The House proceeded to the consideration of Bill C-23, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (criminal procedure, language of the accused, sentencing and other amendments), as reported (with amendment) from the committee.
Mr. Rob Moore (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today to Bill C-23, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (criminal procedure, language of the accused, sentencing and other amendments).
Members in the justice committee have had a chance to study Bill C-23 and are now well aware that this bill is not about major substantive reforms. Bill C-23 proposes technical amendments to update, improve and modernize the law by enhancing the efficiency of criminal procedures, strengthening sentencing measures and clarifying court related language rights provisions.
I am pleased to see that most of the Bill C-23 amendments as introduced received support by committee members during clause by clause, which reflects a shared understanding of the importance of its reforms. I am pleased also with the collaborative work demonstrated by all members of the committee and I am sure that the members would agree.
This government has introduced several legislative initiatives in the House that aim at tackling crime which remains one of this government's key priorities. Ensuring that the law is up to date and efficient is an important component of this priority. The amendments, as introduced, have been developed in collaboration with justice system partners that were influential in helping us identify areas of the Criminal Code that were in need of change.
Bill C-23 touches on several areas of the Criminal Code. Most of the amendments are technical in nature and fall within three main categories, namely: criminal procedure, language of the accused and sentencing. I will address each of those in turn.
Most of the criminal procedure amendments are technical in nature and seek to improve procedural efficiencies and rectify certain shortcomings in criminal proceedings. These technical changes include amendments to: expedite the execution of out of province search warrants by allowing the use of current technologies; harmonize and consolidate provisions dealing with proof of service of documents; identify the proper appeal route for judicial orders to return seized property; and finally, to improve the process with respect to the challenge of jurors to assist in preserving the jury's impartiality.
Other Criminal Code procedure amendments of a more substantive nature include: the reclassification of the offence of possessing break-in instruments, which is currently a straight indictable offence, to a dual procedure offence to allow the prosecution to either elect to proceed by way of indictment or by way of summary conviction; the creation of an offence for the breach of a non-communication order imposed on an accused who is remanded to pre-trial custody; and, a new election right for the accused as to his or her mode of trial where a preferred indictment has been filed against him or her or where the Supreme Court of Canada orders a new trial.
On the issue of language of the accused, allow me to now mention not all but some of the language provisions addressed in the bill.
These proposals are the result of numerous consultations once again, not only with the provinces and territories but also with the Commissioner of Official Languages, the association of francophone jurists and its national federation. In fact, both the Fédération des associations de juristes d'expression français de common law and the Commissioner of Official Languages appeared as witnesses before the committee. They were generally satisfied with the proposals found in the bill.
They did, however, express concerns with respect to some of the amendments being proposed and these concerns were reflected in the amendments proposed by the opposition parties at clause by clause consideration of the bill.
The government supported some of these amendments that were consistent with the scope and the principle of the bill. Sections 530 and 530.1 of the Criminal Code have been in force across the country since January 1, 1990, and they grant all the accused the right to trial in the official language of his or her choice.
Numerous studies and reports have confirmed that barriers continue to stand in the way of the exercise of these rights. Moreover, court decisions have highlighted a number of interpretation problems. The amendments proposed by Bill C-23 would resolve these problems and thus contribute to the evolution of language rights in the criminal law context.
One important amendment would heed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Canada by requiring the court to inform all accused persons of their right to be tried in their official language whether they are represented by counsel or not.
The Commissioner of Official Languages, in a 1995 study entitled “The Equitable Use of English and French before the Courts in Canada”, had also recommended that all accused persons be better informed of their right to a trial in the official language of their choice.
Another amendment would require the charging document to be translated in the language of the accused upon request. This is a logical complement to accused persons exercising their language rights. By the same token, to satisfy the need for certainty and precision in criminal proceedings where the charging document has been translated, a further amendment would make clear that where there is an inconsistency between the original version of the charging document and the translated version, the original document ought to prevail.
Some of the other proposals found in Bill C-23 relate to bilingual trials and would provide the presiding judge with the power to issue appropriate orders to ensure that bilingual trials run smoothly and efficiently.
For example, Bill C-23 would require that, if the circumstances warrant, a joint trial in both official languages should be ordered in the case of co-accused who do not share the same official language. Such an amendment not only brings greater clarify to the code, but also ensures that a proper balance is struck between the rights of the accused person and the efficient administration of justice.
