The council announced Tuesday the results of its review of a complaint involving Justice Paulette Garnett. Concerns had been raised about long delays in the judge’s issuance of reasons for some of her decisions. In one case, complaints arose about the judge’s attitude and demeanor.
In April, the CBC reported that N.B. Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice David Smith “intervened” with Garnett to clear up a backlog of old cases and address the speed of decisions coming from her court.
The CBC reported that Garnett’s longest delay came in 2005, when she presided over a one-day hearing between Fredericton’s old Elm City Chrysler dealership, its owners, and their bank to resolve questionable transactions.
Her decision was delivered two years and two months later.
A complaint issued in the spring indicated the person had been waiting seven months for their decision from Garnett. When approached by the CJC Garnett indicated she had been having “difficulties,” says Norman Sabourin, executive director and general counsel of the CJC.
However, in a statement Tuesday the Canadian Judicial Council declared Garnett has made efforts to improve: “In light of the judge’s concrete steps to remedy the situation, the matter is now closed.”
The matter was reviewed by Superior Court of Quebec Senior Associate Chief Justice Robert Pidgeon, who is vice chairman of the Judicial Conduct Committee of Council. Pidgeon asked Garnett to provide information and comments about the issue.
A review of the facts revealed Garnett had been very late in issuing reasons in a number of cases. Pidgeon noted, in accordance with a policy adopted by the CJC, judges should render decisions within six months of hearing a case, except in very complex matters or where there are special circumstances.
In some provinces, such time lines are included in legislation. In light of the judge’s delays in a number of cases, Pidgeon formally expressed his concerns to the judge, noting undue delays in rendering decisions can lessen public confidence in the justice system.
However, Pidgeon noted Garnett has since worked hard to focus on writing and issuing reasons for her judgments “on a timely basis.”
“Not to defend the judge’s conduct because she received an ‘expression of concern’ from the council that her conduct was serious but what does come to mind is that she is often identified as a very good judge; she writes very good decisions. The real issue was could they be out in a reasonable time,” says Sabourin.
As part of the remedial nature of the process the CJC worked with Garnett to make sure she got her decisions out and is now up to date on her decisions.
“It was through some coaching with peers and some extra time with the chief justice to focus on the writing of decisions,” says Sabourin. “We appreciate the judge recognizes her conduct was wanting and that she recognizes delays in the issuances of judgments absent very good reasons has a real negative effect on public confidence in the judiciary. Her commitment that this wouldn’t happen again and apologies in respect to the specific complaint let the CJC to close the file.”
In all the circumstances, Pidgeon accepted that the situation is “not so serious that it warrants taking further steps by the Council pursuant to its mandate under the Judges Act.”
Unlike in provincial regimes there are no sanctions such as suspension. The only tools are recommendation for removal or remedial measures. He emphasized that a “expression of concern” is very grave and could lead to recommendation of removal.
Update 4:40 pm: Comments from Norman Sabourin added