Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said Monday that all of the measures in his bill seeking to reform the "not criminally responsible" part of the justice system are "reasonable" and the opposition parties must support them.

Nicholson made the case for Bill C-54 when he appeared as the first witness at the justice committee's study of the proposed legislation.

He outlined Bill C-54's amendments to the Criminal Code and said they strike a better balance between "the need to protect society against those who pose a significant threat to the public and the need to treat mentally disordered accused persons appropriately."

"This is a reasonable response to a challenge that we've been handed," Nicholson said.

Nicholson said there have been a number of high-profile cases that have drawn Canadians' attention to the not criminally responsible part of the justice system and concerns have been raised about it.

Quebec NDP MP Hoang Mai asked Nicholson if Guy Turcotte, a Montreal man who was found not criminally responsible for the deaths of his two children in 2011, would meet the proposed criteria for a new category of "high-risk accused."

Nicholson said he can't comment on individual cases but that he is pleased about the measures aimed at supporting victims.

Bill C-54 passed second reading in the House of Commons last week and it's now in the hands of the justice committee. The NDP supported that vote so the bill could get to committee but hasn't committed to continuing its support for the bill. The Liberals voted against it.

NDP, Liberals urged to support bill

With a majority in the House of Commons and in the Senate, the Conservatives do not need opposition support but Nicholson urged the NDP and Liberals to get on board.

"We've got to go farther, we've go to get this passed, we've got to get this through the Senate, we've got to get royal assent," he said. 

The government says the bill is widely supported by victims of crime, but mental health advocates have raised concerns about the bill's consequences, particularly its creation of the new "high-risk" label. Mental health groups say it could fuel the stigma associated with mental illness, and they would have liked to have been consulted about the bill's measures.

Canada's prison watchdog, correctional investigator Howard Sapers, is also worried that the bill could lead to more people in prison with severe mental illness.

Nicholson was pressed to explain why he didn't consult with mental health groups when drafting the bill. He responded that he consults on a regular basis with the provinces, who are responsible for hospitals and mental health care, and that he has received a lot of support from his provincial and territorial counterparts.

The bill proposes a series of amendments to the part of the Criminal Code that is known as the mental disorder regime. When a person is found by a court to be not criminally responsible for an offence on account of mental illness, the case is then typically referred to a provincial review board.

The review board, whose members include a psychiatrist, can issue an absolute discharge, a conditional discharge, or order the person to be detained in a mental health facility.

Review boards must do annual reviews of cases, and when they make decisions about whether someone should be released or the conditions of their detention, they must take the following factors into consideration:

  • Public safety.
  • Mental condition.
  • Reintegration.
  • Other needs of the accused.

Bill C-54 rewrites the language of the existing legislation so that public safety is the "paramount" consideration for review boards. It also would allow for review hearings to be held every three years instead of one for those designated high-risk.

Putting someone in the new high-risk accused category would be up to a court, not the review boards, and the label could only be lifted by a court once it was satisfied there wasn't a substantial likelihood that the accused would commit a violent act. A person designated high-risk would not be allowed to leave the hospital ward.

Currently, review boards allow for gradual increases in levels of freedom in order to assess a person's recovery and help with their treatment. Walks around the hospital grounds, for example, or escorted trips into the community are permitted in some cases and experts say these events are critical to a person's treatment.

Reforms are 'common sense'

The bill also adds measures designed to support victims. It proposes that review boards could give non-communication orders between the accused and the victim and prohibit the accused from going to certain places once released from the hospital.

Review boards would also be required to notify victims, if they want to be told, when an accused is being released.

Nicholson said these are "common sense" reforms and that they fit with his government's determination to support victims of crime.

"We will stand up, and we will stand with victims and that's exactly what is taking place with this legislation," he said.

At the committee's next meeting on Wednesday, MPs will hear from Turcotte's ex-wife, Isabelle Gaston. Carol de Delley, the mother of Tim McLean, is also scheduled to testify. Vince Li was found not criminally responsible for killing and beheading McLean on a Greyhound bus. The Schizophrenia Society of Canada, the Canadian Psychiatric Association, the Criminal Lawyers' Association and other groups are also appearing.

Liberal MP Sean Casey asked Nicholson if his department has done any analysis about the capacity of the hospitals where those found not criminally responsible are detained and if Bill C-54 will result in a need for increased capacity.

He said he discusses these issues with his provincial and territorial counterparts and that the federal government is careful not to introduce legislation that isn't consistent with their priorities.

Earlier in his testimony, Nicholson said the reforms do not seek to punish those found not criminally responsible and he said they won't affect their access to treatment.