25 years of unkept promises

Christian Leblanc, President - Samedi, 12 Juin 2010 16:47

In many Court Houses in Québec Crown Attorneys have to do their own photo-copying of the documents to be sent to defense lawyers. Often, a lone secretary works for more than 15 prosecutors. Most of them admit that time is too short to prepare adequately for their Court cases. Quebec Crown Attorneys are the worst paid and most overworked in Canada.

The Crown is sick and the whole justice system is suffering as a result.

A situation that goes back a long way

During the past 15 years no less than four experts’ reports, as well as all those who have studied the problem, came to the conclusion that the government ought to recognize the essential role played by Crown Attorneys in our society, and must therefore ensure that they are given the means to fulfill their mandate. According to the Supreme Court of Canada no one is given a heavier burden to carry for the good of society than Crown Attorneys. And yet, these men and women, who represent the state in a Court of Law, still have to endure intolerable working conditions.

As early as 1985 the Rouleau report, named after the president of Mouvement Desjardins, revealed that Quebec prosecutors came last in Canada as far as salaries were concerned, and urged the government to correct this discrepancy. In spite of its public endorsement of the report, the government did strictly nothing to follow his own experts’recommendations.

During that period – as now – salaries were not the only issue. The shortage of prosecutors results in a serious backlog of rolls in criminal justice, especially in Montreal. In 1987, Crown Attorneys held « Study Days » and asked for reinforcements.
The government’s answer was brutal : The prosecutors were served disciplinary notices at their own homes by police process-servers.

In 1988, a study group, presided over by the Honourable judge Jean-Pierre Bonin, at the time, and Associate Chief Justice at the Court of Quebec was formed to find a solution to the backlog of the rolls.

The Bonin report underlines the fact that in some Court rooms the number of cases is such that prosecutors are afraid of making errors and endangering not only their credibility and the quality of their work but eventually public interest.

The Crown Attorneys’ Association, worried by these findings, ordered - at its own expense - a new study (Dolan report) to find out how bad the situation really was. The authors of this report, tabled in 1989, stated that close to 20% of the prosecutors who participated in the study were already in the critical phase of professional exhaustion.

Rather than remedy the shocking lack of resources, the Quebec government cut down the number of Crown positions, while in Ontario the government was hiring a hundred new prosecutors. Throughout the 90’s, the Montreal prosecution team lost 20% of its

In 1997, a new alarm bell, rung by a lawyer, Jacques Bellemare ( Bellemare report) warned that the Crown attorneys in Quebec (prosecutors) were unable to fulfill the mandate entrusted to them by society. Apart from a few exceptions, wrote lawyer Bellemare, the necessary basic preparation of cases was just not there.

A disturbing conclusion for victims and all those who rely on justice; as well as an intolerable situation for prosecutors.

Bush Justice in Quebec

In the early 2000’s Crown attorneys had no computers and could not access the servers dealing with jurisprudence and case law, while the defendants and their lawyers already
had access to the evidence on CD-ROM. Meanwhile a study by the Provincial Statistical Institute of Québec demonstrated that Quebec Crown attorneys earned 35% less than the Canadian average and that they still came last in Canada.

In 2005, the President of the Québec Bar Association voiced his concern publicly in a letter to the minister of Justice about the working conditions imposed on Crown attorneys in Quebec - Not only salary-wise but generally – these working conditions were denounced as an attack on the very notion of professionalism.

Today, the situation is just as bad. Still last in Canada as far as salary and working conditions are concerned, prosecutors are demoralised and exhausted.

During all these years, one Quebec government after another has pledged to give prosecutors ( 430 of them today) the adequate means to perform their task, as their role is so crucial to the administration of justice. But nothing was ever done. Quebec is still the Canadian province that earmarks the least funding for its criminal justice system. At least 200 new prosecutors should be hired to reach the national average (number of prosecutors per capita).

No to a bargain-basement justice system

Justice is not a mere abstract concept; it is one of the pillars of our democracy. Every day Crown prosecutors have to make decisions that affect the lives of citizens and their fundamental rights. It is imperative for the Quebec government to recognize criminal justice as a real priority.

Cases are getting more and more complex, specialised police squads are getting more and more numerous, and our association wonders how – in such a context – it can provide anything but bargain-basement justice.

When it created the Quebec ministry of Justice in 1965, Premier Jean Lesage declared in front of the National Assembly that he wished to “emphasise the value of government lawyers and recognise their talent.” But lack of action and unkept promises from his successors have left the Crown in a critical state.

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