Thank you, Mr. Chair, and good morning everyone. Gilakas'la
I want to start by acknowledging the territory of the Algonquin people. Certainly, I want to thank all members of the justice and human rights committee for the work that you have undertaken thus far and the agenda that you have in front of you.
I also want to acknowledge parliamentary secretaries Sean Casey and Bill Blair, who have been very helpful in assisting with respect to our mandate commitments and moving forward with them.
I am pleased to appear before the committee this morning to answer questions about the 2016-17 main estimates. As you indicated, Mr. Chair, I'm joined by Bill Pentney and Don Piragoff, who will also be able to answer the questions of committee members.
This past March, as you know, deputy minister Pentney attended a meeting of this very committee and discussed the supplementary estimates. I understand that at that meeting he provided an overview of the history and the mandates of the Department of Justice. Given that you are now already familiar with the business lines of the department, today I would like to talk to you about what I hope to accomplish in my role, and my vision for how the Department of Justice will help contribute to the vision of an improved justice system with funds presented in these 2016-17 main estimates.
Through the 2016-17 main estimates, the department requested a total budgetary authority of $678.9 million. This represents an increase of $4.99 million over the 2015-16 main estimates. Of this total authority, $400.5 million will be dedicated to ensuring a fair, relevant, and accessible Canadian justice system, one of the department's strategic outcomes.
Most of this funding is directed to the provinces and territories in support of the stewardship of the Canadian legal framework. In addition, as the primary legal services provider for the government, the department is seeking $199.6 million to continue to effectively support government programs.
Mr. Chairman, one of my primary roles is to ensure that there is respect for the rule of law and that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is upheld. This was a key part of my mandate letter from the .
Equally important to me is ensuring that all Canadians have access to a fair, modern, and efficient justice system. On March 21 the government revealed its spending plan for 2016-17, which contains measures that will help Canadians assert their rights and provide disadvantaged Canadians with access to our justice system.
To accomplish this, budget 2016 proposes to provide an additional $4 million per year to the aboriginal court worker program, which assists indigenous people moving through the criminal justice system to better understand their rights and the nature of the charges against them.
It also helps those involved in administering the criminal justice system to overcome language and cultural barriers when dealing with indigenous peoples and to better appreciate the socio-economic circumstances that they face.
In addition, the government plans to reinstate the court challenges program, which I know this committee is studying, and provide $12 million over five years in financial assistance to individuals and groups that wish to clarify their language and equality rights in Canada's courts. When combined with the existing federal investments, total funding would be $5 million annually.
Budget 2016 also provides $88 million over five years to increase funding in support of the provision of criminal legal aid in Canada, as well as $7.9 million over five years for the courts administration service to invest in information technology infrastructure upgrades to safeguard the efficiency of the federal court system.
Mr. Chairman, improving partnerships with provincial, territorial, and municipal governments, as stated in my mandate letter, is essential to deliver the real positive change that we promised Canadians. To that end, I met with my provincial and territorial justice and public safety colleagues in January of this year. I believe that that meeting has allowed us to establish the partnerships we will draw on over the coming months and years in order to create a meaningful difference in the lives of Canadians.
Canada's continued success absolutely depends on including multiple voices as we re-evaluate our approach to important legislative matters, such as marijuana legalization and regulation, reform of our criminal justice system, and, most recently, legislation to ensure that dying patients who are suffering intolerably from a serious medical condition would have the choice of medical assistance in death.
This work requires true partnership between the federal government and the provinces and territories, which can be achieved only by sitting down together and engaging in open and continuous dialogue, sharing our knowledge, and bringing a range of perspectives to the table.
However, perhaps the most challenging but most necessary area we need to focus on is rebuilding the nation-to-nation relationship that lies at the heart of Canada. The importance of this relationship to me and to this nation with respect to indigenous peoples cannot be overstated. As you know, this is a priority of our government, and we are working to find long-term solutions in full partnership with indigenous peoples as we develop a new framework for reconciliation based on recognition and respect.
