Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to rise in the House here today to speak to Bill C-31. This is my first opportunity to do so as the official opposition critic for justice. I must say, I look forward to working with my hon. colleagues on such important issues.
We have already heard some members ask the parliamentary secretary some questions. I have known him well for a few years now. He is, like me, a member from New Brunswick. I look forward to working with him and his colleagues on the House standing committee, so as to discuss these issues of mutual concern on the subject of justice, especially since I know the government is particularly concerned about criminal justice issues.
This piece of legislation which creates additional superior court positions in different jurisdictions across the country is something that we in the Liberal Party think should have been brought forward a number of months ago. In fact, in the previous Parliament it was legislation that was before the House at the same time as the legislation to deal with the recommendations of the quadrennial commission with respect to pay increases for federally appointed judges. It really is not new the idea that there is a backlog in the court system and that there is additional pressure on the trial courts across the country for a number of reasons which were correctly enunciated in many cases by the parliamentary secretary.
The Liberal Party sees this legislation as positive. We see it in a certain sense as unfortunate that it has taken this long. We would have preferred to see the government, in the legislation dealing with the quadrennial commission report some months ago, also include this particular provision to increase the number of seats on superior courts across the country.
The parliamentary secretary referred to six jurisdictions where there have been identified backlogs. I can speak with some personal knowledge about the jurisdiction that the parliamentary secretary and I represent, the province of New Brunswick.
It is a fact that in many cases, for example on an interim motion, in the family court in New Brunswick sometimes litigants have to wait eight months before being heard by a family court judge on what is a motion for interim relief. This is clearly an unacceptable circumstance. That is why the Chief Justice of the Queen's Bench of New Brunswick, the bar association and provincial attorneys general going back into the previous government had all been requesting that Parliament legislate to create additional spaces. In that sense, this legislation conforms to something that achieves a broad consensus across the country.
There is no doubt that the delays in family courts can be particularly troublesome. In many cases, because of changes in child protection legislation across the country, child protection cases clog up the docket. Because of the urgency of many of these matters they end up in effect bumping down the line some of the cases involving interim relief, cases of child custody, which can be very difficult and traumatic for families, not to mention the economic costs of continually having them delayed and adjourned.
For that reason, we think this legislation is needed and seeks to address a problem which has been identified for a number of years in many jurisdictions as pressing.
As for the 20 new appointments the government would make, if Parliament were to pass this bill, I would like the parliamentary secretary to be a little more conscious of linguistic issues, for instance, in my province, New Brunswick. We saw some strange situations, where bilingual or even francophone judges were replaced by unilingual anglophone judges. Once again, this has meant delays for anyone who wishes to plead their case before the courts in New Brunswick in French.
In one particular instance in the Moncton area, a francophone judge was appointed. The fact that someone was appointed who can conduct trials in French was very much appreciated. It was very important.
I would also ask the government to be equally aware of the fact that, in other jurisdictions in Canada, linguistic balance can be very important, if one claims to truly care about the issue of trials subject to delays or the issue of access to justice. Access to justice in one's mother tongue is also a fundamental question. If we cannot find a way to appoint judges who can conduct these trials or hear evidence in English or French, depending on the case, trial delays will increase at an alarming rate.
The parliamentary secretary also talked about the specific claims tribunal. Again, this will put additional pressure on superior court judges in some jurisdictions. There is no doubt that supernumerary judges or judges of long experience may in many cases be ideally suited to do a rotation on some of these specific claims tribunals, which means that chief justices in these jurisdictions will again have a need for more resources and for an increase in judges to hear some cases that have waited for a very long time. That is another valid reason why Parliament should consider increasing the number of superior court judges.
On this side of the House, we in the Liberal Party have some concern with respect to the appointments process this particular Conservative government has undertaken. One of its first acts was to attempt to stack the judicial appointments advisory committees in the provinces to ensure that the Minister of Justice would in fact control a majority of the members of the judicial appointments advisory committees in the provinces.
The parliamentary secretary talked about the independence of the judiciary. This is certainly something that I think all members value greatly. That independence is not enhanced when we try to stack and manipulate the independent process by which the qualifications of judicial candidates are assessed.
At the time of these changes, we raised some concerns about why the government would decide that it is important to have representatives of the police on these advisory committees. If one of the delays or concerns the parliamentary secretary identified is with respect to family courts across the country, or in some jurisdictions, the value that a police officer brings to the selection or evaluation of candidates for a family court appointment I think shows that the government was simply trying to pretend to give law enforcement a role in a process that really should be independent.
The minister should have resisted the temptation to be able to stack and manipulate these committees to ensure that he always would have a majority on each committee in every province, committees that are given the important responsibility of evaluating the competence and credentials of the men and women seeking to be appointed to the superior court.
Therefore, at committee we intend to look also at the issue of the appointments process. We are not satisfied that the government has been entirely responsible with respect to the independence of this appointment process, but we do recognize that there is a need to give these courts across the country increased resources. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, this is why we regret that this was not brought forward many months ago. The ideal time would have been when the government legislated its response to the quadrennial commission report.
In conclusion, I think all members share the sentiment that for those who seek to appear before the superior courts in jurisdictions across the country, whether it is with respect to a criminal charge and a criminal matter, a family law matter, other civil litigation or, in this particular example, with respect to specific claims tribunals, timely access to justice has long been held to be a fundamental right of Canadians.
In criminal law, the Askov case, as members will know, redefined what is reasonable access, that is, the right to be heard within a reasonable time. Surely that same principle in criminal law applies with respect to some of the most difficult cases in family law, where the custody of children can be at issue, where families are seeking to have their cases heard, and where, I think all members will agree, an eight month delay on an interim motion for interim relief simply does not make sense.
That is why if the government proceeds with this legislation quickly it will find that members of the Liberal Party are anxious to cooperate, but we would urge the government to resist the temptation in these appointments to once again seek out partisan appointments or once again attempt to manipulate the process by which the minister is given a list of persons, men and women, qualified to be appointed to the superior courts.
We believe that access to justice within a reasonable timeframe is a fundamental right, just as access to justice in one's first language is also a fundamental right in Canada. We therefore urge the government to respect these values.
We have been somewhat worried about some of the appointments made in recent months. Even so, we believe that adding 20 positions at the superior court and tribunal level should be fast-tracked by the House.