French is the first language of more than 600,000 Ontarians and one of the country’s official languages, but it can be difficult to access legal services in French in this province.
Opting to have your case proceed in French can end up costing you both time and money: Marc Sauvé, who practises civil and commercial law and is vice-president of the Association of French Speaking Jurists of Ontario, says he showed up in court to argue a case in February 2016 only to find out the other party hadn’t realized it was responsible for booking an interpreter for his francophone client. The hearing had to be rescheduled for August. Other delays, one caused by a lack of available interpreters, led to more postponements and additional court appearances — resulting in more legal fees. The case didn’t conclude until June 2017.
“Sometimes you have critically injured individuals who need access to either funds or care or whatnot, and if they’re not able to access the court system as fast, that obviously creates issues,” he says.
That means some French speakers will decide to have their cases heard in English, even though that wouldn’t have been their first choice.
As many of the province’s francophones speak English well, it may not seem critical for them to have access to court services in French. But in the courtroom, the stakes can be high, says Sauvé.
“Oftentimes, one word can make a difference,” he says. “You may slip up on a word or on a term, and [as a lawyer] I’ll just go to town on that during the cross-examination.”
The issue of French in the court system became a concern for the Ontario government in 2009, when French Language Services Commissioner François Boileau wrote in his annual report that his office had received numerous complaints about the difficulty of accessing justice in French.
That led the Ministry of the Attorney General to assemble an advisory committee and commission, which in 2012 released a report on improving access to justice in French. It found that the justice system needed to bolster its French language services and do a better job of informing francophones of their language rights.
“For example, when a French speaker is arrested and released on a promise to appear, there may be nothing on the forms, or in the information provided by the police officer, advising the individual of the right to a hearing in French,” the report stated. “By the time the person appears before the court, he or she may have hired a lawyer who does not speak French. Thus, the information about French language rights may come too late in the process to be of real value.”
A follow-up report, released in 2015, noted “an increased awareness of French language rights and enhanced provision of French language services in the justice system.” But it also stated that more work needed to be done to ensure that francophones could navigate the legal system with as much ease as English speakers.
- Ontario's French language commissioner wants government policy filtered through a 'francophone lens.'
- Why Ontario once tried to ban French in schools
- François Boileau's quest to preserve French Ontario
That same year, the provincial government launched a pilot project in Ottawa to improve access to justice in French. The local courthouse has several new features, including signage promoting French-language services and a queuing system that lets support staff know when someone has specifically asked for service in French.
Sauvé says the project has helped; he also applauds the government’s support for the Ottawa Legal Information Centre, which provides legal information and referral services in both English and French.
But what makes him most optimistic about access to French in courts is something that’s beyond the province’s control: more bilingual judges. In the past year, Sauvé says, the federal government has made nine judicial appointments to Ontario’s East Region, which includes Ottawa. Of those nine appointments, four were bilingual — in Sauvé’s view, a step in the right direction.
“You need to start with the top. You’re sending a message. The judge is essentially the CEO of the courthouse,” he says.
François Delude, a defence attorney in Ottawa, says criminal courts have less difficulty staffing bilingual judges than the civil litigation courts Sauvé works in. Resolving criminal matters in a timely manner is considered a priority, especially since the Supreme Court’s Jordan decision. But he still sees difficulties for French clients when it comes to lawyers: he says there aren’t enough bilingual Crown attorneys. Sometimes a francophone will retain a defence lawyer, Delude says, not realizing they don’t speak French well enough to operate effectively when making complicated legal submissions in that language.
“So the client is faced with a dilemma where he has to say, ‘Well, I can try to go find someone else. But I’m comfortable with this lawyer. I speak English as well. And so why don’t we just proceed with it in English?’” he says.
Delude believes more education programs are needed to bolster the French-speaking abilities of passably bilingual lawyers so that they will be more comfortable using the language in the courtroom.
In an emailed statement, Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General says it is prioritizing improved access to French in the justice sector. In place since 2006, its strategic plan for the development of French-language services involves a consultation process that brings together French-speaking stakeholders and senior members of the ministries responsible for administering justice to discuss how best to serve the province’s francophone community.
The ministry also says that it provides training for bilingual Crown attorneys, court staff, and Legal Aid duty councils to help them attain a high level of language proficiency.
Nevertheless, whether you get court services in French today often depends on how determined you you — and your lawyer — are.
“Oftentimes, we have to continue insisting that it is their right instead of simply a convenience,” says Dulude.
May we have a moment of your time?
Our public funding only covers some of the cost of producing high-quality, balanced content. We depend on the generosity of people who believe we all should have access to accurate, fair journalism. Caring people just like you!
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.