Thank you very much, Mr. Chair and members of the committee.
I'm pleased to be here with you today to assist the committee in its work as it considers the votability of Bill C-421. On November 29, 2018, the committee commenced consideration of matters related to private members' business regarding Bill C-421. The committee heard representations from Mr. Mario Beaulieu, the member of Parliament for La Pointe-de-l'Île and sponsor of the bill, and Mr. Marc-André Roche, researcher for the Bloc Québécois.
I understand that the conversation was focused on whether Bill C-421 complies with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and following that meeting the committee decided to invite me to appear to discuss some of the legal issues raised.
My remarks today will be focusing on the following topics. I will address the charter questions and the drafting of private members' bills. I will note the confidentiality of the private members' drafting process in my office. I will speak to the non-votability criterion adopted by this committee specifically, and the requirement that the bill does not clearly violate the Constitution. I will discuss some recent case law of the Federal Court of Appeal that may be helpful in identifying the parameters of this criterion. I will, of course, be happy to respond to any questions that the committee members may have about the specific constitutional issues that have been raised to date.
The legislative counsel working for my office are responsible for drafting bills for members who are not part of the government. In my opinion, this is an essential service for parliamentary democracy. We are committed to this mandate and we fulfill it with a great deal of enthusiasm. I am extremely proud of the dedicated team who does this work in a professional and impartial manner.
In addition to drafting the bill properly, the legislative counsel assigned to the bill advises the member if they believe that it raises issues related to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or to the Constitution of Canada. Depending on the nature of the issue, the counsel may suggest that the member contact the Library of Parliament to obtain further information or they will draft a formal legal opinion for the member. Those exchanges about the bill are confidential and cannot be divulged without the member's consent.
Constitutional issues may be resolved in various ways. For example, the counsel may discuss with the member and suggest an approach to mitigate the risks of violating the charter. The counsel may also suggest drafting a national strategy if the matter in question is rather under provincial jurisdiction, or if the member proceeds by way of a motion instead of a bill. Regardless of any concerns raised, the final decision to proceed with the bill rests with the member.
Confidentiality is extremely important to us. It is mentioned in the 34th report of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs dated March 16, 2000, in which the committee noted that the work of legislative counsel is covered by parliamentary privilege, which has an even higher legal basis, as it is provided for in our Constitution. The committee quoted the Speaker from March 13, 2000, who stated:
All staff of the House of Commons working in support of Members in their legislative function are governed by strict confidentiality with regard to persons outside their operational field and, of course, vis-à-vis other Members.
This is fundamental. When we serve you as legislators in providing the legislative drafting services, we do so with strict confidentiality. I will not be discussing today any conversations or advice that could have been given to any member on any specific topic. I am available and here to address the issues generally before you, and specifically, to talk about the criteria around non-votability.
As you know, a bill that is added to the order of precedence will be reviewed by the Subcommittee on Private Members' Business to determine its votability. An analyst from the Library of Parliament is assigned to assist the subcommittee when considerations relating to votability are raised. The analyst can provide information and analysis on the issue but cannot provide a legal opinion. The votability criteria are established by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. In the most recent version of the criteria established in May 2007, the four criteria are as follows:
Bills and motions must not concern questions that are outside federal jurisdiction;
Bills and motions must not clearly violate the Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms;
We are most interested in that last criterion.
Bills and motions must not concern questions that are substantially the same as ones already voted on by the House of Commons in the current session of Parliament, or as ones preceding them in the order of precedence;
Bills and motions must not concern questions that are currently on the Order Paper or Notice Paper as items of government business.
Bills that fail to meet the criterion, with a clear violation of the Constitution Act, will be found to be non-votable.
To determine if a bill is non-votable, the question is not whether any given bills, or in this case Bill C-421 could violate the charter, but rather whether the bill clearly violates the charter, which is a higher standard for intervention. It is one that is more favourable to allowing debates about bills in the House. The process is internal to the House of Commons. As I've stated, it was set out and the criterion was adopted by this committee.
However, a useful comparison can be made to the standard applied by the Minister of Justice for the review of government bills for charter compliance pursuant to section 4.1 of the Department of Justice Act. This section requires the minister to “ascertain whether any of the provisions” of a government bill “are inconsistent with the purposes and provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms”. It requires the minister to report any such inconsistency to the House.
In a recent decision, Schmidt v. Canada, the Federal Court of Appeal had to determine the interpretation of this criterion of ascertaining whether it's inconsistent. There were two possibilities: Are you going to ask whether it's likely in violation of the charter, or are you going to ask for a higher threshold?
In the decision written by Justice Stratas for the Federal Court of Appeal, the court found that the appropriate standard obliges the Minister of Justice to report when there is no credible argument supporting the constitutionality of a proposed bill, and not when the proposed bill or regulation may likely be unconstitutional.
The court held that, given the uncertain difficult jurisprudential terrain of constitutional law and the time when the minister is expected to assess proposed legislation, the only responsible reliable report that could be given under the examination provisions is when proposed legislation is so constitutionally deficient it cannot be credibly defended. In other words, the court affirmed that the Minister of Justice only needs to inform the House of inconsistency between a government bill and the charter when no credible argument can be made in support of the measure. The court added that this approach was justified, given the inherent difficulty in predicting the outcome of constitutional law cases before the courts.
The court gave a number of examples. The case law can evolve, the Supreme Court itself can change its previous findings, and a lot of the charter cases will be dependent on the facts that will be led in justification of any violation. It's difficult to predict, and that supported a strict standard. The court also noted that it made sense for the standard applied by the minister to be commensurate to the standard applied by this committee in determining votability.
Leave to appeal has been sought, in this decision, to the Supreme Court of Canada. It may not be the last word on this point, but it is to date, at this time, the last word on the interpretation. As a result, in a similar way, the committee examines proposed legislation to determine whether it clearly violates the charter, not whether it could violate the charter.
In my view, if we apply this standard, if you apply it, a bill would only be deemed non-votable in situations where no credible argument could be made in support of the bill's constitutionality. That is, in my view, a helpful standard because it helps to deal with uncertainties.
Justice Stratas talked about this in his decision, saying that there will be rare cases where it's so obvious and so clear that you can make this determination, but in others the standard will not be met. That's the question before this committee, and I will be happy to assist as best I can in answering any questions you may have. I know there were some specific charter issues that were discussed in the previous hearings, and I'm happy to address those.