Asper Centre Students in Focus: Brittany Cohen

Brittany Cohen, a rising second-year J.D. candidate, is another student research assistant working at the Asper Centre this summer.

Building on one of its student working group projects this past academic year, the Asper Centre is developing a series of police oversight legal information guides for the general public (one for each province, the territories and for the RCMP), and Cohen is spearheading the research this summer.  The guides will include a plain-language review of criminal and disciplinary oversight procedures in each jurisdiction, detailed steps that affected persons need to take to file a police complaint, timelines to keep in mind, special sections for vulnerable groups such as Indigenous people and victims of gender-based violence, and lists of resources and referrals for further assistance. The guides will be available online and in print, and will be translated into French and several Indigenous languages, to ensure accessibility.

The guides are designed so “[the public] can find really accessible information on how to file a police complaint,” Cohen says. “Right now, in a lot of provinces, it’s really difficult to find the right information.”

The most difficult aspect of her research thus far has been tracking down accurate and up to date information on the precise mechanisms of each province’s police accountability procedures. “The reason we want to create the guides is that there’s a lack of information, so that’s obviously a problem when creating the guides,” Cohen explains. “We will be partnering with stakeholders across Canada to find legal experts in the different regions who can fill in the gaps.”

Cohen was a member of the police oversight student working group during her first year as a law student, where she performed preliminary research on the police oversight bodies in Nova Scotia. Over the summer, she’s been exploring the issue on a national level by reviewing each province’s policing legislation, which establishes the police oversight bodies and/or procedures in that province, and drafting the information guides.

Cohen, who first became interested in the law in high school and who studied criminal justice and psychology in undergrad, is drawn to both criminal defence and constitutional law. “There’s a lot of overlap there,” she says, noting the two fields involve directly assisting clients. “I think both of them have a direct impact on the public, and that’s my main focus.”

Cohen will be co-leading the Asper Centre’s police oversight student working group this upcoming academic year.

Asper Centre Students in Focus: Jason Lamb


Meet Jason Lamb, a rising second-year J.D. candidate and one of the Asper Centre’s student research assistants this summer.

Lamb’s main project is to help publish a special edition of the Supreme Court Law Review based on presentations at the Asper Centre’s public interest litigation conference in March. The journal edition will “be a lasting document to preserve this moment of our thinking,” he notes.

The papers examine the intersection of law and advocacy in a public context. “It’s a very wide-ranging topic that can cover all sorts of issues [such as] ethics in the legal profession, access to justice, advocating for housing rights, intervening at the Supreme Court — there are all kinds of ways that practitioners and academics approach that question,” Lamb says.

The project also involves significant inter-disciplinary research, which draws upon Lamb’s history and political science background.

“I’ve had to get abreast of all different areas of sociology [and] political science that I’ve left dormant since I’ve gone into law school,” he says. “I’m reviving a lot of stuff that I’ve learned in the past and am now applying it in the context of advocacy and lawyers, which is not something I’ve thought of before.”

Lamb wanted to work with the Asper Centre this summer because of his experience volunteering with the Refugee and Immigration Student Working Group during the school year. It made him realize the connections between the law and current affairs, and that law students “can start playing a small role in as an actual actor in the overall scheme of things, rather than someone who just observes.”

A long-time debater, Lamb is considering a litigation career, but is wary of working in a constantly adversarial environment. “I can see why it can wear someone down over time, he says. “But it’s an interesting challenge.”

Bill C-59: The Good, the Bad, and Where We’re At

By Patrick Enright

When Bill C – 51, the Federal Government’s revised Anti-Terrorism Act, was pushed through Parliament following the attacks on Parliament Hill in 2015, the reaction from the public and civil liberties societies was swift. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association challenged key provisions of the Act under the Charter, and Professors Roach and Forcese (among others) wrote numerous articles decrying the law as “radical” and “unbalanced.” It also became a hot topic of debate in what turned out to be a contentious Federal Election, one that saw the Liberals win a surprising majority over Harper’s conservative flagship.

