An overhaul of the legal business paradigm coupled with more women attaining positions of power and greater transparency over remuneration are key towards helping women achieve more parity and to stem their exodus from the legal profession, urges a report and legal pundits.
“We are all aware that there have been advances in recent years, but we cannot be satisfied with the current situation,” remarked Suzie Lanthier of Gowling WLG International Limited and head of the Forum of Women Lawyers at the Canadian Bar Association, Quebec Division. “Just because it’s better than before doesn’t mean we should do nothing to improve it.”
Women have made significant strides in the legal profession since they have become the majority of lawyers in Quebec nearly a decade ago. However, they still face considerable obstacles over pay equity, access to partnerships or leadership positions, work-life balance and suffer silently due to sexual harassment and discrimination, prompting many to shun private practice and leave the profession far earlier than men, according to a report and leading Quebec legal actors.
“There is still work to be done to ensure that the share of female members in our professional order and their contribution to their workplaces is fully recognized throughout their careers,” said Catherine Claveau, the head of the Quebec Bar. “What has changed is that maybe we are becoming more and more aware of the importance of women in the profession. But in practice, unfortunately, it’s not very much reflected in the statistics.”
The Quebec government, after scant debate and without the input or testimony of several major legal actors, has forged ahead in spite of forceful opposition by lawyers’ organizations with a controversial and divisive bill that will allow notaries to be appointed to the bench of provincial courts.
Under the guise of an access to justice bill that will make free mediation mandatory and arbitration automatic for small claims cases, Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette has amended the Quebec Courts of Justice Act to allow notaries with more than 10 years of experience to be appointed as a Court of Quebec judge, justice of the peace or municipal judge in order to “diversify” the makeup of the magistrature, a line of reasoning that has perplexed a slew of lawyers’ organizations. ”In essence, notaries and lawyers are put on an equal footing,” said Jolin-Barrette at the Quebec National Assembly during the clause-by-clause consideration of Bill 8. “I believe that notaries are as competent as lawyers to become judges. We do not have the luxury of depriving ourselves of all the jurists we have in Quebec.”
But for Martine Valois, author of “Judicial Independence: Keeping Law at a Distance From Politics,” this part of the bill is yet another striking example of the provincial government acting hastily without fully taking into consideration its impact nor the necessary financial and human resources it will require. “The Quebec Justice Minister introduces bills that are drafted in a rush, without asking himself how we are going to implement them,” just as was the case with Bill 92, said Valois, a Université de Montréal law professor. Bill 92, assented in November 2021 with much fanfare, created a new division within the Court of Quebec to deal with conjugal and sexual violence offences but has yet to be implemented.
In an unprecedented move in recent history, a former Quebec Appeal Court justice was appointed as a mediator to resolve a dispute between the provincial Minister of Justice and the Court of Quebec Chief Justice over new judicial appointments and new work schedules for provincial court judges, a development viewed as regretful but necessary by legal observers.
Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette and Court of Quebec Chief Justice Lucie Rondeau have been at loggerheads in the past year over a slew of issues, ranging from professional and linguistic requirements for judicial candidates to the establishment and implementation of a new domestic and sexual violence specialized court to a reform instituted by the Chief Justice that will curb the number of days that 160 provincial court judges who preside over criminal proceedings will sit — a deadlock that has led to several court battles, all of which were lost by the Quebec government.
The impasse between Quebec’s leading actors has taken place at a time when the provincial justice system is in dire straits, wilting under the weight of underfinancing and plagued by an acute shortage of court personnel, prompting Quebec Bar president Catherine Claveau to tell me late last year that the “crisis in the justice system has led to a crisis of confidence.” Claveau, alarmed that the conflict between the two protagonists will further undermine public confidence and mask the reasons behind the dismal state of the justice system, called on both to turn to conciliation to find common ground.
An access to justice bill that will make free mediation mandatory and arbitration automatic for cases under $5,000 took the Quebec legal community by surprise as it also unexpectedly opens the door for notaries to be appointed to the bench of provincial courts.
Bill 8, tabled by the Quebec government this month, aims to curb long delays afflicting small claims courts, implements a simplified and accelerated civil procedure for matters brought before the Court of Quebec with a value of between $15,000 and $75,000, and will compel the provincial Judicial Council to publish an annual report and be audited every five years by the Auditor General, all of which are developments viewed positively by the Quebec Bar.
“We are pleased that several provisions of Bill 8 echo requests made by the Barreau to the Justice Minister on measures that could help facilitate access to justice,” said Catherine Claveau, the bâtonnière of the Barreau du Québec. “The provisions relating to mandatory mediation and arbitration is an excellent avenue to improve access to justice and a concrete way to promote alternative methods of dispute resolution.”
A voluntary disclosure of a report protected by privilege to assist police in a criminal investigation does not quash the privileges attached to the document held the Quebec Court of Appeal in overturning a lower court decision, the latest indication that case law surrounding privilege continues to evolve, according to a legal expert.
In a decision that reviews and revisits Quebec case law surrounding privilege, the Quebec Appeal Court held that it would be contrary to public policy for the disclosure of privileged documents in criminal proceedings to “somehow” have the effect removing privileges attached to those documents. The waiver of lawyer-client privilege must be clear and unequivocal, added the Appeal Court in Centre universitaire de santé McGill c. Lemay, 2022 QCCA 1394.
Disclosure to a third party information protected by solicitor-client privilege in principle entails waiver of the privilege but the Quebec Court of Appeal emphasizes that context must be considered, which must take into account all the circumstances in the case, noted Montreal litigator with Lavery de Billy LLP, who recently published an article entitled “Professional secrecy and testimonial immunity” for the legal encyclopedia JurisClasseur Québec.
Montreal law firm De Grandpré Chait, a firm specializing in real estate since the beginning of the 20th C, is now branching out to the thriving and world-leading Quebec video game hub after it announced a partnership with a Quebec non-profit organization.
In what has been described as an “imaginative way to do business” in the flourishing sector by a lawyer familiar with the Canadian legal business landscape, De Grandpré Chait will be offering legal services at a discount to more than 300 members and partners of the Quebec Video Game Guild. The Guild, the largest group of its kind in the world, brings together independent and international video game developers, creators, educational institutions and entrepreneurs established in Quebec.
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.”
There’s nothing like an election to concentrate the mind.
In recent weeks, the Quebec government settled acrimonious labour disputes that threatened to spill over during the election. The provincial government, faced with the prospect of large swaths of legal actors interrupting electoral efforts with unsightly placards during the campaign, quietly reached an agreement with private sector lawyers who take on legal aid mandates, and more recently with government lawyers and notaries.
A $28-million settlement reached with a Catholic religious order in a sexual abuse class action was rejected by Quebec Superior Court because of the high legal fees associated with the agreement, the second Quebec class action settlement in the past month whose legal fees have been the subject of a critical assessment.
The decision by Quebec Superior Court Justice Thomas Davis to rebuff a settlement for more than 375 alleged victims of sexual assaults committed by members and employees of the Clercs de Saint-Viateur of Canada follows on the heels of a ruling in mid-June by Quebec Superior Court Justice Daniel Dumais to curb plaintiff class action legal fees by 20 per cent in the so-called Dieselgate scandal in which German carmaker Volkswagen AG violated Canadian emissions standards.
The decisions underline that settlement approvals are not a rubber stamping exercise, demonstrate that the courts will take into account the Code of Professional Conduct of Lawyers (Code) when examining plaintiff class action legal fees, reiterate the importance of transparency vis-à-vis clients even in a class action setting, and illustrate why settlement approvals should be separate from and not contingent on class counsel fee approvals, according to class action legal experts.
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.”