Ontario’s bail system was recently much more “unjust,” “unfair,” and prone to a “hostile” climate between Crown attorneys and justices of the peace, the discipline hearing of an Ottawa JP heard Monday.
A gaggle of justices of the peace from across the province are testifying at the hearing into the case of Julie Lauzon, who is facing allegations of judicial misconduct for writing a 2016 opinion piece in the National Post calling out failures in the province’s bail system.
She’s facing allegations that she lacked impartiality, misused “the power and prestige of her judicial office” by making out-of-court statements in the media, and displayed a reasonable apprehension of bias toward prosecutors.
The hearing is playing out in a downtown Toronto boardroom before a three-member panel of the Justices of the Peace Review Council, the independent body that investigates and disciplines JPs.
The case has put a spotlight on problems in Ontario’s bail system, hearing directly from those who preside over bail cases. Two justices of the peace were called to the stand Monday by Lauzon’s lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, where they testified about their own experiences in bail court.
(Presenting counsel Ian Smith, the external lawyer hired to present the case against Lauzon, described the evidence of the JPs as irrelevant to the issues in this case, which he said is about the opinion piece itself and not the bail system.)
Toronto JP Rhonda Roffey, appointed in 2011, testified that there was once a “culture where clearly the Crowns ran the court, deals were cut outside the courtroom.”
If the Crown was consenting to a person being granted bail, Roffey said the JP was expected to sign off on all of the conditions that were being imposed on the person’s release, which can include things like a curfew or an order to abstain from alcohol.
In some cases, when she started questioning some of the conditions, she testified a Crown attorney would threaten to withdraw their consent to the person being granted bail, which would result in a contested bail hearing.
“The message was: Well, they’re consents, you don’t have a lot of leeway, you should just go along with them,” she said.
Roffey said it was important for her to question the necessity for some conditions, particularly in cases where there were numerous conditions, describing them as an “ever-tightening noose around the neck” of legally innocent people, who often included marginalized women, Indigenous peoples, the homeless and people with mental health issues.
“This is a really unjust system. It’s not working,” Roffey testified.
Criminal defence lawyers have long criticized imposing numerous conditions on a person’s release, pointing out that some can be almost impossible to follow depending on the person’s circumstances, resulting in a new charge of breach of bail conditions and the over-incarceration of the legally innocent.
Justices of the peace are appointed by the provincial government and earn approximately $132,000 a year. Clad in black robes and green sashes, they preside over bail hearings and cases dealing with non-criminal matters known as provincial offences, as well as sign off on search warrants.
In her 2016 opinion piece, Lauzon wrote that she faced difficulties from Crown attorneys at the Ottawa courthouse when she questioned conditions that were to be imposed on a person’s release.
“Between forced, rushed video appearances, a lack of respect for the JP bench and the absence of the rule of law in this court, I can no longer call it a court of law. It is a disgrace,” she wrote. “I am there to administer justice. It is not my job as a JP to sign off on release documents that are unlawful.”
Lauzon also wrote of a Crown attorney turning his back on her in court and telling defence lawyers “that all deals were off the table as long as I was presiding,” while she said she had another prosecutor scream at her “and basically throw a temper tantrum after I questioned certain conditions.”
Roffey and Ottawa JP Linda Pearson testified Monday that things have dramatically changed in bail court in the years since Lauzon’s opinion piece was published in 2016.
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In 2017, the previous Liberal government implemented a new bail policy for Crown attorneys, which tells them to only request bail conditions that are “necessary and required in the interests of the accused and the safety and security of the victim or public and related to the commission of the offence.”
“How things were years ago are a far cry from how things are now,” Pearson testified Monday.
The hearing continues Tuesday, and will hear testimony from more JPs, including Lauzon.