moved that Bill C-54, An Act to amend the Criminal Code and the National Defence Act (mental disorder), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to speak to Bill C-54, the not criminally responsible reform act. The government introduced the bill because we want to ensure that public safety and the needs of victims receive the appropriate emphasis in the Criminal Code mental disorder regime. The mental disorder regime is the part of the Criminal Code that deals with accused persons who are found unfit to stand trial or not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder.
Before I describe what is in the bill, I would like to mention what is not proposed by the bill. First, the proposed reforms do not seek to impose penal consequences on people who have been found by the courts to be not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder. The bill is grounded on the need to protect the public from accused persons who pose a danger to society. This public safety objective forms the basis of the existing federal legislative regime on mental disorders and provides the justification for the proposed reforms as well.
Second, nothing in the bill would impact a mentally disordered accused's access to mental health treatment. It is well known that an increasing number of people who have become involved in the criminal justice system have mental health issues. These individuals pose unique challenges for police, courts and correctional officials. The government is committed to addressing the challenges posed by mental illness in the criminal justice system, and we have already made significant investments to improve the way offenders with mental health needs are managed. However, that is not the focus of the bill.
The not criminally responsible reform act does not apply to all individuals in the criminal justice system who have a mental illness. Rather, the bill focuses strictly on those who come within the purview of the Criminal Code's mental disorder regime and the corresponding provisions of the National Defence Act that deal with mentally disordered accused who are tried by a court. The mental disorder regime in both statutes applies only to individuals who have been found unfit to stand trial or not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder. Individuals who have a mental illness but have not been found unfit or not criminally responsible are dealt with in the traditional criminal justice system.
To better understand exactly who is captured by the bill, it is important to understand the concepts of unfit to stand trial and not criminally responsible. Unfit to stand trial and not criminally responsible are two distinct concepts in criminal law. The question of whether an accused is fit to stand trial can arise at any stage of the proceedings before a verdict is rendered. If an accused has been charged with a criminal offence but is unable, due to a mental disorder, to understand the nature or possible consequences of the trial proceedings or to communicate with a lawyer, then the court will make an order declaring the accused to be unfit to stand trial. Usually treatment will be administered so that the person becomes fit and is able to be tried, but until a person becomes fit to stand trial, he or she is dealt with under the mental disorder regime.
The question of whether or not an accused is criminally responsible for the offence charged focuses on the mental state of the accused at the time of the alleged offence. An accused may be found not criminally responsible due to a mental disorder if at the time of the alleged offence the person lacked the capacity to either appreciate what he or she did or to know that it was wrong.
Not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder was formerly referred to as not guilty by reason of insanity. The finding of not criminally responsible is neither a conviction nor an acquittal; it is a special verdict. Since a person found not criminally responsible is not convicted, the person is not punished or sentenced. Instead, the person is referred to the provincially established tribunal known as the review board, which is tasked with making decisions about the monitoring and supervision of mentally disordered accused persons.
Following a finding of unfit to stand trial or not criminally responsible, accused persons are subject to the mental disorder regime and are subject to the restrictions necessary to protect the public.
The Criminal Code sets out the review board's powers with respect to decision-making as well as various procedural and administrative provisions with respect to the holding of hearings, appeals, ordering of assessments, et cetera.
In determining which of the available orders should be made regarding a mentally disordered accused, the review board must take into account four factors: the need to protect the public; the mental condition of the accused; the reintegration of the accused into society; and the other needs of the accused.
Bill C-54, which is before the House, has three main components. First, it seeks to ensure that public safety is the paramount consideration when decisions are made about not criminally responsible and unfit accused. Second, it creates a new high-risk, not criminally responsible accused designation. Third, it enhances victim safety and victim involvement in the mental disorder regime.
With respect to the role of public safety in the review board decision-making process, Bill C-54 clarifies that public safety is the paramount consideration in the decision-making process. As I just mentioned, the current approach is to balance four factors, of which public safety is one. The approach in the not criminally responsible reform act is to ensure that public safety is at the forefront of decision-making. In addition to clarifying that public safety is the paramount consideration, our legislation would also codify the meaning of the term “significant threat to the safety of the public”. This is the test used to determine whether or not a review board should continue to supervise a not criminally responsible accused.
Some provinces have indicated that review boards are interpreting this test too narrowly. To ensure consistent application across the country, our bill would codify the meaning of “significant threat to the safety of the public” consistent with the way it was interpreted by the Supreme Court of Canada. It would clarify that the review board can continue to impose restrictions on a not criminally responsible accused who risks committing further criminal acts, even though he or she does not pose a threat of violence per se. For example, if the board is concerned about a not criminally responsible accused committing thefts or break-ins, it would be able to maintain jurisdiction over him or her and impose the necessary and appropriate conditions.
I would like to turn to one of the key features of Bill C-54. The bill proposes a new scheme that would permit the courts to designate certain non-criminally responsible accused as high risk. This high-risk accused designation would ensure that a person so designated would be held in custody and could not be considered for release by the review board until the designation was revoked by the court. A person found by the court to be a high-risk accused would not be entitled to unescorted passes into the community.
The high-risk not criminally responsible accused scheme would apply to the small number of accused who have been found not criminally responsible and who pose a higher threat to public safety. The scheme would permit a prosecutor to apply to the court for a designation when certain criteria were met.
First, it is important to note that the high-risk not criminally responsible scheme would apply to those found not criminally responsible. It would not apply to those who are found unfit to stand trial. The reason for this distinction is that an unfit accused has not yet been tried for the offence. It has not been proven that the person committed the acts that form the basis of the offence charged.
