Manitoba's justice minister has requested an investigation into the conduct of lawyers affiliated with a non-profit organization whose president admitted hiring private investigators to spy on a judge.

Manitoba's justice minister has requested an investigation into the conduct of lawyers affiliated with a non-profit organization whose president admitted hiring private investigators to spy on a judge.

In a statement Thursday morning, Cameron Friesen said he's asked the Law Society of Manitoba to investigate the lawyers associated with the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.

"It is gravely concerning that a private investigator was hired to conduct surveillance of a member of the judiciary, ostensibly to embarrass or intimidate the judge," Friesen wrote.

"This is an obvious invasion of privacy, and it is difficult to believe that these actions were not intended to influence the outcome of the court case. The lawyers involved must be held accountable for their actions, in order to maintain public confidence in the administration of justice, to protect the integrity of our independent judiciary and uphold the rule of law in Canada."

The law society confirmed it received Friesen's complaint. It said once a complaint against a lawyer is received, it can't comment because of confidentiality policies.

"This is a complex multi-jurisdictional matter. Currently, we are looking into concerns expressed by the attorney general, working closely with our colleagues in Alberta to determine the appropriate next steps," spokeswoman Deirdre O'Reilly stated.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a registered charity, is representing seven Manitoba churches in an ongoing court challenge arguing against the legality of COVID-19 public health restrictions.

Chief Justice Glenn Joyal was tasked with issuing a ruling in the case. He called a special court hearing Monday to inform all involved he'd discovered he was being trailed by a private investigator, who was observing his compliance with the public health orders.

John Carpay, an Alberta lawyer and centre president, later admitted he had hired the investigator — and said Joyal was one of several public officials he arranged to have tracked.

The centre's litigation director, Jay Cameron, had known about the private investigation for a couple of weeks, court heard Monday.

The Free Press asked the justice minister's office which lawyers it has requested an investigation into, and whether Friesen has been in touch with his counterparts in Alberta. The office said Friesen has not been in contact with the Alberta law society nor its justice department.

Carpay has taken an indefinite leave from his position as president. The Free Press inquired about whether Cameron will remain as a lawyer on the Manitoba churches' court challenge; he did not respond to requests for comment.

A Manitoba Justice spokeswoman said the department will not comment because the case is before the court.

Joyal said the incident won't affect his decision in the case; he's expected to issue his reasons for decision in a few weeks.

The revelation the same organization that launched the legal challenge hired private investigators to spy on the judge while the case was ongoing prompted national outcry in the legal community.

On Tuesday, Ottawa lawyer Richard Warman filed professional misconduct complaints against Carpay and Cameron to the Law Society of Alberta, and asked Manitoba's law society to look into the conduct of Allison Pejovic, who represented the churches on behalf of the Justice Centre.

The centre has launched anti-lockdown court challenges in several provinces during the pandemic.

During the court hearing, Carpay said he made the decision to hire private investigators to surveil Joyal and other, undisclosed public officials, because the public has a right to know whether public officials are following the public-health rules they enforce. He said the private investigation was separate from any of the centre's litigation work.

"That's a distinction without a difference. They were appearing as counsel for parties before Justice Joyal, and you don't get to take your hat off and say, 'Oh, that private investigator I hired to follow you home... that's related to something else other than this litigation,'" Warman said in an interview.

"Real life doesn't work that way, and I can't imagine the law society accepting that as a reasonable (or rational) explanation."

Canadian law protects judicial independence; judges are considered independent from government even though they're paid by public purse. It's a crime to intimidate any justice system participant or obstruct justice.

It's unclear whether any criminal charges will be laid. The Winnipeg Police Service has said it is investigating.

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May

Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.