Civil liberties, justice reform groups troubled by House’s fast-tracking of bail bill

As leading civil society groups and criminal lawyers express concerns about a lack of oversight, Canada’s justice minister is defending a decision to allow the fast-tracking of the government’s bail-reform bill.

The unanimous decision by the House of Commons Monday to send the bill to the Senate without committee study means MPs will not probe the bill’s potential effects, including effects on accused people who are Black, Indigenous or mentally ill.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada both say they met last Friday with Justice Minister Arif Virani and expressed concerns about measures proposed in Bill C-48.

They are part of a coalition of civil society organizations that argues the bill’s proposal to expand reverse-onus provisions could lead to more Black and Indigenous people being held in pre-trial detention.

“This bill has some significant problems associated with it,” said Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada.

“It doesn’t have a strong evidentiary base and there is no indication that it’s actually going to achieve the public safety goals that have been set out for it … This is really one that needs to go to committee to have opposing views aired.”

Canada’s justice system requires that prosecutors prove why someone should stay behind bars. The legislation would instead put the onus on some offenders to prove why it would be safe for them to be let out of jail.

The bill specifically targets those who are charged with a serious violent offence involving a weapon in cases where the person was convicted of a similar offence within the past five years.

It also adds firearms offences to existing reverse-onus provisions and expands them to cover alleged crimes involving intimate partner violence.

Former justice minister David Lametti said when he introduced the bill in May that it responds “directly” to concerns raised by premiers and police. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Former justice minister David Lametti, who was shuffled out of that role in July, said when he introduced the bill in May that it responds “directly” to calls from premiers and police for Ottawa to toughen up its bail measures as a way to tackle violent crime.

That pressure had mounted on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government after a string of high-profile incidents.

Shakir Rahim, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s criminal justice program, said Tuesday the decision by the House of Commons to pass the bail-reform bill in one shot came as a shock.

He said they had received signals from both the current and former justice ministers that civil society groups would have a chance to suggest amendments.

“We’re particularly alarmed because we have been meeting with the government about this bill,” he said, adding that “putting more people behind bars, while they are still innocent until proven guilty, raises risks around false guilty pleas.”

Heading into the Liberal cabinet meeting Tuesday, Virani said the new bail measures do not reverse the presumption of innocence.

He said the bill was crafted with input from premiers and their attorney generals. It also complies with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he added, citing an analysis done by the Justice Department.

Bill is ‘fundamentally important,’ minister says

Virani said the bill is “fundamentally important to Canadians.”

He characterized the decision by MPs to fast-track the bill on their first day back in Parliament after a summer recess as proof that lawmakers can “work in a nonpartisan basis to keep Canadians safe.”

“That is my fundamental job,” he said. “I will not apologize for doing my fundamental job.”

The bill was introduced in the Senate on Tuesday afternoon. The government’s representative in the Upper Chamber indicated he hopes that it passes quickly.

“I would like to see the Senate deal with this crucial piece of legislation as swiftly as possible, consistent with the unanimously expressed will of the House of Commons, and the wishes of provincial and territorial governments across Canada,” Sen. Marc Gold said in a statement.

“That said, with respect to Senate process and timelines, discussions with Senate leadership are ongoing.”

Daniel Brown, president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, said seeing the government and other MPs send the bill directly to the Senate was disappointing.

He said the House of Commons lacks the evidence to support the changes.

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