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Language rights

Editorial Obiter

When one is not a French speaker or living or practising inside Quebec or other areas of French-speaking Canada, it might be easy to lose sight of the importance of French-speaking judges and French legal services. A recent report highlights, however, why all Canadians should be concerned with the state of bilingual legal services and appropriately serving the public in our country’s two official languages.

A recent report by the Commons Official Languages Committee — “Ensuring Justice is Done in Both Official Languages” — has offered recommendations on how to improve access to legal services in both languages across the country. Bilingual lawyers say that the federal government needs to invest more resources to improve Canadians’ access to programs in French outside Quebec. For example, there are noted problems in the area of family law, such as those seeking divorces.

Troublingly, the report also points to other concerning gaps, such as how the language skills of federally appointed judges (who self­report their level of bilingualism) can be assessed. 

“All witnesses criticized the fact that the current application process for federally appointed judges allows candidates to assess their own language skills,” says the report. This state of affairs has led the Fédération des associations des juristes d’expression française to become “extremely concerned about the consequences of this subjective process, fearing that candidates may overestimate their language skills.” No wonder.

Some progress has been made. In September 2017, for example, federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould announced steps to improve bilingualism in superior courts in the Action Plan: Enhancing the Bilingual Capacity of the Superior Courts. These included collecting more information on applications for the bench, as well as recommendations to develop better assessment tools for language skills. Applicants for the Supreme Court of Canada also needed to be functionally bilingual, said the Trudeau government. But there is further to go yet. The report’s recommendations should be studied and acted upon.

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