Justice minister lays blame on Quebec court for cases being dropped in north

SAGUENAY, Que. — Quebec's justice minister blamed the provincial court Thursday for procedural delays that have led to scores of criminal cases being dropped in the province's north.

Simon Jolin-Barrette was responding today to a report in Montreal's La Presse that 126 cases have been dropped since March in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue and Nunavik regions.

Jolin-Barrette told reporters on the sidelines of a Coalition Avenir Québec caucus retreat that he is unhappy with the situation, adding there's a real risk the numbers could continue to grow. The landmark 2016 Supreme Court of Canada Jordan decision established timelines to be respected for criminal cases to be completed — 18 months in provincial courts and 30 months in superior courts.

"My first thought is with the victims. It does not sit well with me at all," Jolin-Barrette said of the dropped cases, noting he has worked to increase the number of judges and resources provided to Quebec court.

The justice minister said the co-ordinating judge overseeing the northern districts has considerably reduced the number of days set aside for hearings compared to the previous year, providing judges with more time to write their decisions.

Jolin-Barrette said he raised concerns with the court about the reduction in hearing days when it was announced. “Everyone said that there were going to be consequences and, currently, this is what we are experiencing,” he said.

The minister said he would be speaking with justice system partners to see what solutions could be implemented.

Following an agreement this spring, the number of judges on the provincial court will increase to 333 from the current 319. A decade ago, there were 270.

Under the principle of separation of powers, the government cannot interfere in the management of the court's work, but the minister appealed to everyone, including the court, to do their part.

Jolin-Barrette said those who manage the court should call for reinforcements from other regions to help colleagues in Abitibi-Témiscamingue and Nunavik.

The justice minister has clashed repeatedly with Quebec court administrators in recent years over issues including the province's new domestic and sexual violence courts, which Lucie Rondeau, the court's chief judge, had opposed. The court and the judicial council also sued the minister for waiving a bilingualism requirement for judges working in specific districts.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 7, 2023.

Patrice Bergeron, The Canadian Press