Criminal defense attorneys are sounding the alarm after the Ford government appoints a slew of new justices of the peace, more than a third with past police, military and correctional backgrounds – a decision that at least one lawyer calls “a dark day for the emergence of justice in Ontario.”
Last week, the province announced that 41 new justices of the peace would be appointed to the Ontario Court of Justice, effective July 8, following changes to the Justices of the Peace Act early in the pandemic. Fifteen of these individuals have had careers in the Canadian Armed Forces, various police services, border services or as parole officers.
This is not the first time that a justice of the peace has had experience in such an area., But the scale of this new round of appointments, critics say, are part of a larger attempt by the Ford government to stack the judiciary and exert more control over the judiciary.
“This is a deeply troubling development,” criminal defense attorney Michael Spratt told CBC News.
“The number of police, law enforcement and prison officers who are appointed raises huge red flags, not only for the administration of justice, but also for the perception of justice. the accused, from the public perspective of how justice will be administered, ”Spratt said.
“The problem with appointing police officers is that they are a partisan actor. Having someone who can arrest individuals and argue for their detention one day and then decide on bail another day is deeply problematic. “
Changes Included in COVID 2020 Recovery Legislation
Amendments to the Justice of the Peace Act were included in the 2020 COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act – a decision according to critics was a veiled attempt to remake the justice system and align it more closely with the political leanings of the government.
Unlike judges, justices of the peace do not preside over criminal proceedings. But they are determining whether an accused should be released on bail or remain behind bars while awaiting trial. They may also decide to issue the police with a search warrant and authorize the release to the police of production orders for items such as telephone and bank records.
In addition, they preside over almost all provincial offenses, from speeding tickets to occupational health and safety records and sometimes even violations of municipal election laws.
Justices of the peace are selected by the Attorney General from a list provided by an independent advisory committee. The changes to the law reduced the number of members of this committee from 63 to 38, give the attorney general the ability to recommend additional selection criteria and increase the number of candidates presented to the attorney general from two to six.
“If the system isn’t down, we can only conclude that the fix is in place. And that’s the real problem here. There was no reason to mess around with it unless you didn’t. ‘have a specific group of people you wanted to name, “Spratt mentioned.
The changes followed a 2019 appearance by Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey on TVO Agenda, in which Downey said he wanted to increase diversity among judicial appointments.
“There are two parts to appointing judges. One is deciding whether they are qualified or not, and that’s really important. But the second part is for me to choose people who, you know, reflect. some of the values that I have, ”he said at the time.
The Ford government wants to change the way Ontario appoints judges. Some say it will serve to politicize the whole process. Tonight on the agenda @spaikin speaks with the Attorney General of Ontario @douglasdowney, at 8 p.m. / 11 p.m. | Producer: @harrisonlowman #onpoli pic.twitter.com/Gnj27t88J3
“Urgency” to improve the system, according to the province
In a statement to CBC News, spokeswoman Kerstie Schreyer said the qualifications required to become a justice of the peace had not changed and that the justices of the peace nominating committee was recruiting candidates “independent of government.”
“The attorney general cannot recommend the appointment of candidates who have been classified by the advisory committee on justices of the peace appointments as ‘recommended’ or ‘highly recommended,’ said Schreyer.
Schreyer added that the new process “ensures greater transparency and encourages more diversity” and requires the advisory committee to publish statistics on diversity as part of its annual reports. She also said there was “urgent need to ensure the system is improved,” noting that only 12 justices of the peace had been appointed to fill 34 positions the previous year.
In the past five years, no more than 28 justices of the peace have been appointed at any one time in Ontario.
“By filling vacancies for justices of the peace more quickly, Ontarians will benefit from a justice system that meets the needs of those who navigate the justice process,” she said.
She also said the changes were first proposed before the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘Like the frog in slowly heating water’
Of the 41 new appointees, six have names that match those of Conservative Party donors on Elections Ontario’s list of political contributions, as the online publication QP Briefing first noted.
When asked if any of the six would confirm or deny whether they had in fact contributed to the party, the Ontario Court of Justice told CBC News: “Justices of the peace respectfully decline to comment.”
Attorney General Doug Downey’s office also did not comment on the matter.
For Joshua Sealy-Harrington, assistant professor of law at Ryerson University, the Ford government’s decision is not so much a step towards politicizing a neutral system.
“I think the courts are always political,” he said. Instead, he fears the change will have a more systemic impact on the administration of justice, pushing it “towards a conservative view of what public safety means, what justice looks like.”
John Struthers, president of the Criminal Lawyers Association, says he is concerned the Ford government’s legacy may linger in the court system for a long time, with judges typically spending decades on the bench.
“What we’re seeing here is basically a stacking of the bench with a particular point of view,” Struthers said.
“It’s like the frog in slowly heating water … And we should be well aware of what’s going on.”