An Act to amend the Judges Act

This bill was last introduced in the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session, which ended in September 2008.

Sponsor

Rob Nicholson  Conservative

Status

This bill has received Royal Assent and is now law.

Summary

This is from the published bill. The Library of Parliament often publishes better independent summaries.

This enactment increases the number of judicial salaries that may be paid under paragraph 24(3)(b) of the Judges Act from thirty to fifty.

Elsewhere

All sorts of information on this bill is available at LEGISinfo, provided by the Library of Parliament. You can also read the full text of the bill.

March 31st, 2008 / 4:20 p.m.
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Bloc

Marc Lemay Bloc Abitibi—Témiscamingue, QC

What we are hearing is very important. I would simply like to add one thing. From the moment the Superior Court is involved—and I served on that court for 30 years—a process is called into question.

I drew Minister Nicholson's attention to a problem when he appeared before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. I served on that committee when it was examining Bill C-31 respecting the appointment of judges. At this point in time, superior court judges are not ready to hear cases pursuant to Bill C-30. This is where first nations will have an important role to play. If we adopt the bill as it is currently worded, judges will most certainly be sitting superior court justices with the experience of non-native people. That is a debate that first nations will have to have. That is the choice they made.

As for the $150 million figure, I agree with you that the reference to this amount should be deleted completely. Superior court judges are empowered to hand down rulings involving substantially more than $150 million.

Judges ActGovernment Orders

March 14th, 2008 / 10:40 a.m.
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Bloc

Réal Ménard Bloc Hochelaga, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am somewhat surprised by your comments because Bill C-31 pertains to justice and judges. I believe that there are links to be made between other bills and I know you will allow me to establish these links.

Bill C-31 before us deals with the appointment of judges. The Bloc Québécois supports this bill, but I was saying how disappointed we are that we did not wait for the Youth Criminal Justice Act to be fully reviewed before introducing a bill which deals with only two provisions. You will recall that, under your tenure as Speaker of the House of Commons, the member for Berthier—Maskinongé, one of the best members ever of this House, tabled 2,700 amendments. That led you to make a ruling—and this is not a criticism—that tightened the criteria for introducing amendments.

Coming back to Bill C-31, I will be mentioning the Askov case. There are constitutional guarantees in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That is not a legal instrument that the National Assembly finds desirable, of course. In 1982, the National Assembly almost unanimously passed a motion opposing the unilateral patriation of the Constitution. Pierre Elliott Trudeau's Liberals at the time disregarded the will of the National Assembly. Even Claude Ryan, the leader of the official opposition in the National Assembly at that time, agreed with René Lévesque.

In any case, this Constitution, which was patriated against the wishes of the National Assembly, contains a charter setting out legal guarantees. We are familiar with the major legal guarantees in the charter. Freedom must be inviolable: the freedom of religion, freedom of association and freedom of expression are protected. The will is expressed that trials be fair and equitable and concern is shown for the manner evidence is obtained. There is a provision in section 24 that allows evidence to be excluded if the manner it was obtained is unconstitutional.

Among the legal guarantees listed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms patriated against the will of Quebec, there is the right to a fair and equitable trial. For a trial to be fair and reasonable, it has to take place within a reasonable time. Obviously, if a year and half, two years, two years and half or three years go by between the time when proceedings are initiated by prosecutors and the time when a judge, or a judge and jury, makes a decision, that violates this constitutional guarantee.

The Bloc Québécois supports the bill before us because it provides for the appointment of 20 new judges who will help unclog the judicial system and ensure that justice is rendered within much a more reasonable time, more expeditiously and more diligently. With respect to these 20 judges, we do not know the details yet about how many there will be for Quebec, Ontario or Newfoundland.

However, there is something I must tell the House, on behalf of my colleague, the member for Abitibi—Témiscamingue, a friend of aboriginal peoples. He is a man of the law and a dedicated attorney, who has always maintained the balance between defending people who are in the system, and fulfilling the Crown's obligation to sentence individuals if necessary. It was a pleasure to have the member for Abitibi—Témiscamingue attend the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. This was at the time when the committee was meeting and the government accepted the fact that there was work to be done in this committee. This is no longer the case, since the Conservative chair refuses to convene the Standing Committee on Justice.

This is very difficult for me because I love my job. I am very happy with my life. I enjoy speaking at the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, but first I have to have a chance to do so. During the last three sittings I have not had that opportunity.

That said, the member for Abitibi—Témiscamingue spoke. He accompanied me to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights to talk to us about aboriginal law. When I studied law at the University of Ottawa, I took a course on aboriginal law, and I become aware of how valuable it is.

As we know, one judge who currently sits on the Ontario Court of Appeal will very likely be appointed to the new aboriginal reconciliation tribunal. This means that the Ontario Court of Appeal will be short one judge. Obviously, we expect that in the arbitration, appointment, provision or allocation of the new resources provided for in Bill C-31, the federal government will take into consideration this potential appointment of an Ontario Court of Appeal judge to the reconciliation tribunal.

