OTTAWA — It didn’t take long for the first and only Green party member elected to Parliament to make her presence felt.
Green party Leader Elizabeth May said Monday that she plans to block the Harper government’s plan to rush through a so-called “mega trials” bill this month.
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson wants the legislation passed by month’s end, but May said she’ll deny the unanimous consent needed to fast-track the legislation.
As the lone dissenter so far, she said the bill needs thorough consideration.
“Fundamentally changing the Criminal Code to undermine some of what I regard as fundamental principles of justice over centuries would in my view require more hearings,” May said.
The NDP and Liberals said they would back speedy passage of the bill, while the four Bloc Quebecois MPs have yet to make up their minds. That leaves May as the only obstacle to fast-tracking the legislation.
The Conservatives were counting on the unanimous support of the opposition so the bill could be passed before the House of Commons adjourns this month.
Nicholson’s urgency stems from last month’s case in which 31 alleged Hells Angels bikers walked out of a Montreal courthouse after a judge found their trials would take too long.
“Mega trials may be hard to avoid but the manner in which they are conducted can and must be improved for the benefit of all Canadians,” he said.
“For Canadians to have confidence in our justice system it must be effective, swift and true.”
Nicholson said the NDP and Liberal support is “good news for me” and that he hoped the last handful of MPs would “come on board.”
But May said the Tories never asked for her support.
She made it clear she wants a full airing of the bill, which means it could not be passed before the summer recess. She wants parliamentary hearings to have witnesses testify about the ramifications of the proposed changes, and that includes civil liberties experts.
Mega trials involve numerous defendants and charges and pose many challenges, including prolonged court hearings.
A key feature of the new law would allow for the appointment of a case-management judge who would hear pre-trial motions for groups of accused people, help pare down witness lists, and impose deadlines on prosecution and defence lawyers.
A mega-trials bill was first introduced in November but died with the dissolution of Parliament in March for the May 2 general election. Nicholson said that because Tories tabled the same bill months ago, nobody should be surprised by its content.
It would target trials involving terrorism and organized crime. Nicholson didn’t single out a specific case, but the NDP and Liberals cited the recent Hell’s Angels case as something that needed to be addressed.
“The crisis right now is that we have had 31 charges kicked out,” said NDP justice critic Joe Comartin. “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.
“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. I’m quite satisfied that it is a procedural bill.”
Liberal Leader Bob Rae said he supports seeing the bill passed before the summer recess: “I do think it’s important, particularly after the recent events in Quebec with respect to the Hell’s Angels, that a very clear message be sent.”
The mega-trials bill has been separated from a larger omnibus crime bill the Tories will introduce in September.
The Tories pledged to introduce and pass all their tough-on-crime legislation in one package of bills within the first 100 sitting days of their new majority government.
The bill would do away with the duplication of efforts within the already stretched criminal-justice system by allowing joint hearings on pre-trial motions for multiple accused. And it contains provisions to swear in extra jurors to act as replacements if needed in lengthy trials.
The Air India inquiry endorsed the idea of mega-trials legislation. The inquiry looked at the 1985 terrorist attack on an Air India jetliner that killed 329 people, most of them Canadian.
“This will contribute to implementing the Air India inquiry action plan, the government’s response to the commission of inquiry into the investigation of the bombing of Air India flight 182,” Nicholson said.