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David Lametti, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada

Feds introduce legislation to bring more technology to criminal justice system

Thursday, February 25, 2021 @ 4:18 PM | By Terry Davidson

In a bid for a more modernized criminal justice system through lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis, Ottawa is proposing changes that would increase remote appearances by accused people and offenders, allow videoconferencing in jury selections and widen law enforcement’s use of the telewarrants process.

On Feb. 24, Canada’s government introduced legislation that would amend the Criminal Code to “help address challenges faced throughout the criminal justice system caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” states a news release.

The permanent changes, if passed and put into force, would represent a major technological turning point for Canada’s justice system, which, until the pandemic hit, had historically held tight onto the value it places on in-person appearances.

“The Bill (C-23) proposes a number of targeted and permanent changes to the Criminal Code that would give courts flexibility in how they hold criminal proceedings and issue orders,” states the release. “These changes would not compromise public safety, or participants’ rights and freedoms, and would support greater access to justice both during the pandemic and moving forward.”

First, the changes put forth in Bill C-23 would provide “a mechanism to allow accused persons to appear remotely by videoconference or audioconference in most criminal proceedings, with consent, at the discretion of the court and with other appropriate safeguards.”

A government backgrounder points out that while the possibility for remote appearances was expanded in 2019, the health crisis and its impact on the courts revealed a need to widen it even further. The new rules would include the possibility for remote appearances for preliminary inquiries, trials, guilty pleas and sentencing hearings.

The changes would also, “under certain circumstances,” allow “videoconference participation” by jury candidates in the selection process and the greater use of technology in drawing the names of candidates.  

Also, the existing telewarrant process would be revised to allow peace officers to apply remotely for a wider rage of investigative orders. And the current fingerprinting process would be rejigged to allow for a delay in fingerprinting where earlier attempts failed due to “exceptional circumstances, such as those posed by COVID-19.”

The release goes on to state the changes would “ensure that both victims and accused receive fair and timely justice by allowing the system to function in a safer, more effective, efficient and flexible manner.”

“They would also help the criminal justice system manage the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the backlog of cases. These permanent changes are intended to help reduce the risks of further delays incurred during the pandemic and provide for increased efficiency both during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the long term. These provisions would also ensure that remote appearances remain an option that could be used only in appropriate circumstances, and that in-person hearings would remain the norm.”

 Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti

Justice Minister David Lametti

Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti said the justice system had to adapt to “unprecedented circumstances” thrown up by the pandemic.

“Canadians expect that their courts will deal with criminal matters in a timely fashion so that the rights of the accused are respected and victims see justice being done,” said Lametti in a statement. “The legislative changes introduced today will address challenges faced by Canada’s criminal justice system by allowing it to adapt to the unprecedented circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

But federal Conservative critics were quick to chime in, alleging the Liberal government had dragged its feet in justice system modernization.

“It has been nearly a year since Conservatives began raising concerns about the impacts of COVID-19 on the justice system,” said Rob Moore, shadow minister for justice and the attorney general, and Pierre Paul-Hus, shadow minister for public services and procurement, “The court backlog is likely to have long-lasting impacts far beyond the end of this pandemic, yet the Liberal government waited nearly a year before addressing these concerns.”

They said the federal Conservatives “will closely analyze the proposed bill” and “ensure that it helps victims and their families to pursue justice.”

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