Being a vigilant person, the member for Abitibi—Témiscamingue, who is a friend of aboriginal peoples, asked a question in this House when the Conservative government refused to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, setting us back 20 years. Yet all the opposition parties—the Bloc Québécois, the NDP and the Liberals—were calling for the ratification of this instrument. Only the archaic, backward-looking, old-fashioned Conservative government refused to ratify this agreement. The member for Abitibi—Témiscamingue was good enough to make us aware of this legal tool that the first nations were calling for.

We all know how important the reconciliation commission will be. This historic commission will shed light on the abuse and injustices suffered by the first nations, our founding peoples. The government of René Lévesque recognized the first nations in 1985. When Lévesque was premier, he recognized the 11 first nations in the National Assembly. Hon. members will also recall that Jacques Parizeau's referendum plan, which was distributed door to door in 1995, recognized aboriginal peoples, just as it recognized the historic contribution made by anglophone Quebeckers to Quebec.

I do not want to stray from the issue we are debating. I do want to make it clear that the Bloc Québécois supports Bill C-31. We worked hard in committee to deliver this bill to the government as quickly as possible. This very short bill will mean that justice can be administered much more quickly. Everyone remembers the ruling in R. v. Askov, where the Ontario Court of Appeal released some accused persons because they had not been able to stand trial within a reasonable time. The case caused a stir in the justice community.

Since then, governments have been under pressure to appoint more judges to the various appeal courts. Every year, there are more trials, and they are often very complex. As well, stalling tactics are used to delay proceedings. We all know what happens in a court of justice. We should therefore applaud the fact that there will be another 20 judges. As I said earlier, we do not know how many there will be for Quebec. We hope that there will be at least three more, but we will wait for confirmation of this.

In conclusion, I repeat that the Bloc Québécois will support this bill. I will be happy to answer any questions my colleagues may have. I hope to again have the opportunity to attend a meeting of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, just like in the good old days.

Judges ActGovernment Orders

March 14th, 2008 / 10:40 a.m.
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Liberal

The Speaker Liberal Peter Milliken

Order, please. A member has pointed out that there is a problem because the hon. member for Hochelaga is not speaking about the bill currently before this House, which is an act to amend the Judges Act.

He should perhaps return to the matter at hand, debate on Bill C-31 at third reading, rather than discussing all other bills the government has introduced pertaining to the Department of Justice.

Judges ActGovernment Orders

March 14th, 2008 / 10:30 a.m.
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Bloc

Réal Ménard Bloc Hochelaga, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to stand up and share with you the position of my party, the great force of national liberation that is the Bloc Québécois, on Bill C-31. This bill may seem to be rather technical, but it has to do with the workings of the justice system. Bill C-31, which has been called for by people who play a role before or after the court system, is a short bill with only two clauses that will enable the federal government to appoint superior court judges.

At present, the federal government can appoint 30 judges, and there is a definite backlog in the court system. In the administration of justice, it is not uncommon for a year and a half, two years, two and half years, or three years to go by between the time legal proceedings start and the time a judge or a judge and jury hand down a decision. Obviously, we are not talking about the Supreme Court of Canada. We are talking about superior courts, which hear cases involving common offences under the Criminal Code. They do not rule on technical points of law, like appeal courts. And they certainly do not hand down decisions that speak to our values or clarify the constitutionality or validity of legal provisions, as the Supreme Court of Canada does. Superior courts deal with the cases that should be the least contentious possible.

Bill C-31 proposes to add 20 supernumerary judges, bringing to 50 the number of judges who could be appointed to the various superior courts. With your permission, I would like to take a few moments to explain to my colleagues in this House why trial courts should not be confused with superior courts.

Quebec will one day be a country that will enjoy all the elements of sovereignty, you can rest assured. For us as sovereigntists, when we talk about our plans, sovereignty means three things: keeping our own tax dollars, repatriating all powers to Quebec and, of course, deciding on our foreign policy.

As an aside, yesterday, I confirmed something with our research staff. It is estimated that in 2008, Quebeckers will pay $50 billion in taxes to Ottawa. Imagine how things would be different if the National Assembly could keep those tax dollars. Obviously, we would do some things differently. From the information gathered by our research staff—an excellent and very dedicated staff—I read that the National Defence budget will increase from $9 billion to $19 billion in the 2010s. Can you imagine? The military budget will double, primarily because of military procurement.

Do you think that a sovereign Quebec would have made the same decision? As my colleagues will agree, a sovereign Quebec would have placed much greater emphasis on international cooperation and development assistance. We would have been much more present in Africa, especially francophone Africa, and in Haiti, and we would have developed the cooperation practices that seem to be lacking in this government.

Accordingly, a sovereign Quebec would of course enjoy all the attributes of a separate state. However, that is not the case at this time. That is why everyone listening must understand that Quebec, the National Assembly and the Quebec justice minister appoint judges to municipal courts and the Court of Quebec. The Court of Quebec has two divisions: the civil division and the youth division.

