Bill C-75 presentation makes case for preliminary hearings

  • June 20, 2019

In its second committee appearance on the government’s Bill C-75, Criminal Code and Youth Criminal Justice Act amendments, the CBA presentation focused on the need for preliminary hearings.

As it noted in its September 2018 submission, which it presented before the House of Commons Justice committee last year, the bill would “restrict preliminary inquiries to offences with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.”

That’s one aspect of the bill that the CBA finds “particularly problematic,” Tony Paisana, legislation and law reform coordinator for the Criminal Justice Section told the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.

“Any practitioner who spends time in our courts will have their own anecdotes regarding the value of preliminary inquiries to their practice,” Paisana, appearing via teleconference, told the committee in early May. Crown counsel, for example, will talk about preliminary inquiries exposing serious weaknesses in a case, leading it to be dropped without a trial; conversely, defence counsel will talk about how a preliminary inquiry can facilitate a guilty plea once the accused sees the Crown’s evidence. Police officers and investigators benefit from practice testifying, and witnesses and victims say it can boost their confidence and familiarity with the intimidating courtroom environment.

“However, we appreciate that anecdotes alone cannot inform public policy,” Paisana told the senators. “Evidence and statistics should also inform the analysis and these, too, show that preliminary inquiries are a valuable cost-saving tool in the criminal justice system.”

Only 25 per cent of eligible cases actually have a preliminary hearing, and those hearings usually take two days or less. Paisana cited recent statistics from Manitoba which showed that 75 per cent of the cases that had a preliminary hearing were resolved without a trial.

“I suggest to you that that is an important and staggering statistic,” he said.

Preliminary hearings also have a knock-on time-saving effect when a case does go to trial – trials are more organized, pre-trial motions can be identified earlier, evidence disclosure can be litigated before a trial instead of in the middle of it, avoiding delays there.

“These practical realities of the preliminary inquiry are not found in any textbook or ruling; they’re found in the experience of criminal law practitioners like the ones you will hear during testimony,” Paisana said. “Please pay heed to their collective wisdom and experience.”