Madam Speaker, I would like to begin by saying that we are going to vote for this bill, albeit somewhat reluctantly, as the bill has clearly been cobbled together and is deeply flawed. Still, it is true that Parliament must give the impression that it is doing something about major fraud of the sort that has made the headlines in recent years, especially in the financial sector.
We will vote for this bill, even though it provides for a minimum sentence. I am confident that the sentence will likely never be imposed, for the good reason that frauds over $500,000 or $1 million have always led to much longer sentences than two years, which is what the government wants to add.
Nevertheless, it is disturbing because, as usual, when the government sets minimum sentences, it is thinking of the worst criminals. The government tends to forget that minimum sentences do not apply just to the worst criminals, but also to minor accomplices to crime.
I get the feeling, though, that this law is so complicated that no one will dare apply it to people who have played a lesser role in frauds of $1 million, such as the telephone operator for a business or a secretary in an office.
The government is forgetting that the definition of “accomplice”, which the Criminal Code calls “parties to offence” or “participants à une infraction” in the poor French that is a direct translation of the English, applies only if there is abetment. Subsection 21(1) states:
Every one is a party to an offence who
(a) actually commits it;
(b) does or omits to do anything for the purpose of aiding any person to commit it; or
(c) abets any person in committing it.
Paragraph (b) is the most significant.
This has to be coupled with the doctrine of wilful blindness. The doctrine of wilful blindness means that an individual has to know something in order to commit an offence. Knowledge is therefore a key element. In the case of a company that begins systematically defrauding its clients, as Vincent Lacroix's companies did, when some people begin to suspect that activities or money collected for clients are being used to defraud people, they cannot use the excuse that they did not know because, in fact, they had suspicions but may not have wanted to ask any questions.
This doctrine may apply to the employees of a company that has every appearance of legality at first or the employees of a brokerage firm that misuses funds and where people play minor roles, such as a young bond seller who did not initially think the money he was collecting would be used for that purpose.
This brings me to the clerical staff, who at some point begin to wonder if the business is in fact seriously involved in fraud worth millions of dollars. I do not think anyone would even consider sentencing these people to two years in prison. However, they are accomplices if they decide to stay, given that, by continuing to perform their duties, they are encouraging the company to continue committing fraud.
Wilful blindness is important because clearly, the secretary, junior salesperson or telephone operator is going to realize sooner or later that the company is not a regular investment firm, but rather has a criminal purpose. At some point, they will say they had their doubts, but that they were just secretaries after all. Consider the example of the Canadian woman who was caught in Mexico around six months or a year ago, who said exactly that about some frauds that had been committed.
When someone suspects that something may have an illegal purpose, but refuses to ask any questions because they do not want to know the answer, that is known as wilful blindness. Wilful blindness is the same as knowing. That theory is beginning to be widely accepted in drug-related cases. Looking at a real case, someone is asked to bring back some scuba diving tanks. He decides to do it for someone he has met only once, who offers to pay him well for doing so—more in fact, than the actual value of the tanks. He does not know what is inside, and does not want to know. When he is arrested, he will be very surprised to learn that the tanks were full of drugs. This is an example of wilful blindness regarding what was in the tanks. Accordingly, he would be guilty of importing the drugs that were in the tanks.
This also applies to fraudulent businesses that appear to be legitimate. They hire people who, in the beginning, believe that they are working for a perfectly reputable company; however, at some point, they realize that the business is fraudulent. A young single mother with two or three children to care for would want to keep her employment. From now on, she will be guilty of a crime with a minimum sentence of two years in prison. When we bring this type of case to the attention of the Conservatives, they say that the police or a prosecutor would never lay charges in such cases. In all likelihood, this is true, but what does that say about this legislation, which is not serious enough for the police to use or for crown attorneys to prosecute? In my opinion, this is bad legislation that must be amended to cover specific cases.
We previously proposed that, with this bill and others, we follow the example of other Commonwealth countries that also fell into the trap of imposing minimum sentences for everything but, at a certain point, felt they needed to implement safeguard clauses. In some circumstances, when a judge finds that, given the role the accused played and the few benefits they obtained from the crime, the minimum sentence is really unfair to the accused, the judge could have recourse to these provisions and justify, either orally or in writing, why he was not imposing the minimum sentence.
The Conservatives hate judges so much and have so little trust in them that they would rather trust the police. They tell us that the police or prosecutors would not lay charges in these cases. They do not want to give this discretion to a judge who has experience hearing such cases and who would render a decision after hearing from both parties. Instead, they would rather have the police or crown attorneys act as judges and decide not to prosecute before the issue goes before the courts. This is a major flaw.
Then there are provisions for ordering the restitution of the proceeds of fraud. Once again, that is very good and it is being done already. It is already provided for in the Criminal Code, although it is not a requirement. There are many instances when it is not practical. Furthermore, a criminal court cannot easily intervene in civil matters. Quite often, fraud on this scale is not committed by just one person, but by many. Although they are all guilty of the same offence, their participation must differentiated.
The accountants, secretaries and junior salespeople just hired by the company must be treated on a case-by-case basis by the judges. When it comes to the restitution order, the court must suddenly transform into a civil court and determine that one party will be responsible for 50%, but that the accountant is responsible for 20%. As for the young salespeople who sold the first, legal securities, but who then allowed the fraud to continue in order to pay back the funds, they have a lesser responsibility.