But when the dust settled from the election season, the question loomed large: would the Liberals take any action to reform the new law? At the time, there was reason to be skeptical. The law had received Royal Assent with support from both the Conservative and Liberal parties. And with the election of the U.S. chest-pounder-in-chief, Donald Trump, many thought the Liberals would shy away from anything that might portray them as either soft on terror or weak on national security matters.

So when the Liberals introduced Bill C – 59, An Act Respecting National Security Matters, there was reason to believe it would be a mere nodding attempt to keep a half-hearted campaign promise. In some ways the Bill does disappoint – and the Asper Centre has released a detailed analysis of its shortcomings. But in many ways it is a valiant effort to roll back some of Bill C-51’s glaring excesses.

The most obvious improvement in the legislation is the implementation of a multi-agency review mechanism. The new bill sets up a whole-of-government review committee that can assess and review all national security information (except Cabinet confidences) and produces frequent classified reports to Parliament as well as an annual unclassified report to the public regarding its findings. These provisions remedy a major deficiency in accountability that has been lacking for years in Canada’s national security framework. Until now, each national security agency had different oversight bodies, which could not collaborate with each other, despite the fact that the work of each agency is often intertwined. This created a “siloing” effect, where reviewing bodies could not follow the evidence down whatever rabbit hole it may have led. By contrast, the new “whole of government” mandate means that the entirety of Canada’s national security apparatus can be held accountable for its actions, including the CBSA (Canadian Border Services Agency) which had previously not been subject to any independent review.

The Bill is commendable in other areas as well. For example, Bill C – 51 introduced a new speech offence to the Criminal Code that made it an offence to “advocate or promote a terrorism offence in general.” The provision is breathtaking in scope. It makes it an offence to perform tasks as innocuous as promoting the assistance of designated terrorist groups, advocating for the provision of “material aid” to listed groups, and advocating for the provision of charitable aid to a listed terrorist organization. There were also no defences worked into the provision such as opinions in the furtherance of a religious belief, commentary on matters of public interest, or the articulation of truth.

Bill C – 59, to its credit, limits the scope of this offence to actions that actually “counsel” a terrorist activity. This is important because “counselling” criminal activity has always been a Criminal Code Offence – one that has been upheld as constitutional under the Charter.

All this being said, the Bill is not a model of perfection. The Liberals have come up at least one base short of a legislative home run. Canada’s national security framework remains sorely lacking in the area of privacy protection in that it still permits an enormous amount of sharing of Canadians’ personal information between federal agencies. As of now, the broad collection and sharing of Canadians’ personal information is authorized if the information pertains to acts that might “undermine the security of Canada.”

While this might sound perfectly reasonable, it is in fact alarming when one looks at the definition of what “undermines the security of Canada.” The category includes such unremarkable matters as interference with the economic or financial stability of Canada as well as any effort to “unduly influence” the government of Canada by any “unlawful means.” The term “unlawful,” it should be noted, is not the same thing as “criminal.” Canadians’ private information can be swept up and shared on the grounds that the target of the information had contravened an act of Parliament in an effort to merely “influence” government action (think of violations of the Ontario Labour Relations Act). Bill C-59 does nothing to remedy these deficiencies.

So what has been the progress on Bill C – 59? The Bill is currently being prepared for Second Reading in Committee, so there is still hope that modifications could be made. But there is no guarantee that changes to the bill won’t move in a less happy direction. The Progressive Conservatives, under their new leader Andrew Scheer, have made a habit of taking the Liberals to task on any matter that has the appearance of being “soft on terror,” including the management of returning ISIS fighters and – most controversially – the 10-million-dollar settlement with Omar Khadr. The Conservatives also appear to have taken issue with the restrictions on CSIS’s so-called threat reductions powers. Bill C – 51 made it legal for CSIS agents to take positive steps to reduce national security threats short of causing bodily harm, intruding on sexual integrity or obstructing justice. It also allowed CSIS to seek a warrant from courts that would authorize Charter violations. Bill C – 59 changes this. The Liberal government has reformed these provisions by requiring that all such actions be Charter compliant, and prohibits CSIS agents from using its powers to detain, torture, or damage property to the extent that it endangers life.