Mr. Chairman, in Canada there is an unacceptable overrepresentation of indigenous women and girls who go missing or who have become victims of violence. In line with our commitment to launch a national inquiry into this matter, budget 2016 would allocate $40 million over two years to support this important work. Along with working with my colleagues on this inquiry, the Department of Justice, through its main estimates allocations for 2016-17, would be allocating $1.98 million to the government's action plan to address family violence and violent crimes against indigenous women and girls, as stated in the main estimates. By providing important support for projects to break cycles of violence and for culturally responsive victims services, this program will help make Canada more just and inclusive for indigenous peoples.
As a steward of Canada's justice system, I take my responsibilities and accountabilities in this role very seriously. As a government, we have begun to re-examine what we do, why we do it, and how we can measure success. We are identifying what is working, what is not working, and how we can best change it. The government intends to work in an open and transparent way with all of its partners to create an environment that will position us to achieve the best possible solutions on these and other issues that affect the lives of all Canadians. For example, as mentioned in budget 2016, there are plans for consultations on a framework for the legalization of marijuana, with special emphasis on how to keep marijuana out of the hands of children and youth.
My mandate letter also tasks me to review Canada's litigation strategy. As part of this review, we have already either discontinued appeals or are reconsidering the crown's position in many cases. This will ensure that the government's litigation positions are evidence- and principle-based, as well as consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, our commitments, and our values as Canadians.
Mr. Chairman, just to return to the subject of the 2016-17 main estimates, this funding will help our department continue to provide the funding to programs such as the victims Fund, the youth justice fund, and the aboriginal justice strategy, which fulfill our mandate to ensure a fair and accessible justice system for all Canadians.
Finally, the Department of Justice is investigating ways to be more efficient. This includes constantly reviewing the effectiveness of our own business practices and systems. I am pleased to report today that, through our ongoing legal services review, we have decreased our budgetary requests this year by $3.36 million.
Mr. Chairman, as I stated earlier, I am truly honoured to be Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada in this incredibly important period in our history and to do my part to give back to our country through public service.
By continuing to report on our progress and to demonstrate openness and transparency in this matter and others, my department is helping to contribute to improving our justice system. We believe this will lead to better collaboration, better government, and great success for Canada and Canadians.
I would like to conclude where I started, by thanking the members of this committee, recognizing that each member has expertise in particular areas and will contribute substantively to the discussion that takes place at this committee.
I would invite any questions or comments the committee members may have.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I'd like to welcome the minister.
Thank you for your opening comments. I know you will be well served by the Department of Justice. Like me and previous ministers here, you get great support in that role. They play a great part in assisting this country on so many different issues.
Welcome to the committee, and thank you as well, for talking in your opening remarks about the aboriginal court worker program. I raised this matter before. It was one of those programs that seemed to me to be of great value to people getting involved with the court system, in having people who have some insight into the challenges that some of these individuals have. I'm pleased that, I think you said, there's an increase of $4 million for that program. I know I've asked this before, and it's one of those that I hope you will continue to have, because the feedback on it is that it has been very helpful.
I'd like to raise one or two issues with you. You said in your opening comments that there will be an allocation accompanying the legalization of marijuana. I wonder whether you could clarify that. It's not the same thing, of course, as decriminalizing. I've heard comments that marijuana will be decriminalized, which means it could still be unlawful to have, but legalization is something slightly different.
I wonder whether you could clarify: is marijuana going to be legalized in this country, or just decriminalized?
Well, thank you for the questions. I would like to acknowledge you also, as the predecessor in this role.
To the first point, acknowledging the work that the native court workers across the country continue to undertake, the $4 million a year is a top-up acknowledging the work that they do in assisting aboriginal access to justice.
I have a note here with respect to the court worker program. There are 176 court workers providing services to approximately 64,330 indigenous clients in 435 communities.
To your point with respect to our commitment on legalization of marijuana and strictly regulating access to marijuana, we are committed to ensuring that we take a comprehensive approach to the legalization, which would ensure that we decriminalize the use of marijuana while at the same time ensuring that we keep to our ultimate objective, which is to keep it out of the hands of children and keep the proceeds out of the hands of criminals.
