Mr. Michael Spratt (Member, Former Director and Member of the Legislative Committee, Criminal Lawyers' Association):
Thank you very much. It's an honour, and a privilege to appear before this committee.
I notice that I'm here alone in the hot seat with no one beside me, which is good because I don't have any written submission. I would welcome any oral questions, and I'll try to be as detailed as possible in my answers. It's a typical criminal lawyer thing to rely on oral submissions.
I would like to introduce myself. I'm a criminal defence lawyer. I'm a partner at Abergel Goldstein & Partners here in Ottawa. I'm also a member and former board member of the Criminal Lawyers' Association, and I'm here on that organization's behalf today.
For those of you who don't know, the Criminal Lawyers' Association is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1971. We're comprised of criminal lawyers, mostly in Ontario but also from across Canada. Our association has routinely been consulted by committees, such as this committee, and has offered submissions to some very important government consultations, and intervened quite often at the Supreme Court of Canada. The Criminal Lawyers' Association supports criminal legislation that's fair, modest, and constitutional.
I'm here today to talk about the very important issue of torture and Bill C-242. Although we agree with the aims and purposes of Bill C-242, and recognize the egregious nature of the acts that this bill captures, there are some significant problems from our perspective with the bill, both in the way that it's drafted and its potential application on how it would play out in our criminal justice system.
There are some areas that I don't feel I have the expertise to talk about, but I'm sure have been flagged for this committee, issues that deal with international law, conflicts between the definition of torture and how that might play out on the international stage. I would urge, and I expect the committee will hear, some expert evidence on that point.
Before I get to the practical implications of the bill, one of our main issues is the ever-expansion of the Criminal Code. Individuals are presumed to know the law. It's not a defence to be ignorant of the law, and over the last number of years we've seen an expansion of complexity, duplication, and volume in our criminal law. That is something which should be avoided because there's a cost to that as well.
One has to recognize that the acts sought to be captured under this legislation are already criminal and are covered by offences such as aggravated assault, unlawful confinement, and kidnapping. Kidnapping has a maximum penalty of life. The other offences, including aggravated assault, have maximum penalties of up to 14 years in jail. Of course, there could be other charges that would be captured by the acts contemplated in this bill.
As is the case with most topics in criminal law, there are always cases that seem unusual, cases where sentences seem too low. The Criminal Lawyers' Association is troubled by legislation that is aimed at particular cases or particular circumstances. Our system has a system of appeals, of prosecutorial discretion, and a robust common law history that is able to deal with cases where the sentence at first blush to outside observers might seem inappropriate. One has to recognize there are opportunity costs that are lost when we have complex legislation, and I'll speak about that in a moment.
From our perspective, the measures in the Criminal Code are sufficient to deal with the issues addressed through this legislation.
Looking at the legislation itself, there should be some initial cause for concern because it is both broader and more narrow than the existing torture provisions that apply to state actors. Obviously, the first difference between this new proposed legislation and the current legislation that applies to state actors is the penalty itself. I'm sure the committee is well aware that a prosecution under current section 269.1 carries a maximum penalty of 14 years, and the conflict between the life sentence proposed here and that 14-year sentence may cause some issues in court with respect to the application and indeed send a confusing message to the public.
Diving into the text of this very short bill, the definition of torture is slightly different between these two sections.
Under this bill, torture is defined, but the acts defined as torture have to be for a specific purpose, and that is for intimidating or coercing an individual. That definition also exists in the current state torture provisions, but the current state torture provisions have an additional list of factors that would be considered over and above an intimidating or coercing purpose. Those are listed in section 269.1(2)(a) under the definition of torture, and they include obtaining from the person or from a third person information or a statement, punishing a person for their act or the act of a third party, and importantly, for any reason based on discrimination of any kind.
Those further purposes are not present in this proposed legislation. In that respect, the definition of torture, the application of torture, will be more narrow. That conflict leads to some statutory interpretation problems and some application problems in our courts. At the same time, the definition of torture in the proposed legislation can be read more broadly than the current legislation. Under the current legislation where we're dealing with state actors, torture includes not only physical harm that leads to severe pain or suffering, but severe pain or suffering can be either physical or mental.
The current bill also contemplates mental injuries as a result of torturous behaviour but goes on to narrowly define that criteria, stating that the mental damage must be “prolonged mental pain and suffering...leading to a visibly evident and significant change in intellectual capacity”. I don't know what that means, and that would be the subject of much litigation before our courts. I don't know if that means there has to be a cognitive issue supported by evidence where there's a diminished capacity. I don't know if PTSD or other forms of mental health issues arising from torturous acts would be covered here. It seems that they would be covered if a state actor was involved. Those are some of the conflicts that could lead to some problems in application and litigation.
