The public and people appearing in court must have confidence in our justice system, and that begins with having confidence in the decisions made in the courtroom. People must be confident that judicial officers have integrity and are impartial and independent. They must also have an opportunity to formally criticize judicial officers and courts if they believe that justice was not delivered in a fair and independent manner. Not only must justice be done, it must be seen to be done.
Reviewing conduct, not decisions
Under the Provincial Court Act, the Chief Judge is responsible for supervising judges, judicial justices and justices of the peace, and is required to examine all complaints about their conduct. Sometimes people involved in court cases make a formal complaint to the Chief Judge if they are dissatisfied with the outcome of their trial. However, the Chief Judge can only review complaints about judicial conduct, not about the merits or “correctness” of judicial decisions.
Principles of judicial independence prevent interference by anyone, even a Chief Judge, in the judicial decision-making process. Judges and justices must be free to make decisions unfettered by outside influence, fear of sanction or hope of favour, and it is not open to a Chief Judge to review judicial decisions. A party who objects to the merits of a judicial decision would need to appeal to, or seek review by, a higher court. When complaints like this are received, one of the Court’s legal officers usually provides the litigant with general information about the appeal process.
Investigation of misconduct
Section 22.1 of the Provincial Court Act requires that complaints about judicial officers be delivered in writing to the Chief Judge. When a complaint raises a potential issue of misconduct within the Chief Judge’s authority, the Chief Judge or an Associate Chief Judge will review the complaint letter and relevant material like an audio recording of the proceedings, and will invite the judge or justice to comment on the complaint. The Chief Judge or an Associate Chief Judge (or a delegate) must report in writing to the complainant and the judicial officer following an examination. Most complaints are resolved with a letter explaining or acknowledging the conduct and in some cases, if appropriate, providing an apology.
The Act also requires that the Chief Judge conduct an investigation into the fitness of a judge or justice to perform his or her duties if the Chief Judge considers that an investigation is required, or if requested to do so by the Attorney General. The result of an investigation may involve corrective action or an order for an inquiry into the fitness of the judge or justice to perform his or her duties. At the option of that judicial officer, the inquiry would be conducted by either a Justice of the B.C. Supreme Court or by the Judicial Council of BC.
From January 1 through December 31, 2014 the Office of the Chief Judge received 272 letters of complaint. On assessment, 260 matters were found not to be complaints within the authority of the Chief Judge. Examinations were commenced on the remaining matters. Including complaints carried over from 2013, 20 examinations were completed during 2014. All were resolved at that stage.
Appendix 5 of the Provincial Court Annual Report 2014/2015 summarizes the complaint examinations conducted between April 1, 2014 and March 31, 2015.
*A version of this article first appeared at page 50 of the Provincial Court Annual Report 2014/2015.