I'm working with my colleagues, the Ministers of Health and Public Safety, and Parliamentary Secretary Blair, to ensure that we put in place a comprehensive framework that will provide the regulatory framework to ensure that we achieve our objectives.
These will go hand in hand. We are very much looking forward to launching a task force of experts, who will be engaged in providing recommendations around legalization and putting in place a regulatory framework with respect to marijuana. Those experts will include experts in the area of health, public safety, law enforcement, and justice.
In light of continuing pressures, increasing litigation loads, increasing legal risks, the department looked at the future where continued growth didn't seem like the best solution. Like the rest of the legal industry, realizing that there are opportunities to use technology better, we undertook a review to try to see the ways in which we could manage pressures within our existing envelope. We've tried to achieve efficiencies in a number of ways, and I'll give you one very concrete example that will resonate with all of you.
If you were to get involved in a lawsuit today and a request were made for you to disclose all your electronic records related to that matter, you would look in your emails and find “final draft” and also a whole series of “reply all” discussions around a particular case, and very soon you would end up with tens of thousands of electronic records that needed to be sorted.
We work in government, and that's what we do. We're familiar with government systems. We've developed an electronic tool that we funded and developed internally and a team of paralegals who have become much more efficient at going to the end of that email chain, eliminating all the duplications, grouping like materials together, so that we're now doing document review and disclosures in a way that is between eight and ten times more efficient than before, simply by better use of technology, better harnessing of people, and being sensible about it. We're asking our lawyers to devote more of their working time to delivering legal services for clients.
We're looking at trying to make sure that when a legal issue touches four departments, we don't have four lawyers working on it, but one. It's those kinds of efficiency measures we're looking at. We're trying to look to the outside to see what the private sector is doing, and to apply it internally, and drive efficiencies in how we deliver services.
I'm proud to say that with the work of great professionals from coast to coast to coast, we have found significant ways of delivering more efficient legal services and still delivering outstanding outcomes for Canadians.
With respect to the number of accused who have been charged with terrorism-related offences since the act came into place in December 2001, we've had 52 accused, 20 have been convicted, one has been acquitted, and we've had stays or withdrawals of eight, some of which have resulted then in peace bonds being imposed.
We have proceeded to trial, both completed or under way, including guilty pleas, and 21 have been completed to date; we have two under way right now; we have nine accused for whom warrants are outstanding.
In addition, we have the peace bonds. Peace bond applications have been made in respect of 19 accused. Ten have entered into peace bonds to date, three were withdrawn, and six are pending.
Some of those that are pending relate to persons who are charged, because in a number of instances it began with a peace bond, and there's then a charge under the act that is the subject of a prosecution, and the application for the peace bond hasn't been withdrawn at this point. It would depend in part on what the result is during the course of the trial, including the assessment of the evidence by the trier of fact and our assessment afterwards.
Thank you. With regard to the role of the ombudsman and the Victims Bill of Rights, when the government was developing the legislation, she was consulted. She had a number of proposals with respect to the legislation. The government considered those, and Parliament considered them.
With respect to implementation of the Victims Bill of Rights, there is allocated in the budget $8.79 million. Most of that money is going to the provinces, and some as well to police for training, and also to inform Canadians about their rights under the bill of rights.
There's also training with respect to police officers so they understand the Victims Bill of Rights, because quite often the police are a victim's first contact with the justice system. It's important that the justice system actors understand that the Victims Bill of Rights really is a cultural change and that it requires a lot of culture change by the actors—the police, the prosecutors, and judges—with respect to recognizing that Parliament has provided legal rights to victims they have never had before in relation to provisional information, protection, services, etc.
With respect to the Victims Bill of Rights, the ombudsperson will continue to have the mandate to hear complaints from victims and other individuals with respect to any federal government service, such as the RCMP or the Public Prosecution Service, regarding any alleged violation of the Victims Bill of Rights or other concerns.
Her role, then, continues as it was before, but it has increased, of course, because now there's a new piece of legislation that needs to be implemented.