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Liberal bail reforms poised to become law after year of increased crime concerns

OTTAWA — The federal government's bail-reform legislation is on its way to becoming law after the House of Commons decided on Thursday to accept changes the Senate made to the bill.
Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Arif Virani rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. Virani is urging the House of Commons to accept changes the Senate made to the government's bail reform package.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — The federal government's bail-reform legislation is on its way to becoming law after the House of Commons decided on Thursday to accept changes the Senate made to the bill.

Justice Minister Arif Virani urged MPs to accept the amendments to Bill C-48 on Thursday, and they did so unanimously.

The Liberal government introduced the bill earlier this year in the face of sustained calls from all provincial leaders and many police chiefs to make bail more difficult to access for repeat violent offenders. 

The bill landed amid increased anxiety about public safety and a string of high-profile killings, including the slaying of Ontario Provincial Police Const. Greg Pierzchala last December. 

Court documents show a man who is co-accused of first-degree murder in his death was denied bail on unrelated assault and weapons charges months before the shooting, but was released after a review. A warrant for his arrest was issued after he failed to show up for a court date, months before Pierzchala’s killing.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre also mounted sustained pressure on the government over its handling of violent crime and what he described as lax justice reforms, repeating the slogan: "Jail, not bail."

Former justice minister David Lametti introduced the bail-reform legislation in May after several meetings with his provincial counterparts.

The bill expands the use of reverse-onus provisions for certain offenders. 

It means that instead of a Crown prosecutor having to prove in court why an accused person should stay behind bars until their trial, the person who has been charged has to show why they should be released.

The provision is being expanded to include more firearms and weapons offences, and more circumstances in which the alleged crime involves intimate partner violence.

The changes prompted concerns from civil society groups, including Indigenous and Black legal advocacy groups, who warned that making bail harder to obtain risks increasing the over-representation of Black and Indigenous people behind bars, along with people who have mental illnesses or who are otherwise disadvantaged.

Legal experts and prisoners' rights advocates also voiced concerns that the government did not have evidence to prove that making bail tougher to access would increase public safety. 

Since Virani was shuffled into his role in the summer, he has defended the provisions as taking a targeted approach in response to unanimous community concerns. 

He did that again on Thursday.

"Canadians expect laws that both keep them safe and respect rights enshrined in the (Charter of Rights and Freedoms)," he told MPs on Thursday. 

"I believe we have struck that balance." 

The House of Commons unanimously passed the bill in September without the usual step of scrutinizing it in committee. 

Some senators expressed worries that the government was trying to rush the legislation through, and the Senate took its time with the bill, undertaking its own study.

Senators heard from witnesses including police leaders, criminal defence lawyers and other civil-society groups. 

That included the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which proposed that the bill should require judges to detail how their bail decisions considered the circumstances of people who are Indigenous or part of other marginalized groups.

Virani said the Criminal Code already states that courts have to consider such factors, but the Senate heard from witnesses who said the law is not consistently applied. 

He said it appears the Senate was "doubling down" on that provision and "emphasizing its importance."

During its study, the Senate also heard from some police leaders who were concerned that the bill didn't do enough to address violent crimes committed by people released on bail.

Conservative MP Eric Dunan echoed that sentiment Thursday, saying simply: "This bill does not go far enough." 

But he said the Tories nonetheless support the legislation, though he characterized it as a "small fix" to a wider problem.  

Before the MPs adopted the amended bill, Virani also issued a call for provinces and territories to collect better data on bail and share that with the federal government, to better inform future decisions on bail laws.

The Senate repeatedly heard about the lack of such data during its study. 

It also heard that expanding reverse-onus provisions would likely add to increased pressure on legal aid, which many marginalized offenders rely on to deal with charges. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2023.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press