Good Language Rights Education for the Judiciary Means Better Access to Justice in French

Report on Access to Justice in French

As I indicated previously, the question of access to justice in French is so important to Ontario’s Francophone and Francophile citizens that I consider it essential for everyone to understand the significance and scope of the French Language Services Bench and Bar Advisory Committee’s report entitled Access to Justice in French. I therefore made a commitment to examine this important report’s recommendations one by one in a weekly blog posting.

The French Language Services Bench and Bar Advisory Committee had two mandates, the first of which was to improve the judiciary’s knowledge of language rights in the justice system (I will return to the second mandate in a future posting). The members of the judiciary (people responsible for dispensing justice – judges and justices of the peace, for example) play a critical role in a party’s ability to exercise the right to justice in French.

The Commissioner is in a good position to know, because he sometimes receives complaints from citizens who allege that their French-language court proceeding has been blocked by judicial decisions that occasionally seem to be based on – and I’m treading carefully here – misinformation about language rights.

Such complaints are extremely difficult to resolve, since the Commissioner’s Office, as part of the public service, operates in the executive branch, while the judiciary operates in the judicial branch. These two branches are – and must remain – independent to ensure that justice is delivered free of any interference or unwarranted intervention.

In other words, when a member of judiciary makes a decision regarding a case that is before him or her, including a decision on the language in which the proceeding will be heard, a review of that decision must follow judicial procedure (such as an appeal), and the Commissioner’s Office has little say in that area, despite the good will of justice system stakeholders. Justice must take its course!

Although it had never occurred to me, in my capacity as Commissioner, to question the wisdom of those who have the difficult and noble task of dispensing justice in Ontario, the fact is that no one is infallible. The Advisory Committee recognizes this when it says that at present, the judiciary may not be adequately informed of French language rights, and that for Ontario to be able to provide high-quality services in French, it is essential for all judges and justices of the peace, in every part of the province, whether they are bilingual or not, to fully understand those rights.

Consequently, the Advisory Committee makes three recommendations: (a) language rights must be an integral part of the training of members of the judiciary; (b) resources concerning language rights must be made available to members of the judiciary; and (c) newly appointed members of the judiciary should guided by experienced bilingual mentors.

I cannot endorse these recommendations strongly enough, since, as the Committee so clearly puts it, if members of the judiciary do not fully understand language rights, “there is little hope that the justice system will achieve equal access to justice in French.”

I repeat: The steps necessary to ensure that French speakers have meaningful and effective access to justice in French in Ontario are of great concern to me, and you can count on me to continue monitoring this issue closely in conjunction with the Ministry of the Attorney General.

I’m planning another posting next week on another conclusion of the French Language Services Bench and Bar Advisory Committee’s key report on Access to Justice in French.

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