Vic Toews and Criminal Lawyers

On Wednesday November 2, during Question Period in the House of Commons it was reported that Public Safety Minister Vic Toews explained to NDP MP Joe Comartin that they have a different perspective on Bill C-10, the omnibus crime bill, as Comartin”comes from a long and distinguished career of defending criminals, as a defence criminal lawyer”.  This bill is generating a lot of press as thee provinces already have expressed concerns about the costs they will have to incur given provincial responsibility to prosecute Criminal Code offences and incacerate those sentenced to under two years.  There is a potential constitutional crisis coming, but that is a topic for another blog entry.

The Ottawa Citizen’s blog was quick to catch Toews comment, and pointed out that former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was himself a criminal defence lawyer.

The entire exchange can be found in the Hansard to Wednesday’s QP.  After some heckling from the floor, Comartin asked his question:

Mr. Speaker, the Conservatives are about to stick the provinces with a billion-plus dollars in bills for their prison agenda. Ontario has said enough and it is demanding that the Conservatives pay for their own prison agenda, not the provinces. They want front line police officers, not more prisons, just front line police officers. That is where the money should be spent.

The Conservatives do not understand. I do not understand the humour that is coming from that side of the House.

However, if they are so hell-bent on ramming through this bill, will they at least listen to the three provinces that have come forward and said, “We’re not paying the shot”. Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia are not paying the shot. The government should pay the shot.
Toews then began his answer:
Mr. Speaker, I do respect my colleague opposite, but I know that he comes from a long and distinguished career of defending criminals, as a defence criminal lawyer. Our perception is a little bit different.
The response was interrupted by some comments from the floor.  Maclean’s suggests that this was anger being expressed by opposition members at the comments made by Toews.   The Speaker interjected before Toews was able to complete his answer:
Mr. Speaker, as I was saying, I understand the perspective that the member has, given his choice in career, and it is an honourable profession.

It is not the position, though, that our government takes. Our government takes a balanced approach. We want to ensure that victims are protected, that prisoners are–
As a criminal defence lawyer I find Toews comments very disturbing.  The fact that, after it seems like he realized his error, he called the profession a noble one does not detract from his statement that one’s perspective on justice issues is somehow skewed by working as a criminal defence lawyer.  Our job involves defending those charged with a criminal offence and, perhaps more importantly, protecting their legal interests and ensuring that they have a fair trial.
No doubt many of my colleagues and myself have a left-centre view on criminal justice matters.  Often this is based on experience of actually working in the system and gaining an understanding of the actual issues.  Not all of us share these views.  I know some colleagues who are quite right wing.  Similarly, I know Crown Attorneys who are quite left and those who are quite right in their political thinkings.  Criminal defence lawyers, both individually and collectively, can provide an important perspective to the government in the course of authoring legislation.
Following Question Period Comartin explained why he was angry with Toews:

I was offended because it was an attack on the Criminal Law Bar. The reality of my own career, I only practised criminal law for about seven years at the start of my career. The rest of my career was in the courts but it was in the civil courts doing family law where I acted for a great number of victims of crimes, domestic violence in particular.  And then I acted as a civil defence lawyer in personal injury areas and other types of litigation. So he was wrong about that.

That’s not why I was angry. I was angry because this was an insult to the defence lawyers in this country who provide an absolutely essential service to our criminal justice system. If they are not there, our system doesn’t function. And for him to attack them just in a blanket way the way he did, that’s where I was angry.  It was unfair, it was unwarranted and it’s inaccurate.

Toews comment was a needless attack on criminal defence lawyers and the important role they play.  He made a blanket attack and dismissed both the individual and collective thoughts of an entire profession.  Toews owes the entire criminal defence bar an apology.

One Response to “Vic Toews and Criminal Lawyers”

  1. Mike November 4, 2011 1:18 pm #

    It amazes me that so many victim advocate groups defend and support C-10. While it’s not difficult to find critics of this bill, it seems that certainly groups that work with victims of crime consistently argue that while expensive, C-10 is a step in the right direction.

    It’s difficult to talk about these issues without offending those groups, or coming off as insensitive. How do we chose language that respects their cause, but points out the flaws in the very logic of such a bill?

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