05/28/2013 01:10 EDT | Updated 07/28/2013 05:12 EDT

Rob Nicholson not worried mental-health crime bill will fuel stigma

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson isn't concerned that his bill on reforming the way people found not criminally responsible for an offence are treated by the Canadian justice system would fuel the stigma associated with mental illness if it becomes law.

The possible implications of creating a new "high-risk" category for those found not criminally responsible are among the main worries that mental-health groups have raised about Bill C-54, which passed a vote at second reading Tuesday afternoon. The NDP supported it, the Liberals voted against it, and the bill now moves to the justice committee.

A coalition of groups spoke out earlier this month at a news conference on Parliament Hill and said the label would teach Canadians to be afraid of people with mental illness and undermine progress made on fighting the stigma.

"I don't think so," Nicholson told reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons when asked about the concern. "The same level of treatment will be available to them. This in no way impedes that whatsoever. That specific group, the high-risk individuals, we're talking about a group of individuals who are a danger to the public and a danger to themselves, so again we all have an interest in addressing that."

Nicholson said his government is creating a more balanced system that will better protect the public and support victims, and he encouraged MPs to move the bill forward to the committee stage.

"Recent cases involving accused persons found [not criminally responsible] in British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec have caused considerable concern among Canadians," he said. The provinces, victims and concerned Canadians are supportive of the government's actions, he added.

Mental health groups though have raised a number of concerns and say they wish they had been consulted on the bill before it was introduced in February.

Nicholson suggested they'll get their chance to give their input at the bill's next stage. "The matter is going before the committee. I've had very good input from people who have contacted my office, who have made input from victims' groups and indeed the provinces that administer this, I've raised this matter with them," he said.

Nicholson 'listening to victims'

The mental health groups which held a news conference on May 7 said they have been trying to get a meeting with Nicholson but can only get as far as his staff.

Nicholson's office refuses to say which organizations were consulted on the bill.

During debate on the bill Monday, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said she was surprised to hear Nicholson say the bill has been well-received, because she has been hearing from experts who wonder why changes are needed.

"The member asks who we have been listening to. I make no bones about it — we have been listening to victims. We meet with victims' groups," Nicholson responded.

NDP MP Megan Leslie also raised the issue of consultations not including mental-health experts and stakeholders.

"We want to make sure that public policy is based on the best evidence out there, not on just our gut reaction to a couple of high-profile cases," she said.

Debate on the bill wrapped up shortly after 11 p.m. ET. It was the third and final time the bill was before the Commons for second reading. Earlier in the day Monday, the government invoked time allocation which meant just five more hours of debate.

Opposition criticizes cutting off debate

Nicholson defended the government's move to cut off the debate on Monday night, saying there is "plenty of time for debate" at committee and at third reading of the bill.

The opposition parties said the Conservatives, who have frequently used the time allocation measure on a long list of bills, are showing contempt for Parliament and engaging in undemocratic behaviour.

Bill C-54 makes a number of changes to the way those found not criminally responsible for an offence are treated and how victims are involved in the system.

Under the current system once someone is found by a court to be not criminally responsible, the case is typically referred to a provincial review board that decides what happens next. The board, which includes a psychiatrist and other experts, can give the person an absolute discharge, or a conditional discharge, or order them to stay in a hospital.

Cases are reviewed at least once a year and the boards assess how the person's treatment is progressing. They must take public safety into consideration when making any decisions on whether the person can have increased privileges such as visits to the community, or if they are ready to be released.

Bill C-54 rewrites the language of the Criminal Code so that public safety is the "paramount" concern when making decisions and it creates the high-risk category that would shift some responsibility back to the courts.

Courts would make decision on high-risk label

It would be up to a court to designate someone high-risk, not the review boards who currently assess risk levels, and Nicholson said Tuesday that getting the courts involved with some "judicial oversight" is appropriate.

"I have confidence that judges who make these decisions to begin with assemble all the different information and the evidence before them to make the initial decision and I've got confidence in the judiciary that they'll be able to handle this responsibility as well," he said.

Once someone has the high-risk designation, only a court could lift it and review hearings would be allowed to be held every three years instead of the mandatory annual reviews.

Mental health groups aren't the only ones raising red flags about the bill.

Howard Sapers, Canada's correctional investigator, also expressed concern about the bill because he has been told by some defence lawyers that they may be hesitant to pursue a not criminally responsible defence, even though a client may have a severe mental illness.

Sapers, known as the country's prison watchdog, is worried more people with mental illness may end up in the prison system, which is already struggling to meet the demand for mental-health care.

Nicholson and other Conservative MPs emphasize that the bill will do more for victims. Review board hearings are already open to the public and victims can make victim impact statements, but Nicholson said C-54 goes further. It would provide for victims being notified upon request when an accused is discharged, and for non-communication orders between the accused and victim.

NDP MPs said they want to hear from mental-health experts at the committee, and expressed concerns about the costs provinces might have to bear because of the bill.

"I cannot stress this enough: We do not want to play political games with this. We want to examine the merits of the bill, which must be adequately funded by the federal government," NDP MP Ryan Cleary said.

Liberal MP Bob Rae, who has been open about his own struggles with depression, said during the debate that he has worked hard to help people better understand mental illness and the importance of fighting the stigma associated with it.

"Naturally, there will be situations that are trying and emotional. We see that. However, people with a mental illness who are linked to a serious crime are not criminals," said Rae.

"That is not a principle that the Liberal Party just made up. It is a long-standing principle of natural justice within our society. This bill is off kilter and, unfortunately, that is why we cannot support it."

Rae said particularly given the low recidivism rates for those found not criminally responsible, the evidence is not there to support the changes proposed in the bill.