Mr. Speaker, I stand today to address the act to amend our Judges Act, proposed by the hon. Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada.
From the outset, I would certainly put on the record that our party supports efforts to appoint additional judges to deal with the increasing backlog in our superior court system. As we have heard many times today, justice delayed is justice denied, and we see examples of this all too frequently.
When there is a backlog, judges' schedules are overcrowded and they also suffer from the stress of the overcrowding, as do their staffs. It is not only the litigants to the process who are concerned and are impacted, but the judges themselves, and all that that means. Sometimes certain judges may become ill as a result, and that only compounds the necessity of increasing the number of appointments.
This bill, however, does nothing to address our party's concerns about the Conservative government's attack on judicial independence. This is so important and at the same time, the Conservative government, I respectfully suggest, has stacked the Judicial Advisory Committee to ensure that the justice minister's chosen representatives have a majority voice on every provincial judiciary advisory board.
This partisan tone certainly will not fare well in the future and I think we need independent individuals who are not swayed by a certain political ideology in order to improve and preserve the independence of our judiciary.
Actually, this is the same government that went out of its way to make a large number of patronage appointments to Canada's judiciary, including the Prime Minister's own former campaign manager in New Brunswick, the former president of the Conservative Party in Quebec, and the party's former chief money-raiser in Alberta.
There was much to-do in the previous Parliament about partisanship and when the members opposite were in opposition, they were vehement in their opposition with such suggestions of partisanship. What happens when they get in the government? They ignore that.
I would also point out that even the chief justices of the Supreme Court, like Beverley McLachlin, have also had a reason to criticize the government for its attacks on judicial independence.
The Conservative government claims that this legislation is being introduced to help alleviate the backlog in the provincial superior court system and to help provide justices to the independent tribunals which are being set up to adjudicate first nations specific land claims. Certainly, this has not been addressed for a considerable period of time, and we need additional judges to deal with some of these land claims that have existed for too long. It is important to move forward with additional judges to help get these out of the way.
The bill amends paragraph 24(3)(b) of the Judges Act to create the authority to appoint 20 new judges to the provincial and territorial superior trial courts. In particular, the superior courts in Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Nunavut are experiencing serious and growing backlogs and delays. Nunavut, in particular, faces severe challenges in providing access to justice for its aboriginal communities. Certainly, we look forward to more aboriginal judges too in our territories.
The remaining provinces are experiencing significant strains, particularly in the family court branches of the courts, as a result of population growth. As of January of this year, there were currently 31 judicial vacancies that the Minister of Justice is responsible for filling, so if we add that 31 with the additional 20, we still have a significant backlog in judicial vacancies. There are also 10 vacancies in the provincial Court of Appeal and the provincial Supreme Court.
The specific claims tribunal, which I mentioned briefly, will have the authority to make binding decisions where specific claims brought forward by first nations are rejected for negotiation, or where negotiations failed. Based on the federal government's analysis of the specific claims workload, it has been estimated that the new tribunal will require the equivalent of six full time judges to manage approximately 40 claims per year. These claims are dispersed across the country, some in my area of Ontario, with the greatest number arising in British Columbia, and some of the most complex cases originate in Ontario and Quebec.
It is anticipated that six new judges will be appointed to the superior court of these provinces in proportion to their respective share of the specific claims caseload. It is intended that this infusion of new judicial resources will allow a number of the superior courts to free up their experienced judges, so that they may be appointed to a specific claims tribunal roster.
The roster will consist of up to 18 judges who will be appointed as tribunal members by the governor in council on the recommendation of the Minister of Justice. These judges would be assigned, likely on a part-time basis to specific matters by the tribunal chairs in consultation with the chief justice of the affected court.
To support these additional requests for judges, the provincial and territorial courts have provided the federal government with detailed proposals containing statistical data and information on relevant geographical and cultural factors that impact judicial resource needs.
They have made their case and it is time to proceed with this legislation with all due dispatch. As I indicated, the government and courts of the jurisdictions provided statistical data and information with respect to the average sitting hours or days per judge, evidence of trends in case volumes, backlogs and delays, and information on relevant geographical and cultural factors that impact judicial resource needs.
There is a perception that perhaps the judiciary is a position that people would aspire to because of perhaps an easy workload. I suggest this is very wrong. Our judiciary is very diligent and it works very hard, has long hours and certainly is most deserving of the compensation it receives.
There is currently no authority under the Judges Act to appoint new judges to any of the provincial superior trial courts and this amendment would provide the government with that flexibility, to respond to objectively substantiated requests for new provincial superior trial court judges at present. It would also address the new demands of the specific claims tribunal.
I suppose my only complaint is that we should have moved forward on these some time ago, months ago, perhaps as soon as the new government took office. In the previous Parliament similar legislation was before the House and when the House fell of course, because of the intervening election call, the legislation died. It could have been immediately introduced and it could have in fact been law today.
We have been well aware of the backlog and the government should certainly have moved forward much sooner to respond to it. The delay has not only exacerbated the situation of backlogs, but also it has exacerbated the conflicting situations of the trials and the litigants who are in the system waiting for their day in court.
In moving forward with the appointments, I urge the government to be aware of the need for francophone judges who are fluently bilingual. This would be especially important in my region of Niagara, in Ontario and certainly in my constituency of Welland.
The appointments process will no doubt come under scrutiny and perhaps the partisan flavour of appointments may become a concern once again. In the previous Parliament, and at the urging of the members opposite who were then in opposition, the appointments process was certainly reviewed and alternative suggestions were made. In fact, there was a review of the proposed applicants. This was done to advance the idea that capable, qualified applicants be considered for these positions.
Heretofore, the vast majority of our judicial appointments have been excellent with men and women, I would say, of the highest quality. In fact, Canada is known throughout the world for the quality and expertise of its judiciary and we hope this phenomenon, this policy and practice will continue.
I did question the inclusion of police officers in the evaluation of applicants when the Conservatives introduced some new changes. It certainly feeds into their law and order agenda, but it takes away from the independence and impartiality of the selection board. I would encourage my friends opposite to revisit that situation. Certainly, judicial appointments should be independent of any type of influence and made objectively of the highest quality individuals.
Soon we will also have to deal with the question of compensation for our judges. I respect it is just as important that they be well compensated and earn good salaries for the very serious work they do, the long hours they put in and the importance of making impartial judgments. It is a difficult task and they should be compensated for the hours that they put in.
That is about the end of my comments on the Judges Act. I would hope that we move forward on this legislation and pass it. It is important and necessary, and it is needed now. I would hope that there would be all party support for this; I would see no reason why there would not be. I certainly will be standing in favour of this bill.