Federal Justice Minister Arif Virani said Wednesday he is confident the Liberals’ bail-reform package will have an impact and make the country safer, but he says he cannot measure what exactly that will be.
Virani appeared before the Senate legal committee that is studying Bill C-48, which seeks to toughen up access to bail for certain violent offenders by expanding reverse-onus provisions for individuals charged with particular crimes, such as those involving a weapon who have been convicted of a similar offence within the past five years.
Reverse-onus provisions shift the burden away from Crown prosecutors, who must usually prove why an accused person should stay behind bars while awaiting trial. Instead, accused people would have to show why they should be released into the community.
Virani said while the legislation will make bail more difficult to obtain, the discretion to grant bail still ultimately lies with individual judges.
He added that the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that reverse-onus provisions are constitutional when it comes to matters of public safety.
But how exactly the suite of bail-reform measures will affect safety in Canada remains the central subject of debate.
Senators pressed Virani on what kind of data or other evidence the government has that demonstrates such efforts will work as desired.
“We’ve seen both anecdotally and statistically a rise in crime,” Virani said, which includes an uptick in violent offences involving a weapon.
“I can’t give you the prognostication with absolute clarity about how much less bail will be provided,” Virani said, referring to the discretion courts have on the issue.
He added that if one follows basic logic, making it harder to access bail means fewer people are likely to get it.
“I’m quite confident that’s going to have an impact,” Virani said of the bill’s measures. “Can I measure it for you now? I cannot.”
One of the issues the minister cited is that not all provinces collect proper data on who receives bail in their jurisdictions, an outstanding issue he said needs to be resolved.
Asked whether the government has raced-base data on the demographics of who could be affected by more stringent bail measures, one official said it doesn’t.
“It’s a very good question and we don’t,” said Matthew Taylor, general counsel and director of the criminal law policy section in the justice department.
“We don’t have that comprehensive data.”
Many police services and, in a rare move, all provinces support the Liberal government’s efforts to tighten access to bail as a way to counter crimes committed by repeat violent offenders.
But some civil liberties groups are voicing concerns that the reforms are not backed by evidence and could lead to more people who are Black, Indigenous or otherwise marginalized remaining behind bars.
Virani has defended the bill as taking “surgical” measures that seek to target the most violent offenders, particularly those with prior convictions.
Conservatives on the Senate committee addressed how they feel the legislation may not go far enough in capturing a larger swath of offences — a push and pull that the minister acknowledged.
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“I’m being accused of having a bill that’s not broad enough by some of your colleagues but you’re saying to me that it’s too broad a bill,” the minister said in one exchange.
Some senators nonetheless raised worries during Wednesday’s hearing that if fewer people are granted bail, that will add pressure to already over-crowded remand centres and Legal Aid, since more individuals will need help to get out of pre-trial detention.
The House of Commons passed the bill by unanimous consent last week, skipping over the step of sending it to a committee of MPs for review.
Virani and his office say MPs studied the bail system as a whole in the spring, and the testimony from the study was considered in the drafting of the legislation.