Justice Minister Defends Rapid Passage of Controversial Bail-Reform Bill Amid Criticism

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In defiance of criticism from several civil society groups and criminal lawyers, Canada’s Justice Minister has defended the accelerated passage of the Liberals’ bail-reform bill. A unanimous decision by the House of Commons on Monday to fast-track the bill to the Senate has raised concerns about a lack of scrutiny and potential impacts on vulnerable groups, including Black, Indigenous, and mentally ill individuals who stand accused.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association alongside the John Howard Society of Canada expressed their unease about Bill C-48 to Justice Minister Arif Virani during a meeting last Friday. The groups, part of a broader civil society coalition, are particularly worried that the bill’s suggested expansion of reverse-onus provisions might lead to an elevated number of Black and Indigenous individuals held in pre-trial detention – a demographic already disproportionately represented in this category.

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According to Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, the bill considerably lacks a strong evidentiary foundation and provides no clear indication that it will achieve its stipulated public safety goals. She suggests the bill needs to undergo a committee review to ensure the complexity of dissenting views are appropriately taken into consideration and used to enhance the legislation’s quality.

The proposed legislation would transform a key aspect of Canada’s justice system that currently requires prosecutors to establish why an individual should be detained. The onus of justifying release would be placed on certain accused individuals, particularly those previously convicted of a similar serious violent crime involving a weapon within the past half-decade, along with those facing allegations of intimate partner violence and firearms offences.

Formidable pressure to toughen up bail measures was mounted on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration following a series of significant incidents. Former Justice Minister David Lametti argued that the bill was a direct response to those concerns, emphasizing its intent to mitigate violent crime.

The House of Commons’ decision to pass the bail-reform bill in a single sitting was met with surprise by Shakir Rahim, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s criminal justice program. He has highlighted how reverse-onus provisions could contribute to increased incarcerations, potentially leading to false guilty pleas due to prolonged trial periods and poor living conditions in remand facilities.

Despite these concerns, Justice Minister Virani contends that the new bail measures preserve the principle of presumed innocence. Virani points to input from provincial premiers and their attorney generals in framing the bill, as well as compliance with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as outlined in a Justice Department analysis. The Minister described the bill’s swift passage as evidence of the non-partisan commitment of lawmakers to Canadians’ safety.

The bill was introduced in the Senate with Senator Marc Gold expressing his hope for its swift passage, in line with the unanimous will of the House of Commons, and provincial and territorial government wishes. However, the bill’s abrupt skip to the Senate has been met with disappointment, particularly from the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, whose president, Daniel Brown, disputes the capacity of the House to justify making bail access more difficult for some groups based on existing evidence.