Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in this House today to discuss, in particular, part 3 of Bill C-20 that would enact an act respecting the suspension or extension of time limits and the extension of other periods as part of the response to the coronavirus disease 2019.
As members are all aware, the COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges on several fronts, not only for individual Canadians and businesses, but also for the operations of federal and provincial governments. Governments are working hard to respond to the pandemic and protect the well-being and safety of Canadians. Today, I would like to speak about one particular set of challenges that we are proposing to address with this legislation.
This issue has important implications on the rule of law, as well as significant practical implications not only for our justice system but also for the federally regulated sphere in which individuals are governed and businesses operate. I am referring to the issue of fixed statutory deadlines.
Members may wonder what these deadlines are. Canadians normally rely on the certainty of knowing that, if they have a decision from a court, there is a limited time to bring an appeal. They want to know that if they are in a process of trying to comply with a requirement, such as working with creditors, they will not be in default and subject to serious consequences, through no fault of their own, if they continue to follow the steps set out in the law.
Overnight, the certainty offered by fixed time limits became an obstacle rather than a comfort. If an act provides no discretion to extend time limits, there could be serious consequences for Canadians.
Let us take the example of someone who wants to challenge the terms of a divorce settlement ordered by a judge. Suppose this person has lost their job and is caring for the children at home. If the current situation prevents the person from filing an appeal within 30 days as required by the Divorce Act, that person is out of options.
Let us also consider employees under federal jurisdiction who work in essential sectors like transportation and need valid certification. The pandemic could be making it hard or even impossible for them to renew their certification. Can we expect businesses to continue to operate without that certification, potentially putting themselves at risk?
The measures in this bill will provide a level of certainty that will enable individuals, businesses and the government to focus on maintaining or resuming operations in the context of the pandemic.
I am therefore pleased to present a series of measures grouped in one act, an act respecting the suspension or extension of time limits and the extension of other periods as part of the response to the coronavirus disease 2019. The short title of this act is the time limits and other periods act with regard to COVID-19.
The act would apply to two categories of problematic time limits that require immediate attention: first, time limits in civil proceedings, and second, legislative time limits and periods set out in federal acts and regulations.
With respect to civil litigation, should deadlines not be extended, it would risk forcing people to choose between ignoring public health advice and protecting their legal interests for preparing for or attending court. This risk is highest for self-represented litigants, who many not know where to go or what to do to secure their legal rights in the current circumstances. Chief justices have done as much as they can within their powers and have asked for a more complete solution from the federal government. Other stakeholders, such as the bar associations, have also called for the federal government to act quickly.
A number of federal laws include deadlines, and failure to meet these deadlines could have serious and irreversible consequences for Canadians and for Canada as a whole. Even government activities have been affected by the pandemic. A large amount of resources is being allocated to the fight against COVID-19, which prevents us from supporting other activities and meeting certain deadlines.
Under the Food and Drug Regulations, the sale of drugs intended for clinical trials is authorized by default unless Canada sends a notice of refusal before the specified deadline. If we cannot meet these deadlines, Canadians' safety could be at risk. In addition, many companies and organizations will now have more time to hold their annual meetings, without having to ask the courts for an extension.
These are only a few examples. There are many others. If Parliament does not take action and find solutions, Canadians will soon feel the real-life consequences. It is important to point out that several provinces have recognized the need to extend legal and regulatory deadlines and have acted accordingly.
British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick have taken measures to suspend or extend time limits in proceedings under their emergency legislation. In some cases, these provinces have also extended deadlines not related to proceedings. Of course, no provincial measures can resolve the issue of time limits in federal legislation. Newfoundland and Labrador and Manitoba have also passed legislation giving them similar powers.
Our government also received feedback from various stakeholders and parliamentarians on this legislative proposal and considered their comments, as members will see from changes to the bill resulting from those considerations.
The purpose of the bill is clearly set out. It is to temporarily suspend certain time limits and to temporarily authorize the suspension and extension of certain other time limits in order to prevent any exceptional circumstances from making it difficult or impossible to meet those timelines and time limits. It also aims to temporarily authorize the extension of other periods, for instance the validity of licences, in order to prevent unfair or undesirable effects that may result from their expiry in the current circumstances.
It is clearly stated at the outset that the bill is to be interpreted and to provide certainty in legal proceedings and ensure respect for the rule of law and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I want to emphasize that the bill would not apply in respect of the investigation of an offence or in respect of a proceeding respecting an offence, nor does it apply in respect of a time limit or other period that is established by or under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act.
The bill is divided into two substantive parts, one dealing with civil litigation and one dealing with a limited number of regulatory deadlines. For civil litigation, the new act would provide for the suspension of civil limitation periods established in federal legislation. These include time limits for commencing a civil proceeding before a court, for doing something in the course of proceedings, or for making an application for leave to commence a proceeding, or to do something in relation to a proceeding. These provisions would apply to any court referred to in federal legislation.
The suspension is for a maximum period of six months, which starts on March 13 of this year and ends on September 13 of this year, or an earlier day to be fixed by order of the Governor in Council. Even though the suspension of limitation periods will be automatic, the legislation is flexible in nature. Courts will be empowered to vary the length of a suspension when they feel it is necessary, as long as the commencement date of the suspension remains the same and the duration of the suspension does not exceed six months. They will also have the power to make orders to remedy a failure to meet a time limit that is later suspended. In addition, to deal with the possibility of unintended consequences, the Governor in Council may lift a suspension in specified circumstances.
Once again, the duration of the suspensions or extensions cannot exceed a maximum of six months. It is important to point that out. This also includes renewals. The orders do not apply in respect of a time limit or other period that ends on December 31, 2020, nor can they be used to extend a time limit beyond December 31, 2020. What is more, the suspension provided for by an order cannot allow a time limit to continue after December 31, 2020.
However, ministerial orders can be retroactive to March 13, 2020, and can include provisions respecting the effects of a failure to meet the time limit or of the expiry of a period that was then suspended or extended. In order to provide some flexibility, orders may provide that a suspension or extension applies only with the consent of the decision-maker in question or that the decision-maker can refuse to apply the order or make changes regarding its application.
We recognize the unique nature of this legislation. As such, numerous safeguards have been built into the bill right from the beginning. First and foremost, the bill clearly indicates that the powers to make orders cannot be used after September 30, 2020. It also ensures that no order can remain in effect after December 31, 2020. The bill would also give the Governor in Council the power to make regulations restricting or imposing conditions on the power of ministers to make orders regarding time limits and other periods.
What is more, in order to ensure full transparency and ensure that Canadians are being kept informed of what is being done, the new law will require that a ministerial order or order in council regarding suspensions or extensions, together with the reason for making them, be published on a Government of Canada website no later than five days after the day on which it is made for a period of at least six months. It must also be published in the Canada Gazette within 14 days after the day on which it is made.
That is very important. It is a way of ensuring that all parties and all stakeholders are made aware of the extension or suspension of the provisions of this act.
As is clear from this overview, our proposed legislation is targeted, flexible and transparent. It provides the certainty that all Canadians deserve when dealing the legal system, while promoting the rule of law and giving needed flexibility in key regulatory areas. At the same time, it ensures that needed protections are in place and it recognizes the key role that Parliament plays in holding government to account.
For these reasons, I hope we will find support, not only from this side of the House but from the other side of the House, to make sure that we provide the needed flexibility that Canadians deserve during the pandemic, and to also make sure that they get that information to understand why we would need to prolong or suspend the measures that are applicable in this law.
I look forward to questions from hon. members.