By the way, I find it distressing that a bill will soon be before us, but we in the Bloc Québécois will not be supporting it. As I told the steering committee of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights the day before last, gone are the days when there was at the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights a climate of frank camaraderie whereby members would give each other a friendly slap on the back or ask one another how they were doing, and there was the notion of caring about one another.

We know that the climate has deteriorated at the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. We have a chair who refuses to take his responsibilities and preside over the committee. How did we get to this point of no return?

It is like in a couple when it is obvious that a domestic spat will escalate to a point of no return. Of course, I am not speaking of myself. My home life is totally free from any stormy dispute because I am so blissfully in love.

At any rate, the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights has not been meeting because the member for Beauséjour introduced a motion inviting the committee to look into allegations made in the Cadman affair and conduct an investigation under section 119 of the Criminal Code. Naturally, that is within the purview of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.

Is it not our duty—and this question is for all my colleagues—to ensure that at all times, institutions and those who keep them running, parliamentarians, are above any suspicion when the media and a book raise allegations of corruption? Whether these allegations are founded or not is up to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights to decide. Other committees could have addressed this issue, but for reasons I do not want to get into again, the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics was unable to.

The hon. member for Beauséjour, a generally respectable man with great self-control, did his job as a parliamentarian by tabling this motion in the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, which the Bloc obviously supported. When the chair of the committee deemed the motion out of order, we challenged the chair's decision, in accordance with the House of Commons Standing Orders. However, the chair refused to hold a vote to determine whether the motion would be challenged and he left the chair, leaving a terrible void that prevented the committee from functioning.

That said, I do not want to get off topic. Let us come back to Bill C-31.

The National Assembly of Quebec oversees appointments to municipal courts and the Court of Quebec. The Court of Quebec has two divisions: the civil division and the youth division. I dreaded the thought of having to deal with Bill C-25, which is a very bad bill.

Bill C-25 deals with the Youth Criminal Justice Act. Before the five-year review of the bill has even taken place, the government wants to amend two provisions. The Bloc Québécois maintains that—

Judges ActGovernment Orders

March 14th, 2008 / 10:15 a.m.
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Liberal

Sue Barnes Liberal London West, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am happy to speak to Bill C-31. It has now been through the justice committee and has returned to the House unamended.

It is a very short bill, but its amends a number change in the Judges Act, paragraph 24(3)(b), and thus creates the authority to authorize the appointment of 20 new judges for the provincial and territorial superior trial courts.

We know these judges are needed to deal with the increasing backlogs in the superior court system. In particular, superior courts in Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Nunavut continue to experience delays and backlogs.

In a former parliamentary life, when the Liberal government was in power, I was a parliamentary secretary to the then minister of justice. I travelled through Nunavut and experienced the fact that unlike the rest of Canada, where we can travel by vehicle from one city to another, there were 26 different fly-in communities. It takes time and there are delays to which we must attend.

I remember at that time we also were starting to introduce our crime prevention programs. That is the other end of the justice system, from the trial and judgment to the prevention of crime. There needs to be a full emphasis on this aspect. It helps reduce criminal activity when people are actively engaged in different crime prevention activities. I wanted to make that point at this time.

Even in the other provinces, those that I did not mention, we are aware that there is a strain with simply population growth, especially stresses that could happen with the family court systems. In a family court system we cannot afford time delays. Children grow up and those issues have to be resolved sooner rather than later.

We also have the issues of mega-trials in the criminal law area. We know a lot of the criminal law is taken care of at the provincial court level, but there are those mega-trials and people can opt to go into the higher court level. The mega-trials are very complex and lengthy and consume a lot of justice system resources.

I know this is important to all Canadians. The introduction and background to Bill C-31 talks about the fact that we now have a specific claims tribunal, which will have the authority to make binding decisions where specific claims brought forward by first nations are rejected for negotiation or where negotiations fail. It is estimated by the government that this tribunal will require the equivalent of six full time judges to manage the caseloads of these types of claims.

The chief justices, I am sure, will have consultations with the minister or his designates to talk about the allocation of these judges. I know that B.C. and Ontario will need these resources, as well as some of the other jurisdictions, because specific claims should be settled.

It is important to have access to justice for all Canadians. It is true that justice delayed can be justice denied. In criminal law, the Askov case reminded us, very bluntly, of the importance of reasonable time limits and reasonable access to the court system. We do not want to have cases thrown out of court just because the delays have been too lengthy.

Apart from the judges needed for the tribunal work, these judges will work in the area of civil law, civil litigation, family law and criminal fields of law. They are expected to perform all their work for us with the independence and impartiality that I think Canadians expect from their justice system.

Judges apply the law to the facts at each case. They do so without imposing any of their own personal bias. Increasingly, as I have said, cases are complex and trials can become very lengthy. Delay is not wanted by Canadians. Canadians want to have justice delivered in their own language, be it English or French. This reflects the linguistic duality of our country.

