moved that Bill S-12, An Act to amend the Criminal Code, the Sex Offender Information Registration Act and the International Transfer of Offenders Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am here today to discuss Bill S-12, an act to amend the Criminal Code, the Sex Offender Information Registration Act and the International Transfer of Offenders Act.
This bill is yet another example of our government's ongoing efforts to make the criminal justice system more effective in the fight against sexual offences and more responsive to the needs of victims and survivors of crime.
The main purpose of this bill is to respond to the Supreme Court decision that found sections of the sex offender registry unconstitutional. If we do not pass this bill by October 28 of this year, judges will not be able to add newly convicted sex offenders to the sex offender registry. I think we can all agree that none of us in the House from any party wants that outcome. Police have told us that this is an important tool for them in their work. We do not want to let police lose this tool.
We hear a lot of rhetoric from members in the House at times, including from the Leader of the Opposition, about ensuring consequences for serious offenders and about keeping Canadians and victims safe. This bill is about doing exactly that. I look forward to collaborating with members on both sides of the aisle to ensure that it is passed and receives royal assent by the court deadline.
I want to start by thanking the Senate for its work on this critical legislation and indeed the many witnesses whose important testimony provided the impetus for the amendments the Senate has proposed. In particular, I want to thank the victims and survivors of sexual violence who lent their first-hand experience to the legislative process. I have listened and I have heard their pain. We need to do better as a nation. I thank them for helping us shape this critical reform. Senate members put in the work to ensure that we got this legislation in a timely manner in the House of Commons, and I thank them for their expeditious work.
Bill S-12 is a fundamental priority for me and for our government. I know it will improve our justice system, particularly for victims and survivors of crime. Along with responding to the Supreme Court decision and strengthening the sex offender registry, this bill also makes victim- and survivor-centric changes to the publication ban regime and to how victims access information. I will explain each of these elements.
First is the response to the Supreme Court decision. The urgency to pass this bill stems from the court's October 2022 decision in the Crown v. Ndhlovu case, which struck down two provisions of the Criminal Code relating to the sex offender registry.
The first provision that the Supreme Court struck down required judges to automatically order an individual to register with the sex offender registry when they are convicted of, or found not criminally responsible on account of a mental disorder for, a designated offence. The Supreme Court held in that case, from last year, that the law was too broad because judges had to issue an order in every single case, including in cases where offenders do not pose a risk of reoffending. The court gave Parliament one year to respond to the striking down of this provision.
The second provision the Supreme Court struck down required a mandatory lifetime registration for those convicted of or found not criminally responsible for multiple offences within the same prosecution. To that category, the Supreme Court said that because people who are convicted of more than one offence during the same prosecution did not necessarily pose a higher risk in some circumstances, the provision went too far by requiring mandatory lifetime registration when a shorter period might be appropriate. The striking down of that provision was effective immediately upon the decision being rendered last year.
The bill before us now, Bill S-12, responds to the Supreme Court's decision. It does so by improving the approach to mandatory registration. The bill maintains mandatory registration in two circumstances: those involving serious offences against children and those involving repeat sexual offenders. In all other circumstances, the bill before Parliament proposes a rebuttable presumption of registration. This means that individuals convicted of or found not criminally responsible for a qualifying offence will be required to register unless they can demonstrate to the court that registration would unduly affect their rights. Thus, it is rebuttable.
By adding narrow judicial discretion back into the sex offender registration regime, we are directly responding to the court's direction. However, we are also, at the same time, ensuring that we continue to have a robust sex offender registry, the registry that police have asked us to maintain. That means a registry that gives law enforcement the tools it needs to investigate sexual offences and to keep our communities safe. My fundamental job is to do just that.
The approach is essentially what was suggested by the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security back in 2009 when it reviewed the Sex Offender Information Registration Act. However, the Conservative government, at that time back in 2009, decided not to heed the public safety committee's advice and proceeded instead down a path that was deemed unconstitutional.
It is not a coincidence that this is similar to what we see today from members across the aisle. The Leader of the Opposition has repeatedly said that he is willing to ignore the charter when he does not like a court decision, and that is something that troubles me. In fact, I will note anecdotally that a few of the petitions that were just read into the record talked about the invocation of the notwithstanding clause because of perceptions and views about certain Supreme Court judgments.
