Ontario court ruling reignites debate about mandatory minimums

Andy Radia
Politics Reporter
Canada Politics
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A .38 Smith & Wesson revolver is shown during a gun buyback event in Bridgeport, Conn., Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012. The Ontario Court of Appeal has ruled the mandatory minimum three-year sentence for a gun crime is unconstitutional.The sentence for possessing a loaded prohibited gun was enacted in 2008 as part of the federal Conservative government's omnibus crime bill.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/The Connecticut Post, Autumn Driscoll MANDATORY CREDIT; MAGS OUT

The Harper government has lost a battle in their tough-on-crime agenda.

On Tuesday, Ontario's court of appeal ruled that a three-year mandatory minimum sentence for possessing a loaded prohibited gun is unconstitutional.

"No system of criminal justice that would resort to punishments that ‘outrage standards of decency’ in the name of furthering the goals of deterrence and denunciation could ever hope to maintain the respect and support of its citizenry," the court ruled, according to the Canadian Press.

"Similarly, no system of criminal justice that would make exposure to a draconian mandatory minimum penalty, the cost an accused must pay to go to trial on the merits of the charge, could pretend to have any fidelity to the search for the truth in the criminal justice system."

It's unknown, whether or not the federal government will appeal the ruling at the Supreme Court of Canada.

[ Related: Ontario Appeal Court rules mandatory minimum sentence unconstitutional ]

Nevertheless, the court's decision has reignited the political debate about the efficacy of mandatory minimums pitting the Tories against the two main opposition parties.

Shortly after Tuesday's ruling, Liberal Justice Critic Irwin Cotler tweeted his top five reasons why "mandatory minimums fail as a policy."

Cotler's tweets were reinforced by Liberal justice critic Sean Casey who told CBC's Power and Politics that a Liberal government would review all mandatory minimums currently on the books.

"It's bad policy,"  he said.

The New Democrats are also averse to the populist policy.

"The problem you have with minimum mandatory sentences is will it be viewed as too harsh according to the Charter of Rights?" NDP Justice Critic Françoise Boivin told Yahoo Canada News in a telephone interview on Tuesday afternoon.

"In general our position on mandatory minimum sentences is that we are against it. We always analyze it on a case by case basis although as a principle, I'm kind of against mandatory [minimums] because I so respect the courts.

"The problem is when you go with mandatory minimum sentences is that you might be right 90 per cent of the time but there might be a few cases where it shouldn't apply. And when you remove that discretion from the courts, they cannot apply it in an intelligent way."

[ Related: What can be done to curb gun violence? ]

Since coming into power, the Tories have indeed enacted minimum sentences for a wide variety of crimes including drug, gang and sexual assault offences.

While mandatory minimums have become a big part of their crime agenda, the legal system has now challenged the government's authority on at least a couple of occasions.

Last December, as explained by the Canadian Press, Quebec's provincial bar association launched a legal challenge claiming that mandatory minimum provisions in the government's 2012 omnibus bill didn't "protect the public and represent an unconstitutional interference from one branch of government, the legislature, in the business of another, the judiciary."

Some experts predict that more court battles are on the horizon.

(Photo courtesy of the Canadian Press)

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