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N.L. minister seeks Criminal Code changes he says will protect domestic abuse victims

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Newfoundland and Labrador’s justice minister has asked his federal counterpart to make changes to the Criminal Code that he says will help protect victims of domestic and intimate partner violence.
Newfoundland and Labrador Justice Minister John Hogan addresses a press conference in St. John's, Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. Hogan has written to his federal counterpart to ask for changes to the Criminal Code relating to bail and detention in intimate partner violence cases.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Newfoundland and Labrador’s justice minister has asked his federal counterpart to make changes to the Criminal Code that he says will help protect victims of domestic and intimate partner violence.

John Hogan's letter last month to Arif Virani recommends changes to bail and detention rules that could make it harder for those accused of intimate partner violence or domestic violence to be released.

He sent it about a week after a St. John's, N.L., woman was found dead and Ibrahim Alahmad was charged with her murder.

“I write this letter to express my concern over the ongoing epidemic of intimate partner and domestic violence, which continues to plague Canada with too frequent catastrophic effect," Hogan told Virani.

But Lynn Moore, a lawyer who works with survivors of abuse, says there are more effective strategies — putting ankle monitors on high-risk offenders, for example — that would keep women safe.

"I believe that there are some men who are very, very violent towards their spouses, and they need to be locked up," she said. "(But) tweaks to the criminal law, while not detrimental, are not the kind of change we need. We need a system overhaul."

Hogan's March 13 letter asked for the "reverse onus" provision on bail to be extended to anyone previously accused of intimate partner violence, so they would be automatically kept in custody unless they could convince a judge it was safe for them to be released.

Under the current rules, this reverse onus only extends to people previously found guilty of intimate partner violence offences.

Alahmad was facing a litany of previous violent charges involving the woman — whose identity is protected by a publication ban — including forcible confinement and assault causing bodily harm by choking. He had been out on bail since January, according to court documents.

Hogan said in an interview that if his proposed change had been in place, the onus would have been on Alahmad to prove that he deserved bail, rather than on the Crown prosecutors to prove that he did not.

Hogan's letter also asked that intimate partner and domestic violence, and threats thereof, be added to the list of reasons a person can be detained.

"Newfoundland and Labrador wants to take all possible steps to avoid an increase in offences in which intimate partners and family members are the victims of violence," he wrote. "I feel we need to move quickly to prevent further victimization of some of the most vulnerable people in our society."

The Criminal Code is federal law and can only be changed by members of the federal government. 

Moore said many dangerous offenders are still granted bail in reverse onus cases. She would rather see more standardized risk assessment tools used by police to determine which offenders may be most dangerous. 

"If you have been choked, then you are at a significantly higher risk of dying from intimate partner violence," she said. "Are the police doing these risk assessments? Are they reporting on their risk assessments to the court?"

Chantalle Aubertin, a spokesperson for Virani, said the federal government updated the Criminal Code in December, broadening the application of reverse onus to people who have previously received a discharge after being found guilty of intimate partner violence. A discharge means the accused has been found guilty but a conviction does not appear on their criminal record.

“Our government is examining how the criminal justice system responds to instances of cases of femicide and how it can be strengthened," Aubertin wrote in an email Wednesday. "Minister Virani himself has publicly stated that he views the current situation as an 'epidemic' requiring immediate action."

She said the federal minister will respond to Hogan's letter "in due course."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2024.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press