I do want to talk about some of the practical implications that this could have in our courts.
I have testified over the last number of years on a number of occasions, more than I would have liked to, about mandatory minimum sentences. Thankfully, there's no minimum sentence in this bill, but some of the same problems that we have with minimum sentences can carry over, and that is the use of either police or prosecutorial discretion with respect to laying and proceeding of a charge.
One can imagine a situation where an individual is charged with an aggravated assault, a forcible confinement or a kidnapping, and additionally torture. That individual may have a criminal record with offences of violence on it already. One can see a perverse and insidious inducement for that individual to plead guilty to offences in exchange for the crown not proceeding on the torture charge. That sort of prosecutorial discretion is something we have seen and something which my organization has complained about and flagged as an issue with mandatory minimum sentences. That problem is present here as well.
I should say, when I'm talking about the practical issues, and I spoke a little bit about opportunity costs and problems in that regard, that court time is valuable. Court time is becoming more and more valuable as our Criminal Code expands and as there are more prosecutions.
Ironically, as crime rates are decreasing, court time used to litigate these conflicts that I've indicated, constitutionality issues, proportionality issues, differentiating past precedent, that court time, in our opinion, could be much better spent dealing with the problem of over-incarcerated individuals who are awaiting trial, the scarcity of trial time. Those resources, quite frankly, could be deployed to better effect in other areas that do need real action to see an improvement.
I'm not a criminologist and I can't give you expert evidence on criminological factors or considerations, but I do have some experience. I've been speaking recently with pre-eminent criminologist Anthony Doob, who has testified many times before these committees on the issue of deterrence and how that plays with the criminalization of certain acts.
It seems unlikely, from my experience dealing with the practical realities in court and accused people, and from a review of the evidence in this context and in the context of mandatory minimum sentences, that the criminalization of an act, naming torture and having a specific provision in the code, will achieve any additional deterrence. The evidence is quite clear on this point that it's the likelihood of being apprehended, the likelihood of being caught, that provides deterrence. Additional penalties generally don't provide deterrence.
If someone were going to engage in acts that are already tantamount to aggravated assault, to forcible confinement, to kidnapping, to manslaughter, to murder, to attempted murder, merely having another section in the Criminal Code called torture would not likely deter the individual from committing those acts.
I don't want to minimize the conduct that's captured by this, and I hope my comments, critiques, and criticisms of this bill aren't taken to minimize the experience of anyone who's suffered at the hands of an offender. These are indeed egregious acts that should be treated very seriously.
The other justification that one could see being advanced in support of this legislation is that by somehow naming an offence specifically, reporting of that offence might be increased, so it might be more likely to attend a police station. I would be highly skeptical of that claim. I'd be very interested to see evidence in support of that.
At the end of the day, we have a Criminal Code that has a robust set of laws that deal with these types of very egregious situations. The cost weighed against the benefits of this specific bill, although laudable, in our opinion, simply don't pass the scrutiny that one should direct at Criminal Code provisions when we're legislating very important laws that impact our justice system and ultimately the potential liberties of people who are charged with contravening those acts.
Mr. Murray Rankin (Victoria, NDP):
I, too, would like to thank you, Mr. Spratt, for a very lucid presentation. It's very helpful to the committee at this stage of our deliberations, and I'm grateful you came.
You talked just now to Mr. Hussen about sexual assault. That's an offence that covers a wide waterfront, it seems to me, from egregious conduct all the way down to some unwanted touching, if you will. Similarly, aggravated assault covers a huge range of possible conduct.
If the sponsor were here, I think he would be saying to call a spade a spade, to use the words that need to be meant so that people have clarity, and that torture is a totally different category from aggravated assault.
I take your point about not wanting new offences in the Criminal Code. I get that, but it's not that new an offence. We already have one for state actors, so we'd just be trying, particularly with the amendments, to make torture in the private sphere consistent with that for state actors.
There is a last thing I want to ask you on that point, which is on the issue of gender violence particularly in the field of torture. A lot of the motivation and the witnesses for this have come from feminist groups, which say that torture is about the destruction of humanness, personality, and identity of the person being tortured. It's about breaking a person.
Why wouldn't we want to have clarity in our Criminal Code about this category of conduct, which isn't just aggravated assault, but seems to be something quite distinct?