These are important changes, but it is not obvious that the Liberals will be able to pass it into law without a fight. For this reason, when it comes to debating the bill in second reading, one hopes that Liberals and Conservatives will come together to strike an appropriate balance between national security matters and rights-preservation.

In other words, that cooler heads might prevail.

Patrick Enright is a 3L JD Candidate at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and was a 2016 Asper Centre Clinic student.

Asper Centre Clinic Student Reflects on Drafting the Bird Intervention Factum

by Becky Lockert

This past fall, the Supreme Court of Canada granted the Asper Centre leave to intervene in R v Bird, a case that ties questions of access to justice and constitutionalism to the doctrine of collateral attack. The question at the heart of the case is, from the Asper Centre’s perspective, whether a court applying the collateral attack doctrine must explicitly consider countervailing factors to ensure that administrative orders are Charter compliant.

Mr. Bird, the appellant, was labelled a long-term offender and, upon the completion of his prison sentence, was subject to certain supervisory conditions. Although he had requested that he be released into his First Nations community, the Parole Board ordered Mr. Bird to reside in a community correctional facility. Notably, this community correctional facility is the same one where he served the end of his prison sentence.

On a January evening two years ago, Mr. Bird left his assigned correctional facility and did not return. Police apprehended Mr. Bird several months later, leading to a charge of breaching a long-term supervision order and the threat of up to ten years in prison.

At trial, Mr. Bird successfully argued that the imposition of the residency condition was contrary to s. 7 of the Charter and outside the statutory authority of the Parole Board, because continued incarceration cannot be a condition imposed by a long-term supervision order. Allowing the appeal, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal held that Mr. Bird was precluded from challenging the legality of the supervision order condition. To make such an attack, the Court of Appeal concluded, would be allowing a collateral attack and contrary to legislative intent.

The Supreme Court granted leave to intervene to the Asper Centre in September 2017. The intervention team, consisting of Cheryl Milne (Asper Centre Executive Director) , Breese Davis (the Asper Centre’s 2017-18 Constitutional Litigator-in-Residence), and five clinic students, had six weeks to prepare our intervenor factum. Our task was to craft an argument that the Court, when determining whether to bar a collateral attack, should consider both the constitutionality of the administrative order and access to justice.

Cheryl and Breese immediately gave the reins to our small group of students. Gaining familiarity with the subject-matter was our first step; we assigned out research and set off to produce memos. Meeting regularly and communicating constantly, the group narrowed our issues and determined our approach. We would advocate for adding two branches to the collateral attack framework (from the Supreme Court’s judgment in R v Consolidated Maybrun Mines Ltd.).

First: courts cannot be complicit in the enforcement of unconstitutional administrative orders by refusing collateral attack against them. This would be contrary to the rule of law and the principle of constitutionalism. Especially in this case, where Mr. Bird’s liberty interest is at stake, compliance with the Charter cannot be left out from the Court’s analysis.

Second: courts should take note of access to justice challenges that make judicial review of administrative orders essentially inaccessible. Charter protections cannot be rendered meaningless by an effective inability to challenge potentially unconstitutional conditions.

Having determined our strategy, the drafting process began. For a number of us, this was to be our first factum. Cheryl and Breese put great faith in the group to craft the Centre’s written argument, providing helpful (and at times, challenging) feedback to our work-in-progress. The ability to maximize on Cheryl’s expertise in drafting intervenors’ facta and Breese’s wealth of knowledge as a seasoned criminal defence lawyer was immeasurably helpful. There were a series of late nights at the Faculty, including line-by-line group editing sessions where we wrote and re-wrote sections of the factum.

