Published February 9, 2023

Justice minister says federal government giving bail reform 'serious consideration'

Calls for bail reform from the premiers came following the shooting death of an OPP officer in December

By David Fraser in Ottawa

Justice Minister David Lametti says he is giving "serious consideration" to reforming Canada's bail laws in response to a request from premiers to make changes. 

Provincial premiers unanimously called on the Liberal government in a letter to take "immediate action" on the bail system earlier this year.

The letter from premiers says there are a growing number of calls for changes to prevent accused people who are out on bail from committing further criminal acts.

Premiers called on the federal government to establish a "reverse onus" system for specific firearm offences that would require the person seeking bail to demonstrate why they should not remain behind bars.

During a speech to the Canadian Bar Association on Thursday, Lametti said the proposed reforms would be discussed at a coming meeting with provincial justice ministers. 

He said the provinces' proposal to introduce a "reverse onus" system  for certain firearm offences was getting "serious consideration" from the Liberal government. 

"I'm in favour of these good faith initiatives from every level of the government and every police force," he said. "We must confront our issues together."

The federal Conservatives have been pressing the government to toughen up access to bail for repeat offenders, particularly in cases that involve firearms.

Opposition leader Pierre Poilievre argues Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's approach to crime has been too soft, allowing individuals who pose a danger to society to be released into the community.

Poilievre is pushing the Trudeau government to reverse a law it passed in 2019 that updated bail provisions in the Criminal Code. 

Known as Bill C-75, it codified a "principle of restraint" that had been affirmed in a 2017 Supreme Court case emphasizing the release of detainees at the "earliest reasonable opportunity" and "on the least onerous conditions," based on the circumstances of the case.

Police were also granted more power to place conditions on accused individuals to streamline the bail process and reduce the number of needed court appearances. 

It also required judges to consider the circumstances of people who are Indigenous or from vulnerable populations. 

In addition to meeting with officials from Canada's national police union, Lametti said he spoke with his counterparts from British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador this week on bail reform. 

"The takeaway from both these meetings was a clear understanding that the best way to address the complicated issues of bail and community safety is by working together."

Lametti said "misinformation" about bail is being spread. "There are those who choose to stoke fear for political gain, rather than advancing any viable policies that will address the specific and narrow issues we face."

In an apparent dig at Poilievre's frequent assertion that "everything is broken," Lametti said Canada remains "the envy of the world."

"We have our challenges but our criminal justice system is not failing Canadians any more than our country is somehow irretrievably broken."

Following Lametti's speech to the bar association, members voted on resolutions. 

Several resolutions were passed, including one that its proponents say will help stop non-disclosure agreements from being inappropriately used in cases involving abuse or harassment. 

Chief justice of Canada Richard Wagner spoke to members about improving gender diversity on Canadian benches and about how courtrooms will continue to become more accessible and tech-friendly following innovations spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 9, 2023. 

— With files from Stephanie Taylor and Marie-Danielle Smith

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