Further, if a person were not fit to stand trial, the person would also not be fit to participate in a hearing to determine whether he or she should be designated as a high-risk accused. If the accused is eventually tried and found to be not criminally responsible, he or she could at that point be subject to a high-risk designation, if the criteria were met.
Second, the high-risk designation process could only be launched with respect to a criminally responsible accused who was over the age of 18 years at the time of the offence. This is because the provisions of the Youth Criminal Justice Act already provide public protection from youth who are found to be not criminally responsible by, for example, the imposition of an intensive rehabilitative custody supervision order on young people with mental health issues who have committed serious or violent offences.
Third, the accused must have been found not criminally responsible for a serious personal injury offence. The existing mental disorder regime in the Criminal Code defines a serious personal injury as an indictable offence involving the use or attempted use of violence, conduct endangering life and a number of sexual offences listed in the Criminal Code.
If these criteria were met, the Crown could apply to the court for a finding of not criminally responsible if the accused was high risk. If the Crown made the application, the court would hold a hearing to determine the level of risk posed by the accused.
The court would make the finding that a non-criminally responsible accused was high risk in two circumstances. The first circumstance would be if the court was satisfied that there was a substantial likelihood that the accused would commit violence that could endanger the life or safety of another person. This is a higher level of risk than is currently required to maintain jurisdiction over a not criminally responsible accused, which is a significant threat to the safety of the public. In order to justify the increased restrictions on the high-risk, not criminally responsible accused, the higher threshold of “substantial likelihood” is used in the legislation.
The second circumstance when a court could make the high-risk designation would be if the court were of the opinion that the acts in question were of such a brutal nature as to indicate a risk of grave harm to the public.
Although the level of risk posed by a high-risk, not criminally responsible accused designated under this category would be lower than in the first circumstance, the nature of the actions that resulted in a serious personal injury that formed the basis for the application would point to the need for increased protection and restrictions.
The result of a high-risk designation would be that the accused would have to be detained in a hospital. The review board would not have the discretion to order an absolute or conditional discharge. Also, the high-risk accused would not be permitted to be absent from the hospital except for medical reasons or for any reason that was necessary for treatment. The absence would require an escort and a structured plan that had been put in place to address any risk related to the leave.
Generally, mentally disordered accused persons have their cases reviewed on an annual basis, but they may be extended up to two years in certain circumstances. Our bill would provide review boards with the discretion to extend the period between reviews to up to three years if the mentally disordered accused was found to be a high-risk, not criminally responsible accused.
The high-risk designation could only be revoked by a superior court of criminal jurisdiction. If, at a review hearing for a high-risk accused the review board is of the opinion that there was no longer a substantial likelihood that the accused would commit violence that could endanger the life or safety of another person, it could recommend to the court that the high-risk designation be revoked. If and when the review board made this recommendation, the court would have to hold a revocation hearing. After considering all the evidence, the court would determine whether there is no longer a substantial likelihood that the accused would commit violence that could endanger the life or safety of another person. If so, the court could revoke the high-risk finding.
However, the revocation would not result in an automatic discharge of the accused. Instead, the accused would be dealt with as a regular not criminally responsible accused and would be supervised by the review board until the person no longer posed a significant threat to the safety of the public, at which time he or she could be discharged.
The third component of the not criminally responsible reform act are provisions that enhance victim safety and victim involvement in the mental disorder regime.
Victims have raised concerns that their safety was not specifically being taken into consideration by review boards when decisions were being made.Victims also expressed concern that they had no way of knowing if and when a not criminally responsible accused was going to be discharged into the community. Victims would like an opportunity to have concerns with respect to their safety taken into consideration, and where necessary and appropriate, addressed in the conditions of discharge. Bill C-54 addresses these issues.
First, the bill would explicitly require that the safety of the victim be considered by courts and review boards when they make decisions with respect to persons found unfit and not criminally responsible.
Second, the bill would require the review board to notify the victim, upon request, if the accused person is to be released into the community. The amendment to make victim notification available upon request is a necessary component of this new notice requirement, as some victims do not want to be kept apprised of the release of an accused and may find notification to be an unwelcome reminder of the offence.
A third element intended to enhance victim safety is the specific power provided to review boards to order non-communication orders between mentally disordered accused and the victim. There is also a provision to specifically enable the review board to prohibit the accused from going to a specific place. The Criminal Code already provides such safeguards in the bail context. We think it makes sense to also include these powers in the proposed mental disorder regime reforms so they would also be available to review boards.
Finally, the bill would remedy a procedural matter raised in the 2012 decision of the Court of Appeal for Ontario. In the Kobzar case, the court struck down the provision that provides for an automatic suspension of an absolute discharge immediately following a crown notice of appeal. The proposed reforms would replace the automatic suspension of an absolute discharge with a discretionary suspension, if the judge is satisfied that the mental condition of the accused justifies the suspension and the appeal.
I have had the opportunity to discuss a number of these issues with my provincial and territorial counterparts. In fact, a number of them wrote to me about concerns they have, including the need to ensure that public safety is the paramount consideration in the decision-making process. I can confirm that my provincial and territorial counterparts support the idea of expressly making public safety paramount.
In closing, I think the bill effectively balances the right of the public to be adequately protected when mentally disordered accused persons pose a danger to society, with the rights of the unfit and not criminally responsible accused to be treated fairly and appropriately. I urge all members to support this important piece of legislation.