As he left the stage, shortly after a news conference involving the provincial government and the judiciary, B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman couldn’t help but chuckle when the two sides were characterized as one big happy family.
The province and judiciary have been locked in a very public disagreement in recent weeks. In February, the province unveiled an initiative to “modernize” the justice system. The system has made headlines of late because of lengthy trial delays and numerous stays of charges.
Last month, Chief Justice Bauman was one of three top judges who took aim at the review and issued a statement asserting the judicial branch must remain independent of policies that “could control or manipulate proceedings.” The judges also appeared to take issue with the Finance Minister’s budget-day suggestion that those behind the bench were using independence as a shield against scrutiny.
The point of contention between the two parties is who controls court scheduling – an aspect the Supreme Court of Canada has said is necessary for the judiciary to maintain separation from government.
But during Tuesday’s event at the Justice Institute of B.C., the first news conference Chief Justice Bauman and Attorney-General Shirley Bond have been at together since the review was announced, both sides did their best to affirm there’s no feud.
“I would simply say that we’re endeavouring to ensure that the process which should go forward is respectful of basic constitutional principles,” Chief Justice Bauman said in an interview.
He said he’s confident the review can be conducted without undermining judicial independence.
The parties were at the Justice Institute, the public safety education facility, to launch a new training program for court staff. The province has committed $240,000 to provide training for approximately 700 new and existing employees.
When asked by a reporter after the news conference if the parties on stage were one big happy family, Chief Justice Bauman laughed and said, “With initiatives like this, absolutely.”
When it unveiled plans for the justice-system review – chaired by lawyer Geoffrey Cowper, who must file his report to government by July – the province also released a green paper highlighting 10 challenges facing the courts. One of the challenges was scheduling, while others included the charge assessment process and case management.
The green paper said scheduling of trials and appearances is uncertain and creates delays and additional costs. It said in most courthouses an appearance can be rescheduled only in a courtroom before a judge, and proposed developing a new model.
The judges’ statement – signed by Chief Justice Bauman, as well as Court of Appeal Chief Justice Lance Finch and Provincial Court Judge Thomas Crabtree – listed scheduling, assignment of judges and direction over court staff as aspects critical to administrative independence.
“I think the major point of discussion has been about the independence of the judiciary to make scheduling decisions,” Ms. Bond said Tuesday. “The decision as to how courtrooms are scheduled across the province belongs to the chief judge, [and]the chief justice. Those are the kinds of things we want to have constructive discussion about.”
Ms. Bond would not disclose what alternatives the province was considering.
When asked if it was even possible for the province to introduce a new approach without trampling on the independence of judges, given the Supreme Court of Canada’s stand, Ms. Bond did not directly answer the question. She reiterated she will not threaten the independence of the judiciary and said it’s in the best interests of all British Columbians to make the court system as efficient as possible.
When asked if the news conference was an awkward one, given the disagreement, Ms. Bond said no. She said she has no difficulty having important and constructive debate.