Demonstrating that one MP can make a difference in Parliament, Green Party Leader and MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, Elizabeth May, is denying unanimous consent in the House of Commons to fast-track changes to the Criminal Code without committee hearings.
The legislation would affect how so-called “mega-trials” – criminal proceedings involving numerous defendants and charges – are conducted. The changes would particularly target cases involving alleged terrorism or organized crime. The Green Party has consulted renowned civil rights lawyer Clayton Ruby for an expert opinion on the legislation.
“I’m concerned that this Bill imports US style justice for no good purpose. A good example is the clause which states jurors should be referred to in court by a number rather than name. This is fear based, and I am rather proud of the fact that in Canada we have jurors who without fear stand and deliver their verdict, for which they are openly responsible. I’ve never seen a case of jury threatening in 40 years at the Bar,” said Mr. Ruby.
The Green Party Leader has specific concerns around the encouragement of preferred (or direct) indictments in the Bill. A preferred indictment means the Crown has decided to deprive the accused of the step of a preliminary inquiry to determine there is enough evidence to justify a trial. Currently the accused can apply to be released on bail at the end of a preliminary hearing, or if an indictment is preferred, immediately after that happens. Under the proposed law, that chance of release from custody is lost. “A preliminary enquiry allows the accused to test the evidence and to cross-examine key Crown evidence before a trial. The strength of a prosecution case may change at this stage,” said Ms. May. “These are very specific changes that could have larger implications and need to be examined in committee.”
“Although there is definitely a need to address these issues in order to speed these trials, there are elements to these proposed changes which have the potential to undermine fundamental principles of our justice system. We need to hear expert testimony on these issues before we proceed,” said Ms. May. “In general, it is simply bad precedent to rush through legislation without hearing from any witnesses.”
There is pressure to pass the legislation quickly following the dismissal of proceedings against 31 alleged members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang in Quebec when the judge ruled the trial would take too long.
“There is an old legal adage that hard cases make bad law. The government is rushing because 31 Hells Angels were let out of jail. This bill does not put them back in jail,” said Ms. May. “It may not speed trials as much as people hope, and we don’t want to compromise future criminal trials. We cannot afford to move rashly on an issue of this importance.”