It is important, and this is not a political or partisan point, that both French speaking and English speaking justices are needed in our courts. In fact, there is often interpretation provided for other languages. Some people before the Canadian justice system speak neither of these languages, but that is not the point with respect to the appointment of judges.

I have great respect for our judicial system in our country. We have an amazingly fair and independent system. I do not want to see that change in any way. I have respect for the judges who do that work. These people are somewhat limited in their association with the rest of Canadian society. There is an expected distancing so they can maintain that impartiality to do their work properly.

These increases for the number of judges have been needed for some time, and we expected the bill sooner. I will go forward. As of yesterday, March 13, even without this bill, 25 judicial vacancies were waiting to be filled. The Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada is responsible for filling those. In other words, these new positions are in addition to the existing vacancies that have to be filled. This is an ongoing situation. I know we should be encouraging the filling of all positions because it is important for our system to work efficiently and properly.

As many in the House will recall, the new Conservative government stacked the judicial advisory committee to ensure that the justice minister's chosen representatives would have a majority on every provincial judicial advisory board. I will not go in to this too much at this time because it takes away from the most important discussion and subject matter of this bill, but I do note it.

It is important to keep the judicial independence in our country. I remember the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court making comment on this point. It is also important that the positions be filled and that there not be a great delay. Both of those points are important.

With respect to this short bill, we can agree in the House that it should move forward. I know my colleagues and our party want the smooth functioning of the justice system. This is one, but only one, aspect that can be assisted by this House. We must remember that there will not be a smooth functioning system if there are not enough prosecutors and if there are insufficient dollars for legal aid for people who need that assistance before the courts. We need all of the system to work cohesively, and the judges are one part of it. However, it is the full functioning of the court system that has to be brought to bear before justice is actually delivered to Canadians in a timely and effective manner.

I ask fellow members of the House to support this legislation so it can move rapidly to the other house and become law after their deliberations. This is one bill that the House can believe will be good for the country and good for the citizens. We need the expertise and the impartial judicial system in our country, which we all deserve.

Judges ActGovernment Orders

March 14th, 2008 / 10:05 a.m.
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New Brunswick Southwest New Brunswick

Conservative

Greg Thompson ConservativeMinister of Veterans Affairs

Mr. Speaker, I have the honour to stand today in support of Bill C-31, An Act to amend the Judges Act.

The amendment proposed in this bill would authorize the appointment of 20 new judges to the provincial superior trial courts, which will allow us to respond to an urgent need for more judges to handle increasing caseloads and mounting delays in a number of jurisdictions across the country. We have heard that in every corner of the country.

This amendment would support the effective and expeditious resolution of specific claims through the newly proposed specific claims tribunal.

As provided in Bill C-30, the specific claims tribunal act, the members of the specific claims tribunal are to be appointed among sitting Superior Court judges and six of the new appointments to be authorized under the bill are intended to help the Superior Courts to free up experienced judges to take on the new work of the tribunal.

The establishment of this tribunal represents the cornerstone of this government's reform of the specific claims resolution process. The remaining 14 appointments will be allocated among the 6 jurisdictions that have previously submitted compelling requests for more judges.

Each one of those jurisdictions of Nunavik, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and my home province of New Brunswick have provided detailed submissions to support their requests, and there is no doubt that these six provinces have an immediate need for these new appointments.

The Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights gave careful consideration to this bill and approved it without amendment, which is key. All parties in this House support this bill because we recognize that there is a real and pressing need for new judicial resources within our trial courts, and so do our chief justices, our judges, members of the bar and, most important, Canadians who are involved in our judicial system.

As well, the first nations communities look forward to having access to the effective and independent process offered by the specific claims tribunal. We certainly do not expect that this amendment is the answer, because it is not the answer to all future requirements of the courts. However, it does respond to the clear needs of the six affected provinces at this time. Our government has made it very clear that we are open to considering future requests for additional judges in due course and when that need is clearly demonstrated, as it has been in this case. When that occurs, the government will respond appropriately.

Before I close, I want to make one final important point about playing politics with our courts and the judges who preside over our courts.

This week in New Brunswick, we have seen the potential harm and danger that such political games can cause. We saw the member for Beauséjour try to score partisan points by claiming that our government was not appointing enough bilingual judges. Even the facts show otherwise. The member for Beauséjour simply refused to do his homework. Either that or he simply did not know or purposely ignored the fact that three of the six judges who we have appointed in New Brunswick are bilingual. Of course that is in a province where francophones make up 30% of the province's population.

I do not need to remind members that New Brunswickers are proud of our place in Canada's only officially bilingual province. We are proud of our linguistic duality. We are proud of how francophones and anglophones work every day, shoulder to shoulder, for a better future, a stronger province and a greater country, and our government supports that vision.

We will not let the political games being played by the member for Beauséjour divide New Brunswick or sidetrack our province in its steady progress. We are very proud of our province and the progress made by all governments, past and present, of the province of New Brunswick.

In that spirit, Bill C-31 represents an important step toward improving access to justice in Canada.

