Mr. Speaker, I am happy to speak tonight to this important bill, Bill C-15, more commonly referred to as the military justice act. It is a bill that should have been dealt with Parliament long ago, but was delayed numerous times by the vagaries of the Canadian electoral system.
Unfortunately, as the bill stands now, I will not be speaking in favour at second reading. Despite still agreeing that the bill does represent a step in the right direction, this version omits key recommendations from the mandatory review process and it also omits recommendations that had already been accepted by all parties in the previous Parliament during debate on its predecessor, Bill C-41.
Certainly both sides of the House recognize the importance of the major reforms to our military justice system that took place in 1998. One of those important progressive provisions was the requirement that there be a mandatory five-year review of the impact of those changes in our military justice system.
The first review was completed by the very distinguished former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Mr. Justice Lamer, in September 2003. His conclusion was that our military justice system was generally working well, but it was not without room for improvement. Therefore, he then submitted 88 recommendations for improvements to that justice system.
Since that time, by most counts, only about 28 of those recommendations have been dealt with, either in legislation or in administrative changes. That still leaves 60 recommendations outstanding.
Mr. Justice Lamer made recommendations in three main areas. The first of those was action to increase the protection for the independence of military judges. The second area was for actions to improve the current grievance process. The third area was actions to address efficiencies in the overall military justice framework.
Tonight I want to talk largely about how well Bill C-15 does in terms of implementing those outstanding recommendations made by Mr. Justice Lamer. When we look at Bill C-15, what we find is a very mixed record.
The recommendations in the first area of independence of military justice were dealt with last fall with all party support. They were separated out into Bill C-16, due to the deadline Parliament had been given by a decision of the Military Court Martial Appeal Court in the case of Regina v. Leblanc, and that deadline was met with royal assent last November.
I mention this specifically because it demonstrates that with goodwill on both sides of the House, we can get reforms that are needed through the House of Commons in a timely fashion. What I see missing in this draft of the bill is that goodwill to respect opinions on all sides of the House.
The second area that Mr. Justice Lamer made recommendations in was the area of improvements to the current grievance system. Lamer judged the current process unsatisfactory, largely due to its failure to deal with grievances in a timely manner and then the resulting backlog of grievances that came about as a result of that untimely dealing with problems.
His conclusion was that the basic principles of the grievance system were sound, but that its operation was not sound. At the time of his report, there were over 800 grievances outstanding and he pointed out the fact that grievances were often stuck at the office of the Chief of Defence Staff for more than two years.
Lamer suggested a 12 month limit be placed on grievances, that they would have to be dealt with within that time period. However, he also suggested some ways that deadline could be met, but it required several things to happen.
If the Chief of Defence Staff were able to delegate responsibility for some grievances to subordinate officers, that would speed up the process. That provision is in Bill C-15 and has been in all the previous bills.
The other two things are not actually legislative action and unfortunately they have not taken place.
The second of his recommendation on grievances was that adequate resources needed to be made available so that grievances could proceed in a timely fashion. The main reason for the delay was not enough people and not enough resources to deal with those grievances.
His third recommendation was providing additional training to those members of the Canadian Forces who were actually dealing with grievances, so they became more skilled in getting resolution of the grievances at a low level and were able to therefore move on to deal with more serious grievances.
As I said, only the first of these is in the bill. The other two would be very difficult to manage now, in view of the large cuts to the DND budget this year. They require more resources for the grievance system and they require more resources for training. I have my doubts about whether those would be available, given the large cuts in this year's budget.
The other reform not included in this bill to do with grievances was one which was adopted as an NDP amendment to Bill C-41, the previous version of this bill. That was an amendment to add critical balance to the representation on grievance committees. Therefore, I am at a loss as to why the government would not have included this amendment, which was already accepted in the previous Parliament, and which would go a long way to helping restore credibility to the grievance committee system by having a good representation of difference kinds of members of the Canadian Forces on those committees.
In his third area of recommendations we probably have the most important recommendations for redressing the balance within the military justice framework as a whole. In talking about these, Justice Lamer set out four principles to guide that system. I want to take a moment to talk about those principles because I think it is important to keep them in mind as we are talking about this bill.
The first of those, and I shall quote Mr. Lamer, was to recognize that “maintaining discipline by the chain of command is essential to a competent and reliable military organization”.
