I would like to call the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights to order.
Today is Tuesday, March 4, 2008. The agenda before the committee, pursuant to the order of reference of Monday, January 28, 2008, is Bill C-31, an act to amend the Judges Act.
Appearing as a witness is the Minister of Justice, the Honourable Rob Nicholson. Thank you, Minister, for appearing. From the Department of Justice we have Ms. Judith Bellis, general counsel, judicial affairs, courts and tribunal policy. We also have Mr. David Near, judicial affairs advisor, Department of Justice.
I believe I have one other individual here, Ms. Catherine McKinnon....
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. Thank you for the invitation to make some comments with respect to .
It's probably one of the shortest bills this committee will see, I suppose. It's straight to the point. It's one amendment to the Judges Act, but I think it is a good news story across this country that we are moving to increase, by 20, the number of judges under this section. It will permit us to add judges, and I think there is a consensus across this country that we can use more.
The bill will allow the government to achieve two very important objectives. It will increase support and access to justice for Canadians from all walks of life. The appointment of these additional judges will facilitate the timely resolution of the specific claims.
Proposed paragraph 24(3)(b) of the Judges Act, which we refer to as the pool, creates the authority to appoint judges to the superior trial courts of any jurisdiction in Canada. The pool was created, as you may know, in the 1970s, because of the recognized difficulty in having to constantly amend the Judges Act every time you need another judge. Rather than do that, they created a pool of judges.
The concept was to allow the government to respond quickly to needs within each province or territory. I can tell you that Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador have each previously submitted requests for additional judges, as have other provinces that have come forward.
Submissions have come in over the years. Some jurisdictions have had the benefit of sophisticated data collection to justify why they need more judges, while others have worked painstakingly to collect information that indicates their need and to back up their requests. In all instances, chief justices, judges, court staff, and provincial government officials have made tremendous efforts to make the case as to why we need more judges.
The same degree of commitment to providing clear and comprehensive data has been demonstrated by the judiciary and the Governments of Quebec and Nunavut, each of which also have outstanding requests for additional judges for their superior courts.
In Quebec, mounting civil and family law matters have been straining the court for several years now. This bill will provide some long-needed relief for the Quebec Superior Court.
The pressures on the Nunavut Court of Justice are particularly compelling and urgent. There are three resident judges sitting on the court of justice. The court is also served by deputy judges from other provinces and territories. These are sitting or retired superior court judges who offer to sit in Nunavut, typically for one-week periods. These judges provide much needed assistance to the court, but they cannot completely respond to the existing needs within the territory.
As you can imagine, geography has a huge impact on the work of the court in Nunavut. The territory covers one-fifth of the land mass of this country, two million square kilometres. Its population of approximately 29,500 is scattered across communities ranging in size from 150 to 6,000 people. Judges of the Nunavut court frequently travel on circuit through various forms of transportation--by air, snow machine, or boat. Crime rates are also a concern in the north. The number of complex criminal trials is beginning to mount, with several being adjourned over the course of the past year due to unavailability of judges. Civil and family caseloads are growing, and with the development of a bar of resident lawyers, the number of matters before the courts will continue to increase. In sum, the situation on the Nunavut court is reaching crisis proportions, and we cannot allow this to continue.
It is proposed that 14 of the new appointments be allocated among jurisdictions to address the existing pressures and backlogs. The bill will also provide the judicial resources necessary to ensure that the provincial superior courts are in a position to provide judges to act as members of the newly proposed special claims tribunal.
Assuring timely and impartial resolution of these claims is a key objective of the new tribunal. This tribunal will have the authority to make decisions where specific claims brought forward by first nations are rejected for negotiation or negotiations fail.
As the Prime Minister indicated in June of 2007, it is critical that the members of the tribunal have the necessary experience, capacity, and credibility to examine historical facts and evidence. They must be able to address complex questions surrounding Canada's legal obligations and determine appropriate levels of compensation. For this reason, the proposed Specific Claims Tribunals Act provides that tribunal members will be superior court judges.
It is estimated that the tribunal will require the equivalent of six full-time judges to handle its anticipated caseload of 40 claims per year. These claims are dispersed across the country, with the greatest number arising in British Columbia and some of the most complex cases originating in Ontario and Quebec.
All provincial superior courts are currently working at full capacity, with a number of them, as I have just described, experiencing significant backlogs and delays. As a result, authority for an additional six judges is being sought to provide the trial courts with the capacity to absorb the new work of the tribunal and to address these claims on a priority basis.
It is intended that with this infusion of new judicial resources the courts will be able to allow a number of their experienced judges to be appointed to a tribunal roster of up to 18 judges. It is proposed that these judges would sit on the tribunal on a part-time basis for a period of time equivalent to the number of additional judges provided to the court. The judges to the roster would continue to sit for the balance of their time on cases assigned, as usual, by the chief justice of their own courts.
Allocation of the 20 new judges to specific jurisdictions will take place following consultation with the chief justices of the courts and the provincial and territorial governments. My officials have already commenced discussions with their provincial and territorial counterparts to obtain up-to-date data upon which to base these final decisions.
As you can see, Mr. Chair and honourable members, this bill is extremely important for Canadians, and in particular aboriginal communities. I trust that members will recognize the urgent need to facilitate the passage of this bill so that these new judges may be appointed as soon as possible and that we may provide meaningful access for those individuals that require it.
I should let you know as well, Mr. Chair, before I conclude, that I want to bring to the committee's attention the possible need for an amendment to . The amendment relates to the establishment of the truth and reconciliation commission.