The language of trial amendments propose workable and balanced solutions to problems that have been identified and promise to bring greater efficiency to minority language trials. They will also ensure better publicity of the language rights provision in the Criminal Code.
Finally, dealing with sentencing, Bill C-23 proposes both technical and substantive amendments which are meant to streamline processes, clarify the intent of certain provisions and update the law in this area.
Let me remind hon. members of some of the amendments that are of a more substantive nature. One amendment would raise the maximum fine that can be imposed upon conviction of a summary conviction offence. The current $2,000 amount has remained unchanged over the last 20 years. As introduced, the amendment raised the maximum fine amount to $10,000.
During clause by clause, the government supported an opposition amendment to reduce the proposed maximum fine to $5,000, which is still a tremendous update over the $2,000 amount that had been in place over the last 20 years and better reflects changes over that time.
The government believes that this amount would still meet the policy objective of updating the law in this area and would still provide the Crown with more flexibility to proceed by way of summary conviction procedure.
Another substantive amendment to the sentencing provisions of Bill C-23 provides the Crown with the ability to seek forfeiture of computers and other related property used in the commission of the offence with respect to Internet luring offences. This is indeed a substantive change that I think all members in the House can support, dealing with the forfeiture of the property of individuals who are involved in what is a very heinous crime.
As well, Bill C-23 would provide sentencing courts with the power to order an offender not to communicate directly or indirectly with victims, witnesses and other identified persons during their period of incarceration. A corresponding offence for breeching such an order is also proposed.
These amendments would provide the courts with an additional tool to protect victims of crime from unwanted communications. As this type of order is currently being imposed by courts at various stages of the criminal process, such as when an accused is remanded to pretrial custody or released on bail, this amendment would fill a gap with respect to such orders when an offender is serving a term of imprisonment.
Another important amendment includes the power of a sentencing court to refer an offender in appropriate circumstances to a provincially or territorially approved treatment program under the supervision of the court before sentence is imposed.
By delaying the imposition of the sentencing to allow an offender to have early access to treatment programs, the offender is given a strong incentive for behavioural change and successful rehabilitation.
I will now provide a few examples of the technical amendments. One of them includes a change that would provide a court of appeal with the power to suspend a conditional sentence order until an appeal from sentence or conviction is determined.
A series of other amendments would serve to clarify the application of impaired driving penalties. For instance, in response to uncertainty in judicial decisions with respect to impaired driving penalties, one important amendment would clarify that the minimum penalties that apply for a first, second and third impaired driving offence, such as operation of a motor vehicle while impaired and refusal to provide a breath sample, do apply to the more serious situations of impaired driving causing bodily harm or death.
By the same token, this legislation would also make it clear that repeat impaired driving offenders, whose new offence causes bodily harm or death, will receive a mandatory period of incarceration and will therefore not be eligible for a conditional sentence order.
Another impaired driving amendment would clarify that an offender is only permitted to drive while being the subject of a driving prohibition order if the offender is not only registered in an alcohol ignition interlock device program, but also complies with the conditions of that program.
We as a government are proud of the work accomplished today with Bill C-23 and we hope the bill will be passed expeditiously. I would like to remind hon. members that the provinces, territories and other justice system stakeholders are keen to see this bill enacted, as it would improve the effectiveness of and access to the criminal justice system.
I, therefore, urge all members to join me in ensuring quick passage of Bill C-23 into law.
Mr. Brian Murphy (Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I will share my time with the member for Newton—North Delta.
I am pleased to rise in this House today to speak about Bill C-23, whose purpose is to make a number of amendments to the Criminal Code. This omnibus bill has to do specifically with criminal procedure, language of the accused, sentencing and other matters.
Bill C-23 is an omnibus bill, or what we like to call a cleanup bill, since its objective is to ensure the Criminal Code of Canada is keeping up with today's society in order to maximize its efficiency and make its application as simple as possible. Even though the Criminal Code is an old and warped document, it must be what our criminal justice system relies on.
I will give a bit of background. The first reading of this bill was on June 22, 2006. The debates at second reading were in October and second reading was in October. It was referred to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights and there the bill had five hearings in the month of May. Four days after the last hearing, the committee report was tabled.
