It has been almost a month since the Liberal government tabled its new criminal justice bill on March 29th. There was a flurry of activity on Twitter over that weekend as defence lawyers, including myself, decried the changes that Bill C-75 proposes. There have been a wide range of reactions to the bill, which seeks to reform a number of different areas of criminal justice. But the reactions are largely from those who work in the criminal justice system, and may not yet have permeated the public consciousness in a meaningful way.
This observation, of course, is from my own completely non-scientific collection of data from those around me. It comes from a number of conversations with smart friends who are politically engaged but don’t really understand the implications of the bill. My brother also broached the subject on Easter Sunday, as we decorated bunny-shaped cookies long after the small children in the house had lost interest. I did my best to explain that in my experience, eliminating preliminary hearings won’t necessarily save court time in the long run, and that I was wary of the removal of peremptory challenges in juries. At this point, having not yet read most of the bill, I wasn’t aware of changes to the way bail will work in cases of domestic violence (now termed intimate partner violence) which could make bail hearings more protracted. I also hadn’t fully contemplated how changes to summary elections could affect the ability of paralegals and legal clinics from helping low-income people who may not qualify for legal aid.
It is difficult to explain the extent of the procedural changes Bill C-75 proposes over family dinner. Indeed, the bill covers a huge range of topics of the criminal justice system, many of which are difficult to explain in a short sound byte, particularly to those who are not well-versed in the procedural aspects of the Criminal Code. (The Criminal Lawyer’s Association’s position paper provides a good outline of some of the chief concerns of defence lawyers.) But what was clear from this conversation, and should be clear to all Canadians, is that this bill is not what the Liberal government promised in terms of changes to criminal justice in Canada.
Under Stephen Harper, the Conservatives justice policies drew a clear line in the sand between ‘criminals and victims.’ It was an easy sell to promise law-abiding citizens that those convicted of criminal offences will be punished harshly, in order to keep the good guys safe. While I don’t agree with their changes to available sentences, I find myself slightly nostalgic for the black-and-white days of criminal justice reform. Now, the government is tinkering with the guts of criminal trials themselves, such as seeking to have police provide evidence by way of affidavit and having an accused person apply to be able to cross-examine them. The changes, if the bill is passed, will not aid in reducing delay, but will instead undermine trial fairness and may adversely affect Indigenous and other marginalized communities that are so often over-represented in our justice system.
I understand that not everyone is as interested in criminal justice policy as those who are in direct contact with the system. Still, we should be. We should take notice that those who work in the system are sounding the alarm, and take it upon ourselves to learn and understand more. (You can find some here, here, and here.) If we are committed to a criminal justice system that is fair, and maintains the rights of an accused person while working towards reducing trial delay and the over-representation of Indigenous people, then we need to rethink what is being proposed in Bill C-75 and make our voices heard.