I wish to thank all hon. members for their recognition, the advancement of this significant bill and their support for its speedy passage. It is very much appreciated.

The House proceeded to the consideration of Bill C-31, An Act to amend the Judges Act, as reported (without amendment) from the committee.

Justice and Human RightsCommittees of the HouseRoutine Proceedings

March 5th, 2008 / 3:10 p.m.
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Conservative

Art Hanger Conservative Calgary Northeast, AB

Mr. Speaker, I have the honour to present, in both official languages, the fifth report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.

In accordance with the order of reference of Monday, January 28, 2008, your committee has considered Bill C-31, An Act to amend the Judges Act and agreed on Tuesday, March 4, to report it without amendment.

March 4th, 2008 / 4:35 p.m.
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Conservative

The Chair Conservative Art Hanger

That is it. Bill C-31 has been carried.

Now we have other business and we will go in camera.

[Proceedings continue in camera]

March 4th, 2008 / 4:35 p.m.
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Conservative

The Chair Conservative Art Hanger

I call the standing committee back to order.

Now we'll go to clause-by-clause consideration of Bill C-31. I'll call the vote on clause 1.

(Clause 1 agreed to)

March 4th, 2008 / 4:30 p.m.
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Bloc

Marc Lemay Bloc Abitibi—Témiscamingue, QC

Mr. Minister, let us assume that Bill C-31 — I believe it will be passed today — will pass and that Bill C-30, which we will probably be studying until the end of April, will also pass.

According to your plans, when will the new judges be able to undertake their duties? Will the chief justices and the provinces be given any directives so that they can start looking for judges to work on the Specific Claims Tribunal?

March 4th, 2008 / 3:30 p.m.
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Niagara Falls Ontario

Conservative

Rob Nicholson ConservativeMinister of Justice

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. Thank you for the invitation to make some comments with respect to Bill C-31, An Act to amend the Judges Act.

It's probably one of the shortest bills this committee will see, I suppose. It's straight to the point. It's one amendment to the Judges Act, but I think it is a good news story across this country that we are moving to increase, by 20, the number of judges under this section. It will permit us to add judges, and I think there is a consensus across this country that we can use more.

The bill will allow the government to achieve two very important objectives. It will increase support and access to justice for Canadians from all walks of life. The appointment of these additional judges will facilitate the timely resolution of the specific claims.

Proposed paragraph 24(3)(b) of the Judges Act, which we refer to as the pool, creates the authority to appoint judges to the superior trial courts of any jurisdiction in Canada. The pool was created, as you may know, in the 1970s, because of the recognized difficulty in having to constantly amend the Judges Act every time you need another judge. Rather than do that, they created a pool of judges.

The concept was to allow the government to respond quickly to needs within each province or territory. I can tell you that Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador have each previously submitted requests for additional judges, as have other provinces that have come forward.

Submissions have come in over the years. Some jurisdictions have had the benefit of sophisticated data collection to justify why they need more judges, while others have worked painstakingly to collect information that indicates their need and to back up their requests. In all instances, chief justices, judges, court staff, and provincial government officials have made tremendous efforts to make the case as to why we need more judges.

The same degree of commitment to providing clear and comprehensive data has been demonstrated by the judiciary and the Governments of Quebec and Nunavut, each of which also have outstanding requests for additional judges for their superior courts.

In Quebec, mounting civil and family law matters have been straining the court for several years now. This bill will provide some long-needed relief for the Quebec Superior Court.

The pressures on the Nunavut Court of Justice are particularly compelling and urgent. There are three resident judges sitting on the court of justice. The court is also served by deputy judges from other provinces and territories. These are sitting or retired superior court judges who offer to sit in Nunavut, typically for one-week periods. These judges provide much needed assistance to the court, but they cannot completely respond to the existing needs within the territory.

As you can imagine, geography has a huge impact on the work of the court in Nunavut. The territory covers one-fifth of the land mass of this country, two million square kilometres. Its population of approximately 29,500 is scattered across communities ranging in size from 150 to 6,000 people. Judges of the Nunavut court frequently travel on circuit through various forms of transportation--by air, snow machine, or boat. Crime rates are also a concern in the north. The number of complex criminal trials is beginning to mount, with several being adjourned over the course of the past year due to unavailability of judges. Civil and family caseloads are growing, and with the development of a bar of resident lawyers, the number of matters before the courts will continue to increase. In sum, the situation on the Nunavut court is reaching crisis proportions, and we cannot allow this to continue.

It is proposed that 14 of the new appointments be allocated among jurisdictions to address the existing pressures and backlogs. The bill will also provide the judicial resources necessary to ensure that the provincial superior courts are in a position to provide judges to act as members of the newly proposed special claims tribunal.

Assuring timely and impartial resolution of these claims is a key objective of the new tribunal. This tribunal will have the authority to make decisions where specific claims brought forward by first nations are rejected for negotiation or negotiations fail.

