Federal crime bill misses the mark, says N.W.T. defence lawyer

A Yellowknife-based defence lawyer says the new federal omnibus crime bill misses the mark when it comes to efficiency and fairness in the criminal justice system and that it fails to consider the unique Northern context.

Lawyer concerned changes proposed in Bill C-75 could negatively impact justice in the North

Yellowknife lawyer Caroline Wawzonek says Bill C-75 is a 'lost opportunity': 'There’s nothing in this that I can see right now that really speaks meaningfully to restorative justice, to a change in philosophy, to an approach that looks at healing as opposed to punishment.' (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

A Yellowknife-based defence lawyer says the new federal omnibus crime bill misses the mark when it comes to efficiency and fairness in the criminal justice system and that it fails to consider the unique Northern context.

Federal Justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has touted Bill C-75 as including changes that will reduce court delays, ensure juries are more representative and strengthen the court's response to intimate partner violence.

But some defence lawyers have been critical of the proposed changes, including Caroline Wawzonek, who said if the bill is passed as is, it could have serious negative impacts on justice in the North.

Wawzonek noted the bill proposes eliminating preliminary inquiries — pretrial hearings that determine if there is sufficient evidence for trial — in all but the most serious cases. These can alert lawyers if more work needs to be done, she said, and are especially important in the North where there are limited police resources and a high rate of sexual offences.

"You need the best possible information to have the right and the best outcome," she said.

Wawzonek also took issue with the bill's plan to do away with peremptory challenges, which give lawyers the ability to reject potential jurors without giving reasons. She called it a "knee jerk reaction" to public concerns with the lack of Indigenous jurors in the trial of Gerald Stanley, who was acquitted of second-degree murder in the death of Colton Boushie.

These challenges help ensure fairness, Wawzonek said, and removing them could actually reduce Indigenous representation on juries. She suggested there are better ways to increase representation, including drawing from Indigenous governments' election lists for jury rolls.

"There needs to be more Indigenous names on the list in the beginning, and then you don't need to worry so much about the back end and saying, 'Well, we've got to hang on to the one or two people in the room who look like they might be Indigenous,'" she said.

Mandatory minimum sentences remain

Wawzonek was also critical of sections of the bill that could increase maximum sentences for repeat intimate partner violence offences and make it more difficult to be released on bail.

She said this doesn't address the root causes of violence, like addictions and trauma, unlike treatment options and alternative forms of justice like the domestic violence treatment option in the Northwest Territories.

"That's actually a meaningful way to break the cycle of violence and not just show the public you're being tough on crime," she said.

Finally, Wawzonek noted what's missing in the bill: it makes no mention of eliminating mandatory minimum sentences in the Criminal Code, which the Liberal government has highlighted as a goal. Some defence lawyers have challenged these minimums as unconstitutional and in several cases, they have been struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada.

"This is a lost opportunity, there's nothing in this that I can see right now that really speaks meaningfully to restorative justice, to a change in philosophy, to an approach that looks at healing as opposed to punishment," Wawzonek said.

The federal Department of Justice stands behind the proposed changes and said the Minister consulted with victims, lawyers, law enforcement, social workers and academics prior to the introduction of Bill C-75. There were also 16 roundtables held across the country including in Yellowknife, Whitehorse and Iqaluit.

As of Friday morning, the territorial Department of Justice had not returned a request for comment on concerns with Bill C-75. The Public Prosecution Service of Canada, which is responsible for criminal prosecutions in the territories, also declined to comment.