As members can see, the bill moved along with some speed once the standing committee had a chance to deal with it, but there are many justice bills, items and reports before that committee which I sit on with the parliamentary secretary. We have been quite busy.
However, I must say by way of background that it is quite unfair of the government House leader to say in the House that Bill C-23, this bill, a Criminal Code amendment, was held up “for 214 days at committee by the opposition parties”. This is a cleanup bill that we had repeatedly offered to fast track, along with a number of other bills, in order to ensure that non-contentious criminal justice bills would speed through Parliament.
Here we are in the dying hours and days of this session and we still do not have this non-contentious cleanup bill passed. It can be seen that the committee did its work in the month of May and was in no way delaying the bill. I think it is unfortunate that the government House leader stooped to such a level in falsely accusing the parties and the members of that committee of being dilatory.
Let us see what Bill C-23 is all about. The bill touches on a number of issues, including expanding the availability of non-communication orders to provide better protection to victims and other selected individuals from unwanted communications from offenders in custody.
The bill increases the maximum fine for summary conviction offences. These have not been updated in 20 years. The maximum fine under a summary conviction offence is $2,000. It will move to $10,000, which we can see in the most heinous of crimes under the summary conviction category might very well be appropriate.
Bill C-23 facilitates the efficiency of the execution of out of province search warrants.
It guarantees the right of the accused to appear before a judge and jury that will speak the official language of the accused. I cannot say how important this is in our bilingual province of New Brunswick and in the bilingual community of Greater Moncton that I represent.
I must say that this bill is a perfect example of how important committee work actually is. We have read a lot about how committees are dysfunctional or have become so because of the environment around here, but this bill was swiftly dealt with by a committee that acted very efficiently and very well. There was a camaraderie on the committee with respect to non-contentious bills, and a great deal of respect. The chairman of that committee, from Alberta, deserves great credit.
However, Bill C-23 is not bedtime reading. It is fairly complex and it is all about the details. A lot of time was spent in the committee going through the nuts and bolts of this bill.
The Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights also spent the four sessions in listening to various experts, particularly with respect to language rights, on how this bill will indeed make criminal justice move more swiftly. Committee members from all four parties presented proposed amendments to make this an even better bill.
In short, Bill C-23 shows that when the government decides to work toward good policies, and put aside politics, this Parliament can work very well to achieve the greater good of a fairer and safer Canada for all law-abiding citizens.
As we get closer to the end of this legislative session, I do want to thank my fellow members of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights for their amazing work and for the great deal of work done at the committee and here in the House of Commons.
In particular, I have a good working relationship with the parliamentary secretary whose riding abuts mine. I have great respect for the way he has dealt with many of the justice issues before us. We have been very busy these past few months. Many bills were studied and many witnesses were heard from.
I spoke earlier about the committee members' commitments and I can think of one example that must be highlighted. The member for Yukon proposed five amendments, making this a better bill. The member for Yukon, not a particularly francophone-rich area, stood up for the rights of those who deserve to have trials in their own language.
Regarding one of his amendments in his own words from the transcript of the committee, simply put as only the member for Yukon can do it with his experience and his common sense, he said as follows:
|| The first one, this amendment, only adds the word “may”, and that's the only difference.
That is the guts of his amendment. He continued:
|| What the clause basically said before was that if there are witnesses who have different languages, then they have to have a bilingual trial. But a bilingual trial may not be the fairest in all cases; in fact, it may not be possible. You may not have bilingual prosecutors and judges, or it may prejudice one of the witnesses....
It may prejudice one of the witnesses or the accused to have a trial mandated in a language, in one or the other of the official languages. It is much better to put the permissive “may” in the amendments. That is what we are doing in this last bit.
I cannot underscore how important language rights are as the kernel of the bill. The essence of this bill is about the language rights of the accused in a trial process.
As the member for Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe, I must emphasize that this was very important for the greater Moncton area. Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe is one of the most bilingual ridings in the country.
Bill C-23 reinforces the right of accused persons to be tried in the official language of their choice, and more particularly, the right to a bilingual trial in cases where co-accused do not speak the same official language. This important measure will ensure that justice can be served to all Canadians in both official languages. Once again, this will ensure a fair and equitable justice system. It is also important to emphasize that we have a fair and equitable justice system. This bill will improve our existing system.
