Editorial: Major gaps in bilingual court services

As the Ontario Court of Appeal shines a light on the gaps in bilingual services in the court system, the Ministry of the Attorney General looks to be taking action on the issue in Ottawa.

A pilot project in Ottawa will involve what the government is calling “an active offer” of services in French and support to French speakers “from the moment they enter the courthouse.” Videoconferencing may also be available to provide French-language services remotely, according to the ministry.

On the one hand, the ministry’s efforts are a welcome development. On the other, it’s clear there’s still lots of work to do on the issue.

Ottawa, of course, is the most logical place to launch such a project given the demographics there. But with the appeal court having shown how significant the gaps in bilingual court services are in its ruling in R. v. Munkonda last week, it’s a wonder the government hadn’t taken action like that sooner. Munkonda, in fact, was an Ottawa case and it suggested a significant lack of francophone resources in the system there.

For example, defence counsel’s request for a bilingual court reporter was unsuccessful and the preliminary inquiry judge gave an interlocutory judgment in English in response to a motion made by appellant Christian Munkonda, a francophone accused along with several anglophones, in French despite an agreement to have bilingual proceedings.

And it’s not as if the issue is a new one. In 2012, a report from the French-languages services bench and bar advisory committee raised several concerns, including varying levels of French proficiency among Ontario’s bilingual judicial officers and a lack of clear standards to identify who’s a bilingual judge.

Due to the lack of bilingual staff, many francophones found themselves having to choose between coming back to court another day and proceeding in English, the report found.

The Ottawa pilot project, in fact, is the part of the government’s effort to implement a number of the recommendations in that report. That’s a good thing, but if the gap in services is as wide as the report and Munkonda suggest, the government has a long way to go in making bilingual court services truly available where they’re in demand across the province.

For more, see "Appeal court makes strong statement about bilingual proceedings."
Glenn Kauth

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