SPEAKING NOTES TO THE STANDING COMMITTEE ON JUSTICE AND HUMAN RIGHTS: Concerning C-75 and the Amendments to the Preliminary Inquiry

Mr. Chair and honourable members of the Standing Committee, thank you for giving me this opportunity to comment on the proposed amendments to the preliminary inquiry sections of the Criminal Code. It is a privilege to be here to speak on an issue which carries the weight of historical discourse and has engaged far greater minds than myself. The question of abolishing the preliminary inquiry has echoed through these halls and the courts of our nation and has engaged the public’s interest as well.

How do I come to speak to this matter? I am by trade a criminal defence lawyer and have been so from my early days of law school in the mid1980s. I have conducted preliminary inquiries, I have argued about them as appellate counsel, and I have written about them as a now law professor. Indeed, I have been rather vocal about the preliminary inquiry and these proposed changes. I hope my Brief and this opening statement will shed some light on why I believe the preliminary inquiry, albeit in a different structural format, is worth saving. 

But first, I will open with a personal story. A story I often repeat to my students when asked which case most significantly impacted me in my early career. The day after being called to the Bar in 1989, I received a case from one of the lawyers sharing space with the law firm for which I was employed. 

The preliminary inquiry was only 2 days away. The client, who was detained in custody, was charged with an attempt break and enter with the intent to commit an indictable offence. The maximum punishment for the full offence, as it involved a dwelling house, would have been life imprisonment but as an attempt it was punishable by fourteen years. Still a significant term. As an aside under the new proposed amendments such a preliminary inquiry would not be possible. 

 It was rather a pathetic and all too familiar story. The client was found loitering in front of a home on the sidewalks of Rosedale holding a pointy and frayed stick. He appeared to be intoxicated. The police were called. Upon investigation of the nearby home, it appeared that the front door lock was freshly scratched with bits of paint that appeared to be derived from the client’s pointed stick. Appearances, however, may be deceiving, Upon review of the file, I recommended to the client we argue against committal at the preliminary inquiry. Needless to say, Judge George Carter agreed. The client was discharged and immediately released. This preliminary inquiry changed his life. He had a lengthy record and was an alcoholic, but this change in his fortunes gave him hope. He straightened out, went back to school and became a youth worker in a young offender facility. Ultimately, he attached himself to the UN peacekeeping tour of Bosnia and he never looked back. 

 I know I was asked here based on my academic credentials and writing in the area but to me there is no clearer evidence of the importance of the preliminary inquiry as a tool for good than this story and I did want to share it with you.

So on to the less emotional side of the equation.

I am certain you have already heard last week many good reasons for why the preliminary inquiry in its present format must be retained. My Brief also outlines the historical significance of the preliminary inquiry as an essential protective shield against the power of the state. It is more than procedural. It lies at the heart of the criminal justice system as it is linked with the presumption of innocence and fair trial concepts. The preliminary inquiry calibrates the scales of justice in accordance with those fundamental principles of justice and provides meaningful judicial oversight. 

The power of the preliminary inquiry, as I have already alluded to, cannot be taken for granted, nor underestimated. But preliminary inquiries take time, precious court resources that are finite. We are, in many ways, facing a crisis in our court system as evidenced by the Jordan andCody decisions on trial delay. In fact, one of the suggestions arising from the Senate Committee Report on that crisis recommended the termination or limitation of the preliminary inquiry. The recommendation before us today in Bill C-75 is the more tempered vision of this Senate recommendation but, in my submission, it still goes too far. The amendments do not provide the protection promised by the full operation of preliminary inquiries and, as outlined in my Brief, does not account for the many other ways the preliminary inquiry assists the proper functioning of the criminal justice system.

Keeping in mind all of these competing concerns, we must create a solution to the problem that still remains consistent with our desire to provide a fair trial in accordance with our long-held principles. Such a solution will require another recalibration, yet one which will maintain the scales of justice as writ large in our common law and Charter. In my respectful submission the solution recommended in the amendments do not do this. Instead, this honourable committee should consider a more practical solution. A solution that lies within easy reach can be found in our civil system of justice in its procedures for civil questioning or discovery. This discovery system, for the most part, lies outside of the courts. It provides useful evidence for trial and can encourage resolution. It is also predicated on full disclosure.

By using that civil system, judicial resources, and therefore court resources, can be used in a focussed manner that stays true to the primary committal function of the preliminary inquiry, yet would permit the advancement of those vital ancillary purposes, be it preservation of evidence, building an evidential threshold case for a defence, or engaging in resolution discussions. Where there is a realistic committal issue, a preliminary will be heard by a judge. Where the matter involves one of the other viable purposes for a pre-trial questioning, the matter can be heard in a less costly forum, outside of court, in a conference room where the matter can be recorded for future use at trial. This solution provides a viable alternative to the amendments, it balances competing rights, it is mindful of court resources and it is already in use.

I thank the Chair and the other members of this honourable committee for inviting me to make submissions on an integral part of our criminal justice system.