Supreme Court judges may have to become fully bilingual if a bill brought before the Senate Tuesday passes into law.
Bill C-232 would require all judges in the highest court of the land to be able to read, speak and understand both French and English without the use of an interpreter.
The bill, supported by Liberal Senator Claudette Tardif, is meant to champion "justice and equality for all citizens in our country," she said in an interview. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Official Languages Act say there should be equal access to both languages.
"Its purpose is to correct an injustice and that Canadians should not only have the right to be heard in the official language of their choice, but should also have the right to be understood."
But critics say placing priority on language rights could block highly qualified candidates from the bench.
"What they should worry about in making Supreme Court of Canada appointments is competency," said retired Supreme Court judge John Major. "The rulings that the court is called on to make with respect to individuals are too important to get sidetracked by linguistic matters."
Mr. Major, who now works at law firm Bennett Jones LLP in Calgary, said language barriers never compromised the cases he dealt with while on the bench from 1992 to 2006. The former judge, who is unilingual, said it's rare that nuances lost in translation play any major role in the outcome of a case. Translators have always done a good job during Supreme Court hearings, he added.
"I used translators. It works in the United Nations, it works in Parliament and it works in the Supreme Court," he said.
But the importance of bilingualism in law has quietly emerged in recent years, Senator Tardif said. There are more and more examples of bilingual court cases in Western provinces, she said. Law students are also studying up on French, anticipating future cases where they might need it.
"It can't be happenstance, you have to make sure there's a guarantee that it will occur and that it's done because it's a reflection of Canada's identity and its history."
Sponsored by New Brunswick NDP MP Yvon Godin, the bill had its third reading in the House last month. It only just made it to the Senate, with 140 votes for, 137 against and 30 no shows.