Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to see you enter the chamber and be our Speaker for the day, it seems. We know you will perform your duties professionally, as usual.
I rise in the House to reiterate my position on Bill C-37 as the justice critic for the official opposition. We repeat: we will be voting for this bill, which will be sent to committee.
We have spent long hours here debating Bill C-37, the Increasing Offender's Accountability for Victims Act, whose purpose is to amend the Criminal Code by increasing victim surcharges. We have spent long hours doing our utmost to show that there will be work to be done in committee. We cannot give the Conservative government a blank cheque, for the simple reason that this bill raises a lot of questions.
It was extremely interesting to hear my New Democratic Party colleagues try so hard to make our colleagues opposite understand the weaknesses in this bill. At the very least, we are going to have to ask for some serious answers.
I am going to summarize the problematic aspects of Bill C-37. One of the bill’s major weaknesses is that, once again, it takes away the judge’s discretion, by repealing subsection 737(5) of the Criminal Code. It takes away the judge’s power not to impose a surcharge when the offender can show that he is unable to pay or when the judge has particular reasons for not imposing the surcharge.
It must be understood that the surcharge is in addition to the sentence already imposed. That may be a term of imprisonment or a fine; it may be many things. That is what subsection 737(5) provides.
The bill has not yet been sent to committee, and already some people are arguing that this change could lead to unequal treatment for certain types of offenders. Consider aboriginal women, the first nations, and various categories of people who may not have the ability to pay this kind of fine.
We often hear the other side say, “You did the crime, well, you pay the fine”. We can all agree with that. It is indeed hard to have any sympathy sometimes. But here, it is not a question of sympathy, it is a question of justice and rehabilitation for a person who is released from prison.
The surcharge is in addition to each of the counts of which the person was convicted. If a person was charged with 10 counts of breaking and entering, for example, and decided to plead guilty to each of those counts, a surcharge would be levied for each count. That provides a small idea of the astronomical sum that would get added, if the bill were to be enacted.
If a person was sentenced to a term of imprisonment, a $200 surcharge would be imposed automatically for each count. That can add up to quite a lot of money. These people really have no income. The Minister of Public Safety seems to think that $4 or $5 an hour is a high wage, but that is not really the case.
Bill C-350 then lays down a new order for payment of the amounts owing. In short, the Criminal Code is well designed, in that it allows the judge to consider all cases on their own merits and make the best decision possible.
As a brief aside, yesterday evening, I attended the committee meeting to vet the Supreme Court of Canada nominee, Richard Wagner, of the Quebec Court of Appeal. In response to a question asked by a Conservative member, he explained the importance of the discretionary aspect of a judge's powers in relation to the independence of the three branches: legislative, judicial and executive. This discretionary power assures us that we live in a true democracy and not an anarchistic system that impinges on the powers of each of those branches.
The legislative authority must have confidence in its judicial branch, because without that, we have a serious problem.
Often, when it comes to justice bills, when you get right down to it, this government really seems to have a problem with allowing judges to exercise their discretion. This is a serious accusation for this government to level, and it is dangerous for our society, for Canadian society. I am not saying that all decisions are perfect, since to err is human, but overall, our system works well.
Here is my message to my colleagues: I hope we will work on this bill at the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights in the same way we worked together for the screening of the new Supreme Court justice—that is, in an entirely non-partisan fashion. We worked with a view to allowing the minister and the Prime Minister to appoint one of the three individuals recommended from among the best we have to offer Canadians to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada. I hope we can work as collaboratively once again.
Judicial discretion is referred to in subsection 737(5) of the Criminal Code, and there is a very strong argument in favour of it. During the first hours of debate on this issue, I was here, in the House, to encourage colleagues speaking to the bill, and I listened to the speeches. The Conservatives had little to say. That seems to be their approach: they introduce bills without anyone knowing what they are thinking, because they do not tell us. We see the minister or the parliamentary secretary briefly, and then they vanish. By asking a few questions, we sometimes manage to get to the bottom of what they are thinking.
I listened to the member from Yukon, who will surely raise his head because I am talking about him. I am standing right across from him, talking about him. He sees me and is listening to me. He said the following a number of times:
Mr. Speaker, there is a lot of discussion around fines and whether the offenders would have to make application or why the offender would be predetermined to have a victim fine surcharge and that it should be up to the judge's discretion. Judges are ultimately still deciding the fines and the fine amount. Fines are an alternative to jail [not necessarily], which is positive and allows offenders to remain in the community to contribute to their families and social and economic development.
That is the first misinterpretation of what Bill C-37 seeks to do. Fines are not being used as an alternative to jail. This bill spells out how much the victim surcharge will be for a person who is sentenced to jail. Everyone will be fined. There will be no exceptions. A person sentenced to jail used to be fined $100. Now they will be fined $200. If a fine is imposed instead of a prison sentence, then the amount will be based on a percentage. The percentage used to be 15%; now it will be 30%. That is what this bill will do. It is important that government members understand the bills that the government is introducing.
However, the point of accountability is that when a victim surcharge is assessed automatically, the offender still has the option of presenting undue hardships or mitigating circumstances where a judge could consider reducing the fine option. That is what subsection 737(5) is about. The Conservatives are using Bill C-37 to remove this subsection. They want to repeal it.
I agree with the hon. member for Yukon. I do not take issue with the fact that the onus is on the offender to prove that he is unable to pay or that there are fundamental reasons why he should not pay the surcharge.
In closing, that is the message I want to send to my colleagues from all the parties. Bill C-37 will probably pass because the NDP will support it and I imagine that the Conservatives will do the same, at least, and so will the Liberals. At the very least we have to refer this bill to committee to be studied thoroughly. We have to find out what impact it will have, why the government wants to change this, why it wants to eliminate judicial discretion, whether there have been any abuses or bad decisions. That is what we need to know. It is not right to take the ideological approach that judges do not know what they are doing and cannot make a proper decision.