Quebec’s justice system paralyzed

Exasperated that labour negotiations with the Quebec government are at a standstill, provincial crown prosecutors and government lawyers have joined forces to launch a general strike that will likely cripple the province’s justice system — unless there is a striking turnabout in the government’s seemingly unyielding stance.

Asserting that they are the worst-paid in the country and woefully understaffed, making it all but impossible to recruit new staff and adhere to their code of professional conduct, members of the Quebec crown counsel association (APCPPQ) and the Association des juristes de l’État (AJE) recently voted overwhelmingly – a 90 per cent landslide — in favor of a general strike.

“We don’t want to strike,” said Marc Lajoie, president of the AJE, a union representing nearly 1,000 lawyers, notaries, and other legal professionals. “We want to be able to resolve our problems but there has been no progress so we are going to use the ultimate recourse we have to be able to make things advance.”

Both organizations are seeking a dramatic surge in salaries, an increase that will put them on par with the national Canadian average. At present, Quebec crown prosecutors and government lawyers earn at least 30 per cent below the national average, according to the latest figures provided by AJE. A lawyer employed by the Quebec government can earn at most $100,756 or 45.5 per cent of the salary earned by a judge of the Court of Quebec. In contrast, the top salary of an Ontario crown prosecutor or government lawyer is $200,924 or 79.8 per cent of a provincial court judge, making it the highest in the country. In Nova Scotia that figure stands at $130,143, in Manitoba $133,697, in Alberta $176,628, and in British Columbia $177,653.

Quebec crown prosecutors and government lawyers are demanding that the provincial government adopt the British Columbia model of remuneration which pegs the salaries of crown prosecutors to the income of provincial court judges. Thanks to a 12-year deal reached four years ago, future pay increases earned by B.C. crown prosecutors are equal to the increase awarded to Provincial Court Judges, plus 1.27%. Before the deal was inked, a B.C. crown prosecutor earned around 72 per cent of a provincial court judge. Today it stands at 76.9 per cent, and over the course of the agreement will inch its way to reach approximately 86 per cent.

“The salary question is directly tied in with the problem we face with recruitment,” noted Christian Leblanc, head of the Quebec crown prosecutor’s association. “How can we hire people if we are incapable of offering salaries that are competitive?”

Besides a significant increase in salaries, Quebec crown attorneys are asking the provincial government to hire approximately 200 more prosecutors. According to statistics compiled by the Quebec crown attorney association, Quebec has the worst ratio of prosecutor per inhabitants in the country. At present, Quebec has one prosecutor per every 16,526 residents compared to an average of one per 10,700 in the Atlantic provinces, one per approximately 10,000 in B,C. and Manitoba, one per 11,916 in Ontario and one per 13,000 in Alberta.

Quebec crown prosecutors, says Leblanc, are quite simply understaffed and overworked, and the situation is worsening as growing numbers of experienced lawyers are calling it quits. Just before the Christmas holidays three crown prosecutors handed in their resignations to accept work for the federal crown prosecution department where they can earn up to nearly $70,000 more. As it stands, Quebec crown prosecutors are unable to adequately prepare their cases, unable to meet with victims and witnesses, and unable to keep up-to-date with jurisprudence, all of which put the administration of justice in Quebec under severe strain, added Leblanc.

“I am convinced that there are trials in Quebec that we lose because of the lack of resources to do the job well,” declared Leblanc, a crown prosecutor for the past 16 years. “There are people who are acquitted in Quebec when they should have been found guilty. We negotiate sentences at a bargain rate in order to reduce the number of cases.

“Many prosecutors have told me that they no longer file motions for leave to appeal. They don’t have the time. So if the court renders a decision which they disagree with, they won’t appeal it. They take the case it, and file it away.”

Those are assertions that the Barreau du Québec takes seriously. While the law society will not take a stance in labour negotiations “between employees and employer,” it is concerned about the “systematic under financing of the Quebec justice,” said Gilles Ouimet, the Barreau’s head.

“There is a grain of truth in those allegations but I don’t think it should be taken literally,” said Ouimet, a criminal lawyer himself. “What worries me is the negative impact that it could have on the public’s perception over the quality of criminal justice. In spite of the lack of resources, the criminal justice in Quebec works well because crown prosecutors are conscientious. When the security of the public is at stake, they will do what they have to do.”

In the meantime, both criminal prosecutors and government lawyers have already laid the financial, logistical and legal groundwork to launch a strike. The government’s lawyers union is armed with a robust strike fund, hovering at around $4 million, while the crown prosecutor’s association, which has 450 members, boasts that its strike fund matches that amount on a pro rata basis. Indeed, crown prosecutors have gone so far as to obtain a line of credit. When crown prosecutors met last weekend at a downtown Montreal hotel to give their association the mandate to strike in support of their contract demands, they also voted in favor of paying an additional one per cent to their union fees to reimburse the line of credit. “The message is clear – this is a fight to the end,” remarked Leblanc.

But according to a spokesman from the Conseil de trésor du Quebec, the ministry that holds the purse strings and is responsible for labour negotiations with the two lawyer’s organizations, the government “is confident that a negotiated settlement with the crown attorneys and government lawyers can be reached.”

Following six failed attempts to reach a settlement with a mediator in the case of government lawyers, and an impasse in spite of the presence of a conciliator to deal with the demands of crown prosecutors, both organizations are however preparing for the worst-case scenario. Strike signs have been ordered, and both organizations have already met with the province’s essential services council. If a strike is launched, prosecutors have agreed to provide essential services when handling a jury trial, when the accused is detained, when there is a 30-day limit on summary conviction cases, and in dealing with requests for delays. Government lawyers, on the other hand, agreed to be present in all cases dealing with health and security.

“If they don’t have the money for prosecutors and government lawyers, then they surely don’t have the means to reach out to the private sector to hire people for cases,” said Lajoie, noting that over past five years, five government bodies hired the services of private-sector lawyers at a cost of $51.9 million. “All we’re asking is that our salaries be pegged to the Canadian average.”

This story originally appeared in The Lawyers Weekly.

About Luis Millán 348 Articles
I am a law and business journalist. I write for Canadian Lawyer, the National, a magazine published by the Canadian Bar Association, and The Lawyers Weekly, an independent legal Canadian publication. This blog is in no way affiliated with any of these publications.

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