Justice in French in Ontario: A Promising Future
A few months ago, I made a commitment to review the various findings in the French Language Services Bench and Bar Advisory Committee’s report on Access to Justice in French. The purpose of the exercise was to explain the importance of this key report’s recommendations for Francophone litigants in Ontario, not only because the report in question implements the fourth recommendation in my 2008-2009 Annual Report, but also because the issues and solutions documented in the report are having or will have very concrete effects on the lives of our province’s Francophones.
As you know, in Ontario, French has the status of an official language in the courts. This status clearly implies that a citizen who wishes to be heard in French in the courts can appear before a judge who can understand and speak to the citizen without the assistance of an interpreter. But it goes much further than that: A citizen who chooses to use French in seeking justice in Ontario – whether it’s to contest a traffic ticket or claim damages after being assaulted – must have equal access, i.e., the same level of access as an Anglophone citizen.
For official-language minority litigants, that means, in particular, that they must be actively informed of their rights and how to exercise them; that their decision to exercise those rights must not be questioned (how many times have we in the Commissioner’s Office heard of instances in which a litigant has been told, “But you speak English very well”?); and that they must not incur additional fees or delays in their case. In short, their request must not be treated as a negotiable accommodation but rather as an incontestable invocation of the justice system’s obligations.
At present, this is not the case, as proven by the complaints received by the Commissioner’s Office.
The situation is especially worrisome since, when I think of how intimidating dealing with the justice system is for most citizens, I am certain that the complaints we receive are just the tip of the iceberg. Think about it: Who would risk antagonizing the judge who has to rule on the custody of his or her children? Who would dare to criticize a system that is responsible for deciding his or her fate?
Of course, the Advisory Committee has a lot to say about this. In its report, it freely recognizes the need to improve access to justice in French. It also incisively describes the problems that Francophone litigants encounter and suggests some daring solutions. I therefore felt compelled to go through the report and share my reflections with the community, which I have done in my blog posts over the last few months.
The work doesn’t end there, though. It’s now time to move from broad strokes to fine-tuning, and from there to execution. And I am confident that that will happen, in view of the determination of the Attorney General of Ontario to ensure that citizens have equal access to Ontario’s justice system in the official language of their choice and especially the establishment of a steering committee to develop an implementation plan for the report’s recommendations. The committee has already started work, and I’m very happy about that.
Obviously, improving a system with multiple stakeholders will take time, and I’m quite prepared to wait for systemic changes to be made that will ultimately guarantee equal access to justice in French for Ontario’s citizens.
But make no mistake: I intend to be patient, but not passive. I have already asked to be kept informed of the steering committee’s progress; I have met with officials of the provincial offences administration, who were very cooperative, by the way; I have sent a request for collaboration to the Law Society of Upper Canada; and most importantly, I have clearly stated that I expect government organizations that are informed of complaints involving vulnerable citizens (which litigants are, in my view) to adopt an approach that is based on being sensitive and taking responsibility.
Thus, it seems to me that this convergence of views among the various stakeholders in the justice system points to a reassuring future for Francophone litigants. Nevertheless, I strongly urge citizens who are having difficulty being heard in French in Ontario’s courts and other decision-making bodies, or, no less importantly, in actively obtaining support in exercising this right, to contact the Commissioner’s Office without apprehension. My team will see to it that all complaints are brought to the attention of the competent authorities for individual or systematic resolution, as appropriate.