As the Prime Minister indicated in June of 2007, it is critical that the members of the tribunal have the necessary experience, capacity, and credibility to examine historical facts and evidence. They must be able to address complex questions surrounding Canada's legal obligations and determine appropriate levels of compensation. For this reason, the proposed Specific Claims Tribunals Act provides that tribunal members will be superior court judges.

It is estimated that the tribunal will require the equivalent of six full-time judges to handle its anticipated caseload of 40 claims per year. These claims are dispersed across the country, with the greatest number arising in British Columbia and some of the most complex cases originating in Ontario and Quebec.

All provincial superior courts are currently working at full capacity, with a number of them, as I have just described, experiencing significant backlogs and delays. As a result, authority for an additional six judges is being sought to provide the trial courts with the capacity to absorb the new work of the tribunal and to address these claims on a priority basis.

It is intended that with this infusion of new judicial resources the courts will be able to allow a number of their experienced judges to be appointed to a tribunal roster of up to 18 judges. It is proposed that these judges would sit on the tribunal on a part-time basis for a period of time equivalent to the number of additional judges provided to the court. The judges to the roster would continue to sit for the balance of their time on cases assigned, as usual, by the chief justice of their own courts.

Allocation of the 20 new judges to specific jurisdictions will take place following consultation with the chief justices of the courts and the provincial and territorial governments. My officials have already commenced discussions with their provincial and territorial counterparts to obtain up-to-date data upon which to base these final decisions.

As you can see, Mr. Chair and honourable members, this bill is extremely important for Canadians, and in particular aboriginal communities. I trust that members will recognize the urgent need to facilitate the passage of this bill so that these new judges may be appointed as soon as possible and that we may provide meaningful access for those individuals that require it.

I should let you know as well, Mr. Chair, before I conclude, that I want to bring to the committee's attention the possible need for an amendment to Bill C-31. The amendment relates to the establishment of the truth and reconciliation commission.

As members may be aware, the truth and reconciliation commission will provide former students, families, and anyone who has been touched by the Indian residential schools experience with an opportunity to share their individual experiences in a safe and culturally appropriate manner. The TRC will provide a comprehensive historical record of the policies and operations of schools, as well as what happened to the first nations, Métis, and Inuit children who attended them. The commission clearly has important responsibilities to fulfill in the course of its five-year mandate.

Following a rigorous selection process, the selection panel for the TRC commissioners unanimously put forward the name of a sitting judge to act as chair of the TRC. This judge is well respected by aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities alike and is uniquely qualified for this position.

All parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement support his appointment to this key post; however, this appointment would leave one of the busiest courts in the country one judge short for the judge's five-year absence. In order to avoid this unintended detrimental impact on the court, an amendment would be needed to Bill C-31 to provide for an additional clause modifying one of the sections of the Judges Act. We will continue to explore the issues related to this amendment, which, if we proceed with it, would need to be moved at the report stage.

Those are my opening comments, Mr. Chair. If there are any questions from the committee, my colleagues and I would be pleased to respond.

Business of the HouseOral Questions

January 31st, 2008 / 3:05 p.m.
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York—Simcoe Ontario

Conservative

Peter Van Loan ConservativeLeader of the Government in the House of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform

Mr. Speaker, since this is the first Thursday question of the year, I want to formally welcome everyone back to the House of Commons. Hopefully, we will be even more productive in 2008 than we were in 2007.

Judging by the first sitting day, I think we will be.

So far, the House has passed Bill C-8, on railway transportation, and Bill C-9, on the settlement of investment disputes.

Moreover, Bill C-31, An Act to amend the Judges Act, and Bill C-27, on identity theft, have been referred to committee.

This is a rather good start.

We hope to keep up that level of productivity by quickly passing our legislation to strengthen the security certificates process, which started debate at report stage today. That is of course Bill C-3. We now have a House order to assist us in facilitating that debate. We will continue to debate the bill until report stage is completed.

While all members of the House do not understand the importance of the bill, I believe that the official opposition does. I hope that we can work together in a spirit of cooperation and bipartisanship to have it passed before the date identified by the Supreme Court of Canada as the date by which it would like to see the law passed, February 23.

Following Bill C-3 tomorrow we will continue with the unfinished business from this week, namely Bill C-33, renewable fuels; Bill C-39, the grain act; Bill C-7, aeronautics; and Bill C-5, nuclear liability.

Next week will be a safe and secure Canada week.

Debates will continue until the bill is passed by this House.

After that, we will debate Bill C-25, which would strengthen the Youth Criminal Justice Act, and Bill C-26, which imposes mandatory minimum penalties for producers and traffickers of drugs, particularly for those who sell drugs to children. We also hope to discuss the Senate's amendments to Bill C-13, on criminal procedure.

Finally, in keeping with next week's theme, I would suggest that my hon. colleague opposite explain to his colleagues in the Senate the importance of quickly passing the Tackling Violent Crime Act, the bill which is overwhelmingly supported by Canadians across the country, and which was the number one priority of the government throughout the fall session of Parliament and which passed this House last fall. It has already been in the Senate longer than its entire time in the House of Commons, yet the Liberal dominated Senate has not even started committee hearings on the Tackling Violent Crime Act.