As members may be aware, the truth and reconciliation commission will provide former students, families, and anyone who has been touched by the Indian residential schools experience with an opportunity to share their individual experiences in a safe and culturally appropriate manner. The TRC will provide a comprehensive historical record of the policies and operations of schools, as well as what happened to the first nations, Métis, and Inuit children who attended them. The commission clearly has important responsibilities to fulfill in the course of its five-year mandate.
Following a rigorous selection process, the selection panel for the TRC commissioners unanimously put forward the name of a sitting judge to act as chair of the TRC. This judge is well respected by aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities alike and is uniquely qualified for this position.
All parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement support his appointment to this key post; however, this appointment would leave one of the busiest courts in the country one judge short for the judge's five-year absence. In order to avoid this unintended detrimental impact on the court, an amendment would be needed to to provide for an additional clause modifying one of the sections of the Judges Act. We will continue to explore the issues related to this amendment, which, if we proceed with it, would need to be moved at the report stage.
Those are my opening comments, Mr. Chair. If there are any questions from the committee, my colleagues and I would be pleased to respond.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you, Minister, for your presentation.
As you know, Minister, we in the Liberal caucus supported this bill at second reading. We agree with you that it's an important measure to improve access to the judicial system. The specific claims process will obviously exert additional pressure. Your statistics and your information on that are certainly compelling.
I know from former partners of mine and people I know in the profession that in my own province of New Brunswick—and you and your officials know this as well—the delay is often related to the family courts. I've heard the chief justice at a number of events talk about the pressure on the unified family court, and I know that some of the planning and some of the requests have gone in around family courts in some provinces, such as my own.
For a whole bunch of reasons, the caseloads have increased. I assume it's your intention, in consultation with the chief justices, to deal with the backlogs in family courts. In some jurisdictions in New Brunswick, people will wait eight months to get an interim motion before the court. That obviously is, in difficult circumstances around family matters, not a very ideal situation.
I'd be interested to hear your comments on that, Minister.
But also, with respect to the linguistic makeup of the courts, in my province of New Brunswick—as you know, the only officially bilingual province—some judicial districts feel greater linguistic pressure than others, even in my own province. I hope you would be sensitive, when you make these appointments and others, and try to recognize that in some cases the linguistic makeup.... And it's not just about having an anglophone who says he or she speaks French, or a francophone who pretends that he or she speaks English. Many litigants will in fact not want to appear before the court because there's a legitimate concern that the judge may or may not understand some of the subtleties of language, and therefore you have dockets that tend to become overloaded as well.
I'm wondering whether you would be open to looking at a balance. As I say, every province has its different circumstances. But in my own, I know the bar is worried about this, and I'd be interested to hear whether you're sensitive to that as well.
Thank you very much. This bill is designed to create a pool. It's not specifically directed at the unified family court, but nonetheless, as you would know, in each province superior court judges are seized with divorce and family law matters in any case, and adding judges to an individual province or to a territory will ease, in my opinion, some of the pressure that exists as a matter of course.
With respect to New Brunswick, and specifically with respect to the appointments we have made there, we are sensitive to that. I can tell you that we are in continuous discussions with the chief justice to make sure we are meeting the needs of the people of the province.
Again, we're sensitive to this. I think an examination of the appointments that have been made by the government, in New Brunswick in particular, will show that we have tried to respond to it.
We consider it an asset, obviously, if a person is bilingual, and it's not just a case of francophones pretending to speak English. In having a look at their applications, we find people who have a facility in both languages. Obviously, we're sensitive to the subtleties of any language group, and we keep that in mind when we're making appointments in your province—indeed, as we do across the country, based on the needs.
But we don't come up with these on our own. We of course are sensitive to this, but we discuss it and take these matters up with the chief justice to make sure we're responding to those concerns.
Obviously, Monsieur Petit, they certainly add to the credibility of any process that affects their rights. The discussions are primarily led by my colleague, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Mr. Chuck Strahl, and before him, Mr. Jim Prentice. They are fully aware of the process we are undertaking. It has received widespread support.
I indicated to you, as I was concluding my remarks about the truth and reconciliation commission, which obviously has huge implications for aboriginal Canadians, that they're supportive, I can tell you, of the individual we have in mind to take over that.
Again, I'm not the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, but the process obviously has to have the support of the stakeholders in this, and I'm very pleased by the work that's been done by my colleagues on this to advance this file. I think everyone in this country would agree that the present situation of having a rising number of claims that take a long period of time and bring no finality, no justice, to the individuals involved doesn't serve anyone's interest.
So it does have widespread support to have these new judges for the tribunal and to have an individual who can preside over the trust and reconciliation commission. Again, these things are done in consultation with aboriginal Canadians, and that is as it should be.
We have vacancies on a regular basis.
Again, I want to thank you for your comments, Mr. Murphy, with respect to the bona fides of the judges we have nominated. We take into consideration a number of things. One of your colleagues was talking about our sensitivity to people who speak both official languages, or to have individuals who can respond to the needs of a particular community across this country.
Since taking office, we've appointed 146 judges to this point in time. I expect vacancies will continue on a regular basis. With the amendments to the Judges Act--you will remember just before Christmas we had a considerable increase in the number of judges who either went supernumerary or retired, so that put added pressure. We have been very consistent in terms of not trying to meet any particular quota or timetable. We want to make sure we get the right people and we get qualified individuals who will do honour to their sovereign and their country in taking on this huge responsibility. It's a role we take very seriously.
Again, the 20 I'm talking about are over and above any existing positions or any vacancies. If there are two vacancies, for instance, in the province of New Brunswick, we tend to fill those vacancies as expeditiously as possible. Then, once this bill is passed, we will be in discussion with chief justices across this country in terms of the allocation from the pool.
I hope that answers your question.