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Interview with Justice Minister David Lametti

The minister talks about his dual role as a cabinet minister and the government’s top lawyer, extradition law, and his government’s plans for justice reform.

The Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of Canada David Lametti in an interview with CBA National
Blair Gable

The recently appointed Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of Canada David Lametti sat down with CBA National following his remarks at the CBA’s AGM in Ottawa yesterday. We talked about his dual role as cabinet minister and the government’s top lawyer, extradition law, and his government’s plans for justice reform.

CBA National: I realize that as Attorney General you’ve said you cannot comment on the SNC case.  But given that the Minister of Justice is a member of cabinet, but in his or her role as AG prosecutorial decisions must be made free of political influence, would it be better for a federal AG to serve from outside cabinet, as it is done in the UK?

David Lametti: Look, that’s a subject I think for another day. It’s worked well in Canada. You have to be able to distinguish what hat you’re wearing at any given point, and I think people have done it responsibly in the past.

N: But is it reasonable that people are bringing this up now, given the current circumstances that perhaps it’s something we should look at?

DL: Law reform and institutional reform is always something that a government ought to do. We’ve reformed the Senate, I think, in quite positive ways. But again, the context is such right now that I can’t jump into that answer.

N: Since the AG does sit in cabinet as Minister of Justice, how must he or she go about protecting their independence?

DL: I don’t think there’s any one practice or set of examples. It’s just a matter of knowing when you’re ultimately deciding, as attorney general – when it comes to prosecution, when it comes to giving legal advice to the government. That’s the only thing that counts.

N: You inherited a rather ambitious mandate letter from your predecessor, and there has been a lot going on the justice front for the last couple of years. I realize it’s an election year. But what can we expect from you in terms of priorities in 2019, and beyond, should the Liberals get re-elected?

DL: On the Ministry of Justice side, completing the legislative agenda that my predecessor, Jody Wilson-Raybould did so well. We have C-75 in front of the Senate — the reform of the criminal justice system. We just got C-78 through, so I’m really proud of that — shepherding that through the House of Commons, in its hopefully last stages. That’s on the Divorce Act reform, which is long overdue. It’s been over 20 years since we’ve had a change to the Divorce Act. And these are really to ensure that the best interests of the child are paramount. There is a piece of animal welfare legislation, two specific items in front of the House of Commons right now. We’ll hopefully get those through. I’m also part of a number of different other bills, where I’m working in conjunction with other ministers even though they’re not Ministry of Justice leads. So that’s the primary part of the legislative mandate that we need to complete. On the Attorney General side, it’s surveying and keeping an eye on litigation that the government is involved with. Down the road, we’re working on our platform right now. But I think it’s fair to say that the same kinds of progressive changes to the political and legislative agenda will continue. And so we’ll continue to look at reform of the criminal justice system. We’ll continue to look at reforms in other areas.

N: How do you respond to the criticism that on the criminal justice reform front, the government is moving too slowly? Particularly when it comes to the disproportionate effect that the criminal system has on indigenous people, and marginalized communities.

DL: I see the whole as a continuum and we’ll continue pushing forward. I speak as any other minister would speak on this. But hopefully, there will be things in the budge in 2019 that the Minister of Justice has asked for that allow us to move forward with other aspects of the restorative justice agenda. That’s the process. And we’ll continue to try to implement various pilot projects and other sorts of things that will help push our reconciliation process with First Nations, Métis and Inuit. Other than that, I can’t speculate past the end of my mandate. We’ll do our best to ensure that we keep to the kind of agenda that Canadians want and need.

N: This government has revamped the judicial appointment process, committed to appointing a more diverse judiciary, and created much-needed judicial positions in some jurisdictions. Yet filling those positions is slow, with over 50 vacancies on the books. What are your plans to fill those positions?

DL: Our plans are to fill those positions, using the process, and moving as expeditiously as we can. We still want to be careful and meticulous. We still want the same kind of quality appointments, and the same kind of diverse appointments. But we’re pushing forward on that. I’ve made some appointments already, and I’ll continue.

N: There is a challenge coming out in the Province of Quebec on medical assistance in dying. How do you see that playing out?

DL: Well, we’ll watch. There is a case in Quebec. There’s a case in British Columbia. We’ve just received expert reports from the [Canadian Council of Academies], which was looking at the three areas that were deliberately left out of the legislation. All that’s part of a process that any good government will go through to see how legislation is implemented on the ground, and see how it works. There are no plans to open up the discussion right now. There is in the legislation a five-year review period. So the next government will have to take that on as a matter of legal obligation. Legal cases, expert opinions, other factors and data that we can gather on the ground will become part of that review process down the road.

N: On the [Meng Wanzhou] extradition file, there are obvious tensions between the political obligation to treaty partners and the obligation to protect Charter rights. Does Canada’s extradition law strike the right balance in your view, or is it time, as some critics would suggest to revisit the law?

DL: I would gently correct something you said, in the sense that it’s a legal obligation to our treaty partners. We have signed treaties. So on the one hand, we have a legal obligation to our treaty partners, on the other, we have a legal obligation to ensure that the due process rights of anyone arrested or detained under that system are protected. It’s a system that’s worked well, that has put the focus on the rule of law. It’s a system that has put the responsibility on the courts and on the legal system to come to appropriate conclusions as to the substantive question at issue on extradition. So in that sense, it has worked well. As to the future, I’d give the same answer I gave a moment ago about any government interested in reforming something if that needs to be reformed. I’m not saying it does. But that’s just an ongoing responsibility of any government. For the time being, can’t focus on the case because that is in front of the courts, and it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the substance of it.