While the elected accountable members of the House rapidly passed the bill, which I would like to remind everyone was a question of confidence, unfortunately it looks like the unelected, unaccountable Liberal dominated Senate is up to its old tricks again of delaying and obstructing in every way. Let me be clear. This government will not stand and allow Liberal senators to obstruct, delay and ultimately kill the bill. The Tackling Violent Crime Act was quickly passed in the House and Canadians expect the Liberal dominated Senate to act in the same fashion and pass it quickly.

Judges ActGovernment Orders

January 28th, 2008 / 12:55 p.m.
See context

Liberal

Mario Silva Liberal Davenport, ON

Mr. Speaker, although our party supports Bill C-31 because we understand that there is a need to deal with the backlog in the superior court system, I agree with my colleague that it is not an adequate solution. However, we still need to support it because we are dealing with a backlog. I agree with my hon. colleague that there are huge costs and implications and we are dealing with people's rights. Justice is never served when it is delayed.

I would like my hon. colleague to comment on an issue that is of great importance to Canadians and that is the whole issue that the government seems to be attacking the judiciary. I think the judicial system needs to be defended by our parliamentary system because it is one of the cornerstones of our institution of democracy. Perhaps my hon. colleague could comment on the whole issue of judicial independence and the need to respect our judicial system in this country.

Judges ActGovernment Orders

January 28th, 2008 / 12:30 p.m.
See context

Bloc

Carole Freeman Bloc Châteauguay—Saint-Constant, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased today to join the debate on something that directly affects the proper functioning of our justice system and thus the people of Quebec and Canada. I am talking about Bill C-31, An Act to amend the Judges Act.

The purpose of the bill is to allow a greater number of judges to be appointed to superior courts of the provinces, or 20 more judges than the current limit. The intention of this increase is to improve the flexibility of the justice system in order to process the many cases before the superior courts more quickly and more efficiently. The bill will also allow judges from superior courts to be assigned to the new specific claims tribunal, which was created by the Specific Claims Tribunal Act.

I should mention, with respect to this bill, that my constituents have often talked to me about how cumbersome and slow the current justice system is. However, let us make a distinction between cliché and reality. We have to acknowledge that the complexity of the cases, the proceedings, the needless procedures and a shortage of judges are causing delays. Nonetheless, I know that the increased number of cases, in family law in particular, is such that parents in Quebec sometimes have to wait several months before their alimony or custody case is finally settled by a judge.

This is an unfortunate situation, but it is so because the number of judges provided for under the Judges Act has not changed for years. Accordingly, the Act does not take into account the population increase and the resulting new social realities, including divorce and increasingly complex cases.

At present, the Judges Act provides for a Chief Justice, a Senior Associate Chief Justice and an Associate Chief Justice for the Superior Court of Quebec, and for 140 other judges. For anyone who knows a little bit about the judicial system in Quebec, I would point out that the Superior Court hears civil and commercial cases where the amount at issue is over $70,000, administrative and family law cases, bankruptcy cases, jury trials and criminal trials, and appeals in summary conviction cases.

Under paragraph 24(3)(b) of the Judges Act, the Superior Court of Quebec may still appoint 30 new judges, above and beyond its current 144 judges, to meet the needs that arise. Under Bill C-31, it could go ahead and have 50 additional judges. Clearly, that amounts to a ceiling that is higher than the one we have now by 20 judges.

In the opinion of the Bloc Québécois and myself, adding judges to handle the many cases before the courts is part of the solution for improving access to justice. Undeniably, it is the government’s duty to make sure that the public has access to the courts when they need it, that all accused persons are able to stand trial within a reasonable time, and that the system is not handicapped by a shortage of judges.

However, this must not become a panacea! I say this while at the same time believing that Bill C-31 is not a bad bill—quite the contrary—but the intended effects could be diminished by the ideology of this minority government, focused as it is on “law and order”. This approach concerns me, and I would like to share my concerns with my distinguished colleagues and with the general public watching us today.

In my speeches in the past, and in my work on the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, I have frequently referred to my grave concern about the enforcement-oriented approach taken by the Conservatives. It has expanded considerably since this government changed the rules for the judicial advisory committees. In my view, this manoeuvre by the Conservatives, along with a number of others I will talk about later, suggests that these amendments are somewhat secondary details in their minds.

Why is it so important to debate this? Because every one of our fellow citizens expects to have an impartial, objective judicial system, where they feel protected from any political or ideological position that might influence a judgment. It seems, however, that the recent judicial appointments made by this government do not adhere to the idea of impartiality that the public expects. This interventionist attitude is extremely disturbing, and I believe it is important that people be made aware of what this minority government is doing and planning to do to ensure that its “law and order” ideology can be implemented smoothly.