What he is pointing out there is that discipline depends on a well-functioning grievance and justice system. Therefore, it is not a challenge to that system to have a good grievance system; it is a support to that discipline system. It is not a challenge to have a good justice system; it is a support to discipline within the military.
The second principle he raised is that it was necessary to recognize the particular context of the military justice system. I will quote him at length here because what he said was that we:
...need to have a system that will properly operate under those special conditions that our men and women are placed in, often abroad, under conditions from peacekeeping to peace-making, in what is often a hostile environment, and indeed sometimes outright war.
Mr. Justice Lamer did not say there should not be a system for summary convictions or expedited justice. He recognized that sometimes these things are necessary. However, he also recognized that we can do these things within the framework of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and within a system that is just and fair to all the members of the Canadian Forces.
The third point or principle underlying these reforms to the framework that he mentioned was that those “who risk their lives for our country deserve a military justice system that protects their rights in accordance with our Charter” of Rights and Freedoms.
What he is saying there is that, like all other Canadian systems, but in particular because members of the Canadian Forces risk their lives in the service of their country, they deserve the protection of the rights that are in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because that is what we are asking them to defend as members of the Canadian Forces.
His fourth principle said that it was necessary to recognize that any doubts about the military justice system and any lack of confidence in the military justice system would have negative impacts not just on discipline but also on morale within the Canadian Forces. Therefore, it becomes very important to deal with concerns about injustice in a timely fashion in order that the esprit de corps and the sense of common purpose can be maintained in the Canadian Forces.
By laying out those four principles, what he was saying is that the context that the military justice operates in makes it particularly important that we operate a model system.
Bill C-15 does make progress in two areas. I am prepared to acknowledge that.
One is in placing limits on the power of arrest without warrant under the existing sections 155 and 156 of the National Defence Act. Two court cases had already brought these wide powers of arrest without warrant into question, and Bill C-15 addresses this problem by incorporating Mr. Justice Lamer's recommendations.
The second area in which it makes progress is in providing for more flexible sentencing. Again, as recommended by Lamer, this would bring military justice in line with civilian justice in Canada by adding new sentencing options, including absolute discharges, intermittent sentences and restitution orders.
Those are two areas of progress I am prepared to acknowledge. Unfortunately, some of the most significant recommendations from Mr. Justice Lamer's report are missing from Bill C-15. That is why I am unable to support the bill at second reading.
One in particular I would like to highlight from Mr. Lamer's report deals with section 129 of the National Defence Act. That section establishes a general prohibition against conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline. That is something no one could disagree with, given the context the military operates in. Unfortunately, as Mr. Justice Lamer noted, there is a lack of clarity in that section as to what the requisite elements of an offence are under this section or, in common language, what it is one has to do to violate this section is not clear. We might ask why Justice Lamer would focus on such a technical matter involving a single section of the defence act.
What he pointed out was that in the last year before his report, 44% of all charges in the military justice system were under this single section, where exactly what one has to do to be in contravention is unclear, and that this section also generated a large proportion of the appeals in the military justice system. This is what I would call a very major problem in terms of acceptance of the justice system, in terms of discipline and in terms of morale, and resulting from this lack of clarity it is not dealt with in Bill C-15, and it is a major omission.
It is so major, in fact, that it raises the general question of why most of the other 60 recommendations have not been included in Bill C-15. What was the standard by which the government sorted through and decided some of these deserve to stay and some of them have to go?
The second major omission that many of my colleagues have spoken about is the failure to reform the summary trial system. Again, the summary trial system, according to Mr. Lamer, in normal times accounts for about 96% of all cases in the military justice system. The major concern we have noted here is the possibility of summary trial convictions leading to criminal records, something that has a great impact on the future prospects of those convicted, both their prospects within the military and their prospects should they choose to leave the Canadian Forces. Again, in its last incarnation as Bill C-41, NDP amendments were adopted to expand the number of offences considered minor from 5 to 27, and this would reduce significantly the number of convictions that could result in a criminal record.
A further failure of Bill C-15 is its failure to address the need to strengthen the role of the Military Police Complaints Commission so that it can act as an effective oversight body with full investigative powers and the unfettered right to report to Parliament.
There is one other concern that Lamer had, which is perhaps not surprising, but is not addressed in this bill. He did acknowledge that all the solutions are not legislative in nature. This concern was the general under-resourcing of the military justice system. Lamer pointed in particular to the under-resourcing of the defence counsel services, where the number of defence lawyers in the Canadian military was equal to the number of judges and that number was four. So not having enough people to provide defence counsel contributed to these lengthy delays in the actual justice system in getting cases through the court.
