New Brunswick

Judge restricted until case backlog cleared up

CBC News has learned that a Court of Queen's Bench justice, who has been the subject of complaints by lawyers for working too slowly, has been put on restricted courtroom duty to clear up a backlog of cases she has not ruled on.

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Paulette Garnett ordered to clear up cases

A New Brunswick judge who has been the subject of complaints by lawyers for working too slowly has been put on restricted courtroom duty to clear up a backlog of cases she has heard but not ruled on, CBC News has learned

Court of Queen's Bench Justice Paulette Garnett, who sometimes takes years to decide on single matters in her courtroom, is being steered away from new cases by Chief Justice David Smith and made to deliver judgments instead, some that are already significantly overdue.

David Smith, Chief Justice of the Court of Queen's Bench, has put Justice Paulette Garnett on restricted courtroom duty until she finishes writing a series of decisions. (Court of Queen's Bench)

"Chief Justice Smith is aware of this exceptional situation and has intervened with Madam Justice Garnett," Natalie Leblanc, a court registrar, told CBC News on behalf of Smith.

"Accordingly, the trial docket has been adjusted to allow for a rectification of this issue."

Garnett was appointed to the bench in 1998 and is one of New Brunswick's most senior trial court judges.  She has a reputation for competent but extremely slow decision making.

"It takes some time to get the decisions, but the decisions are fine," said Gordon Black, a Fredericton union leader, who has twice waited more than two years for a decision from Garnett's court.

"It just makes the process stall."

Shannon Wise has been waiting 18 months for Garnett to rule on whether supporters of varsity women's hockey at UNB can fight its cancellation at the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission. She says the delay has hurt attempts to save the program.

"Things like this should be dealt and you would hope would be dealt with in a timely fashion," said Wise.

"I don't know what could be so complicated that she couldn't make a decision."

In Canada, trial court judges are expected to deliver decisions within six months of hearing a case, unless they become ill or the case is so complex it requires more time. 

Justice often exceeds 6-month window for rulings

However, Garnett routinely exceeds that limit and often by a wide margin.

A CBC review of her last 22 decisions issued over the past two years shows only 10, less than half were delivered within the prescribed six-month window and four took more than a year.

The Canadian Judicial Council, which is responsible for investigating and disciplining problem judges, set the six-month target for issuing judgments nearly 30 years ago.

Norman Sabourin, the council's executive director, says prompt decisions are a serious matter

"It's all related to the concept of diligence which is  an important part of the duties of a judge," said Sabourin.

"If decisions are not rendered on a timely basis, those that appear before the court may in time lose confidence in the ability to get their disputes resolved."

Garnett has struggled to issue decisions for several years.

In 2005, she presided over a one-day hearing between Fredericton's old Elm City Chrysler dealership, its owners and their bank to resolve questionable transactions.  She delivered a decision two years and two months later.

Last year, she took so long to decide whether employees of Fredericton's Jones Masonry had properly unionized, Gordon Petrie, the company's lawyer, eventually died and workers who voted for the union all left the company before her ruling.

Garnett's decision approving the union was eventually filed a month after Petrie's funeral and 15 months after the original hearing.

Neither Garnett nor Smith would agree to be interviewed directly about the backlog of cases involved, but LeBlanc says they are being worked on.

"I can confirm that there are outstanding decisions, some beyond the scope of the six-month period, however I am unable to give you a precise number as of today. Madam Justice Garnett continues to work on these decisions and the accuracy of this number is fluid given the work that is being undertaken and the fact that decisions are being filed."

LeBlanc says Garnett has also announced her intention to give up her regular judicial functions in April and work part time or "supernumerary".

"This will allow Madam Justice Garnett more time to address reserve decisions," said LeBlanc.