Earlier this month, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould introduced legislation to modernize the Criminal Code. The new legislation, Bill C-51, would repeal sections of the Criminal Code that have been found unconstitutional, remove outdated offences and bring written sexual assault law up to speed with court decisions.
At least, this is what made it into the headlines. Vice reported that “Updates to Canada’s criminal law will legalize duels and permit pretending to practise witchcraft,” CTV’s headline read “Government bringing sexual assault law up to speed with the courts, times” and the headline in Metro News read “Duels, 'crime comics' and witchcraft: The battiest laws being scrubbed from the Criminal Code.”
So, funny, old-timey laws that have not been relevant since the turn of the century will be removed from the Criminal Code, sexual assault laws will be updated to clarify the well-established common law principle that an unconscious person cannot consent to sex and clearly unconstitutional laws will be scrubbed from the books.
This is all good even if it is not the ambitious reforms our criminal justice system needs. But Wilson-Raybould should not be patting herself on the back for grabbing the lowest of the low-hanging justice fruit. This is especially true given that not all the unconstitutional laws will be repealed. Take mandatory minimum sentencing, for example. In 2015, the Supreme Court found some minimum sentences violated the Charter and struck down the mandatory sentencing provisions. Wilson-Raybould’s new bill was silent on those unconstitutional laws. I suppose unconstitutional sentencing laws for gun crimes are less funny and more politically problematic than crime comics and witchcraft.
Beyond the humour and incoherence of the new legislation there was a significant change to sexual assault laws buried in the middle of the bill. This proposed change was not just about modernization. It was not just a simple update. And it made its way into few new headlines.
Under the new law, an accused person will be required to disclose to the Crown and the complainant any records that will be used to challenge the complainant’s credibility or reliability.
Let’s cut to the chase — these are the new Ghomeshi rules.
In the Ghomeshi trial, defence counsel was in possession of various emails, text messages and other electronic records that contradicted large sections of the complainant’s evidence. The inconsistencies between the complainant’s evidence in court evidence and the private messages played a large part in Ghomeshi’s acquittal.
People did not like that.
So, now, if the defence has a record that shows the complainant is lying or misrepresenting the evidence, that record must be disclosed in advance. A lawyer is then appointed for the complainant who is granted standing to argue for suppression of the defence evidence.
In other words, the legislation will tip off a liar that records exist exposing their lie and then gives them a chance to come up with an explanation.
The new law creates an unprecedented case of reverse disclosure. In all other cases, it is the state that must disclose evidence, but not anymore. Now, the defence must not only disclose its evidence and litigation strategy but must also argue to admit evidence that would otherwise be relevant and material.
There are serious constitutional questions about this radical new law — but not according to the government.
In its Charter Statement defending the new bill, the government argues that this is just like the Supreme Court case of R. v. Mills — so everything is fine.
In Mills, the court upheld Criminal Code amendments from the 1990s that governed the forced disclosure of private records relating to the complainant held by third parties. Mills was about preventing defence fishing expeditions for private information through the coercive power of a subpoena.
The new law is nothing like the case of Mills. The new law applies to relevant and otherwise admissible material already in the accused’s possession. The accused is not relying on subpoena and forced disclosure. There is no fishing expedition. There are not the same privacy implications as in Mills — that horse has already left the barn.
Wilson-Raybould’s Charter Statement creates a false analogy to justify a major and potentially unconstitutional change in criminal procedure. The Charter statement is otherwise very thin gruel — devoid of any meaningful analysis or substance.
So, in the end, Wilson-Raybould has sold us a bill designed to modernize the Criminal Code and repeal unconstitutional laws that actually leaves unconstitutional minimum sentencing on the books and makes wrongful criminal convictions easier.
In other words, this is the perfect Harper Conservative justice bill: There are major changes to historic criminal law principles deep within the proposed legislation; the buried changes are a clear reaction to a highly public and unpopular court case; and the constitutional defence of those changes is non-existent.
But let’s ignore that because at least we can all practise false witchcraft free from prosecution.