Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today to Bill C-37, an act to amend the Criminal Code, respecting the doubling of the victim surcharge and making it mandatory for all offences and from all offenders.
Like my colleagues in the House, we have the deep and shared concern with victims of crime and we recognize the importance of ensuring that victims have access to the high quality service they require in their moment of need. In that regard, we support the underlying principle of this legislation, which is that victims services need dependable and appropriate funding. However, the government has not produced any evidence indicating that the bill would do anything to accomplish the goal of sustaining victims services across all provinces and over time.
Moreover, and central to our opposition to the bill, is that by removing from the judiciary the discretion to consider the adverse effect that the surcharge may have in particular circumstances, something that my colleague from Gatineau referred to as well in her comments, something that judges are allowed to do under the current statute in relation to assessing undue hardship caused by the fine's imposition, the bill ignores the complex relationship between poverty and crime. It ignores the complex fallouts with respect to inequality that would result from the legislation, as my colleague from Gatineau also pointed out in her remarks, and, in so doing, may even exacerbate the effects of poverty on individuals and their communities, particularly the most vulnerable among us.
The government suggests that the bill would increase the accountability of offenders, without providing any rational basis to indicate that the across the board doubling of the surcharge amount is sufficient to sustain adequate funding levels for victim services in all provinces and territories. Indeed, this approach ignores the reality that victims of crime exist and require services even when offenders are not apprehended or convicted, for whatever reason, be it due to lack of evidence, problems with the evidence or, alternatively, when the matter has not gone to trial and the like.
It should be recalled that one of the most common crimes in the country, sexual assault, is one of the least likely to result in a conviction and, in many cases, charges are not pressed for various reasons, including because one may not feel comfortable facing one's attacker in court, or otherwise. Certainly a survivor of sexual assault deserves access to funded support and assistance even though the perpetrator has not been convicted of a crime under the Criminal Code.
If the government wants to propose legislation to ensure that victim services will receive consistent support across the board, anchored in the principle of equality and the like, it should commit to the direct funding of these services. We will be the first party to stand up and support such an initiative. Regrettably, there is no evidence that the bill currently before the House would accomplish the goal of sustaining adequate levels of support for victims of crime. Indeed, how soon will we be back here debating additional increases? How were the numbers arrived at? Indeed, a doubling, at first glance, appears arbitrary. Why not triple or quadruple the fines while we are at it?
Let me be clear that I am not advocating any such thing. The point is that there must be some evidentiary basis for government action in this regard. We have yet to see any evidence adduced in this matter to justify the doubling of the surcharge, nor have we seen that adequate attention has been paid to the provinces and their differing and particularized programs and needs when it comes to the use of surcharge fees.
This again raises the whole question of the federalist principle. In what manner are the provinces consulted in this regard? In what manner are their views taken into account? In what manner is there any equality of application with respect to the differing and particularized programs and needs in the matter of surcharge fees?
Continuing in that regard, and on this point in particular, we have to be mindful that even though the amount collected may be consistent across all jurisdictions, there is no question that to ensure the same quality of program the costs are different. In the north, for example, a smaller population means fewer people paying into the system since there are fewer convictions. Combine this with the fact that there is an increased cost to providing services in remote areas, how does the legislation propose to even out the gaps in access to and provision of services across Canadian jurisdictions? This is a question of equality and one to which my colleague from Gatineau also referred.
Beyond just the seeming arbitrariness of the increase is the fact that the bill would remove judicial discretion. Currently, Canadian judges are empowered by section 737 to exempt an accused from the surcharge based on the specific finding that the surcharge would result in undue hardship on that individual or on dependants.
Regrettably, the removal of judicial discretion, as contemplated by the bill, testifies yet again to the government's lack of respect for the Canadian judiciary, for the independence of the judiciary and for their experience and expertise in these matters.
By removing from our courts the authority to consider the undue hardship that may result in the imposition of the surcharge in specific instances, the bill essentially mandates that the courts turn a blind eye to the disproportionate and prejudicial consequences that mandatory sentencing would have on low-income and minority communities, two demographics that are already significantly overrepresented in the criminal justice system.
As members of Parliament, we do not have the ability to consider the unique facts and circumstances of specific cases. Judges who have the facts, witnesses and evidence before them are the persons best placed to exercise such discretion, and we must authorize them to do so.
Certainly we could place limits on the exercise of this discretion as appropriate. We can define undue hardship and we can list factors that comprise it as to better guide judicial decision-making in this regard. We should not, however, pre-emptively cut off all access to this defence as impecunious litigants would be particularly penalized and punished, perhaps not even in proportion to the offence for which they have been prosecuted.
Our judiciary is well-equipped and qualified to make factual determinations and more than capable to apply the law fairly and impartially. Moreover, the reasoning of judges in specific instances is recorded in opinions that are public, reviewable and appealable, thus making our judiciary the ideal forum in which these types of decisions should be made.
During previous debate on the bill, the member for Kootenay—Columbia suggested that the proper solution for those offenders “who do not want to pay the victim surcharge” is to not commit crime.
Besides the generally flawed logic underlying this theory of deterrence, which presumes that potential offenders reference their copies of the Criminal Code prior to contemplating or committing a particular offence, I do not believe there is any evidence to suggest that because of the victim surcharge, any would-be criminals would reconsider their plans, nor do I believe that offenders, particularly first-time offenders, are even aware that such a thing as a victim surcharge even exists, let alone that it might be collected from them upon conviction in a court of law.
The new provisions in Bill C-37 would require the collection of the victim surcharge for all offences and yet, by the government's own acknowledgement, there exists so-called victimless crimes. I am curious if any government member could explain to me how, in cases such as hate speech criminalized under the Criminal Code, where exactly the government sees the collected victim surcharge going, particularly, if, indeed, in its view, such an offence has no victim.
As noted at the outset, this House stands united in its recognition of the importance of providing services, support and assistance to victims. That said, the Liberals reject the premise of the bill that social problems can easily be solved by simply increasing criminal penalties and that judicial discretion should be curtailed.
The undue hardship exemption that currently exists in section 737 enables judges to be mindful of the relationship between poverty and crime. By removing this discretion, Canadian judges will be unable to take this into account and, as such, the bill would ultimately exacerbate the existing economic burden experienced by low-income Canadians and their communities, exacerbate inequality, impact disproportionately and continue the vicious cycle of poverty and crime in which some Canadians are trapped.