Tories' 'mega-trials' bill expected to pass quickly

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson re-introduced the government's first crime bill since Stephen Harper's Tories won a majority — this one aimed at speeding things up when multiple people are on trial to avoid potential mistrials.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson is expected to table a bill to speed up mega-trials. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson re-introduced the government's first crime bill since Stephen Harper's Tories won a majority — this one aimed at speeding things up when multiple people are on trial to avoid potential mistrials.

The federal government still plans to bundle several of its previous crime bills together, but a bill to speed up mega-trials stands alone and is one the opposition parties support.

Nicholson tabled the bill following question period and at a news conference afterwards, he said the proposed amendments to the Criminal Code will mean trials for those accused of organized crime and terrorism will be dealt with more efficiently.

The government wants to streamline lengthy trials that get mired in mounds of evidence, numerous charges against one or more persons, and involve calling many witnesses. Mega-trials can take up a lot of court time, and delays increase the risk of mistrials, according to Nicholson.

"Mega-trials may be hard to avoid but the manner in which they are conducted can and must be improved for the benefit of all Canadians," he said. "For Canadians to have confidence in our justice system it must be effective, swift and true."

The bill is the same as Bill C-53 that was originally introduced in November 2010, Nicholson said. Like many other pieces of legislation, it died when Parliament was dissolved and the election was triggered this past March.

Bill has NDP and Liberal support

Unlike other crime-related bills proposed by the Conservatives, this is one the NDP actually called on the government to re-introduce in the new session of Parliament.

The party's justice critic, Joe Comartin, made the request last week in question period and told Nicholson the bill has the NDP's support.

"It is a welcome development that we move on this. This is a problem that we have known about for several years," he said. Comartin added that if the government had moved faster on it in the last Parliament, it could have passed.

Comartin asked if the justice minister would commit to tabling and passing the bill before MPs leave Ottawa for the summer.

"That is the easiest pledge I will ever make," Nicholson responded.

To speed up its passage, the government is seeking unanimous consent from Parliament to accept the bill in its current form and to send it straight to the Senate for a final stamp of approval. That would mean the bill would bypass the committee stage.

The NDP has no problem with that, Comartin confirmed Monday, and Liberal interim leader Bob Rae said his party also wants the bill passed before MPs leave for the summer, but he's not as keen for it to skip examination by the justice committee.

"We think there should be a debate," Rae said. "I'd like to see it go to the justice committee," he said. 

Parliament is on a tight timetable. It is only scheduled to sit until June 23 which doesn't leave a lot of time to hold committee hearings. Rae said extending the session is an option.

"We're not committed to any end date here, we're committed to treating legislation fairly," he said.

Comartin said there simply isn't enough time to hold committee meetings on the bill, and that they aren't necessary because its contents have already been studied by experts in the legal field.

"I want this thing to have royal assent ... before the summer starts," Comartin said Monday. "If it goes to committee, it won't get through the Senate in time."

The bill proposes several changes to the Criminal Code. One amendment would allow for the appointment of a "case management judge" who would have the power to make pre-trial rulings that could speed up proceedings. Other measures relate to mistrials and jury selection.

The government says many of the bill's proposals address recommendations from the Air India inquiry.

Crime legislation is a mainstay of the Conservative platform and in the recent election Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to bundle 11 crime-related bills and pass them within 100 sitting days if elected with a majority government.