With its obsession with crime legislation and tougher sentences, Liberal justice critic Sean Casey believes the Conservative government is falling short when it comes to addressing other issues.
For one thing, he says that despite what the government wants us to believe, longer sentences and mandatory minimum jail terms don’t lead to fewer victims of crime.
What’s key is trying to find out why people commit crime.
“I want justice policy to be built around a restorative and rehabilitative approach to criminal justice founded on social science instead of ideology and bumper stickers,” says Casey.
The Prince Edward Island lawyer could easily end up as justice minister if Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau sweeps into power in the next general election a year from now.
He asks why the government focuses almost solely on criminal law when there are all sorts of other justice problems in Canada from the delays in the courts to the cost of litigation and the selection of Supreme Court judges.
“We’ve had almost no discussion in Parliament about a broader justice agenda that does not relate solely to criminal justice,” he says.
Instead, we have a government justice agenda based on sloganeering driven by a conservative ideology, he says.
“That’s the attitude of the present government. I think that the attitude of a government to justice policy, and criminal justice in particular, needs to be more sophisticated than that.”
Casey believes we’re focusing so much on criminal law that we haven’t paid proper attention to other areas of justice such as matrimonial, custodial, civil, and copyright cases as well as other matters within the jurisdiction of the Federal Court and the Tax Court.
Our entire system of justice needs a “thorough examination,” he says, to find out what’s working and what’s not rather than having everybody in the Justice Department focused on drafting laws to be tougher on crime. “Access to justice in family law cases is something very much at the forefront of the Canadian Bar Association,” he says.
“I’m not sure the bar association has had a willing partner in the federal government to deal with the problems of family justice. This government doesn’t play well with others on federal-provincial justice issues, whether it’s judges or the bar association.”
It may be that once we’ve examined the justice system from a perspective other than criminal law, we’ll find things are working just fine, says Casey. That would be great.
But we do know litigation is working more slowly and is more expensive than ever, he notes.
What about trying to dispense justice in a more cost-effective way, possibly using alternative dispute resolution or making better use of technology?
Casey is clear there are several areas that need attention. The government is grossly underfunding legal aid, he says, adding it has also done “a lousy job about offshore tax evasion.”
Casey also says the government’s cyber-bullying legislation, bill C-13, is “a shining example of making bad law.”
No one disputes that police need better tools to fight cyber crime, he says, but letting them go through online accounts without a search warrant approved by a judge isn’t the way to do it.
The government, he says, took cyber-bullying legislation that was so simple and clear that it would have passed “a voice vote” in the House of Commons and turned it into an omnibus bill that included all sorts of things and special powers for police that had nothing to do with that issue.
“It’s bloody awful that the government has taken the opportunity presented by the public outrage over cyber bullying and used it to resurrect the ghost of Vic Toews,” he says.
Toews was the Conservative cabinet minister who a few years back said opposition MPs who voted against giving police the right to search computer files without search warrants were on the side of child pornographers.
He had to apologize and can his legislation and eventually left politics.
Now the Conservative government is trying to bring back similar legislation. “It’ll take a future government to assess the impact on the privacy of Canadians and make the necessary adjustments,” says Casey.
Casey says the Harper government is “daring the opposition to vote against their legislation so that it can say in the next election that the opposition wouldn’t stand up for victims’ families.”
When it comes to the effectiveness of government crime bills, Casey suggests the Conservative plan to boost the sex offender registry won’t reduce the number of people who commit such crimes. But he notes it will help the Conservatives collect more money from their political base and it looks good on bumper stickers.
In the meantime, Conservative backbenchers have begun introducing many of the crime bills the government ends up supporting. There’s a good reason for that.
Private members’ bills don’t require vetting ahead of time against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms while legislation presented by cabinet ministers must pass constitutional muster.
Who cares if the Supreme Court eventually throws out private members’ bills? By that time, the next election is over.
Richard Cleroux is a freelance reporter and columnist on Parliament Hill. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.