This fall, the Ministry of the Attorney General of Ontario published a report entitled Enhancing Access to Justice in French: A Response to the Access to Justice in French Report (“2015 report”). The 2015 report is the response to the findings and recommendations presented in the 2012 report entitled Access to Justice in French (“2012 report”). The 2015 report examines the progress made since the publication of the 2012 report and suggests various other measures to continue improving access to justice in French. Since this is an extremely important subject, I plan to study it in detail and publish a series of blog posts over the next few months.
This blog post deals with the measures taken by the Attorney General of Ontario to implement the recommendations arising from the 2012 report’s first conclusion. Here is that first conclusion:
“Without an active offer of French-language services in the courts of Ontario, and a clear service objective, French speakers may not be able to access equal French language services and feel truly comfortable in a system designed for English speakers.”
As a result, the 2012 report recommended that the Attorney General of Ontario (1) adopt a clear and coherent service objective for the delivery of French-language services in Ontario’s legal system, and (2) renew its commitment to delivering French-language services based on the concept of active offer.
In short, the service objective must ensure that French-language services are equivalent in quality to English-language services, and that access to those services does not involve delays or additional costs. Similarly, French-language services and the choice to proceed in French must be offered actively from the outset and for the duration of every proceeding. In general, the term “active offer” means that when a person approaches a court’s service counter (or any other part of the court system) to inquire about the procedures for initiating legal action or to submit a document or simply to request information, the clerk greets him or her as follows: “Bonjour, puis-je vous aider?” [Hello, can I help you?]. In addition, the employee must actually be able to assist the person in French; in other words, he or she must be sufficiently fluent in French. “Active offer” includes the obligation to put up posters, signs, notices and so on indicating that French-language services are available and encouraging people to use them.
According to the 2015 report, the Attorney General of Ontario has taken some measures to address the two recommendations of the 2012 report described above.
The 2015 report indicates that the Ministry of the Attorney General has prepared a draft document on the establishment of clear and coherent service standards for the delivery of French-language services. According to the report, those standards promote active offer and contain a clear description of the services to be provided and a pledge concerning the quality of service to be expected. In addition, the standards indicate that the results will be measured each year in terms of performance objectives, and they contain clearly defined complaint and redress mechanisms. The Attorney General must now finalize, approve, adopt and promote the standards to ensure that they produce the desired results. I endorse this initiative, which, as noted in the 2015 report, addresses the 2012 report’s recommendation. I also support the recommendation in the 2015 report suggesting that the performance objectives in the standards of the Ministry of the Attorney General should not be fixed and permanent, but should be able to be adjusted to address the needs of Franco-Ontarians, which would make it possible to effect the necessary improvements in the court system as required and on a timely basis.
I am nevertheless concerned about the initiatives regarding the active offer objective. Of course, I have no objections to the measures taken by the Attorney General and the Ontario government, as described in the 2015 report, to raise awareness in the public service and promote the concept of active offer. I applaud the development of online modules designed to educate public service employees about French-language services. I am also pleased that there are plans to introduce active offer training programs with funding from the Canada-Ontario Agreement. Moreover, as mentioned in the 2015 report, Regulation 284/11 introduced the concept of active offer into Ontario’s regulatory framework, requiring third parties that provide services on behalf of the Ontario government to implement the concept of active offer.
Despite this legal obligation and the measures taken to this point, there remain some weaknesses in the delivery of French-language services. Active offer of service in French is not taken into account in everyday situations such as voice-mail announcements. For example, the announcement on the voice-mail system of the Toronto Estates Office is currently in English only.
While I applaud the standards proposed by the Ministry of the Attorney General and I support their being finalized, approved, adopted and promoted as soon as possible, I still maintain, as noted in my last annual report, that voluntary standards may not produce the same results as a compulsory directive. The service standards proposed by the Attorney General, combined with a specific compulsory directive on active offer, could help achieve the objectives for improving access to justice in French. With this twofold approach, we would finally hear the following message in French after the tone: “Bonjour, vous avez joint la boîte vocale de ….”