Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise tonight to provide an overview of some of the key areas of criminal justice reform our government is tackling in Bill C-75.
In broad terms, the amendments in this legislation seek to promote efficiency in the criminal justice system, reduce case completion times, and speed up trials; reduce overrepresentation of indigenous peoples and marginalized peoples in our jails; and reduce systemic barriers that for far too long have prevented victims from coming forward, telling their stories, being heard, and being believed. All of these things are wrapped in our core objectives in Bill C-75, which will ensure that we are holding offenders to account, that we are ensuring that victims have their justice, and that we are keeping Canadians safe.
Before moving into the substance of my remarks, I would like to outline the origins and context that gave rise to the bill.
Before our government took office, there were delays and injustices in our criminal justice system. The opposition Conservatives would know something about that. In fact, they contributed to those delays.
It was for this reason that at the very outset of our mandate the Prime Minister gave the mandate to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada to undertake responsive and comprehensive reforms to improve our criminal justice system to enhance access to justice.
In undertaking this bold task, the minister has been listening. She has been listening to stakeholders. She has been listening to actors who intersect with the criminal justice system every day, right across the continuum. In fact, much of the bold legislative reform is the result of consultations with her federal, provincial, and territorial counterparts and responds directly to the concerns they have voiced.
Portions of the bill also address issues that were identified by the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs in its June 27 report “Delaying Justice is Denying Justice: An Urgent Need to Address Lengthy Court Delays in Canada”.
Of course, another primary impetus for these bold reforms is the Supreme Court of Canada decision in 2016 called Jordan, in which the court stressed the need for efforts by all those involved in the criminal justice system to reduce delays and increase efficiencies.
My observations today will be on five key aspects of the bill: modernization and streamlining of the bail system; improving the approach to administration of justice offences for adults and youths; restricting the use of preliminary inquiries to offences carrying a life sentence; reclassifying certain Criminal Code offences; and improving the composition of juries and the jury selection process.
Now let me elaborate on these five key areas.
First, the bill proposes to modernize the bail provisions of the Criminal Code, which have many outdated and unnecessarily complex or redundant provisions.
The bill would do this by consolidating the various police and judicial pre-trial forms of release currently in the code and simplifying the release processes; increasing the scope of the conditions police can impose, while providing guidance in regard to reasonable and relevant conditions to be imposed in light of the circumstances surrounding the offence and other factors, such as public safety; and imposing, consistent with the Supreme Court of Canada's 2017 decision in Antic, a “principle of restraint” so that police and judges are required to consider the least restrictive and alternative means of responding to a breach, rather than automatically detaining an accused, including limiting the use of “sureties”, which are persons who supervise an accused while on bail, ensuring that the release of an accused at the earliest opportunity is favoured over detention.
Once the bill is passed, police would also be required to impose the least onerous conditions necessary if an accused is released.
The changes made to the bail system would help modernize and streamline the provisions and save time and resources. They also seek to contribute to mitigating the disproportionate repercussions to accused who are indigenous or those who belong to vulnerable populations by ensuring that courts processing the bail applications and police officers take their specific situation into account when determining whether to detain them and impose conditions and, if so, the type of conditions.
Bill C-75 also includes reforms related to intimate partner violence, or IPV, and in doing so, follows through with our government's 2015 electoral commitments. It creates a definition of “intimate partner” that would apply to the entire Criminal Code, which includes a current or former spouse, common-law partner, and dating partner. A reverse onus will be imposed at bail for repeat IPV offenders.
This responds directly to the feedback that we have received from victims at round tables across the country. It will mean that an accused, rather than the crown, will have the responsibility to show why he or she should be released pending trial. These measures are necessary to take meaningful steps in ending intimate partner violence.
Finally, the bill would require the courts to consider whether an accused would be charged with an IPV offence when determining whether to release the accused on bail. These reforms target repeat offenders who have prior convictions or have been charged with an IPV. These reforms send a signal that our government is committed to meaningful and lasting reform, which protects women by focusing on deterrence.
I will now turn to the enhanced approach with regard to administration of justice offences. Administration of justice offences are offences committed against the criminal justice system after the commission of an initial offence. The most common of these offences is a failure to comply with a set of bail conditions, for example, disobeying a curfew or a failure to appear in court when required to do so.
Often offenders who have committed an offence and are released on bail are subject to conditions that can be challenging or impossible to comply with due to their life circumstances, for example, people who use public transit to get to work and due to the bus schedules would not make it home from work until after their curfew. Then, when these people breach their condition, they are recharged with a breach offence. This generates a cycle of breaching and charging which can result in an increased burden on systemic resources, without necessarily contributing to public safety, and capturing conduct that we do not want to penalize.
