Major Changes Proposed to Unclog Canada’s Criminal Courts

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

Last week, the Liberal government proposed a new bill, Bill C-75, to modernize Canada’s criminal justice system and speed up court proceedings by amending the Criminal Code, Youth Criminal Justice Act and other laws. The changes include eliminating preliminary inquiries (except in cases of crimes that carry a life sentence), ending peremptory challenges in jury selection, addressing intimate partner violence, creating a higher threshold for bail and increasing sentences for repeat offenders.

Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said the new bill aims “to make our criminal justice system more effective and efficient while respecting the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. More importantly, it will make a significant contribution to a necessary culture shift in the way our criminal justice system operates.”

Here are some of the highlights from Bill C-75:

PRELIMINARY INQUIRIES

One of the most controversial features of Bill C-75 is the proposal to eliminate preliminary inquiries in the majority of criminal proceedings.

A preliminary inquiry is an optional hearing requested by either the accused or the Crown prosecutor. It is available where an adult is charged with an indictable offence and elects to be tried by the Superior Court. Preliminary inquiries determine if there is enough evidence to send the accused to trial. It is a process by which the Crown and the accused test the evidence to be used at trial.

Under the proposed legislation, only an adult accused of a crime punishable by life imprisonment would be able to request a preliminary inquiry. The preliminary inquiry judge would also be able to limit the issues to be considered and the witnesses.

The government justifies this proposal claiming that it will reduce the number of preliminary inquiries, thus freeing up court time and reducing the burden on some witnesses and victims. Specifically, this would protect sexual assault victims from having to testify twice – once at the preliminary inquiry stage and once at the trial.

This proposal will eliminate the number of preliminary inquiries by 87%. There are currently more than 9,000 preliminary inquiries held each year.

Many criminal defence lawyers oppose this proposal. They take the position that the preliminary inquiry process can eliminate cases that do not have enough evidence to proceed to trial. Furthermore, preliminary inquiries can save a lot of time down the road by narrowing issues, shortening trials and sometimes even eliminating the need for trials.

INTIMATE PARTNER VIOLENCE

Under the proposed legislation, the more inclusive “intimate partner” wording would replace “spouse” and “common-law partner” and the definition would be broadened to include past partners.

Bill C-75 also introduces a reverse onus imposed at the bail hearing of an accused charged with an offence involving intimate partner violence and repeat abusers (rather than placing the onus on the Crown to make a case for keeping the accused incarcerated).

The new legislation would make strangulation an elevated form of assault (in conjunction with assault with a weapon and assault causing bodily harm) and allows a higher maximum penalty in cases involving repeat domestic abusers.

BAIL

Bill C-75 proposes to update and modernize bail practices by allowing police and judges more flexibility to deal with criminal charges.   Police would be given the authority to impose appropriate conditions on accused individuals without having to seek court approval.

JURY SELECTION

The impetus to rework the jury selection process in Bill C-75 comes in response to the public’s reaction to the acquittal of Gerald Stanley, which we have previously blogged about. In this case, an all-white jury found Gerald Stanley not guilty in the shooting death of Colten Boushie, a young Indigenous man.

The government proposes to improve the jury selection process and seeks to encourage diversity by abolishing peremptory challenges. Peremptory challenges allow defence counsel or Crown prosecutors to exclude a potential juror without giving a reason. The government maintains that ending peremptory challenges will prevent counsel from excluding minority candidates from juries. The proposed legislation will allow judges to decide whether to exclude jurors that have been challenged by either the prosecution or defence.

Bill C-75 still needs to be debated and approved before becoming law.  We will continue to provide updates regarding the status of this Bill as it becomes available.

In the meantime, if you have questions regarding charges laid against you or your legal rights, please contact the experienced criminal lawyers at Affleck & Barrison at 905-404-1947 or contact us online. We offer a free consultation and are available to help you 24/7.