Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Dear colleagues, I am pleased to be here today.
I will begin by saying that all Canadians have the right to fair and equitable access to the justice system. That system should be able to meet their needs in the official language of their choice.
The right to access justice in both official languages is crucially important. Today, I would like to present a status report on the important progress made by our government to promote that right.
Let me say at the outset that I am proud of the work that the minister and our government have accomplished thus far. We have made significant progress since taking government by renewing the judicial appointments process, increasing the number of bilingual judges on our courts, keeping better statistics and being more transparent so we can track progress, and providing better training for all actors within the justice system so we can improve our bilingual capacity in our courts.
Building on these initiatives, our government has announced a new action plan, whose objective is to strengthen the bilingual capacity of the superior courts across the country. This action plan, introduced by the Minister of Justice on September 25, 2017, includes seven main strategies.
First, as part of the renewed judicial appointments process launched in October 2016, applicants are required to complete a comprehensive questionnaire in which they must indicate whether, without further training, they possess the ability in English and French to read and understand court materials, discuss legal matters with colleagues, converse with counsel in court, and understand oral submissions.
In addition, the action plan now requires that candidates who self-identify as bilingual must respond to two additional questions, namely: one, can you preside over a trial in the other official language?; and, two, can you write a decision in the other official language?
In addition to that, we have augmented the degree of transparency by encouraging the commissioner for federal judicial affairs to disclose those portions of the questionnaire that touch on bilingualism and official languages capacity.
The action plan proposes measures to the federal judicial advisory committee and to the commissioner for federal judicial affairs which they should adopt to improve the information gathered in candidates' questionnaires, strengthen the assessment of candidates' second language skills, and gather more information on language skills.
The second strategy introduced by the action plan concerns the commissioner for federal judicial affairs. The commissioner will continue to play his primary role, which is to support the federal judicial advisory committees, in addition to managing the nomination process on behalf of the Minister of Justice.
As for the action plan, the commissioner for federal judicial affairs will have the mandate of carrying out language assessments, or of conducting random assessments of candidates.
The commissioner will also make recommendations to the Minister of Justice concerning an objective linguistic assessment tool, also for the purpose of strengthening the nomination process.
Third, the commissioner will examine the current language training program for judges, including the improvement of the practical component based on linguistic competency in hearings.
Fourth, with a view to further implementing the measures set out in the action plan, the minister has asked the commissioner to make training and information on the linguistic rights of litigants available to her judicial advisory committees.
Fifth, the minister has likewise requested the Canadian Judicial Council to develop training for judges on the linguistic rights of litigants, to be delivered through the National Judicial Institute.
The sixth strategy calls for the Department of Justice to work with all jurisdictions, as well as the courts, to develop the means for assessing existing bilingual capacity of superior courts. Here, the government believes that the chief justices remain best placed to inform the minister of the needs of their courts, and it is for this reason that she engages in a constructive dialogue with them and her provincial counterparts.
And finally, seventh, the government also commits to consulting the provinces and territories in order to better identify and understand their needs and co-operate with them.
This initiative will also require co-operation with NGOs, that will share with us the challenges faced by litigants from official language minority communities who require equal access to the judicial system.
Together with our government's previous efforts to enhance the bilingual capacity of the superior courts, we believe these seven components of the action plan are working and, Mr. Chair, the results are telling.
The most recent statistics from the commissioner for federal judicial affairs reveal that between October 2016 and 2017, 997 applications for superior court were submitted. From that number, 300 candidates possessed all four official language skills, according to their questionnaires. More importantly, 24 of the 74 judges appointed indicated that they possessed all four abilities, meaning that fully one third of all new superior court appointments in the last year are bilingual. The results are considerably stronger in bilingual priority jurisdictions such as northeastern Ontario—71%—and Montreal, where 100% of all the appointments in the last year were bilingual.
Also, Mr. Chair, look at the new chief justice of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, Justice Mary Moreau, who was involved in numerous landmark cases involving language rights prior to her appointment to the bench and has since contributed to a bench publication on the language rights of the accused.
As you can see, much has been accomplished. More is required. With this committee's help and thoughtful deliberation, we will get there.
In conclusion, the action plan proposes important new measures for gathering information, training, and co-operation among many stakeholders. We are happy about the fact that this plan corresponds also to many recommendations made in the 2013 study of the federal Commissioner of Official Languages, conducted in partnership with his Ontario and New Brunswick counterparts.
We look forward to reading your report, and we appreciate the diligent study you are undertaking. I look forward to your questions.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.