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.