The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A bill to improve Parliament’s constitutional scrutiny of legislation is a step forward ― but not good enough

Earlier this week, the federal government introduced Bill C-51, which will make some noteworthy changes to the Criminal Code ― mostly cleaning up offenses now deemed obsolete, but also codifying some principles relative to sexual that have been developed by the courts, and some other changes too. There has been quite a bit of discussion about these changes (see, for instance, this tweetstorm by Peter Sankoff), and I am not really qualified to speak to their substance, beyond saying that, all other things being equal, cleaning up the statute and making sure it reflects the law as applied by the courts are pretty clearly good things form a Rule of Law standpoint.

I do, however, want to say something about another, less commented, innovation in the bill: its clause 73, which would oblige the Minister of Justice to provide, alongside to any government bill introduced in Parliament, “a statement that sets out potential effects of the Bill on the rights and freedoms that are guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This is a step forward, although not a sufficiently bold one, but also a troubling symptom of the constitutional favouritism that afflicts the government and seems to show no signs of letting up.

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The idea that the Minister of Justice ought to provide advice to Parliament about the compliance of bills with rights protections actually pre-dates the Charter. It was first introduced in subs 3(1) of the Canadian Bill of Rights, which required the Minister to

examine … every Bill introduced in or presented to the House of Commons by a Minister of the Crown, in order to ascertain whether any of the provisions thereof are inconsistent with the purposes and provisions of this Part and he shall report any such inconsistency to the House of Commons at the first convenient opportunity.

Identical language, but referring to the Charter, now appears in subs 4.1(1) of the Department of Justice Act. Yet these provisions, which might have involved Parliament, or at least the House of Commons, in constitutional discussions, have largely proven ineffective. There was, as we can tell from judicial decisions declaring federal legislation  invalid because contrary to the Charter (or, admittedly rarely, inoperative because contrary to the Bill of Rights), no lack of opportunities for inconsistency reports. Yet in well over half a century, only one such report has ever been made.

The reason for this is that, as the Federal Court explained in Schmidt v. Canada (Attorney General), 2016 FC 269 successive Ministers of Justice interpreted the reporting requirements as only obliging them to notify the House of Commons if they, or rather the Department of Justice (DOJ) lawyers, couldn’t come up with “[a]n argument” that the bill is constitutional “that is credible, bona fide, and capable of being successfully argued before the courts”. [5] Because DOJ lawyers are clever and creative, and perhaps also a little optimistic about their ability to mount successful arguments, this interpretation allows the Minister to avoid making a report to the House of Commons even if the constitutionality of a bill is very much in doubt.

Contrast this situation with New Zealand. Section 7 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 is a direct descendant of the Canadian inconsistency reporting requirements. It provides that the Attorney-General must “bring to the attention of the House of Representatives any provision in [a] Bill that appears to be inconsistent with any of the rights and freedoms contained in this Bill of Rights”. Attorneys-General have interpreted this as a duty to form their own opinion about whether proposed legislation is consistent with the Bill of Rights Act, and not merely about whether they might make credible arguments for the proposition that it is. As a result they have made almost 40 “section 7 reports” on government bills, and over 70 in total, including on non-government bills, which are not covered under current Canadian legislation and still would not be under C-51, in just 25 years. (One reason why similarly worded provisions have been interpreted so differently in Canada and in New Zealand is that New Zealand, like the United Kingdom, separates the roles of Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, and the latter, although elected as an MP and a member of the Cabinet, by convention acts in a relatively non-partisan fashion. I would love to see Canada adopt this practice, but won’t hold my breath.) And New Zealand’s Attorneys-General have gone further than the Bill of Rights Act required them to. The have also made public the advice regarding the consistency with the Act of all bills since 2003 ― not only those that they found to be inconsistent.

If enacted, Bill C-51 wuld take Canada close to New Zealand in this regard ― and, to some extent, even further. It will go further both in that it will create a statutory requirement, as opposed to a mere policy (albeit on that has been consistently followed by governments of various partisan persuasions), and in that it will formally inform not only the public but Parliament itself. On the other hand, the requirement will not go as far as the New Zealand policy, because it will only apply to legislation proposed by the government ― and not by individual MPs or Senators.

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Despite its limitations, of which more very shortly, this is a good change. Getting Parliament to engage more with constitutional issues that arise when it legislates would be a wonderful thing. To be sur, we should not be too optimistic about what ministerial explanations of Charter concerns will accomplish. In New Zealand, Parliament routinely ignores the Attorney-General’s warnings about the inconsistency of bills with the Bill of Rights Act. It may well be that if such warnings, or a fortiori statements to the effect that a bill gives rise to constitutional concerns but the government believes that it is nevertheless consistent with the Charter become more common in Canada, legislators will similarly ignore them. But even occasional engagement with such concerns is likely to be an improvement on the current situation, in which they are systematically ignored whether or not Parliament is the only place where they could be addressed.

