Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak to Bill C-29. I want to begin by saying we would like to see the bill returned to committee for further study.
The bill deals with accused who are basically unfit for trial, although it took a lot of reading to figure that out. I am not a lawyer and I do not think Parliament should be writing legislation that only lawyers can decipher. My colleague, the justice critic for the NDP, has put forward a bill asking for plain language policies in the House and in the drafting of our legislation.
Just very briefly, this is one of the most complex pieces of legislation before the House, mostly because of the intricate obtuse language in which it is written. The justice committee will need some time to review the bill to ensure that the offenders described in it do not lose the rights other offenders enjoy simply because they suffer from mental illness. It is a major concern because these are often the offenders who do not have adequate access to justice. I will borrow some information from my colleague from Regina—Qu'Appelle who has studied this problem in detail. Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that:
Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination....
Imagine that the rights conferred by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms were only available if they were affordable. Imagine if our rights to life, liberty and security were available only if we were sufficiently wealthy to secure them for ourselves. What if the right to have a court proceeding translated into a language that we understand were violated because the government stance is that only those who can afford to hire their own translators can enjoy these rights? What if our right to be fairly represented by counsel amounted to nothing more than our ability or inability to hire the best lawyer we could afford?
Naturally these requirements sound absurd, and so they should. Each of these situations is a violation in and of itself that no court of law should be allowed to tolerate. Luckily for Canadians the charter does not guarantee the rights and freedoms set out subject only to how much we could afford, at least not in theory. That is because the charter forms part of the Constitution, making it inviolable and uninfringeable. Truly it is the supreme law of Canada. Accordingly to this, then, none of the above mentioned absurdities could be allowed to arise or persist.
As with many things, that which is true in theory often fails to translate into truth in practice. In practice, the absurdities mentioned above represent realities for many Canadians who come into contact with the justice system. The reality is that governments at both the provincial and federal levels are currently subjecting our rights to their affordability.
This has been allowed to happen because disparities across the provinces, stemming directly from funding problems, are compromising our right to equal protection and benefit under the law. It is about time we actually practise what we codify as law. Pretty words will get chucked at the Bar and justice will too if we do not take action to restore accessible and affordable legal services across the provinces and territories.
Justice should not and cannot continue to be limited only to the rich and well off. If our legal system does not reflect that point, we run the risk of losing the validity of one of the most important pillars of a democratic society. The Constitution does not simply say that all Canadians are equal under the law. It also says that Canadians have the right to equal protection and equal benefit under the law.
Can it be said that a person who has a public defender appointed to them enjoys the same protection and benefit of the law as the defender who assembles a team of high profile lawyers? I would say not. It cannot be said that a person in British Columbia who is denied legal aid with their child custody and support claim receives the same protection and benefit of the law as the person in Manitoba, where those services are offered by legal aid. Nor can one pretend that the law offers equal protection and benefits to everyone when some people are forced to sacrifice more than others in order to have equal access to the courts. This, however, is a reality in Canada for far too many Canadians.
Therefore, this is what we believe needs to be done. First, we need to standardize legal aid coverage across the provinces. Differences between the provinces means differences between Canadians. Disparities in services mean that the likelihood of obtaining justice is dependent more on the administration of the law rather than the law itself.
If a service is offered in any of the provinces or territories, it should be available and in every other province and territory. This is not to say that legal aid has to cover every matter, but it does rightly require that a legal service provided for Canadians in one region be provided in every region, as provided for under the charter.
We believe also that we need to standardize legal aid eligibility across the provinces. To illustrate the disparities or arguably the injustices in legal aid, by way of example, assume that a Canadian earns $20,000 a year. If that Canadian lived in British Columbia or Manitoba where the financial eligibility criteria is capped at $23,000 and $27,000 respectively, they would be eligible for free legal services. If, however, the same Canadian lived in either Ontario or Quebec where the cap is $15,000 and $17,500 respectively, they would be denied these essential and otherwise unaffordable services. Therefore, access to the legal system should not be denied to Canadians based on their incomes.
We also need to revise the financial evaluation process so that it recognizes that families have priorities other than just paying to obtain justice, such as keeping their families fed and housed. Current guidelines for financial evaluation set aside a modest exemption for personal assets. After that, however, governments expect legal costs to be paid out of personal assets, such as one's bank account, car, RRSP or home.
Can it still be considered justice if a family is successful in their legal battle but has done so by losing their home, their vehicle or their retirement savings? Obviously not. That is why guidelines need to be more equitable and sensitive to an applicant's responsibility to feed, clothe and shelter their families.
For most Canadians, the barriers to obtaining justice is the sheer cost of legal services provided by lawyers. Rather than have the public engage the legal profession in an adversarial debate over how much lawyers should earn or what their services are worth, it should be recognized that the government and the legal profession are in the position to enter into a mutually beneficial relationship with the goal of providing the public with valuable services.
It is time to provide tuition credits as well for law school students. One way to provide more affordable, accessible counsel would be to increase the numbers of lawyers available. To this end, the government must recognize the increasing cost of law school and should explore the possibility of providing tuition credits or refunds to law school students who enter practice after graduation.
It is also time to provide tax incentives for pro bono work. In the interests of providing a greater number of lawyers to those who cannot afford it, the government should provide lawyers with greater incentives to represent those with lower incomes on a pro bono basis. This could be achieved by something as simple as a tax incentive or rebate for those lawyers who engage clients in the type of work.
Unless I have misread the charter, I thought the rights and freedoms of Canadians went far beyond provincial jurisdiction and I did not think we had to shell out our savings simply to look after inequitable legal costs in various provinces and not in others.
In closing, the NDP supports having this bill sent to committee for further study and further improvement, and we look forward to being involved in that process.