A new trial for a man convicted of sexual interference on a child was ordered by the Quebec Court of Appeal after it held that the trial judge’s refusal to allow the re-opening of the complainant’s cross-examination infringed his right to make full answer and defence.
In a decision brimming with guidance over the scope of sections 10 and 11 of the Canada Evidence Act to dispel “some confusion” around cross-examinations on prior inconsistent statements, the Quebec Appeal Court held that despite the impact of a new trial on the complainant, an autistic child, who will have to testify again, “no other outcome can be considered” when the right to a full answer and defence and the right to a fair trial have been infringed.
“My first reaction is to deplore a reflex on the part of some judges to bow to public pressure in matters of sexual assault, especially when the complainant is a young person,” remarked Jean-Claude Hébert, a prominent Montreal criminal lawyer. “The Court of Appeal, firmly based on the current state of the law, correctly criticizes the trial judge for having erred in the exercise of her discretion regarding the right to a fair trial, in which case an accused person must be allowed to make a full answer and defence.”
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.
Nearly four years after the federal government added deferred prosecution agreements to the Criminal Code as part of its arsenal to fight corruption and other white-collar crime, legal experts hope that guidance provided by Quebec Superior Court in Canada’s first ever remediation agreement will prompt federal prosecutors and organizations to take advantage of the new way of settling criminal charges.
The comprehensive, meticulous and “important” decision introduces a “welcome” degree of certainty to the new process in the absence of accompanying regulations, guidelines or policies in the remediation agreement regime, according to legal experts. The ruling by Quebec Superior Court Justice Éric Downs sheds light on how remediation agreements will be broached by the courts, indicating that while they will not act as a “rubber stamp” in reviewing proposed settlements, the agreements will be afforded a high degree of deference, added the experts. The judgment also signals that self-reporting, though not a “hard condition,” will carry considerable weight as does “strong cooperation” to help sway the courts to sanction the agreement, they added.
“It’s an important decision because there were question marks around how the courts would approach the approval of a remediation agreement and how involved they would be in the process,” noted Louis-Martin O’Neill, a Montreal M&A and securities litigator with Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP. “The Court was very mindful of the fact that there is a huge need for stability in the system, and that implies that when a corporation starts to negotiate with the prosecution for a remediation agreement it has to know that unless something very grave happens, that agreement should stick when presented to the court.”
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.
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.”
McGill law professors, hoping to gain greater faculty autonomy while seeking the security of a collective bargaining framework and a collective agreement, are attempting to unionize at the faculty level, a first for professors in the university’s 200-year history.
The Association of McGill Professors of Law (AMPL) petitioned the Quebec Administrative Labour Tribunal to be recognized under the Quebec Labour Code in late November 2021 shortly after the university adopted a controversial COVID-19 vaccination policy, a position that proved to be the “bale of hay that broke the camel’s back,” said Evan Fox-Decent, AMPL’s interim president. A supermajority of the 51 McGill law professors have signed membership cards to allow the AMPL to act as their exclusive bargaining agent. The overwhelming majority of Canadian professors are unionized, with less than a handful not represented by a certified bargaining unit.
“The university is becoming more McGill incorporated than McGill University in recent years,” remarked Fox-Decent, Canada Research Chair in Cosmopolitan Law and Justice. “What really drove the point home to us about how precarious our situation is, was when we were told we were going back to teach in fall, of course we were under a new wave of COVID-19 that was starting up. That was as much as anything what put people on edge and made the majority of the faculty think that we just had to sort of take control over our own house.”
The federal government will have to overhaul its regulatory approach and guidelines over patented drug pricing after the Quebec Court of Appeal found a couple of provisions to be unconstitutional and outside the scope of federal jurisdiction over patents, according to a legal expert.
The Appeal Court ruling, expected to have a significant impact on the pharmaceutical industry in Canada, upheld the constitutionality of the legislative framework of the Patented Medicines Prices Review Board(PMPRB) and it current regulations. In a unanimous decision, the Appeal found that controlling abusive pricing of medicines resulting from a monopoly conferred by a patent has a logical, real and direct connection with federal jurisdiction over patents and does not constitutionally encroach on provincial jurisdiction.
“During these incidents the offender punched the victim in the knees, hit her on the head and on her ears, pushed her, dragged her on the ground, slapped her, bit her, spat in her face, head-butted her, shook her, pulled her hair and grabbed her by the shoulders while threatening to throw her off a balcony. During one incident, he threw various objects at her. During another, he took a knife and threatened to remove the baby she was carrying in her womb.”
The courts are beginning to take a harder line against domestic abuse. Over the past year Quebec Superior Court has awarded damages to victims of spousal abuse. Ontario Superior Court followed suit in late February 2022 after it recognized a new tort in family violence.
So too is the justice system and Quebec government, a movement that gained much traction over the past year, particularly since the beginning of the year.
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.”