Justice reform will speed up system, address biases, Sean Casey says
New government legislation would eliminate preliminary inquiries and peremptory challenges
A justice reform bill tabled by the federal government will address court backlogs across the country and address biases in the criminal system, according to a P.E.I. MP who led part of the consultation process for the bill.
The bill introduced last week would eliminate preliminary inquiries except in the case of crimes that carry a life sentence. The proposed changes also include an end to peremptory challenges in jury selection, takes steps to address the over-representation of Indigenous persons in the criminal justice system and addresses domestic, or "intimate partner" violence.
The legislation is meant in part to address the Supreme Court's so-called Jordan decision, which sets strict time limits for criminal trials: 18 months for proceedings at provincial court and up to 30 months for cases at Superior Court. That sent provinces and territories scrambling for ways to meet the new time frames, and led to hundreds of cases being dismissed due to lengthy delays.
Charlottetown MP Sean Casey is a former parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice and he participated in many of the roundtables and discussions leading to the creation of this bill.
System too slow
"What we repeatedly heard was that the system is too slow, that it's clogged up with administration of justice offences -- so people are tying up court and jail time because they've breached probation and failed to appear," he said. "We've heard that on bail hearings in some cases the criminal record of someone who is seeking bail doesn't come forward, that isn't right."
Casey said preliminary inquiries mean witnesses often have to testify twice, which can be traumatizing, and the bar is so low that the vast majority end up going to trial anyway.
"It's an extra step that isn't always necessary," he said. "So what this bill does is it limits the availability of preliminary inquiries to the more serious charges and essentially gets rid of them for those that aren't as serious where they could potentially be used to slow down and clog up the courts."
He noted the increased disclosure requirements from police also mean that there's very little new that comes up at a preliminary hearing.
Changes won't be felt as much on P.E.I.
Casey said the elimination of peremptory challenges addresses criticism that the system is unfair, following the high-profile Colten Boushie case where five potential jurors who appeared to be visibly Indigenous were rejected by the defence. CBC News has not independently determined the reason for their exclusion.
While most of the country is facing a critical backlog of cases, P.E.I. is faring a little better. The province leads the country in low crime rates, low court backlogs and confidence levels in police.
"You will see some impact on Prince Edward Island but the impacts will be much more pronounced where the problems are more pronounced," Casey said.
So what this bill does is it limits the availability of preliminary inquiries to the more serious charges and essentially gets rid of them for those that aren't as serious where they could potentially be used to slow down and clog up the courts.— Sean Casey
Among some of the other changes in the bill, Casey highlighted one that indirectly deals with mandatory minimum sentences introduced by the previous government.
"The other one that's a little bit below the radar but probably as significant as any is every criminal offence is either an indictable offence or summary conviction offence," Casey said. "This broadens the number of offences where summary conviction is an option.
"And although we haven't dealt with mandatory minimums head-on, that is one way of putting a discretion in the hands of the prosecution or in the hands of the court where lesser offences can be dealt with at a more appropriate level."
The bill is in its early stages right now and will take months before becoming law, following readings and possible amendments in the House of Commons and the Senate. Casey said he expects the bill to be law before the next election in October 2019.
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With files from CBC Mainstreet P.E.I.