Critics at Queen’s Park are calling on the province to lift the veil of secrecy that keeps the public in the dark about investigations into complaints against judges.
“There is something suspicious about the whole process when there isn’t even a report put out to the public,” interim Progressive Conservative Leader Jim Wilson said Monday. “I think the government should be held accountable.”
Wilson’s comments come after a Toronto Star investigation into a complaint against a Toronto judge who had been repeatedly admonished, and the system that keeps the vast majority of such complaints under lock and key.
Confidential documents, provided to the Star by an unknown source, detailed how the complaint was handled in secret, and the case closed.
According to the Ontario Judicial Council, which probes complaints against judges, there is a “general order,” permitted under Ontario law, banning the publication of any documents and information relating to complaints that don’t result in a public hearing.
The Star submitted an application to the Judicial Council on Monday to have the materials unsealed.
Justice John Ritchie confirmed in an interview last week that he was the subject of a complaint by the Criminal Lawyers’ Association two years ago. Following a review by the Judicial Council, he said he took a refresher course on how to write good judgments.
Ritchie said the council did not question the substance of any of his decisions. He is still hearing cases at Old City Hall.
Premier Kathleen Wynne’s office referred questions to Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur, who said she won’t interfere with the independence of the Judicial Council.
Meilleur said she has confidence in the complaints review process.
“I believe we have a very independent and fair system,” she said. “The independence of our judges is the hallmark of judiciary system and … other provinces like Quebec … (have) copied our process.”
But NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Ontarians should be informed about judges who don’t measure up.
“I would hope that situations like this are actually raised publicly, in a way that … sets an example for others in that field to avoid any kind of behaviour that leads to a lack of public trust,” she said.
Since he was appointed in 1999, Ritchie has been repeatedly chastised by Superior Court judges for the appearance of bias, delivering “boilerplate” reasons for conviction and legal errors. The city’s criminal defenders have stated their concerns on multiple occasions about Ritchie’s decisions, in media interviews.
Toronto defence lawyer Ari Goldkind, who regularly appears before Ritchie, said remedial action against a judge should be disclosed.
“The public should know that one of its members is not doing a great job,” said Goldkind, who is running for mayor. “Judges have considerable responsibility and the people appearing before (them) need to be confident that they are up to the task.”
The Judicial Council probes complaints against Ontario’s 330 provincially appointed judges. A judge and a community member investigate each complaint, before a review panel consisting of two other judges, a lawyer and a different community member decides whether a public hearing is warranted.
The council received an average of 40 complaints per year between 2007 and 2012. Only six public hearings have been concluded in the past decade, the council said. Complaints that don’t lead to a public hearing are summarized in an annual report that does not identify the judge or the complainant.
Toronto defence lawyer Anthony Moustacalis, president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, said Monday there should be a regular peer review process “to ensure continued competency standards” among judges are met.
“I don’t think you should be able to fall back on judicial independence for demonstrated judicial incompetence,” he said.
Moustacalis has declined to comment on the complaint against Ritchie, citing the order imposed by the Judicial Council.