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Bill to raise bar for JPs gaining traction among lawyers

|Written By Marg. Bruineman

Less than a year after the provincial government updated the way it appoints justices of the peace, an MPP is calling for changes aimed at raising the bar.

‘This bill is something that should be strongly supported by everyone who cares about justice and fairness,’ says Matthew Friedberg.

David Orazietti, MPP for Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., is suggesting a two-tiered system that would create administrative and presiding justices of the peace.

His private member’s bill introduced on May 31 would require those serving as presiding justices of the peace to have at least five years’ experience as a lawyer.

A presiding justice of the peace would oversee legal matters involving individual freedoms and liberties, as well as issues of a complex legal nature.

An administrative justice of the peace’s role would have limited responsibilities involving Provincial Offences Act issues, interim release orders, issuing subpoenas and summonses, taking affidavits, and performing civil marriages.

They wouldn’t hear applications under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, send people to jail or order property seizures.

Under the current system, lay members of the community can work as justices of the peace at an annual salary of $120,652. Candidates must have worked for at least 10 years and have a degree, diploma or equivalent qualifications.

There are 345 full-time justices of the peace working in Ontario, about 10 per cent of whom have a law degree.

“The justice of the peace functions in the province of Ontario . . . are substantially more complex than 30 or 40 years ago,” says Orazietti. “I’m optimistic that when all MPPs have the opportunity to digest it . . . the merit of moving forward with this would be evident. I feel it’s important to raise the qualifications.”

He’d like to see Ontario follow similar models already in place in Alberta, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and Quebec.

Attorney General John Gerret-sen has announced he won’t take a position on the proposal until he reviews it with the courts and affected stakeholders. But Orazietti’s suggestion is gaining traction in the legal community.

Toronto lawyer Brian Greenspan supports the legislation. He argues that when it comes to deciding on an individual’s freedom, someone with legal training and experience should handle the matter.

“If we can create greater consistency . . . by having qualified people serving as our decision-makers, that will improve the quality of the justice system,” says Greenspan.

“We have a whole host of situations where people’s liberty is at stake. We certainly have a large enough body of lawyers to make that choice.”

He reasons that a higher level of education will result in better decisions.

Many lawyers believe the proposal is overdue.

“Requiring law degrees and legal experience from JPs who make legally substantive decisions is a good thing for everyone,” says criminal defence lawyer Matthew Friedberg.

“This proposed legislation will foster transparency in the appointment process, competency in the decision-making process, and more accountability from the bench. This bill is something that should be strongly

supported by everyone who cares about justice and fairness.”

Lawyer Patrice Band also believes the proposal is a step in the right direction.

“Justices of the peace are vested with extraordinary powers over the property, children, and liberties of the people of Ontario,” says Band.

“They are being called upon more and more to perform these functions, which can have dramatic impacts on the lives of Ontarians and their families.”

Band points to bail court as an example where justices of the peace have significant authority. Denial of bail is a huge determining factor when it comes to deciding on plea, he adds.

His view, however, isn’t universal.

James Morton, a lawyer and spokesman for the Association of Justices of the Peace, maintains law degrees are unnecessary for the job.

“Really, the only thing that should be done is to give them a little more support,” he says.

Despite the objections, Orazietti is confident that, if his bill becomes law, it’ll withstand challenges.

The Supreme Court of Canada decided in Alberta’s favour after that province enacted similar legislation requiring justices of the peace to have law degrees.

Ian Greene, a York University professor in the school of public policy and administration, also supports Orazietti’s bill to increase the qualifications.

“It’s antiquated in the sense that I don’t think it attracts the best and the brightest,” he says, pointing to the application that suggests candidates check their spelling and grammar prior to sending it in.

What Orazietti’s bill doesn’t address is the issue of patronage. There’s an acceptance among many that those appointed as justices of the peace are friends of the government in power. This is an area where Greene sees another opportunity for improvement.

“They should be completely merit-based appointments,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any room for patronage in appointing JPs.”

But Greenspan draws on his experience as part of the judicial appointment committee, created 15 years ago, that emphasized the importance of a merit-based system over patronage.

As a result of that change, he notes, the quality of appointments to the bench improved.

To vote in this week's poll on this issue, see our homepage.

  • wilf curtis
    How do you attract the best minds by using legal background as a filter ? The political and bureaucratic nature of the court system is enough to run off most potential candidates, especially those with the skills you want. Keep the door open as wide as possible and provide JP's with the training and support to do the job. They are already under constant scrutiny and will be "upgraded" as required.
  • Licensed paralegal
    It should be noted that a bill that requires the law society to segregate its own members will not get their blessing. The truth of the matter is paralegals have more interaction with JPs than lawyers do. Unfortunately for every bad JP, there is a bad lawyer if you don't agree look at the LSUC website on discipline hearings. Let's not forget that paralegals are held to the same standard as lawyers, E & O insurance, professional rules of conduct and discipline. This bill would receive more support if it said licensee of the lsuc
  • Keith
    I agree that a university degree in law should be a pre-requisite to be a JP. Some JPs in my jurisdiction simply do what the police tell them to do, without any critical thinking or Charter consideration whatsoever. They just don't have the knowledge base.
  • P. Douglas Petrie
    Allowing Administrative JPs to handle POA matters is inconsistent with the principles behind creating a Presiding JP category. POA matters (e.g., environmental, health & safety) are often complex, can involve Charter applications, and usually deal with significant penalties (6 figure fines are common and imprisonment is possible).
  • Vonrosenhof
    Paralegals should be given consideration for the role as well. Now that they are licensed by the LSUC, there are standards for their training and behavior. Also paralegals, have a lot of experience in the POA courts (more than many lawyers).
  • Walker
    paralegal are much more qualified in the P.O.A court over many lawyers and should be given the opportunity. Lawyers become judges paralegal should become justice of the peace the boat should be balance.
  • Unreasonablewomyn
    what about a Legal Studies Master of Arts and a Bachelor's in Law - I think by requiring ONLY a LL.B., you would be excluding MANY with law-related degrees - that in the case of a M.A. in Legal Studies, for example, is much MORE valuable than a LL.B. as LL.B's only teach you (mainly) how to reproduce law, Legal Studies looks at "rights" and "context" and then can use the law to tailor a fit. LL.B. don't typically think outside the box of "law"
  • Law Noter
    Such a change is long overdue. The decision to deny bail and hold an accused in custody until trial is often the most important legal decision in the process, and should be made by JP's who have legal training (experience and a law degree). Also, other decisions now involve complex statutes/legal arguments that simply didn't exist a few decades ago. Ontario should join the other four provinces that have already made this change. This is a proposal that should be recognized simply as "good government" and receive all-party support.
  • Ontario Lawyer
    I absolutely agree. I recall arguing an extremely strong Charter challenge (related to police conduct) in front of a J.P. several years ago. It was clear from the J.P.'s comments and decision that she had never encountered the Charter before and had absolutely no understanding of what role it plays in Canadian law. My client ended up with a conviction and, with no money to appeal, no way to set things right.
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