Justice Canada quietly seeks input on how federal judges are disciplined

The federal government may change how judges are disciplined in Canada, and it wants the public's ideas. But act quickly: a consultation process announced quietly in June with a single tweet ends Wednesday.

Federal government considers changes to Canadian Judicial Council amid high-profile cases in Quebec, Alberta

The 'Truth' statue graces the entrance of the judicial precinct in Ottawa, as the Peace Tower is seen in the background. Federal Court justice Robin B. Camp will face a judicial council review for questionable comments he made during a 2014 Alberta case. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The federal government may change how judges are disciplined in Canada, and it wants the public's ideas.

But act quickly: a consultation process announced quietly in June with a single tweet ends on Wednesday.

Justice Canada wants input on — among other things — how judges should be punished, whether taxpayers should foot the bill for their appeals, and how to speed up what is often a long, clunky discipline process.

"It's cumbersome, it's unprofessional, it's out of step with how modern professional regulation tends to look, and it doesn't involved the public in any meaningful way," said Alice Woolley, who teaches law and is president of the Canadian Association for Legal Ethics (CALE), which has responded to the government's call for input.

Complaints about judges' conduct are made to the Canadian Judicial Council (CJC), which investigates, holds hearings and makes recommendations to the minister of justice about whether judges should be removed from the bench.

Next week it begins a public hearing into the conduct of Federal Court Justice Robin Camp, who apologized after making insensitive and inappropriate comments about a sexual assault victim in 2014 when he was a provincial court judge in Alberta.

A disciplinary hearing for federal court justice Robin Camp, over his handling of a 2014 sexual assault case when he was an Alberta Provincial Court judge, gets underway next week. (Andrew Balfour/Federal Court of Canada)

Camp's case has progressed quickly compared to other high-profile cases over recent years.

By contrast, the first request to review the conduct of Quebec Superior Court Justice Michel Girouard — who is accused of buying cocaine before being appointed to the bench — was made in 2010, yet his case is ongoing.

The Canadian Judicial Council was asked by the federal and Quebec justice ministers to reopen its investigation of Justice Michel Girouard, who was accused of buying cocaine two weeks before his nomination as a judge, after the council ruled he could return to his position on Quebec's Superior Court. (Radio-Canada)

Earlier this year the Canadian Judicial Council decided Girouard could go back to work.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and her Quebec counterpart asked the CJC to reopen the case.

Public consultations close Wednesday

Justice Canada announced its public consultation at the end of June and has asked questions about what role the public should play in investigating judges' conduct, whether there should be deadlines for different steps of the review process and how to be more transparent at the time of a public hearing. It has also asked for suggestions on how to streamline the entire process.

Yet the only way Justice Canada notified the public was through a single tweet linking to its public consultations website at 4 p.m. on June 30, which, Woolley pointed out, was the Friday before a long weekend. The consultation period ends Aug. 31.

"I think it is very inadequate and I'm concerned about that, but I do think starting the conversation about reforming is really a good thing and important," she told CBC News.

In its submission, CALE recommends members of the public be involved in all steps in the judicial discipline process, judges pay to appeal any decisions and that the CJC expand the range of sanctions for misconduct.

"CALE believes that the lack of intermediate sanctions has led to an all-or-nothing approach where disciplinary sanction has not been available for findings of misconduct which are thought to fall short of justifying removal," reads the submission.

The group recommends Justice Canada give the CJC latitude to order suspensions, apologies, counseling and education, as well as to issue warnings and reprimands.

A spokesman for Justice Canada said the department also wrote directly to representatives of the judiciary, the Canadian Bar Association, the Federation of Canadian Law Societies, the Council of Canadian Law Deans, as well as the provinces and territories and to individuals who had been involved in past inquiries.

Andrew Gowing said in addition to CALE, the department has heard from the CJC and the Canadian Superior Court Judges' Association as well as some provinces and six members of the public, and expects to hear from the other organizations and provinces shortly.