, if the offence in question received a minor punishment.
The amendment also extended the list of punishments that may be imposed by a tribunal without an offender incurring a criminal record, such as a severe reprimand, a reprimand on its own, a fine equal up to one month's basic pay or another minor punishment.
This was a major step forward for summary trials. However, this amendment was not retained in Bill C-15, and we want to see it included here.
We also believe it is important to reform the grievance system because at present the grievance committee does not provide a means of external review. Currently it is staffed entirely of retired Canadian Forces officers, some only relatively recently retired. If the Canadian Forces Grievance Board is to be perceived as an external and independent oversight civilian body, as it was designed to be, then the appointment process needs to be amended to reflect that reality. Thus, some members of the board should be drawn from civil society.
The NDP amendment provides that at least 60% of the grievance committee members must never have been an officer or a non-commissioned member of the Canadian Forces. Again, this amendment was passed in March 2011 in Bill C-41 but was not retained in the bill before the House. We think it is important to see that amendment retained in the bill.
Finally, the NDP believes we must strengthen the Military Police Complaints Commission. The bill amends the National Defence Act to establish a timeline within which the Canadian Forces provost marshal would be required to resolve conduct complaints as well as to protect complainants from being penalized for submitting a complaint in good faith. Although a step forward, the NDP believes that more needs to be done to empower this commission.
Care has not been taken to provide the Military Police Complaints Commission with the required legislative provisions empowering it to act as an oversight body. This commission must be empowered by a legislative provision that will allow it to rightfully investigate and report to Parliament.
Let us talk about what some independent people have said about the bill. I want to quote Colonel Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel from the Canadian Forces and a military law expert. Here is what he said in February 2011:
I strongly believe that the summary trial issue must be addressed.... There is currently nothing more important for Parliament to focus on than fixing a system that affects the legal rights of a significant number of Canadian citizens every year. Why? Because unless and until you, the legislators, address this issue, it is almost impossible for the court to address any challenge, since no appeal of a summary trial verdict or sentence is permitted. As well, it is almost impossible for any other form of legal challenge to take place, since there are no trial transcripts and no right to counsel at summary trial.
Colonel Drapeau also said:
—I find it very odd that those who put their lives at risk to protect the rights of Canadians are themselves deprived of some of those charter rights when facing a summary trial. If Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland have seen fit to change the summary trial system, it begs the question: why is Canada lagging behind?
I believe all members of the House want to see members of the Canadian Forces guaranteed the very charter rights that we send them into harm's way to fight for on our behalf. One part of those rights is that when people face potential criminal sanctions, they have a right to counsel. They have a right to a judge that is independent. They have a right to transcripts and a meaningful right to appeal. Bill C-15 does not allow this and I urge all members of the House to work on this bill to address those serious problems.