That being said, I am a little skeptical about the guarantees provided in the bill concerning the true linguistic ability of the parties involved. It is easy to use this bill and fancy speeches to claim that we are bilingual. We must have bilingual trials. We must protect the rights of those who need bilingual trials. It is easy to say, but the reality of doing it might not be so easy. The judge and jury must fully understand the accused and ensure that his or her rights are respected. That is why the amendments to Bill C-23 are necessary.
How can we ensure that the level of language comprehension is adequate and that people are truly bilingual? It is not easy to assess the ability of prosecutors, lawyers and the accused. Add in a judge and jury, and it becomes very difficult to be sure that language rights will be respected.
In short, this bill is all about making the justice system work better. I would like to commend all the parties who worked very hard in making sure this cleanup bill cleaned up a system that was in fact working very well.
Mr. Sukh Dhaliwal (Newton—North Delta, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak in support of Bill C-23. I welcome many of these reforms mentioned in the text, but more importantly, I am pleased to stand behind any carefully planned legislation designed to modernize the criminal justice system and make it more efficient and effective.
The bill was tabled by the former justice minister on June 22, 2006. Despite the two previous attempts my colleagues and I made to speed the legislation along, first in October 2006 and then in March 2007, three months ago, here we are almost a year later debating a bill that should have been disposed of a long time ago.
What has held it up? If it were not for the Conservatives' consistent delaying tactics with respect to their own justice legislation, the bill would be through the House by now.
Let me briefly touch on some of the amendments to the Criminal Code that are proposed in Bill C-23. I think most of my colleagues will see why we should not delay this process, because the bill has strong reforms for criminal procedures and sentencing.
The amendments relating to criminal procedure include using any means of telecommunication to put forward warrants in a jurisdiction. Given the rapid rise of various forms of telecommunications with respect to emails and other means, this is clearly an overdue change. It finally brings our justice system more in line with new technology and it will make the warrant system much faster.
Other amendments related to criminal procedures include a change to the process with respect to the challenge of a juror. It will further allow for the preservation of impartiality of a jury by the judge.
They include a summary conviction trial with respect to co-accused that can proceed where one of the co-accused does not appear.
They include the reclassification of the offence of possession of break and enter instruments. Should the bill pass, this would become a dual procedure offence. The Crown can determine whether this offence should be prosecuted by way of indictment or by the faster procedure of summary conviction.
These are changes that we on this side of the House support.
With respect to the sentencing provisions, there are several steps that are being taken in the right direction. The most important is the power to order an offender not to communicate with identified persons while in custody, along with the creation of an offence for failing to comply with the order.
This is a step that I believe will have a very positive effect with respect to protecting victims. We can imagine those who have been victims of crime and those families who have lost loved ones. They actually still can be contacted by those who were convicted, with no real repercussions for those doing the contacting. One can imagine the mental anguish and fear this could cause.
The bill represents a strong reform with a clear message. A person who violates this order could be sentenced to two years for breaching this order in the case of an indictable offence, 18 months in the case of a summary offence, or in some cases there could be a fine. This will be particularly helpful in the case of women who have been the victims of violence.
In my own riding of Newton--North Delta there have been several high profile cases of violence against women. Those who have been lucky enough to survive, and sadly some have not, must be protected from any form of communication from an offender. These people are in prison and that sentence must include a non-communication order to protect those victims who have survived and their families.
Other important amendments with respect to sentencing include changes for those who drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs and are responsible for the injury or death of innocent Canadians. Living in a community like mine, where there is strong grassroot support for real action on drunk driving, this is a great step forward.
I believe that these changes will be well received and they are yet another example of what in fact the Conservative government has been delaying. Criminals are being sentenced every day, and every day we delay the passage of this legislation is another day that victims are not being protected by the government.
There is an amendment that will allow, if convicted, the forfeit of any equipment used in an offence of luring a child by means of a computer. I can only say that it is about time the Criminal Code caught up with modern technology. No one who is convicted of using a computer to lure a child should be allowed to keep the equipment they used. In my personal view, they should not be allowed to even use a computer after having used one for that purpose.
I was proud to stand in favour of Bill C-22, another bill that was delayed by the Conservative government for partisan electoral reasons. It also focused on the importance of protecting our children. I am the father of three young children and I consistently speak in favour of and actively support any legislation that will protect their well-being.
