Madam Speaker, it is always a pleasure to stand in this place to represent the constituents of Avalon. I am pleased to have the opportunity to provide an overview of some of the key areas of reform proposed in Bill S-4, an act that would amend the Criminal Code and the Identification of Criminals Act and make related amendments to other acts.
Bill S-4 would increase the efficiency and effectiveness of criminal proceedings by giving courts more flexibility and clarity in response to the particular challenges that arose in the pandemic. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the remote appearance provisions in the Criminal Code had just been reformed through a former bill, Bill C-75, in 2019. Those amendments had been informed by the 2013 report of the Steering Committee on Justice Efficiencies and Access to the Justice System, entitled “Report on the Use of Technology in the Criminal Justice System”, as well as consultations with provincial and territorial governments.
Bill S-4 continues to build on those reforms, taking into account new calls for reform by those working in the criminal justice system during the pandemic and courts' experiences with the increased use of technology that occurred as a result.
My remarks today will focus on the necessity of the proposed amendments relating to remote proceedings, which represent a continuation of existing legal practices here in Canada.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, criminal court proceedings were presumptively held in person. Remote appearances were permitted under the Criminal Code but were very much the exception. There were provisions in the Criminal Code to allow people to attend some proceedings by way of audio or visual connection, but since they were not routinely used, legal clarification or guidance was needed.
The pandemic had an abrupt and immediate effect on the operation of courts, as courts across Canada shut down for periods of time and had to figure out how to operate without in-person attendance or with very limited in-person attendance. To cope with the pandemic and maintain the administration of justice, including maintaining access to the courts, courts around the country pivoted away from in-person appearances and held numerous hearings and matters in a virtual space.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced changes to how courts operate. Unrestricted in-person appearances were no longer permitted, and initially courts were forced to adjourn the majority of appearances, ranging from pleas to trials. This created a backlog of cases in the court system that still needed to be heard, regardless of the circumstances of the pandemic. In many cases, having participants appear by video conference when possible allowed court operations to resume.
However, even with courts adapting and modernizing to address the challenges they faced during the pandemic, many remain unable to operate at their prepandemic capacity. Indeed, the median length of time for an adult case to resolve in criminal court increased when compared with prepandemic levels. Further complicating matters was the fact that the number of adult criminal court cases that exceeded the presumptive time limits set out by the Supreme Court of Canada in Jordan had increased significantly since the onset of the pandemic.
Bill S-4 targets changes to the Criminal Code that would give courts increased flexibility in how they hold criminal proceedings and how they issue orders such as search warrants and production orders in the context of an investigation. These changes are needed to address the ongoing pressures on the criminal court system brought to light by the COVID-19 pandemic and enhance access to justice for all Canadians, now and in the future. A key impact of these provisions would be a more efficient justice system that is equipped to serve Canadians and address the backlog of cases caused by the pandemic.
Allowing and continuing remote appearances is not just about responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote appearances would provide greater flexibility for courts to continue proceedings when it is not possible to do so in person for other reasons, such as natural disasters. During its study of the bill, the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs heard witness testimony about the closure of the Calgary courthouse during the floods of 2013. Due to the natural disaster, the court was forced to close proceedings for a period of time. Matters could not be heard and were adjourned.
The changes proposed in Bill S-4 make clear that certain proceedings can move ahead by audio or visual conference, even when in-person attendance is not possible or safe, allowing courts to operate as efficiently as possible in the interest of all participants in the criminal justice system.
While there has been acceptance of proceedings occurring by way of audio or video conference, the reforms included in Bill S-4 do not seek to make this the norm or default. Indeed, as before, the principle set out in the Criminal Code will continue to be: “Except as otherwise provided... a person who appears at, participates in or presides at a proceeding shall do so in person.” This principle would not change. Rather than upending the legal system, the bill would continue to allow the flexibility of proceedings in a manner that makes sense in the circumstances, with appropriate safeguards built in.
When considering whether to authorize remote proceedings, courts will be obligated to consider the impact on the safety of the participants, while supporting greater access to justice moving forward, including for those living in remote communities. Courts would also be required to ensure that decisions to authorize remote appearances are exercised in accordance with the charter, including the right of an accused person to make full answer and defence, and to have a fair and public hearing.
While Bill S-4 would clarify and expand when remote appearances are possible, it would not be the first to introduce these concepts into the Criminal Code. At committee, there were some concerns expressed over a judge's ability to assess the credibility of witnesses and accused persons during remote proceedings, as well as the importance of protecting an accused person's ability to face their accuser.
While these are important considerations the court must turn its mind to in each case, they are not unique to the provisions Bill S-4 would amend. Indeed, courts have found that seeing a complainant or witness face to face is not fundamental to our system of justice, and the Criminal Code has permitted remote attendance by witnesses for more than 20 years.
Subsection 800(2.1) has authorized summary conviction trials by video for in-custody accused since 1997. Sections 714.1 and 714.2 have permitted appearances by witnesses by video conference since 1999. Bill C-75, which was passed by this House in 2019, modernized and facilitated some appearances by audio and video conference of all persons involved in criminal cases, including judges, under certain circumstances.
Rather than overhauling criminal procedure, Bill S-4 would continue to permit proceedings by remote appearance. The bill would pick up where Bill C-75 left off, in light of the experience that was gained and the questions that arose with use of technology in the criminal courts during the pandemic. Bill S-4 would make practical and necessary amendments to the Criminal Code. These amendments would facilitate efficient operation of the criminal courts and have a direct impact on people who need or want to access the criminal justice system. The bill is not intended to make remote trials and hearings the norm, but rather would give the courts the flexibility to proceed in this manner when it is appropriate under the circumstances and where the technology exists.
These are limited but necessary reforms that have been developed in consultation with the provinces and territories and take into consideration the views of stakeholders. I am confident the bill and the proposed reforms would improve efficiencies in our criminal justice system while still providing careful oversight by the courts to ensure that the rights of accused persons and offenders are protected with the use of technology.
For these reasons, I urge all members to support Bill S-4.