A controversial hearing into the fate of Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench Justice Lori Douglas is in legal limbo after all the members of the disciplinary panel announced their surprise resignation.
The five-member Canadian Judicial Council committee, chaired by Alberta Chief Justice Catherine Fraser, released an 11-page statement for their decision Wednesday. They said public interest would not be served by continuing to preside over a matter that has been on indefinite hold for more than a year due to a series of problems.
"In light of recent events, it has become apparent that this committee as presently constituted will not be in a position to complete its inquiry and submit its report to the council for a very extended period of time. Even further delays and costs are unavoidable," the statement read in part.
"In these circumstances, the committee has determined that it must consider whether the public interest would be better served by resigning to permit a new inquiry committee to be appointed."
Douglas had previously alleged the CJC panel was biased because it allowed improper and adversarial cross-examination of her husband, lawyer Jack King, which revealed private details about their sex life. That occurred in the summer of 2012 when the panel first convened in Winnipeg for the start of the high-profile hearing.
Douglas has also alleged bias because the panel refused to allow her lawyer to cross-examine complainant Alex Chapman about his credibility. She won a Federal Court ruling earlier this year on those points, which further clouded the future of her hearing. A judge ruled allowing the hearing to continue would compound the irreparable harm to her reputation and career.
In a statement released Wednesday, the CJC said it is now reviewing its options.
"Council's mandate and duty is to ensure that the review of allegations against the judge can proceed in accordance with the provisions of the Judges Act and with council's bylaws in a fair and expeditious manner, in keeping with the public interest," said Norman Sabourin, the CJC's executive director and senior general counsel.
"In due course, another inquiry committee may be appointed in respect of Associate Chief Justice Douglas."
Calls to Douglas's lawyer, Sheila Block, were not immediately returned.
Karen Busby, a professor with the University of Manitoba's faculty of law, said the resignation of an entire committee is unprecedented. She said there were serious issues hanging over the proceedings.
"No Canadian Judicial Council panel has ever resigned," she said. "It's highly unusual for a panel to resign. It just doesn't happen," said Busby.
"It's just not fair to the judge for this to continue on the way that it's continuing on, so I think the honourable thing for them to do was to resign and to have a new panel appointed and let them get on with their work."
In the summer of 2010, Chapman filed a complaint with the CJC accusing Douglas of sexual harassment several years prior. Chapman alleges King sent him nude photos of his wife and wanted Chapman to have sex with her, all while King was representing Chapman in a divorce case.
King has admitted to giving Chapman sexually explicit photographs of his wife that were posted on the Internet, but Douglas has denied any knowledge of the situation.
King's law firm paid Chapman $25,000 to settle the complaint, made in 2003. Douglas was appointed to the bench two years later. In 2012, an Appeal Court ruled Chapman had breached a confidentiality agreement when he went public in 2010. He was ordered to repay the $25,000 and pay more than $7,000 in King's legal costs.
Among the issues raised in the judicial hearing was whether Douglas told the committee vetting her judicial application about the incident. She has said she did. She has been on paid leave from the bench since 2010, pending the outcome of the inquiry, collecting more than $315,000 annually, according to a Lawyers Weekly article.
The disciplinary hearing originally began with independent counsel Guy Pratte, but he resigned following the initial delay because of conflicts with the CJC over how the hearing should be conducted. Pratte was replaced by Montreal lawyer Suzanne Côté.
-- with files from Mary Agnes Welch, Bruce Owen and The Canadian Press