I will also consistently speak out against a Conservative government that, while speaking in favour of protecting Canadians, actively seeks to delay important reforms for partisan electoral gains. Why? I believe the government delays bills like Bill C-23 so that the justice committee would not have to comprehensively review other justice bills tabled by the Conservative Party that members on this side of the House had concerns with.
Instead, the Conservative government, in a cynical attempt to overload a parliamentary committee with one-off bills, a tactic that is probably in some Conservative committee guide somewhere, does this in order to justify the untruth that the opposition is somehow trying to delay good justice legislation.
In mid-March, the Liberal opposition once again tried to move along Bill C-23, among other legislation, through all stages of consideration by the House. These bills would help police find criminals, protect children under 16, and put the onus on the accused for bail hearings of those who have been convicted of a firearms offence. What has happened? Once again the government has delayed its own justice legislation, including this one.
I believe that right thinking Conservative members must be outraged at these tactics by their leadership after many of my Conservative colleagues pushed for many of these changes for so long. I just hope that some of them begin to speak up and help get their own legislation through the House.
It would make me, as a legislator, feel better if the Conservative Party started tabling justice legislation for victims' rights and community safety.
Canadians deserve a government with the well-being of Canadians first and foremost on their mind instead of playing politics with the Criminal Code.
Mrs. Carole Freeman (Châteauguay—Saint-Constant, BQ):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to Bill C-23 at third reading. The bill aims to amend the Criminal Code in a number of ways.
Briefly, the bill is essentially a complete update of many aspects of the Criminal Code. The goal of the amendments proposed in Bill C-23 is to contribute to the smooth functioning of the criminal justice system, which will facilitate the day to day functions of those who work within the system. The amendments contained in the bill fall mainly into three categories: criminal procedure, language of the accused and sentencing.
Several criminal procedure amendments serve to clarify the application and purpose of certain provisions, as well as to improve procedural efficiencies by permitting the use of modern technology and rationalizing existing provisions. Here is one of many examples. The bill proposes amendments that would refine the jury selection process to better protect the impartiality of prospective jury members, as well as sworn jurors.
Concerning the language rights of the accused, the amendments in Bill C-23 would resolve many problems that arise from a poor understanding of sections 530 and 530.1 of the Criminal Code by the accused, members of the bar, the prosecution and judges. I would remind the House that those sections guarantee the right of all accused persons to have their preliminary inquiry and trial before a court that speaks the official language of the accused and to have a crown prosecutor who speaks the language of the accused. Accordingly, the amendments proposed in the bill also follow up on court decisions requiring that the charging document must be translated into the language of the accused upon request.
Lastly, concerning sentencing, the technical amendments proposed in Bill C-23 aim to clarify the intent of certain sentencing provisions and improve efficiencies in the application of certain court sentencing processes. For instance, one amendment would provide that an impaired driving offender subject to a driving prohibition order would only be permitted to drive if he or she were registered in an alcohol ignition interlock device program and in compliance with the conditions of the program. This amendment is intended to make it clear that the offender must not only be enrolled in the program, but must also comply with all the terms of the program during the driving prohibition period.
In committee, my colleague for Hochelaga and I scrutinized this bill. As I was saying, Bill C-23 is fairly technical and does not lend itself to partisanship. In general, the amendments suggested resulted from meetings and consultations with professionals from the departments. Crown attorneys consulted police and defence attorneys, among others. In addition, federal, provincial and territorial officials met to discuss this matter and then made recommendations to their immediate superiors.
After obtaining some clarifications from the government and witnesses, the amendments to the bill were often unanimously approved by members of the committee. Furthermore, the amendments made by committee members were minor and very specific to the language of the accused.
I want to say that Bill C-23 is a good bill. The amendments help the judges in their work by providing more discretion. These measures will provide judges with better tools to do their work properly, namely to determine the most appropriate sentence that, at the same time, will best serve the objectives of deterrence, reparation and rehabilitation. For example, Bill C-23 provides the power to delay sentencing so that an offender can participate in a treatment program approved by the province. In other words, the accused may finish his rehab program or an appropriate treatment program prior to sentencing.
