Editorial: Should judges have gone to Deerhurst?

Ontario judges and justices of the peace found themselves at the centre of public criticism last week following revelations that they spent $590,000 for three conferences at the Deerhurst Resort in Huntsville, Ont., last year.

As the Toronto Sun reported last week, the expenditures covered one educational conference for judges and two for justices of the peace in 2010.

The paper quoted Jane Warwick, executive assistant to the chief justice, as saying there are savings when booking conferences at the same facility. She pointed out as well that hundreds of judges and justices of the peace attend the conferences.

The reports are timely given the current climate of austerity and, of course, the upcoming provincial election.

Certainly, it’s hard to argue against ongoing education for our judges. At the same time, officials cancelled three other judicial programs planned for last year, Warwick told the Sun.

It’s important, then, to look at the value achieved and whether those spending the money looked for ways to minimize the cost by, for example, seeking competitive bids.

Revelations about judges’ conferences are reminiscent of concerns last year about a proposed event for Ontario Crown lawyers at the Blue Mountain Conference Centre near Collingwood, Ont. Citing worries about public optics, officials with the Ministry of the Attorney General balked at paying for the conference. As a result, that event never went ahead.

But the ministry says it is supporting a conference at the White Oaks Conference  Resort and Spa in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., this November following the Association of Law Officers of the Crown’s grievance of the government’s refusal to pay for the Blue Mountain event.

The two situations prompt a number of questions. People who work in the private sector attend conferences all of the time, so is it unreasonable for government employees to expect to stay up to date on their fields through education?
Given the need to hold the line on spending, should the public sector look to hold such conferences in major centres like Toronto in order to minimize travel and accommodation costs?

With a provincial vote on the way, it’s a good time to be discussing such issues. We have a large deficit, and that means the government should be making every effort to cut back on frills.

So in this case, one alternative would be to say that having an event in Huntsville, a place that virtually all conference participants would have to travel to, isn’t the way to go. Instead, such events should take place in major cities where at least a good chunk of the people attending already live and therefore don’t have to travel and get hotels.

None of that is to say that having an event at a particular place is necessarily excessive. The conference may be very valuable, and the price might be reasonable. But as governments look to cut unnecessary costs, it’s time for new approaches, including to how we deal with things like conferences and continuing education.
— Glenn Kauth

For related content, see "Should Crowns have 2011 conference at Blue Mountain?"

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