Returning to the bill, I want to highlight the circumstances in which we believe the automatic registration to the national sex offender registry would be justified. These are all for repeat offenders and for child sex offenders convicted of indictable offences and sentenced to two years or more of imprisonment.
The Supreme Court of Canada has made clear that automatic registration in all cases is unconstitutional. It violates section 7 of the charter. Our government, nevertheless, believes that it is important to maintain automatic registration in two categories. The decision to retain automatic registration for these two categories is informed by evidence that shows an objectively verifiable risk of reoffending.
The first category, as I mention, is sexual offences against children. They are among the most heinous criminal acts. Based on the evidence, which we have reviewed, sexual offending against children is a known risk factor for sexual recidivism. Second, we know from experts that repeat sexual offenders have a high risk of reoffending, a risk that is five to eight times higher than individuals who have non-sexual criminal histories. For all other cases, other than the two categories I just mentioned, offenders would be required to register unless they can prove to a court why it would be inappropriate in their case based on the criteria I mentioned earlier.
This approach, outlined in Bill S-12, is respectful of the charter. Again, one of my fundamental duties is keeping Canadians safe while all the time respecting charter rights. It is also consistent with upholding public safety.
To respond to the court's decision about the automatic lifetime registration, Bill S-12 would give courts the discretion to order lifetime registration in cases involving multiple offences in the same proceeding where the pattern of offending indicates that the individual poses a risk of reoffending.
In addition to certain aspects that respond to the Supreme Court decision, Bill S-12 contains a number of elements to strengthen the sex offender registration system as a whole.
These elements were developed through ongoing consultation with our provincial and territorial partners, including law enforcement agencies.
Bill S-12 would add new offences to the list for which registration may result, such as extortion for a sexual purpose, or sextortion, and non-consensual distribution of intimate images. These are inexcusable crimes that have inflicted real damage on Canadians' lives, especially those of women and girls. We take them seriously and are ensuring that offenders of these deplorable acts are held to account.
Changes would also require those who are already on the registry to provide 14 days' notice of any travel, as well as the specific address of their destination. When Attorney General Garland and Secretary Mayorkas were in Ottawa in March for the cross-border crime forum, they applauded this very important change to our legislative structure. These changes would strengthen our partnership with our American allies in maintaining safety and security across our shared border.
Furthermore, Bill S-12 would enact a new warrant provision that would allow police to arrest an offender who is in breach of their obligations and bring them to a registration centre.
Essentially, the changes to the national sex offender registry proposed in Bill S-12 will make the registry more effective and will make it easier for law enforcement agencies to investigate and prevent sexual offences. I urge all my colleagues to join me in supporting these changes.
As I mentioned at the start, Bill S‑12 also includes important and useful reforms of publication ban provisions. These reforms aim to empower victims of crime by ensuring that their wishes are respected when it comes to issuing, lifting or changing publication bans, and that their right to information about their case is fully upheld.
For a long time, these changes have been called for, including more recently by victims' and survivors' groups, such as a group called My Voice, My Choice.
The support for these reforms spans across all parties. I want to thank the member for Victoria in particular for her leadership on this very issue. At an event hosted by My Voice, My Choice this spring, members of the Conservative Party, the NDP, the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party all heard heartbreaking stories from survivors of sexual violence.
Across partisan lines, a promise was made to deliver changes to the publication ban regime, as called for by these brave survivors. We now, in this chamber, have the ability to fulfill this very promise. I hope members from all parties will join me in doing so.
One survivor of sexual violence who has spoken out on this issue sought to lift a publication ban on her name to protect her children. She was abused as a child and came forward to tell her story as an adult, after hearing that her abuser was working in the child care sector. It took months, legal fees and a complicated court process to finally get the ban lifted before she could try to protect her children and other children who she feared risked the same abuse as she had suffered.
When someone has the courage to reopen an immensely painful chapter in their life in order to lift a publication ban, I firmly believe our justice system needs to make it easier for them to heal and not retraumatize them. That is critical.
Calls for these changes have been advocated for a long time, including more recently by victims' groups like My Voice, My Choice. Calls for reform were also heard in the December 2022 report of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights entitled “Improving Support for Victims of Crime”. I am proud to be part of a government that finally took action on this matter.
While publication bans can be a useful tool for protecting victims, they can also unduly silence them. I want to assure Canadians, in this chamber, that our government's intention is for victims and survivors of sexual crimes to have ownership of their stories. That is absolutely critical as a priority for our government, and it is a priority for this legislation.