Following a series of drafts, more line-by-line edits, and finally a submission to Cheryl and Breese, we had our finished product. A few final tweaks on their end, and the factum was submitted to the Court and out of our hands.

The prospect of the Supreme Court reading our writing is a daunting one for students – daunting, but exciting. The Court will be hearing oral submissions on the case this upcoming March, and many of our student group will be coming along to see our arguments in action. How will the Court approach our arguments? Is our position persuasive, and will the Court accept the position that access to justice and constitutionalism must be considered?

Having this opportunity to draft an intervenor factum has been invaluable for our student group. On a personal note, I can attest to this being the most meaningful and challenging part of my law school career thus far. Being surrounded by four other dedicated and bright law students and having guidance from highly skilled supervising lawyers has resulted in a piece of work and an experience that I am proud to have been a part of.

Becky Lockert is a 2L JD Candidate at the Faculty of Law and was a student in the Asper Centre Clinical Legal Education Course.

Asper Centre Students convene Workshop for LAWS’ Global Citizenship Conference

By Crystal Li and Juela Xhaferraj

On February 9, 2018, the University of Toronto Faculty of Law was host to hundreds of high school students who were attending the annual Global Citizenship Conference organized by Law in Action Within Schools (LAWS).  Members of the Asper Centre’s Immigration and Refugee Law student working group were pleased to lead one of the workshops for the students at the Conference. Members of the Asper Centre’s other two student working groups (on Indigenous Rights and Police Oversight) as well as students from the International Human Rights Program at U of T Law, also led workshops at the Conference.

In keeping with the Global Citizenship Conference’s overarching theme, the Immigration and Refugee Law group’s workshop aim was to demonstrate to the student participants how global events have a local impact. We explored this theme through the lens of the Syrian refugee crisis. After a general introduction to the events that precipitated the refugee crisis and the conditions facing refugees, the rest of the presentation turned to the responses to the crisis. To provide a comparative perspective, we described Turkey and Germany’s responses before discussing the Canadian context. Part of the discussion on Canada’s response focused on the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) and why it might be necessary to suspend it.  The STCA is a bilateral agreement between the United States and Canada that stipulates that asylum seekers must lodge a refugee claim in the country in which they first arrive and that, subject to some exceptions, Canada can refuse or bar someone from lodging a refugee claim and force their return to the United States.

The STCA discussion was also a means of introducing the students to the work of the Asper Centre and its students. This academic year, the Asper Centre’s Immigration and Refugee Law student working group provided legal research assistance to the public interest litigants (Amnesty International, Canadian Council of Churches and the Canadian Council of Refugees) who have joined an individual litigant challenging the constitutionality of the STCA.  This challenge is argued on the basis that the United States should not be deemed a safe country for refugees given that the rights of refugees in the United States under the Trump administration have seriously plummeted and hence the STCA should be suspended at this time.

During the workshop, the participating students actively engaged in the discussions and exhibited an impressive understanding of the issues facing refugees both globally and locally. While some students were skeptical of Turkey’s and Germany’s true motives in accepting a large number of refugees, most agreed that Canada should learn from the two countries’ approaches and take in more refugees. In particular, the students saw the analogy between Germany’s now suspended Dublin Regulation (which regulates which country in Europe must examine a refugee claimant’s application at first instance) and Canada’s STCA with the U.S.  Many of the students felt that the Canadian government’s refusal to suspend the STCA is inconsistent with the accepting and welcoming public image held up by the government.

Towards the end of the presentation, the students asked about the practice of immigration and refugee law and about the work of the Asper Centre.  Many of them found it exciting that law students are able to work on important immigration and refugee law cases while still in law school.

Crystal Li and Juela Xhaferraj are both 1L JD Candidates at the Faculty of Law and are members of the Asper Centre’s Immigration and Refugee Law student working group this year.