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Published September 19, 2023

Civil liberties, justice reform groups troubled by House's fast-tracking of bail bill

By Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa

Canada's justice minister is defending a decision to allow the fast-tracking of the Liberals' bail-reform bill, as leading civil society groups and criminal lawyers express concerns about a lack of oversight.

The unanimous decision by the House of Commons Monday to send the bill to the Senate without committee study means MPs will not probe the bill's potential effects, including on accused people who are Black, Indigenous or mentally ill. 

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada both said they met last Friday with Justice Minister Arif Virani and expressed concerns with measures proposed by Bill C-48.

They are part of a coalition of civil society organizations that argues the bill's proposal to expand reverse-onus provisions could lead to more Black and Indigenous people being held in pre-trial detention at a time when statistics show they continue to be overrepresented. 

"This bill has some significant problems associated with it," said Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada. 

"It doesn't have a strong evidentiary base, and there is no indication that it's actually going to achieve the public safety goals that have been set out for it. ... This is really one that needs to go to committee to have opposing views aired in other to improve the quality of that legislation." 

Canada's justice system requires prosecutors to prove why someone should stay behind bars, but the legislation would instead put the onus on some offenders to prove why it would be safe for them to be let out of jail. 

The bill specifically targets those who are charged with a serious violent offence involving a weapon in cases where the person was convicted of a similar offence within the past five years. 

It also adds firearms offences to existing reverse-onus provisions, and expands them to cover alleged crimes involving intimate partner violence.

Former justice minister David Lametti, who was shuffled out of that role in July, said when he introduced the bill in May that it responds "directly" to concerns raised by premiers and police for Ottawa to toughen up its bail measures as a way to tackle violent crime. 

That pressure had mounted on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government after a string of high-profile incidents. 

Shakir Rahim, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association's criminal justice program, said Tuesday the decision by the House of Commons to pass the bail-reform bill in one shot came as a shock.

He said they had received signals from both the current and former justice ministers that civil society groups would have a chance to suggest amendments. 

"We're particularly alarmed because we have been meeting with the government about this bill," he said. 

"Reverse-onus provisions are a serious concern because the conditions in remand facilities, the fact that trials are taking longer and longer to occur ... entail that putting more people behind bars, while they are still innocent until proven guilty, raises risks around false guilty pleas."

Heading into the Liberal cabinet meeting Tuesday, Virani said the new bail measures do not reverse the presumption of innocence. 

He said the bill was crafted with input from provincial premiers as well as their attorney generals. It also complies with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he added, referencing an analysis done by the Justice Department. 

Virani said the bill is "fundamentally important to Canadians."

He characterized the decision by MPs to fast-track the bill on their first day back in Parliament after a summer recess as proof that lawmakers can "work in a nonpartisan basis to keep Canadians safe." 

"That is my fundamental job," he said. "I will not apologize for doing my fundamental job." 

The bill was introduced in the Senate on Tuesday afternoon, with the government's representative in the Upper Chamber signaling his hope that it passes quickly. 

"I would like to see the Senate deal with this crucial piece of legislation 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," Sen. Marc Gold said in a statement. 

"That said, with respect to Senate process and timelines, discussions with Senate leadership are ongoing."

Daniel Brown, president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, said seeing the government and other MPs send the bill directly to the Senate was disappointing.

He said the House of Commons lacks the evidence to support the changes to make bail harder for some accused people to access. 

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 19, 2023. 

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