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Justice Cda chops research bgt by $1.2m, tightens control over subject matter

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OTTAWA - The federal Justice Department has chopped $1.2 million from its research budget, and is tightening control to ensure future legal research is better aligned with the government's law-and-order agenda.

Previous legal research in the department sometimes caught senior officials "off-guard ... and may even have run contrary to government direction," says an internal report for deputy minister William Pentney.

The budget cut on April 1 this year — described as a "significant loss of resources" — represents about 20 per cent of research spending, and arises from deficit-cutting measures first set out in the 2012 budget.

The reduction means the loss of eight experienced legal researchers, most of them social scientists.

The result is a diminished research capacity, which now must be better controlled from the top to ensure it supports the government policies, says the report.

"The review confirmed that there have been examples of work that was not aligned with government or departmental priorities," says the October 2013 document, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

Some past projects have "at times left the impression that research is undermining government decisions."

The report did not cite specific studies, but a department report last year on public confidence in the justice system appeared to be at odds with the Conservative government's agenda.

Researcher Charlotte Fraser found many Canadians lacked confidence in the courts and prison system, but suggested it was the result of misunderstanding rather than any failures in the system, and that education could rectify the problem.

Critics said the finding was contrary to the government's approach, which is to pass tougher laws and impose harsher penalties rather than to cultivate a better-informed public.

Another 2011 study, on the sentencing of drunk drivers, found that harsher terms for first offenders had little bearing on whether they re-offended — a finding critics held to be contrary to the government's agenda of tougher sentencing through mandatory minimums and other measures.

A spokeswoman for the department said many of the 13 recommendations in the internal review are being implemented, and there is a "continued refinement of (research) work plans to focus on government and ministerial priorities."

But she said departmental researchers will be free to reach any conclusions.

"Research is not undertaken according to what the potential conclusions might be but rather to obtain information on current priorities," Carole Saindon said in an email.

The report canvassed users of the department's research as it existed before the cuts, and found the work was "perceived as non-biased and ... valued for its high quality."

NDP justice critic Francoise Boivin said reading the document made her cringe.

"This is not a government that believes in research — they're ideological," Boivin, a lawyer, said in an interview. "There's a need for more research from them on the impact of their policies."

Boivin said the report called to mind the case of Edgar Schmidt, the senior Justice Department lawyer who last year sued the government for allegedly failing to routinely evaluate whether proposed legislation violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Schmidt alleged that government lawyers are told to warn the minister about possible Charter conflicts only when the violations are unambiguous, so that even if the probability is 95 per cent there's still no need to red-flag the problem.

Boivin said she hopes Pentney rejects any move to diminish research that outlines the consequences, unintended or otherwise, of justice policies.

The department has also reduced its subscriptions to print publications and legal databases, including QuickLaw, for savings of about $1.6 million a year starting April this year.

Justice has an annual budget of $662 million for 2014-2015, with almost 4,600 employees, many of them lawyers.

Last year, the lawyers group won a 12 per cent pay increase even as the government trimmed benefits and jobs across all departments.

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