A series of permanent changes to Canada’s criminal justice system spawned from the COVID-19 pandemic could be on the way if a new federal bill passes, including allowing accused individuals to appear remotely for certain criminal proceedings.
Justice Minister David Lametti tabled the legislation late Wednesday. It sets out a series of changes to the Criminal Code and Identification of Criminals Act, and makes related changes to a dozen other laws. The government says the amendments are meant to address some of the effects COVID-19 is having on criminal courts and their inability to function at full capacity under ongoing public health restrictions.
The bill’s proposed changes include:
- Allowing accused persons to make criminal court proceeding appearances remotely by videoconference or audioconference in certain situations, at the court’s discretion;
- Permitting jury candidates to participate in the selection proceedings by videoconference if all parties agree, and allowing the “enhanced” use of technology to draw the names for jury candidates;
- Allowing fingerprinting of accused people to take place later on in the criminal process where previous attempts were not possible due to “exceptional circumstances,”; and
- Updating the telewarrant process to permit peace officers to remotely apply for a longer list of investigative orders.
The government says the bill was based on consultations with the provinces and territories and feedback from the special committee created to examine how courts were operating, the challenges the pandemic has caused, or where areas have been exposed as needing digital upgrades.
“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, adding that the bill will allow the criminal justice system to “adapt to the unprecedented circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The opposition parties have yet to weigh in on whether they agree with the government’s assertions that these changes would not compromise public safety or peoples’ rights and freedoms. Should the legislation advance, MPs will hear from experts and stakeholders as well.
The government has also included what it describes as corrections to “minor technical errors” made when amendments to the Criminal Code and Identification of Criminals Act passed in 2019 that were aimed at reducing delays and backlogs in the justice system.