In the case of judicial appointments, my colleagues will stand firmly behind me when I say that we have to try to strike a balance. That is why our judicial system is founded on an independent judiciary.

The Bloc Québécois has been saying for a long time now in this House that we are looking forward to the day when there will no longer be partisan appointments to the judiciary, when we will have independent committees selecting our judges, selecting people with the very best qualifications.

I am not saying the current judiciary is not qualified, but I am saying that often judges are appointed in a partisan and political manner. The media regularly decries this practice and shares its displeasure with the public, who in turn become cynical. The government must not try to appoint judges that suit its ideology, because that could interfere with the impartiality of the courts, a fundamental rule of justice shared by all citizens.

Once again, to all those who are not very familiar with the judicial appointment system, it has often been debated because of the political interference that has been found.

The problem currently before us is twofold: on one hand this minority government has changed the judicial appointment process; on the other hand it is taking advantage of these changes to ensure a position on the judiciary for candidates who are ideologically in favour of or well connected, directly or indirectly, to the Conservative Party.

Let us be clear: this practice was not invented by the Conservatives, since they themselves have criticized the Liberals for doing the same thing in the past. However, these accusations illustrate the extent of the problem of appointing judges and the impartiality of the justice system.

For those who are watching us, I will provide some context by saying that judges are appointed by the government from a list made by a judicial advisory committee whose members voted for the candidate they deem best qualified.

Before the changes made by the Conservatives, the advisory committees had seven members. Out of seven evaluators, four members were politically independent, in other words, there was a representative from the Canadian Bar Association, another from the bar of the province concerned, a representative of the provincial department and, finally, someone to represent the judges. The three other members were appointed by the federal Department of Justice came from the public. These individuals frequently subscribed to the ideas of the government of the day.

It is important to realize that, as it turned out, the federal government was in the minority on that committee and therefore could not impose a candidate.

Nevertheless, the Conservative government was not happy about this situation because it would have had a hard time passing its political “law and order” agenda for justice. So without consulting the legal community, my colleague from Provencher, who was then Minister of Justice, changed the makeup of the advisory committees as follows: First, in addition to the three members of the public, he decided to appoint a police officer, thereby ensuring that four members would be government supporters. Then he denied the judges' representative the right to vote except to break a tie. And there you have it. The government gave itself a majority on these committees and was able to impose its repressive “law and order” ideology with ease.

I can already hear people protesting that this will not compromise the qualifications of those appointed, that we are exaggerating, or that we think this creates opportunities to interfere even though it does not.

However, various events have proven us right. I am not just talking about a few isolated cases. I am talking about a system that has a direct impact on the objectivity of our legal system.

I would like to draw to my distinguished colleagues' attention the results of The Globe and Mail's investigation into the matter, published on February 12, 2007, which showed that, apart from the police officers, no fewer than 16 of the 33 individuals appointed to 12 advisory committees were connected in some way to the Conservative Party. Sixteen of them. Coincidence? Unlikely. The newspaper revealed a number of cases where the connection was extremely clear.

Once again, some may say that this does not mean the individuals are not well suited to the job, that there is no conflict here, and that nobody is trying to push any agenda whatsoever. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In response to repeated questions about these appointments, the Prime Minister's own statements indicated that our concerns about changes to the advisory committees were well founded.

The Prime Minister said, on February 15, 2007, in this House, “We want to make sure we are bringing forward laws to make sure that we crack down on crime, that we make our streets and communities safer. We want to make sure our selection of judges is in correspondence with those objectives”. The result is that they add a police officer and make partisan appointments to the advisory committees and take the vote away from the judiciary!

I have no hesitation in saying that our police officers do very honourable work. That does not mean, though, that they are necessarily the best qualified to participate in the appointment of judges who hear mostly non-criminal cases. I should say as well that police officers represent primarily the executive branch of government, which is subject to judicial control. The presence of a police officer on a committee of this kind would further undermine the separation of powers on which our constitutional state is based.

It is blatantly obvious, therefore, that citizens cannot count on an impartial judicial system so long as this scheme is in place. When it comes to justice, this government should think long and hard about its real objectives.

When we look at the concerns I have listed—the political manoeuvring surrounding the evaluation committees, the elimination of a program like the legal challenges program, and the law and order ideology of this government—I am puzzled by the proposals in Bill C-31 to improve the legal system.

Certainly, more judges should improve access to justice, but if the Conservative ideology is rapidly implemented, how will the proposed change in Bill C-31 be enough to meet the demand? If the Conservatives want to punish rather than prevent, the legal system will quickly become overloaded. At the other end of the spectrum, adding judges will not do any good when people do not have the means to exercise their rights.

In conclusion, the Bloc Québécois will support Bill C-31. Maybe some things can be clarified during study in committee. In any case, though, the problem remains: partisanship will always play a major role in the selection of judges regardless of the total number of judges on a superior court. The Bloc Québécois will always continue the fight to eliminate partisan appointments to the bench. It will do all it can to help the people get truly independent committees that choose judges in such a way that we get those who are most competent.