Recently, La Presse reported that “despite the crisis in the judicial system, the justice budget is shrinking by 3.1%”1. While our courts have suffered from chronic underfunding for many years, recent months have shown the accumulated extent of the damage. The crisis is materializing in different ways: long delays, service disruptions in criminal and civil matters, limited use of technology in the keeping of judicial records, and a general shortage of judicial and administrative personnel. In particular, we have reported the risk of seeing tens of thousands of criminal and penal cases exceed the deadlines set by the Jordan decision of the Supreme Court of Canada2, jeopardizing their prosecution3.
Faced with the challenges of underfunding, many dared to dream that justice would finally receive its lion’s share. It should be noted in passing that the current government has been more concerned with justice than many of its predecessors. However, rather than granting Quebec courts the means to fulfill their ambitions, in February the government proposed Bill 8 (PL8), An Act to improve the efficiency and accessibility of justice, in particular by promoting mediation and arbitration and by simplifying civil procedure in the Court of Québec. While the reception of the PL8 has been good overall, what is it really?
PL8 offers the Court of Québec a simplified procedural route which, although interesting, is of limited audacity. He also proposes for the Small Claims Division of the Court of Quebec a strong shift towards mediation and arbitration. While these private methods of dispute resolution offer undeniable advantages to litigants, they should not constitute a replacement solution for an underfunded justice system.
It must be said clearly: the time for penny-pinching and semi-creative legislative exercises is over. The extent of the legal problems cannot be alleviated without major investments, in particular to hire enough legal personnel and encourage them to stay in their jobs. As such, faced with a crisis of delays in its justice system, France recently announced significant investments in justice to allow massive hiring4. The Bâtonniere of Quebec, Me Catherine Claveau, rightly proposed doubling the justice budget. The underfunding is such, and has persisted for so long, that radical budgetary intervention is essential for improving access to justice. Any other intervention, no matter how judicious, will have limited effects while the portfolio is not up to the challenge.
Meanwhile, it seems that one of the strategies of the Quebec government is to push the blame onto the administration of the courts, transgressing in passing the fundamental separation between the judiciary and the legislative and executive powers. We know, however, that the task of judges is as important as it is exhausting. The figure of the judge in Quebec is at the heart of the trust that litigants have in the courts. Our judges, lawyers whose exceptional skills are recognized inside and outside our borders, work evenings and weekends to overcome the masses of work that pile up on their desks. The elastic is not infinite, however, and good work takes time.
Superior Court Chief Justice Marie-Anne Paquette recently told La Presse that she had a strong feeling that in our justice system, “everything is duct tape”. Let’s hope that our courts will still be able to afford a few wheels, because the shortage is far from over.