Ottawa Citizen

Identify judges in complaints: watchdog
'People have a right to know what is going on within the judiciary'

David Stonehouse
The Ottawa Citizen

Monday, September 15, 2003 page A6


The names of judges facing complaints of misconduct should be made public, a newly formed judicial watchdog says.

The Canadian Justice Review Board, a coalition of citizens headed by a legal scholar, says Canadians have a right to know if judges are doing a poor job.

"The judges are paid out of the public purse and they are performing a public function in a public place. Given those things, people have a right to know what is going on within the judiciary," says Robert Martin, chairman of the group and a law professor at the University of Western Ontario.

"One thing that we think is important is to let judges and other people in the judicial system know that they are being looked at and scrutinized," says Mr. Martin, who adds the group will also be pressing to have judicial organizations and the Supreme Court of Canada subjected to the Access to Information Act. The act allows people to request documents from a federal organization for a fee, subject to some exemptions.

"In a democracy, citizens should be able to find out what is happening in major institutions of the state. And many of the important institutions of the justice system are shielded from public disclosure and public view," says Mr. Martin, a frequent critic of the courts. "That's our concern with the Canadian Judicial Council."

The group is pressing the Canadian Judicial Council to release the name of judges who face misconduct complaints.

In a recent letter to the council, it asks for the names of all the judges named in the nearly 1,700 complaints the council has received from the public between 1992 and 2002.

But the council, which is comprised by the country's top judges and mandated to investigate complaints of misconduct by judges, says its policy is to keep names private.

Jeannie Thomas, executive director of the Ottawa-based council, says it will only make public statements about complaints after the person who lodges the complaint has made it public.

"We do not, ourselves, issue information about the names of complainants or judges when people write to us and complain about things," Ms. Thomas says.

She declined to debate the policy.

The council is already under pressure from judges over its handling of complaints. A year ago, irate judges demanded to know why the council would rebuke a judge in the middle of an important trial.

That judge, Quebec Superior Court Justice Jean-Guy Boilard, stepped down in the middle of a high-profile Hells Angels trial after getting a written reprimand from the council for insulting remarks he made during a different trial.

He contended the reprimand had taken away his "moral authority" to continue with the biker trial and withdrew, forcing a retrial. His actions prompted another complaint to the council, this time from Quebec's attorney-general. Last month, the council ruled the judge had been wrong to quit in the middle of the case, but it should not cost him his job.

Other judges were upset with the council for its first reprimand landing in the middle of an important trial, arguing such disapproval can be a real blow to a judge.

The Canadian Superior Court Judges' Association proposed that future reprimands not be included in findings reported back to those who complain about misconduct, so the details don't end up being made public and embarrass judges.

And last fall, Ottawa lawyer Richard Dearden told a legal conference packed with judges from across Canada that they should consider suing for libel as a protection against the rising numbers of politically-motivated complaints against them and from attacks from special interest groups.

According to its Web site, the Canadian Justice Review Board's board of directors includes Belleville lawyer and legal issues writer Karen Selick, REAL Women of Canada national vice-president C. Gwendolyn Landolt and University of Calgary professors Frederick Morton and Rainer Knopff.

Copyright 2003 The Ottawa Citizen