Asserting that the judicial branch must remain independent of policies that “could control or manipulate proceedings,” British Columbia’s top three judges have delivered a thinly veiled rebuke to the Liberal government’s justice-reform initiative.
Their comments raise questions about what impact the review can have, mere weeks after it was announced.
Last month, Premier Christy Clark and Justice Minister Shirley Bond unveiled the initiative to “modernize” the justice system, which had made headlines of late because of lengthy trial delays.
But in a five-page letter released Thursday, Chief Justice Lance Finch, Chief Justice Robert Bauman, and Chief Judge Thomas Crabtree took aim at the review and shot back at government’s claim that judges are hiding behind a shield of independence.
“The public could not have confidence in the independence and impartiality of the courts if others, outside the judicial branch, could control or manipulate proceedings by interfering in any of these functions,” the letter read. “A judge cannot be independent if the necessary support staff is unavailable, or is subject to the control of and accountable to others.”
On Feb. 21, about two weeks after the review was announced, the Liberal government tabled its budget. Those hoping the province would find a way to toss a financial lifeline to the strained justice system were disappointed, as the budget largely maintained the status quo for the sector.
That day, Finance Minister Kevin Falcon said: “I respect the fact that there’s judicial independence. But you know what? The judges cannot hide behind that shield and say, ‘We have no requirement to try to do things better.’”
In their letter, without naming Mr. Falcon, the judges appeared to take issue with that statement.
“It has been suggested that judges may use independence as a ‘shield’ against scrutiny. This is a mistaken view,” the letter said. It added judges do not act out of self-interest, but “as an obligation they owe to the public who have entrusted them with decision-making power.”
Speaking to reporters in Victoria on Thursday, Ms. Bond said she intends to move ahead with justice-system reform, though she reiterated that she won’t trample on judicial independence.
“We should be able to have constructive dialogue,” she said. “The province isn’t looking at imposing anything on judges in this province but I think it is a responsible approach to talk about some of the things we may want to do.”
Ms. Bond said she had not read the letter, though she previously spoke with each of the three judges.
The review is being chaired by lawyer Geoffrey Cowper, who must submit his report to government by July. The review will examine several areas, including the charge assessment process and court scheduling.
The letter did not directly identify the sticking points between judges and government, though it did mention the importance of administrative independence – meaning courts must be able to decide how to manage the litigation process and the cases judges will hear. The letter went on to state the Supreme Court of Canada has said the courts must be able to dictate the direction of registry and court staff.
Leonard Krog, the opposition NDP’s justice critic, said it’s a sad day when the judiciary feels so under attack that the province’s judges must speak out.
“I don’t think you can exaggerate the dramatic nature of this letter,” he said.
The NDP has said the review doesn’t fix the Liberal government’s chronic underfunding of the justice system, which saw more than 100 cases tossed out of court last year because of excessive delays, while thousands more hang in peril.
Bentley Doyle, spokesman for the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C., said his organization is completely in support of judicial independence.