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Quebec lawyers rail against mandatory minimum sentences in omnibus bill

A Toronto inmate bides his time on Feb. 24, 2011.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The Quebec Bar Association is challenging the constitutionality of the mandatory minimum sentences contained in the Conservative government's omnibus anti-crime legislation.

Bill C-10, which combined nine pieces of legislation into one, introduced minimum sentences for people convicted of certain drug crimes and those convicted of some sexual offences.

The federal government says the new rules are part of a tough-on-crime approach that prioritizes the needs of victims over criminals.

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But the minimum sentences have prompted concern among some lawyers that the courts could become overwhelmed as people who might have pleaded guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence opt for a full trial instead.

Several provinces and territories have spoken out against the measures, saying they don't want to pay the costs of keeping more people in custody for longer periods of time.

And earlier this year, Quebec announced it would deliberately work to soften the effects of the bill in an effort to preserve the province's more rehabilitative approach to young offenders.

The Quebec Bar Association, which represents 24,000 lawyers in the province, said it filed its complaint with the Quebec Superior Court on Tuesday.

NDP MP Françoise Boivin said she believes judges should maintain some discretion over sentences because the cases they hear vary considerably.

"When you impose … mandatory minimum sentences, the problem is you're removing something very, very valuable from judges, from the courts which is their discretion, which is the fact that they are the one who are hearing the cases, [the ones] who have to evaluate," she said.

Conservative MP Robert Goguen, parliamentary secretary to the Justice Minister, said Tuesday that the government is convinced that the bill is "absolutely constitutional."

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The new, tougher sentences are meant to address "serious, organized drug crime" and  sexual offences against children.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly included mandatory minimum sentences for violent young offenders in the crime bill. This version is now correct.

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