The chief justices of four courts, addressing hundreds of judges and lawyers in person at the Montreal courthouse for the first time since the onset of the pandemic, broadly outlined their priorities and concerns at the Quebec’s opening of the courts ceremony, from the promise and pitfalls of technology to modernize the justice system to the debilitating impact of chronic underfinancing to the erosion of decorum in the courtroom and the pernicious effects of disparaging social media comments.
The chief justices, faced with no choice but to implement technological innovations at breakneck speed after COVID-19 struck in March 2020 in order to arrest the temporary paralysis of the justice system, now warn that while technological modernization of courts is inevitable and necessary, it is not the panacea that will resolve the host of challenges confronting the justice system.
“The digitization of the courts will not solve all the problems we face, and it may even raise new ones, but it is a step in the right direction,” remarked Quebec Court of Appeal Chief Justice Manon Savard who underlined that the appellate court is working “intensely” with the provincial Ministry of Justice to to establish a digital Court of Appeal within the next two years.
“This movement is irreversible. Society as a whole is increasingly turning to digital processes, in all sectors of activity. Courts must keep pace. In order to maintain or even improve the efficiency of courts in a post-pandemic context, the implementation of a reform focused on the use of technology will certainly be part of the solution,” said Chief Justice Savard in the summit entitled “Building the Future.”
After seven years at the helm of Quebec Superior Court, the last two particularly challenging and exhausting, Justice Jacques Fournier has stepped aside and became a supernumerary judge, with the reins being handed to Marie-Anne Paquette, a puisne judge of the Superior Court of Quebec for the district of Montreal.
In a tenure he described as not “not being a calm river” or not without obstacles, former Chief Justice Fournier began his mandate in 2015 dealing with the introduction of a new Quebec Code of Civil Procedure, a major reform that “needed to be assimilated” as it granted judges broader case management powers and bestowed a greater role to the principle of proportionality, followed by the landmark Jordan ruling and a legal battle with the Court of Quebec over monetary thresholds that wound up before the nation’s highest court, culminating with coming to grips with the “very demanding” pandemic.
“The decision (to step down) was very difficult, extremely difficult,” the 71-year old Justice Fournier told me. “I am going to miss it. But after seven years, you also have to know when to leave. At some point, it takes its toll without realizing it. I loved it, but there’s more to life than that.”
The Quebec justice system, in crisis following an acute shortage of court personnel and strained labour relations that has led to walkouts and strikes, may face even more serious judicial delays if the Court of Quebec follows through with plans to have judges of the Criminal Division sit every second day as of this fall.
Court of Quebec Chief Justice Lucie Rondeau informed Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette earlier this year that 160 provincial court judges who preside over criminal proceedings will curb the amount of days they sit, from two days out of three to one day out of two so that they can spend more time writing judgments and managing cases. The Chief Justice is calling for the appointment of 41 provincial court judges to attenuate judicial delays once the new work scheme is implemented.
Everyone was expecting the Quebec government to appeal the decision that ruled that the Quebec justice minister cannot bar bilingualism prerequisites for judicial candidates.
Failing that, legal experts reckoned the provincial government would change the regulation that prevented the justice minister from having a say on how the judiciary determines its professional and linguistic requirements. Even the judge that ruled on the case said there was nothing to prevent the Quebec government from changing the regulation to ensure the justice minister plays a bigger role in the selection process.
But the Quebec government went much further than anyone anticipated. It is using its legislative muscle “to make the necessary changes to ensure that mastery of a language other than the official language is not a systematic obstacle to accessing the position of judge in Quebec.”
Barely a week after Quebec Superior Court ruled that the provincial justice minister does not have a say on how the judiciary determines its professional and linguistic requirements, the Quebec National Assembly passed a non-binding motion declaring that unilingual French-speaking applicants should not be barred from applying to become provincial judges.
