Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Justice Minister David Lametti speaks to reporters after a meeting of the Liberal caucus in Ottawa on May 31. The Canadian Association of Crown Counsel asked Lametti to create a national database comprising the complete criminal history of those accused of new crimes.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Crown prosecutors across the country are asking the federal Minister of Justice and his provincial counterparts to create a national digital database that will give them the complete criminal history of anyone facing new charges.

The Canadian Association of Crown Counsel, which represents more than 8,500 criminal prosecutors and civil government lawyers, issued the call to Justice Minister David Lametti on Wednesday, saying such a system would make bail hearings faster while giving prosecutors more information to better recommend conditions for those accused of crimes.

Under the current system, Crown prosecutors are unable to search online themselves for charges a suspect is facing in other provinces or territories. The CACC says it needs a “reliable repository of information that includes, at a minimum, all court orders, warrants, records of proceedings, criminal records, and prosecutor notes-to-file” that is updated in real time and securely accessible to prosecutors and their staff at any time.

Prosecutors argue such a database would help them uncover when a person has committed other violent or serious offences across provinces in order to recommend that a judge deny them bail or issue stricter conditions on their release as they await a trial. Currently, prosecutors must instead use different workarounds to learn more about the person whom they must determine is a risk to the public if released, says Rick Woodburn, the CACC president.

“It bothers us to our core that we don’t feel we have all the information to make proper decisions,” Mr. Woodburn said Wednesday. “And that’s not a position I want to be in: whether it’s with somebody’s liberty or somebody’s life.

“We feel it when somebody goes out and commits another crime, and if that crime is violent, that weighs on us for the rest of our lives.”

Kent Roach and Cheryl Webster: It sounds good, but tougher bail laws and more cops won’t improve public safety

Federal Justice Ministry spokespeople did not immediately respond to the CACC’s public push on Wednesday.

Adam Dalrymple, a criminal prosecutor who is also president of the BC Crown Counsel Association, said Ottawa has not shown any interest in hearing from front-line lawyers as to how to improve the bail system.

“We haven’t heard from the government,” said Mr. Dalrymple, who is also the treasurer for the federal prosecutors’ association.

A Globe and Mail investigation earlier this year into the small number of people – most of them dealing with homelessness, mental-health issues and addictions – who continue assaulting strangers in cities across B.C. found Crown and defence lawyers, as well as judges, may not have easy access to all the details of an offender’s full record.

Editorial: B.C.’s bail failure on violent offenders shows need for federal reform

Under the current system, Mr. Woodburn said, prosecutors can ask their police investigator to ask their colleague at their department to query the national police database to see if the accused have any outstanding charges or warrants in other provinces. But police often take months to upload this new information to their database – meaning a person’s recent history in another province can effectively be erased for a Crown tasked with prosecuting their bail hearing, according to Mr. Woodburn, who works in Halifax.

If a warrant does show up, for instance, then a prosecutor must phone up the police agency in charge of that file or the provincial Crown branch to get a fuller picture of that person’s criminal record in that other province, he said.

All this digging takes time.

“Under the Criminal Code, we can put it over for three days – that person is sitting there when you’re running with what is essentially a hunch – when all I would have to do with this new system is pop their name in there with their date of birth, boom, I’d have all that information,” Mr. Woodburn said.

Mr. Dalrymple said this lack of accessible data is especially troublesome when someone gets arrested and charged in the evening or on the weekend. In Vancouver, for example, 30 people may be sitting in the downtown jail awaiting bail on a Saturday, but a phone call for more information about another outstanding case in another province won’t be returned by their prosecutor until the next work day, he said.

Section 11 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that those charged with an offence have the right not to be denied reasonable bail without just cause. A 2017 Supreme Court of Canada judgment found the provision “an essential element of an enlightened criminal justice system” that safeguards the liberty of accused persons.

Ottawa has faced intense criticism over the past year from premiers for its 2019 amendment to the Canadian Criminal Code to codify a “principle of restraint” that emphasized the release of detainees at the earliest reasonable opportunity and on the least onerous conditions. The premiers have argued this change has led to dangerous offenders too often being released back into the community to hurt strangers while out on bail, a debate that was supercharged after the December killing of Ontario Provincial Police Constable Grzegorz Pierzchala near Hagersville.

Last month, Mr. Lametti introduced legislation to make it harder for repeat violent offenders to be released on bail by putting the onus on certain accused people to show why they should be granted bail, rather than require the prosecution to justify why they shouldn’t. Known as a reverse onus, the measure already applies to certain firearms offences.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe