The federal Liberals have tabled a massive piece of legislation that will aim to overhaul the Canadian justice system.
At more than 300 pages, the new legislation proposes a number of major changes that Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says fit with the goal of making the system more fair and more just, both for victims of crimes and those from communities that are over-represented in jails and prisons.
“Every single person in Canada has the right to a fair and timely trial,” Wilson-Raybould said during a press conference announcing the changes.
“Every victim has the right to be heard and see justice done.”
Changes in the bill focus on several areas of reforms: reducing potential discrimination during jury selection, reducing when preliminary inquires can be used, requiring judges to use particular attention in cases involving vulnerable populations, and cracking down on domestic violence.
Among those, it will place a reverse onus for bail on individuals charged with violence against an intimate partner who have previously been convicted of such.
What that means is that individuals with a previous conviction of violence against their spouse, common law partner or dating partner will be required to prove “why their detention in custody is not justified.”
Currently, the onus is on Crown prosecutors to convince the court a request by an accused for bail is not justified.
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As well, intimate partner violence will be listed as an aggravating factor in sentencing considerations, which can lead to judges imposing tougher sentences in domestic violence cases, and which will increase the maximum sentencing available for someone who is a repeat domestic abuser.
It will also require judges to take special consideration when evaluating bail requests and release provisions for Indigenous accused and accused individuals from other vulnerable populations.
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It will abolish the practice of using peremptory challenges without cause to arbitrarily reject potential jurors during jury selection.
Peremptory challenges were raised as a significant concern following the acquittal last month of Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley in the shooting death of Colten Boushie, a young Cree man, by an all-white jury.
Advocates for the elimination of those challenges said that left too much leeway for either side to dismiss potential jurors over their race and lead to unrepresentative juries.
The bill will restrict the use of preliminary inquiries to cases where a conviction carries a potential life sentence, and will also simplify the process when individuals violate their bail conditions.
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Judges will also be able to exempt an offender from paying a victim surcharge if the offender can meet criteria proving that doing so would cause them “undue hardship.”
In addition, the bill will change how 136 criminal offences currently punishable by up to 10 years in prison are currently classified in the criminal justice system.
Those offences, which include some terrorism and theft charges, are classified as indictable offences, which are the most serious of the two classes of criminal charges in Canada and carry the right to a jury trial.
Under the legislation, those 136 offences will now be considered hybrid offences and courts will be able to choose whether to proceed with them either as indictable or summary offences.
Doing that allows those crimes to be processed without a trial, which officials say could help speed up their movement through the courts.
The maximum sentence for summary offences, the least serious of the two classes, is also being increased to two years.
Michael Cooper, Conservative justice critic, said the party intends to take time to go through the bill thoroughly but flagged initial concerns around those reclassifications.
“Conservatives understand that a strong criminal justice system must always put the rights of victims and communities before special treatment for perpetrators of violent crime,” he said.
“We however have some serious concerns with some elements of this legislation, including the number and type of offences that could result in lighter sentencing for what are very serious crimes such as offences related to terrorism. We will take the time to review this legislation thoroughly to ensure it in no way weakens the laws that protect Canadians and their communities, or infringes upon the basic rights of all Canadians to a fair and efficient justice system.”
Judicial reform and in particular, implementing a reverse onus for bail in cases of domestic violence, were among the campaign promises made by the Liberals in 2015.
However, a 2016 ruling by the Supreme Court into how long individuals charged with crimes can wait for a trial before having their case dismissed put the need for judicial reforms into the national spotlight.
More than 200 criminal cases have been dismissed since the ruling, known as the Jordan decision.
That ruling set strict new limits requiring cases before provincial courts to be processed within 18 months and cases before a superior court to be wrapped up within 30 months.