Updated: Mar 29
Policy Brief by Rachel Schafer
The following article contains a discussion of sexual assault. This may be considered disturbing by some readers. We recommend that readers prepare themselves before continuing.
In 2017, the Honourable Rona Ambrose introduced Private Member’s Bill C-337, An Act to amend the Judges Act and the Criminal Code (sexual assault),” in the House of Commons. The purpose of this bill was to increase sexual assault awareness and understanding within the Canadian judicial system. Despite widespread support within the House Commons, it never became law, disappearing from Parliamentary discussions after the 2019 election (1).
II. Contents of the Bill
Bill C-337 has three main parts: the preamble, sections 2-4 on amending the Judges Act, and section 5 on amending the Criminal Code (2). The preamble explains the purpose of the bill, stating among other things that “survivors of sexual violence in Canada must have faith in the criminal justice system” and “problematic interpretations of the law may arise in sexual assault trials” (3). Part two presents that an amendment be made to the Judges Act which requires all federally appointed judges to receive special education in sexual assault law, as well as myths and stereotypes that impact sexual assault victims and cases (4). Part three presents that an amendment be made to The Criminal Code to require that the reasons for the decision of a sexual assault case be recorded either in the proceedings or in writing (5).
Bill C-337 fully progressed through the House of Commons within less than three months. On May 16, 2017, it entered first reading at the Senate after a unanimous House vote in its favor. The second reading was not until May 31, 2018, where it was referred to the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. Over a year later, on June 5, 2019, the Committee presented their reports with amendments. These amendments would have to be examined and approved by the House of Commons before the October 21, 2019 election. This did not happen, and the bill never became law (6).
Critiques of Bill C-337 itself, as well as critiques of how many delays it experienced within Parliamentary processes, can be presented to better understand the discourse around this bill. However, when looking at the weaknesses of a bill, it is important to first consider its strengths.
Bill C-337 is a progressive bill which acknowledges the current shortcomings of the Canadian judicial system. It recognizes that stigma and myths about sexual abuse contribute to the creation of a toxic rape culture in which victims do not feel supported or safe enough to come forward. The aim of this bill was to use education to help change this. By ensuring that judges have proper training and education about potential issues that could arise, fewer issues regarding stereotypes and myths would impact the functioning of the criminal justice system. In addition to this, by ensuring that all reasoning is recorded, judges would be more accountable for their decisions and reasoning.
Despite the progressive intentions of the bill, one specific issue has been presented as a vital weakness of the bill. In a submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Ms. Heidi Illingworth presented the issue that Bill C-337 would apply only to federal judges, while most sexual-assault cases are heard by provincially appointed judges (7). Because of this, the current scope of the bill would limit it from having the intended impact on most sexual assault cases. This has caused widespread criticism of the bill, with many critics stating that it is misdirected or an empty pledge (8).
The reason for the failure of this bill is debated and unsure. Ambrose blamed the Conservative leadership and Senators for neglecting the bill, whereas others argue that it was the Liberal government’s choice to leave the bill off the agenda until the last week of the session that caused it to fail (9). Regardless of the reason, the progression and eventual outcome of this bill demonstrates a shortcoming in the Canadian Parliamentary system, where bills that begin with unanimous support from the House of Commons are not implemented due to the excessive delaying of the matter.
Despite shortcomings of the scope of the bill, as well as its stall in the Senate for over two years which led to it never becoming law, Bill C-337 demonstrated intentions of accountability within the judicial system, as well as an increased responsibility for judges to protect victims instead of victimize them more, as has been seen in past sexual assault cases. While the exact bill may not have the scope to implement these changes in an impactful way, it demonstrates the desire and need to move towards an inclusive and safe judicial system, separated from stereotypes, myths, and stigma, while also demonstrating current institutional blocks that can impact the implementation of Private Member’s Bills, even if unanimously supported, in the Canadian legislature.
Bill C-337, An Act to amend the Judges Act and the Criminal Code (sexual assault), 1 st sess., 42 nd Parliament, 2017. https://www.parl.ca/DocumentViewer/en/42-1/bill/C-337/third-reading
Casavant, Lyne, et al. Legislative Summary of Bill C-337: An Act to amend the Judges Act and the Criminal Code (sexual assault), 1 st sess., 42 nd Parliament, 2018. https://lop.parl.ca/sites/PublicWebsite/default/en_CA/ResearchPublications/LegislativeSummaries/421C337E
Illingworth, Heidi. Submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs: Study of Bill C-337, An Act to amend the Judges Act and the Criminal Code (sexual assault). Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, 2019.
Mukherjee, Dia. “Bill C-337 and Sexual Assault Law Training: Empowering Action or Empty Pledge?” McGill Journal of Political Studies (2019), accessed October 29, 2020, https://mjps.ssmu.ca/2019/07/01/bill-c-337-and- sexual-assault-law-training-empowering-action-or-empty-pledge/
Photo By Leafsfan67 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76018871