Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to Bill S-4, although I have to place it in the category of “better late than never”. This legislation responds primarily to what we learned as a result of court delays during the pandemic. How quickly we forget that the court system in Canada essentially shut down completely, sometimes for weeks and sometimes for months in different parts of the country, as a result of widespread illness and the fear of illness. Essentially, we had a collapse of the court system looming.
Therefore, in this Parliament, through all-party agreement, we enacted quickly some measures that allowed the courts to keep functioning during the pandemic. Most of those measures are now appearing here to become permanent, because they were adopted on a temporary basis. They would now be made permanent in Bill S-4.
We also tend to forget that this bill was on the Order Paper before the unnecessary election. Most of my constituents have completely forgotten we had a 2021 election. People talk to me about the last election as though it were 2019. However, this bill was one of the casualties of the Liberals' calling that election during the pandemic, and it died on the Order Paper.
Therefore, I am glad to be back here today talking about Bill S-4 and how to address delays in the court system.
It is very clear that we already had delays before the pandemic. In the period between the Supreme Court decision called “Askov” in 1990 and the decision called the “Jordan decision” in 2016, we had more than 50,000 criminal cases dismissed in the province of Ontario alone because of delays of the court system. This included literally hundreds of cases of sexual assault that were dismissed because of court delays.
Therefore, it is important that we tackle this in the long run and not find ourselves back in that situation where delays deny justice to the victims of what are quite serious and horrendous crimes, in many cases.
With the Jordan decision, the Supreme Court specified that depending on the seriousness of the case involved, a reasonable time to get to court is something between 18 months and 30 months. That is a deadline that we face in our court system. If we do not have the system functioning for that, we will see dismissals of cases again. We have large backlogs in the system as a result of the pandemic, and we are in danger of seeing more dismissals of cases again in the future if we do not get moving. That is why Bill S-4, which would improve the efficiency of the court system, is really important.
The other thing about delays is that they affect public confidence in the justice system, both for those who have been accused, who would like to see their case dealt with in a reasonable time and who have a right to that under our Constitution, and also for victims of crime, who do not want to see cases drawn out for months and years. Victims of crime do not want to have this necessity of reliving the trauma and having what happened to them come back again and again over long periods of time, so we have this important task in front of us to try to reduce those delays.
There are some obvious obstacles that would cause delays in court. I will give credit to the government that it has tried to tackle one of those obstacles, which is filling vacancies on the bench. In doing so, the government has paid a lot of attention to making the judiciary look a lot more like Canadians as a whole, and that is a good thing.
However, there is another way of reducing delays that the government would not take up the NDP proposal on, which would be reducing the number of things that we consider criminal offences. One of the things we did was put forward the proposal that we decriminalize the personal possession of drugs. This would have taken literally hundreds of cases out of our court system in which there is no victim to the crime. Also, for cases in which we are talking about the use of very serious drugs, it would help get them into the health care system instead of the criminal justice system. Therefore, the government has not always taken our advice on the best way to reduce delays, but we are glad to see the changes that are coming forward here.
I want to talk quickly about two major changes and then two other changes in this bill.
Probably the change that is most important for the elimination of delays is the change with respect to remote appearances. Previously, there was no provision in our system for the accused to appear by video in preliminary inquiries, in trials, for lodging pleas or for sentencing, so a lot of time was spent moving accused individuals around, back and forth to the courts, so they could appear in person.
The changes here will remove the necessity that was there to make sure someone was always in person for what was sometimes two minutes of a routine proceeding, for things like lodging a plea. It will also make a change to allow those who have been selected for possible jury duty to make their appearances by video or remotely and reduce the inconvenience to members of the public who might be called to jury duty.
That is an important section of the bill, to allow the greater use of technology and remote appearances.
The second part, probably not so publicly visible but related to efficiencies in the court and policing system, is the provision for updating telewarrants. Our law before the pandemic envisioned that for a narrow range of criminal cases only, a judge could be called by phone. What we found during the pandemic was that we could use remote technologies to expand the range of cases in which a warrant could be obtained through remote methods.
Again, the bill provides for a wider variety of cases where a wider variety of technologies can be used in order to get warrants. This will save the time of both judges and police in our system.
I have a couple of things I want to mention quickly. One is the changes in case management rules for the unrepresented. One of the problems we have in our court system is that while people have the right to appear in court unrepresented, a lot of people are not exercising some kind of right. Rather, they cannot afford a lawyer to assist them in their case because they do not qualify for legal aid. Perhaps they earn just enough money to be out of the range of legal aid programs.
I think it is a significant improvement, both in terms of case delays but also in terms of justice for ordinary Canadians, who cannot always afford to get a lawyer. This would allow court administrators to provide a lot more assistance to the unrepresented.
The justification is often the court delays, but I think there is a second justification that is important there, and that is improving access to justice for those who are unrepresented.
There is obviously a better solution, and that would be to expand legal aid, so that people do not end up appearing in court on serious matters unrepresented. Again, though, that takes a lot of federal-provincial co-operation, something that is sometimes in short supply in our legal system.
The fourth thing I want to talk about, and I mentioned it briefly, is the provisions that make it easier for the public who are called for jury duty to participate remotely. Here is an area in which I think we have a lot more to do. We need to make sure jurors are not in fact penalized by serving on a jury. In our federal system, most of the rules about compensating jurors are in provincial jurisdictions, even though they are sitting on cases under the federal Criminal Code.
We need national standards on how we compensate jurors and what kinds of things they are compensated for. When we look at how people are compensated for jury duty right now, it ranges usually between $40 and $100 a day. Very few people have compensation in terms of getting paid leave from their employers. It increases people's resistance to serving on juries. There are lots of other expenses that are covered in various ways in various provinces. Are meals covered? Is parking covered? The one that is most important to me, which is rarely covered, is child care.
The Province of Quebec allows compensation for child care on a case-by-case basis. I think it is on the basis of application. That is also true in Nunavut. I believe that is the only other place where there is compensation for child care. If we really want to make sure juries represent the breadth of Canada and the face of Canada, then parents quite often are going to be very reluctant to serve if they do not have compensation for the child care that is going to be required.
Some people might say they would already be going to work so they would have child care, but we have a lot of parents who make choices about who is going to stay home and do child care. If that person is summoned for jury duty, that is a big expense.
That is something that is not in the bill, but I look forward to our taking this spirit of co-operation we have on this bill and maybe making some progress on what I would call a national standard of how jurors are compensated for serving in this country.
I want to say again that we have broad agreement on the bill. That is a good thing. It took a long time to get it here, but maybe now that we are in gear it will not take so long to get it out of here and into committee, and maybe it will not take so long in committee to get it back to the House. I share the optimistic suggestion of my Conservative colleague, who wanted to see us get this done by Christmas. I think that would be a good thing, and I think we can all work toward that.
We do not always co-operate well in the House. Sometimes our divisions keep us from dealing expeditiously with things that are real problems. I think delays in the court system are a real problem, and I am very happy all parties have come together to try to address this in Bill S-4.