Bill to raise bar for JPs gaining traction among lawyers

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.

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.

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