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Parliament approved the declaration on victims’ rights in the military justice system in 2019, after similar legislation for the civilian court system was adopted in 2015.Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

The Canadian Armed Forces says long-awaited rights for the victims of military-related crimes will come into effect in June, though other reforms to fix shortcomings in Canada’s court-martial system appear to be a long way off.

Parliament approved a declaration on victims’ rights for the military in 2019 after similar legislation for civilian cases was adopted in 2015, creating a gap between how cases in the two court systems are handled.

That gap, as well as other flaws in Canada’s military justice system, had become particularly evident as the Armed Forces struggled to deal with allegations of sexual misconduct against several senior military officers over the past year.

The military’s top legal officers defended the pace of implementation of the declaration during an update on Wednesday, in which they announced that the new rights will come into effect on June 20.

The new rights include providing access to information about their case as well as specially designated liaison officers who will help victims navigate the military justice system, and access to a complaint mechanism if they feel their rights have been violated.

Acting judge advocate general Col. Robin Holman said numerous regulations needed to be changed to reflect the rights named in the declaration, while consultations were held with victims’ groups to capture their perspectives.

“Those consultations have been very useful in understanding what we need to be doing when we flesh out in the regulations and the policies how the provisions of the act are actually going to be implemented,” Holman said.

The military will be implementing a new system for trying less serious offences on the same day as the victims’ rights come into effect, Holman said. It is also aiming to have a new database for tracking all cases in the system by 2023.

Yet even as senior officers were touting the coming changes, it remained unclear when fixes for several other problems that have been identified in the military justice system will be coming – if ever.

Those include urgent calls from retired Supreme Court justice Morris Fish for steps to be taken to ensure the independence for military judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers to protect the integrity of the system.

Fish spent six months quietly studying the system, which functions separately from its civilian counterpart and is subject to mandatory reviews every decade or so, and tabled his final report in Parliament last June.

He found the current system is rife with areas where there is potential for interference in police investigations and courts martial from the chain of command, which is why action is needed now.

“We’ve been working closely with our counterparts across the government of Canada, we’ve had some initial organizational meetings for those and in fact, some other working groups, but the work is really just started,” Holman said.

“All these recommendations are interconnected, and none of the options are necessarily simple to implement.”

The military’s top police officer, Brig.-Gen. Simon Trudeau, also told reporters that he couldn’t provide details on the number of sexual misconduct investigations that have been transferred to civilian counterparts.

Retired Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour called in October for the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service to transfer criminal investigations involving allegations of criminal sexual behaviour to civilian authorities unless close to completion.

Arbour said the recommendation, which Defence Minister Anita Anand accepted, was based on victims’ concerns about a lack of independence on the part of military police when investigating complaints against senior Armed Forces commanders.

“I can report that cases are currently being transferred, and new cases are being referred to a number of police jurisdictions across the country,” Trudeau said. “The numbers change and fluctuate every day. So I’m not in a position to give you a number.”

The military’s top prosecutor, Col. Dylan Kerr, said charges were withdrawn in one case involving criminal sexual behaviour and sent to civilian authorities. Twenty-eight other cases in which charges had already been laid remain in the military system.

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