Liberal MPs side with opposition, amend omnibus justice bill
Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould speaks to reporters in the Foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
OTTAWA – MPs on the House Justice Committee have unanimously voted to amend the government's wide-spanning justice reform legislation Bill C-75, to stop certain terrorist offences from potentially being re-classified as summary, and not indictable offences.
During clause-by-clause review of Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould's massive crime bill on Wednesday evening, Liberal MPs sided with the opposition parties and voted in favour of a series of Conservative amendments, and signaled intent to do the same on similar upcoming amendments regarding hybridizing genocide offences.
Bill C-75 is an omnibus piece of legislation that aims to reform a number of areas of Canada's criminal justice system, address court backlogs, and wraps in several bills that had stalled in the House. As part of the legislation, the Liberals are proposing to hybridize over 100 indictable offences that are punishable with up to 10 years in jail, in the name of prosecutorial discretion and efficiency. Among these offences: participating in or contributing to a terrorist group, and advocating or promoting genocide.
Criminal Code offences are classified as either summary, indictable, or hybrid; which is a combination of both summary and indictable. Generally, summary offences are for less serious crimes, and tried in provincial courts, while indictable offences are more serious and can be heard in both provincial and superior courts. Hybrid offences apply in cases where the seriousness can vary depending on the circumstances of the case. In these types of cases, the Crown can choose whether to proceed by indictment or summary conviction based on factors like the circumstances of the alleged crime, previous convictions, and the type of sentence being pursued.
The Conservatives had framed the proposed Liberal changes in Bill C-75 as watering down these serious crimes. In an interview with CTV News.ca, sponsor of the amendments the Liberals supported, Conservative MP Tony Clement, chalked the Liberals' move up to a political calculation. He said they were pushed into amending the terrorism offence sections because they knew the Tories would "raise blue murder" over the issue if they hadn't.
Clement said the Conservatives pushed these amendments and many similar others, out of concern that if these offences were hybridized, there's a possibility "overworked and underpaid" Crowns could pursue lesser charges under the summary conviction stream than would be issued if it was an indictable offence, to clear their dockets quicker.
Testifying at the committee in the spring, Wilson-Raybould defended the hybridization, saying the proposal had been "mischaracterized" and was meant to allow prosecutors to have the discretion to determine how to prosecute these alleged crimes, and not about lowering sentences.
Wilson-Raybould said this change would still allow for serious crimes to be pursued by indictment in superior courts, and would reduce delays in the justice system by allowing more lesser crimes to be sped along summarily.
Though, in speaking to the amendments, MPs on the committee highlighted various examples of witness testimony opposing the hybridization of these offences, citing skepticism over how this proposal would help alleviate court backlogs.
"With respect to the changes not achieving their objectives of efficiency and timely trials, the vast majority of cases are already heard in provincial court. An astounding 99.6 per cent are heard in provincial court and only 0.4 per cent in superior court according to 2015-16 StatsCan statistics. Therefore, this change will not have the desired effect," University of British Columbia law professor Debra Parkes told the committee last month.
The Conservative amendments to the handful of sections of the bill that proposed to hybridize various terrorist offences were supported by all MPs on the committee. Committee Chair and Liberal MP Anthony Housefather also spoke up to register his support, though he could not vote for the amendments, given his position.
Liberal MP Colin Fraser told the committee that he was supportive of the Conservative amendments because the terrorism and genocide offences are "distinguishable" from the many other proposed offence hybridizations in Bill C-75 that the Conservatives are also pushing to reverse, without Liberal support.
Fraser also signaled his intention to support similar amendments when they get to the section of the bill dealing with hybridizing the advocating or promoting genocide next week, when the committee resumes its clause-by-clause review of the bill.
Fellow Liberal committee member, Ali Ehsassi, is expected to back reversing the hybridization of the genocide offences. Testifying at the committee as the chair of the Parliamentary Group for the Prevention of Genocide, he told his fellow committee members that: "Given the extremely serious nature of the issue at hand, as well as Canada's moral obligation to serve as a leader in the field of genocide prevention, this committee should support an amendment to Bill C-75 ensuring that incitement to genocide provisions are not included within the otherwise prudent attempts at hybridization and reclassification."
In a statement, a spokesperson for Wilson-Raybould said her office is following the committee's work and looking forward to their final report.
"Our legislation does not change the fundamental principles and objectives of sentencing. Courts will continue to impose sentences that are proportionate to the gravity of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the offender. Reclassifying offences gives prosecutors the discretion they need to elect the most efficient mode of prosecution, evaluated on a case-by-case basis," spokesperson David Taylor said.
Clement noted that aside from the genocide offence, there are other offences up for hybridization such as driving under the influence causing death, and offences related to sexual slavery that he’ll be pushing amendments on and keenly watching to see if the Liberals back those as well.