Language rights education for the judiciary

Judges have a duty to honour language rights and ensure that they are respected. A lack of awareness of language rights on the part of judges can seriously infringe on a person’s fundamental human rights or even violate a person’s right to access justice in the language of his or her choice. In fact, the lack of awareness of language rights led to the allegations associated with a complaint recently received by my office, namely the Dorcin case. This new complaint submitted by a Francophone woman from Toronto sums up the bad experience she had in Toronto Small Claims Court. The complainant in this case alleges not only that active offer of service in French is virtually, if not completely, non-existent, but also that a deputy judge of the Small Claims Court ignored her language rights. She maintains that the deputy judge denied her the right to a hearing in French because she spoke English.

It was because of this lack of awareness of language rights that the 2012 report noted the need for an education campaign for the judiciary to ensure the delivery of services in French equivalent to those provided in English. In this connection, the 2012 report had three recommendations for the judiciary: (1) language rights should be included in the training provided to the judiciary; (2) resources concerning language rights should be made available to the judiciary; and (3) a mentoring program should be established to ensure that newly appointed judges receive advice from qualified bilingual judges. My analysis of this conclusion and the associated recommendations in the 2012 report can be found here.

The 2015 report states that the three recommendations have been implemented. Various presentations and lectures on language rights have been organized for judges and justices of the peace. All three courts in Ontario have instituted mentoring programs for newly appointed judges. New resources that are readily accessible online, including the AJEFO’s JURISOURCE, are available to all judges and justices of the peace. There is even talk of establishing a forum to promote discussion of language rights among judges.

I congratulate the judiciary on the efforts they are making to improve their knowledge of language rights. However, despite this progress, complaints about access to justice and the lack of awareness of language rights in Ontario’s court system, such as the above-mentioned Dorcin case, are unfortunately not isolated instances. It seems clear that much work remains to be done, especially since deputy judges of the Small Claims Court (most of them lawyers) may have missed the language rights education. Consequently, I strongly support the proposal in the 2015 report to develop ongoing language rights education programs, to be delivered by educators such as the National Judicial Institute. I must add that it is crucial that all judges and justices of the peace, including deputy judges (i.e., Small Claims Court judges, bilingual or otherwise), receive regular, compulsory language rights education. Educating judges will unquestionably lead to substantive equality of access to justice in the two official languages.

Until these measures become a reality, my office will continue to investigate complaints it receives on this subject, including Ms. Dorcin’s. In view of the 2015 report, our new challenge will be to determine how the new French Language Services Regional Committees (discussed in the first blog post) will deal with complaints such as the Dorcin case. According to the 2015 report, these committees are composed of judicial and Ministry representatives who serve as resource persons responsible for French-language service issues and complaints in their region. How does the process of filing a complaint with the committees work? How can we coordinate our efforts? I will, of course, keep you informed of developments.

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