OTTAWA (Reuters) - The government proposed legislation on Monday to speed up complex criminal trials involving large numbers of accused, aiming to reduce mistrials in cases related to organized crime and terrorism.
The governing Conservatives reintroduced legislation that they say will reduce excessive delays in so-called mega-trials, which often get bogged down in lengthy investigations, numerous witnesses and repetitive proceedings against several people.
“It has become increasingly difficult to ensure that complex trials take place and are completed within a reasonable time,” Justice Minister Rob Nicholson told reporters.
“The measures outlined in this legislation will help streamline the prosecution of terrorism cases,” he said.
Nicholson said the draft bill addressed some of the shortcomings in the handling of terrorism cases that were identified in an official inquiry into the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182 from Canada that killed 329 people off the coast of Ireland.
Drug trafficking, gang-related and white-collar crimes also often result in long, drawn-out trials.
The initiative has the support of the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), which fears a repeat of a controversial ruling by a Quebec judge last month that resulted in the release of 31 members of the Hells Angels biker gang because the court could not cope with the workload of putting them on trial.
The Conservatives had tried to push through these changes in the previous session of Parliament but the legislation died when Parliament was dissolved ahead of the May 2 election.
The Conservatives now hold a majority of seats in the House of Commons and can therefore pass legislation without support from the opposition. But unlike some of the Conservatives’ other crime bills, the NDP not only supports this legislation but wants to fast-track its approval.
NDP legislator Joe Comartin said he wanted to avert a “crisis” of the criminal justice system in the wake of the Hells Angels ruling by Quebec Superior Court Justice James Brunton.
“We faced the same kind of decision coming in a number of the other mega-trials that are going on before the courts right now and others that will be forthcoming in the next year or two,” Comartin said.
“So we basically don’t have the time to be able to do a full-blown assessment of this bill in the form of debate in the House through committee.”
The legislation, known as C-53, would amend the Criminal Code to allow for a case management judge to be appointed in complex trials, with the power to impose deadlines and issue pretrial rulings. It would also reduce duplication of proceedings by allowing joint hearings and introduce other measures related to jury selection.
Reporting by Louise Egan; editing by Peter Galloway