If 15 people are involved, the judge will have to determine the order of restitution. In civil law, this is not really a problem because everyone shares the responsibility for the entire amount. However, in criminal law, the share of responsibility must be established. If a judge sentences one individual to repay 50% and another to repay 3%, what happens to the person who does not repay his 50% compared to the person who, according to the judge, is responsible for 3%? In any event, this will give rise to many problems.
Other problems have been pointed out by two Toronto lawyers with rather extensive experience. I believe that one of them has even served as the chair of the Ontario Securities Commission, the equivalent of our Autorité des marchés financiers in Quebec. They too said that it would complicate trials considerably. That makes me think of something I often say: bad laws make good lawyers wealthy. I know something about that; I can attest to it. More complicated trials, and minimum sentences that may one day be applied to cases that do not warrant it, will result in pre-trial negotiations and the prospect of a great deal of work for lawyers.
Among the restrictions the judge will have to consider, one is very intriguing and it involves real estate activities. Really. I remember a judge who was convicted of money laundering. His fall was total. He was never able to practice law again. He ended up working as a building caretaker. Under this bill, he would not be able to do that any more because being a caretaker involves real estate activities. He could no longer collect rent, wash the stairs or make repairs to apartments because all that involves real estate. We see that the government still wants to take away discretionary power from judges. Would it not be better to leave it to judges to apply conditions to sentences, as they currently do? I have not heard any complaints about the way judges exercise the very broad powers they have for imposing conditions on parole and on this punishment, because quite often, it is imprisonment with a probation period during which certain conditions have to be respected.
By leaving them this discretionary power, we will have conditions that are perfectly suited to each specific case. Here the government is introducing a great deal of rigidity. In fact, the Conservatives lacked imagination when they established the various conditions available to a judge during sentencing. It is as though they copied the ruling in the Vincent Lacroix case and pasted it into the legislation. Obviously, the Vincent Lacroix ruling was perfectly suited to that case. We can expect that future conditions will probably differ from those in the Vincent Lacroix case, even if they are equally deplorable and significant.
The other thing that strikes me is this constant desire to show that they are tough and their attempt to apply that to very objective criteria such as sums of money. That is truly very important. In practice, fraud involving small amounts of money can be much more heinous than fraud involving banks or major financial institutions. I remember seeing some rather remarkable examples.
I was retained as one of the lawyers who had to help a judge determine which of the offenders known as habitual criminals met the new definition in this part of the Criminal Code when the part entitled “habitual criminals” was removed from the Criminal Code and redefined as “dangerous offenders”. The term “dangerous” implied a risk of violence. The government therefore appointed a judge. I think there was even a commission headed by a single judge who was directed to examine, one by one, all cases where there had been no violence and where the people had been declared to be habitual criminals but were not violent.
Anyone sentenced as a habitual criminal was sentenced to an indeterminate sentence. Ordinarily, the end of a sentence is always known, but in this case, the sentence served was indeterminate and it was reviewed every two years to see whether the person was still a so-called habitual criminal.
In the section, we had several examples of con men. In fact, the way they operated was sometimes quite funny. One case I remember was a con man who operated on a regular basis. I have to point out that this was really several years ago. At the time, there were more women at home than today, because a lot of women work during the day now and are not at home. This con man would generally arrive at a woman’s home with packages that bore a resemblance to Canadian Tire packages, and tell the woman that her husband had ordered some tools. He handed her the tools and asked to be paid in cash. The women had not heard anything about it. So he collected $10 or $15 or $20, amounts that seem negligible today, but that were significant at the time because people earned less than $100 a week. It seems that his success rate was about one out of five.
What the police officer who had arrested him and put together the evidence for him to be declared a habitual criminal rightly observed was that he was taking money from disadvantaged and somewhat naive people, and it was a very serious thing for them.
Another con man used this trick: he would go to someone’s home and tell them he had been sent by the landlord to repair something that was not working. Is the heating system not working? Right, he would check it out. And then he looked at it, he took the pieces of the furnace apart, and he said he absolutely had to go and get an essential part at the store. Then, since he unfortunately had no money on him, he asked the victim to lend him $40 so he could buy the missing part. I do not know whether that con man’s success rate was one out of 12 or one out of five, but it was still a very substantial rate.
These are not major frauds, and the technique was actually quite crude, but what is important is that they often succeeded. It was more serious than some bank frauds, because money was being taken from people who genuinely needed it, people who were already in need. It amounted to taking advantage of their naivety.
At the time, these people were considered to be dangerous enough to be declared habitual criminals and left in prison for an indeterminate period.
In the case of fraud, there are many different things to consider, beyond the amount. For example, jurisprudence exists for fraud committed by someone in a position of trust and for specific types of fraud, for example, if the individual took advantage of seniors or naive individuals. Jurisprudence also exists for the impact of fraud on victims. All of these elements are regularly taken into consideration.
We must give judges the discretion they need to deal with each case individually. I am not saying that the Conservatives have taken that away here, but they have made it very strict.
I have only one minute left, so I will conclude by saying that this bill does not do any harm. However, this is far from the major reform we would have liked to have seen and that should have applied the six points. I am sure that my colleagues will talk about the plan presented by the Bloc Québécois over a year ago.