Fear-Mongering

Irwin Cotler has table a private member’s bill, C-669, that would give judges the ability to reduce any mandatory minimum sentence provided by the Criminal Code

in any manner that [the judge] considers just and reasonable, taking into consideration the circumstances of the offence, victim and offender, the sentencing principles set out in [the Code], and the interests of justice and fairness.

The bill’s short title is Independence of the Judiciary Act. It is this title that I want to comment on. Despite the respect I owe Mr. Cotler, I consider it to be as misleading as any of the propagandist monikers the Conservative government has given its tough-on-crime legislation.

The bill, quite simply, is not about the independence of the judiciary ― much like the Safe Streets and Communities Act, which introduced some of the many mandatory minimum sentences that Mr. Cotler is trying to push back against, was not really about the safety of Canadian streets and communities, since mandatory minimum sentences do not deter crime and hence do next to nothing to promote public safety. Judicial independence, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly stated, comprises security of tenure, financial security, and administrative independence. C-669 does nothing to enhance any of these aspects of independence. Instead, its title seems based on the assumption that the existence of mandatory minimum sentences is, in itself, an impairment of judicial independence. But that’s not so.

While I’m not a fan of that decision’s take on the Rule of Law, and while even its application of the principle of judicial independence to the statute at issue may be contestable, the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion in British Columbia v. Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., 2005 SCC 49, [2005] 2 S.C.R. 473, does supply what strikes me as a useful statement regarding the respective roles of the judiciary and the legislatures:

[T]he judiciary’s role is not … to apply only the law of which it approves. Nor is it to decide cases with a view simply to what the judiciary (rather than the law) deems fair or pertinent. Nor is it to second-guess the law reform undertaken by legislators … . Within the boundaries of the Constitution, legislatures can set the law as they see fit. [52]

To show that a law interferes with judicial independence,

more is required than an allegation that the content of the legislation required to be applied by that adjudicative role is irrational or unfair, or prescribes rules different from those developed at common law. The legislation must interfere, or be reasonably seen to interfere, with the courts’ adjudicative role, or with the essential conditions of judicial independence. [54]

Even “draconian” laws do not interfere with the “courts’ adjudicative role,” which is “to hear and weigh, in accordance with the law, evidence that is relevant to the legal issues confronted by it.” [50] Needless to say, a mandatory minimum sentence does not prevent a court that must impose it from doing these things. The existence of a legal rule imposed by the legislature that confines the range of orders a court is authorized to issue in a given case does not stop the court from issuing the decision it deems appropriate, within the constraints of that rule. And in the case of criminal sentences, unlike the civil issues with which Imperial Tobacco was concerned, a draconian legal rule can be challenged as unconstitutional.

The words of Chief Justice MacDonald, in the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal’s decision in R. v. MacDonald, 2014 NSCA 102, are also apposite:

in our constitutional democracy, Parliament decides what actions will constitute a criminal offence together with the corresponding range of punishment for each. This may include, in Parliament’s discretion, mandatory minimum sentences for certain offences. In this regard, the will of Parliament shall prevail, unless the sentencing provisions are so severe as to constitute cruel and unusual punishment as prohibited by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It then falls to the judiciary, as guardians of the Charter, to prevent such occurrences. (Emphasis mine)

The claim that mandatory minimum sentences interfere with judicial independence is being advanced by the Barreau du Québec in its wholesale constitutional challenge to a variety of such sentences ― with some success, so far, in that both Québec’s Superior Court and its Court of Appeal have seized on it to allow the challenge to go forward, despite the government’s argument that the Barreau did not have standing to pursue it. However, these judgments, right or wrong, did not concern the merits. As I have repeatedly argued, this claim does not stand up to scrutiny.

So much for the law. As a matter of logic, the claim that mandatory minimum sentences interfere with judicial independence fares no better. Mr. Cotler’s own bill actually illustrates this quite clearly. It does not seek to authorize judges to impose sentences in excess of the upper limits decreed by Parliament for each offence in the criminal code. Yet if the concern is that Parliament’s limiting judicial discretion and the ability to impose a “just and reasonable” sentence interferes with judicial independence, that concern ought to be equally applicable to “mandatory maximums” as to “mandatory minimums.”

Mr. Cotler, I conclude, does not really think that limiting the judges’ discretion impose whatever sentence they think fit is inherently wrong. He thinks that mandatory minimum sentences are sometimes unjust, and perhaps also that they are unnecessary and inefficient. He is right about that. (For the most part, anyway; I wonder if he, or anyone else, seriously oppose the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment for murder for instance.) He should rename his bill accordingly. The bill’s current name, like that of so many Conservative bills, particularly in the realm of criminal law, is a propaganda device intended to convey the impression that a grave problem exists when this is not the case, and the bill’s author knows this not to be the case. Such fear-mongering deserves condemnation, whoever it comes from, but it is especially unworthy of an honourable man and great lawyer such as Mr. Cotler.

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