MONTREAL -- The Court of Quebec has postponed and shortened the preliminary inquiry into SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. (SNC.TO), which is now scheduled to kick off Oct. 22 following the activation of a new Criminal Code provision the company's lawyer says will work in its favour.
The court hearing, initially slated to begin Monday and run for 50 days, relates to criminal fraud charges against the Montreal-based engineering and construction giant.
The provision, which comes into force later this month, enables deferred prosecution agreements. The so-called remediation agreements found in other G7 countries allow companies to settle corporate corruption cases and avoid being put at a disadvantage when competing against rival firms.
Lawyer Francois Fontaine called the provision "a new tool" he hopes will resolve charges stemming from allegations SNC-Lavalin paid nearly $47.7 million to public officials in Libya between 2001 and 2011 to influence government decisions.
"It can be resolved by the new legislation that would come into force," he said in an interview Monday.
Fontaine said the delayed start date is "not related" to the timing of the revised law, "but it's probably a good thing."
"Fifty days is too long, so we were able to shorten the preliminary inquiry," he added. "We will make sure that we are not taking court time that we don't need."
The RCMP has also charged the company, its construction division and a subsidiary with one charge each of fraud and corruption for allegedly defrauding various Libyan organizations of about $129.8 million.
Fontaine said he expects fewer witnesses than originally planned at the combined preliminary hearings for SNC-Lavalin and former executive vice-president Sami Bebawi. Any subsequent trials would be conducted separately.
The RCMP charged Bebawi in February 2014 with fraud over $5,000; two counts of laundering proceeds of crime; four counts of possession of property obtained by crime, and bribing a foreign public official. In September 2014, the RCMP added obstructing justice to the list of charges.
Former company executive Riadh Ben Aissa, who has co-operated with the RCMP investigation, is expected to testify for the Crown in the preliminary hearing, Fontaine said in February.
Ben Aissa was charged with fraud-related offences in Canada in connection with a superhospital project in Montreal after he was extradited from Switzerland in October 2014.
He acknowledged in Swiss court that he bribed Saadi Gadhafi, son of Libya's late dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, so SNC could win contracts. Ben Aissa also admitted to pocketing commissions.
Meanwhile, SNC-Lavalin has filed lawsuits seeking to recover almost $145 million it alleges was embezzled by Ben Aissa, Bebawi and their associates.