Barely a few minutes after reciting the oath as new president of the Quebec legal society, Paul-Matthieu Grondin laid bare uncomfortable truths about the Quebec justice system and the Quebec Bar itself.
Grondin won the first prize at the International Oratory Competition in Brussels, Belgium a couple of years ago, and it showed. Grondin laid out a crisp and sharp portrait of the challenges facing the legal world before an audience of Quebec legal heavyweights at the Chateau Frontenac in picturesque Quebec City. The Quebec Minister of Justice had a front row seat as did the Court of Quebec Chief Justice, the Court of Quebec Associate Chief Judge and Court of Quebec Associate Chief Judges.
The justice system has seen better days, said Grondin in an understatement. It is complex, unwieldy, and costly. More and more people are representing themselves. Justice in the North is akin to justice in the Third World. The justice system is now beginning to reel with the consequences of the landmark Jordan decision by the nation’s highest court. Courthouses remain “hangers for paper.” The provincial budget devotes a meagre one per cent to the justice system. The manner in which the Quebec government handled the strike by Quebec government lawyers and notaries, the longest Canadian labour conflict by civil servants, was not a “glorious example of our new legal culture.” The profession, it is said, is in decline, incapable of renewing itself and innovating. Young lawyers struggle to find work. The number of lawyers in the province has doubled over the past twenty years while the population has grown only by 15 per cent, “with the implications you can imagine on supply and demand.”
He wasn’t finished.
The Board of Directors of the Quebec Bar is composed of Francophones, with the exception of one. The Bar itself is not very transparent, and it quarrels. The profession is unequal. Women do not easily gain access to partnerships, leave the profession too early and too frequently. “That is what is said. These are scathing comments. We are fully aware of them, and have been for a long time.”
He had even harsher words for his peers.
“How can we claim to protect the public if we accept a system that is unfair, inefficient and inaccessible? How can we claim to protect the public if we accept that the fundamental strategy behind (winning) a case is (based on) the means that one has, the one who has the deepest pockets? We should never be resigned to such a system.”
Lu Chan Khuong, a prominent Quebec City lawyer who was elected president of the Barreau du Québec in May 2015 with 63 per cent of the vote, was suspended by the Quebec Bar’s board of directors two months later after confidential information was leaked to the media that she had been arrested on suspicion of shoplifting two pairs of jeans in Montreal. Khuong, who maintains her innocence, was never charged. She formally stepped down in mid-September 2015 after a settlement agreement was reached with the Barreau and its board of directors that provided Khuong with “assurances” that her electoral program would still be considered, and where possible, put in place.
Khuong decided to try her luck again this year. But her yearning to lead the Quebec Bar was dashed after she was trounced by Grondin who won 72 per cent of the vote in an election that was held in May 2017. By most accounts outgoing president Claudia Prémont brought back “peace and serenity” to the Quebec Bar, as a lawyer told me, but there is evidently still some bad blood. It appears Grondin thought it was an opportune time to send a warning to some.
“As for our image, I hope the quarrels are behind us. I have a message to the four or five lawyers who know who they are and who ask the Bar questions, sometimes with the hope of finding fault to the point that sometimes we wonder about their good faith. To these lawyers I tell you this: The Bar will always be open to questions, always be open to criticism, and each time it will be done in good faith I will reach out. But in return please stop the dramatic and hyperbolic stances in the media. These letters do us more harm than good. This is your Bar. I need you to maintain it, to renew it.”
Renewal is a word that was peppered throughout his discourse. Under his leadership, Grondin made it clear that the Quebec Bar will push for a simplified justice system. He will push the provincial government to pour more money into the justice system. He wants to see courthouses adopt technology, something that is beginning to be done in administrative tribunals. He embraces artificial intelligence and wants to help new emerging Quebec LegalTechs by pushing for new regulations. He wants more diversity within the Bar itself.
But Grondin offered few clues on how he intends to grapple with the emergence of new competitive and disruptive forces that pose formidable challenges to a legal marketplace in a state of flux at a time when few are content with the legal and justice system.
When he finished his address, Grondin briefly nodded at the audience, stood back from the microphones, and rubbed his hands. As the audience of some two hundred-odd lawyers began to applaud, Grondin smiled but once, as if the weight on what lay ahead dawned on the thirty-three year old Montreal lawyer.