Justice reform reviewer has a credibility problem

  • May 15, 2012

Source: Vancouver Sun
Byline: Ian Mulgrew

The B.C. government-ordered justice reform review of the legal system is striking out.

Before the one-man inquiry was even out of the gate in February, the three chief justices of the province fired a first-year law-school lecture across its bow explaining judicial independence.

At its core, the lengthy missive was a thinly veiled threat to Geoffrey Cowper, who is conducting the review, that the judges would brook no interference in how they schedule and conduct their affairs.

Victoria lawyer Michael Mulligan called strike two - questioning Cowper's independence by pointing to his connections to the Liberal Party.

His law firm, Fasken Martineau, for instance, donated $10,000 to Premier Christy Clark's leadership campaign.

Now the Canadian Bar Association has all but thrown Cowper out saying Bill 44 - the Civil Resolution Tribunal Act - proves Victoria has no interest in consultation and that the review looks like a sham.

It's hard not to agree. President of the group's B.C. branch, representing about 6,700 legal professionals and students, Sharon Matthews said the recently tabled legislation proposes a potentially costly parallel system to the courts.

If passed, it would create a cumber-some, multistage process for resolving disputes that presumes all of us are familiar with pre-hearing conferences, complicated legal forms, affidavits and electronic appearances that are intended to be a substitute for a judge or justice of the peace.

Instead, Matthews said, the government should put more money into the existing legal system, which is sup-posed to be providing simple, effective resolution of small claims.

Properly funded, she insisted, the present system can do the job.

"The [current] backlogs are due to the fact that the court system has been starved of government resources for far too long, and diverting resources to a civil claims tribunal may exacerbate that problem," Matthews said.

Regardless, the government should not have introduced the bill without consultation, she added, and the bill belies the cabinet's commitment to a collaborative process.

"The government's announcement of Bill 44 without discussion with key stakeholders is obviously dam-aging to the broader justice reform process," Matthews explained.

"The government has publicly declared its intent to 'consult' and involve justice system partners and the public in coming up with solutions to the current justice system crisis. It therefore comes as quite a surprise when major changes are announced without consultation and while the government's own Justice Review is underway."

She questioned the sincerity and commitment of Liberal leader Clark and Justice Minister Shirley Bond.

Similarly, companion legislation - Bill 52, the Motor Vehicle Amendment Act - seeks to drastically over-haul B.C.'s traffic-ticketing system by moving it out of court and into a new administrative tribunal process.

That means you'll no longer get your day in court to haggle over a traffic fine.

"If the review's final recommendations are not in yet how can laws seeking massive overhaul to B.C.'s civil and regulatory justice system be introduced?" asked lawyer Erik Magraken, who also writes the BC Injury Law blog.

"If these bills pass third reading in the spring session, it appears the Justice Review is mere political theatre."

For his part, Cowper is on the second stage of his review - mulling solutions.

He's looking at what other provinces facing a similar crisis in their legal system have done, and hopes to deliver his report in July.

Too bad he already seems to have lost credibility.