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Manitoba has no plans to try to legislate upgraded training in sexual-assault law for its provincial court judges, even as other jurisdictions bring in new rules governing judges’ education.
The provincial government won’t follow its counterparts in Ontario, who introduced legislation that requires new judges to follow an updated education plan including additional training in sexual assault law, nor will it adapt a federal private member’s bill passed through the House of Commons that mandates sexual-assault law training for all federally appointed judges.
In response to a Free Press inquiry, Minister of Justice and Attorney General Heather Stefanson said in a statement the justice department is not contemplating any such legislation changes, noting it respects judges’ independence.
"Our government is committed to building safe communities and ensuring timely justice for all Manitobans. We are very concerned for the victims of sexual assault and believe their cases should be heard with timeliness and sensitivity. Our government is currently observing how this supplementary education is implemented in Ontario to determine best practices. We respect the independence of our judiciary in directing additional education requirements and we will continue to work closely with the chief judge to ensure that all victims are treated fairly and respectfully in our courts," the statement reads.
If it gets Senate approval and comes into effect as law, the federal bill — proposed by then-interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose — would mean changes to training for federally appointed judges. But there are concerns government interference in what judges learn is dangerous to Canada’s long-held principle of judicial independence.
Justice Adele Kent, executive director of the National Judicial Institute (NJI) — which runs education programs for federally-appointed judges — says the idea of legislating what judges learn is a new phenomenon. She’s flagged parts of the federal legislation, including a provision to involve those who work with victims of sexual violence in developing training programs.
"There is a worry there, and I’ll just characterize it as a worry, that that is impacting judicial independence," she said. "Judicial education needs to be led by the judges and the judges have to determine what the content of that education is."
The institute works to give judges the most impartial information possible, she said, "and there is a risk if it is done by outside institutions that there may be a certain bias or a certain point of view in the education, that means it is not unbiased and fair."
Judges do receive training in how to spot and curb rape myths or stereotypes. They learn about sexual-assault trials in the NJI’s new judge school and will often take in seminars on sexual-assault law, Kent said, noting the "complex" nature of sexual-assault trials.
"There is a variety of times when judges get education on sexual-assault trials. Do they need more? I always like to say that it’s good for judges to have as much education as they can, recognizing they need education on a variety of topics," she said, noting any education for judges has to be approved by their respective chief justices.
None of Manitoba’s three chief judges were available for comment.
Provincial court judges in Manitoba receive at least 10 days of judicial education per year, and their education and training is planned by a Manitoba Provincial Court education committee.
"The Provincial Court of Manitoba constantly reviews the need for judicial education on particular topics as part of a long-term approach to judicial education. Judicial education has many sources including formal and informal education and self directed learning. The provincial court holds two in-house education sessions per year on various topics. The next in-house education session will focus specifically on sexual-assault issues, including social context. The judges of the provincial court will hear from and discuss presentations from Judges, lawyers and community representatives," a court spokeswoman said in a statement.
In the wake of former CBC broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi’s high-profile sexual-assault trial and recent public outcry after a now-resigned Alberta judge asked a sexual-assault complainant why she couldn’t keep her "knees together," there’s increasing transparency around judicial education, Kent said.
As she sees it, the NJI and the chief justices in Canada have two main responsibilities when it comes to judicial education.
"One to the judges to make sure they get good education, that it’s in a safe place so they can explore all of these ideas. But we also have an obligation to the public to be as transparent as we can about the education judges do get," Kent says. "Because at the end of the day, it’s the Canadians that judges are serving."
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.