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Independence not up for review, B.C.'s top judges warn

Mar 16 2012

The top judges in B.C.’s three courts fired a warning shot across the bow of the B.C. government Thursday, insisting their judicial independence is not going to change as part of government’s review of the justice system.

Chief Justice Lance Finch, B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman and Provincial Court Chief Judge Thomas Crabtree released a letter that said they were “open to discussing ways to improve the administration of justice,” but with some conditions.

“In being open to discussion, however, the judiciary will remain steadfast in protecting the essential elements of judicial independence, as the precursor and guardian of judicial impartiality,” the judges wrote.

The public must have confidence that judges are impartial and their decisions are not influenced or pressured by outside parties, such as the government, the judges wrote.

Premier Christy Clark launched a sweeping review of the justice system in February, looking at how the court system uses its resources, the role of judicial independence and why backlogs continue to rise despite increased funding.

The judges appeared to take particular exception to a comment Finance Minister Kevin Falcon made on budget day last month that “judges cannot hide behind that shield and say we have no requirement to try and do things better.”

The judges called that “a mistaken view.”

Bauman expanded on the subject in a teleconference interview with reporters, saying, “It’s always a matter of concern when you think your institution might be misunderstood,” but that many lawyers and judges are also unfamiliar with the concepts behind the independence.

Although the judiciary is open to finding efficiencies and improving the justice system, that does not include diminishing independence, he said.

“Judicial independence is an essential constitutional principle,” Bauman said. “So what it is, and the boundaries of it, are not really open for debate, nor do they need to be.”

The letter pointed to the Constitution of Canada, which says judges must have secure jobs, be paid sufficiently to avoid financial pressure and manage their cases independently.

“If there is a business case to be made for cost savings, that case must be made within the confines of what is permitted by the Constitution,” the letter said.

The letter also broached court resources, which critics say are underfunded. The letter said: “A judge cannot be independent if the necessary support staff is unavailable, or is subject to the control of and accountable to others.”

The rare joint open letter by the three courts appeared to catch Justice Minister Shirley Bond off-guard.

She said Thursday she had not read the letter, but the government’s review would be in the bounds of the Constitution and respect their independence.

“The province isn’t looking at imposing anything on judges in this province, but I think it is a responsible approach to talk about some of things we may want to do,” she said.

The letter comes two weeks after backbench Liberal MLA Kevin Krueger launched a blistering attack in the legislature against the judiciary.

Bauman, who has previously said he was disappointed with the tone of Krueger’s remarks, said the open letter was not in response to them.

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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