Mr. Speaker, I will begin my speech by assessing the merit of what is new about Bill C-32, which creates the Canadian victims bill of rights.
As I have done in the past, I will assess this bill's merits, meaning that I will focus on specific components of the legislation we are looking at today. Given that Bill C-32 is quite broad and I do not want stray off topic, my comments will address specific elements.
Some provisions in this legislation introduce changes to administrative rules and rules about the admissibility of evidence. During my speech, I will try to define the potential impact that this will have on the practice of criminal law, for both the prosecution and the defence.
I often try to relate bills to my former profession. That is why I will try to take the principles of the bill and apply them to the practice and reality of someone who practises law. That is my goal for the next few minutes.
I will also talk about the possibility of a victim's spouse testifying if the victim is deceased or incapable of acting on their own behalf, as long as the couple has been in a conjugal relationship for more than a year. That is one of the components of Bill C-32; however, the Canada Evidence Act already addresses that issue.
It seems to me, based on my evaluation, that the government is simply trying to take credit for that measure, since most Canadians are not necessarily aware of the subtleties of the Canada Evidence Act and the rules governing the presentation of evidence. It is quite possible that the government is introducing concepts in its bill that already exist and are automatically applied by lawyers, legal practitioners and those involved in the justice system. This would give the government a certain amount of media coverage.
This aspect of Bill C-32 merely codifies a pre-existing override to the best evidence rule. This rule is set out in the Canada Evidence Act and applies to all criminal and civil proceedings and any other matters under federal jurisdiction.
The best evidence rule is one of the first notions students learn in criminal law courses. According to this rule, jurists and judges must always try to find the best evidence. If a witness has evidence to present or wants to be heard, then technically, he or she must be allowed to testify.
The same is true under the Canada Evidence Act. Under Bill C-32, if victims are physically or emotionally unable to appear in court and testify as a result of the incident that occurred, their spouse could testify on their behalf. There are terms, conditions and technicalities that go along with that, and the victim and his or her spouse also must have cohabited for a period of at least one year, but the fact remains that the spouse could come and testify on behalf of a victim who is unable to do so.
The Canada Evidence Act already provides for that eventuality. Subsection 6(1) of the Canada Evidence Act, entitled “Evidence of person with a physical disability”, reads as follows:
If a witness has difficulty communicating by reason of a physical disability, the court may order that the witness be permitted to give evidence by any means that enables the evidence to be intelligible.
This provision covers any physical disability that would technically prevent an individual from testifying in court.
I would also like to quote subsection 6(2), entitled “Evidence of a person with a mental disability”, which reads as follows:
If a witness with a mental disability is determined under section 16 to have the capacity to give evidence and has difficulty communicating by reason of a disability, the court may order that the witness be permitted to give evidence by any means that enables the evidence to be intelligible.
What the government is trying to codify today with this victims bill of rights is, to a certain extent, already covered. My colleagues opposite will likely object and say that minor details have been changed and updates have been made, including the length of time that the couple must have been cohabiting before the spouse can testify on the victim's behalf. However, this eventuality is already covered. I will come back to the idea of updates later.
By way of information, I am going to read subsection 6(3), which says the following:
The court may conduct an inquiry to determine if the means by which a witness may be permitted to give evidence under subsection (1) or (2) is necessary and reliable.
The rules are flexible and apply case by case. The court has to determine whether, under the Canada Evidence Act, the witness who should technically give evidence as an individual is in full possession of his faculties and competent to do so. There is significant latitude and discretion here.
That is more or less how criminal law works on the ground. Judges enjoy significant latitude, and legal interveners in general enjoy significant latitude in applying the rules of evidence. I have seen situations in which witnesses were called to testify even if they were in a separate room or a special booth set up for that purpose. There is equipment set up in the courts to handle any situation, such as when it is a child or a victim who does not want to face the attacker. All kinds of situations are taken into account, and the justice system being what it is, it has to adapt to the realities and vagaries that come up from time to time in a jurist's life.
The main objective of the NDP legal experts assigned to study this bill in committee is to ensure that the Canadian victims bill of rights is a good fit with the Canadian justice system and responds to the victims' expectations and recommendations. That is the problem because aside from all the window dressing and highly publicized media events, we must first and foremost focus on the essentials. I keep saying, like a broken record, that we must focus on the position expressed not by just a few individuals or groups whose message provides a good sound bite, but also by all Canadians. In this case here, we know that there are many victims all across the country. Rather than using victims for purely utilitarian purposes, we must truly listen, take note and adjust our own legislative tools accordingly.
The bill before us has all the hallmarks of a utilitarian initiative geared toward gaining—