When Canadian judges are assigned to cases that deal with areas of the law they are not familiar with, they have an ethical obligation to educate themselves before a trial begins, interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose says.
While such training is not required at the federal or provincial level, Ms. Ambrose said judges should be pro-active.
"I think it's shocking to Canadians that you can … preside over a case where you have no experience in the law," she told The Globe and Mail.
"If you're an oil-and-gas lawyer and you've been given a case to handle that's on sexual assault, you have time to prepare. So why didn't you go get training? Why didn't you? It's not hard," Ms. Ambrose said, referring to Justice Robin Camp, who on Thursday resigned from the federal bench after a judicial disciplinary body recommended his removal.
Justice Camp ignited a national debate about the training judges receive after it was revealed he asked a complainant in a rape trial why she did not keep her knees together. After he was called before a committee of the Canadian Judicial Council, Justice Camp, who was educated in South Africa and whose career as a lawyer centred on contract, bankruptcy and trust law as well as oil-and-gas litigation, confessed that "my knowledge of Canadian law was very minimal. It was non-existent."
Ms. Ambrose has introduced a private member's bill aimed at improving judicial training and transparency in sex-assault cases. On Wednesday, the House of Commons unanimously agreed to fast-track Bill C-337 to the committee level.
The proposed legislation would require lawyers who want to become judges to complete specialized sex-assault law training, and direct the Canadian Judicial Council to report every year to Parliament on continuing education courses it offers on the subject, as well as the number of cases heard by judges who have never attended such seminars. Finally, the bill would mandate that judges produce written decisions rather than oral verdicts.
Ms. Ambrose said she considered including an amendment that would require all federal judges to have sex-assault training, but constitutional scholars warned it could be seen as judicial interference and derail the legislation's passage.
"The second part of the bill is trying to find a way to hold sitting judges accountable, which is more difficult. You're not even allowed to ask them if they've taken the training," she said. "It's about as close as we can get to asking who's taking the training and what kind of training."
Norman Sabourin, the executive director of the Canadian Judicial Council, which recommended Justice Camp's removal, said the organization has not yet had time to "fully consider" Ms. Ambrose's bill.
"It seems like there are good ideas there. It seems like it's certainly very well intentioned," he said.
Mr. Sabourin noted that new federal judges already receive some training in sex-assault law at "new judges school," a multiweek course run jointly by the Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice and the National Judicial Institute. After that, judges are required to dedicate 10 to 15 days a year to professional development, depending on their seniority. The subject matter of that training is up to the judge, their mentor or the chief justice.
Mr. Sabourin said the council is looking into the idea of mandatory education for sitting judges, "but no body is saying we must have mandatory education in sexual-assault cases and nothing else. … We would like a comprehensive approach [including other] shortcomings."
For the leader of the Official Opposition, recent high-profile cases – the latest of which involves a Nova Scotia judge who acquitted a Halifax taxi driver of sexually assaulting a woman who police found unconscious, partly clothed and having urinated on herself in the back of his cab – illustrate the need for a focus on sex-assault cases.
Ms. Ambrose, who volunteered at a rape-crisis centre during university, said she began working on the bill as soon as she was named interim Leader in November, 2015. With her first opportunity to do a private members bill after a decade as a minister in the Harper government, Ms. Ambrose said she knew she wanted to tackle reform of sex-assault law. Initially, she thought she would be looking at amending the criminal code or increasing penalties for offenders.
"[But] the more I researched and the more academics and advocates I talked to … I realized the law is good. It's not the law. It's the interpretation of the law," she said.
Ms. Ambrose said she had no idea judges were not taking the available training.
" I thought, well, this is such a gap, it's such a small gap we can close it and it's actually doable. I know its just one step. And it's a baby step in some ways because there's so much more to do. But I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is one thing we can do. We can do it fast. We could really make a difference.'"