The paycheque of former federal justice minister Vic Toews, who is now a judge in Manitoba, has been garnisheed in a dispute over back rent in which he says he did not understand a Quebec tribunal's order to pay the money because it was written in French.
In a ruling last week, the Quebec rental board said that as an experienced legal mind, Justice Toews should have paid attention when he received a judicial document titled "DÉCISION."
Justice Toews lived on the Quebec side of the Ottawa area while he was in federal politics.
He quit politics in the summer of 2013 and was appointed to the Court of Queen's Bench of Manitoba, his home province, the next spring. His landlord obtained an order from the Quebec Rental Board for payment of $3,900 plus interest that went unpaid for more than a year.
Money started being deducted from Justice Toews' $288,100 a year salary in January after he did not respond to a letter from a collection agency he received in December.
In a bid to have the order quashed, he told the tribunal that he did not understand the judicial document that was attached with the mailing from the collection agency because it was in French only, and that he had not known of the order before that.
In rejecting the bid, Judge Pierre Gagnon of Quebec's Rental Board criticized Justice Toews for showing a lack of respect for a tribunal order.
"More than anyone, he is able to understand the respect and attention that should be attributed to a document with the heading 'DÉCISION,'" Judge Gagnon wrote last week, with evident sarcasm, in a ruling affirming the earlier order. In his ruling, Judge Gagnon referred to the cabinet posts Justice Toews had held, including that of justice minister. He also said the law makes it clear that a problem with language is no excuse for failing to respond to a tribunal's judgment.
A spokesperson for the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench said that Justice Toews is not in a position to answer questions on this matter.
Justice Toews's appointment to the court was controversial, not only because he had so recently been in cabinet, but because he was an outspoken critic of the judiciary.
Justice Toews's former landlord alleged at the rental board that he left with his belongings without paying the rent for September, October and November, 2013. Justice Toews had rented a flat from Immeubles Desmarais in Gatineau, Que., across the river from Ottawa.
Debra Parkes, a law professor at the University of Manitoba, said that "if there was evidence that a sitting judge had with knowledge disregarded a court order, that would be inconsistent with their judicial role as upholders of the law."
The imbroglio could affect Justice Toews's chance of a promotion to the province's top court, the Court of Appeal, which some observers expect. Such a promotion would be a political decision from the federal government.
Alice Woolley, who teaches law at the University of Calgary, said she does not think the rental dispute would hurt his chances. "While his conduct does not reflect the kind of respect for the rule of law that we would hope a lawyer or judge would have, it is not a criminal matter or one involving moral turpitude (e.g., fraud)," she said in an e-mail.
The dispute could also be grounds for a complaint to the Canadian Judicial Council. "We expect the highest standards of conduct from our judges," the body of chief and associate chief judges says on its website.
Prof. Woolley said such a complaint would not get far.
"The Canadian Judicial Council proceeds only in a narrow range of cases, and I think would be reluctant to pursue a case where the conduct was outside of his judicial office and which did not involve criminal conduct or its equivalent."
Justice Toews is no stranger to controversy. In 2012, when he was still in politics, he obtained a court order that revealed the name of a person working for an opposition party who had searched a public registry for information in his divorce file. (Someone had posted the information on the Internet.)
In 2005, a year before he became justice minister, he pleaded guilty to violating Manitoba's campaign spending law in 1999 during a provincial election, when he was the province's Attorney-General.