A bill that would make huge improvements in how sexual assault cases are handled by Canada’s federal courts is just sitting in the Senate, gathering dust.
Bill 337 would stop lawyers from becoming federal judges if they haven’t received “comprehensive” training on sexual assault law. Rona Ambrose, the former interim Conservative leader who introduced the private member’s bill, said it would address problematic judgements like the one Nova Scotia justice Gregory Lenehan issued in 2017, in which he said “clearly, a drunk can consent” in his acquittal of a Halifax cabbie accused of sexually assaulting his passed-out passenger.
“Countless legal experts have pointed out mistakes in this judgement,” Ambrose said in the House of Commons in March 2017. “I have introduced a very common-sense bill to make sure that judges are not making basic errors or, even worse, painful comments that make victims think twice of ever pursuing justice.”
The bill would only mandate training for federal judges, not provincial judges like Lenehan. Most sexual assault cases are heard in provincial courts, but some, such as sexual assaults in the public service, are heard in federal court.
The bill was unanimously passed by the House of Commons two years ago, landing in Canada’s Senate for final approval. But senators are either unable or unwilling to pass it.
It’s been 714 days since the bill landed in the Senate.
Public pressure is mounting. The Toronto Star published an editorial this week calling on the Senate to act, and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh introduced a motion on April 10 asking senators to pass the bill ASAP.
Ambrose has called the delay “unprecedented.”
“Sexual assault survivors are not a priority,” Ambrose told the Canadian Press on April 11, after her appearance before a committee overseeing the bill was pushed back a fifth time. “The bottom line is this is the old boys’ club protecting the old boys’ club.”
“Why is Don Plett blocking a bill to help victims of sexual assault?” she tweeted at the Conservative senator and opposition whip over the weekend.
On Twitter, Plett shot back, “The suggestion that one senator out of 105 can block a bill is a complete fantasy. You said yourself, Rona Ambrose that, ‘All we need is a motion to have an extra hour [in committee outside of normal business hours]. Anyone can introduce this motion.’”
“As you know, committees are masters of their own destiny. I suggest finding a different narrative that actually has some credibility,” concluded Plett, who once had his Twitter profile hacked and replaced with a heavily tattooed fellow who offered words of support to Nicki Minaj in her feud with Cardi B.
VICE reached out to Plett, who said he is not part of an old boys club. He said he’s not blocking the bill and hasn’t instructed anyone to block it.
The bill has been sitting on the agenda for the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs since May 31, 2018. According to the Senate rules, committees must deal with government legislation first before they deal with private members’ legislation.
Plett is not a member of the committee and says he’s had no influence over the bill since it was sent to committee. He said questions about the delay would better be addressed to Liberal Senator Serge Joyal, who chairs the committee.
Joyal echoed Plett’s remarks, telling VICE his committee needs to address numerous complex government bills first, including a budget bill, amending the electoral act before the fall election, bill C-58 amending the access-to-information act, bill C-75 amending the Youth Criminal Justice Act and bill C-78 amending the Divorce Act.
There are more than ten private members bills waiting, he said, and bill 337 is at the top of the list.
Joyal said he doesn’t have the authority to bump the bill up the agenda, but said he was aiming to pass the bill before the Senate goes on summer vacation.
Plett suggested a solution: anyone in the Senate can bring a motion that the bill be placed ahead of all government business. It may or may not pass, he said, but anyone can make that motion.
“I don’t want to use the word archaic, but maybe we are a bit archaic,” the senator continued. “We have rules and conventions that have stood the test of time for 150 years, and I think most senators don’t necessarily want to encroach on those traditions if we can deal with it in any other manner.”
Plett said he supports the intent of the bill but wants to see an amendment to the requirement that lawyers must take the training before applying to become judges. He said they should be able to take the training after applying to sit on the bench.
The Senate is two months away from summer vacation. Plett believes that’s plenty of time to deal with the bill.
Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter.