Bail harder for violent people under new law: Bill C-48

TORONTO – New legislation aimed at repressing violent repeat offenders who obtain bail is ready: the legislative reform “package” comes after months of study of Canada’s bail system and calls on the federal government to implement stricter laws, dealing with a number of high-profile cases of violent crimes committed by individuals who were out on bail. 

Bill C-48, as it has been titled, seeks to strengthen Canada’s bail system’s response to repeated violent crime, including in cases involving firearms, knives, bear spray and other weapons. The government, with this law, is also trying to strengthen public confidence in the criminal justice system and to affirm the principles of bail.

Five specific changes to the Penal Code are proposed through the bill, among which, in particular: the creation of a new reverse onus for repeated serious violent crimes involving weapons in which the accused has previously been convicted of a similar crime in the past five years and punishable by ten years’ imprisonment or more; the addition of certain firearm offenses to provisions that trigger a reverse onus to include other indictable offenses such as illegal possession of a prohibited or restricted loaded firearm, breaking and entering or robbery to steal a firearm; requiring Courts to consider a person’s conviction history for violence and other community safety issues when making bail decisions. In addition, the government is proposing a parliamentary review to assess the impacts of this bail reform package five years after Bill C-48 goes into effect.

But what is the reverse onus? Under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a person charged with a felony has the right not to be denied reasonable bail without just cause. This allows them to be released pending trial, on the principle of the presumption of innocence until the conviction is made and on the condition that they appear in court when required. Other conditions such as no contact orders, ankle monitors and curfews may also be imposed. For these reasons, the burden of proof typically rests on the prosecution to prove why an accused person should be denied bail. The reverse onus occurs when the burden of proof shifts to the accused and it is assumed that the accused would remain in detention pending trial unless he can demonstrate to the court why he should be released.

“The reforms proposed in Bill C-48 are only part of a broader solution to ensure the achievement of the objectives of the bond system” reads a note from the federal government that officially introduced Bill C-48 today: the federal ministers David Lametti (Justice), Marco Mendicino (Public Safety), Dominic LeBlanc (Intergovernmental Affairs) and Carolyn Bennett (Mental Health and Addiction) spoke about it.

Calls to reform the bail system had increased in the fall, following news that one of the suspects in a deadly spate of stabbings in September 2022 in Saskatchewan had been wanted for months for allegedly violating bail conditions. To make matters worse, on December 27, 2022, the death of Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officer Grzegorz Pierzchala, killed by a 25-year-old wanted by the police for missing a court appointment in August while he was free on bail for charges that included assaulting a police officer and illegal possession of a gun. Many argued at the time that these cases were proof that Canada’s bail bond system needed to be reformed to keep violent repeat offenders off Canadian streets, while others tried to argue that the issue was far more complex and entailed the need to better enforce breaches of bail conditions.

The debate led Lametti to respond to calls from federal conservatives as well as provincial politicians and the police establishment to take action and replace what they saw as “catch and release” bail policies with a reverse burden system. After engaging in targeted penal code changes to address these concerns, accusing conservative lawmakers of “using tragedies to try to score political points” on a complicated issue, Lametti met with his provincial counterparts in March and came away with ” broad consensus” on what later became Bill C-48, presented today.

In the pic above, the Federal Minister of Justice, David Lametti (photo from Twitter @CBA_News)