A further particular concern with resourcing came about at CFB Esquimalt in my riding. That is the cuts that have been made to alternative dispute resolution programs. These cuts that have been made in this budget would result in the phasing out of the alternative dispute resolution program at CFB Esquimalt by March 2014.
Now why am I talking about this as part of Bill C-15? I would say we have had a proven success rate in reducing the number of grievances and the number of behaviours that result in discipline by having an effective alternative dispute resolution program operating on the base. We can look at the number of cases that were dealt with in alternative dispute resolution and we can look at the number of grievances and see that the number of grievances has gone down. We can look at the number of cases dealt with in alternative dispute resolution and see that the number of discipline cases has gone down. Why on earth would the government want to cut the funding to alternative dispute resolution at the base? What the Conservatives say is that there is no explicit mandate for alternative dispute resolution services anywhere in the National Defence Act.
However, as I said, it flies in the face of the proven results of the alternative dispute resolution program in having a significant impact on reducing recourse to formal grievance procedures and in reducing the incidence of behaviours that would result in formal discipline proceedings. It is a great shame to see this program being phased out at the base.
I conclude my remarks about this bill by saying, once again, that I believe Bill C-16 last fall demonstrated the ability of all parties to co-operate to get important reforms adopted quickly in the House of Commons. Once again, I am perplexed as to why this bill ignores previously agreed upon amendments and ignores key recommendations from Mr. Justice Lamer. For that reason, I cannot support this bill at second reading.
Let me restate the importance of improvements to our military justice system. As I said, it is extremely important to one of those fundamental principles, and that is maintaining discipline in a chain of command.
It is extremely important to maintaining morale within the Canadian Forces, but it is also a right of those who serve. Therefore, we owe nothing less to the members of the Canadian Forces than to give them the same rights and the same protections, albeit in a special context, that are given to all other Canadians.
Members of the Canadian Forces are held to a high standard of discipline. They are asked to risk their lives, and therefore our judicial system should reflect those sacrifices they make on behalf of all of us. Those who risk their lives for our country should not be denied their charter rights when facing things like summary trials.
Other countries have recognized this issue and have changed their summary trial process. I heard my colleagues previously listing countries like Australia, Britain and Ireland. It is time for Canada to catch up in this area.
Ensuring that our military justice system ranks as a model system and a system of which all Canadians, both members of the Canadian Forces and the public at large, can justifiably be proud of should be the goal of Bill C-15. Once again, I have to question the government's motives in putting forward a bill that rejects those previously agreed upon compromises that help us accomplish that goal.
My final remarks go back to the important innovation we had in 1998, a five-year review. We had that review from Mr. Justice Lamer. We had a more recent review completed. We know what needs to be done here in the military justice system, and it is left now to us to find a way to come together in Parliament to get that done. We on this side of the House have said we will not support the bill at second reading. We would urge the government to take another run at this, one that recognizes the things that had already been agreed upon.
I want to go back to talk a bit more about the grievance system. It would be an easy thing for the Chief of the Defence Staff to adopt a 12-month limit for dealing with grievances, if we had that provision that allowed him to delegate some of that responsibility to his subordinates. It would not be so easy for him to do so in the context of cutbacks to the DND budget for this year. Therefore, those adequate resources for dealing with grievances will not be available, I am certain, and adequate resources for training those who deal with grievance procedures will not be available, likely, because of these large budget cutbacks.
I wonder where the consistency is in the government's commitment to the military and the commitment to improving the military justice system, when it is proceeding with such large cutbacks on an annual basis. I just cannot square that circle. Once again, if they are concerned about efficiency, I would go back to programs like the alternative dispute resolution program at CFB Esquimalt in my riding and ask why that program, instead of being cut, is not being piloted at all the bases across the country as a way of trying to get the problem solved at the lowest level without resorting to the formal processes that take so long and consume so many resources and without leaving Canadian Forces members so unhappy that they often engage in behaviours that provoke discipline and then invoke the military justice system.
We have some good alternatives here. We have some good ideas. We know where we need to go in reforming the military justice system. Again, I just cannot understand the lack of goodwill of the government in introducing Bill C-15 in this form when we have had so much experience in previous Parliaments and we know what it takes to get all of us on to the same page and improving the military justice system for the benefit of all the members who serve in the Canadian Forces.