Legislation designed to strengthen Canada’s bail laws arrived in the Senate this week after it received unanimous consent in the House of Commons, but some legal observers are concerned about how fast it is moving through Parliament.
Bill C-48 was introduced in May by then-justice minister David Lametti, who was replaced by Arif Virani in a cabinet shuffle in July.
The legislation makes changes to the Criminal Code’s bail regime and puts the burden on specific offenders – known as “reverse onus” – to prove they should be released from jail, including those who have been involved in violent offences with weapons. It also proposes expanding the use of reverse onus in intimate-partner violence so it would apply in situations where an accused person was previously discharged for the offence.
Senator Marc Gold, the government’s representative in the chamber, has called the bill a “crucial piece of legislation” and said that it should be passed as “swiftly as possible, consistent with the unanimously expressed will of the House of Commons, and the wishes of provincial and territorial governments across Canada.”
Mr. Virani said Monday in the House of Commons that the legislation will strengthen Canada’s bail laws to address the “public’s concerns relating to repeat violent offending and offences involving firearms and other weapons.” He said in addition to support from provincial and territorial counterparts, the government has received support from “municipal leaders, police and victim organizations.”
The Liberal government has faced significant pressure from the federal Conservatives on the issues of crime and justice. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has said that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has a “catch and release” bail policy and has pointed to incidents such as the killing of OPP Constable Greg Pierzchala late last year. Randall McKenzie, one of two people charged with first-degree murder in the officer’s death, was out on bail at the time.
Mary Campbell, a former senior official in the federal Public Safety Department, said she has seen no evidence to back up the assertions that the bill will have the desired effect on public safety.
“I can tell you I would be an excellent member of the Rolling Stones,” she said. “That doesn’t make it so.”
She also said that if the Senate is doing its job, it will hold full hearings. She called the bill’s passage, without study at committee, a “sad day” in the House of Commons.
“To me, this is no way to pass a bill that’s so important,” she said.
Daniel Brown, president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, said people of means may be able to meet the new reverse onuses, by proposing strict supervision and release conditions, thus deepening inequities in the justice system.
“So a wealthy white person is able to displace a reverse onus presumption on bail far more easily than a racialized person from an impoverished background,” he said.
The bail changes will therefore add to the disproportionate numbers of inmates from marginalized communities, he added.
“It’s a cycle that continues. Our laws should seek to treat those people more fairly, not more harshly.”
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association said in a statement that it was “alarmed” that the House of Commons skipped the normal procedure of studying significant legislation in committee before passing Bill C-48.
“We urge the Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs to conduct a consultative and thorough study of Bill C-48,” it said. “In its present form, Bill C-48 is constitutionally deficient and will undermine the Charter rights of people in Canada.”
Michael Spratt, a criminal defence lawyer, called the bill “window dressing” unlikely to have much effect on public safety, and criticized Mr. Virani for his willingness to bypass the usual process of studying a bill.
“This is not a good start for the new minister,” he said. “The fact that he and apparently every member of Parliament don’t see fit to study it, leads to the conclusion that they know it’s window dressing, and they don’t want the public to be exposed to contrary views.”
Mr. Spratt said the Senate should now ask questions, including whether there are constitutional implications.
Mr. Virani has defended the bill’s compliance with the Charter and said the legislation received input from premiers and attorneys-general around the country. He said that everyone in the House of Commons decided to work on a non-partisan basis to keep Canadians safe.
Senator Kim Pate said Wednesday she has “major concerns about the wholly inadequate consideration of the bill and the irresponsible and undemocratic manner in which it was raced through the House of Commons.”
“It puts significant pressure on the Senate to do the work of both chambers,” she said.
NDP justice critic Randall Garrison said Wednesday that MPs in his party have worked to make sure this bill hasn’t been rushed. He said he believes the legislation “hits the right balance of protecting our communities and Canadians’ rights.”
“The [House of Commons] justice committee already held hearings on bail reform where NDP witnesses were able to make sure the impacts on marginalized Canadians were considered,” Mr. Garrison said. “The committee’s recommendations helped inform the drafting of the bill.”
With a report from The Canadian Press