Up to this point, my colleagues and I have all too often witnessed the denial by this minority government of the importance of rehabilitation. This is deplorable because rehabilitation is key to reducing crime in general. Furthermore, by removing judges' prerogatives to order sentences in the community would cause Quebec and the other provinces to assume the additional financial burden of having to imprison more people, while that money could be better spent on rehabilitation and prevention. Therefore, Bill C-23 is a step in the right direction.
I will add that the Criminal Code should be revised regularly so that people can have confidence in the justice system because they know that it is in step with new realities and that when mistakes are made, they are corrected without delay.
I remain convinced that my colleagues in my party and in the House share my point of view about justice and the administration of justice.
Bill C-23 is also interesting because it will harmonize the rules of service. According to the principles of natural justice, it is unthinkable that an accused person might be brought before the courts without knowing exactly why the law is concerned about him. When one is brought before the courts, one must not only have a clear idea of the charge, but one must also have complete access to the evidence.
In addition, Bill C-23 adds a number of aspects that I find interesting, including the use of telecommunications to forward warrants to be executed in a different jurisdiction than the one where the search took place and changes to the process with respect to the challenge of jurors in order to help preserve their impartiality. There is also the power to order an offender in custody not to communicate with identified persons and the creation of an offence for failing to comply with the order, which increases protection for victims.
These are good procedural advances, which will only accelerate the legal process. For many of these provisions, it sometimes takes many years before the effects are felt. From time to time, it is necessary to adopt a legislative measure like this bill in order to make these technical amendments. Criminal law is not unchanging; it is constantly evolving.
That is why we agree that Bill C-23 makes sense, since it has the virtue of clarifying the provisions of the Criminal Code and simplifying certain legal procedures. That is why the Bloc Québécois is in favour of Bill C-23 and will support it at third reading, in order for it to get to the Senate.
I will close by saying that Bill C-23 is not something we are used to seeing from this minority government in matters of justice. My colleagues know full well that Conservative bills on justice often have an American brand of conservative ideology, in other words, policing instead of prevention. Apparently Bill C-23 came from the last Parliament. It is a bill that the government has taken over from the previous government and that was supported by the Bloc Québécois during the previous Parliament.
I would add that my party defends the Quebec vision of justice based on fairness and balance between the offence committed and the punishment. The only way of achieving that is to entrust these duties to magistrates, and to independent persons. For every category of crime the punishment has to fit and be fair. These are the values we defend here.
Quebec understands that, which is one of the reasons it sent a majority of Bloc members to the House of Commons, in other words, to defend the values of the nation of Quebec. We will be sure to affirm these Quebec values very soon during the national holiday on June 24; we will honour it by celebrating proudly.
Mr. Joe Comartin (Windsor—Tecumseh, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to speak to Bill C-23. It gives me an opportunity to go into one of my favourite topics, which is the approach the government has taken with regard to crime bills.
This bill is a good example. If the government expanded the approach it took in the bill to a number of the other crime bills, the House would become much more efficient at dealing with the required Criminal Code amendments and do so in a much shorter period of time, using our resources here, in particular the resources of the members of Parliament, more efficiently.
The bill addresses a number of problems that exist in the Criminal Code currently and have existed for quite some period of time. It is not a really long bill, but it is good number of pages and it does address a significant number of sections in the Criminal Code. It improves the Criminal Code, corrects the problems and addresses the reality that we move on. Communication techniques change and technology overall changes. We need to address those changes in our criminal justice system. The bill does that in a number of ways.
What jumps out at us, if we have been here for the government's current period of time, is it could have done the same thing in a number of other ways in a number of bills that we have dealt with in the House and in the justice committee. However, the government did it on a piecemeal basis. I use, as the classic example, the commitments that all political parties, perhaps the Bloc a little less than the others, made in the last election to deal with violent crimes involving guns.
We have just finished a second bill that dealt with the reverse onus for bail when an individual is charged with an offence, the allegation being of a violent offence with the use of a gun. A few months before that, we dealt with the use of mandatory minimums and other penalties, again for people who had now been convicted of violent crimes involving the use of a gun.
Rather than combine those two bills into one and have the witnesses come before our committee to speak to both bills, the government opted to present two separate bills. It took in effect about double the time to deal with them, when we could have halved that time if they had simply been combined. This has been repeated by the government on a number of occasions with regard to crime bills and criminal justice bills.
