New Brunswick

N.B. justice minister slams judge on complaints over budget cuts

Justice Minister T.J. Burke is firing back at Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice David Smith for questioning a series of cuts announced in the Liberal government's March budget.

Justice Minister T.J. Burke is firing back at Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice David Smith for questioning a series of cuts announced in the Liberal government's March budget.

'For him to openly criticize government's approach, I don't think was very fair on his part. And as far as I'm concerned, it was just inappropriate for him to do.'— Justice Minister T.J. Burke

Burke said it wasn't appropriate for Smith to use a Monday speech in Moncton to criticize the provincial government for eliminating the small claims court, reducing funds for legal aid and dismissing 14 family court social workers and mediators.

The judge said those cuts were made without consultation with the court system and Smith wants judges to have a greater role in administering the court system.

Burke said Smith shouldn't be commenting on government policy in front of public audiences.

"For him to openly criticize government's approach, I don't think was very fair on his part. And as far as I'm concerned, it was just inappropriate for him to do," Burke said.

New Brunswick's justice minister is known for his blunt style of talk, but until now that has normally been directed at the opposition Progressive Conservatives in question period.

It is also unusual for a justice minister and a sitting judge to get embroiled in a public disagreement over government policy making.

Burke did not hold back in a CBC News interview on Tuesday on the topic of whether Smith's comments have crossed a line of independence between the executive and judicial branches of government.

Burke said he would be in trouble if he criticized one of Smith's judicial decisions and the same principle applies to Smith's comments about government decisions.

"For a judge of the Court of Queen's Bench to come out and speak so openly against government is really just as much of a breach of the independence between the judiciary and the executive branches as I can ever recall," Burke said.

Smith admitted during his speech that he was concerned about publicly raising his concerns for fear of "appearing to be taking a politically partisan approach."

Judge pushes new court administration model

In Smith's speech, the judge also predicted that "suggestions for structural systemic improvements will not receive an opened-arm welcome from those currently having control."

Smith told the Moncton crowd that right now the province dictates how the courts function. The judge said he'd like to see the province consider adopting the Irish Court Service model, which he believes would give judges more say when reforms are being made to the system by the government.

The Irish Court Service has a board of 17 members, nine of whom hold judicial positions. The board sets policies for court administration and a chief executive officer leads the process. According to Smith, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Norway are also looking to adopt the Irish model.

It wasn't just the fact that Smith used a public forum to lobby for a new way of administering the court system that appears to have irked the province's justice minister.

Burke said the government has already rejected Smith's ideas about the Irish system several times and characterized the possibility of New Brunswick moving in this direction as a "pipe dream."

 "If chief justice Smith thinks it's so great in Ireland, then, then, maybe they need a judge over in Ireland. I don't know," Burke said.

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