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Doug Ford government changing system for appointing judges

The Doug Ford government is changing the rules that control how provincial court judges get appointed, a move expected to bring controversy within legal circles.

Attorney General will get longer list of judicial candidates to choose from, raising concerns of partisanship

The provincial government appoints judges to the Ontario Court of Justice, which handles the vast majority of criminal charges laid in the province and a broad range of family court cases. (Tom Addison/CBC)

Premier Doug Ford's government is changing the rules that control how it appoints judges. 

The changes will give cabinet a longer list of potential judges to choose from. The government also gets more say over who sits on Ontario's arms-length judicial appointments advisory committee, which interviews candidates and makes recommendations to cabinet.

The changes will allow the government to fill judicial vacancies more quickly, helping to unclog Ontario's courtrooms, said Attorney General Doug Downey in an interview Thursday. 

Currently, a judicial appointments advisory committee can recommend just two candidates for each vacancy on the bench. The Ford government's changes will increase that minimum number to six.  

Asked what prevents him from picking only politically-connected lawyers from that list, Downey pointed to the committee, calling it "the important part of the integrity of the system" for appointing judges. 

Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey says the changes will allow the government to fill judicial vacancies more quickly, helping to unclog provincial courtrooms. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"This is the best system in Canada because we have an independent committee that does the recruitment, does the reviews, does the recommendations," said Downey. "The independence of that committee, that's the safeguard that we have in place."

The reforms give the government more power over the makeup of that committee. 

Currently, three of the committee's members are appointed by the Law Society of Ontario, the Ontario Bar Association and the Federation of Ontario Law Associations. The change will give the attorney general the power to appoint those members based on the recommendations by the three lawyer organizations. 

Patronage appointments have been a source of significant controversy for the Ford government, which came to power in part on a promise to be "a government that works for the people, not Liberal insiders." 

Among the government's patronage appointments: 

  • Ford's friend Ron Taverner to be commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, which Taverner eventually turned down.
  • Two people with close connections to Ford's former chief of staff Dean French to $165,000-a-year posts as Ontario's foreign trade representatives.
  • defeated Progressive Conservative election candidate to be chair of the Education Quality and Accountability Office, on an annual salary of $140,000.
  • Rueben Devlin, a veteran hospital CEO and former president of the Ontario PC Party was named Ford's special adviser on health care, a position that did not previously exist, at an annual rate of $348,000.

The provincial government appoints judges to the Ontario Court of Justice, which handles the vast majority of criminal charges laid in the province and a broad range of family court cases. The federal government appoints judges to Ontario's Superior Court of Justice and the Ontario Court of Appeal. 

Fixing something that's not broken

Scott Maidment, president of The Advocates' Society — a non-profit association of judges and lawyers — told CBC News on Thursday they are concerned that the government has been spending a lot of time in an effort to fix something that is not broken.

Maidment said the government is doing this while there are pressing problems that create limits on access to justice for Ontarians.

"There are a lot of pressing problems in the justice system in Ontario and as far as we are concerned the appointment process for Ontario Court of Justice is not one of those problems," Maidment said.

"We have a pressing problem in legal aid; we have large and increasing numbers of people appearing self-represented before the courts; we have challenges in getting proper funding for the administration of justice in the superior court, which is the responsibility of the provincial government."

In November, when Downey first floated possible changes to the system for appointing judges, the opposition New Democrats and some justice advocates raised concerns about potentially politicizing the process. 

Downey said he consulted broadly with justice stakeholders before announcing Thursday's changes. "I have confidence that they will have confidence in the system," he said. 

"Why fix something that's not broken?" NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Thursday to reporters at Queen's Park. 

"If this is a way for the government to have more nepotism, to have more of their friends appointed to positions like the bench, that's frightening."

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