Bill C-75 would provide for a new judicial referral hearings process rather than the existing criminal justice process to deal with a charge for breach, to deal more effectively with certain minor administration of justice offences, for example, a breach of drinking alcohol contrary to the bail conditions. However, this could only occur if there were no harm to a victim, for example, physical, emotional, or financial, and it would also mean that rather than charging a person who breaches conditions or fails to appear in court, the police or prosecutor could refer the breach to a court that could in turn either dismiss the matter, vary the bail conditions, or revoke bail.
This new tool would also assist in reducing the overrepresentation of indigenous accused and marginalized groups by allowing for particular circumstances of those accused persons, for example, mental illness, addictions, and homelessness, to be considered in determining how best to address a breach. I submit to the House that those are precisely the types of policy prescriptions which will reduce overrepresentation of indigenous peoples in our jails right at the very outset of the criminal process system at bail.
I will now discuss how Bill C-75 is changing the way we approach preliminary inquiries.
Preliminary inquiries are optional hearings to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to commit an accused to trial. There is no constitutional right to a preliminary inquiry, as the Supreme Court of Canada has held in prior cases, and their uses vary across the country. In some instances, it is either complemented or even replaced by an out-of-court discovery process, pursuant to provincial rules of court or policy directives.
Bill C-75 would restrict the availability of preliminary inquiries to offences punishable by imprisonment for life. The bill would also allow the justice presiding at the preliminary inquiry to limit the scope of the inquiry to specific issues and to limit the witnesses to be heard on these issues.
Restricting preliminary inquiries in this manner will reduce demands on court resources, have more serious cases heard more expeditiously, and aim to reduce what is often called re-victimization, requiring victims or witnesses to testify more than once, both at the preliminary inquiry and then again, potentially, at a contested trial.
Again, consistent with other submissions I have made thus far, this is what we have heard from victims and communities across the country.
Let me turn to streamlining the classification of offences. I know this is something on which my colleagues across the aisle have commented frequently.
The Criminal Code categorizes offences as summary conviction, indictable or hybrid. Those are three general categories under which one offence will fall. This classification tends to indicate the degree of seriousness of the conduct covered by an offence, the available sentence range, and determines the mode of trial, for example, the level of court and whether a preliminary inquiry and/or a jury trial are available. However, some of these classifications are outdated and not always reflective of our societal values.
For example, only in exceptionally rare circumstances will the offence of damaging documents warrant a prison sentence greater than two years. Therefore, it makes sense for the prosecutor to be able to choose a more efficient procedure if the facts do not warrant a longer-term sentence. In other words, it will make sense to trust the independence of the crown to exercise its judgment in the best tradition of the crown so we save our scarce judicial resources and can get to the more serious trials, like murder and those tragic cases we hear about so often in the chamber. I urge my Conservative colleagues in particular to give reflection to this measure, which will indeed help access to justice.
Bill C-75 proposes to hybridize indictable offences punishable by a maximum penalty of 10 years or less. It would increase the default maximum penalty for summary conviction offences to two years less a day. It would also extend the limitation period for summary conviction offences to 12 months from the current 6 months.
These reforms provide increased flexibility to the crown to select the most appropriate procedural route in light of all of the circumstances of the case and are expected to result in cases being heard more quickly, thereby reducing delays.
I will now speak to how our government is improving the jury process.
Under section 11 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, accused persons charged with an indictable offence carrying a maximum penalty of five years or more are guaranteed a right to a trial before an impartial jury of their peers. This does not extend to a jury of a particular composition nor to one that proportionately represents all the diverse groups in Canadian society, as the Supreme Court of Canada found in the R. v. Kokopenace case.
To improve the efficiency of the jury selection process and enhance public confidence in the process by promoting the empanelling of more impartial, more representative juries, Bill C-75 would be achieving several aims. First, it would abolish peremptory challenges of jurors by the crown and the defence. Second, it would allow the judge to direct that a juror stand by for reasons of maintaining public confidence in the administration of justice. Third, it would update the grounds for challenging a juror for cause. Lastly, it would allow the judge to determine whether a ground of challenge is true.
Bill C-75 seeks to ensure that our criminal justice system is more efficient, more effective, more fair, and more accessible. The bill demonstrates that our government is following through with platform commitments and it is following through on those platform commitments on the basis of a bedrock of consultation that has been exercised across the continuum. We have listened to victims. We have listened to stakeholders. We have listened to those individuals on the judiciary with whom we work very closely. This has contributed to a very constructive dialogue. More important, for the benefit of all Canadians, it is legislation that is principled, that is based in evidence, and that will improve the quality of the criminal justice system for all Canadians.