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.”
More than a year after the Quebec auditor general revealed that courthouses in the province are underused and that the provincial ministry of justice fails to analyze readily available administrative and financial data that would help it become more efficient and cost-effective, the justice department is tightlipped over what, if any, progress it has made to remedy the situation.
Already under fire for its handling of the labour conflict with its Crown prosecutors and government lawyers and castigated by the Quebec law society for failing to provide sufficient judicial resources, legal observers are urging the Quebec government to address the findings made by the auditor general.
Days before the Quebec government enacted a contentious back-to-work legislation to end an acrimonious labour standoff with its Crown prosecutors and government lawyers, a judicial compensation committee released an inconspicuous report that will likely once again test the government’s rapport with the principle players of the legal system.
A five-member blue-ribbon panel of legal and financial experts established under the Courts of Justice Act (Act) recommended handing Court of Quebec judges, municipal judges and justices of the peace a modest hike in their remuneration package, but it would be surprising if the provincial government embraces the recommendations, given past history.
Several weeks after the Quebec government enacted back-to-work legislation that compelled striking Crown prosecutors and government lawyers, two Quebec Crown prosecutors have submitted their resignation, the beginning of what some fear may prove to a mass exodus.
Charles Levasseur, a crown prosecutor who handled many high-profile cases, notably the case dealing with former Quebec Court of Appeal judge Jacques Delisle accused of murdering his wife, is stepping down. He said that while other factors came into play, the labour conflict “probably” precipitated his decision to work for the law firm Thibault Roy Avocats. “The last conflict was difficult. It made me realize that the Crown will never be the same, and my motivation will never the same. That is the impact of the back-to-work legislation,” said Levasseur in an interview with a French-language legal website.
That is likely a sign of things to come, fears Gilles Ouimet, the head of the Barreau du Québec.
Days after the Quebec government enacted back-to-work legislation that compelled striking Crown prosecutors and government lawyers, a movement appears to be afoot to mollify the rancorous atmosphere reigning between the principle actors of the province’s justice system.
Rules of practice implemented by the Superior Court of Québec three years ago that prohibit media from using cameras and conducting interviews except in designated areas of the courthouse as well as ban the broadcast of recordings of hearings were recently upheld by the Québec Court of Appeal.