Coordinating Bilingual Court Staff and Educating Court Employees about French-Language Rights

Report on Access to Justice in French

After a brief hiatus, I am today resuming my series of postings on the main conclusions of the French Language Services Bench and Bar Advisory Committee’s report entitled Access to Justice in French. You may recall that I made a commitment to conduct this analysis because this report – which, by the way, was produced in response to recommendation 4 of my 2008-2009 Annual Report – is so important for Francophone litigants in Ontario.

Which finding is under the microscope today? “There is a need for greater coordination of bilingual court staff and enhanced awareness by all court staff of French language rights.”

This observation stems from the study of a problem that the Committee lucidly describes in these terms: “The systems currently in place with respect to the coordination of bilingual court staff do not ensure timely delivery of the bilingual resources required to support bilingual or French proceedings, nor do they ensure that litigants are informed of their French language rights.”

One of the difficulties has to do with the fact that requirements for bilingual court staff are assessed and filled locally by team managers. Of course, those managers have guiding principles for designating positions bilingual (identify the services that have to be provided in French; be able to provide French-language services of equivalent quality at all times; take Francophones’ needs into account in the development of programs and services), but recruiting and retaining competent bilingual employees to fill those positions is a tough job.

As a result, the staffing of designated bilingual positions varies from court to court, which leads to situations such as the following, recently reported to the Commissioner’s Office: a citizen went to the office of the civil court clerk in a designated area; after asking the unilingual English employee at the counter for service in French, he was asked to wait; then another employee told him in broken French that the bilingual employee who was normally on duty was off that day. When he returned later to pay his bill, he attempted once again to obtain service in French; the unilingual English attendant apparently told him that he spoke English perfectly and that “we’re in Ontario here.”

The number of incidents of this kind could be reduced considerably if there were better coordination of bilingual court staff. Moreover, the Committee itself reached the following conclusion: “The ability […] to provide an active offer of French language services depends on the effective management and staffing of designated bilingual positions.”

For those reasons, the French Language Services Bench and Bar Advisory Committee recommended that the Ministry of the Attorney General develop regional procedures in support of the timely and seamless provision of services in French and conduct a review of designated bilingual positions and the procedures in place to ensure that appropriate bilingual staff continue to be available in the future.

I obviously support such measures, since they are a logical extension of recommendation 2 in my 2008-2009 Annual Report, which advocated the development of a mandatory policy on human resources for French-language services in Ontario’s public service.

So good ideas make good progress.

In the near future, I will explore another issue raised in the Access to Justice in French report and pass along my thoughts in another posting.

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