Quebec appeal court serves timely reminder over linguistic rights

Less than a year after delivering a stinging rebuke to the Quebec government over recurring systemic unmitigated delays in securing trial transcripts that disproportionately affect English-speaking appellants, the Quebec Court of Appeal served a timely reminder over the importance of linguistic rights after it ordered a new trial for a convicted drug trafficker whose right to be tried in English was violated.

The decision, brimming with practical guidance aimed particularly at trial judges and Crown prosecutors, reiterates that courts that hold criminal trials “must be institutionally bilingual,” restates that it strongly favours consecutive translation over simultaneous interpretation in criminal trials, and prohibits so-called whispering interpretation from being practiced as it is “inconsistent” with s. 530.1(g) of the Criminal Code and guidance issued by the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Tran, [1994] 2 S.C.R. 951.

“This is a timely decision,” noted Martine Valois, a law professor at the Université de Montréal who wrote a book on judicial independence. “This is a problem, and it does no service to the accused or the justice system. This is not a political and linguistic issue, and it has nothing to do with the French fact in Quebec or the survival of French language. It’s really an issue over the rights of the accused (and ensuring that the) justice system be institutionally bilingual.”

The ruling also underscores yet again that the Quebec justice system is plagued by a systemic lack of resources, added Quebec City criminal lawyer Julien Grégoire of Gagnon & Associés, avocats.

“It’s very difficult to understand how, five years after the Jordan decision, we in Quebec can still find ourselves in this situation,” said Grégoire. “A major drug trafficker was granted, unfortunately but fittingly as far as I am concerned, a new trial to basically allow him to have access to fair justice in the language of his choice and in a process that minimally but truly respects his right to a trial in the language he understands best.”

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This story was originally published in The Lawyer’s Daily.

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