GATINEAU, Que. - Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says she intends to introduce the first legislative amendments to mandatory minimum sentences this spring, starting to reverse dozens of changes made by the former Conservative government during its decade in power.
Wilson-Raybould made the comment Friday at the end of a day-long emergency meeting with several provincial justice ministers to address the sudden pressure to speed up the justice system following a Supreme Court ruling last year that set maximum time periods for cases to come to trial.
"We're going to endeavour as much as we can to have something presented as soon as possible," Wilson-Raybould said at the closing news conference.
There are 72 mandatory minimum penalties in the Criminal Code. Wilson-Raybould said the minimums for the most serious offences will remain but others will be amended, balancing the interests of victims, their families and public safety.
The Canadian Bar Association says more cases end up at a trial when offenders believe negotiating a plea would not result in any change in sentence. More cases at trial means more stress on court resources and longer delays getting trials completed.
The CBA says the system should trust prosecutors and judges to determine the right charges and the right sentences.
Mandatory minimums are just one of many issues politicians and justice experts blame for clogging up the courts. The seven justice ministers who were at the meeting Friday agreed to spend the summer looking at options for legislative changes in several other areas including bail reform, preliminary inquiries, administration of justice offences and reclassifying offences listed in the Criminal Code.
The ministers intend to move up their next planned meeting by a month to September, at which time they hope to be able to agree on how best to approach changes in those areas.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms had already established that an accused has a right to a fair trial without excessive delays. The Supreme Court in R. v. Jordan last year placed a specific time frame on trials: 18 months for cases in provincial courts and 30 months for trials in superior courts.
Ontario Justice Minister Yasir Naqvi said the ruling has been helped push governments to move on changes many have long known are needed in the system.
"It has given us incentive to be bold and we are taking that challenge," he said. "We are rising up to it."
Wilson-Raybould also said she heard quite clearly the demand from her provincial counterparts to fill judicial vacancies as quickly as possible and that an announcement on that is coming very soon.
She has already appointed 51 new judges but there remained 59 vacancies for federally-appointed judges as of April 1. The problem is particularly bad in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.
Ontario and Manitoba are pushing hard for Ottawa to allow the elimination of preliminary inquiries, which are used to determine if there is enough evidence to proceed to trial. Wilson-Raybould says she is open to looking at it but the government's enthusiasm appears lukewarm and the Canadian Bar Association is opposed to the idea.
Naqvi provided data to the meeting based on an analysis of Ontario courts in 2016, which found a preliminary inquiry added an average 5.4 months to the length of cases. Ontario also found the Superior Court cases took an average of 32.4 months to complete — 2.4 months longer than the maximum time laid out by the Supreme Court last year.
However, Statistics Canada data shows preliminary inquiries were used in fewer than three per cent of cases in the adult criminal court system across the country in 2014-15 and 81 per cent of those cases were completed in less than 30 months.