OTTAWA -- The Harper government''s new accountability act will mean a shift in job status for about 800 federal lawyers.
The law, introduced in early April, will create a federal prosecutor's
office that will function independently from the Justice Department.
About 800 lawyers -- one-third of the department's legal staff -- will
work in the new agency.
The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, rather than the Attorney General of Canada, will decide whether criminal probes and federal charges will be launched. The Tories promised a more independent prosecution system during the federal election campaign.
"We're hoping to establish a level of independence," said Treasury Board President John Baird, who oversees the drafting and implementation of the new accountability system. Federal Justice Minister Vic Toews, the former attorney general of Manitoba, did not take questions in the press conference where the changes were announced.
He left the press conference with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who took only two questions on the entire omnibus bill before quickly leaving the session. For several months, Harper and the parliamentary press gallery have been engaged in a struggle over press access.
Under the new bill, the attorney general will still retain some discretionary power over whether charges are laid under federal statutes, but Justice Department officials say the bill makes it unlikely those powers will be used again.
If the federal attorney general does order prosecutors to stop a planned prosecution, the order must be published in the Canada Gazette.
A federal official who gave a briefing on the new law on a not-for-attribution basis said the new prosecution system will be similar to ones established in Nova Scotia, the United Kingdom and Australia.
Despite the fact the new system is one of the most important shake-ups in the federal Justice Department's history, and the proposed accountability act is one of the new government's keystone pieces of legislation, information on the prosecution system is hard to come by.
Toews did not mention the changes to the structure of federal prosecutions when he spoke to the University of Western Ontario Law School on April 12. He stuck to his law-and-order text.
There is no explanation of the role and structure of the new agency on the Justice department's web site, which does not mention the new changes, and, in fact, the section explaining the present federal prosecution system is out-of-date. There is, however, a six-paragraph discussion of the new system on the Treasury Board web page. (The text of the proposed bill can be found at: www.faa-lfi.gc.ca/faa-lfi/faa-lfi00_e.asp).
The department's director will be chosen by the prime minister and will be vetted by an advisory committee of MPs, similar to the way the government now makes appointments to the Supreme Court of Canada. The annual report from the director will be submitted to Parliament by the Justice minister.
The director of the new prosecutions office will decide how violations of about 50 laws, including the Financial Administration Act, the Elections Act, immigration and some drug laws will be prosecuted. The office will also have power over prosecutions under a new federal fraud law that imposes sentences of up to five years for public servants who steal up to $5,000, and up to 14 years for those engaged in frauds of more than $5,000.
The law also covers employees of Crown corporations.
There are still some major unanswered questions about the new system. For example, federal Justice officials would not say whether the new agency will take on more of the drug prosecution work that is contracted out to lawyers in private practice.
The restructuring of the Justice department comes at a time when federal lawyers are trying to unionize. They are caught in a battle between the Federal Law Officers of Canada and the Association of Justice Counsel over who will represent them. A decision on who will represent the federal lawyers will be made soon by the Public Service Labour Relations Board.
Both organizations say they will seek wage parity with Ontario Crown attorneys. The federal lawyers earn about 40 per cent less than Ontario Crowns.
About 1,400 Ontario Crowns recently reached an agreement with the provincial government that will give them a 14-per-cent increase over the next four years, along with a merit pay increase that could push their wages up by about 35 per cent.