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.
The Quebec justice system is in the midst of “collapsing,” sagging under the weight of underfinancing and bedevilled by a “catastrophic” shortage of court personnel, with more than 20 per cent of employees resigning in a year, prompting leading legal actors to describe the situation as “embarrassing” and even more alarmingly, kindling a public lack of confidence in the province’s justice system.
The situation has never been so dire, worse than late this spring when a vexed legal community warned the Quebec government that the justice system, mired in a series of crippling labour standoffs that spurred mounting adjournments, was desperately in need of more funds to prop up the justice system. But while tense labour relations with a host of legal actors have subsided since the fall thanks to new collective agreements and a new legal aid accord, legal pundits assert far more has to be done to halt the exodus of courtroom personnel who are leaving in droves because remuneration is simply not competitive.
“There is a crisis in the justice system that has led to a crisis of confidence,” noted Catherine Claveau, president of the Quebec Bar. “And I, as the president of a professional order whose primary mission is the protection of the public, when the situation of underfunding in particular means that our institutions are undermining the right of citizens to have access to effective and quality justice, well for me, this corresponds to a real crisis.”
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.
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.
The Quebec justice system, buckling under the weight of years of chronic underfinancing, is stricken by such a serious manpower shortage that hardly a day goes by without a trial, a preliminary inquiry or a sentence being delayed or postponed, an untenable situation that could lead to “significant harm” to the public and undermine faith towards judicial institutions, warn top legal officials.
The “catastrophic” situation is exacerbated by tense labour relations with a host of different legal actors and the Quebec government, with legal aid lawyers recently launching half-day strikes, private sector lawyers who take on legal aid mandates now refusing to accept cases dealing with sexual and intimate partner violence, and court clerks launching walkouts that may metamorphose into a strike.
“The situation is at a minimum very troubling,” remarked Catherine Claveau, head of the Quebec Bar. “The system has reached its limits. At the moment, there are very real risks of breakdowns or disruptions of services that could cause significant harm to citizens and generate a great deal of insecurity towards judicial institutions.”
Former Quebec Superior Court Chief Justice Jacques Fournier is just as concerned by the turn of events, asserting that parts of the justice system is in the midst of cracking, a state of affairs that will unlikely improve with an ageing workforce progressively retiring – unless more monies are poured into the justice system.
“It’s very, very worrisome, very worrisome, because it’s not going to get better,” said Justice Fournier, who along with the chief justices of the Court of Quebec and the Quebec Court of Appeal wrote a letter to the Quebec government last year entreating it to boost the salaries of their judicial assistants. “To be satisfied with justice that is delivered in twelve, fifteen or eighteen months is not ideal. In my opinion, justice should be rendered almost in real time. It will take major investments to modernize, but modernizing in terms of access and in terms of speed of execution.”
Sexual harassment and violence is rife in Quebec legal workplaces, the overwhelming majority of which goes unreported for fear of repercussions, claims a report that calls on the province’s legal actors to work together to take concrete steps to raise awareness and address the pervasive culture of silence and impunity that permits harassment.
Sexual harassment, unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion takes place in all workplace contexts, formal or informal, is often perpetrated by a colleague or a partner with a higher hierarchical status, and has far-reaching personal and professional consequences, with up to nearly 20 per cent of women changing career paths following the sexual misconduct, according to the study conducted by researchers at the Université Laval who were given the mandate by the Quebec Bar.
“The study denounces the culture of silence and impunity that endures in the legal profession,” remarked Julie Lassonde, a member of the Law Society of Ontario and the Barreau du Québec who has developed a consultancy business focused on the areas of gender, sexuality and social justice. “That is what will shock the most.”
Half of Quebec female lawyers have been subjected to sexual harassment, a third of Quebec lawyers were the subject of unwanted sexual conduct, and 4.2 per cent of women suffered “negative consequences” for refusing to engage in sexual activities. Approximately one per cent of lawyers who were the subject of sexual misconduct reached out to police.
So reveals a report unveiled by the Quebec Bar, three years after it was launched. Only 14 per cent of Quebec Bar members, or 3785 members out of 28,000 lawyers in the roll, responded to the survey.
Following the 76-page report, the Barreau du Québec intends to launch free training on harassment and sexual violence, and is considering making it compulsory. A committee will examine other options.
The heads of Quebec’s law schools welcomed a new bill that would allow law students working at university legal clinics to give legal advice and consultations under the supervision of lawyers and notaries, a development that would finally put them within reach of what law students in the rest of the country can provide.
After three years of negotiations, the Quebec government and the provincial bar association reached an agreement to raise legal fees and to establish an independent working group that will conduct an exhaustive review of the tariff structure.
The agreement, widely perceived to be a “step in the right direction” by the Quebec legal community, calls for a five per cent retroactive increase in legal aid fees for the period of October 2017 to May 2019, and a 14.7 per cent increase in fees from June 2019 to September 2022.
The Quebec justice system, like elsewhere, is scrambling to put in place measures to make things move along during the Covid-19 outbreak. Sometimes, though, well-intentioned efforts risk doing more harm than good, especially if the recourses are rushed and not necessarily well researched, examined and analyzed.
This appears to be the case with efforts by the Quebec disciplinary council of presidents.