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Justice Minister David Lametti speaks with the media following party caucus in Ottawa, Jan. 28, 2020.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Canadian government is proposing legislation to temporarily suspend or extend bankruptcy deadlines and hundreds of other time limits affecting Canadians, the courts and government itself.

Justice Minister David Lametti has posted on his department’s website a draft bill for public discussion, setting out a temporary relaxation of deadlines affecting everything from lawsuits to divorces to the sale of drugs for clinical trials.

The purpose, he said in a letter to opposition party members, is to make legal processes in civil cases more flexible during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has closed the courts to all but urgent matters and restricted government operations.

“Canadians and Canadian businesses may also simply lose their right to sue because of the impediments caused by COVID-19,” Mr. Lametti said, adding that the draft bill is the product of consultations with the provinces, the courts and others in the justice system, and across the federal government itself.

“It is important to act both to protect the legal rights of Canadians and to ensure that they do not have to choose between protecting their health and trying to meet inflexible deadlines.”

For example, federal bankruptcy legislation has mandatory timelines for businesses filing restructuring proposals; if they fail to meet those timelines, they automatically become bankrupt. While the timelines can be extended 45 days at a time by a court, to a six-month maximum, Mr. Lametti said that “ongoing court closures may make it impossible to obtain any court extensions, needlessly forcing viable small businesses and individuals into bankruptcy. Many viable small businesses that would normally restructure successfully – thereby maintaining employment, supplier networks, the tax base, et cetera – will be deemed bankrupt due to missed deadlines, unless we take action.”

Hundreds of deadlines affect court cases governed by federal law, the Department of Justice said in a note posted on its website. For instance, in the Divorce Act, a person has just 30 days to file an appeal of a judgment.

Deadlines requiring government responses in such matters as the sale of drugs for clinical trials and national security reviews of foreign investment could also be affected.

The legislation would also enable government to extend the validity of licences and permits, past their expiry date. There would be a sunset clause to the legislation with a date of Sept. 30, 2020.

Mr. Lametti also said he has begun consulting his provincial and territorial counterparts, and the courts, on what the pandemic means for criminal proceedings especially in light of time limits imposed by the Supreme Court of Canada, in a 2016 case known as Jordan. The court set timelines of 18 months for cases in Provincial Court, and 30 months for Superior Court, but allowed for flexibility in exceptional circumstances.

Justice critics for the Conservative Party and the New Democratic Party both said they understand the intention of the proposed legislation and plan to study it further and seek the opinion of legal experts before committing their support.

“We’re looking at the legislation that they’re going to be putting forward and it does address what is a big issue right now with our courts,” said Rob Moore, justice critic for the Conservatives.

However, while the Justice Minister’s letter mentions that he is consulting provinces and territories on how the pandemic has affected criminal proceedings, the proposed legislation only deals with civil cases, Mr. Moore said, adding that Canadians do not want to see criminal cases being tossed because of lengthy delays in the justice system.

NDP justice critic Randall Garrison said his party shares the Justice Minister’s concern with respect to ensuring Canadians are not forced to choose between their health and fulfilling legal obligations. “It’s a choice we don’t want to force on people,” said Mr. Garrison.

Mr. Garrison said the NDP will take a close look at the draft bill and speak with experts to better understand the changes, but added that it is clear the measures are temporary as they have a sunset in September.

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