The Power of Perspectives

The Canadian Bar Association

Kim Covert

Enriching Canadians’ access to justice through language

April 19 2017 19 April 2017

“All Canadians should capitalize on the advantages of living in a country which has learned to speak in two great world languages. Such a country will be able to make full use of the skills and energy of all its citizens. Such a country will be more interesting, more stimulating and, in many ways, richer than it has ever been. Such a country will be much better equipped to play a useful role in the world of today and tomorrow.”

 – Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on Oct. 17, 1968, in his speech introducing the Official Languages Act.

Nearly 49 years after then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau introduced the Official Languages Act in the House of Commons, and 48 years since it became law, the federal government is preparing to develop another action plan on official languages.

The CBA has gone on record as strongly encouraging the government to include improved access to justice in both official languages as part of its calculations.

In a letter sent to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, CBA President René Basque points out that consultations carried out by both departments, as well as public hearings conducted by the Standing Committee on Official Languages “have exposed the urgent need to adopt strong measures to improve access to justice in both official languages.”

The Committee established that hearings held in French outside of Quebec take longer and are more expensive; the low overall rate of bilingualism among judges means that Francophone and bilingual judges are often called on to hear cases outside their jurisdictions, which has the knock-on effect of delaying cases in their home districts; and that the limited rates of bilingualism of legal stakeholders such as court clerks or police is a barrier to accessing justice in French. It also established that government support is necessary to assist French-speaking lawyer associations in all provinces and territories.

“In light of these significant needs, we strongly encourage you to increase funding to programs aiming to improve access to justice in both official languages,” Basque writes, adding that the CBA welcomes the announcement in the 2017-18 budget of $2 million over two years to increase the capacity of federal courts to make decisions available in both official languages.

“We must first ensure bilingualism within the judiciary,” he adds. “To that end, the development of French-language programs for legal careers and enhanced training for legal system stakeholders across Canada remain top priorities.”

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