The post-election dust has settled and Manitoba MP Vic Toews has been appointed Canada's new Justice minister — and this addition to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Cabinet already has big plans for judicial reform.
Toews, a former Manitoba attorney general and Opposition justice critic, has told reporters the minority Conservative government will move quickly to crack down on gun violence by calling for four-year mandatory minimum sentences for drug and firearm offences.
Toews has also stated he wants to hold public hearings on the qualifications of future Supreme Court of Canada appointments to make the process more transparent.
As well, the new minister says that the government will work quickly to raise the age of consent from 14 to 16, although says there will be a "close in age exemption," to avoid criminalizing sexual conduct between youths.
Law Times asked the heads of the province's legal organizations to weigh in on the issues they would like Toews to address as well as comment on the issues he has already raised.
Linda Rothstein, president of The Advocates' Society, says the organization will be watching with great interest to see how Toews is going to deal with judicial appointments, both within the Supreme Court and for all federally appointed judges.
"The Advocates' Society has been on record as opposing U.S.-style public hearings for any judicial appointees," she says.
"We believe that the transparency that this achieves is skin-deep and that it will discourage the best and brightest from applying. It will also inevitably politicize the process in a way that will slowly but surely undermine the independence of the judiciary."
It's an issue the new government will have to deal with quickly as there is still the vacancy created by the retirement of justice John C. Major on Dec. 25, 2005.
Toews has said he would like to see some kind of public hearing that respects the independence of the judiciary, where the hearings are held before a parliamentary committee that would play an advisory role in the selection process.
Heather McGee, president of the Ontario Bar Association, says the organization welcomes Toews into his new role and believes he has the background to serve his portfolio well.
"This minister brings significant, in-depth knowledge of the issues, and particularly as they pertain to access to justice for all Canadians," she says.
Toews was born in Paraguay but is a long-time resident of Manitoba, where he graduated with a law degree in 1976. He practised law with the provincial Department of Justice from 1976 to 1991, and in that capacity he served as a Crown attorney in Brandon, Man.
In 1987, Toews was appointed director of constitutional law for the province of Manitoba. He acted as legal counsel to the Manitoba premier at the Meech Lake Accord discussions in 1990. He has also taught a number of law classes and worked in the legal department of Great-West Life, where he was responsible for the company's Canadian insurance litigation.
In 1997, until the end of his term in September 1999, he served as Manitoba's attorney general and minister of justice, and up until several weeks ago was the federal Opposition justice critic.
McGee says the OBA believes the will exists, both publicly and politically, to bring about needed reforms in the justice system and is hopeful that ongoing provincial initiatives will be mirrored at the national level when the new Parliamentary session begins in April.
"Increased access to justice and the provision of civil legal aid are priority issues identified by our organization. Working with the Canadian Bar Association and our branches across the country, the OBA will continue to speak out on these important issues, and we look forward to our ongoing national and provincial role in advocacy and policy development in Canada's justice system."
Clayton Ruby, acting treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada, had no comment on either Toews' appointment or the issues the province's regulator would like to see addressed.