B.C. chief justices come out swinging

Update/clarification March 19, 2012: Timothy Outerbridge, Law Officer of the B.C. Court of Appeal, tells Legal Feeds the letter from the judges was not a published open letter as originally described in the blog post below: "As described within the statement, it is an educational statement directed at the public on defining the issue of judicial independence. On the same vein, it is most certainly not in response to comments made by Minister Falcon or any other government official as has been reported in other publications.  That is simply incorrect," wrote Outerbridge on behalf of the judges of all three levels of the B.C. courts.

The top judges in British Columbia’s three courts are openly criticizing the province’s latest efforts at judicial reform.

In an open letter released March 15, B.C. Chief Justice Lance Finch, B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman, and B.C. Provincial Court Chief Judge Thomas Crabtree defended their view of judicial independence.

In the face of a severely backlogged court system, Premier Christy Clark announced last month that an extensive review of the justice system is underway.

Then when the B.C. government tabled its budget on Feb. 21, Finance Minister Kevin Falcon made a comment that seemed to irk the judges: “I respect the fact that there’s judicial independence. But you know what? The judges cannot hide behind that shield and say, ‘We have no requirement to try to do things better.’”

The judges rebuked Falcon’s statement in their letter: “Judicial independence is often misunderstood as something that is for the benefit of the judge. It is not. It is the public’s guarantee that a judge will be impartial. . . . It has been suggested that judges may use independence as a ‘shield’ against scrutiny. This is a mistaken view.

“Judges have a responsibility to protect their independence and impartiality. They do so not out of self-interest, but as an obligation they owe to the public who have entrusted them with decision-making power, and to whom they are ultimately accountable to maintain the public’s confidence.”

The judges warned against the government’s influence on the court system and maintained that certain functions should remain within judicial control.

“First, the public could not have confidence in the independence and impartiality of the courts if others, outside the judicial branch, could control or manipulate proceedings by interfering in any of these functions. A judge cannot be independent if the necessary support staff is unavailable, or is subject to the control of and accountable to others,” states the letter.

They also raised the issue of the underfunding of court resources.

“No one can predict with confidence the number of cases coming into the system at any given time, and no one can predict their complexity or the time they will require to be heard and resolved,” the letter read. “Predetermined limits on human resources by those outside the judicial system are likely to give rise to serious problems. Flexibility is necessary if changing demands for judicial and court resources are to be met.”

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