Federal justice minister moves to end ‘zombie laws,’ clean up Criminal Code

Click to play video: 'Justice Minister to repeal law mistakenly used in Travis Vader case' Justice Minister to repeal law mistakenly used in Travis Vader case
WATCH ABOVE: Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould announced a proposal to repeal of Section 230 of the Criminal Code, which was mistakenly used to convict Travis Vader. The law had been deemed unconstitutional in 1990 – Mar 8, 2017

The Liberal government is taking steps to strip so-called zombie laws out of the Criminal Code after one was wrongly cited by a judge during a high-profile murder trial in Alberta.

Zombie laws are sections of the law that remain in the Criminal Code despite having been struck down by the courts. Most have gone unnoticed on the books for years and even decades.

The issue of zombie laws was thrust into the spotlight last year after Justice Denny Thomas used a section of the Criminal Code that had been declared unconstitutional to convict Travis Vader of second-degree murder. Vader was, at the time, accused of killing Lyle and Marie McCann of St. Albert.

The section under question, Section 230, allows for a murder verdict if a wrongful death occurs during the commission of another crime, such as robbery. However, Section 230 was declared unconstitutional in 1990 by the Supreme Court of Canada.

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Watch below: Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould comments on the proposed repeal of Section 230, saying the Travis Vader case was the only one considered and that it was “high” in media attention.

Click to play video: 'Justice Minister says Vader case the only one to use Section 230' Justice Minister says Vader case the only one to use Section 230
Justice Minister says Vader case the only one to use Section 230 – Mar 8, 2017

READ MORE: Travis Vader verdict: what is Section 230 of the Criminal Code?

The error left the McCann family flabbergasted.

RELATED: Travis Vader: legal expert says error leaves verdict open to appeal

Bret McCann, Lyle and Marie’s son, held a press conference in December calling on the Liberals to remove the inoperative sections of the Criminal Code.

“We’re very happy about that,” McCann said as he reacted to the Liberals’ announcement on Wednesday. “We’re really happy that something positive is going to come out of this whole tragedy related to my parents and we’re hoping that this bill is going to be passed expeditiously.

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“One of the big reasons that we’re happy about this is that this avoids another family having to face the same trauma that we did back in September.”

READ MORE: Judge denies mistrial, convicts Travis Vader of manslaughter 

Vader was later convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for seven years. The defence is appealing both his conviction and life sentence.

McCann, at the sentencing, reiterated his commitment to push Ottawa to remove the outdated clauses.

“Justice still has been served but at that point in time, back in September, we thought maybe even this may invalidate the whole verdict and that Vader may walk which, you can just imagine the stress that that put on our families,” McCann said on Wednesday. “That was just terrible to have this zombie law there that for some reason, and I don’t know why, seems reasonable that that just kind of tripped up Justice Thomas.”

READ MORE: Following Travis Vader verdict, victims’ son calls out Ottawa for ‘zombie laws’ 

Following the botched verdict, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould promised a review of unconstitutional Criminal Code provisions, with the view of updating the laws to reflect high court decisions. She said the review would be part of a larger review of the criminal justice system.

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On Wednesday, Wilson-Raybould held a press conference to speak to reporters about the legislation being introduced. Among the so-called zombie laws the legislation would deal with would be one to do with abortion, which remains on the books despite the Supreme Court ruling it to be unconstitutional in 1988.

Wilson-Raybould specifically highlighted that as one of several sections the government plans to scrub from the Criminal Code and pointed out the legislation was being introduced on International Women’s Day.

However, the minister denied any suggestion she was stirring up debate about the issue of abortion.

“We’re not opening or reopening the abortion debate,” she said. “We are simply taking a leadership role and hoping that we will have this bill passed through and we can clean up the Criminal Code once and for all.”

Other Criminal Code provisions the legislation is aimed at dealing with are sections covering the act of spreading false news, anal sex and vagrancy.

“The Criminal Code was written in 1892. So it has these things in there about witchcraft and all these other obsolete laws,” McCann said Wednesday. “It’s only been corrected twice – once in the 50s and once in the 70s – so, obviously, all these governments of the day have never paid attention to this and this is why the Criminal Code is in the mess that it’s in.

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“We don’t expect this mess to be cleaned up overnight but it is good to see they’re making progress on it.”

— With files from Emily Mertz, Caley Ramsay and The Canadian Press.

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