Senate Public Bill S-217, also known as Wynn’s Law, is named for Constable David Wynn, who was killed in St. Albert, Alta. in 2015 by a career criminal named Shawn Rehn, who subsequently killed himself.
At the time he killed Wynn, Rehn was out on bail despite a long list of outstanding charges. Those charges and prior convictions were not mentioned during the bail hearing, which was conducted by a police officer on behalf of the Crown.
The purpose of the bill, brought forward by Senator Bob Runciman and already passed by the Senate, is to require the Crown to disclose an accused’s criminal record and outstanding charges during bail hearings.
In March, I was one of 27 Liberal Members of Parliament who joined with Opposition MPs in supporting the bill at second reading in the House of Commons. As chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, I wanted our committee to study it, although I felt that most of its provisions were poorly crafted or redundant.
During the Justice committee’s study, we heard from several witnesses and from some provincial governments. Based on the testimony, it became clear that what was in theory a good idea was actually not a good idea in practice. A bill that was designed to make Canadians safer would in fact make us less safe.
My objectives, like those of my colleagues, are to make sure that people who should not be out on the streets while awaiting trial are kept in custody and to ensure that they get to trial quickly enough so that their cases are not stayed under the time requirements set out by the Supreme Court in R. v. Jordan. What we heard from witnesses ranging from the Canadian Association of Crown Counsel to the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police was that Bill S-217 did not meet those objectives.
Nancy Irving, who conducted a review of Alberta’s bail system in the wake of the killing, told us that, “I share the concern that this new language could turn bail hearings into mini-trials. That would certainly make bail hearings longer and it would likely contribute to further delays in a system already struggling to cope with the volume of cases.”
In a system where we already have defendants who are alleged to have committed serious crimes having their cases stayed due to delays, the last thing we need is to have more people released because of longer and more complex bail hearings.
Another concern expressed by several witnesses was that the changed language would augment the burden of proof that prosecutors would need to meet. If they cannot meet that burden, the result may well be more defendants being granted bail, not fewer.
There were nevertheless a number of helpful suggestions from witnesses, which I will be pushing for in order to improve the bail system in Canada. We need to continue to put sufficient resources into keeping Canadian Police Information Centre records up to date. We may indeed want to consider streamlining the bail provisions in the Criminal Code to make them less complex. As part of that undertaking we can examine how best to ensure that the courts always receive information related to the accused’s criminal history and outstanding charges.
Following careful consideration of the evidence before committee, my conclusion is that, no matter how well-intentioned, Bill S-217 will make our streets less safe. I am not opposing the bill because I am soft on crime. Far from it. I am now opposing the bill because the prosecutors, police and other experts on whom we rely to keep us safe have told us it will have exactly the opposite effect. I will follow their advice.
Anthony Housefather, a lawyer, is MP for Mount Royal and chairman of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.