Madam Speaker, the Liberal Party will be supporting the bill going to committee to study various aspects that have raised questions such those my colleague has just touched on.
As the member who is sponsoring the bill mentioned, it is very important that offenders be accountable. Therefore, the principle that underlies the bill is a good one. Liberals have always believed in personal accountability. It is a tenet of liberalism and, of course, that extends to offenders who are serving time for the crimes they have committed.
It would have been interesting if the sponsor of the bill had provided some concrete examples of situations where victims have suffered because of the absence of such legislation. It leaves us wondering whether the bill is responding to a real problem, or whether it is more of a theoretical exercise.
It is important for anyone watching at home to understand that this is not what has been referred to in the past as profits from crime legislation, introduced under a previous Liberal administration. The purpose of that legislation was to confiscate the proceeds earned by a criminal who, for example, wrote a book about his or her crime. That legislation, Bill C-205, an act to amend the Criminal Code and the Copyright Act, was introduced in 1996 by the Liberal member from Scarborough. That bill would have prohibited a criminal from profiting by selling or authoring a story of their crime. However, this is not what we are dealing with here. It is important that the two ideas not be confused.
The reason I bring up Bill C-205 is that, despite its good intention and good principle upon which it was based, it did not complete the legislative process because of the election. However, even a similar bill did not complete the legislative process. It was deemed unconstitutional when it was debated in the House because it violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. More than that, the issue fell under provincial jurisdiction because it is a matter of property, which is generally dealt with under civil actions within provincial jurisdiction.
Bill C-350 does raise some comparable issues about jurisdiction. In fact, as my hon. colleague from the NDP mentioned in his speech, Bill C-350 had a predecessor, Bill C-292. Unfortunately, that bill did not make it to the stage of adoption precisely because of jurisdictional problems.
I will read a quote from the researcher of the committee, Michel Bédard, who presumably was looking at the bill, but this was before I was appointed to that portfolio. He said:
I have doubts as to the federal government's power to pass provisions of this kind. It's important to understand that, according to the division of powers in Canada, property and civil rights fall within provincial jurisdiction. Under that head of power, the provinces have jurisdiction over contracts and all private law, including debt priority ranking. That includes debts owed to creditors, in particular.... It's important to realize that federal jurisdiction regarding debt priority ranking is limited to certain well-defined areas, such as bankruptcy, tax collection and banks.
In other words, this new debt priority ranking cannot be connected back to bankruptcy law, to banks, to tax collection or other areas of federal jurisdiction. What he is saying is that Bill C-292 had nothing to do with these areas where there would be a federal role. That is something we are going to have to discuss at committee when the bill gets there.
I believe that the committee researcher expressed the same reservations about Bill C-350. Again, this is going to have to be discussed at committee, which does not take away from the hon. member's noble motives in wanting to protect victims and underscore the need for offender accountability.
There may be a way in which the bill is constitutional, but there are some doubts. Establishing a debt priority ranking is a power, as I said, usually given to the provincial government. Bill C-350 uses this concept and applies it to a criminal matter where the federal government does have jurisdiction under subsection 91(27) of the Constitution Act of 1867. However, the constitutionality of this manoeuvre is open to debate.
Section 2(a), on using crown funds to repay spousal and child support debt, deals with a tricky issue. While it is true that the government does have jurisdiction over marriage, it may depend on how a judge interprets this provision. For example, a court could interpret the provision to apply only to all legally married couples. Furthermore, as stated above, the federal government can legislate in the area of marriage and divorce. However, there are certain parts of marriage and divorce law that have been delegated to the provincial courts. The nuances of such a relationship require further study.
Sections 2(b) and 2(c) of Bill C-350 use the Criminal Code provisions of restitution orders to establish a debt priority for victims and third parties, as well as victims' surcharges. Restitution is defined as equity aimed at restoring a person to whom a duty was owed to the position in which he or she would have been had the duty not been breached. It does this through a variety of remedies, including compensation. It could be argued in regard to restitution orders requiring an offender to pay financial compensation to a victim or third party that the federal government is legislating in a provincial area.
The constitutionality of restitution orders, as a federal power, was upheld most recently in R v Zelensky in 1978. However, Bill C-350 goes much further than the Zelensky decision in that it elevates restitution orders in the debt priority ranking. Bill C-350 establishes that payment to parties outlined in the bill receive priority over any other debts or fees incurred as a result of the offence. Currently, restitution orders are placed on the same level of priority as other provincial fees levied during the criminal court process, like administrative fees and fines.
There is another interesting aspect. What happens if the offender is innocent and after doing his or her time in prison wins a court case whereby their innocence is proved? Are there measures to reverse the situation to take care of that eventuality?
This will all be studied at committee and I look forward to doing that.