One particular issue to think about here is the role of the Senate. It is at least arguable that it would be more justified in opposing the House of Commons (at least by insisting on amendments, but perhaps even by outright defeating legislation) because of constitutional concerns than for any other reason. Having such concerns outlined by the Justice Minister would make it easier for the Senate to do this, and might thus contribute to make it a more significant legislative actor. That said, the Senate did give way to the House of Commons on the assisted suicide legislation, despite constitutional concerns, so any such changes are, for now, a matter of speculation.

As the above comparison between Canada and New Zealand shows, a lot will depend on just how the Justice Ministers approach their new statutory duties. This is where we come to the less attractive features of clause 73. Its wording is very open-ended ― to repeat, it requires reports bills’ “potential effects … on [Charter] rights and freedoms” (emphasis mine). In a way, this is useful, in that it allows the Minister to offer a nuanced assessment, and perhaps candidly say that there is no clear relevant guidance from the courts. But if a Minister wants to fudge, or simply to say, consistently with currently practice, that plausible ― but not necessarily compelling ― arguments can be made that a bill’s effects can be justified under section 1 of the Charter, clause 73 would allow that too. As Lisa Silver has noted, ministerial “statements may be self[-]serving”. On the whole, then, I would count the clause’s vagueness as a bad thing.

The other bad thing about it is that, as I noted earlier, it only applies to legislation introduced by the government. Now, it is true that most significant legislation is, in Canada anyway. But there have apparently been concerns that the last Conservative government used private members’ bills to advance policies that had its private support but with which it was unwilling to be too publicly associated. Whether or not that was true, something like that might happen in the future. And of course any bills introduced in the Senate would be exempt from scrutiny, at least until the rather hypothetical for now day when there are cabinet ministers from the Senate. In short, the exclusion of legislation not introduced by the government from the current scope of clause 73 is potentially dangerous ― and I have a hard time seeing why it should be there.

It gets worse ― indeed, in my view, it gets outright ugly. Clause 73 confirms what I have denounced the government’s tendency to treat the Charter as a favoured part of the constitution, and ignore the others, notably the Constitution Act, 1867. The clause will, if enacted and approached in good faith by the Justice Ministers (the latter a big if, as I noted above), force the government to alert Parliament to the repercussions of proposed legislation on a part of the Constitution. But why only part? Why that part? Why shouldn’t Parliament be alerted to issues surrounding the division of powers, not to mention aboriginal rights and, arguably above all, the constitution’s amending procedures? And what about the (quasi-constitutional) Bill of Rights, while we’re at it? (Though it is often forgotten, the Bill of Rights does protect some rights that have been left out of the Charter, perhaps most significantly the right to a fair trial in civil cases, and so remains relevant despite the Charter’s enactment.) Of course, the current provisions requiring inconsistency reports only concern the Charter and the Bill of Rights, but since the point of Clause 73 is to expand them, why is this expansion so selective? As I have previously explained, the vision of the Constitution that it reflects is a defective and a pernicious one. To that extent, Clause 73 deserves condemnation ― and cries out for amendment.

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Let me conclude, then, with a quick sketch of what an amended version of Clause 73 that addresses the criticisms outlined above might look like:

(1) The Minister shall, for every Bill introduced in or presented to either House of Parliament cause to be tabled, in the House in which the Bill originates, a statement that sets out potential effects of the Bill on

(a) the rights and freedoms that are guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or recognized, declared or otherwise protected by the Canadian Bill of Rights;

(b) the aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada recognized and affirmed by the Constitution Act, 1982; and

(c) the scope of and limitations on Parliament’s legislative powers under the Constitution of Canada.

(2) The statement shall, in addition to any other matter, note whether, in the Minister’s opinion, it is more likely than not that the Bill is inconsistent with the Constitution of Canada.

(3) The statement shall be tabled

(a) in the case of a bill introduced in or presented by a minister or other representative of the Crown, on the introduction of that Bill; or

(b) in any other case, as soon as practicable after the introduction of the Bill.

(4) The purpose of the statement is to inform members of the Senate and the House of Commons as well as the public of those potential effects and the constitutionality of proposed legislation.

This is, in all likelihood, an imperfect effort. In particular, it might be unnecessary to require Ministerial statements on private members’ bills that never make it past first reading. I’d be grateful for any input on this, and on the corrections that might be necessary to my proposal, from those more knowledgeable than I about Parliamentary procedure and legislative drafting. But I do think that my substantive concerns are serious. I would be very nice indeed if Parliament were made to address at least some of them.