The battle for the disclosure of the full details of the case against Ontario Court Justice John Ritchie clearly put the Ontario Judicial Council in a conundrum.
On the one hand, it faced the need to preserve judicial independence and the understandable imperative to maintain a level of confidentiality around complaints that, in its view, don’t merit a full hearing. On the other hand, some details about the complaint against Ritchie had already become public last year. And with the judge being a lightning rod for complaints by defence lawyers for some time, there were significant concerns about the need for accountability.
In this case, the council decided earlier this month in favour of disclosing the Criminal Lawyers’ Association’s complaint about Ritchie as well as the disposition letter in the case (subject to a 30-day delay to allow Ritchie to pursue legal remedies if he chooses). But it ruled against disclosing further details, including the findings of a subcommittee and review panel, any directives and recommendations by the chief justice, and reports on educational and remedial programs taken by Ritchie. The decision has provoked understandable concern from defence lawyers given their complaints that Ritchie routinely and unfairly, in their view, rules against their clients.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer in this case given the review council’s comments about judicial independence in its decision this month: “Constitutional guarantees of judicial independence include security of tenure and the freedom to speak and deliver judgment free from external pressures and influences of any kind. A system of accountability for judicial conduct must provide for accountability, yet at the same time guard against any risk of infringement of the constitutional guarantees that apply to any judge who is the subject of a complaint.”
Nevertheless, the case on balance does merit more disclosure. As the CLA and the Toronto Star argued in their challenge of the confidentiality order, the statutory framework does provide the council with discretion around disclosure. While it did exercise that discretion to a limited degree in this case, the fact that the Ritchie matter has already become public and the significant concerns raised by defence lawyers about his rulings tip the balance toward allowing for further disclosure. The fact that the review council issues an annual report with barebones details on complaints that don’t proceed to a public hearing isn’t good enough. Lawyers and the public need to know more in order to be sure the review council considered the concerns in full and took appropriate action.
For more, see "Defence lawyers unhappy with Ritchie ruling ."