The Barreau du Québec is still planning to challenge the legality of all of the province’s laws, regulations and decrees in Superior Court because they were drafted and adopted in French only, but the provincial regulator will first have to defend its bombshell motion in a rare special general meeting of its membership next week in Montreal.
The hastily called meeting — only the second of its kind in the Barreau’s recent history — promises to be an emotionally-charged affair.
“We want to give voice to the thousands of lawyers across Quebec who were angered by this motion,” says François Côté, a Montreal lawyer and co-author of both the petition that forced the Barreau to call the meeting and the three resolutions that will be debated and voted on there. “This is an important moment in the history of our profession.”
Under article 106 of Quebec’s Code des professions, the Barreau must call a special general meeting if 100 of its more than 27,000 members call for one.
A petition with 100 signatures was officially filed on May 11.
As of today, an online version of the petition has gathered more than 1,300 signatures.
Earlier this week the Barreau announced that the meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. on May 24 in the 730-seat Théatre Symposia in the Centre Mont-Royal in downtown Montreal.
Barreau du Québec president Paul-Mathieu Grondin will be present, but the meeting will be chaired by retired Court of Appeal of Quebec Judge Pierre J. Dalphond.
Dalphond also chaired the last emergency meeting called in 2016 during the leadership crisis of Lu Chan Khuong, the first elected president of the Barreau who was deposed when it was learned she had been arrested for shoplifting.
Next week’s meeting follows weeks of public anger and ridicule over the court action filed jointly by the Barreau du Québec and the Montreal Bar on April 18.
In their 21-page motion, the bars argue that Quebec's failure to translate laws at all stages of the legislative process deprives some litigants of their rights under article 133 of the Canadian Constitution.
The bars’ brief cites a long list of examples of Quebec laws it believes are unconstitutional under article 133.
It also slams the quality of English in the new Code of Civil Procedure, a major reform that came into effect on Jan. 1, 2016 with the goal of making justice more accessible in Quebec.
The bars also argue that the Quebec government has ignored repeated calls for the hiring of more English translators and writers to help draft legislation.
The action was met however with harsh words and angry rebuttals from Quebec politicians, pundits and people of all stripes.
Adding to the outrage was news the Barreau’s court action is being funded by a federal linguistic program to the tune of $125,000.
“I couldn’t believe it when I first heard about the case,” says Félix Martineau, a young lawyer with the Montreal firm of Roy Bélanger who helped organize and signed the petition.
“Maybe the Barreau is on solid legal grounds. But language is such a delicate subject in Quebec. Bringing forward a case like this goes way beyond the Barreau’s mandate and brings shame on our profession.”
Like Côté, Martineau is also upset by the fact next week’s members only meeting will not be available online.
Similarly, only members who are present will be allowed to vote on the three resolutions.
“It’s a 14-hour drive to Montreal from Gaspé,” says Martineau. “It’s anti-democratic not to use videoconferencing technology to make it more participative.”
A Barreau spokesperson defended the modalities of the meeting, saying cost and time constraints ruled out a simultaneous, interactive meeting involving the Barreau’s 14 regional districts.
“It wasn’t possible because, by law, we have to hold the meeting within 30 days of the petition’s filing,” says Jean-François Del Torchio, the Barreau’s director of communications.
Though the results of voting on the three resolutions are not binding on the Barreau’s leadership, Del Torchio says the discussions and vote results will be carefully considered.
“We are a democratic body,” he said. “And this will be an occasion to hear what our members have to say on this issue.”
For his part, eminent Montreal lawyer Julius Grey thinks next week’s meeting will be emotional at times — but he hopes cooler heads will prevail.
“In my opinion both sides are wrong,” says Grey. “Nationalists are making this into a language issue in which French must prevail and the Barreau, though acting in good faith, is wrong in asking for the invalidation of laws.”
According to Grey, who hopes to attend next week’s meeting despite a bad knee, the Barreau has pushed the Quebec government for years to improve the sometimes grade-school quality of English translations in many provincial laws and regulations, especially in the Civil Code of Procedures.
But it said it is a “nullity” to seek the quashing of the province’s laws.
“It’s not conducive to good government or even to bring out a principle that a law that is drafted badly is not necessarily good legislation,” says Grey. “We don’t have a high court of grammar.”
He thinks the Barreau should amend its brief to show the serious flaws in the English version of Quebec laws and ask for a judgement that will give the province time to rectify the situation, much like the Supreme Court of Canada did in the 1980s in regards to the lack of French in Manitoba’s laws.
“They could show how bad the situation is and get an order to have it repaired,” says Grey. “I think that could be a more sensible approach.”