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A year passed before senators took up the bill mandating sexual assault education for judges and yet another year expired before it came to committee tonight
Former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose’s bill on mandatory sexual assault training for judges is expected to pass committee Monday night with amendments that put it in line with a similar bill passed last year in P.E.I.
Independent senator André Pratte will move three amendments that he said have Ambrose’s support, that of the bill’s sponsor Sen. Raynell Andreychuk, and that of other senators who had been skeptical of its original wording. Pratte said he expects the bill will now be dealt with “expeditiously,” despite a years-long battle to see it passed.
Ambrose left politics about two years ago just after watching Bill C-337 pass in the House of Commons. Since then, it has languished in the Senate. It took a full year before senators took the piece of legislation up for debate, and it took another year for the Senate’s legal committee to schedule Monday evening’s special meeting.
With the current session of Parliament wrapping up within the next month and a federal election coming in the fall, Ambrose had publicly worried that her bill might die because of senators’ inaction. Pratte said “many different factors” account for the delay, including concerns with “weaknesses” in the bill and the legal committee’s steady intake of government bills, which always take priority according to regular procedure.
But there is a clear will in the Senate to pass C-337 before summer, Pratte said. “The simple fact that the committee is meeting tonight … is an indication of the will that exists within all groups in the Senate to pass this bill before we rise,” he said.
After testimony from Ambrose, Andreychuk, the Chief Judicial Officer at the National Judicial Institute and the executive director of the Canadian Judicial Council, the committee will review the bill’s wording. Pratte anticipates there will be “broad support” for his amendments.
They draw inspiration from a Prince Edward Island private member’s bill sponsored by Jamie Fox, now the province’s fisheries minister after his Progressive Conservatives’ recent election victory. It passed with significant amendments last December.
The P.E.I. legislature pared down the original version, removing language that called for strict disqualification of judges if they have not completed “recent and comprehensive education in sexual assault law. It still required judges to comply with “continuing education” plans, including on sexual assault. Critics complained it was too watered down but Fox told CBC last month he was proud of the bill’s final version.
Ambrose’s bill, as it stands, adds a similar eligibility requirement for prospective superior court judges, requires annual reporting to Parliament and requires judges to provide recorded or written reasons for decisions in sexual assault cases. Pratte said his three amendments will address several practical concerns about its original wording.
The first amendment, similar to a change in the P.E.I. bill, would commit judges to complete mandatory education once they are appointed, rather than requiring them to have already completed it prior to applying for judgeship. This avoids issues around the confidentiality of judicial applications and the large number of applicants who don’t actually get appointed, Pratte said. Anyone who didn’t follow the training would be open to sanction.
The second amendment, Pratte explained, broadens requirements around who actually develops the education courses. At present the bill stipulates the courses be developed in consultation with victims’ groups. The amendment would expand consultation to anyone deemed appropriate, including victims’ groups, a broader definition that Pratte said would make it harder for defence lawyers to complain of bias.
The third amendment would remove a requirement that the judicial council name judges who had heard cases of sexual assault but had not followed the proper training, which some senators worry could lead to judges being shamed on social media in such a way that it could become “an infringement on judicial independence,” Pratte explained.
Pratte said although he’s noticed since being appointed that surprises in the Senate are always possible, he expects the bill will pass. “I expect that once that is done, once the bill is adopted in committee with amendments, I expect that the Senate will deal with it expeditiously,” he said.
If the Senate passes C-337 with amendments in committee and at third reading, the Commons will then have to agree to the amended version before it can become law. The House is scheduled to rise June 21.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019