Slow judge hitting deadlines — barely

A New Brunswick Court of Queen's Bench trial judge who was criticized for taking too long to issue judgements has been meeting time limits — but just barely.

Justice Paulette Garnett's last decision handed down took 5 months and 30 days, just under a 6 month deadline

Justice Paulette Garnett has been meeting deadlines, but doing so with a photo finish. (CBC)

A New Brunswick Court of Queen's Bench trial judge who was criticized three years ago for taking too long to issue judgements has been meeting time limits she originally agreed to — but records show, just barely.

Earlier this month Justice Paulette Garnett released a decision in the case of fired civil servant and Progressive Conservative partisan, Stephen Smith, finally clearing the way for the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission to investigate his claim of political discrimination.  

But Smith had to wait five months and 30 days for that decision after Garnett heard the matter in a single day last December. That decision just beat a six-month deadline she agreed to abide by following an intervention by the Canadian Judicial Council in 2014 over her long running tardiness. 

"The judge has acknowledged she needs to do better in the future," the council wrote in a press release following a review of Garnett's slow decision making at the time.  

"She is working to ensure that this situation does not happen again." 

Stephen Smith's Human Rights complaint against the New Brunswick government ended up in Justice Paulette Garnett's courtroom last December. She took 181 days to decide the complaint could proceed. (CBC)

According to the council, judges are expected to issue decisions in cases, "as soon as reasonably possible" with six months following the end of a hearing established as the longest a judge should take unless a case is unusually complex, workload is excessive or a judge suffers an unexpected illness.

But Sebastien Grammond, a University of Ottawa constitutional law professor, says that a six month period is set well beyond what is required in most cases.

"Six months is kind of an upper limit for normal cases," said Grammond.

"Usually judges render decisions much quicker than that."

But records show Garnett has been making full use of the six month limit since her brush with discipline, managing to retain her status as New Brunswick's slowest judicial decision maker despite adhering to the agreement she made to increase the pace of her work.

According to judgements compiled by the Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLii) there have been more than 270 major and minor decisions issued by New Brunswick Court of Queen's Bench trial judges in the last two years.  In just 14 of those cases, have rulings taken longer than 175 days to produce. However, seven of those rulings have come from Garnett alone, even though she issued only 11 judgements during that period.

N.B. judgements delivered 175 days or more after a hearing since June 2015
JusticeNumber
Paulette Garnett7
Michel Robichaud2
Judy Clendenning1
Darrell Stephenson1
William Grant1
Larry Landry1
Fred Ferguson1
20 others0

One of those drawn out cases involved Darryl Demerchant, who has been fighting the property tax bill on his Fredericton office building since 2009.   

The case ended in front of Garnett last October, who eventually ruled against Demerchant in April, 178 days after his one-day hearing.

But Demerchant said he barely noticed how long Garnett took after being stuck inside the slow-motion appeal procedures operated by Service New Brunswick and the Assessment and Planning Appeal Board for seven years before reaching her courtroom.

He laughs heartily while talking about it.

"What else can you do?" said Demerchant from his home on Monday.

"It's good for the lawyers."

No response from judicial council

A property tax dispute involving this Fredericton office building landed in Justice Paulette Garnett's courtroom last fall. She took 178 days to decide the taxes were reasonable. (CBC)

In Garnett's case, the judicial council made the point that it preferred judgements to be issued as quickly as possible but it did not immediately respond this week to a question about whether consistently running up against — but not crossing — the six month deadline was acceptable.

"Undue delays in rendering decisions can lessen public confidence in our justice system," the council wrote in its original release concerning Garnett.

But although still consistently the slowest judge in New Brunswick to issue decisions, Garnett is also much faster than she used to be.  

According to CanLii in 2013 Garnett issued a judgement related to the cancellation of women's hockey at UNB more than 600 days following a one day hearing on the matter. In 2007 she took nearly 800 days to issue a ruling on a dispute involving Elm City Chrysler 

About the Author

Robert Jones

Reporter

Robert Jones has been a reporter and producer with CBC New Brunswick since 1990. His investigative reports on petroleum pricing in New Brunswick won several regional and national awards and led to the adoption of price regulation in 2006.

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