Skip to main content

Justice Minister Peter Mackay walks past a photograph hanging on the wall of a government office as he arrives for a media availability in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday August 19, 2014.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The Conservative government has been sharply reducing the expertise on hand in the Justice Department, even as its tough-on-crime agenda continues to be a major priority, with dozens of laws being debated and changed at the same time.

In a year when several key criminal laws were struck down by the Supreme Court, or given an interpretation that dramatically softened their impact, the Justice Department has been flying by the seat of its pants after sharp cuts to the number of researchers and lawyers and frequent demands for the speedy drafting of new laws, according to interviews with former senior bureaucrats and the release of an internal report.

Separately, in the Public Safety Department, lawyers were given just one week to draft a new law on parole, according to Mary Campbell, who retired last year from her job as the department's director-general of the corrections and criminal justice directorate.

By her count, 30 bills on justice, sentencing and corrections are either currently before Parliament or were given royal assent in June. She likened the legislative development process to a sausage factory.

"When you've got a pace that says, 'Keep the sausage machine going,' you're going to get errors," she said in an interview.

Jason Tamming, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, said the government has passed more than 30 measures to get tough on crime. "Our Members of Parliament work very hard to pass the best legislation to keep our communities safe," he said. "We expect our civil servants to do the same."

The Justice Department, in an internal report on the criminal policy section released on its website, did not use the colourful language that Ms. Campbell did. But it spoke of lowered morale as research and statistics staff have been cut from 35 to 17, between 2008-09 and 2012-13. It said 81 per cent of the department's lawyers said the quality of their work has suffered because of the short timelines they must meet.

However, when contacted directly, a Justice Department spokesperson said it is important to note that the criminal policy section is achieving its objectives and the government has a high degree of satisfaction with its work.

David Daubney, a former senior bureaucrat in the Justice Department who retired in 2011, said the purpose behind the research staffing cuts is obvious. "They don't want to encumber their minds with the facts," he said of the government. "We always at Justice prided ourselves as being 'stewards of the criminal law.' We were seen as the go-to place for the facts and research on criminal policy, justice and corrections. That's certainly no longer the case."

He said morale has dropped as advisers conclude the government doesn't want their advice. At a recent retirement party, an assistant deputy minister he wouldn't name "confirmed that they're not bothering to put as much background data as they used to into anything going into the minister's office or into memoranda to cabinet."

He said there are several reasons why they don't bother: "You can only get hit over the head so many times. There's also a view that 'they got elected and we've got to do what they want.' And frankly, there are a number of careerists in the department and elsewhere who don't want to damage their careers by being overly negative."

Ms. Campbell said that, because it involved a cabinet confidence, she could not reveal the name of the bill in which the department had just one week for drafting. But she said she recalled the experience clearly.

"I have a photographic memory of the week, because I had gone home after work on the Monday and just crawled depressed into bed at 5:45 p.m. – I was telephoned and ordered to be on Parliament Hill in 45 minutes for a very high-level meeting on the particular issue, at which time it was decided that the legislation would be prepared. And by Friday we had the final print of the bill for tabling," she said.

The bill was on "a substantive parole matter, it was forthwith placed on the Order Paper and tabled, and was passed by Parliament. There were other options to address the concern, but they got no air time."

Follow related authors and topics

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

Interact with The Globe