The publication ban amendments in Bill S-12 were the subject of significant discussion in the Senate. There was broad support for the policy objectives grounding these changes, but there was also a belief that more could be done to give them better effect. Our government worked collaboratively with survivors, experts and advocates to make some important changes. The bill was amended in a number of ways.
Generally speaking, I believe these changes have made Bill S-12 better, and I am thankful for that. I am thankful to the witnesses who shared their stories and their insights during the committee study. They also shared their stories with our colleagues in the Senate, who listened and proposed such thoughtful amendments.
What would Bill S-12 do in the area I am describing? First, it makes it clear that if a publication ban has been imposed, the court must, at the first reasonable opportunity, inform the recipient of their right to apply to revoke or vary the order. It is empowering the individual.
The bill also requires the court to ask a victim or witness if they wish to be the subject of a publication ban, if they are present in court. If they are not present, the court would be required to inquire of the Crown if they sought out the wishes of the victim or witness. Again, this is further empowerment.
The bill clarifies obligations that the prosecutor has toward the victim or witness with respect to information on their right to seek, revoke or vary a publication ban.
All of these changes place victims and witnesses at the centre of the publication ban process. The goal is simple: If wanted, a publication ban should be requested.
At the same time, we know it is not always possible to reach the victim or witness in the early stages of criminal proceedings, and it is important to safeguard their interests prior to knowing what they may wish to do. That is why the bill would not prevent a publication ban from being sought in cases where the views of a victim or witness cannot be ascertained. It is my expectation that it would only be impossible to seek the victim's wishes in very rare instances.
The bill would also make important changes to codify and clarify the process for varying or revoking a publication ban once imposed. Again, the perspectives of victims and survivors are at the centre of these changes.
Bill S-12 would create a new section of the Criminal Code to clarify and streamline the process of seeking to change or revoke a publication ban. If the person who is the subject of the publication ban wants it to be revoked, the court would be required to do so without holding a hearing.
The only exception to that rule would be where the court believes that the privacy interests of another person who is subject to a publication ban would be impacted by the revocation or variation. For example, there could be a situation where there are two victims of sexual assault; one wants to have the ban removed, but the other wants her privacy maintained. A hearing should be held in that case to make sure that removing one of their publication bans will not inadvertently identify the other victim against her wishes. That is an important safeguard.
I want to make it absolutely clear that the accused would not have any say in the process of modifying or revoking a publication ban. We are not focused on the accused here; we are focused on victims and witnesses. This is about empowering victims to decide what is best for them.
In response to concerns expressed during the debate on Bill S-12, there are now provisions in the bill that make clearer when prosecution of a breach of a publication ban by the recipient shall not occur. Specifically, the changes make clear that prosecution shall not occur in situations where a person breached their own publication ban, unless they compromised the privacy of another person who is also protected by a ban and where a warning would not be appropriate. These changes are important to me, to our government and to the many victims who have long advocated for reforms in this area.
Earlier I indicated that I believe Bill S-12 was generally improved by the amendments passed in the Senate. I do, however, want to ask the justice committee to consider whether there are any changes that need to be made; it should do so quickly, given the imminent Supreme Court deadline of October 28.
The final piece of the bill for victims responds to calls from victims groups and the federal ombudsperson for victims of crime to make it easier for victims to tell the court system whether they want to receive ongoing information about their case after trial. Under the Victims Bill of Rights, victims can decide whether they want to stay informed about all case developments, such as appeals or parole. They can also decide that they do not want to be contacted about the case. They have the right to move on and not have to hear about it again. It is their decision.
However, as advocates told the justice committee, many victims who want to receive ongoing case information are slipping through the cracks. They do not know that they need to register to receive ongoing information. To address this acute problem, Bill S-12 proposes to significantly simplify and streamline the process for registering by making the judge ask the victim their preference and by making it a simple box to tick on a form. I am grateful to the advocates who brought this to my attention, so we can address it with this important bill.
In conclusion, I would say that Bill S-12 is a tremendously important piece of legislation. It has victims and survivors at its core. It would contribute to public safety and respect charter rights at the same time. I look forward to the debate on this bill, and I am confident we can work together across party lines on both sides of the aisle to ensure and facilitate its speedy passage. This will show the importance not only of the continued operation of the national sex offender registry but also of the continued strengthening of the criminal justice system's response to victims of crime.