There is a simple answer as to why this is going on, of course, which is the Conservative government very much wants to highlight each one of these bill, each one of these issues. Rather than deal with them efficiently, it wants to play the political game of trying to get as much media coverage and attention in the country as it possibly can.
Quite frankly, that is shameful because it delays the legislative process quite significantly. It delays the use of these techniques to our police, our prosecutors and our judges, simply for the purpose of playing partisan politics with those sections of the code. Again, the government has done this over and over again.
Even this bill could have been combined with a number of others, obviously then a much larger bill. Witnesses who came before us on the issues in this bill are now coming before us on similar issues and their expertise is being in effect wasted because we are hearing from them two, three and four times.
This afternoon we have even gone the route the justice committee has gone. It is so clogged with so many bills the government has now moved to appointing special legislative committees. This afternoon the individual who was in front of us had been in front of the justice committee and both legislative committees in the last three months on four different occasions. That is repeated over and over again.
The Criminal Code does need some significant updating. Again, one of the manoeuvres by the government, to follow its ideological bent, was to hamper the potential for that to happen by getting rid of the law commission. It would have been an ideal group to have done a major revamp of the Criminal Code and some our other criminal justice bills, including our Canada Evidence Act. It could have brought that up to date and given the opportunity to the House to bring the Criminal Code into the 21st century, because in many respects it is not.
However, that opportunity has now been missed. There is no potential that I can see within government services right now for anyone to do that work. If we ever get this done, if the government ever gets its head wrapped around for the absolute need to get this done, we will pay a huge bill to buy these services, whether it be from universities, law schools or the private sector and other ways to get that total revamp of the Criminal Code, which is so badly needed.
I started with the law school initially in 1969 and we needed to bring in a whole new Criminal Code, totally revamp it. That is almost 40 years ago now. We have not done that. We have done it piecemeal. Both Liberal and Conservative governments have tried to band-aid their way through the criminal justice system.
It is not the way to run a criminal justice system. It is not a way to deal with crime in society, but this is the way it has been done up to this point. We will continue to do it this way under the Conservative government because it simply does not have the vision of what is required to deal criminal conduct in our country in an appropriate manner.
With regard to the bill itself, there are several provisions that I will highlight, which will bring the bill somewhat up to date.
About two years ago we passed a bill on child pornography, which received pretty well universal support from all sides of the House at that time, but we missed one item. That was to deal with the issue of a person being convicted of a crime involving child pornography. There was no provision, and there still is no provision, in the Criminal Code to order the seizure of equipment, which might be computers, photographic equipment and a variety of a similar nature, and forfeited to the Crown.
That is one of the amendments in the bill, a badly needed one. Our police officers and judges have made very clear to us that they require this authority. Now it will be given to them.
Similarly, with regard to offences around illegal gaming, there was a real limitation on laying charges in certain circumstances because technology got ahead of the Criminal Code. That again has been corrected. No matter what the form of communication is, electronic communication, telecommunication or whatever, if it is being used for the purposes of illicit gaming, it is now an offence. Also there are provisions for forfeiture of that equipment. More important, it makes the use of that telecommunication device illegal and people can be charged for it as a separate and new offence.
One of the other points that caused me problems when I first saw the bill and on which I was successful in getting an amendment was that we were increasing the penalty on fines from an amount of what is now $2,000 in the situation of a summary conviction offence. The bill originally proposed to move that amount to $10,000. Those fines throughout my career were $500 and then we moved them up to $1,000. About 12 to 15 years ago we increased them to $2,000.
When setting standard fines, even when they are at the maximum, we need to be sure we are not creating a set of circumstances that makes it impossible for individuals who are from the lower social economic classes of our society to pay the fine, as opposed to the alternative. It happens quite regularly where a person is given the alternative of so many days in jail, usually so many weeks or months in jail, or a fine of a maximum of $2,000, as it was then.
There is a significant number of what I would say are non-violent, property type crimes where individuals are charged and convicted of those types of crimes and then are assessed a choice penalty: either pay this amount of the fine or spend 30, 60 or 90 days in jail.
If the person has an income in the six figures, a fine of a couple of thousand dollars is not a big deal to avoid spending that length of time in custody. On the other hand, for an individual with very low income, perhaps on a fixed income, the fine is insurmountable and the individual will end up spending time in jail.
