A bill to give the courts additional procedural tools to deal with long and complex trials is due to pass the House of Commons in record time — likely without any debate at all.
The Fair and Efficient Criminal Trials Act would allow for so-called mega-trials. The proceedings would have an additional case management judge in the hopes of improving efficiency. The bill would allow for joint hearings and binding rulings in new retrials and would allow for up to 14 jurors to be sworn in at a time. There would also be additional measures to protect the identity of jurors.
“Many of these trials involve serious crimes such as drug-trafficking, organized crime, gang-related activity, white-collar crime and terrorism,” says Justice Minister Rob Nicholson. “Due to the magnitude and complexity of the evidence, the numerous charges against multiple accused and the need to call many witnesses, mega-trials can take up a lot of court time and generate excessive delays. These increase the risk of mistrials. Mega-trials may be hard to avoid, but the manner in which they are avoided can and must be improved for the benefit of all Canadians.”
NDP justice critic Joe Comartin is on board with the bill and has offered to help pass it in a single stroke with a unanimous motion in the House of Commons, likely to happen Thursday morning, June 16.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May told the Canadian Press on June 13 that she will not give the unanimous consent required to ram the bill through.
But Comartin says the justice system is facing a “crisis” after a mega-trial in Quebec saw 31 charges thrown out on technicalities.
“We basically don’t have the time to be able to do a full-blown assessment of this bill in the form of debate in the House and committee,” Comartin says. “I’m quite satisfied that is a procedural bill.”
Comartin points out that the bill picks up on recommendations made in a November 2008 report by former Ontario chief justice Patrick LeSage and professor Michael Code, which reviewed systemic issues related to long, complex criminal cases in the province.
Comartin says that the NDP will allow the bill to pass all three stages at once so it can pass through the Senate before the House rises for the summer in just a few days.
Liberal Leader Bob Rae is not so convinced, however, and would prefer that the bill be debated and get proper scrutiny.
“I’d like to see it go to the Justice Committee,” Rae says, given that the committee is due to be reconstituted in the next few days. “We would like it to be passed before the end of the session, because I do think it’s important after recent events in Quebec, with respect to the Hell’s Angels, that a very clear message be sent that Parliament is determined to make sure that we have a more effective way to deal with these trials.”
As for simply extending the sitting for several more days to ensure proper debate, given that the adjournment date can easily be altered, Rae is open to the idea.
“We’re not committed to any end-date here,” Rae says. “We’re committed to treating legislation fairly.”
Comartin says, however, extending the sitting is not on his agenda.
“That was never suggested as a possibility, and I don’t think there’s any desire to do that in any party,” Comartin says.
As well, Comartin’s concern about the Senate not passing the bill before rising is curious, considering that the Senate often sits for several days after the Commons rises in order to pass budget legislation, and a negotiation with the House of Commons could ensure that they would extend their own sitting to pass this crime bill as well, or to conduct a “pre-study” of the bill before it reaches them.
Nicholson, however, is pleased that the opposition is willing to get the bill passed in short order and is not concerned with the lack of debate.
“This is the same bill that we introduced last November, so it’s been out there for the past nine months, and I’m convinced that everyone has had an opportunity [to study it],” Nicholson says. “Just today, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police endorsed the bill.
“The bill and its contents are well known, and they’ve been out there for quite some time, so I’m very pleased that the bill apparently has the support of the two [opposition] parties in the House of Commons.”