VANCOUVER — A leading civil liberties group says a judge has denied a request to delay a lawsuit that challenges the use of indefinite solitary confinement in federal prisons.
The Attorney General of Canada asked the Supreme Court of British Columbia to adjourn the trial scheduled to begin next Tuesday after the federal government introduced legislation that would restrict the use of solitary confinement.
But the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association says the court has decided the case should go ahead as scheduled.
The association and the John Howard Society of Canada are co-plaintiffs in the case and argued the amendments introduced by Ottawa do not comply with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Once passed, the bill would impose for the first time a so-called legislative framework establishing a time limit for what prison officials call administrative segregation.
It was introduced after several high-profile solitary confinement cases, including the 2007 death of Ashley Smith of Moncton, N.B., an emotionally disturbed 19-year-old who died in custody after tying a strip of cloth around her neck.
Caily DiPuma, the civil liberties association’s acting litigation director, says legal experts have been recommending changes to the way solitary confinement is used for decades.
“The court recognized that the concerns we raise in our lawsuit deserve to be heard,” she said in a statement. “The government has repeatedly failed to address the problems with solitary confinement and now a court will have the opportunity to weigh in on the constitutionality of the current regime.”
A coroner’s inquest into Smith’s death ended in 2012 with 104 recommendations, including a call to end to “indefinite solitary confinement’” and the use of segregation beyond 15 days for female inmates with mental-health issues.
Shortly after taking office in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ordered Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to take a second look at the Smith inquest’s recommendations as part of her mandate to implement criminal justice reforms.
Administrative segregation is used when there is no reasonable alternative to maintain the safety and security of the institution, staff and inmates. It differs from disciplinary segregation, which is applied to inmates who are found guilty of a serious offence in custody.
The Correctional Service of Canada is also amending its policy to outlaw the practice in cases involving serious mental disorders or prisoners who are certified, those who are engaged in “self-injury” and those at risk of suicide.
Under the current law, the Correctional Service is required to release prisoners from administrative segregation at the earliest possible time. The new law would establish an initial time limit of 21 days, and then 15 days once the legislation has been enacted in law for 18 months.
The Canadian Press