We are always looking, within the criminal justice system, to strike the proper balance. Judges certainly take into account the economic circumstances of individuals but, whereas the government was proposing here to move the maximum fine from $2,000 to $10,000, the judges need to judge the fine in light of what the maximum is.
I want to acknowledge the new justice minister who understood the proposals I and some of the other members of the committee were making and accepted the fact that when we take into account inflation over this period of time, jumping it from $2,000 to $10,000 was unreasonable. We ended up compromising on a figure of a maximum fine that can be assessed in those circumstances of $5,000. That amendment was moved at committee, accepted by all the parties and is now in the bill at third reading.
The other concern I had with the bill involved official language rights across the country. A number of amendments are in the bill but there are also some gaps. Some of the amendments that went through were, I believe, moved primarily by the Bloc Québécois but they were supported by the opposition parties in one case and in another by all of us supporting them.
A number of francophone lawyers associations from across the country, which appeared before our committee, told us about one of the major problems they ran into. Although we are providing a significant amount of service, translating documents at the time of the trial and onward, there are a number of documents that people are served with, and we are not talking a lot of pages, that are only written in the official language that is dominant in that area of the country and English, generally, is dominant in eight of the provinces. In New Brunswick, which is fluently bilingual, it is not a problem because most documents there are given in both languages or are at least available in both languages, and then there are areas in Quebec where the documents are only available in French.
There was some significant discussion in committee. We heard from the government that it would be very expensive to do this. After a more thorough analysis, it became obvious that it would be a relatively minor additional cost, but it would allow the individual to have full access to the criminal justice system from the start. From the time a person is charged, the initial document with which the person is served at that point and other documents that the person may be given during that period of time, some of which the person must sign, all of those could be relatively easily translated without a great deal of expense. That amendment went through.
One of the problems that we ultimately decided not to deal with but one I want to note was the concern over the availability of trials and granting judges authority to move trials from one region of a province to another. Initially we heard from some of the francophone lawyers associations that this amendment would limit the availability of trials if it went through.
Again, after some very lengthy involvement of the national francophone lawyers association and further discussion with the Government of Canada, the justice department and some of the provinces, it was determined that it might have a minor impact on the availability of trials in French. It is not a problem in New Brunswick or with trials in English in Quebec, but it may have a minor effect in some of the other provinces.
What was determined was that we would pass the bill as proposed by the government and monitor it over the next three to five years to see if it is having an impact, with an understanding by the government that if the number of trials in the other official language began to be impeded by this provision that it would be looked at again at that time. Hopefully a consensus would build that we revert to the situation where judges would not be able that easily to transfer trials from one region to another.
It can be appreciated that an accused party when faced with a transfer of a trial is looking at extra expenses. The person's lawyer will need to travel, the witnesses will need to travel and the person may end up spending time in hotels and having to buy restaurant food while the trial is going on in another region. That certainly could be and may, in some cases, be an impediment to the trials in the other official language.
As I said, the justice department through the justice minister has committed to monitoring the situation. If it becomes a problem we hopefully will deal with it and deal with it rapidly.
The end result of the process was a healthy one from a democracy standpoint. I think the justice committee got a full appreciation of the amendments we were making.
There are a number of other technical amendments in here that facilitate the transfer of criminal justice documents between provinces. That has been a problem in the past. These amendments would facilitate that and make it easier and increase the use and the transfer of these documents by fax as opposed to hard copies that had to be delivered.
As I said earlier in my address, this would bring these sections of the Criminal Code into the 21st century recognizing the advances we have made technologically and incorporating a number of those into the amendments and now into the ode once the bill clears this House.
Overall, it is the way we should be amending. Even better would be an overall complete review of the Criminal Code and bringing it up to date. I have one more point to make that highlights this. One of the members of the Conservative Party moved a private member's bill and, in the course of the debate, he was quite eloquent in pointing out some of the serious inconsistencies we have in the Criminal Code on the sentencing side, where there is, by all objective standards, a very serious crime with a relatively minor penalty. Side by side with it, maybe one section next in the Criminal Code, there is a less severe crime, again by any objective standards, but with a penalty that is even more severe.
We have a number of those. It is another example of this need to completely revamp the Criminal Code, bring it up to date and do away with a lot of the inconsistencies.
The NDP is supporting this bill as amended and we would like to see it in place as rapidly as possible.