In the wake of a decision that plainly states that the Quebec justice minister cannot bar bilingualism prerequisites for judicial candidates, the National Assembly adopted without debate and with the support of the four opposition parties a motion that “reiterates the importance of the principle of the State’s exemplary role in protecting the French language” and that “justice is no exception to this important principle.”
A day after the Quebec Minister of Justice suffered a stinging setback following a Superior Court decision that held that the Chief Justice of the Court of Quebec can require bilingualism in the judicial appointment process, even against the wishes of the minister, the Quebec government begrudgingly gave the green light to increase the salary of provincial court judges.
The Quebec executive and the judiciary have not seen eye-to-eye since Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barette maintained last spring that bilingualism was not a prequisite to be appointed to the Court of Quebec, a position diametrically opposed by Chief Justice Louise Rondeau. Tensions between the two branches of power were further exarcerbated last fall over competing visions on how to deal with domestic and sexual violence cases.
A day later the Quebec government issued a 27-page report that stated it intends to approve a significant salary hike to provincial judges after a five member blue-ribbon panel of legal and financial experts recommended boosting the renumeration of Court of Quebec judges from the current $255,000 to $310,000 by July 2022, which would make them the third best paid provincially appointed judges, behind Ontario and Saskatchewan.
The Quebec government is forging ahead with the deployment of a series of specialized sexual and domestic violence court pilot projects in spite of forceful opposition by the Chief Justice of the Court of Quebec, the tribunal that will manage and operate the new endeavour.
Barely two weeks after the Quebec Justice Minister and the Chief Justice of the Court of Quebec publicly clashed over competing visions on how to deal with conjugal and sexual violence, a judicial compensation committee released a report recommending sizeable salary increases for the provincial judiciary, laying the groundwork for even further friction between the executive and the judiciary.
A five-member blue-ribbon panel (pdf) of legal and financial experts recommended boosting the renumeration of Court of Quebec judges from the current $255,000 to $310,000 by July 2022, which would make them the third best paid provincially appointed judges, behind Ontario and Saskatchewan. The independent committee would have recommended a more significant increase “had it not been for the uncertainty created by the pandemic” on Quebec’ economy and public finances.
A new divisional court dealing with conjugal and sexual complaints is expected to be launched by the beginning of 2022 by the Court of Quebec, potentially setting the stage for a legal battle against the Quebec government over judicial independence and the administration of justice.
The Quebec government tabled in mid-September a bill that will create a “specialized” tribunal that is expected to take a different approach to dealing with victims of domestic and sexual violence by moving away from the traditional criminal justice framework and have judicial institutions work in collaboration with specially trained jurists and specialized police units in tandem with social and community services to cultivate a victim-centred approach.
An unusually public clash between the Quebec Justice Minister and the Chief Justice of the Court of Quebec has materialized over competing visions on how to deal with conjugal and sexual violence cases, with little signs of abating.
The simmering skirmish between the executive and the judiciary erupted in the open shortly after Chief Justice Lucie Rondeau announced on Sept 28th the creation of a new division within the Court of Quebec to deal with conjugal and sexual violence offences, two weeks after the Quebec government tabled a bill that would move away from the traditional criminal justice framework to deal with gender-based violence and create a “specialized” court to deal with these offences.
Former Court of Quebec Judge Jean-Paul Braun who was reprimanded for suggesting in a sexual assault case that a 17-year-old girl who was kissed and groped by a taxi driver was probably “a bit flattered” by the gesture lost his bid to overturn a rebuke by the Quebec judicial council following decision by the Quebec Court of Appeal.
The Quebec judicial council, the Conseil de la magistrature, reprimanded Judge Braun for his stereotypical remarks. The council found that he breached his ethical duties and did not act with integrity, dignity and honour. Judge Braun, since retired, unsuccessfully sought a judicial review of the Council’s decision before Quebec Superior Court last fall. He appealed the Superior Court decision before the Quebec Court of Appeal, which rejected his request.