Bill C-75: The bad, the worse, and the ugly

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On March 29, 2018, Bill C-75 had its first reading in the House of Commons, and upon publication, was quick to receive scrutiny from lawyers across the country.

The Bill seeks to amend provisions of several key pieces of legislation, including the Criminal Code and the Youth Criminal Justice Act. However, in doing so, many rights currently afforded to an Accused will become a thing of the past.

The first major concern that stands out is the proposal to abolish the use of peremptory challenges in the jury selection process. When jurors are being selected, an Accused person and his Defence counsel are afforded 12 of these challenges, permitting them to deny a juror without explanation. Crown Counsel also has 12 challenges for their own use. The purpose of peremptory challenges is to provide balance in the adversarial trial process – however, the motivation behind their use differs depending on who you ask. The Bill doesn’t elaborate on how jury selection will be managed without peremptory challenges.

Equally alarming is the proposal to deny Preliminary Hearings for offences that don’t carry a maximum term of life imprisonment upon conviction. It is also being suggested that Justices be given power to limit issues examined and witnesses called during a Prelim. The Preliminary Hearing’s purpose is to determine whether the Crown has enough evidence to commit an Accused person to stand Trial, a valuable tool for the Defence in any given case (even if the offence doesn’t carry a potential life sentence). However, it isn’t beneficial only to the Accused. The evidence heard at a Preliminary Hearing is transcribed, to be recalled upon by parties at Trial. The issues explored at the Prelim can assist in narrowing what issues will be raised at trial, which in return reduces the likelihood of wasted court time on irrelevant issues (especially important in consideration of the impact of delay!). With the ability to seek a Direct Indictment from the Attorney General, the proposal to limit Prelims is wholly unnecessary.

Next up, and not surprisingly, we see this Bill seek to increase punitive measures for Accused persons facing allegations of abuse against an intimate partner. These consequences begin prior to any finding of guilt – in fact, they begin at the onset of proceedings, when an Accused person seeks release on bail. Bill C-75 suggests more “onerous interim release requirements” for individuals facing allegations relating to violence against an intimate partner. This essentially means that the terms of release will be increasingly stringent. On that note, the Bill also proposes to increase the maximum term of imprisonment for repeat intimate abuse offenders, and to have violence against a partner considered an aggravating factor at
sentencing.

Perhaps most disturbing is the revision relating to police powers and written evidence in the form of an Affidavit. Currently, a police officer is required to attend a trial in person to give oral evidence regarding their involvement in the case. They are subjected to cross-examination on that involvement, at which time they must truthfully answer questions posed by the Defence. This is a crucial opportunity for the Defence to raise reasonable doubt (when considering that police officers often offer the most compelling and credible evidence) which is the only reason for taking a matter to trial. Of course, the Defence will still be allowed to apply to cross-examine a police officer on their written evidence – but that application requires additional court time, and one struggles to believe that such an application would be denied in any event. So this proposed amendment will likely result in additional delay and squandered court time.

Many of these amendments strike at the heart of the adversarial process, and an Accused’s person’s right to make full answer and Defence to the charges against them. Numerous changes are procedural, justified by the assertion that too many cases are being thrown out over judicial delay. Systemic flaws, a lack of inquiry and input by judicial staff, and failure to accept and validate the concerns of concerned legal professionals in the private sector are a few of the factors that have resulted in impractical proposals pushed forward in Bill C-75.

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